Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate found me at the perfect time in my life: in the first chapter of what would eventually become a solid 10 months of funemployment.
This massive window of free time funded in part by Californian taxpayers (Thanks, guys!) provided the perfect opportunity to bear down and get to the bottom of this prolific series' many complexities. I bought an extremely handy beginner's guide (and eventually wrote one of my own), teamed up with a few real-life mentors, learned plenty of harsh lessons about fighting colossal beasts, and, some 200 hours later, I can say the experience has been extremely fulfilling. The initial dozen hours of anyone's first Monster Hunter experience can be pretty rocky, but I rose to the challenge, and soon, I was well on my way towards crafting an entire wardrobe full of colorful and elaborate armor sets designed to blind my opponents with luxury.
Still, when I look back at my shaky first steps with Monster Hunter, I can't help but think the game could have been a lot friendlier on some very basic levels. It's easy to see why so many people hit a wall with this series when its developers assume—thanks to Monster Hunter's incredible popularity in Japan—you're already on board with all of its intricacies.
Rest assured, if you're a Monster Hunter fan, 4 Ultimate provides the same basic experience that no doubt consumed 100-plus hours of your life with the last installment. What makes this latest sequel special, though, can be found in the many subtle changes engineered towards eliminating busywork and making the game flow much smoother. Keep in mind 3 Ultimate—the last game in the series to reach America—released in 2011 (in Japan), and was originally based on a 2009 Wii game, making this latest Monster Hunter nearly three years removed from its predecessor—five if you want to be a stickler. That's a significant amount of time in the world of game development, and the host of tiny improvements seen in 4 Ultimate shows Capcom's Monster Hunter team has devoted themselves to constantly refining and improving the experience they originally created a decade ago.
4 Ultimate has been out in Japan since October (and vanilla 4 released way back in September 2013), but, being so wrapped up in 3U, I hadn't done my research on all the improvements. So, during my hands-on session, I threw out some questions based on things I felt the last game lacked—and was pleasantly surprised to see 4U had some immediate responses to my super-specific gripes.
The biggest improvement, from my perspective, comes in the form of item macros: user-created, prescribed loadouts of the consumable resources you rely upon for every hunt. This may sound like an incredibly small (and staggeringly obvious) addition, but preparing for a hunt always felt like packing for a camping trip: You had to sift through countless items, making sure to grab the basics and whatever else the current situation demanded. Having to do this hundreds of times, though, always felt like needless busywork, and 4U no longer makes this task necessary.
Say you'd like to have a loadout that's engineered towards resource-gathering—now you can program it into the game and switch to this collection of items without all the hassle of moving each one into your inventory individually (provided you have them in your storage at home). And since so much of the Monster Hunter experience involves fighting the same monsters over and over for the sake of building armor and weapons, I can easily see myself creating item loadouts for specific encounters based on whatever negative status effects they may bring.
The town areas of 4U also contribute to the game's general reduction of busywork; it always bugged the hell out of me that some features of 3U required me to travel to a different screen to access them for no apparent reason. Now, these environments are much more compact, and, this time around, you won't be rooted to a single locale: 4U offers a handful of different towns, and while you bring a caravan full of NPC merchants wherever you travel, each location offers a unique service you won't find anywhere else. Again, something like "Now with more towns!" might seem like a laughably minor improvement, but little changes like these go a long way towards improving the core Monster Hunter experience.
Really, the only thing that strikes me as a setback for Monster Hunter 4U is the complete lack of a Wii U version, though I realize I'm probably in the 2% of people who played 3U exclusively on a television. Those 3DS graphics didn't make the perfect transition to an HD console, but it really gave the UI some room to breathe: the portable version has to squeeze a ton of information into a tiny amount of real estate, and while the 3DS' bottom screen certainly helps, things do feel a little cramped now and again. But, I guess if you play enough of Monster Hunter on a handheld system, that's just something you get used to.
With a vague release date of "early 2015," there's still lots of time left to talk about Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate, and I'll be sure to cover the new weapon types and changes to the outdoor environments soon. Needless to say, I'm excited to sink another significant chunk of my life into Monster Hunter, and this time around, I'll actually know what I'm doing before hour fifteen.