Global Dom­i­na­tion

How Mon­ster Hunter plans to move from hard­core pur­suit to world­wide phe­nom­e­non

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY NATHAN BROWN

How Mon­ster Hunter: World plans plan to o make a hard­core se­ries serie a global phe­nom­e­non

There are two types of Mon­ster Hunter player: those who adore it, and those that have never played it. The lat­ter camp have dab­bled, per­haps; they’ve heard the fuss, have been as­sured that, once they get into it, they’ll never look back. But they’ve al­ways bounced off it be­fore the fun re­ally starts. The former group loved Mon­ster Hunter warts and all – and boy, did it have some warts. It was slow, it was grindy, and thanks to its un­der­pow­ered host hard­ware (the se­ries has been largely built for hand­helds), it was rather ugly, for all the beauty that lay be­neath the low-res sur­face.

If those were some of the cri­te­ria that have long pre­vented this in­tox­i­cat­ing se­ries from reach­ing a widespread au­di­ence, Mon­ster Hunter: World might just be the game that changes ev­ery­thing. The re­turn to home-con­sole hard­ware means a larger, more com­plex, and seam­less world which is home to a be­liev­able ecosys­tem. The pace has been quick­ened dra­mat­i­cally, with an easy-to-fol­low in­tro that has you whal­ing away on a huge beast within the hour. And heav­ens above, it’s a looker, a vi­brant, var­ied fan­tasy ac­tion-RPG with a sense of scale and am­bi­tion that were only ever hinted at by the bound­aries of a PSP or 3DS screen. “It’s kind of a matter of tim­ing,” says pro­ducer

Ryuji Tsu­ji­moto of the de­ci­sion to bring Mon­ster Hunter back to home con­soles, and the over­haul that de­ci­sion has prompted. “We hope to see a large in­flux of new play­ers to the se­ries, and with that in mind, we’ve re­built Mon­ster Hunter from the ground up: re­tain­ing the core gameplay, but start­ing from scratch on the frame­work of the game. This has meant we’ve been able to re­visit cer­tain de­sign de­ci­sions – cer­tain legacy as­pects which we now have a chance to go back and do a better job of.”

Well, mis­sion ac­com­plished. Mon­ster Hunter kicks quickly into gear, and while it may not show its hand im­me­di­ately, it at least does a much better job of hint­ing at what makes the se­ries tick in its open­ing hours. And you learn not, as in the past, by read­ing reams of text. A short se­ries of cin­e­mat­ics and fully voiced tu­to­ri­als help set the scene, and ease you into pro­ceed­ings. You quickly gain ac­cess to Astera, the hub town, and are in­tro­duced to its var­i­ous quest givers and mer­chants. Per­haps most vi­tally, after only a cou­ple of hours, be­gin­ner play­ers are able to party up with friends. Gone is the old way of Mon­ster Hunter think­ing, where sin­gle- and mul­ti­player modes were hived off from each other early on; the story com­po­nent was an off­line pur­suit, and those who bought the game and jumped straight into a co-op ses­sion would have no idea what was go­ing on. “With very few ex­cep­tions,” Tsu­ji­moto tells us, “you can now progress through the sto­ry­line and learn how to play the game while play­ing with your friends in co-op. That’s go­ing to be a great, smoother on-ramp into the game for play­ers whose ex­pec­ta­tions might be along those lines.”

As Tsu­ji­moto sug­gests, Cap­com has gone to great lengths to up­date some of Mon­ster Hunter’s fustier el­e­ments to ac­com­mo­date the an­tic­i­pated in­flux of be­gin­ner play­ers. Yet it has equally striven to en­sure that se­ries die-hards do not feel short-changed by all the new tweaks. It’s most purely ex­pressed by your hunter’s sprint ma­noeu­vre, which is now mapped to two com­mands: the right bumper, in line with se­ries vet­er­ans’ mus­cle mem­ory; and to a click of the left stick, in line with, well, ev­ery­one else’s. Item se­lec­tion has been sim­i­larly tweaked, re­tain­ing the long scrolling list of pre­vi­ous games, while adding a new ra­dial menu which will be more fa­mil­iar to novices. It’s not that the Mon­ster Hunter of old has been pushed to the side in a drive to boost sales; rather, the old has been sup­ple­mented by the new, and the flow of the early game op­ti­mised to en­sure play­ers no longer feel like they’re a cou­ple of dozen hours away from the meat of the thing. It works.

