Picture the scene. A busy conference chamber in Kensington, London. Four HDTVs glare from an island in the centre of the room. At three of the four sit Monster Hunter veterans, unmistakeable in their branded gear, vaguely goth hairdos and businesslike demeanours. Their thumbs are a blur, their eyes narrowed in concentration. Astonishing feats of valor unfold on-screen, balletic rolls and perfectly timed, boulder-rupturing sword swipes, again and again.
At the remaining TV sits a journalist. Or rather, five journalists, each fighting for a clear view. While the other players remain monkishly calm, the journalists are shouting at one another. They are shouting things like “It’s behind you!” and “No, you can only do that with your weapon sheathed,” and “Hit him with a broom! Hit him with a broom!” and “Quick, try it on that herbivore!” And they are getting their arses well and truly kicked.
If you’re worrying that Monster Hunter’s move to Wii makes it any less of an ego-trampling, “character-building” purist’s paradise, don’t. The tutorials are apparently a bit fleshier, a little more palatable for the great unwashed, and some of the more esoteric weapons (the bow, dual swords, hunting horn and gunlance) are missing in action, but this is, at heart, very much still a dragon of a game – a game in which you spend dozens of hours trying and failing to take down some huge, devious and incredibly resilient mythical animal in order to get your paws on a fetching new set of lizard-skin boxer shorts. Noobs need not apply, even those with a sky-high WPM.
Play is once again divided between two hub towns – one for the offline missions, another for the online mode – and a mess of capacious, picture postcard landscapes, each further broken down into discreet areas with their own fauna and item drops. Load tunnels are back, but load times have been chopped to fractions of a second, and while the animations and textures don’t exactly blow Uncharted 2 out of the water, they take most other Wii releases to school.
New to the mix is a living ecology: critters will no longer simply home in on the player as soon as he or she enters their trigger zone, but interact with each other in a faintly plausible manner. Velociraptor-like Jaggies have territories, and will defend them, if given no option, against even the largest predators. Winged Rathlions rebuild their stamina between clashes by chomping down herds of grass-eaters. Some monsters can even imitate others, like the beaked Qurupeco, summoning cat-like Melynxes to hinder your assaults.
Of course, the big draw on these shores will be the newly non-borked online functionality. Up to four players can join together in the quest for ever-bulkier and snazzier kinds of freshly-chopped dinosaur-slaying attire (there’s also local arena-style co-op for two players). Many of the new features have been designed with the Xbox Live and PlayStation Network crowds in mind. There’s Wii Speak support to bolster the returning suite of emoticons, and thankfully the use of Friends Codes is optional (though if you take the trouble to memorise ‘em you’ll be able to see where your fellow hunters hail from, as in Mario Kart Wii).
The new Classic Controller Pro – essentially a Classic Controller with beefy handgrips, extra shoulder buttons and wider spaced analog sticks – is some indication of the politics behind Monster Hunter’s shift from Sony to Nintendo consoles: Capcom, we’re told, was brought in on the design work. The controller is pleasure to use – a far cry from the crabclaw-inducing PSP layout – but the enthusiasm with which the device is presented is a little suspicious. How will the game fare on a standard Classic, or even a Wiimote and nunchuck, neither of which we were able to road-test?