Odds are, when you read that, your mind races to super-shiny texture work, massive shader libraries, real-time global lighting systems, soft shadowing, ambient occlusion, anti-aliasing, and other assorted sundry bits of tech jargon that require explanations of the sort usually reserved for Neil deGrasse Tyson lectures.
In the land of Digital Foundry performance comparisons and Moore’s law, it’s understandable. Nintendo (who has tried to buck this trend by building around user-interface) notwithstanding, the calling card of generational hardware leaps has typically been visual. Sure, you may have played Super Mario 64 and marveled at the smooth analog movement, but be honest – the real moment your mind was blown was the realization that you were walking around in a 3D world that wasn’t possible on a 16-bit box. And that pent-up fangasm that accompanied the E3 reveal of Twilight Princess? It wasn’t just because of a “Celda” hangover. It was because the game looked like an exquisite, beautiful, bleeding epic.
However, there’s more to gaming than a pretty face, and the past console generation added so many layers of makeup that it has partially masked the transition to the present gen. Sure, the careful eye can discern differences, but it’s becoming increasingly hard to see the layers of foundation beneath. That is why the game we are most looking forward to has very little to do with beauty, and is all about brains.
Monster Hunter 4 won’t win any awards for pixel-popping technical wizardry. What it should be noted for is that it will likely be the most “next-gen” feeling game available for anyone who appreciates enemy A.I., strategy, and depth.
For years, most developers have gotten away with some clever sleight of hand. They’ve talked up “advanced A.I.” and have mostly never bothered to deliver on it. In the financially lucrative first-person shooter genre, a game like Call of Duty can muddle through with multiple difficulty levels that mainly turns up your opponent’s rate of gun fire (as well as your own avatar’s bullet magnetism) because the star of the show has nothing to do with artificial intelligence. Competitive online gaming is all about the smarts of who you’re facing – the depths of the human capacity for inventive camping cannot be understated.
But last night, while playing Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate, we realized just how incredibly clever the development team at Capcom have made their series. The A.I. scripting is simply off the charts. Yes, all of the monsters have a finite number of attacks in their respective arsenals, but they are so astute that we began to wonder who was hunting whom.
So what is it that makes these monsters astute? For one thing, it’s their adaptability. Attack a monster with a melee weapon, and they will engage in an attack pattern that makes being near them very dangerous; attack them with a ranged weapon, and they will shoot deadly projectiles and ram you with all their speed instead. Fight them solo, and they will dance a fearsome dance with you; bring your friends, and the beasts will run back and forth across the battlefield instead, and emit area-of-effect attacks more often. Take it easy during the fight, and they will remain calm as well; damage them aggressively, and they will become enraged and then tire themselves out, greatly changing the battle dynamic. The dynamic nature of a monster’s behavior can be particularly obvious in certain situations, such as when one player in a hunt party loses his connection. At this point, the beast will immediately adapt their attack patterns toward the remaining players, in turn forcing them to adapt.
The process of learning a monster’s behavior is contingent on so many different factors, then, that it’s probably best described as “intuition.” With enough practice, you can eventually get a sense of how to approach a monster from a specific angle and distance to trigger a specific response from the monster, but not after having received the brunt of countless fireballs, poisonous tail swipes, and body slams from all-too-clever monsters – and that’s if the number of players and their weapon choices hasn’t changed the monsters’ attacks beyond all familiarity. In all cases, you must fumble blindly in the fog, until your intuition guides you to perceive the patterns with clarity. And this is all before the game gets really good.
As you progress through the game’s monster variety, you start encountering what you would be daft to mistake as color swap re-skins of previous monsters – a pink Rathian comes to replace the regular one in your nightmares, for example. These “color swap re-skins,” however, quickly justify their own existence by brashly displaying the gift of higher intelligence. The “intuition” that gets you through the regular Rathian blindfolded is not only worthless against this Pink Rathian, but is actually actively punished: approach the beast from a specific angle, distance, and timing as you did the regular Rathian, and instead of finding a large opening for a level-3 Great Sword charge, you will meet a face-full of tail swipe, and the poison to drain what’s left of your health bar.
Proceed further into the game, and you will reach G-rank quests, where all monsters, color-swapped or not, will acquire new moves and patterns that force you to think and act more carefully and decisively; advance even further, past one of the many “final bosses” of the game, and you will what our own “Forum’s Big Daddy” Matt has dubbed “OG-rank,” where monsters once again hide tricks under their sleeve for situations that you thought were under your control. Even before this point in the game, there were times when the behavior of the beasts seemed inscrutable; but in OG-rank, you must approach a Lucent Nargacuga with the hope that the battle will end before the monster pulls yet another fast one on you.
The result, then, is that even after hundreds of hours of gameplay, you can still discover new behaviors in monsters. You will meet an unusually docile Deviljho, an unusually fearsome Pink Rathian, a complete pushover of a Rathalos, a trickier-than-usual Agnaktor, and an absolutely relentless Nargacuga. And you will find that after fighting the Brachydios 50 times, you still can’t predict when he’s going to leap across the air to land his vulcanic fists on your tiny body. And of course there isn’t any kind of high mysticism to their behavior: they’re all logical algorithms and random number generators coded in zeroes and ones into silicon circuit boards. But that’s the beauty of it, that even after hundreds of hours of gameplay, these virtual antagonists continue to surprise us every time we encounter them, the same way that the internet is still surprised by a cat that barks, or one that stands on its hind legs.
Yet so far we have only talked about Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate. What indication is there for Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate being much better? The answer to this lies in Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate’s monsters’ behavior: as you progress from monsters that have appeared since the first Monster Hunter toward monsters that have made their debut in recent titles (Deviljho and Alatreon in Monster Hunter Tri, Zinogre in Monster Hunter Portable 3rd, Brachydios in Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate), there is a clear increase in the complexity and believability of the monsters’ behavior, and their adaptability to different weapon types, ranges, and player count. It stands to reason that Monster Hunter 4 (without even accounting for the mechanical improvements to the core gameplay such as the jump button) had even more impressive monster behavior – and Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate, the improved version we westerners will receive, is even more likely to impress.
And that’s what makes this next Monster Hunter so fascinating, and it’s why we’re paying close attention to the next installment in Capcom’s Japanese sensation. Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate’s potential is not buried in glossy detail maps or dazzling particle effects; the typical “next-gen” graphical sheen will be missing. But if Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate is any indication, its artificial intelligence will be the most “next-gen” thing you’ve ever played against.
[This article was an Alex B./Mike D. collaboration.]