It takes a special kind of gamer to really enjoy this one.
Back when the PlayStation 2 ruled the earth, I had become addicted to a little game called Final Fantasy XI. If you can remember (or google), the game was the first true online experience for the PS2 and for the Final Fantasy series. It allowed players to band together, go on quests, find items stretched out across multiple lands and to craft together items, including weapons and armor. I spent hours upon hours playing this game. From early in the evening until late into the night. It was more addictive than caffeine.
Was it heaven? Lord, yes. I think if I hadn't fathered four children since then, I would probably still be playing it.
Why am I telling you any of this? Because deep down inside, Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate brought up these long since forgotten feelings of quests, multiplayer teams and crafting. Before I get started, let me admit that I haven't been a part of the previous reviews of the earlier titles in this series. So, take this review as someone who is very new to the series and someone who is fascinated by what could be considered the meaningless portions of an overall gigantic game.
In other words, humor me.
At the beginning of MH, you are taught about how the game works through heavy amounts of dialogue and what seems like meaningless tasks. If you're used to typical tutorial tasks then you probably understand what to expect out of the first couple hours of the game. For example, you gather things like 'raw meat' from some of the carnivores in the land to bring back to a chief's son. Once you deliver the goods, the son helps you out by promising to rebuild a destroyed village (thanks to an earthquake). From this point on, you gather resources to help rebuild the village. You also learn how to craft, forge armor and weapons, and just basic functions of gameplay through these little tasks. Again, it's a tutorial if you look at this process hard enough, and for seasoned gamers it will be mind-numbing at the very least. For new gamers, it might be a tad slow, but sticking with it and pushing through it will pay off in the end. The 'end' meaning the beginning of the true game -- the quests.
The quests are where the real gameplay begins. You are assigned certain tasks that add new flavor to the environments. As you push through the small snippets of different environments, you are asked to do things like collecting unique mushrooms, acquire kills or snatch the guts out of beautiful sea creatures (it's called 'Monster Hunter' for a reason). Anyway, as you complete more and more of the quests, the difficulty of the game begins to increase, which brings about some very solid challenges. For example, in the quest with the sea creatures, you're asked to acquire monster guts. Your character can jump in the water and attack appropriately, as if on land. Well, everything is fine and dandy in the quest, and honestly not too difficult, but it all changes quickly with the arrival of a gigantic ass-kicking sea creature. This creature, which has been terrifying the Moga village in the game, rips the creatures your looking for to shreds. The game openly tells you that you can't win the fight against it, so you spend the better part of your adventure trying to avoid death. I found myself leaving the stages and circling back after a while to continue my monster guts hunt. The inclusion of something unstoppable (at least at the time) puts a kind of 'survival horror' spin on the entire quest and adds some depth that you hadn't run into prior to that quest/moment. It gets you motivated and provides a purpose for you to progress and get better. It's amazingly cool and perfect for this type of game.
That's what you get from Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate; and it only keeps getting better as you progress.
Now, what about the scope of it all? Is it a world that feels restrictive or is it more of a sandbox? It's somewhere in between. The world has to be huge, so a gamer can get lost in it. That helps make the quests feel bigger than they might be. Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate does a good job with creating this sort of world. In the beginning, you are limited to certain areas in the game. As you adventure on in the campaign/tutorial, you slowly gain access to new areas. The game might hold your hand a bit tight as you're learning things, but the restrictiveness of the lands that eventually become uncovered is probably good, especially for new people to the series. By the end of the single-player, you will enjoy the girth of the environments and the lands you explore. As the land/sea/caves become available, the quests will become more demanding and you will find yourself in a gigantic world that is different from how you began. That is a neat aspect, as it was always cool to see new areas unlocked on the Wii U remote as the game progressed.
Single-player and girth of the world aside, the real deal of this game, and the reason you want to play it, is the co-op function, which allows for 2-4 players in a group. You can literally co-op with a 3DS buddy for MH3U (or other friends with Wii U systems). The game is on the 3DS and it's the exact same game. One of our reviewers was playing this game with me and actually helped me out of some baffling parts (even down to menu selection and button function). It's a cool concept and something that could be compared to SCEA's PlayStation 3/ PS Vita co-op (see MLB 13 The Show for details). The process seems more refined and well thought out in MH3U, though. You need only go to a certain island in the MH3U world and pair up with someone (or multiple friends) to take on quests together. This is the part that really reminds me of Final Fantasy XI. As you band together with online players, you'll find yourself facing bigger monsters with greater rewards. It's an amazingly addictive experience that's truly unique to certain gamers. And I guess that's the catch.
If you're not the type of person who enjoys crafting, creating and gathering then this might not be the game for you. It isn't quick, rather it's methodical with how it builds the world around you and the adventures you go on in that world. There lies the genius of it all, though. It's a slow pace with a large amount of reward at the end.
With all this glowing-ness aside, Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate isn't perfect.
One of the more frustrating aspects of the game, which really needs to be addressed with the fourth edition (hopefully there is one) is how the controls feel and work. Attacking monsters feels like a linear trap. What I mean by this is that once you start attacking in one direction then you're stuck in that direction. There are plenty of games out there that do this, but in this day and age that shouldn't happen with a high profile release like this. I would love to see the controls from God of War implemented in this game. If you're not familiar with the series or the control scheme (what's wrong with you???!!!), it allows you to adjust your area of attack when the enemies move on screen to avoid you. That makes for a realistic feel to fighting, and MH3U would have benefited from such freedom. Having the ability to adjust or even break away from a failed attack is far more realistic than getting stuck hitting nothing. Granted, using a giant long sword didn't help my character's movement to begin with (wow, a game that compensates for weapon weight -- it's about time), but having to aim the swinging of the beastly weapon was downright frustrating. Even more so when you're faced with multiple enemies. The stiffness of the attack motion really didn't bode well for the game. Regardless of the weapon, you should be able to right the ship when you see you've missed the target completely.
This was my biggest complaint of the game, though it didn't detour me from continuing it. It didn't hold the gameplay back very much, but I can see it being a reason why new gamers could be turned off by this title.
Shifting gears a bit, one thing that did break up the toughness of the game a bit was the control scheme. I rather enjoyed the implementation of the Wii U remote. I liked looking down at my map, seeing items I could scroll through and having the option to customize the screen to my liking. It felt solid and it worked well for this type of material. Maybe it could have been given more function, but I felt like the developers didn't want to try anything radically new with this title. The one thing you don't want to do is ruin a game through messy innovation, and it seemed like the developers played it safe (and rightfully so).
So is this worth the price of admission? Well, if you are a fan of FFXI-type games, MMOs or someone who loves creating/crafting customized items (Harvest Moon fans, this might be a taste of adventure for you) then you're going to find an infinite amount of fun with Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate. While it might not have the most compelling storylines, it's still a blast to get together with friends and take out massive amount of creatures that call for a quick-thinking team of adventurers. Honestly, it's one of the more solid releases on the Wii U. But, again, it's really geared towards the right type of gamers, who will just eat this the hell up.