Well, most of the time. Chat­ting to a fel­low mem­ber of the Eu­ro­pean press who’s been in­vited to Cap­com’s Osaka HQ for a two-day ses­sion with

Mon­ster Hunter: World, we lament what we see as a clunky sys­tem for re­deem­ing post-mis­sion re­wards. We’re shown ev­ery­thing we’ve won, and must hit X over and over to col­lect them one by one. Could it not, we sug­gest, work from the as­sump­tion that we want ev­ery­thing we’re en­ti­tled to, and man­u­ally se­lect what we’d pre­fer to leave be­hind? Our col­league cor­rects us: this is ac­tu­ally a tremen­dous qual­ity-of-life change for se­ries fans. You used to have to se­lect each item one by one us­ing the D-pad, then press X to col­lect it.

PER­HAPS MOST VI TALLY, AFTER ONLY A COU­PLE OF HOURS, BE­GIN­NER PLAY­ERS ARE ABLE TO PARTY UP WITH FRIENDS

There are other awk­ward lega­cies of the old days, many of them quirks of the long-stand­ing Mon­ster

Hunter lex­i­con. You don’t ‘ac­cept’ or ‘be­gin’ a new quest from an Astera build­ing board; you ‘post’ one. To con­firm your se­lec­tion and start said quest, you click a box marked ‘fin­ish’. The menus can still con­found (are our com­pleted boun­ties au­to­mat­i­cally redeemed, or should we do it man­u­ally?) and who­ever put the one guy sell­ing health-restor­ing po­tions on top of a tall stack of boxes in the bow­els of Astera de­serves the full wrath of Di­ab­los. Some old habits die hard, then, but Cap­com’s over­all mis­sion is clear and, by and large, it’s cracked it. Or posted it, per­haps.

In any case, once you’re out in the field, such con­cerns quickly melt away. An­other new ad­di­tion, a swarm of scout­flies that high­light the crit­i­cal path while bend­ing away to alert you to nearby pick­ups and craft­ing sup­plies, proved di­vi­sive among a com­mu­nity of hunters that feared the pres­ence of a bread­crumb trail would numb the thrill of the chase. Yet the swarm feels es­sen­tial. First, you’re not re­duced to wan­der­ing these huge lands in the dim hope of stum­bling upon your quarry. And more per­ti­nently, the pres­ence of a guiding hand means Cap­com can be more cre­ative than ever be­fore in its ap­proach to Mon­ster Hunter level de­sign. The cen­tral area of the An­cient For­est map, for ex­am­ple – one of two we see dur­ing our time with the game – is a mul­ti­lay­ered rab­bit war­ren of thick vines and climb­ing plants that we don’t much fancy learn­ing to nav­i­gate alone.

Ul­ti­mately, scout­flies are an­other pac­ing de­vice, en­sur­ing you get to the ac­tion quickly – but this is far from a quick­fire game. The 50-minute timer on most quests makes that clear, es­pe­cially once you ac­count for the fact that your party mem­bers can only be knocked out (or ‘faint’) three times in to­tal be­fore you’re booted back to Astera. Yes, you can find things quickly. But it’s still go­ing to take you a while to put them to the sword, or axe, or in­sect glaive. The third mon­ster we face off against, Bar­roth, is a huge, ar­moured beast with a bat­ter­ing ram for a fore­head. Our longsword hits it for a whop­ping eight dam­age points per swing; work­ing solo, it takes us the best part of half an hour to fi­nally put it down.

