The monsters of Monster Hunter Tri don't resemble any creatures you'd glimpse in real life, yet there's something remarkably authentic about them. These raging beasts react to your presence with the kind of violence you'd expect. They howl with hatred, stare you down, and charge toward you with a single focus: destroy the intruder. So begins a typically intense encounter with one of Monster Hunter's hulking foes, and it's one that could end with your limp body crushed under a gigantic wyvern claw. But with the right preparation and skill, you can overcome, and that moment of triumph is among gaming's most satisfying. This action/role-playing series finally reaches its potential with Tri, which renders its wild paradise in beautiful detail and lets you team up with friends or strangers online to tame it. A few of the game's facets are stubbornly mired in the past, such as a couple of awkward control issues and some online oddities. But this is, finally, what Monster Hunter had the potential to be all along: intense, involving, and most importantly, great fun.
Your role in Monster Hunter Tri is that of the great savior of Moga Village, which is having trouble with sea commerce, what with a terrifying sea monster bullying the local sailors. But as a neophyte hunter, you can't just plunge into the restless waters and take a whack at the thing--it takes some decent gear, the right support items, and a good amount of skill to take on such a creature. Luckily, the local guild girl is on hand to help prepare you by handing off quests and sending you into the surrounding wilds. There, you chop up heinous beasts (plus a few adorable ones), as well as collect all manner of rocks and flora, which are important for creating the potions, traps, and other support items necessary for survival. The single-player campaign starts small, sending you off to attack fleet-footed dinos, collect herbs, and roast meat with your handy barbecue spit. It's a sluggish introduction, but there's a lot to take in, especially if you're a series newcomer. You've got a farm, where cat creatures called felynes harvest important plants, mushrooms, and more. You've also got a fishing fleet to order about, a cook who drums up some tasty meals (possibly some disgusting ones as well), a blacksmith who fashions new weapons and armor out of all the sundry monster bits you bring him, and plenty more. There's a lot to Monster Hunter Tri, and the first few hours do a good job of helping you get your bearings.
It's when you take on your first giant lizard--the Great Jaggi--that Monster Hunter Tri begins to sink its sharp claws into your flesh. Standard quests generally come with a time limit, and taking on one of the game's massive monsters might fill that entire schedule. Every creature, from the slithery Royal Ludroth to the fire-breathing Rathalos, employs a number of devastating attacks that can take off a big chunk of your health bar if you're not completely invested in the battle. Monster behavior is consistent enough that you'll learn how to react to certain patterns and take advantage of openings, yet there's also a certain element of unpredictability. A heavy creature might suddenly bound forward with surprising speed, drop to the ground and roll, or vomit mud on you. It might become suddenly enraged and go berserk, flailing about with abandon--all legs, claws, and tail. All the while, you might need to fend off smaller creatures that will be jumping and buzzing about. Or perhaps another great beast will enter the fray--an occasion that's certain to get your heart pumping. Even if you've fought the same creature a dozen times before, this capriciousness makes every encounter as thrilling as the last. The moment you hear the soundtrack signal the presence of a great monster, you get that tingle that tells you another fight to the death is about to begin.
One of Tri's great additions to the series is its underwater battles. Many of the monsters are amphibious, so you battle them on both land and under the water. The action is slower underwater than it is on land, as you would expect, and monsters have a whole new set of attacks to contend with there. For example, on land, the grimacing Gobul (think of it as an oversized angler fish) lurches and rolls about while you stab its most vulnerable parts; underwater, it digs under the seabed and dramatically bursts forth from its hideout or sucks you into its toothy mouth. The camera speed is a bit lethargic, but the game controls well when you're swimming among the fishes--that is, assuming you're using a Classic Controller or the new Classic Controller Pro. (There's a bundle available that includes both the game and the Classic Pro.) Fumbling with the remote's D pad to maneuver the camera while thumbing around to attack and open menus makes using the Wii Remote and Nunchuk the lesser option; the Classic Controllers are much more comfortable. Yet, even if you go with a Classic Controller, you're stuck reaching for the remote to add a beast to your monster list. Doing so involves opening a menu, grabbing the remote, pointing at a monster onscreen, and dragging an icon into a box at the bottom of the screen--possibly while you are under attack. This awkward system was a terrible idea; fortunately, adding monsters to your list is purely optional, and you only need to do it once per species.
No matter which control method you use, Monster Hunter Tri provides a good challenge. Preparation is the absolute key to success, so you need to take the right supplies for the mission. Take plenty of pickaxes if you need to gather bloodstones; take a few traps and tranquilizer bombs if your goal is to ensnare a monster without killing it. Even the type of armor you equip makes a big difference, making you vulnerable to certain attacks more than others. As long as you're properly prepared, you'll rarely feel cheated when a Barroth turns you into a monster meal. As with the other games in the series, Tri's combat is thoughtfully paced. You can't mash buttons and expect to emerge victorious. Once an attack animation has begun, you have to wait it out before you can dodge out of the way or start a new barrage. Unfortunately, some animations feel too long; expect to encounter some frustration when you get knocked backward because your character simply had to flex his muscles after quaffing a health potion, for example. But overall, there's a good, methodical rhythm to the combat that feels appropriate, whether you're wielding a quick-strike weapon like a sword or a slow, laborious one like the new switch axe.
