Image courtesy of Capcom

Battling the Beasts of 'Monster Hunter: World' Feels Dynamic and Desperate

This new world offers intricate environments, lively creatures, kinetic combat... and a dash of colonialist fantasy.

Jan 26 2018, 7:00pm

Image courtesy of Capcom

When 3D was still fairly new to games, the promise of scale was enough to get my attention. Miles of road to drive over. Mountain peaks to climb. Rural fantasy townships and sci-fi space colonies to explore. News articles began announcing how long it took to cross a map, or how many “Oblivions” could fit into the virtual landmasses of competing games. But it wasn’t only the worlds that grew. Enemies got bigger too, with screen filling Castlevania bosses evolving into the monstrous giants of Demon’s Souls and the steppe-scraping titans of Shadow of the Colossus.

Monster Hunter: World could, by all rights, add itself to this lineage and call it a day. It has large, complex environments that clamber up into tangled jungle canopies and tumble down into winding carrion burrows. Its creatures begin at “bus-sized” and rise to living landmasses, and all of them dwarf the player’s character. And yes, there is the sheer, terrifying scale of Monster Hunter’s signature complexity, too: statistics, items, equipment, cooking, weapon movesets, assignments, upgrades, expeditions, trade missions, horticulture, bounties, crafting, charms, ranks, elemental weakness, NPC partner affinity, map zones, and somehow more still.

The point is, the scale could be the only thing Monster Hunter: World trades on. Thankfully, through its first 30 hours at least, it does more than just “impress” with size. It offers scale that moves, that surprises, that frightens. It does that by blending scale with other things: the dynamic and surprising movements of its creatures; the intricate and clever level design; the visual variety of both its monsters and landscapes, reflecting a willingness to depict both the majestic and the grotesque (often right up against each other).

You can watch a video version of this review right here:

Monster Hunter: World shows best when its in motion—this is why it’s so uniquely gif-able. It’s also why I couldn’t stop admiring the way both my character and (especially) my enemies moved, whether I was chasing a giant iguana through the brush, or diving under the talons of a poison-spewing bird, or scrambling out of the water and onto a raised islet to escape from a hungry, mud-caked fish-beast.

The titular monsters move with such verisimilitude that, even once I learned their attacks and patterns, they retained a sense of life that I rarely see in other games. What elevates this achievement even higher is that these lifelike movements only get better when the monsters came into contact with me (or with other monsters), which is where the pristine animations of most games fall apart. Instead, this is where Monster Hunter: World shines, separating itself from all of the other games I’ve played where I’ve battled massive creatures.

Two illustrations of the point...

Image courtesy of Capcom

One. It is minute thirty of my hunt. I’ve tracked and wounded an Anjanath, a sort of pink tyrannosaurus rex with smoke and flame wisping from its maw, to the very highest point in the Ancient Forest, a nest built on top of a clearing made of naturally-woven branches, leaves, and ivy.

I’d first found it stomping down a trail in the lowest depths of the woods, frightening away other, smaller creatures with its heavy strides. I’d wounded it there, dodging fire, tooth, and claw, and striking back with my switch axe, a sort of cleaver that stores up energy and can transform into an elementally charged great sword.

It did not falter from my blows, but I worked it down, bit by bit, and I eventually watched it limp erratically up the heavy boughs that make up the forest’s network of pathways, and to what I presumed was its home: A matted bed of flora, brittle bones from past meals, a few eggs.

I approached its resting body calmly, raised my blade, and heard the roar from above as a dragon arrived. It came with a speed that wasn’t meant for my eyes, only for achieving its goal: the expulsion of Anjanath from its home.

And that expulsion was quick. In one motion, as the creature I was hunting rose from its slumber, the dragon sunk its claws into its side and lifted it up into the air. I expected a fight, maybe because Anjanath had given me one. Instead, there was only a struggle. It writhed and screamed in the dragon’s grip, and I found myself wishing it would slip away. Instead, it was flicked off the edge, like a napkin or a toothpick, back to the base of the forest.

I’d carve it for parts a few minutes later.

Image courtesy of Capcom

Two. It split twenty claws into forty and I was afraid immediately. It was a kind of dog, I think, but like if a dog were the naked muscle of a bicep or a tumor the size of a small subway car.

It faced me down in a pit of poison gas, on small hills of crushed bones, and it moved with the determination of a fully open faucet, circling around me before charging in with a speed nothing else in the game had come close to. If it were a player, I’d tell you that they were cheating.

With the burly switch axe in hand, I could not consistently dodge it the way I could Anjanath’s flames, so I started flailing, trying to anticipate its arrival, trying to catch it in its mouth (which, by the way, opened way too wide.)

The first time I really hit I gasped. It had charged just as I’d done a horizontal slash downward and it rammed its head directly into the blunt side of my blade. And so, seeing it worked, I found myself turning the swipes of my sword into a shield. Suddenly, Monster Hunter: World had become a baseball game: Waiting for the pitch to cross the plate and swinging away.

I’ve played hundreds (thousands?) of very violent video games. This was the first time I’ve ever felt like I actually punched someone.

From listening to friends who love the series, even from watching videos, I’d imagined that combat in Monster Hunter: World would feel “deliberate,” the word critics often use to summarize a style of action popularized by Dark Souls. You move carefully, manage a stamina meter, and (maybe most importantly) commit to long, relatively slow attack animations.

But “deliberate” misses the mark, here. Holding that dog at bay wasn’t deliberate. It wasn’t careful. It was flailing and desperate and it felt, most of all, like holding a dog at bay.

