Release: Out now
It’s big in Japan, you know. For once, that’s not faint praise: the success of Monster Hunter’s handheld incarnations has singlehandedly revived the once-flagging PSP. Could the local-multiplayer action RPG do the same to Sony’s western sales? Could scores of happy gamers soon be found clustered on tube trains and in cafés, gripping their handhelds as they carve the beak from a fire-breathing bird wyvern? In short: no. Monster Hunter Freedom Unite excels in short half-hour bursts of play with friends – but the west has yet to show any inclination towards ad-hoc multiplayer gatherings. Whatever its charms, Unite is unlikely to spark such a revolution.
The opening hours of the game don’t do it any favours, either: a slovenly fuss of tutorials and lengthy textual explanations; an endurance test made necessary by unintuitive controls and obscure, but vital, interactions. Even starting a multiplayer quest is a peculiarly elaborate process – the secret to which lies buried in reams of NPC dialogue. Thankfully, these complaints are quickly counterbalanced. As Pokke village’s greenest monster hunter, there’s a wealth of customisation immediately open to the player, both cosmetic and material. The dizzying number of weapons available at the start demand different styles of play – but the game is careful not to force the player into over-specialisation early on. Mixing and matching armour and weaponry as the situation demands is important throughout – even in a group of players with ranging talents.
The game’s action is orchestrated from the village – where you buy and sell items, craft weaponry and armour, mine, fish or farm, train yourself in new skills, instruct cats in the ways of cookery, and dress up your pet pig in a fairy-winged leotard. The quests themselves see you leave the crisp Alpine safety of Pokke village for monster-filled hub regions – the icy climes of mountains, baking desert, tropical jungle, ancient woodland, swamps, volcanic planes and ruins. Each of these hubs is made up of a number of small interconnecting arenas, separated by loading screens, which describe a diversity of dramatically realised environments. The jungle area is more than just vines and leafmould, for example: its damp, sub-canopy gloom opens out on to sparkling white beaches, with spits of sand stretching out across the blue sea to crumbling temples. Even the earliest area, the Snowy Mountains, immediately presents the player with the kind of sumptuous vista you’d expect as a reward for hours upon hours of play – and, in its night-time version, an aurora plays across the twinkling stars.
Marvelling too long at the horizon will turn you into a meal, however. Unite’s gorgeous world is a dangerous one, and each arena is filled with predators, the exact quest determining how many and what kind. These missions take a small variety of forms – some simply demand that you gather plants or carve carcasses to retrieve ingredients, others stipulate that you must kill a number of beasts or one particularly formidable monster. While some can surprise – by throwing a toothed terror at you while you are happily plucking flowers – this is pretty much the sum total of variation you can expect from the entire game. But the disappointing homogeny is subsumed by a cascade of smaller motivations, like the need to build ever better, cooler armour, and compensated for by the slow emergence of broader co-op tactics.
The most immediate benefit of having multiple players is so that you can split up, scouring different sections of the hub for your prey – before ‘paintballing’ a target so that it shows up on the map for everyone in the party. Creatures can be placed in two categories – minions and bosses. The former spawn in and are limited to a single arena, while the latter roam the entire hub independent of the players’ position – their movement based on conditions like the weather, time of day, where their food is to be found and if they are hurt or not. Apart from these bosses, the locations of minor monsters aren’t replicated across other players’ PSPs – although their health bars are. The result is that you frequently see players hacking and slashing at mid-air while an animal on the other side of the arena crumples, dying. Presumably a shortcut to avoid filling up Wi-Fi bandwidth, this limits the tactical advantage you have as a group over lesser beasts – you can’t, for example, easily save another player from an assailant, because it is often impossible to tell which one is attacking him. But it is perhaps just as well: fighting monsters side by side tends to result in players knocking each other over.
The strange decision not to synchronise all monster behaviour is the major failing of Unite’s otherwise solid combat system. Attacks are based around slow, timed presses rather than button mashing – even the dual swords, supposedly a quick weapon, tie you into a lengthy combo cycle that means its overall effect is little faster than a sluggish hammer blow. Combined with the need to activate buffs, set traps, detonate bombs, heal or position yourself to attack individual parts of a monster, the game lends itself to more methodically-paced play than is initially apparent. All this necessitates companions, as much of this preparation is impossible without allies to divert the attentions of your monstrous quarry.
Unite doesn’t offer the kind of transformation at its higher levels that you might expect – the essential purpose is the same throughout: kill monsters, craft new shin pads out of dino-bladders, and swap your pig’s wings for a magician’s hat. Nonetheless, these simple motivations give way to a huge depth of execution which empowers and requires four players. Without accompaniment by fellow hunters, the reliance on grind becomes conspicuous; the infinitesimal combinations of items, equipment and upgrades seem less like depth and more like unknowable pedantry. But with others to guide you and cajole you on, Unite comes into its own. It might not spark a handheld revolution in the west, but it’ll remain a contender for our lunchtimes. Those pigs won’t dress themselves.