The post holiday season for games is always slow. This is usually the time of year when I catch up on old games in my backlog, replay classics I’d like to revisit and devote a lot of time to the persistent games I’m currently playing. But I’m not playing Destiny 2, or any other persistent game this year. As such my plate is pretty clear on big new games. And that’s good because Monster Hunter World demands an awful lot of the player and that’s both good and bad.
Today we’re going to take a look at Capcom’s surprisingly huge mainstream hit. We’ll look at what it does well like map design, character customization, combat and not so well like, story, map design, character customization and combat. And we’ll end up looking at RPG mechanics and grind to try and figure out how much is too much.
Before we go further I need to do a small preamble. I often attempt to boil a game down to one core thing it does well or poorly and then use that as a way to examine that thing. But Monster Hunter World is a complex web of interlocking systems. The game is sprawling and unwieldy and can’t be distilled like that. Ultimately, what you think of the game will be dependent on whether you think this scattershot collection of systems adds up to a compelling package. The game is a jack of many trades and master of none. I find, as I play games that I like, that I’m very good at picking out things that slightly annoy me. This is especially true for games that I like quite a bit.
What follows is probably going to focus more on what I didn’t like than what I did but with all that said, ultimately I enjoyed the game. It was worth it’s money and I’d recommend it to most.
I just think it’s important to realize what you’re getting into. Monster Hunter is a unique game. So while there will be quite a bit of criticism to follow I thought it important to state up front that I enjoyed the game quite a bit during my 40-60 hours with it. I just don’t think it deserved the near universal, slavish devotion it got in the gaming media. For the Xbox the game currently sits at a 92 on Metacritic. That’s an extremely high score. It’s higher than The Witcher 3 scored. It’s a score generally reserved for masterpiece games with few if any flaws. And Monster Hunter World has flaws. In fact I played it on Xbox and there were such serious issues I’m at a total loss for how it could be rated that highly.
Lets briefly get the history out of the way. Monster Hunter has been around for a good long while and while it’s sold very very well in moving over 40 million units in it’s life (behind only Street Fighter and Resident Evil amongst Capcom games) it never really broke out into the mainstream here in the West. The first Monster Hunter released all the way back in 2004 for the PS2 and immediately gathered a cult following of players who loved it. That first game would set a tone with it’s reception. With critic reviews being mixed but on the low side and player reviews being excellent. How much tolerance the reviewer has for the grind. But for now lets just say that Monster Hunter has sold well internationally and developed a devoted fan-base while also staying just out of the mainstream.
After the first two games released on Playstation 2 Monster Hunter didn’t release another game on a powerful home console in the west. There was an MMOPRG in Japan, a third game released only on the under powered but nearly ubiquitous Wii and a series of handheld releases. By the time Monster Hunter World released it had been so long since Monster Hunter had appeared on a current gen console, that it had began to be know AS a handheld title.
But with a massive marketing push and a significantly larger budget than previous titles Capcom made a bet that Monster Hunter World could break out. And sales figures seem to have proven them correct.
Alright lets get to analyzing exactly what this strange brew is.
To start out let me just say that when I first started Monster Hunter world I was deeply disappointed with how it looked. SO much so that it became kind of unplayable. Yes, I’m picky. Welp, turns out it was a common problem for people with 4k HDR TVs. If you’re still experiencing this (you’ll know if the commercials look nothing like the game you’re playing) go into the video settings in the game and turn the brightness WAYYYYY down. That’ll fix it.
After fixing the terrible default settings I could finally get out and explore the world. The Monster Hunter World. Monster Hunter World’s World. I had played Monster Hunter Tri before, and knew that previous versions of the game had consisted of zones where you would go to find and fight a monster. One of the things I was most interested in here was an open world. And, to be honest, it isn’t one. It’s still a zoned world. Each map is a separate zone without any way to connect to the other maps. Now, these maps are bigger and do include several sub-zones. They have connecting tunnels that cleverly hide short loading sequences and the map never feels too small for the job. I was just hoping it would be one large open world. If you are expecting that, it isn’t the case here.
When we’re talking about a game like this it’s easy to find yourself grading on a curve. Is it a bigger and better map than previous versions of the game? Absolutely. Is the map big enough for the gameplay? Yes. Still, large connected biomes would have been a nice touch and I hope they can get there eventually. The map has it’s share of invisible walls but in general it’s well done, quite dense and the graphics and textures are adequate.