Little of the game’s animation reads as if it was handcrafted for the sake of the player—even though it surely was. Instead, it reads as if this is just is the way the world honestly moves, as if this is how it has to move. It’s why so many of these fights have felt grave and ugly and, yes, a little guilt inducing, especially when the wounds from these fights are so well communicated.

Horns and tails are cut, and their owners, disarmed: the wyvern who spouts poison from its tail loses its most frustrating weapon once it’s gone. Fur, feather, and scale are ripped away, leaving bald spots where blade met flesh. Like Anjanath, most of these creatures limp when they are wounded. It’s partially a clever way to indicate their diminishing health without putting a meter on the screen, but it also communicates a larger sense of animal vulnerability.

Image courtesy of Capcom

I didn’t think I’d feel bad for the forty-clawed, raw-muscle dog, especially since it did not limp. It did something else, instead, brain rotted by the poison gas, maybe. When it was finally wounded, it fled a small distance away, down a fetid alley, and laid down. Not to a hidden burrow or nest. Not to a pack of beasts who would protect it. Just... around the corner. And when I woke it and broke its spirit again, it did the same thing. Poor, stupid dog.

I certainly don’t judge anyone who loves these battles. I often do, too, but I do have meaningful pangs of guilt afterward, as I always expected I might with the series. Partly, that’s because of the game’s success in rendering the monsters vulnerable on the screen—though at no point does it become a Shadow of the Colossus lesson in who The Real Bad Guy is. In fact, part of my guilt reflects the lack of alibi to hang these kills on. I never made a single piece of Anjanath gear, and the game’s story does little to justify my actions.

As an “A Class hunter,” you’ve traveled across the sea to “the new world,” where a major expedition has tracked the “elder dragons.” Through the 30 hours I’ve played (which includes all of the “low rank” content), you explore the continent and hunt some monsters in your quest to uncover why the dragons made that trip, getting a light lecture on the circle of life and the beauty of nature on the way.

It all falls flat. Partially, that’s because the game struggles to characterize its primary players at all—it doesn’t help that no one except your pet cat (who is customizable and extremely cute) has a real name. But more importantly, it’s because any ecological message it tries to convey is undercut by the the larger narrative and mechanical thrust: You are here to conquer and claim. Monsters are great to study, but they’re better for parts, and they better not get in your way.

It’s frustrating, because another narrative frame may have drawn me in. Instead, each cutscene is a speedbump in my interest. But it’s also strangely honest.

Image courtesy of Capcom

Monster Hunter: World is a game where the most well realized elements—the creatures and the places—are meant to be mastered. You master them so that you can cut them into pieces, and you cut them into pieces so that you can make new gear, and you make new gear so that you can master them better. Even when you choose to trap monsters (a slightly more difficult task than simply killing them), you’re rewarded with their pieces when you get home. You are not a hero, you are a hunter who kills for sport.

In our current moment, the phrase “big game hunter” brings to mind the Trump sons posing with their kills, holding dead leopards and detached elephant trunks as sublimated stand-ins for wealth, privilege, and supposed masculine strength.

But this association is older than the Trumps. For as long as the modern West has colonized—the act with which it marked itself as “the West”—it has reduced the lands in its margins to hunting grounds. Distant regions are places where bounty can be gained, both literal and metaphorical. Through the full set of low rank quests, Monster Hunter: World embodies exactly this colonialist fantasy: the pillaging of natural resources, the violence against native people, and the rhetorical establishment of the colonizer as civilized and rational.

There are other problems, too, separate from one’s taste for that particular theme. The life of the hunter, unlike the life of the hero, is repetitive.

Once I learned the ins-and-outs of all four areas (at least, all four that are in the low rank quests), Monster Hunter: World showed its hand and began to drag, at least in single player. Worse, once I unlocked the “high rank” quests, I received an all-at-once dump of new side missions (spread across familiar quest types), a dozen or more new equipment recipes, and an overarching main story objective that required me to repeat the same hunts I’d been doing for the first 25 hours, but with remixed enemy placement and higher damage by some of the monsters.

It all unlocked at once, there was no more slow unfolding of new stuff for me. It was all just there.

That’s the game Monster Hunter: World is, and (from my admittedly limited experience) it’s the game this series has always been. Lots of repeated content, with tons of optional and personal objectives (like learning how the different weapons work). All with a high, but masterable learning curve.

If that doesn’t sound good, then I’m not sure there’s much here for you beyond the opening low rank missions. And I mean that as someone who often sees my friends excited for something and convinces myself that maybe, just maybe, there’s something there for me, too. (Every now and then there is. Most of the time? Not so much.)

In Monster Hunter: World’s case, there has, surprisingly, continued to be something for me. I spent last night capturing some gameplay footage, and expected to find a chore. Instead, I lost an hour to learning how to use a new weapon, and even those old hunts held a few surprises. It is repetitive, and I suspect that will wear me down sooner than later, but for now, I still have some curiosity to satiate.

More importantly, Monster Hunter: World will color every future game that tries to bring “scale” to bear in both marketing and design. It doesn’t settle for raw largeness. It gives scale momentum and force and a strangeness that I had forgotten was part of seeing new, big things.

Watching the creatures of Monster Hunter: World leap, and climb, and lunge isn’t like watching an enemy in a video game. It’s like being a kid and seeing a plane lift off the runway for the first time, or an elephant picking up speed, ears flapping, or a cruise ship coming too-quickly into harbor. This is the sort of scale where disaster seems imminent, always.

In its very best moments, Monster Hunter World captures that feeling, and shifts it only a little, by testing whether you or the monster will be the disaster.