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Friday, May 4, 2018

I'M BACK!!! Monster Hunter: World Review!

Before we begin today, let me apologize. I was busy moving into a new house and getting Internet took... Slightly longer than anticipated. Because of that, I was rendered unable to run this blog for over two months. But now I DO have Internet which means we're back in business, and to celebrate my triumphant return, we'll be taking a look at some new video games I got to pass the time, starting with Monster Hunter: World.

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For the uninitiated, Monster Hunter is a franchise of Action-RPG's developed and published by Capcom that, while lacking in the story department, became famous for having fantastic co-op boss battles and being oddly addicting. As a longtime fan of this franchise, I had high expectations for the newest entry in the decade-old franchise, and to put things bluntly, Capcom have surpassed almost all of them.

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Monster Hunter: World exists primarily to correct nitpicks detractors have for this franchise (such as having to wait for needlessly long animations to finish playing before moving, the fact that you had to craft a separate suit of armor if you want to try out a projectile weapon, frequent loading screens interrupting hunts, etc) , and provide a fun, 100+ hour romp through the food chain, both for longtime fans and newcomers alike. And the whole thing is filled with so many quality-of-life changes that I honestly can't bring myself to play the older games again, mostly because the experience has been streamlined to near-perfection. My only real gripes with this game aren't even faults of the game itself, but rather the decision to put focus on multiplayer and putting it on  PS4/Xbox One.

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Zorah Magdaros just wants to give you a high

The story in Monster Hunter: World is an improvement over previous entries' stories, but given that the first two games didn't even have a story besides a bare-bones premise and the third game's story campaign was laughably forgettable, that's not saying much (the fourth game had a decent story, though). Don't get me wrong, it's an enjoyable story, and I had a blast through the main campaign. But don't go expecting an epic Harry Potter style tale full of twists and turns. Most of the story is in monster bios and weapon/armor descriptions, which means you have to actively look through all the armor and weapons to get the full picture. That said, Monster Hunter is the kind of franchise where nobody cares about the story and people only play the games for the gameplay. And that, dear reader, is the most redundant statement of the century.

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The basic premise of Monster Hunter: World follows your custom character, who is a member of the Fifth Fleet of the Research Commision, an organization working for the Hunter's Guild, which is the sole form of government in the Monster Hunter universe. The Fifth Fleet is tasked with researching a powerful monster known as Zorah Magdaros, which migrates to an uncharted continent once every ten years. It eventually spirals into a "Save the World" story when the Fifth Fleet has to deal with the surprisingly underused mascot of the game, Nergigante. Seriously, Nergigante gets some spooky foreshadowing, shows up a grand total of two times, gets chased off easily both times, and completely disappears from the plot until the Commander tells you to go hunt Nergigante down because it's an invasive predator that feeds on Elder Dragons (the toughest monsters in the game). I will admit, the idea of an invasive predator as the main villain is clever, and fits the whole "man vs nature" motif the franchise has. That said, Nergigante is pretty much shafted in favor of Zorah Magdaros. And I have a slew of problems with Zorah Magdaros but I'll get to those later.

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The meat of Monster Hunter: World is in it's gameplay, which, while simplified and more user-friendly than ever before, still has the trademark "Hunt humongous monsters and use the loot to make weapons and armor so you can hunt even nastier monsters" concept that let this franchise take over Japan (and other countries) in the first place. Anyway, the core gameplay revolves around going to one of five various hunting grounds and completing Quests, which are selected from a Quest Board beforehand. The Quests will have you do various tasks that can be as simple as gathering 10 mushrooms, as complicated as stealing the egg of a ferocious wyvern (that is, a two-legged dragon, for those of you who don't know what a wyvern is), or as exciting as fighting a werewolf-dragon thing while on a time limit.

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Scout Flies in action!

Unlike past games, the "boring" Quests are completely optional. In fact, this game goes out of it's way to get you to the action as quickly as possible. Gone are the archaic series traditions such as wandering aimlessly in loading-screen filled maps until you stumble by chance upon a monster. Gone is the obscure, external information such as weaknesses and exploits that you could only find by either hacking the game or doing an excessive amount of Googling. Gone is the flexing animation that plays every time you healed. Heck, the game's opening gets right to the action. Five minutes after creating your character and you're climbing up and down and all around on Zorah Magdaros' back. And shortly after that you narrowly escape the T. Rex-like Anjananth . THEN they slow down to let you just process what you just went through.

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There's a Training Arena that lets you try out all the weapon types before jumping into real combat. The Crafting Recipes have been simplified. The ranged weapons FINALLY have an updated control scheme. That last one is important, because the ranged weapons were so awkward to use that nobody wanted to even touch them (you could only fire in the direction you were facing, you couldn't move while aiming, etc). Now, they control like just about any modern shooter released in the last decade does, complete with strafing, mobile reloads, and dodge-rolls. Sweet, sweet dodge-rolls.

