For Monster Hunter fans, the way that you describe the game to others has never really lined up with how it actually looks to people who don't know what's going on. I'll breathlessly describe epic, exhilarating, 35-minute face-offs against the series' trademark towering beasts to a friend, but when I show them the game, all they see is a little guy with an oversized sword running around a low-res screen, thwacking a dragon that doesn't fit into the field of view. That, and long minutes spent in extremely complex menus.
The Wii's Monster Hunter Tri came closest to actually representing on-screen what's happening in the heads and hearts of Monster Hunter fans, but even that didn't look great. For years and years I've been hoping that Capcom would make a Monster Hunter that looked as impressive as it was to play. Monster Hunter: World is that game — but the visuals are not the only change.
Last weekend's beta introduced some big changes to Monster Hunter. Much has stayed the same; the weapons I played with (and their combos) were largely untouched, but they were perfect already.
There was enough new stuff, though, to make me feel a bit like a novice player again: Overwhelmed, but excited.
Tracking, scouting, and preparing for fights by foraging and crafting has always been part of Monster Hunter. In Monster Hunter World, all these activities are aided by Scoutflies, greenish fireflies that highlight things in the world that you can pick up, harvest, forage or track. Before you can find a monster, you have to find its tracks or markings and examine them. This fills up a little bar, and when it's full the Scoutflies will lead you to the target with a glowing green trail.
In previous Monster Hunter games, you'd have to explore every area on the map looking for your target and then chuck a paintball at a monster to keep it marked. This is a more natural-feeling tracking system.
Nonetheless, I'm in two minds about the Scoutflies. It's useful to have mining points or forageable plants highlighted in the open world, but the glowing green trail monopolizes my attention and takes me out of my surroundings.
Scoutflies also take away the frantic, enjoyable process of chasing down a monster and locating its lair towards the end of a fight. They disappear as soon as a fight breaks out, but I'm kind of hoping they will be optional in the full game so I can use the map instead if I like.
I didn't expect this to have as big an impact as it does, but there are no loading screens between different areas of Monster Hunter's massive map, which comprises everything from ocean to jungle to desert. This means there are no breathers whilst the next area loads and no safe zones for you to disappear into when you need to use a potion.
You really feel like you're chasing your quarry down when you have to pursue it back to its lair across half the map.
Creatures don't disappear once they enter a different section of the world, which means you can actually follow them around. You can trail stampeding herbivores to see where they're going or see a Rathalos gliding around in the sky in the distance and spot where it lands. The absence of loading screens keeps the tension high.
The flipside of this is that I spent a lot of time chasing creatures around the map rather than fighting them. Monsters are suddenly a lot more mobile, happily dragging you all over the map, running away after just a couple of minutes of fighting. Using traps and items to actually keep a target in the same place - especially the flying ones - will probably be a big part of co-operative hunts in the full game.
Since Monster Hunter Tri, the series has been working towards a believable, living ecosystem, where the creatures and environment feel like they exist interdependently and without your interference. In Monster Hunter 3 and 4, a Rathalos might fly off and grab a herbivore before returning to its lair to feast and restore its strength. Creatures limp when they're hurt and sleep to heal themselves in the middle of fights, if they can get away from you. Occasionally, another giant creature might show up unannounced and interfere with your battle.
Monster Hunter: World takes that further. In the beta, there are a Diablos and a Rathalos (two of the bigger, scarier creatures in the series) running around in the world too. If one arrives whilst you're in the middle of a fight, it will take the other creature on. The first time this happened I was so taken by surprise that I just hid in a bush and watched the two enormous beasts roll around in the dust, clawing and biting at each other. It's a sight to behold.
— Canta Per Me (@MH_Canta) December 12, 2017
HDR and 4K
There is some irony in the fact that Monster Hunter has finally, finally made its way onto top-end consoles right after Nintendo has released the first genuine portable-handheld hybrid, which would be perfect for the series.
After playing the beta on a PS4 Pro and a big ol' 4K TV, though, my mild resentment at having to play Monster Hunter whilst rooted to my couch has diminished significantly. Monster Hunter World lets you prioritise resolution, framerate or detail, and supports HDR. It looks brilliant.
You can now equip cloaks that give you different time-limited buffs. Ghillies are like an invisibility cloak: pop one on and dive into some shrubbery, and angry dragons will have a tough time spotting you. The Rocksteady mantle is a minute-long boost to attack and defence.
I loved the gliding mantle, which works like a squirrel suit — it enabled an awesome moment where I swung from a series of vines right onto the back of a Barroth (think really pissed-off rhino crossed with a T-Rex) and rode it around.
Your Cat Can Now Ride Dinosaurs
Palicoes are the little cat-friends you take out with you on monster hunts. They have typically functioned as a way to make single-player a little less intense, drawing the aggro of a target so you can get some hits in or giving you little health buffs. I've come to almost ignore them over hundreds of hours.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I was mid-fight with the hardest monster in the beta, the fire-breathing Anjanath, and my little cat buddy suddenly showed up riding on the back of a raptor. It was awesome.
Palicoes can now talk to the smaller monsters and to the wild cat-tribes that live around the place and enlist their help. In the middle of another fight, a crowd of cats suddenly appeared and flung ropes at the Barroth I was facing, holding it down for a few seconds so I could charge up my gunlance and blast it in the face. Thanks, cat-pal!
Even if you're not using a ranged weapon like the Bow or Bowgun, you now have the Slinger, a catapult thing that lets you fire rocks or whatever else you can find. I picked up some glowing goo and found that I could use the Slinger to fire it at walls to light up an area. I saw a video over the weekend of someone using it as a grappling hook; I don't even know how they did it. I'm looking forward to experimenting more with it.
— Socks #MHWorld (@SocksyBear) December 11, 2017
The map is so huge that getting from one end of it to the other isn't always actually fun. Happily, you can jump between the various base camps, from the mountains to the marshes, for a snooze, some food or some crafting.
Region-free Online Play
This is definitely not something to shout about in 2017 but hey, this is Monster Hunter! Online play was grudgingly adopted on the 3DS, but it was never all that great. Monster Hunter: World will be out all over the world at the same time, and players won't be segregated by region, which means it will be much easier to team up.
This is one area of the beta that needs significant improvement, though. Nobody wants to fiddle around with annoying lobbies and multi-digit codes to get a game going.
Making Better Use Of The Environment
Knowing your surroundings has always been key to good hunting, but there's so much more detail in World: ledges from which to fling yourself onto monsters' backs, pits and traps that you can lure them into, plants that emit healing or attack-boosting spores when hit, shortcuts, hidden spots… This was the area I barely explored during the beta, due to the strict 20 minute time limit on the missions.
Already we're seeing footage of people managing to drop massive rocks on a Rathalos from the ceiling of a jungle cave.
Easily Shareable Video
This is a gamechanger for Monster Hunter: streaming and video sharing was very difficult from 3DS, but the PS4, Xbox One and PC's easy tools will allow everyone to share Monster Hunter moments. These games are extremely funny, which they rarely get credit for, and we're already seeing some of the best Monster Hunter players show off some amazing skills.
— Canta Per Me (@MH_Canta) December 10, 2017
Given that one of the barriers to entry for Monster Hunter has always been that it's hard to learn at first, shareable video like this shows people how brilliant the game is when you know what you're doing, and can also teach people how to git gud themselves.