Gathering mushrooms. Mining ore. Fishing. Slaying giant dragons made of rock. Whether or not this sounds familiar depends heavily on your experience with the Monster Hunter series thus far. Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate is an enhanced port of 2010's excellent Monster Hunter Tri, refining that game's structure by adding a bunch of new content and a far more robust online component. Thwacking huge beasts with a greatsword or picking them off from afar with a bow has never been so comprehensive and satisfying. However, the 3DS version suffers from some concessions that make it less appealing than its Wii U counterpart.
A wyvern patrols, tossing its head back and forth as it snaps lazily at a nearby herd of grazing aptanoth. You sneak up, weapon sheathed, waiting for the right time to strike. Suddenly, the hulking beast turns. It notices you. Quickly, you draw your blade as the beast charges. You roll, but not quickly enough. A blow catches you, sending you flying to one side as your sidekick, Cha-Cha, screams in alarm. Quick as a flash, you spring to your feet, up and into the fray, taking a swing that connects satisfyingly with the creature's head. It roars, stamps its feet, and charges again.
These encounters, these epic battles of man vs. mythical beast, are the centerpieces of Monster Hunter. Nearly three years on, and the monsters of this imaginary world are no less intimidating and no less menacing when threatened. Sure, you still start off being sent out against herbivores, or to gather mushrooms and resources, but as soon as you get into the fray proper, things really kick off. The game looks fantastic in 3D; the effect gives the battles real depth and a sense of scale, even on the small screen.
The touch screen is used well here too. You have two options: classic, which uses the touch screen as additional buttons, or dynamic, which displays things like the HUD and the map, leaving the top screen free of clutter. The dynamic choice is by far the better of the two, since it adds extra button functionality as well. It's a neat use of the system, and by leaving the top screen solely for the action, it's a really clean, well-laid-out experience.
However, there's a significant drawback to the 3DS version: control. The single analog pad isn't much of a problem at first. You can snap the camera behind you with the left bumper and control it with the D-pad or the touch screen, and the lock-on camera makes fights pretty manageable on land, even if it's not ideal. However, once you get underwater, things take a turn for the frustrating. The underwater sections, which require you to constantly shift the camera to navigate, are almost unplayable using the 3DS without a Circle Pad Pro to give you direct control of the camera.
Large-scale fights aren't so bad, thanks to the aforementioned lock-on camera, but navigating the pools and lakes of Monster Hunter is an utter chore. Given the number of underwater sections, the Circle Pad Pro is basically mandatory if you're looking to play this version. With the add-on, the game controls perfectly, just as well as its Wii U counterpart, but having to purchase a separate item just to make the game properly playable is a real shame.
Eventually you begin farming Royal Ludroths or Lagombis to build or improve weapons and armor, and this collect-'em-all aspect of Monster Hunter remains as addictive as it has always been. There's more on offer than in Tri, with a bunch of new monsters added, thus leading to new weapons and armor as well. And for a game so focused on grinding and fighting the same creatures over again, it does a remarkable job of keeping things fresh. Battles rarely play out the same, whether you're tackling a variety of different beasts or simply taking on the same one repeatedly. Each beast has its own strengths and weaknesses, its own characteristics to learn, and even if you've fought the same monster multiple times, it's still capable of surprising you by varying its attack patterns and catching you unawares.
The vast scope of weapon types and armor provides plenty of content, as well. Mastering one single weapon feels like a game in itself, and the difference between using, say, greatswords or dual blades results in a huge variety in how you approach combat. Taking down a giant poisonous leech with a hammer is very different from attacking it with a bowgun. This gives you more patterns to learn, approaches to take, and things to consider. The lengthy animations when you use healing items are still present, but they add an excellent element of tension, although without the Circle Pad Pro, you rely heavily on the auto lock-on for camera movement. With the add-on, though, camera control is just as fluid and versatile as the console version.
Sadly, the 3DS version doesn't offer out-of-the-box online play, and this is another huge drawback. Local play is still present, and the downloadable quests are available, but connecting with others online is, for now, impossible. Given that the online play is perhaps the best aspect of Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate, it's a huge part of the game to restrict. The only way to take the 3DS version online is to use a currently unavailable application due out in the eShop; you'll also need a Wii U and a Wii/Wii U LAN adapter. The local play might compensate for these limitations if you have a bunch of friends who play Monster Hunter, but given that the game's popularity is far less widespread in the West than in its native Japan, most people aren't going to be able to stroll through town and hook up with random monster hunters for impromptu adventures.
The 3DS game does connect to the Wii U version, though, allowing you to play on the 3DS locally while one player uses the GamePad. Using the 3DS as an additional Wii U controller is an excellent idea, but again, it requires multiple people with copies of the game in the same place. You will be able transfer your Wii U save to the 3DS version, though bear in mind that this option requires that same app, which is not available as of this writing.
Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate isn't an entirely new game. Players who sank hundreds of hours into Tri are going to find the majority of the content familiar, but given the nature of Monster Hunter, this isn't necessarily a problem. You make progress fast, so tackling the same beasts you already fought in the same locations a few years ago isn't really a deterrent. As a stand-alone game, Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate pales in comparison to its console counterpart. It's still worth getting if you don't own a Wii U and absolutely can't wait for a new handheld Monster Hunter (the 3DS-exclusive Monster Hunter 4, with online play, is due out later this year), but the drawbacks make this version harder to recommend.'