Battles aren't just rewarding because of the intrinsic sense of accomplishment they offer, but also because they provide opportunities to collect incredibly important components that grand monsters drop, which can then be forged into new weapons and armor. Much of the equipment looks great, and getting better stuff can make all the difference if you're having trouble defeating a given foe. There's always something tantalizing dangling under your nose, pushing you to hunt the monster that may drop that scale you so desperately need. In fact, collecting is a major part of Monster Hunter Tri. You catch bugs, mine for iron, fish, and harvest berries, and most of the ingredients you haul back to the village can be combined to make helpful items. Your chest will eventually be loaded with various objects of differing uses. You can create serums that reveal the locations of enormous monsters on the map, drugs that enhance your attack power, and bombs that temporarily stun your enemies. There are tons of recipes to discover, and it is fun to combine two items you haven't combined before to see what new concoction will spring forth. You don't need to go questing to gather these goodies, though: You can head to the nearby Moga Woods, where you can grab the most vital goods, as well as take on the nasty beasts you've already defeated in quests.
Even if you stick to just the single-player experience, you will make one new friend: Cha-Cha, a charming little scamp that joins you on your adventures. Cha-Cha buffs you by performing dances, and he wears various masks that affect his behavior in the field. While wearing the acorn mask, Cha-Cha attacks monsters; while wearing the fluffy mask, he helps you locate your targets. This little fellow isn't always as useful as you'd like; you might get covered with mud and need him to come bop you on the head to get it off, but he'll be merrily gathering mushrooms instead. Nevertheless, he's too adorable to remain angry at for long.
If you really desire companionship during your travels, however, you should head online. It takes a short while to get used to Monster Hunter Tri's online structure because it's splintered into various servers and cities. If you're just hoping to meet up with some buddies to beat up on monsters, you'll need to jump through a few hoops to find each other and figure out how the whole thing works. But once you're used to the setup, it's easy to group up with like-minded players and go hunting for your hulking prey. Cooperative hunts are in a whole different league than their single-player equivalents. Not only is teaming with others inherently more fun than hunting on your own, but having a large beast's attention divided among multiple foes also allows you to be more aggressive during combat. You can charge up and unleash a wild swinging attack with your hammer while one cohort pokes your quarry with a lance and another blasts away at it with a bowgun. One player will set a shock trap while his or her teammate first distracts the giant beast and then lures it into the trap, where it's temporarily a sitting duck. Teaming up to take down one of Tri's big boys is an absolute blast, and everybody gets a fair share of the loot.
The only downside to cooperative hunting is the lack of synchronization among the minion monsters. The small monsters you see aren't necessarily in the same places as those your comrades see, so your teammates flail about as if fighting invisible enemies. This is a bizarre design choice, though this strange disconnect fortunately doesn't apply to the big boss fights. Luckily, every other facet of online play is a delight. Arena quests are particularly enjoyable because they let you and a buddy take control of powerful stock characters and pound on a tough monster. Not only are arena fights great fun, but they also provide a tantalizing glimpse at the awesome armor and weapons your own character might one day equip. In town, you can order furniture for your room in the city and even challenge a teammate to an arm-wrestling match. Monster Hunter Tri supports voice chat with Wii Speak, though few players seem to be utilizing it; instead, they're opting to plug in a USB keyboard, which is an effective alternative. If you're stuck using the built-in keyboard interface, you'll be thankful for the set of stock phrases you can quickly enter. If you'd rather have face time with your friends instead, you can export your character to your Wii Remote and head to the arena for a split-screen co-op battle versus a lumbering foe.
Monster Hunter Tri is an absolute marvel to look at; monster animations are astounding while creatures move with exactly the right amount of speed and heft. Every movement connects seamlessly with the next, which goes a long way toward making this fantastical world so believable. While every environment looks great, the underwater vistas are particularly gorgeous. Long-tailed beasts effortlessly swim past you and schools of fish add color to the murk. The sun dances authentically on the water as you swim toward the surface, and the crystal blue waters near one particular cave seem almost magical in spite of the vicious beasts that inhabit them. It's a shame that Tri's maps aren't more open. As in previous games, each region is split into smaller chunks separated by loading screens. (A vicious foe might even knock you into a neighboring zone if you aren't careful.) But this is a relatively small complaint considering how rich and detailed the game looks. The game's soundtrack isn't nearly as evocative as its art, but it does a fine job of announcing danger. The highlights of the sound design aren't the predictable thumps and thwacks of battle but rather the guttural growls and echoing calls of your gigantic foes. Their deafening roars are vicious and frightening, though even the clattering chatter of smaller creatures strike a menacing chord.
The Monster Hunter series' migration from the Sony PSP to the Nintendo Wii was a smart one. Using the Classic Controller, you never need to fumble around to position the camera, which means you can focus on fighting monsters--not the controls. And what monsters they are: Small lizards squawk their complaints as you slash your way through their ranks; meaty sea dwellers glide through the deeps; and gigantic tundra-dwelling leeches cling to ceilings, ready to siphon your health away. Taking on the toughest of these terrors is exhilarating, particularly when you join up with other adventurers. Scattered issues, such as online synchronization quirks and a dumb implementation of pointing controls, still prove that the series has some growing up to do. But if you're hungering for some fun, challenging action and online camaraderie, Monster Hunter Tri will satisfy your cravings.