“We’ve al­ways had re­ally good mon­ster AI and in­ter­est­ing stages,” Tsu­ji­moto says, “but be­ing able to com­bine a very com­plex topo­log­i­cal map with re­ally in­tel­li­gent mon­ster be­hav­iour, and in­ter­ac­tions be­tween mon­sters and smaller crea­tures, even plants… we saw a chance to make a rich, deep world.” This, to put it mildly, was no easy task. The

Mon­ster Hunter team has, after all, spent most of the past decade work­ing on hand­held sys­tems; if it was to re­turn to pow­er­ful con­sole hard­ware, it would need more peo­ple, and ex­tra help be­sides. Tsu­ji­moto and team staffed up, fo­cus­ing, he says, on younger and more in­ter­na­tional blood, who would be more fa­mil­iar with mod­ern de­vel­op­ment tech­niques (by virtue of World’s si­mul­ta­ne­ous world­wide re­lease, lo­cal­i­sa­tion teams were on hand to deal with any com­mu­ni­ca­tion is­sues that arose across lan­guage bar­ri­ers). Cap­com’s in­ter­nal R&D unit was an in­valu­able aid early on, help­ing the dev team work out what it could do, how it could do it, and how quickly it might see re­sults. “There’s a lot of power in these con­soles,” Tsu­ji­moto says, “but you can’t just use ev­ery­thing all the time.”

“It wasn’t just about us­ing the hard­ware in ob­vi­ous ways,” lead artist Sayaka Kenbe tells us. “Some­times it in­volved tak­ing very round­about meth­ods to ac­com­plish what we were try­ing to do. In the past, when im­ple­ment­ing things like fur, we were very lim­ited in what we could do. Now it’s pos­si­ble to get thou­sands and thou­sands of strands, but pro­cess­ing-wise it’s im­pos­si­ble. So we fig­ured out other meth­ods to make it look like fur, make it look soft and nat­u­ral.” De­spite all of Cap­com’s re­newed am­bi­tion, the game has been made us­ing the age­ing MT Frame­work engine, though this im­mea­sur­ably more com­plex game has al­most no code in com­mon with the 3DS games with which it shares a lin­eage, a legacy and an engine.

A turn­ing point in Mon­ster Hunter: World’s de­vel­op­ment was a pro­to­type which didn’t fea­ture so much as a sin­gle sword. “It fo­cused on the new parts of the game,” Tsu­ji­moto says. “There wasn’t any hunt­ing; it was more about see­ing how the player would pick up a mon­ster’s scent, and then when you en­coun­tered it you could do var­i­ous things: you could lure it to meet an­other mon­ster so they could fight, for ex­am­ple. All the parts ev­ery­one has

“THERE’S A LOT OF POWER IN THESE CON­SOLES, BUT YOU CAN’T JUST USE EV­ERY­THING ALL THE TIME”

pointed out as be­ing the great, fresh, new stuff – the pro­to­type was all of that rolled into one, a proof of con­cept. We have the knowhow for the ac­tion com­po­nent; we don’t need to prove that to our­selves in a pro­to­type, we can trust our­selves to add it later. After that, we weren’t al­ways work­ing to our sched­ule, but it was a good start­ing point for us, let­ting us take a fresh look at how to make a Mon­ster Hunter game.”

Tsu­ji­moto ad­mits, too, that level de­sign was a headache early on. The An­cient For­est was the first map the team de­signed for the game, and they sailed past their ini­tial dead­line. He de­scribes a long, drawnout process of trial and er­ror – but once they’d cracked it, the re­main­der of the level-de­sign process went com­par­a­tively smoothly, as lessons learned in the long­winded cre­ation of the An­cient For­est in­formed a pacier de­vel­op­ment pe­riod for those that came after it.

The link is ob­vi­ous: that Cap­com’s ex­pe­ri­ence of mak­ing the slow, grindy kind of Mon­ster Hunter has made it eas­ier this time to make a snappy, im­me­di­ate one in­stead. And as four of us go to town on the mud­sling­ing, slug-like Jyu­rato­dos, it feels well worth all that en­deav­our. The whys and the hows of the cre­ation of this game are im­por­tant, of course. But above all else is how it feels in the hands. It’s ter­rific.

