This is the Monster Hunter game you've been waiting for. If you've been waiting.
Monster Hunter is hands down one of Japan's biggest video game franchises. The game pretty much single-handedly set both the PSP and later on the 3DS as the dominant handheld consoles in Japan.
Now, with the release of Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate for the 3DS, Capcom has another assured smash hit on their hands — as of this article, the game has sold over 2 million copies in Japan — and after 2 weeks with the game I feel I can safely say it's the best Monster Hunter game I've ever played, because it doesn't try to fix what isn't broken. Yet.
If you are familiar with the general format of Monster Hunter, you can pretty much skip this entire section completely. In terms of core gameplay, there really is nothing new here. You're a hunter, hunting monsters — many of which are much, much bigger than you. You need to work your way up the ranks by hunting and skinning and gathering and digging and gathering and crafting and gathering and foraging and, did I mention gathering? Yeah, lots of resource gathering.
The game sets you out as a fledgling hunter and there's really no way you're going to match up against the monstrosities that adorn the cover of the game's box until you've put in hours upon hours of resource gathering and hunting smaller, less lethal fauna.
The story mode — which I'll get into — does a good job of slowly building you up, gradually pitting you against stronger and more dangerous beasts and teaching you the ropes before setting you out to really take on the big baddies with the ultra-rare items that will let you craft the really cool weapons and armour. But despite whatever advantages the right equipment will give you, a lot of the hunting comes down to personal skill. Even with the best gear, you can still be slaughtered if you aren't careful.
Monster Hunter 4 brought a whole new bag of tricks with its release: Monster diseases, new weapons, climbing and grabbing to name a few. 4 Ultimate is essentially an upgrade. A new "wounded" status, tweaks to the action and weapons, upgraded support characters as well as the unlocked G-rank quests all help to enhance the hunting experience. The new game elements are well designed and add a new level of depth to the game play, while the G-rank quests add a new level of frustration.
Good — Story Mode
The single-player campaign story mode follows your character as the dedicated hunter of a small travelling caravan on the quest to discover the origin of a mysterious artifact the caravan owner was given a long time ago. Your character, after catching a ride with the caravan, is hired by the owner after an encounter with a large sand dragon.
The story is light-hearted and gives an atmosphere of fun and adventure to the single-player portion of the game. Also, unlike in previous games, by travelling from town to town, you're constantly treated to new environments, not just in your hunting grounds, but in your home base as well, giving the game more freshness and allowing for a bigger cast of support characters throughout your travels.
Overall, the campaign is essentially a massive tutorial, taking you through the basics of the game quest by quest and gradually moving on to more advanced techniques. Newcomers to the series will likely find the single-player engaging and an enjoyable, a well-paced walk-through before they get to the more difficult multiplayer hunts. However, it may not be enough for more experienced players who have already invested tens of hundreds of hours into the series and will likely write off the single-player campaign as simply a way to kill time between multiplayer sessions.
Good — The Action
After multiple iterations, Capcom has refined the action of 4 Ultimate into a well-oiled machine. The controls are quick and well balanced and really make you feel at home in the game world.
It's really hard to critique the action of Monster Hunter because the developers basically got the formula right the first time around and have only improved on it.
That said, the camera can be your enemy at times, but that is the saga of pretty much every free camera game in existence.
Good — The Meat is multiplayer
As has been with every hand-held Monster Hunter game that has come before, the multiplayer is where Monster Hunter really shines. I've said it before, but Monster Hunter is a game where social interaction is the real objective. Sitting down and playing with friends is what it's all about, and all that single-player stuff is just extra fluff that serves to build your character up to make the multiplayer more enjoyable.
It's really difficult to judge a game on a factor that can vary so much from player to player as multiplayer does, but whether you win or you lose, Monster Hunter really works to make the experience as fun as possible.
Mixed — The Grind
The promotional material for Monster Hunter loves to show you the really cool monsters you'll be getting to fight — eventually. But before you get there, there's a whole lot of resource gathering and crafting you must do before you can even consider trying to take one of those bad boys on in a fair fight. I was over 12 hours into the single-player campaign before I had a chance to hunt one of the signature boss dragons of the game, and even then, I still needed several more hours of resource gathering, hoping boss enemies would drop the crafting resources I required to upgrade my weapons before I could finally take it down.
Don't get me wrong, taking down one of the big iconic baddies of the game feels amazing, but the time it takes to build your character up to be able to stand on the same battlefield as one is a major investment of time, most of which is spent praying the gods of chance will give you the crafting items you need.
Mixed — New Bag of Tools
The newly added weapons, the Charge Shield and Insect Glaive, add to your choices of weaponry, expanding on the gameplay. Each weapons has its own benefits and usefulness on the battlefield, but you should be warned that upgrading resources can be scarce, so the further along you are, switching of weapon types between quests becomes less and less of an option.
For myself, I prefer the simplicity of a long sword and found the new weapons to be too complicated in an already chaotic battlefield. Not my cup of tea, but that's just my opinion.
Bad — G is Unforgiving
The high-level multiplayer quests — the G-rank quests — are one of the big selling points of 4 Ultimate. That's where you get to take on the really powerful monsters with your friends for the really good/rare resources to make the best badass gear — all which would be really awesome if the G-rank quests weren't diabolically punishing.
Generally, monsters will have a moment of weakness during their onslaught where you can get in a good hit or two, but with the G-rank monsters, many will have no detectable moments of weakness, or the window of opportunity will be so small that by the time you've approached them to strike, they have recovered and are already dishing out a hit that will knock off over half your health in one blow.
There were times where I felt that I wasn't fighting the monster I was hunting, but fighting against the programmers of the game who were deliberately unbalancing the game to give it the illusion of challenge.
At its core, the game remains essentially the same Monster Hunter formula, but the added game elements and added content work organically to make it a richer and more enjoyable experience. It doesn't do a whole lot wrong, and what it does right really shines. That said, if you are a fan of the Monster Hunter series, but held out on purchasing Monster Hunter 4 because you knew Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate would be released down the line, you definitely made the right choice.
As for newcomers, the game welcomes you with open arms. It will take you by the hand and gradually — very gradually — lead you down the path to becoming a master hunter. If you've never played a Monster Hunter game but are interested in the franchise (and own a 3DS), I would definitely suggest you try out Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate, with the caveat that if you don't like this game, you probably won't like any of the other ones either.
Additional Note — DLC
One of the new features of Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate is a DLC shop that connects to the Nintendo e-store and lets you purchase item packs. Currently, as of this article, the only thing available is a free support pack that contains a bunch of useful items like healing potions or buffs, which is fine. However, it is possible that down the line Capcom will start selling item packs or rare resources for money. While they have made no indication that this is that case, if it ever happens, seriously, I am through with this series.