A dull trophy.
Television has been an effective medium for educating the world about the plight of endangered species, though what started with the stuffy Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom has evolved into more wacky, varied shows. Personalities like Steve Irwin and Jeff Corwin give us an entertaining peek into the secret lives of saltwater crocs and dung beetles, while Pet Stars showcase the lovable critters found at home. The guy who came up with Animal Planet is a genius.
But underneath the fa'ade of conservation and entertainment, there's another reason why we're fascinated by the new breed of animal shows: our primal need to hunt. We don't need to bring home Brontosaurus burgers for the family, but the need to "know thy enemy" is deeply ingrained in our predatory brains.
So Capcom touches on a very basic nerve in their new third-person action game, Monster Hunter. But while the idea of chasing after big, scary game is a good one, this hunt meets with mixed results.
The premise is pretty thin. Monster Hunter is not set in any particular time period, though it seems like a weird futuristic version of our own prehistory. You're a member of a tribe of hunters and spend most of your time trying to take down the hordes of gigantic monsters roaming about. That's about it.
It all starts with a character customization screen in which you're allowed to name your character and select from several different hair, face, skin and voice types. The selection isn't as wide as one would hope for and attributes like height and body type are absent, but it doesn't make much difference once you get into the game.
From there, it's on to the village hub, which lets you do some shopping, meet up with other players in the online mode or obtain a quest. One of the available shops allows you to combine items you've found in the field to make new weapons and armor. It's always nice to see such customization in games like these, but it turns out that the items you create are basically the same as those offered in normal shops, only with a smaller price tag.
Unfortunately, you won't be able leave town and explore on your own without first taking a quest by talking to one of the hub's residents. Maybe you need to find one last chuck of iron ore for that armor you've had your eye on or just want to scout the region so that you'll know what you're up against, but too bad - you'll just have to make use of your limited time during quests to get all of that done.
At least the quests give you a reason to kill, which is really what Monster Hunter is all about. The real game begins once you manage to leave town by giving you a camp complete with supply box, sleeping tent (just in case you need a little health pick me up) and drop off point for those all-important quest-completing items.
Quests take place in one of the game's various regions (like forest, desert or jungle), which are in turn split up into zones. Each zone is further separated by load screens, but at least the wait isn't very long. Quests also come with a time limit, so depending on your mission, there may not be much time left for exploration and item collection.
Early on in the game, most of the quests involve heading out into field to search for unique objects like special mushrooms or to collect raw meat for some well-done steaks. Then suddenly the difficulty ramps up and you'll dive into much tougher missions like tracking and killing a velocidrome (think bird / velociraptor combination) or stealing wyvern eggs without getting eaten by an angry mama dragon. At this point, there's a good chance you'll be ill-equipped to deal with all the predators lurking about, so repeating some quests for extra cash and items might be in order.
Sadly, Monster Hunter's control scheme is a little wily. Movement is simple enough with the left analog stick, but the right analog stick is used for attacks, making it hard to string together any useful combos. You'll also wind up re-centering the camera accidentally, especially annoying in the middle of battle since you'll often get turned around and start swinging your weapon in the wrong direction. It's just not very intuitive or fun chopping away at bad guys. Plan on buying the best armor you can get your hands on " you'll need it.
And just what will you find in the wilds of Monster Hunter? Well, creatures naturally vary by location, but the beasties you'll run up against are both large and small, herbivore and carnivore. The huge, awesome wyverns dominate the landscape and will attack anyone foolish enough to enter their territory, while the antelope-like kelbi are content to feed among the grasses and leave well enough alone. Then there are the scavenging cat-people who love to steal from you, but will otherwise dump your inert body back at camp should you be defeated. You'll see all manner of beast out here.
Whether you're digging around for mushrooms or whacking away at a freakish rhino with a sword, the quests aren't particularly engaging. The good news is that some quests aren't just straightforward hunting and gathering missions. If properly equipped, you'll also be able to mine for precious metals, go bug catching, use the bugs you catch to go fishing and even try your hand at cooking. None of these distractions are complex, but they do lead to more items for Monster Hunter's unique item combination aspect.
You'll find a ton of useful objects in the field, from healing herbs to blade-sharpening rocks. Other items like huskberries and spiderwebs may seem less useful, but even these can result in handy gear. For example, mixing ivy and spiderwebs makes a fine net and adding a toadstool to some raw meat leads to poisoned monster bait. Of course, some combinations are garbage, so you have to experiment.
Monster Hunter has a pretty steep difficulty curve. You start off on simple gathering missions only to be thrown into fire (almost literally) with some really big, tough monsters. Luckily, you can go online and pick up three friends to help make your task easier. The game makes much more sense when played online, as friends can run distractions, set traps and provide extra damage. It's basically a less interesting version of Phantasy Star Online, and while it isn't terribly deep or innovative, it's clearly better than playing alone.
The visuals aren't too shabby, either. The models for players and creatures are pretty good and the environments are nicely detailed. The game would have greatly benefited from more seamless design, though, as the constant loading of smallish areas really kills off any sense of consistency. The sound is limited to background ambience and the occasional grunts and squawks, really nothing much at all.
In the end, Monster Hunter leaves a fairly bland taste in the mouth. With its cool creature-catching concept and some field items that would make a Boy Scout proud, it sets a good table. Unfortunately, the poor control and lack of solo playability hinder it from catching the big one.