I’ve slammed games before for having tremendous maps with a bland art style and nothing to do in them so I’m certainly not going to slam MHW for doing more with less. I just wish traveling between zones could have been seamless. It’s not a demerit against the game. It’s an observation on something that still has room for improvement.
What is here is, for the most part, beautiful. The world feels like an actual ecosystem dense with things to interact with. Plants, mushrooms, bone piles, monsters, the zones are chock full of things to see and the art direction is spot on. The environments feel lush and real in a way that is absolutely crucial in a game like this. It’s an achievement of the highest order. The maps can be explored and are the perfect combination of complex and easy to navigate. It’s rare that you’ll get frustrated or lost but the maps are large enough to not get tedious and boring quickly. I found navigating them at night to be a bit annoying because they look much less interesting in the dark but I assume that was a game mechanic, as well an art direction decision.
Before we get into the actual game analysis there’s one more thing that needs to be addressed.
At launch, for nearly a month, Xbox matchmaking was completely and totally broken. This is absolutely inexcusable. Video games are expensive products and it continually amazes me when people defend broken products. No other sector of the economy gets leeway like this. Nobody buys a television, takes it home to find that you can’t change the channel and happily defends that company while they patiently wait a month for a software patch to allow channel switching. This has become a constant problem and I’m getting sick of it. Back in the day games weren’t released until they worked. Now companies seemingly have zero problem selling you a broken piece of shit knowing a bunch of people will defend them as they fix problems they knowingly shipped.
In MHW’s case they decided to not even run a beta on Xbox (which was obviously a cost saving decision). Not only did the game launch broken it took 3 patch fixes to finally get it right. It was infuriating. And seeing as how this game was almost impossible to play as intended on the Xbox right up until about a week ago I find it very hard to understand how the game scored a 92 on the platform. Alright.
Even after being fixed Monster Hunter World has the worst, most ridiculous, most absurd multiplayer system I’ve ever experienced in a game. Outside of a Souls game at least. You can’t just group up with your friends, or in my case your kids and play a story mission. The host player has to start the mission and go all the way through until they find the monster and see the 3 second “cutscene” while the other people sit and wait. Only after the slight camera zoom that the game considers a cutscene can your friends join. This can take anywhere from 5-10 minutes while the people waiting sit in a menu and stare at a screen telling them all players have to see the cut scene. Why?
I have a hard time understanding why anyone would design something like this. What is the benefit of not just letting friends group up and play the campaign together from the start of each mission? In order to play the campaign missions together,everyone has to have either played the mission already or each of you has to start separately until you see the cutscene and then join the other player.
It’s baffling to me that in a game that is not only more fun co-op but clearly designed with co-op play as the default experience, that you wouldn’t try and make that system as seamless and easy as possible. The system is about as unintuitive as can be and I actually had to do several google searches to figure out how to play with my kids, how to play in a squad and how the matchmaking works in general. It’s inexcusably shit and the system needs to be completely redesigned from the ground up with an eye to simplicity and ease of use for the next game.
Once you finally figure out the byzantine and opaque grouping system Monster Hunter World is a very fun game co-op. Much more fun than solo. Even matchmaking with randoms, the game is more dynamic and interesting with others because there are a bunch of gameplay and combat systems that are clearly tuned for more than one player.
Monster Hunter World is an action RPG. Dark Souls was clearly influenced by it’s combat but in this case the student has become the master. Fighting in MHW like in Dark Souls is centered around slow deliberate player attack animations, slow monster attack animations, and a dodge button. But the combat here can best be described as fun but “clunky” or “floaty”. This is hard to get across without actually playing the game but I’ll give it a shot.
First of all the game runs at a frame-rate that feels almost like stop motion animation. While I play most games on a PC if possible I’m not a PC Master Race guy who says things like “A game running under 100 fps is unplayable.” Dark Souls 3 and Bloodborne run at 30 fps on the base Ps4 and Xbox and they look and feel fine. But games running at 60 or more frames are clearly more pleasant to play. MHW on the base Xbox feels to me like it’s often running at lower than 30fps. While the player animations are smooth, the monster animations are extremely choppy, almost as if several animation frames are missing. It’s slightly disorienting and definitely detracts from the experience. It leads to seemingly instant Monster Attacks at times. When you’re actually fighting the monsters things are pretty fun. But this, to it’s credit, is a unique gameplay experience. To drill down on the combat we’ll have to go point by point.
