Monster Hunter World and IceBorne Review
Monster Hunter World is a miracle. For years, despite massive success in Japan, the action franchise has struggled to find footing here in the west, beyond niche communities of hardcore players. Nevertheless, I became a huge fan of the series when I purchased Monster Hunter Four Ultimate for my 3ds, quickly becoming my most played game of all time. Yet despite my intense love for the games, I couldn’t help but wonder what a truly modern Monster Hunter might look like. MH4U is absolutely incredible, boasting a near-endless amount of excellently crafted content, but it could only be enjoyed by those willing to persevere outdated visuals, clunky controls, and countless other inherent limitations of portable hardware. My wildest dreams finally came true with the announcement of Monster Hunter World, a practical reboot of the franchise developed exclusively for modern consoles. Released for Xbox one, Ps4, and steam in 2018, MHW is everything I hoped the franchise could be.
The first thing I noticed upon beginning the game is just how wonderful it looks. If I wasn’t aware beforehand, I genuinely wouldn’t have recognized it as a Monster Hunter game. Gone are the cartoony, jagged models and blurry textures, replaced with realistic, high definition visuals. The new aesthetic might seem too muted and realistic for some fans, but I fully approved of the transformation, primarily due to the fact that none of the heart or goofiness was lost in the process. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it’s gotten stranger, for example, utilizing the increased visual nuance to make the palicos more adorable and hilarious than ever. Walking around the hub area, I can’t help but delight in how joyous the whole experience feels. Triumphant tunes softly play in the background while characters tell stupid jokes and glance at the stunning horizon. This level of unrestrained happiness extends to the narrative. Historically, the Monster Hunter games have never had much of a story, instead preferring the thrill of the hunt speak for itself. Yet, while the story in MHW is by no means riveting, it provides satisfying justification for the locations and fights that are revealed throughout the course of the game, and even adds a nice backdrop of environmentalism that suggests greater relevance to the roles that nature and wildlife play in our lives. As always, the playable character is a silent vessel, leaving the brunt of the character work to be handled by the handler, an endlessly peppy young woman in charge of delegating quests. I wouldn’t call her a particularly deep character by any means, but her constant and earnest optimism sets a nice tone to the event.
In a way, MHW is the death of the franchise. After playing roughly ninety hours of the game, finishing the main campaign was well some extra challenges, I just can’t see myself returning to earlier titles in the series. MHW has completely ruined them, for reasons unrelated to graphics. Gameplay has seen a wealth of quality-of-life improvements that allow the player to focus solely on the hunt. These changes include a never-depleting whetstone that automatically resides in the player’s pouch without taking up storage, a radial menu that allows for faster item use, systems that automatically craft simple items mid-mission when the resources have been gathered, and greatest of all, the complete removal of paintballs. Instead of having to track down the monster and attempt to hit it with limited items in order to see it on the map, MHW uses a new scoutfly system that guides players to the monster once enough clues have been gathered. These clues (Footprints, claw marks, singed hair, etc.) are absolutely littered through the environment, ensuring less time is wasted fruitlessly searching for your prey, without rendering the entire process as automatic. And you best believe that Capcom milks every drop from this mechanic, turning it into yet another number to be increased over long-term play sessions, as every time a monster is hunted, and every clue that is gathered, the player gains both research points as well as increases its research level. Points are used to pay for nearly everything, acting sometimes as an alternative to zenny (basic currency), and sometimes on its own. Collecting clues is an easy and quick way to make simple progress that doesn’t require too much effort as to distract from the core gameplay. Every monster has a research level that is increased lighting-quick, each rank adding more information to the hunter’s journal (such as elemental weaknesses, breakable points, and possible rewards), as well as making the monster easier to find the next time it’s hunted. This turns every monster into its own set of bars to fill and complete, adding more methods for the player to feel like they’re making progress in the short-term. The final significant systemic improvement worth mentioning is the innocuous ability to eat meals in the field, which only works due to the complete and bonkers overhaul given to environments.
