Top review scores are tricky things, made even more difficult when attached to a niche product. That’s why there was some last minute fretting about our Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate Review. It’s hard enough to justify a 10/10 score for Mario or Zelda; it’s harder still to communicate why a game of limited appeal is the pinnacle of its medium.
But after 100 hours, I can say that Alex and Matt were right. And then some.
MH4U is not the prettiest game out there (it’s not even the most impressive 3DS game). It holds no pretensions on delivering a plot that will tug at your heart strings or blow your mind. There is no special sauce, cutting edge, industry-altering innovation at its core. This sequel is iterative, not transformational or a reboot. So what on Earth makes this game deserving of our highest score?
To paraphrase Wolverine, Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate is the best there is at what it does. But what it does best ain’t always nice.
So what does it do best? Put simply, the grind. There are plenty of RPGs and MMOs (and games called Destiny) that put you in a virtual world with a set of tools and mechanics that allow you to flourish via questing, farming, fighting, harvesting, etc. Heck, if you want to get a fix for leveling up with a side of combination strategy, you can just go download Puzzle & Dragons. What sets Capcom’s series apart is tying a gigantic meta-game of item collection and upgrading to simple (yet precipitously deep) combat against truly dangerous foes. If you want the best items, you have to upgrade what you have. To upgrade what you have, you must engage in combat.
Which conveniently brings us to why MonHun ain’t nice – monsters. Standing between you and your coveted upgrades are the beasts who provide a substantial portion of the materials you need. As you might expect, they’re not exactly cooperative. MH4U serves up more beasts to hunt than ever before, in levels that are better designed than ever before.
But it really all comes back to the grind. Anyone who has ever spent hours level grinding in the random battles of an old RPG can tell you that trying to buff up a character or item can be a nuisance, not bliss. Capcom had the bright idea of hiding the grind in a full-on action game – it’s what has made Monster Hunter sui generis. So you repeatedly fight that Zinogre because you need its parts; every fight is different because the A.I. is off the charts. The combat feeds the grind. The grind feeds combat. However, all of the upgrades to level design and monster attack patterns would all be for naught if the grind felt unfair. It doesn’t. The algorithms that power item acquisition (from in-battle drops and post-battle carving) are balanced to near-perfection. Rare items may require several hunts against the same monster, but it’s never terribly unfair, and the hunts never disappoint. This formula has been meticulously refined, and is now available in a game of stupendous depth that is more accessible than ever before.
That isn’t to say there aren’t some bumps along the way. No 10/10 game is ever truly “perfect,” because absolute perfection doesn’t exist (outside of a bottle of Boston Lager). As good as the monster A.I. is in this game, there are still cheap attacks that lead to cheap deaths, which artificially inflate the difficulty of an already difficult game. Take, for instance, the Purple Gypceros, who features a hair-trigger stun and a lot of poison blight. That would be challenging enough on its own, but that hunt is gifted to you at a point in the game when you may not have your armor upgraded quite enough to deal with his shenanigans. Initially, I had an easier time fighting a Rathian and Rathalos together – both frenzied – than that purple bastard. Relentlessly being charged by a poison-spewing dino-wyvern while you’re dazed from his cheap stun is a recipe for frustration.
However, those moments are few. MH4U is tough, but fair, and the initial 40 hours offline (the main “story” mode) is one of the most finely balanced pieces of gaming that I’ve played in recent years. Pick hunt, slay or capture monster, upgrade, repeat. Marrying the rewarding combat to an ever-so-slightly fickle material farming system has created a grind that doesn’t feel grind-y. It’s a brilliant design, done here more brilliantly than ever before.
Over 100 hours (and a slain Dalamadur) later, the only thing left is the grind. That I can see myself easily sinking another 100 hours* into MH4U, engaging in edge-of-the-seat battles for that last piece needed to upgrade a weapon, is why it is deserving of our highest praise. This is GOTY-grade stuff, folks.
[If you’ve never played a Monster Hunter game before, now is a fantastic entry point to the series. In our next MonHun feature, we’ll discuss how MH4U has gotten in touch with its inner RPG. Stay tuned.]
*As an addendum, I’d be remiss to not point out that others don’t share my verdict after 100 hours. To me, the beauty of MonHun is that it has pared down gaming to its essentials – rock solid gameplay/combat mechanics linked to a nearly peerless crafting system (as others have pointed out, games like Destiny do not have looting done at this level). If you require a deeper layer of plot on top of it all, this game won’t be for you. On the other hand, I can tell you with 100% certainty that this game is more than playable on a 2DS. Do not let the touch screen camera scare you off. If I can do it, anyone can.