Missions begin first with a clunky and odd matchmaking system. Wait we covered that right? Alright missions begin with you being dropped into a map with a target you need to find. Monster Hunter world has added a new mechanic called scout flies, which is a cunning little system that makes the first part of this process much smoother than previous games. You wander the map, searching for tracks or markings that your target has left. As you find more and more tracks your scout flies will begin to create a trail to the next track, until you’ve found enough that the flies create a glowing path to your target. It’s simple enough that anyone can find the target without losing the “hunt” experience that the game is known for and a perfect balance of accessibility and complexity. Over time, finding enough markings and tracks for a specific monster unlocks information about that monster in your journal. Things like the monsters strengths, weaknesses and which monster parts drop from which area of the monster. Useful information that affects gameplay.
Once the monster is found the hunt ends and the combat begins. I haven’t really played with a ranged weapon so I can only speak to the melee combat. There are a good variety of weapons that all change the way the game is played. Slow heavy weapons like the hammer do big damage and can stun monsters but leave the player open to monster attacks, the fast weapons play more like a traditional hack and slash game and the weapon I’ve used, the insect glaive, combines a few combos, with the ability to vault into the air and the need to shoot various parts of the monsters to gain buffs to maximize speed, defense and damage. It’s an involved combat system that’s simple enough for anyone, with enough depth to have a real skill curve and allow for mastery.
Monster Hunter World adds a lock on feature which probably should have been left out. It’s clunky, distracting and strangely mapped. You lock on with right stick, but you unlock with the left bumper. When the game recognized the input. The lock on seems to turn itself on and off at times. And monsters will zoom all over the place swinging your camera wildly. More importantly something just feels off with the system. Like it was under cooked.
Even locked on, attacks don’t get aimed at the monster. All aiming of swings is done manually through positioning which takes getting used to and can be a bit frustrating at times. IF you haven’t played this game you’re probably used to some degree of melee auto aim. That’s not here. If you’re locked onto a monster and swing your weapon it won’t go to the monster but rather in the direction you’re facing. This is probably more a matter of preference and it’s fine once you get used to it but the combat has less flow than if the lock on acted like other games.
While I think the combat is oddly clunky and doesn’t have the flow that other games have there is no denying that it’s a deep and complex web of inter-playing systems. Maybe too many systems.
There’s cooking, eating, drinking, sharpening, powders, mantles, sling shots and a billion different buff and de-buff items to find, learn and use.
The game features a stamina system that’s used for dodging and running but not for most attacks. Attacks are done through combos and can be continued until you are hit or you decide to stop attacking. Total stamina depletes over time and needs to be refilled by eating or drinking. Healing and stamina regeneration include very long animations, longer than any other game I’ve played I think which adds a nice layer of strategy when playing co-op. Which brings us to...
This is where we talk about the fact that this really is a co-op game. There are several systems inherent in the combat that make it much less fun to play alone. The game has a sharpening mechanic. Weapons lose their edge after very few strikes which leads not only to less damage but to frustrating non hits that cause player knockbacks. The animation for sharpening the sword takes 3-5 full seconds and can’t be interrupted by the player leaving you wide open for monster attacks.
When playing with a group, this is a fun little wrinkle. You’ve got to attack until your weapon loses it’s edge (which, again, happens very quickly), then wait until the monster is aggroed on someone else, at which point you can slink away to a safe distance to sharpen your weapon, heal, buff and get back in the action. But playing alone these are just tedious mechanics that often result in cheap hits and boring downtime while you run around to find a spare 5 seconds to do nothing but watch the same animation for the 300th time.
And then there are the stuns. Oh the stuns. I have a long standing hatred of stuns in games. I don’t like any mechanic that takes control away from the player because in those moments, I’m not playing the game anymore. For all intent and purpose, I’m watching a mini cutscene. Monster Hunter World features the longest, most annoying, most obnoxious stuns I’ve ever played. And they are constant. Four or five times per fight the monster will go into a very, very cool roaring animation. Looks awesome. Less awesome is that during this time you lose control of your character and watch for a few seconds as your avatar covers his ears.
