Friday, January 29, 2010

Another Guest Appearance on the Digital Cowboys

Where is my head? I completely forgot to tell you guys that I appeared on the Digital Cowboys podcast again last week. We discussed the topic of my next video: moral choice systems in games.

If you'd like a little preview of the topic, go give it a listen.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Mini-Retrospective: Monster Hunter

I want to take a minute to look at a favorite franchise of mine: Monster Hunter. Though it's only a cult hit here in the states, Japan is absolutely nuts for it (with good reason). And with Monster Hunter 3 coming to the Wii in April, I'd like to go over what makes this little-known series so damn good.

The Basics

The games are very simple in their premise: hunt monsters and wear them as a hat. There is no story. You are simply a hunter in a fantasy tribal village, tasked with hunting local monsters using a variety of weaponry from greatswords to lances to bowguns. You start by taking down herbivores and small, raptor-like carnivores. You gather herbs and ore from the wilderness, and create new armor and weaponry using the skins and fangs of your kills. Eventually, you are ready to take down larger prey, which allows you to forge even stronger equipment. By endgame, you are wearing the scales of legendary beasts for armor, fighting dragons the size of stadiums.

One of the game's biggest strengths is its potential for multiplayer. Four hunters can work together online at once to bring down their prey. And against some of the larger wyverns, four well-equipped players are essential. The thrill of chasing a huge wyvern across the wilderness -- and working as a unit to bring it down -- is something I have not experience in any other game.

This brings us to the unavoidable matter of ...

The Flaws

Though multiplayer is where Monster Hunter truly shines, Capcom constantly releases the games with limiting multiplayer options, or on platforms with little multiplayer support. The original game was for the PS2, a console not built with online play in mind. Most of the sequels were released for the PSP, but only supported local ad-hoc multiplayer (no online play). Even now with Monster Hunter 3, the game is undoubtedly going to be hindered somewhat by the Wii's limited online capacity. It's an improvement over the PS2, to be sure, but it would be great to see how well these games could perform with full multiplayer support.

Another lasting flaw with the Monster Hunter franchise are the controls. They have always been pretty awful. Though the idea to control weapon swings with the dualshock's right stick is still pretty cool, this means we can't use the right stick for the camera. Instead, they moved the camera controls to the D-pad, forcing you to control both your character and the camera with the same thumb. This simply isn't possible in the thick of tough fight. Fortunately, the new Wiimote control scheme seems to fix this problem, but we'll see how well it works out in practice.

On top of all that, the game starts out deceptively slow. For the first ten hours of the game, the town elder sends you on tasks that seem pointless, simple and occasionally just plain dull. This mediocre first impression may lose the attention of many newcomers, but those who stick around long enough to become veterans know the truth: the game is helping you.

Let me be clear: Monster Hunter is hard. These games may appear simple at first, but early wyvern battles will quickly break you of that illusion. You will quickly find that these games are about taking on beasts much more powerful than yourself. There are no experience points. You can't grind levels early on and coast through the rest of the game on "easy mode". The only way to become stronger in this game is through equipment and practice. To even have a chance, you must be well-prepared and know how to use the tools at your disposal.

Yes, the game spent eight hours sending you out to fetch raw meat, herbs, ore and all manner of raw materials. Yes, it made you learn how to cook the meat to perfection. It made you learn to combine raw materials to make traps, ammunition, smoke bombs, explosives and health potions. By the time you finally got to hunt something bigger than a raptor, you had more meat, potions and materials than you knew what to do with.

But what you didn't realize is that you needed all of that stuff. That meat will temporarily increase your stamina, allowing you to run further and block more attacks without getting tired. You'll need those flash bombs and poisons to confuse and weaken your prey before it can devour you. Those traps will give you precious seconds to get in some solid blows before retreating, or possibly even give you a chance to tranquilize and capture the beast (which gives even better rewards!). And you'll be drinking those health potions like water, trust me. If you are going to master this game, you need to know the controls and understand the tools you have at your disposal, and the early game gives that to you.

Why You Should Play It

Let me paint a picture: you have spent many hours improving your skills at this game. You have a new set of armor fashioned from the scales of the Rathalos you fought before, and you hope it will offer you strong defense against your next quarry: the powerful Monoblos. You have fought this beast before. You have not defeated it, but you have gained valuable experience from the losses. You have learned its behavior, you know its attacks. You have spotted the subtle tells in its movement that telegraph its next move. He isn't going to get the better of you this time.

You begin to prepare for the hunt. You know the Monoblos calls the desert sands home, so you mix a few Cool Drinks to take with you to keep the heat from chipping away at your health. You also pack Well Cooked Meat to keep your stamina high, a fundamental practice. You know the Monoblos likes to burrow beneath the sand and surprise attack from beneath, so you pack some Paintballs, which will allow you to track his movements. You also bring some Pit Traps, not because you hope to capture, but because it will give you a brief chance to arm some Barrel Bombs nearby and do some serious damage quickly. Once you've packed these, along with a healthy supply of Potions, you are ready to go.

Once you have journeyed to the desert, you find the Monoblos quickly (you have learned the area where it likes to burrow beneath the cool sand) and the battle begins. It's a hard fight. As the fifty minute time limit draws near, you are down to your last Potion and all of your extra offensive tools are spent. Even your trusty greatsword has grown dull after repeated strikes against the Monoblos' thick scales, but you can tell the monster is weakened by the way it limps and tries to retreat. You give pursuit and, with mere minutes to spare, you bring the Monoblos down. You win.

Triumphant, you begin to carve the beast's carcass, collecting scales, teeth, claws, bone and -- most importantly -- it's enormous, rhino-like horn. You take all of these back to your village. Some of the spoils are sold, others stored. But you have a special use in mind for the horn. You enlist the help of the local weaponsmith, who fashions the horn into a spectacular new greatsword. It is a superior weapon, but it is also a trophy; visible proof of your victory for all other hunters to see.

Exhausted but victorious, you take a well-earned rest and begin to plan the next day's gathering trips. You'll will need more herbs to make Potions, and your meat supplies are running a bit low. You must be prepared, for you already have your next quarry in mind: the stone-beast Gravios.

I write that extended description to convey what Monster Hunter does right. No other game makes you feel so much like an actual hunter. Veteran players can almost sense the way each wyvern thinks.

Monster Hunter is a unique experience, and it's unfortunate how little attention the series has gotten here in the states. When Monster Hunter 3 hits in April, I encourage all of you to at least give it a rental. And if you can, try to find a friend to play it with online. I admit that this series isn't for everyone, but I'm willing to bet that -- for some of you -- Monster Hunter will be a game you never knew you always wanted. I can guarantee you that I'll be playing it.