Com­bat is slow, weighty and tremen­dously im­pact­ful; you can feel strong blows con­nect even with­out the newly added dam­age num­bers pop­ping off your foe dur­ing bat­tle. They’re an­other con­ces­sion to mod­ern ex­pec­ta­tions, but are scarcely needed given the re­mark­able stan­dard of an­i­ma­tion on show in Mon­ster

Hunter: World’s bes­tiary. Bar­roth, for all its heft, limps des­per­ately, ur­gently away from us as it nears death. Its health pool has been scaled up­wards to ac­count for our party’s size, but it doesn’t stand a chance. Serves it right for bat­ter­ing us into a cliff­side ear­lier on, re­ally.

Us­ing bait and traps, you’ll be able to en­gi­neer a meet­ing be­tween two beasts in the same re­gion, but the game is at its best when it does so spon­ta­neously. The high­light of our two-day ses­sion comes when we’re fight­ing Jyu­ratu­dos and Bar­roth am­bles over to give us an as­sist. The mud ser­pent coils its body around the bony colos­sus, try­ing to throt­tle it, and a dam­age num­ber we could only dream of pops out of the fray. Bar­roth re­sponds, charg­ing its foe, wing­ing it badly. It’s a tense back and forth and one hell of a sight, so we head for higher ground so we can take in the view. Sec­onds later we’re scur­ry­ing des­per­ately for cover: Ratha­los, a ter­ri­fy­ing Wyvern which, we found out ear­lier in the worst of ways, can com­fort­ably one-shot us, has heard the com­mo­tion, and flown over to find out what’s go­ing on, in or­der to spit fire at it. We hun­ker down. Mo­ments later, a Cap­com staffer walks by to see us crouched low be­hind a rock, inch­ing the cam­era along to try and main­tain some kind of view. Even if it gets us killed, this is sim­ply too good to be missed.

You can’t bounce off some­thing like that. Sud­denly we see, plain as fire-strewn day, what makes this game tick. Game di­rec­tor Yuya Tokuda gives us his per­sonal view on it: “I think the real draw of Mon­ster Hunter, and what drew me to work­ing on it, is the fact that it’s this mag­i­cal fan­tasy set­ting, but you’re not fight­ing demons. These are re­al­is­tic crea­tures that could be part of a bi­o­log­i­cal ecosys­tem. They’re liv­ing things that you can imag­ine your­self fight­ing. But there’s also this el­e­ment of go­ing up against huge mon­sters, us­ing big weapons, that an­swers this pri­mal hu­man de­sire to chal­lenge your­self against these enor­mous beasts.”

Sounds about right, yep. But away from that un­likely three-way fray, there’s more to Mon­ster

Hunter – and it’s an el­e­ment that might just make this game the global suc­cess its se­ries has, ac­cord­ing to fans at least, long de­served. “We’re kind of an­swer­ing these ba­sic urges,” Tokuda says. “You do these chal­lenges, you suc­ceed, you get a re­ward and you get stronger. Do­ing all that in a mul­ti­player frame­work that draws in all these so­cial el­e­ments is es­sen­tially what de­fines Mon­ster Hunter.”

Mon­ster Hunter has spanned three gen­er­a­tions of con­sole and hand­held hard­ware, but it seems the in­dus­try has fi­nally caught up to its ethos. A hugely chal­leng­ing, the­o­ret­i­cally end­less loot grind in a vast, beau­ti­ful world that puts on­line co-op at its core? That’s the con­tem­po­rary block­buster game’s play­book, al­most to the let­ter, and Cap­com has had a 13-year head start on it. There are two types of

Mon­ster Hunter play­ers: those that adore it, and those that have never re­ally played it. It feels like the former camp is about to get an aw­ful lot big­ger.

THE WHYS AND HOWS OF THE CRE­ATION OF THIS GAME ARE IM­POR­TANT. BUT ABOVE ALL ELSE IS HOW IT FEELS

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