There's still a few game series I lack under my gaming belt. I've decided I'll be fine without Starcraft, and I totally passed on the whole Halo thing. But Monster Hunter? There's got to be something to all of that. It has sold millions of copies in Japan. And when you're there, everyone has their faces in PSPs -- on trains, in parks, out on streets -- and they're all playing Monster Hunter.
I've been intrigued, but all of my play experiences have been quick sessions that didn't amount to much more than frustration. Frankly, aside from the overall look of the game, I was kind of surprised that people were so into it. There had to be something to this, right?
I finally got some help and insight from people who know Monster Hunter best: Capcom. And these guys weren't just some random PR people, either. We're talking serious Monster Hunter players here. One of them told me that he's put over 800 hours in his game save. Another has been playing since the first release, both Japanese and English versions. These two and another fan gave me the complete rundown on Monster Hunter Portable 2G, the latest in the series, coming to the PSP this spring with the new name Monster Hunter Freedom Unite.
After I learned how to play, I found myself having a pretty good time. I think I get why Japanese gamers are digging it so much.
So I was playing it wrong. Not surprised. But it turns out that there's quite a bit of learning curve for this role-playing game. Most of the learning curve involves the game play process and the control scheme. I wouldn't call it a negative thing, but you're essentially doing PC MMO-style monster hunts with real-time control on a portable game system. They had to work out the controls somehow.
But the controls work. You move and attack in real-time, using the analog nub and the face buttons to hack and slash at monsters. And then there's a weapons-down state, where the same buttons perform more menu-like functions. Once that was fully demonstrated, I began to have a bit more fun. RTFM, as they say.
The game is mission-based, with Freedom Unite sporting over 400 of them. I never really understood the goal, but now I see that it's a quest to be the strongest fighter with the best armor. The one with the most toys wins, as they say. It's all about equipment customization to be able to take on the next monster. Then you take the spoils from the monster you just beat to make the next best armor and take on the next strongest monster. This time around there's 1500 weapons and 2000 armor sets, which should keep you really busy. It seems like this would really draw in someone who is obsessive-compulsive. It was totally working on me.
Dude looks serious.
I'm told that starting out in this newest game is a bit easier than the last ones, now supported with a new AI companion called a Felyne. These are basically bipedal talking cats that assist you in battle. Just like you, they can be leveled up to provide even more help as the game progresses. And a feature called Felyne casting will let you pass your companion to other players using the PSP's sleep mode.
I've been told that the ad-hoc multiplayer is a lot of fun, so I had to try it out. I was able to play through a mission with two other teammates (the game supports up to four), which allowed me to see why so many Japanese players were meeting up to do so. It's all about teamwork, going out on monster hunts with assigned roles, just like your favorite PC MMO. The equipment and combat possibilities already seemed pretty vast, but with multiple players taking on any number of team roles, the possibilities seem almost endless. You'll communicate, fight, and then share the spoils of your hunt with your teammates. You get so involved that after victory you kind of feel like doing the high-five thing. Again, I can see where this time of game play would be addictive.
There's also a lot of cool features in this game. First off, if you're already a series fan, you can import your player data from Monster Hunter Freedom 2 in to Unite. If you don't dig load times, a new Media Install option lets you install the entire game UMD (about 500MB) to a Memory Stick Pro. This latest release also adds new monsters, weapons, and missions, creating a game that has what Capcom says is over 500 hours of game play.
Honestly, I've never liked a game enough to spend 500 hours on it, but I definitely see the charm here after spending some time with Monster Hunter Freedom Unite. I mean, there's got to be something to the going on 8 million copies of Monster Hunter sold worldwide, which made it the most popular PSP game out there. If anything, I got the sense that my play time didn't even scratch the surface of what's possible in this game. There's so much more here than just hunting monsters. I'm looking forward to finding out more about the Monster Hunter world when Freedom Unite launches this spring. I think I get it now.