Niantic is probably most well-known for Pokemon GO, which was an absolute cultural phenomenon when it launched in summer 2016. Since then, the Ingress developer has taken its AR sensibilities to other IPs, including Pikmin. Its latest IP crossover, however, is shaping up to be an ambitious one: Monster Hunter Now.
I got a chance to play it at Summer Game Fest alongside the team from Niantic in Tokyo. The build was modified to spawn more creatures while we were sitting around, but it still gave me a good taste of what Monster Hunter Now could offer -- and I couldn’t be more excited.
For Monster Hunter fans, the big question is how well can Niantic capture that feeling in a concise mobile experience. After all, these hunts can be almost an hour long in the main games. In Monster Hunter Now, a hunt can take around a minute instead, and a lot of things are streamlined.
You don’t have to worry about tracking the monster once you’re in the fight, and the game automatically harvests any parts for you at the end. If you want to target a specific part, you simply tap on it to lock on. It's all easy, intuitive, and user-friendly, which is exactly what I'm looking for in a mobile experience.
Where the challenge comes in, however, is the combat. Monster Hunter isn't the easiest game series. If you mess around too much, you'll get punished, and the heavy animations require deliberate, committed inputs. While this mobile iteration isn't as hardcore (at least, in the early levels), the combat tempo is still pretty similar.
Taps will make you do a quick combo string, while holding and releasing leads to a special move, depending on the weapon. The hammer charges a big swing, and dragging left or right lets you sidestep while charging. With the longsword, your hunter will sheathe it and release a big attack, much like in the main franchise.
Attacking enough times will build up your ultimate, and hitting that button does a big, flashy animation with major damage. Dodging is simply a matter of swiping in whichever direction you want to go. All in all though, your interactions here boil down to taps, holds, and swipes, and it’s easy for almost anyone to pick up.
Monsters are ranked by stars. I found two-star Pukei-Pukeis and Kulu-Ya-Kus to be pretty easy, and my hunter was around level 15. To bump up the challenge, one of the developers invited me to fight a four-star monster with his level 45 account. I swapped to a bowgun, thinking the more distance, the better -- and I'm glad I did.
This four-star Pukei-Pukei was far more aggressive, and it moved more erratically. While the two-star version telegraphed its next attack well, this scarier version didn't have much downtime between attacks. Even when I tried to create distance, it closed the gaps pretty quickly. Had I been alone, I probably would have quickly died.
While that proved to be a challenge, it also really opened my eyes to what's possible in Monster Hunter Now. The difficulty is what you make it. If you're on a leisurely walk, grabbing a quick one-star monster is no trouble. For a serious afternoon of grinding, a couple four- or five-stars are thrilling, engaging, and dangerous all at once. Six-star monsters should probably only be tackled with friends.
That brings me to one of the core pillars Niantic is looking to build with Monster Hunter Now: community. Everyone I spoke to wants this game to be the reason you meet new friends, reunite with old ones, and explore new locales. You can go out hunting together, so farming all those Jagras for parts becomes a social activity instead of a solo activity.
When I lived in Columbus, Ohio, in 2016, droves of people were out and about, hunting for all their favorite Pokemon. Groups found ideal farming spots where three Poke Stops intersected, and there really was an amazing sense of community. It’s too early to say for sure with Monster Hunter Now, but I could easily see this catching on with lots of groups who want to go out and explore.
Maybe you and your crew need to hunt down a specific monster for parts; the game will show you where they are on the horizon, so you can chart a (safe) course to hunt them down. Alternatively, when you all meet up at school, the office, or a cafe, you can compare which monsters you’ve paintballed. If you’re hunting for Pukei-Pukei and a friend tagged one, farming suddenly got way easier. It’s moments like that -- and many more -- that are possible with Monster Hunter Now, making it an excellent showcase of the AR gaming genre.
During Summer Game Fest, I met lots of Niantic employees who were genuinely excited for Monster Hunter Now (and not just because they’re paid to be). I heard stories about people in their offices who normally don’t play games, but they couldn’t put it down once they started. As mobile gaming fans, they believe in Monster Hunter Now as the next big thing in AR games. After testing it out myself, I can understand why -- and I believe the hype. I’ll be playing it on my Android device, but you can also play it on iOS when it launches in September 2023 (unless you’re already in the closed beta test, of course).
Monster Hunter Now was previewed on iOS at Summer Game Fest Play Days. Screenshots were provided by Niantic.