Yeah, that’s right. MMOGames’ covering not only a non-MMO, but a console one at that. Wait, just… before you put me to the torch, let me appeal a great many of you: Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate for the Nintendo 3DS has what many of you are seeking in your MMOs today. Intrigued? Allow me to slip past some of those pitch forks and tell you of a game that lets you get your gear grind on from the start, without having to run solo content to level 100 and suddenly needing 20 people to get new gear, all while incrementally learning more and more challenging “battle dances” and (hopefully) having fun.
Let’s first talk about what’s wrong with MMOs these days (very briefly). In honor of the late, great Massively.com (who is reviving itself with a Kickstarter), I’d like to discuss some of the complaints we’ve heard in the MMO community over the past year, starting with end game. The basic idea is that, players are told to level first, then get to the max level before getting to the “real game.” Outlining WildStar’s original plan, Jeremy Gaffney said:
Leveling is awesome, but it goes by quickly and then people leave. It’s even worse if your hardcore players report back to the general public that there is nothing to do and that the game sucks. It’s about what you get to as much as it is about getting there. Right now, 50 to 70% of our team is dedicated to elder content. We need a lot of it, and it has to be replayable. A huge chunk of the coolest stuff is happening in the elder content because that’s when it has to pay off.
As another writer summed it up, “why did you even bother designing anything else?” If you’re playing a racing game, you start the game by racing. If you’re playing a shooter, you start by shooting. In an MMO, you’re supposed to have a world to experience, but why is it that, often, the most updated part of that world is locked away in an instance and is only accessible after doing hundreds or thousands of quests that, frankly, didn’t teach you how to play the game the way you’ll need to in order to complete end game content?
This brings to mind another core problem: raiding. It’s not that raiding isn’t fun, but for the most part, it’s the crutch of the MMO these days. Update the game with raids once in awhile and you’re considered golden… except that many players actually don’t raid. MMOs weren’t always like this, and it’s been suggested that the genre needs to get away from this mentality in order to survive. There are other options for an end game other than raiding.
Raiding is popular enough though. For me, it’s been an extension of dungeons in newer MMOs. However, they’ve never felt like they belong in the genre. Not that they’re bad, but MMOs are supposed to be about open worlds with players. Funneling players into a small instance to beat a glorified combat dance doesn’t mesh with the idea of exploration to me, and the addition of dungeon/raid finding tools helps ruin this.
But how do we balance the enjoyment of these combat dances with the MMO genre? Well, to play devil’s advocate for a moment, we don’t. The way I see it, there’s two options. One is to include the option, but not make it center stage. MMOs are niche products for the most part, but in the old days, part of that was because they were an “everything box.” There was a little something in the game for multiple play styles. You had deep crafting with experimental discovery for explorers, you had housing and other vanity items/fluff for socializers, territory PvP for killers, and generally some sort of world boss for achievers. However, in modern MMOs, these tend to either be gated behind raiding, achieved through real money transactions (RMT), or are cut completely, forming niche games. That is, the box is being unpacked, and instead of buying it all, we now buy one thing that used to come in the box.
Enter Monster Hunter.
Let me start with a brief overview of the game: you are a hunter and you hunt monsters. You don’t just hunt them though. You forage supplies, like iron ore, spider silk, and dung. You create bullets and arrows from animal parts and salvaged materials (stink bombs don’t make themselves!). You wear your fallen foes and wield their claws, teeth, and tails as your weapons. Your phat drops aren’t purples, they’re horns you struggled to break while doing your best to not become someone’s lunch, and you’ll do it a few times so you can go to that smug smith and pay your money for him to craft you that bad-ass helmet. Monster Hunter isn’t just a title, it’s your way of (virtual) life.
This is, once again, the raiding game. The dungeon crawler. The difference is, it starts from that, and adds fluff as you go on, rather than starting you with fluff and then seemingly punishing you with new mechanics once you’ve feasted on the leveling content.
Mechanically though, Toshi Nakamura from Kotaku once summed up the game by saying;
The game’s system itself is not unique. It largely echoes the Phantasy Star Online quest/mission model. Still, with Capcom’s action game and graphics know how mixed with a more relatable semi-realistic game world […], and a Skinner-box reward system, you’ve got yourself a well-put-together game. Add a dash of cute cat-like mascot and you’ve got a winner.
I think that description right there is what you can boil most MMOs down to these days. It’s what MH does differently though that matters.
Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate starts like any MMO: customize the character you’re pretty much going to have hidden under a helmet most of the game. Skin tone and hair may show, but make sure you choose a voice you can live with. You’ll be hearing it a lot. You also get to customize your palico, a meowcenary like-companion that will help you on your single and two player adventures. The character creation for them is a bit more interesting since they’re usually more visible under their armor, aside from when you’re using special skins to make them look like your companions from other games.