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There are fourteen major weapon types in total, and each of them play so differently from one another that each one feels like you're playing a completely different game. What's especially impressive is no weapon feels objectively better than others. Sure, some weapons handle certain monsters better than others (Rathian gets annihilated by Hammers, Diablos can't make a dent in Lances, etc.) but every monster is designed so you can take down a monster no matter what weapon type you pick. So just practice with whichever one appeals to you the most and have fun. On the subject of balance, the fact that all the weapons feel good to use now is astonishing, because the previous games had the aforementioned awkward control scheme.

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All this being said, there is one crucial feature, or lack thereof that I consider to be Monster Hunter: World's fatal flaw. Once you begin a Quest, there is no way to pause the game (at the time of writing), a side effect of the emphasis on multiplayer... That's locked off behind Playstation Plus, and I personally believe that  locking multiplayer behind a subscription service to be needlessly greedy, and the fact that the single-player experience is dragged down because of the emphasis on multiplayer leaves a sour taste in my mouth. I kid you not, I have lost so many hours of progress because of a nonexistent pause option, and the explanation for it (Capcom did this deliberately to balance out online co-op), holds next to no weight with me, a gamer who almost exclusively plays single-player focused games as a result of not having any friends who actually, genuinely like video games to play with. It also doesn't help that the video games I like are more niche and obscure, at least when compared to more mainstream franchises.

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On a more positive note, the presentation is just plain gorgeous. The hub town is filled with intricate details, like merchants cleaning up their stock, NPC hunters hauling supplies from one side of the colony to the other, the incredibly charming Felynes and their various shenanigans, I could go on, but we'd be here all day.

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Also, the environments finally are distinct and memorable. In the older games, the locales were pretty cliche. You start off in a forest, go to a desert, go to a snowy place, go to a fiery place, etc. Monster Hunter: World does have a traditional, albeit beautiful forest, but the desert region, in this game known as the Wildspire Wastes, gets creative by putting a semi-large swamp in a corner, and from that swamp is a river that flows down into a mire that takes over the entire bottom third of the map. The third region, titled the Coral Highlands, completely breaks tradition by not having anything to do with ice or cold (save for one ice-breathing wyvern known as Legiana), but it is instead a giant coral reef. As such, that region is by far the most unique location in the game, and my personal favorite. The fourth region (aka the Rotten Vale), again, breaks tradition by not being a fiery area, but is instead a nightmarish graveyard filled with the carcasses of deceased monsters. Seriously, the Rotten Vale looks like it came straight out of a horror game. And finally, the fifth region, the Elder's Recess, is both the fire AND the ice areas combined, with a top floor covered in sky-scraper-sized icicles and the bottom floor having several pools of molten magma. Then there's the areas reserved for Zorah Magdaros, the spoilerific Final Boss and Kulve Taroth (the latter being a DLC monster), which, while being smaller and less detailed than the main hunting grounds, still are packed with detail. Speaking of detail, the environments often have traps and things you can use to turn the tide in your favor. Giant stalactite up above? Shoot it to drop it on a monster's head. Blocked off river? Place a bomb, blow it up, and watch as the monster gets swept away in the ensuing flood. Tree full of tangled vines? Trick the monster in the hitting the tree and it gets stuck in the vines (but only for a few seconds). But my favorite environmental trap? Go to the Wildspire Waste. Follow the monster you're hunting to the area with sand dunes. Shoot a wing-drake (the Pteranodon like monsters). Take a few steps back and before you know it, there's a massive hole in the desert (courtesy of fan-favorite monster Diablos), which the monster should (hopefully) fall into. And then get the snot beaten out of them by a Diablos. Unless that monster IS Diablos.

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Speaking of monsters, the creature designs are really good. The only designs I dislike are Jyuratodus, because it's a boring fish in addition to being a Plesioth rip-off (that is a bad thing, since Plesioth is my least favorite monster), and Lavasioth, which is literally a palette swap of Jyuratodus but is inexplicably treated as another monster entirely (and is also a Plesioth rip-off). But you have monsters that look oddly adorable, like the Kulu Ya-ku, Dodogama or Pukei-Pukei, monsters that look intimidating, like the Odogaron or Vaal Hazaak, monsters that look graceful and elegant like Legiana and the Final Boss, and monsters that simply look, for lack of a more sophisticated term, "cool", like Tobi-Kadachi and Bazalgeuse. Even the returning monsters look fantastic. The Rath-family looks fantastic in glorious HD (doubly so if you have a 4k TV). Also, it has to be said, but the Rath-family's fire breath attacks are easily the best thing about the visuals. Not only does it look nice, but the flames are intense enough that you can almost feel the heat coming off them. Which, combined with the fact that the screen literally blurs around the impact of each and every fireball, the Rath-family is the one(actually four) monster(s) that really feel like you're fighting a force of nature. Something that Zorah Magdaros fails at, funnily enough.

