What separates Monster Hunter from more conventional action games are traits that at first glance would make for a wholly unenjoyable experience. Fights are slow, methodical - some of them can take up to an hour. Weapons are slower than other staples in the genre, and most actions you take you must commit to. In order to upgrade your weapons, you need to gather a multitude of materials from various different sources, sometimes taking hours just to upgrade the stats for one weapon by a minuscule amount. Instead, the focus that Monster Hunter takes is on the idea of tactics, as every action that you take is a commitment that you can't back out of. A greatsword swing will have to complete, a potion will have to finish taking effect before you move; and the best way for you to gain the edge against your monstrous opponents is to be on the defensive - only attacking when you know that you have an opening large enough for an attack to be safe.
[caption id="attachment_30150" align="alignleft" width="300"] Although Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate changes a lot about the franchise; deep down, the core concepts for the series remain the same. It's still about tracking and hunting giant monsters, and using their body parts to hunt even larger monsters. But that's ok![/caption]
Although Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate adds many improvements to these main formulas, none of the ideas behind Monster Hunter really change. Instead, Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate (or MH4U, for short) represents a natural progression of the ideas that make the series what it is. For a series characterized by the high playtimes that many players boast at having; this is important, as anything that can be added to deal with the inherent repetitiveness of the formula (and more importantly, prevent tediousness) is imperative.
The way that Capcom has dealt with this issue in the past has been relatively simple: they've constantly added more variables in regards to each fight, so that players had many different ways to tackle each monster, instead of just the same one or two tactics. What makes Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate stand out from the rest of the series is not only the quality of the changes made, but just how well these changes are molded into the overall gameplay. Platforming mechanics have huge ramifications everywhere in the gameplay - from the level design, to the combat system, to even how certain monsters fight. It's similar to the change that occurred with mechanics added in prior entries, but polished, and better represented, allowing EVERY fight to feel fresh, instead of just some of them. Instead of feeling like a side dish to the main experience (grounded, land-based combat) it acts as another ingredient added to the formula, improving its flavor.
Previous titles (Monster Hunter Tri, and Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate specifically) attempted to change up gameplay (and by extension, to combat repetitiveness) by adding in 3D underwater combat... though it was flawed in many ways. Although the mechanic was interesting, and worked some of the times - quite simply, the issues with regards to slugishness, the camera, and distinct differences in how each weapon worked while underwater meant that fights underwater only felt marginally related to their dry land counterparts.
MH4U's platforming improves upon the ideas found in the previous underwater mechanics in two main ways. One, it doesn't directly affect how weapons are used, except for an attack that can be used in mid-air. This means that weapons will always act the same way, except for those brief moments when you aren't touching the ground - a much greater improvement from the minutes long ordeal that underwater combat exemplified. Second, these mechanics (encompassed by many smaller improvements) speed up gameplay, instead of slowing it down like water before it. Being able to instantly climb up smaller ledges and speed up the ascent of larger walls means that there will be less time that a player will be out of the action needlessly, alongside allowing the developers to created biomes that incorporate more vertical level design, due to the fact that these level designs won't slow down the gameplay nearly as much as before.
That second point is perhaps the most important.
[caption id="attachment_30147" align="alignright" width="300"] A new focus on platforming not only makes the combat feel smoother and less restrictive than before; but it opens up a bunch of new possibilities when it comes to designing both monsters, and the areas to fight them in.[/caption]
The big difference between MH3U and MH4U is in regards to how well-paced the action feels. The action in MH3U is slower than the games that came before it. MH4U keeps the methodical gameplay of its predecessors, while tweaking the aspects of previous experiences that got in the way of the combat. In other words, Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate trims the fat from the prior Monster Hunter experiences, to allow the gameplay to become as fluid as possible, while still maintaining the aspects of the previous games that make Monster Hunter what it is. You still have the gameplay that depends on commitment to your actions, it's just that the actions that you can take at any given time are much less limited than before.
For some broader examples of these mechanics being used within these fights, several monsters can shift between the bottom and the top of a layer of either vines or spider-webbing. Likewise, the new mounting and aerial attacks are front and center for every fight in the game. As mentioned, there are many more varied examples of the vertical level design in action in these fights, but some of them are so creative (making some of these newer fights especially unique compared to veteran monsters) that it feels wrong to go over any monster-specific quirks. Just expect the Nerscylla to take special advantage of its terrain, and be careful when fighting any wyverns while in any of the "nest" areas in the biomes (or you'll be in for a surprise!)
