Nintendo is publishing the latest Monster Hunter game in Australia, and hopes that 3 Ultimate will draw discerning hard-core gamers to the WiiU and 3DS. Nintendo may yet succeed, as it's a fantastic game. Played by millions in Japan, Monster Hunter is all about tearing through a richly realised primeval wilderness, slaying velociraptors, giant puffer fish, and sand-burrowing whales, and harvesting their body parts to craft the weapons and armour you need to face progressively more dangerous monstrosities.
Aggressive and unpredictable, each new monster proves a maddening challenge while you're learning its moves, but in time you learn to take advantage of their openings, and get a giddy thrill from demolishing wyverns many times your size. In addition to the games trademark jumbo-sized swords and warhammers there are a multitude of traps and bombs you can deploy to wear monsters down, and the game mechanics are marbled with secrets – you'll still be learning new tricks and tactics after playing for hundreds of hours.
While many of the new boss monsters are sub-species of those found in Monster Hunter Tri, they are not mere colour swaps. Creatures such as the Azure Rathalos and the Goldbeard Ceadeus are armed with new attack patterns and abilities designed to confound rookies and veterans alike.
Unfortunately, the games depth is also a systemic, intractable flaw – for as quests become more challenging, more things can go wrong. If one member of the hunting party has been neglecting to upgrade his weapons when new mats become available, his DPS will suffer, which will in turn increase the chances that the fight will drag on long enough for someone to run out of potions, or whetstones, or rations. On any volcano mission there's a good chance someone will forget to bring the cool drinks that prevent heat exhaustion-induced health loss, and you'd be surprised at the number of hunters who volunteer for sleep bombing missions who possess neither sleep-status weapons nor bombs. By the endgame, each quest is as complex and disaster-prone as a space shuttle launch, only with a higher chance of vapourising 50 minutes of your time.
The good news is that the online quests seem to be balanced for two hunters, so if you're playing with a full team of four it doesn't matter too much if someone hasn't figured out how armour skills work yet. Even failed quests are fun when conducted amongst friends, hence it is advisable to twist the arms of as many of your 3DS and WiiU-owning chums as possible.
You can play in the same room with up to four 3DSs or one WiiU and three 3DSs, or online via WiiU with up to three other WiiUers. There's also a tunnelling app for the WiiU that allows it to serve as a wi-fi hub for playing the 3DS version online, but if you own the hardware required you may as well just get the WiiU version.
Connect on a weeknight and you'll find a good thousand or so other players questing away, and while there are the inevitable loafers, noobs, and parasites, there are quite a few skilled hunters too. There's the occasional drop-out due to network instability, but lag issues are rare; once you find a decent hunting party, you're golden. Rooms can now be given custom names, so you can decide in advance whether or not you want to hunt with Frenchmen or Germans. Rooms can be password-protected, and the host now has the power to expel undesirables. There's no host migration, though – when the host leaves, you're booted back to offline mode.
As it turns out, being booted offline is a blessing in disguise as it allows you to check up on your Hunters For Hire. This handy new feature is a bit like the Pawn rental system in Dragon's Dogma. If you accept someone's Guild Card then they'll occasionally show up as a mercenary in the offline version of the multi-player hub, Port Tanzia. For a very modest fee you can then hire them to go off on a slaying quest, and they'll usually bring back a haul of monster parts and other goodies. Together with your subcontractors in the Moga Village fishing fleet and farm, it builds the illusion of a cornucopia of crafting components constantly cascading into your clutches.
Which leads us to another potentially negative side-effect: all that depth and progression-fuelled positive feedback makes the game a tad addictive. It may not suck entire man-years out of your life like WoW and it's ilk, but there's still that Better Than Life risk factor; the compulsion to go on 'just one more' quest. So be warned.
Oh, and there's also the issue of 'charm tables.' The instant you create a new character, a random number seed is drawn from the system clock that sets in stone which end-game armour skill-boosting talismans it's possible for you to get as quest rewards. 12 of the 17 possible charm tables have ~200,000 possible charms, but the other five are 'cursed', with only a few hundred relatively crumby charms. Two of the five cursed tables prevent you from getting 'rusted' gear; sinister-looking armour and weapons that are the fossilised artefacts of a long-forgotten civilisation. For power-users who dread the possibility of getting a cursed table, there's a work-around – google 'MH3U charm tables' for details before you create your character.
The graphics in the WiiU version are are a tad inconsistent; at first, jarringly so. The boss monsters are richly detailed and the lighting engine makes them almost pop out of the screen, but other textures have clearly been recycled from previous Wii, PSP, and 3DS games in the series. There's noticeable slow-down when the larger areas get crowded with minions, and the AI isn't fool-proof; it's possible for an exhausted sea monster to get its head stuck in a wall for minutes on end, making it an easy target. Speaking of which: the underwater combat is still middling at best, especially in the weed-clogged waters of the Flooded Forest. Those who purchase the 3DS version are strongly advised to pick up a Circle Pad Pro as well, lest you end up fighting the camera more than the monsters.
But aside from these niggling flaws, the game is bloody amazing, and easily the best instalment in the Monster Hunter series to date. I've got over 80 hours on my save file already, but I feel like I'm still scratching the surface.
If you have come to regret investing in a WiiU, 3 Ultimate is a possible cure for your buyer's remorse – with hundreds of hours of polished hard-core content, it could well be the only game you need to justify the purchase.