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 Seriously, they spent the entire first half of the campaign hyping it up but when you actually fight it, all you have to do is break one of three glowy rock things(tm), and then just spam cannonfire. The boring battle, combined with the fact that you can only have a rematch against Zorah Magdaros once every few days, make it a pain to farm for materials. The final boss has a similar problem, but at least that hunt is enjoyable and the boss drops a surplus of materials upon death.

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On a brighter note, the animations for the monsters are great, and they went the extra mile to give each monster (except for Elder Dragon-tier monsters) a daily routine that, so long as you don't attack them, they'll follow through to it. For example, you can see rival monsters competing for prey, or a scavenger stealing eggs from nests, or another monster drinking from a river. I appreciate little details like this. It makes the hunting grounds feel less like a glorified arena, which they mostly were in past games, and more like a living, breathing ecosystem. The armor designs vary from impressive (such as the Odogaron armor) to ridiculous (Rathian armor on female characters is literally a metallic ball gown. I'm being dead serious here) to downright gaudy (Uragaan armor, Diablos armor, High Metal armor, etc). The Weapon designs, sadly, are the worst things about the presentation. I say this because most of the weapons are just two different base models for each type with the monster's feathers/fur/scales tacked on the base model. There ARE some elaborate weapon designs, such as the Deviljho weapons, the Elder Dragon weapons (with the exception of the final boss, which also suffers from lackluster weapon designs), the Odogaron weapons (once fully upgraded) and some of the Rath-family weapons, along a few random weapons here and there (the Diablos Bow, the Vaal Hazaak Lance, etc). But if you're a die-hard Monster Hunter fan you would realize that most of the weapons with unique or interesting designs are weapons from the previous games.

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The sound department is also, for the most part, good. Monster Hunter: World is the first fully-voiced game in the franchise (not counting Monster Hunter Stories, which had voice acting but the dialogue was random gibberish). The voice actors do a decent job for their roles, though there are some downright bizarre lines ("WHERE'S MY DRAGONATOR!?"- The Commander, 2018). I feel a little bit like the main cast is taking the story itself a tad too seriously, though. It isn't until post game that the story stops being so serious about everything, because Monster Hunter as a franchise is pretty lighthearted. As long as you don't delve into the hidden lore that talks about how the monsters were created as a byproduct of an ancient war between two highly advanced civilizations, and how the rarer weapons were used in ritualistic sacrifices, and how the end-game armor possesses the wearer with an insatiable appetite for violence and destruction (assuming they aren't driven mad by the echoing cries of the dead). Yeah, if you delve deep enough into Monster Hunter lore, it goes to some oddly disturbing places. I honestly wish more people would look at the descriptions, though. Yeah, it's just flavor-text, but the descriptions are fun to read. Even the ones that wouldn't be out-of-place in Dark Souls lore. It's just now occurred to me that despite frequently mentioning Dark Souls on this blog I have yet to sit down and play a Dark Souls game (all my knowledge comes from word-of-mouth and Dark Souls as a franchise is surprisingly popular)... That's a project to consider for the future.

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Who would win? My beloved Switch Axe or a 
pair of unicorns? The answer is obviously the unicorns. 

The music in Monster Hunter: World is nothing to sneeze at either. The entire OST is fantastic. The hub town theme is pleasant and cheerful, and while the background music gets drowned out by sound-effects (and, if your're in multiplayer, the banter between you and other players via Voice Chat), it's still good to listen to if you can track down each song. But because of the fact the music gets drowned out, the only really standout songs are the Elder Dragon themes, with returning monsters Teostra and Kushala Daora having remixes of their original themes, both of which capture the essence of the two perfectly (Teostra's theme is slower and more regal, with a steady beat, fitting for a kingly dragon, while Daora's theme is almost the complete opposite,). Vaal Hazaak's theme is easily my favorite. It's so beautiful to listen to. Ironically, Vaal Hazaak is a very grotesque monster. Seriously, how does a monster that wears the carcasses of it's prey as some kind of fleshy cloak get a beautiful theme that manages to be oddly heroic sounding?

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Japanese captions, yay!

Overall, Monster Hunter: World is a great game that not only satisfies the lofty expectations of longtime fans, but also is so user-friendly that most newcomers can jump right in with no problems whatsoever. Unfortunately, while the game itself is a masterpiece, the focus on multiplayer cripples the game because of Sony's policy on multiplayer modes in any video game being locked off behind Playstation Plus. Presumably, the PC port that is already in the works (or might even be out already, depending on how far in the future you're reading this in) won't have a subscription based model locking off multiplayer (maybe it might actually have a pause). But if it does... Eh, it gives me even more incentive to invest in single-player video games. Anyway, I give Monster Hunter: World a 8/10.

P.S. I should mention that Capcom has announced that they will be providing free updates to the game, adding new and fan-favorite monsters, new areas to explore, and patching things up a bit. So it's entirely possible that the PS4 version might one day have a pause option.