Of course, many veteran monsters may have their own new quirks as well (and indeed some of them have been adapted to the point that newer players might never know the difference between new and old monsters) while maintaining the same overall feel of the fight from any previous entries. Much like how returning monsters in MH3U and Tri received an "upgrade", the same has occurred here. An example of this would primarily be the Congalala, who has not only received the ability to modify his attacks based on the last thing that he had eaten, but also receives completely new attacks as well (including the ability to swing through the vines, much like his slimmer, Kecha Wacha brethren - and the ability to belch up whatever he had last swallowed, in a swerving beam attack.) Considering that every monster (including subspecies!) has their own Frenzied and Apex variants -- a new mechanic dealing with the new Frenzy blight that can both harm and help you on your hunt, depending on how well you fight -- there is plenty of variety even when just comparing one monster and its subspecies.
[caption id="attachment_30146" align="alignleft" width="300"] Sunsnug Isle acts like the "farm" for Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate, and is just one of the various features that allow you to manage your resources in a variety of ways.[/caption]
As for the rest of the experience, it can be said that at least in regards to the singleplayer village quests, the experience has been completely and utterly revamped and upgraded. In previous games in the series, the village quests were a relatively short list of quests meant to showcase some of the new monsters or features in the title. However, in Monster Hunter Freedom Unite, and Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate, a set of tougher High rank village quests were included to deepen the experience. These same High-rank village quests are included in MH4U as well, but even the low ranking versions of the experience benefit from a better sense of progression. Throughout the story (which is a much more active affair, this time around, although the game never prevents you from completing any other quests that you had unlocked at the time) you may come into contact with some individuals in any of the 5 hubs that you can unlock. By speaking to specific villagers, you may unlock specific new quests for both upgrades and special awards. Even without these special hunts, the amount of objectives for each quest level is above the average set in MHFU and MH3U, but with these special requests, the amount of unique hunts that you can partake in increases by an exponential amount.
Continuing on the idea of "cohesion", it's also worth noting that these special requests can also have an effect on the various members of your caravan: the street cook, the armory, the merchant, and so forth. For example, if you complete a mission to deliver slagtoth oil for the merchant, you might see a permanent upgrade to his services. This, of course, means that the ingredient quests from Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate make an appearance as well. What's especially notable about this mechanic, is just how many of these "dialog quests" exist, and how many of these quests continue on like some sort of sidestory. These stories aren't terribly interesting; but the fact that you can "see" the fruits of your labor via the townsfolks' reaction, enrichs the experience of doing these quests by a great deal.
As for resource management, and other functions previously taken up by a farm, every function that the farm in MH3U had is still present within MH4U, although separated between several of the various villages. Thankfully, switching between these villages is quick, and most of these tasks can be managed within the comfort of the players house thanks to their servant felyne. Bringing up felynes, the new Palico system for hunter companions is a massive upgrade from both Monster Hunter Portable 3rd's solution, as well as MH3U's. The current system takes some aspects from both (such as Monster Hunter Portable 3rd's felyne equipment mechanic), but also adds its own spin to things. Probably the main example is that two Palico felynes can team up to perform special actions together, and also the fact that with upgrades, a felyne companion can boost you into the air for the chance to perform an aerial attack. Like in both MHP3rd and MH3U, one of your companions can go with you on online quests, if there are only 2 hunters present. Speakng of Multiplayer...
[caption id="attachment_30145" align="alignright" width="300"] Once you reach a certain point in the game, the city of Dundorma opens up to you as the central hub for the game; attempting especially hard arena quests, and listening to the mystic diva alone or with friends characterize a very fulfilling hub for your hunting adventures.[/caption]
Multiplayer this time around can be accessed both locally and online. Much like in MH3U, any of these multiplayer quests can be attempted in an offline environment as well, if you would like. Options for setting rooms are relatively diverse; you can choose what you want to have your room say on the server browser and give it a passcode so that only certain individuals can join, and you can even set various recommendations so that anyone joining the room is an appropriate skill level for the level of quests that you are attempting. What's especially cool is how using multiplayer you can still go about your business in any of the 5 towns (and even specifically listen to music together as a group in Dundorma) before embarking on a hunt.