The second type of stun can be mitigated if you git gud but the combination of the low frame rate, choppy animations, useless lock on and the monsters running and flying all over the arena make it likely that if you aren’t a long time player, you’ll be getting hit. As you take damage an invisible stun meter fills. Once it’s full the next attack will put you into the longest stun I’ve ever seen. A full 5 seconds of watching your avatar sway, hold his head, and slap his face before the game decides you’re allowed to play again. In co-op this is highly annoying. In solo play it’s infuriating. This could easily be lowered by half and it would still serve it’s purpose without feeling so long.
Over the course of the game, between being stunned and the roars you will spend a significant percentage of time watching these mini cut scenes. If you’re like me you’ll drop your controller into your lap and grit your teeth with frustration. If you’re a normal person you’ll just be a bit annoyed.
The dodging mechanic works as advertised but the monster animations, I don’t know if this would improve with a competent frame-rate, aren’t quite exaggerated enough to allow for satisfying engagements. With the lock on system being nearly useless and the monsters charging all over the place without the exaggerated animations you might expect, much of the combat is running back and forth chasing the monster and waiting for it to go into oddly static idle animations. They go from furiously flying everywhere to patiently sitting still letting you beat on them. It’s dynamic but not quite dynamic enough.
Monster’s take damage on different parts of their bodies until those parts break (a very interesting and crucial system we’ll go into in our RPG mechanics section). Once one of the parts break the monster usually will flee. At this point you chase the monster for a couple of minutes until you arrive in another arena. This happens several times with monsters trying to sleep to regain health, or very, very rarely feed on other monsters. This isn’t a game you drop into for a few minutes. Each mission is a long time investment of running and item management.
It’s deep and complex and if the actual mechanics on offer felt smoother it would be a truly special combat system. But there’s something just off about it. Unlike Dark Souls it gets significantly less fun over time after you realize that each mission will play out fundamentally the same.
Monster Hunter World has no fodder enemies. There aren’t levels to navigate per se. Each mission is a long boss fight and this greatly reduces the variety on offer in each mission. In fact the only variety is the particular attacks of each boss. And, again, this might be simply a matter of taste but the combat doesn’t feel refined enough to hang so much play time on. The game is essentially a boss rush mode without the rush and eventually I found the arena missions to be the most fun because after a few times tracking, finding and chasing a monster all across the sprawling maps it started to lose my interest. And you’ll need to keep your interest to finish the game because while it’s centered around combat this game is a deep and complex RPG at it’s heart. And like all RPG’s how much you like it will depend upon your tolerance for that most controversial of RPG systems.
There’s a fine line between too much grind and not enough grind in video games. For years grinding has been a dirty word in video games. And people who like the grind have had to defend their tastes as others have told them that the type of game they like is actualy bad.
I’m the kind of person who likes grinding in games when it’s done well. I played WoW for years and put 1500+ hours into Destiny 1. I’ve savaged Destiny 2 for completely eliminating the incentive to grind for gear by removing random gun perks and...well any interesting armor at all. But there’s the other side. Back when I did play WoW it was in the heyday of the Daily Quest grinding period. In order to unlock access to certain vendors the player had to grind the same quests over and over, day after day, week after week. For months on end. It got to be utterly exhausting and eventually took on the feel of working a job.
On one side of the spectrum you’ve got Dark Souls that has grinding as a completely optional activity you can do to make the game easier by over leveling and on the other you’ve got months of WoW’s daily quests. Monster Hunter World is a game that requires grinding to finish and enjoy. It’s not optional. Even Destiny, a game notorious for it’s end game grind, still let players finish the campaign and experience most of the content without grinding much at all. But to see all the monsters and finish the campaign you must grind to progress in MHW.
Monster Hunter World has grinding baked into the core gameplay loop. Unlike traditional RPG’s Monster Hunters entire progression system is built on making armor and weapons. Different sets have different resistance strength and weaknesses and defense ratings. Different weapons have elemental damage types and attack ratings. The system is pretty complex and requires a good amount of time in menus and, in general does a pretty poor job explaining itself to the player. You’ll have to figure it out.
At some point you will arrive at a mission that requires you to kill a monster that can one or two shot you. This becomes a wall that can only be bypassed through crafting better gear (or a level of mastery very few will stick around long enough to attain). And crafting gear is going to require that you get upgrade materials by “carving” monsters. Certain monster parts have low drop rates and only drop by breaking certain parts of a monster. So you’ll need to brake a monsters head by repeatedly beating on it to even have a chance to get the item you need. And if you’re playing co-op there’s no guarantee that the people playing with you will attack the part you need broken. Some monsters have parts that drop from hard to hit areas. And most likely even when you get everything right and break the parts you need to break, sometimes the rare item you need won’t drop. And even if it does you’ll have to do it several times to get all the materials you need to craft the pieces you want. So you’ll have to do three four or five hunts of the same monster to get all the materials you need to progress your character. I’d probably really like this if I thought the combat was perfect. I’ve often said I’d pay for a Dark Souls or Bloodborne Boss rush mode DLC.
