At face value, the new Monster Hunter has a lot in common with Fallout 3. It's awesome, for one thing, and set in a huge game-world that offers well over 100 hours of addictive gameplay. There's a staggering range of both ranged and melee weapons to choose from, all with specialised powers and perks. Armour is of the utmost importance, and before each mission you'll want to choose a set that will give you an edge. There's also stacks of gathering and crafting, and even the most inauspicious item can be a crucial part of some kick-arse weapon.
But there the similarities end. The biggest difference is that Monster Hunter is much, much harder. While there are a thousand equipment slots back at your house, you can only take one weapon and one suit of armour out on any mission; so you must choose very, very wisely. Likewise, if you run short of crucial supplies in the field, you are royally boned.
Yet the most radical difference between Monster Hunter and more conventional RPGs is that there are no skills. Your character never earns any bonuses to damage, or defence, or anything else from your effort at simply grinding away. It is YOU who have to develop those skills.
You have to practice, over and over. And you have to be prepared to take a spanking, because you simply cannot advance without learning things the hard way.
Thankfully, it's worth the effort, for each weapon class has tactical perks galore. Lances can prod at a distance, while bowguns can launch a variety of explosive munitions. Hunting horns work like giant clubs, but you can also play out tunes on them to give buffing effects to you and your party. These tunes are not unlocked — they're all in there from the start. But you must discover and remember them if you wish to reap the reward.
Smaller creatures can be felled with a bash or two, but the boss monsters can only be vanquished by avoiding their attack patterns for minutes on end, darting in with quick strikes to their flanks as they recover from their lunges, swipes, and roars. Battling these mighty wyverns is traumatic, but the pay-off is that their bodies can be harvested to assemble some seriously kick-arse gear. Dashing about in armour made of dragon scales with a greatsword that glows like magma is worth more than any mere 'Achievement' — you can tell who the finest players are just by looking at them.
Yet for all its grueling difficulty, Monster Hunter is a light-hearted game. Rather than dwarves or halflings, it is humanoid kitty-cats who live alongside humans in this fantasy world. You can hire these 'Felynes' to work in your kitchen, where they can cook up stamina-boosting steak take-aways. They also till the soil in the farm you can visit between missions; here you can grow exotic crops, mine for minerals, hunt for bugs, etc. Even a simple mushroom can be the active ingredient for, say, poison bullets — we don't recall Harvest Moon ever offering violent catharsis as a payoff for your hard work.
There's a huge range of challenges in each of the picture-postcard mission locales (jungle, mountains, forest, etc), and literally over one thousand types of items that can be gathered, sold, combined, or simply hoarded. Yet the biggest thrill of all comes from co-op play — from teaming-up with your mates over ad-hoc and taking down a dragon none of you could have beat on your own.
Freedom Unite also introduces the option of taking one of your Felyne servants out on solo missions, should your mates have other plans. Their combat power is pathetic, but they can be quite useful at distracting, say, a giant baboon that might otherwise be trying to gnaw your face off.
Monster Hunter doesn't so much have flaws as peculiarities. For instance, all melee weapons must be periodically sharpened, and that includes hammers. That may not make any sense, but you can see how it helps balance the gameplay. Likewise you can survive any fall from any height; a welcome concession when desert heat and mountain cold can sap your strength.
Capcom claims there’s around 500 hours of gameplay in Monster Hunter Freedom Unite, and we’re inclined to agree. It’s deep, it’s addictive, and it’s even better with friends — just don’t be surprised when it kicks your arse.