The single greatest change made by MHW is perhaps the most obvious for a AAA glow-up: Areas are no longer separated into dozens of tiny rooms stitched together by pace-destroying loading screens. No longer do technical limitations of the humble 3Ds require this approach. Areas are absolutely huge, dense and maze-like, with multiple layers of verticality and countless intractable critters. There are fewer areas this time around, with only five locations(Not including the two single-room arena maps.), but this is completely acceptable, because each area is not just an empty tool for hunting, but a living, breathing ecosystem, filled with other monsters going about their business, fighting, eating, and nesting, while a weather and time-of-day system seals the deal. What makes this particularly game-changing is the fact that players are no longer required to return to the hub after finishing missions, with the option to remain in the field to complete more quests/gather materials in expedition mode. More major additions come in the form of environmental elements that can help or hurt a hunt. These include toads that emit a paralyzing cloud when kicked, plants that ooze poison pools, and vigor wasps: insects that release healing bursts when struck with a weapon. These elements give more meaning to individual rooms and sections of the map, as they can offer significant advantages in the right fight. This level of interaction is only made greater with the addition of the slinger, an arm-mounted slingshot that can whip projectiles found in the environment, such as fruit, rocks, or more exotic and powerful ammo dropped from enemies. Older objects like the flash pods are wrapped into the slinger to streamline all projectiles, with its most important uses being to topple airborne monsters, and break specific parts. The slinger, along with mantles, which are equipable cloaks that offer unique properties, aren’t necessarily revolutionary, but they add yet another layer to the gameplay. After all, the only thing that really matters in a Monster Hunter game is monster hunting…
The core gameplay of MHW is remarkably similar to past titles. The same fourteen ridiculous weapon types make their return, each satisfying and capable enough to practically support the entire game on their own. In fact, with all the time I’ve spent playing, I have only used three weapon types on a regular basis: The greatsword, longsword, and charge blade have enjoyed many hours in the hands of my characters, mostly because they’re what I have historically found enjoyable. But I’m comforted by the notion that as soon as I get bored, there are eleven other weapons to dig into. Fighting monsters is essentially the same as it’s always been: Exciting, fast-paced brawls with ridiculous beasts that never feel as long as the clock suggests. MHW finds a nice balance between speed and caution, with the game never rewarding pure button-mashing without devolving into Dark Souls-style turtle matches. Mounting makes a triumphant return, with the slinger providing a safety-net for particular ornery monsters. It’s clear that the campaign was specifically designed to be easier than previous games, with monsters doing less damage and using more generous combos. It’s by no means easy enough to be mindless, but veterans of the franchise might find themselves bored of the low challenge. The difficulty does catch up near the end of the story, but I would have preferred a more steady incline of challenge.
Once I cleared the campaign and saw the credits, I was intrigued to see what post-game content is available without purchasing the apparently massive Iceborne expansion. I was pleased to see a small gamut of various free dlc quests that extended the life of the game with new challenges, including some fun new cross-game content with other famous franchises. Upon beginning MHW, I thought that 31 monsters wouldn’t be enough to sustain a full Monster Hunter experience, especially seeing how Mh4u had 75 at launch. And although there’s certainly less overall content than previous games, I found the increased quality to be a worthy tradeoff. I finished the campaign in roughly forty hours, and am currently sitting at about sixty, with plenty of challenges left to be toppled. I do, however, wish that the postgame was better balanced in the difficulty department. I failed less than five quests in my entire experience with the story (Which I partially chalk up to the hundreds of hours that I’ve spent with the series beforehand), But almost immediately after, I couldn’t seem to clear a single quest without countless failed attempts. It’s as if there’s a missing middle chapter that would have better bridged the incline between difficulties, and what’s worse, the game does a poor job of signaling how hard each quest is before beginning. I might play two quests of the same star level, requiring the same hunter rank to embark, and yet the disparity between the two is ridiculous.
Despite playing the campaign entirely on my own, it became apparent that the endgame content is meant to be tackled with others. I wish the difficulty signaling was better handled, but there’s nothing wrong with multiplayer-focused content. The online options for joining stranger’s quests is surprisingly intuitive and fast, especially considering how it was previously handled. I found that a lot of enjoyment was to be had in grinding the more arduous quests in the company of friends, largely thanks to how much mutually beneficious play is encouraged through the game design. There is zero incentive to screw over other players, mostly because it’s not possible. All rewards are shared perfectly with all players, regardless of who did what in combat. If one player manages to lop off a Rathian’s tail, everyone gets a chance to carve it. And there are only two scaling options: single or multiplayer, meaning groups are encouraged to fight with the maximum four players to maximize efficiency. In fact, my only gripe with the online is how quest failures are handled. Players share the traditional three faints between them, meaning a poor player can fail the quest for everybody. It could be said that this promotes teamwork, but there’s not much the group can do if one player seems determined to kill themself. Despite this wrinkle, multiplayer is a wonderful experience that has few compromises.
