Monster Hunter is the upcoming action title from Capcom that throws you back to a time when men were men and dinosaurs were just begging to be killed and skinned. The third-person action game--released earlier this year in Japan to a warm critical and public reception--is now headed stateside. We had the chance to explore the US version of the game to see how it's shaped up.
Monster Hunter's story is a bit thin and harkens back to the old days when games didn't need epic tales to set them up. This actually ends up suiting its prehistoric setting pretty well, since Monster Hunter is just about survival in an era when populations varied like a restaurant's seasonal menu. You'll play a resident of a prehistoric village who goes about a daily life that consists of, well, surviving. It's not exactly War and Peace, but there's plenty enough here for an engaging game.
You'll find two main modes of play in Monster Hunter--offline and online. The offline game is a pretty linear experience that sends you through the highs and lows of being a member of a local tribe who's trying to eke out an existence while surrounded by dinosaurs. The online mode lets you share the burden of staying alive with up to four friends.
Before you step into the world of Monster Hunter, you'll have to create a virtual alter ego using the game's nicely robust character-creation system. You can create a male or female character, and you can tweak a variety of elements related to him or her, which includes everything from the look of the face and the color of the hair to the voice. Once that's sorted, you'll start your life in the village, which begins with you waking up after a presumably restful sleep. The single-player offline game finds you interacting with the village elder, who sends you off on a series of quests that become progressively more difficult as you face off against a plethora of different and deadly dinosaurs.
While this may sound like a suicidal mission if ever there was one, especially considering your size in relation to your opponents, you've got some equalizers in the battle against nature. First and foremost will be your trusty weapons, of which you'll find several different classes to choose from, each with its own unique properties. Your arsenal will range from light melee weapons, which inflict minimal damage when used, to heavy projectile weapons. Despite the pros and cons of each weapon, you'll come to find that your own play style will lend itself to one type of arm. Although it may be in your best interest to get comfortable with all of the game's weapons, it doesn't matter if you're the best swordsman alive if you're hacking at a wyvern's toe with your sword--because this is obviously a surefire way to die.
In addition to your primary weapon, you'll find all sorts of useful items, such as traps, that will come in handy when facing off against much larger creatures or mobs. If you do encounter any of the above and get hurt, you'll be able to refill your health by cooking raw meat that you'll harvest from felled dinosaurs. The game's simple cooking mechanic requires you to prepare the meat manually--that is, by stopping the spinning spit the meat's laid out on. If you manage to cook it right, you'll be able to brag to everyone. If you burn the meat, you'll earn an inedible piece of charcoal that will make you sick if eaten. Along the same lines, you'll have to keep an eye on your weapon's effectiveness (by possibly buffing it up with such items as whetstones) to keep it functioning at its maximum potential.
The online game retains the bulk of the mechanics from the single-player game and adds the abilities to both play with friends and chat. The game uses a well-laid-out structure for navigating its lobbies that ties into its premise. You'll pick a world, then a land, then an area, and finally a town where you can meet up with friends. You'll be able to chat with up to eight friends before heading out in groups of four to take on quests. Chatting will be handled through text (either through a soft keyboard or through an actual USB keyboard), fixed phrases that you can preprogram, or "action chat," which lets your character act out your feelings when words don't suffice. Obviously, voice chat would have been ideal, but the text-chat system works fine.
Monster Hunter's graphics are looking good and manage to put a unique spin on the now-familiar dinosaur designs that have been around for ages. You'll see a varied mix of creatures that are given unique designs and little flourishes, such as color patterns. The hunters are a varied lot, thanks in part to the many combinations available in the character creation system. You can expect a high level of detail on your alter ego, which you can enhance further by improving or creating new armor and weapons. As you improve your character's items, his or her model reflects it. The environments are looking good due to the game's detailed graphics and due to some smart use of 2D bitmaps. The end result is a solid visual package that looks good and runs at a pretty solid frame rate, even in advance of release. One of the few rough spots in the visuals regards the game's camera, which can be problematic at times.
The audio in the game is sparse but effective. You'll hear a quirky soundtrack that ranges from suitably epic, orchestrated tunes (which sell the whole idea of roaming open fields and hunting packs of dinosaurs) to the goofy theme that's used for cooking your food. The effects used for the various dinosaurs are well done and complement their onscreen incarnations.
From what we've played so far, Monster Hunter is looking like a very promising entry in the PlayStation 2's catalog. The simple fun to be had in hunting dinosaurs is pretty addictive, and the appeal of playing online with your friends is undeniable. If you're looking for a change of pace for an online game, you'll definitely want to be on the trail of Monster Hunter this fall.