By far the most impressive game in the long-running franchise, Monster Hunter World does the seemingly impossible by being a game full of depth, complexity, and hardcore fan service, while still being accessible and welcoming to new players. Although the initial learning curve is gentle, at some point in the journey everyone will understand that playing Monster Hunter successfully demands a thorough mastery of many systems and being comfortable with its very specific pacing, gameplay loops, and fighting styles. Despite vigorous nods to newbies, Monster Hunter is a series that is happy to remain at least partly opaque to casual players.
Although its story doesn't rise to the level found in recent action games like Horizon: Zero Dawn, Monster Hunter World takes some pains to craft a reasonable, rational foundation for dozens of hours of wholesale reptilian slaughter. The many monsters of Astera need to be researched, studied, captured, and rendered into chunks of fur, flesh, and bone for the long-term success and survival of its new settlers. The hunters may be committing monster genocide, but at least it's in the service of science, understanding, and potentially peaceful cohabitation.
While the core of Monster Hunter is, obviously, hunting or capturing dinosaur-like creatures that range from the size of a slithering subcompact car up to late-game Elder Dragons that are Shadow of the Colossus huge, that already satisfying core is surrounded by equally important subsystems that elegantly loop together. Plants and monster parts are needed for crafting weapons, upgrades, armor, traps, and ammo, and what's particularly interesting is that, while some of the weapons and gear are based on fanciful connections between living things -- like sword blades that are enhanced by healing insects - there is no "magic" in the usual RPG-sense that gamers are used to. The world in Monster Hunter is alive with potential in ways that other games rarely try to attempt. The implication: who needs magic when the living world is already magical.
That sense of abundant life is stunningly rendered in the game's incredibly detailed environments, divided into contiguous zones. Whether tropical rain forest, arid desert, or rocky alpine meadow, each ecosystem is a riot of interconnected plants and animals, brimming with activity. Everywhere, there is exotic flora to harvest, minerals to mine, and a Noah's ark full of large and small monsters and wildlife. Map design is equally impressive, with hidden paths, shortcuts, and layers upon layers of vertical space to access and explore. Climbing up to the canopy of a tropical forest, only to encounter a nesting flying monster or exploring a deep cave to happen upon a beast peacefully sleeping really creates a unique sense of discovery. As stunning and uniquely designed as the ecosystems are, the high level of presentation falls down just a bit when it comes to facial animation and lip syncing and an orchestral musical score that is initially stirring, before becoming turn-down-the-music repetitive. Overall, Monster Hunter looks fantastic and visuals on can be further optimized on a PS4 Pro or One X in favor of frame rate or resolution.
Veteran action-RPG players well schooled in the mechanics of their favorite genre face a bit an un-learning curve in Monster Hunter, because the usual tactics of leveling a character and squaring off against an enemy for a frantic battle to the death will not be rewarded for long. Hunts in Monster Hunter - especially solo - are slow, protracted affairs that require careful planning, precise resource management, and alternating periods of rest with short, heart-racing bursts of tactical combat. While none of the crafting or resource gathering systems are complex, they are enriched by being miles deep in their impact on the fourteen distinct weapons that are available from the start. Weapons range from the fast and agile to the cumbersome and potent, but all of them depend on regular upgrades as well as learning the rhythms and limits of their moves. A little like Dark Souls or a fighting game, combat in Monster Hunter is rarely a simple equation of strong weapon against weak enemy, but a well-rehearsed ballet of move recognition, timing, and environmental awareness. And patience above all.
Once again, the way weapons and armor are improved - characters themselves do not become stronger or more skilled, just their gear - reflects a convincingly thought-out approach to world design. Hunting new types of monsters unlocks new forms of armor or weapon upgrades along specific trees, each providing useful defensive or offensive abilities against specific monster types.
Whether playing through the lengthy and challenging campaign or one of the dozens of side missions, expeditions, or simply farming for upgrade materials by completing research assignments, Monster Hunter can be played in four person co-op. Players join or start MMO-like, 16-player instances of the world from which they can pull together a team or simply send up an "SOS" flare for random player assistance. While much of the early and mid-game monsters can be hunted solo, the endgame Elder Dragons are appropriately brutal without a team of experienced players with varied weapons. Unfortunately, the Xbox One X on which I played Monster Hunter was subject to near-constant connection issues, making online play consistently hit-or-miss and turning some already difficult battles into frustrating slogs. Monster Hunter is built for multiplayer but even in its absence the game is rewarding, and the Xbox version's netcode is improving.
While new players can jump into Monster Hunter World without fear of being overwhelmed by its complexity, the reality is that at some point, all players will need to take a deep dive into the game's weapon, upgrade and combat systems. Most important, players must be willing to accept and learn to enjoy the game's very specific style and rhythm, both markedly different from most action RPGs. Whether playing solo or with a group, Monster Hunter World is a rich and rewarding experience.