Unfortunately, we didn't get a chance to review the multiplayer experience much, but experiences with both the Special Demo version and the few chances we did have to test on the full version of the game lead us to believe that the servers will not give much trouble to users looking to play online. The only real worry is the fact that only passcoded rooms allow individuals to access the digital keyboard during a hunt. any other room is restricted to using any preset phrases that individuals had readied before the hunt. Thankfully, since using the keyboard would be a distraction anyway - it isn't a big deal... but the lack of voice chat, is. And, if it the option does exist, it's certainly not clear enough how to activate it.
As far as the game itself is concerned, however, these few small issues with multiplayer are the only real complaints that can be leveled at the overall experience. The game looks both technically and artistically impressive -- the previously mentioned vertical level design allowing the various locales to especially stand out compared to areas in previous titles -- and as mentioned earlier, the gameplay is the most engaging that it has ever been. Music is fantastic as ever... and the game makes it a point to be as big as a help without being obnoxious. Being able to pull up help at nearly every menu in the game and getting tons of explanation for each feature is something that simply should have been in the games from the beginning (or more specifically, should have never left in Tri -- seeing as a similar feature was available in the players house in MHFU).
Easily the greatest strength the game holds, however, is the aforementioned cohesion that surrounds the product. Something that, while the series has excelled with it in the past, it has never been this successful at maintaining content that meshed so well with itself. What I mean by that is the fact that many of the new mechanics (and even some revamped mechanics from older titles in the franchise) have been developed with the idea that they would work to improve the experience of playing the game in other ways. I already went over some of this previously in regards to the single-player content, but another great example of this philosophy can be seen within the symbiosis of the new Expeditions free hunt, and the new Guild Quests feature.
[caption id="attachment_30144" align="alignleft" width="300"] Expeditions and Guild Quests are easily the best mechanics added to the title besides the expanded focus on vertical movement; the randomly generated Everwood can be home to some of the most unique experiences in the game.[/caption]
The Expeditions are a randomly generated trek through an area known as the Everwood: a constantly changing area that can contain almost every monster in the game. As you play through the main gameplay of Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate, you unlock more variables for this feature, and after a while, you will have literally millions of different variants for these Expeditions to play with. Although fighting monsters alone would be enough to keep players interested in this feature for hours, the possibility of discovering random armor and weapon pieces during a trek makes the experience even more wholesome. The simple act of polishing these "artifacts" that you find is a small addition that makes these drops feel truly special, and the fact that you can find a wide variety of weapons or armor, spanning nearly every game in the series, means that there will ALWAYS be something new to potentially discover. Including new Guild Quests!
Upon completion of an Expedition it is possible that a new Guild Quest will spawn. These special hunts take place in the Everwood, and yet will always contain the same monster regardless of how the Everwood spawns. These quests can contain nearly every monster in the game, much like the Expeditions themselves and can even incorporate some of the powerful Elder Dragons from near the end of the game. What makes these hunts so special, beyond the fact that they can be entirely unique to your save file, is the idea that once these quests are completed, they level up in difficulty, meaning that every time you complete a Guild Quest, the quest will become harder. Much like in Expeditions, you can occasionally find artifacts while on these quests, meaning that if you want to be more specific in regards to which monster you want to hunt while on an Expedition, you can essentially run any of the Guild Quests for that monster that you have accumulated.
Other Quality-Of-Life improvements includes the ability to refashion charms into entirely new ones, and a greater variety of charms in general, the return of various improvements from Monster Hunter Portable 3rd (such as the fancy spit, and felyne related tasks), and the ability to trade for materials to make weapons and armor for practically every monster in the series as a whole - not just the ones that appear directly within MH4U. Additionally, although I criticize the Multiplayer for its lack of communication options, Dundorma acts as an excellent hub for multiplayer activity. I already hyped up the ability to listen to a list of songs with friends, but other activities work wonders as well, such as the exclusive arena quests that the city holds. I would go as far as to say that if the issues I had with multiplayer (which were nitpick-y at best) are all that I can negatively attribute to the title, Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate could easily be the best title of 2015 and arguably the best game to hit the 3DS to date.
Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate is a culmination of the series as a whole, noting all that made past entries great, while building upon them to craft something new, cohesive, and greater than the already fantastic sum of its parts. Perhaps the greatest complaint that could be levied towards the title is that it may prove impossible to meet the expectations that this game shall set for its sequel. Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate is a game that simply cannot be missed.
A review copy of the title was provided for this review by the publisher.