Moving away from past entries, crafting gear is more complex than ever in MHW. For years, it was simple: You obtain materials from a monster and use it to make weapons and armor. Armor crafting is largely unchanged, albeit with some smart changes that streamline the process. Full sets are available at a glance with an attractive grid array, and the ability to try on and compare sets makes decisions much easier. There’s even a wishlist option that allows you to set goals for certain gear, automatically updated when the necessary elements are gathered. But all these excellent additions come with an unfortunate drawback: weapons are no longer just crafted, but must be upgraded via a tree stretching from the low-rank Great Jagras all the way to the Kushala Daora at the end. This makes weapon crafting significantly more time-consuming, as you might have all the materials for a new gunlance, but first have to gather and craft multiple weapons lower on the tree before it can be created. This also makes it more difficult to create full sets of weapons, as the previous arm disappears once it’s been upgraded. There are definite positives to the new system, such as the fact that players are now encouraged to hunt and carve all monsters, even the ones whose individual weapons aren’t interesting, and it solves the constant clutter that occurred from having 150 old weapons sitting in a chest in the old games. But the new system fails to justify the downside of constant grinding. However, at least other resources are now easier to obtain. Early game additions like the horticulturist, argosy, and later on, the tail raider safari, serve to almost automate resource gathering, yet they still require enough player intervention to not disappear. It’s strange, although not in any way bad, for the progression for basic resource gathering to evolve past boring gathering missions to more meta-focused development.
Monster Hunter World is possibly one of the best action games ever made, trading obscure and possibly frustrating mechanics for a streamlined experience that highlights what has always made the series wonderful: the epic fight against bad-ass dragons in beautiful environments. A few hitches along the way like poor difficulty balance and inane weapon upgrading fail to stop this juggernaut from being my game of the year for 2018.
UPDATE: I have purchased the 2019 major expansion for Monster Hunter World, titled Iceborne. The expansion is positively massive, offering a new hub town, a new biome, and 27 new large monsters, paced across a campaign that rivals the original in length and scope. It’s largely just more Monster Hunter, but this time around far more challenging, as the health and ferocity of monsters are greatly increased, along with the rarity of many materials required to craft gear. The addition of the clutch claw allows for extremely satisfying and useful maneuvers that allow the player to deal high damage and weaken body parts. The majority of the new monsters are variants — unique subspecies of pre-existing monsters, such as the nightshade poulumnu and the coral pukei-pukei. These are no mere palette-swaps, as each variant has a variety of new attacks and elemental attributes that make them unique foes to fight. But it’s still slightly disappointing to see so many old monsters in place of completely new challenges. It should be noted that at the time of writing this, I’m only roughly halfway through the Iceborne campaign, and there very well may be new monsters that I am unaware of.
The new area, Hoarfrost Reach, immediately became my favorite in the game. It is absolutely stunning to look at, replete with groves of noble pines, deep icy mountain caves, and an eternally snow-streaked horizon that’s enough to bring a tear to the eye. It’s also huge, rivaling the ancient forest in size. But unlike the damn forest, Hoarfrost Reach is much more open and less confusing to navigate. It also comes with plenty of new environmental hazards and interactable objects that traversal much more interesting. For starters, the area is so cold that without a hot drink, the player slowly loses maximum stamina while fighting. If you don’t have a hot drink on hand, there are hot springs scattered across the map that aside from looking beautiful, offer protection from the cold and increased healing. There are also deep snow drifts that reduce movement, patches of thorns that damage a monster when hit, and multiple locations capable of activating avalanches when tousled on. I thought it would be difficult to top the coral highlands, but Capcom has done it with a fantastic new area that offers every feature I could ask for.
Other than a few improvements in Monster Hunter’s meta-game, Iceborne is mostly just more of the same. And that is a wonderful thing. Monster Hunter World’s biggest issue was the lack of content, and an infusion of challenging new monsters to fight across a massive snowy mountain was exactly what it needed to get going. Iceborne currently retails for 40 dollars, but I would go so far as to say it’s worth the cost of a full-price game.