But as I said before, to me, Monster Hunter’s combat is good but not great so it gets a bit tedious in my opinion. Armor perks in the early to mid game never really feel like they give much of a tangible benefit outside their higher stats and different elemental damages or resistances. I’m told that the end game features game changing perks and skills but I haven’t seen them and I’m dozens and dozens of hours into the game.
The game is also highly reliant on crafting so you’ll need to run around maps picking up different crafting ingredients. Mostly this is fine. The animations are short and can be done while running. The bone pile animation is a little too long but in general most of the gathering can be done quickly while in the middle of hunts.
So the game feature deep and highly complex RPG crafting and long grinding but without the traditional benefit one gets in a more traditional RPG. Grinding in Dark Souls will get you the stats to use a powerful new spell. In Destiny 1 you’ll finally get a highly sought after game changing weapon. In other RPG’s you’ll unlock powerful new abilities that fundamentally change the combat and either add depth or fun.
But in Monster Hunter you’re grinding for a combination of fashion and invisible stat walls. And, again, the games boss rush style means the grinding can only really be done in long drawn out sessions. It’s one thing to run a strike over and over in Destiny 1 killing a variety of enemies and a boss trying to get a drop. It’s another to fight the very same boss and only that boss over and over until you get lucky enough to have a particular piece drop from it’s nose.
You’ll be doing a lot of grinding here. That’s what I’m getting at. This is not a narrative game.
So much was made in promotional materials of the fact that this game would have a compelling story. It doesn’t. I personally don’t think story really matters in most games. If it’s got it, great, but games are carried by gameplay. Rare is the game that can keep me interested in it’s story alone. If you’re considering buying this based upon it’s story I can give you the entire story right here.
There is a monster that’s annoying people. Go kill that monster. Now there’s another monster annoying people. Kill that monster too. Now we can finally get to the biggest monster in the area. Kill that. There are cut-scenes that don’t serve much purpose beyond making me mash the button. But alas, the cut-scenes are not skip-able. That is always inexcusable in my opinion. If I think your story is too inane or pointless to bother with don’t force me to watch it.
In total Monster Hunter World isn’t a tightly focused, highly refined game. It doesn’t have a hook that you can easily explain to people beyond, “You kill big monsters to make big weapons.” That’s what you do but that doesn’t really capture the moment to moment of what’s going on.
A better description would be “you spend 40 minutes chasing and occasionally slowly hitting a monster while also stopping to sharpen your weapon and drink a potion and cook and eat meat and pick flowers every couple of minutes so that you can go into a menu screen and decipher a byzantine upgrade system.... So you can kill big monsters.
The game is complex and deep and it’s a game that could easily be a masterpiece. But it’s limitations hold it back. The stilted monster animations, the low frame-rate and the copious stuns make the combat good but not great. The armor and weapon crafting is cool but the perks and skills aren’t game changing enough to make that time investment have a tangible change on the way you play the game.
It’s got enough grind to keep you interested but the rewards rarely feel worth it.
I don’t do number grades usually but I’m going to here. It’s a 7. It’s well above average but also well short of outstanding. It’s worth your money and it’s something that will provide 40+ hours until you feel like you’ve seen it all and many, many dozens more if you find that this game really does it for you.
Most importantly it proved that there’s a market for a deep grindy action RPG like this which gives me hope that more games will have the incentive to make their games deeper. Ultimately I hope that the next Monster Hunter runs at a better frame rate, launches with operational multiplayer and features more game changing armor skills. It’s pretty close to excellent but falls just a bit short.
Pliny The Welder has been writing about games for several months. He thinks that qualifies him to render judgment on anything that crosses his path. He’s realizing there simply aren’t enough new games worth writing about so soon he’ll be doing some pieces about older games that were important for one reason or another.
He’s currently working on a piece about movement systems in FPS games and how important speed is to the modern player. He’s writing a piece about the everything old is new again moment we are having about violence in video games. And he plans on playing Far Cry 5 and being completely objective despite his skepticism.