Like MH4 (the exclusive Japanese version of the game before enhancements), MH4U begins with you on board a sandship, getting attack by a sand-whale creature known as Dah’ren Mohran. It’s a good introduction fight since the pacing is a bit slower than your average monster hunt, but still feels epic, even after having done it many times before. However, you obviously won’t be doing the whole fight, just a sneak peak. Once you land in town, be prepared to be bombarded with terms you as a new hunter may not fully understand (or vets who haven’t played for awhile may have forgotten).
The thing is, Monster Hunter is known for being a bit hard. This is what I think the MMO community can appreciate in some ways. There are a few systems you’ll need to master: ordering food, making armor and weapons, upgrading armor and weapons, and maybe a few others I’m overlooking. That’s just in town too. Then you need to know how to find supplies, what to craft, how to craft it, item management (like old school MMOs, you can’t just pick up everything!)… and again, we still haven’t started fighting, but we’re being trained on how to prepare. When was the last time your MMO reminded you about the features you should bring to your raid, or skills to learn to master them?
When you hit the weapons training, be prepared for walls of text before getting to actually test the weapon. This was a problem for me in MH4 due to my poor Japanese, but it’s still a problem in English because it’s information overload. The quests are entirely optional, so what might be nice would be if the game gave you some target practice to test out each strategy it describes, rather than explaining thirteen different things and tossing you out to a low level boss. The Hunter’s notes (think in-game manual) are often just as confusing, sadly.
However, I recommend doing all the weapon tutorials, even as a veteran (unless you played MH4 or MH4G in Japanese, since you probably have your own plan by now!). The game can be overwhelming without a goal, but personally, once I have an idea of what weapon(s) I like, it’s easier for me to focus on what armor/weapons to start crafting. The tutorials also give you some decent supplies, which means you’ll have to do less farming out in the field.
Once you’ve got these systems down though, you’re set for the game. You may learn a thing or two, but being able to prepare for a fight is just as important as the execution. From here on out, you’ll be sent to fight monsters with various abilities, in environments that have their own issues, and dealing with different stats. The game will actually break these off into sections and give tips on how to deal with them, as well as supplies.
It won’t tell you the exact “combat dances”– to dodge left if monster X sits for 2 seconds and shifts to the right, or to roll under monster Y if it stands at a 90 degree angle– but that’s the fun of the game. MH gives you the tools to prepare for the fight so you can focus on the fight itself, not killing 20 dino-rats to get gear that makes it trivial for you to get hit at all. Better yet, once you’ve experienced these battles a bit as a low ranked Hunter, the game will move you on to higher ranked missions, where they tweak the difficulty level of the monsters to make sure you’re perfecting the strategies you’ve already learned.
While the game is focused on combat, it has fluff options too. Nothing very deep, but you have dyes, the ability to change some character creation options (like hair style and color), music concerts, even a pet pig to name and dress.The text isn’t too bad either (well, a bit corny, but I like that), and there’s even some references to past game locations (Moga Village 4 Life!), though with all the other text explaining what you need to do, it can get a bit heavy. Just the same, I feel like the game includes more fluff than many MMOs do at launch these days, and being so combat centric, so focused on mastering technique rather than brainlessly doing menial tasks, the fluff feels more meaningful. After getting your head bashed in a million times by a monster you’re still trying to figure out, it’s nice to go home and pet your pig.
Not everything is perfect though. Multiplayer is limited to 4 people at a time, and while local play is fun, online can be frustrating, just like any dungeon finder tool. While in the online lobbies, you can speak freely, during actual missions, you only have set phrases. Some are automatic, like “Sorry!” if you die (if the party has a total of 3 deaths, your mission fails). However, sometimes you need to say something very specific, like how to lay physical traps, or suggest ending the mission through a side quest (called “sub-quests” in game) should the main quest prove too challenging. Without in-game voice chat or a keyboard, this is impossible to communicate, so some patience is needed.
Just the same, for those who like dungeon/raid feels, Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate should scratch that itch for you. No, it’s not an MMO, but it’s a strong example of what MMOs that want to focus on that aspect should be doing. Being on the 3DS means the game also can function as a mobile MMO-like game; it worked well on a connection from my phone after I went over my data limit while I was in Japan, which was quite impressive. There are hours of content to explore, either alone or in groups. I may have only given the game an 8/10 for regular gamers, but MMO gamers are different. We have to tolerate challenges more than most genres. We have to be patient. Most MMOs update frequently, so a score feels wrong unless you also constantly update it. While MH4U will get additional items and some quests, it’s not to a level I feel MMOs get, so if pushed for a score, I’d give it a 9.5/10 for MMO fans.