Monster Hunter Had to Kick My Ass to Teach Me Why It Was So Great

"Dragons ain't got shit on me." -Me, 15 minutes before being wrecked by Nergigante, the elder dragon.

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Feb 22 2018, 8:07pm

For the first forty hours, I’d found a lot to love about Monster Hunter: World: the memorable creature design, the rewarding combat, the intricate environments. But series devotees had told me that the real joy would be found in preparation, which was something that I’d only ever done at a surface level.

Sure, I always made sure to eat a hearty meal before a big fight, and I knew how to stay stocked up on potions and antidotes, and once I even checked to see whether or not Rathalos was weak to poison weapons (it isn’t), but I never really felt like I was learning or growing. After all, I’d been able to basically brute force my way through the game.

By and large, my monster hunting cycle went like this: 1. Meet a new monster type. 2. Have a little trouble as I wrap my head around its attacks. 3. Pull through and win. 4. Rinse and repeat my winning strategy on subsequent quests. Don’t get me wrong, these encounters were often exhilarating, but they rarely pushed me to the brink of failure. In that opening 40 hours or so, I’d only failed a mission a couple of times.

Then I came face to face with Nergigante, a massive, black dragon covered in sharp spines and crowned with a pair of horns each larger than the head that wears them. My "Hunter's Notes," an in game guide book, tells me that “its penchant for destruction is well documented.”

As example of that documentation, consider the half dozen times he killed me.

And I don’t just mean that he “made me faint” six times. In Monster Hunter: World, each distinct hunt you go out on gives you the equivalent of “three lives.” When a monster beats you, you faint, lose any buffs you’ve compiled, and are returned to your camp to restock your supplies in safety. Throughout most of the game, I only ever even fainted when I was goofing off and trying a new weapon that I didn’t really know how to use. Whenever things got really hard, I switched to my trusty Switch Axe and everything smoothed out. No big deal.

Now, even with some of my best weapons, Nergigante was consistently dropping me. Not just dropping me, but dropping me in heartbreaking ways. And I wasn’t the only one at Waypoint that was true for:

(Danika and her palico’s fit is fire, by the way.)

Patrick had not only hit the same wall I had, but had the same exact experience I did. We went into that fight independently knowing how to use our weapons well, knowing how to generally exploit the game’s interactive environments, knowing how to buff ourselves ahead of time… yet we still lost.

But we also knew how to succeed: Preparation.

Nergigante is an example of what designers and players sometimes call a “check,” which itself is a sort of “gate.” Gates prevent players access to more of the game’s content: Think about how completing missions opens up more of GTA 3’s Liberty City, or even more simply, how defeating a boss in so many classic action games lets you advance to the next level.

“Checks” are a little more specific than gates: They prevent progress just the same, but they exist explicitly to determine whether or not you understand some fundamental (but missable) mechanic of the game. It’s not just enough to grok the basics and power through, you have to actually engage with some of the complexities that personal skill or good luck has let you ignore up until then.

One common example is the “DPS Check,” which is commonly found in RPGs, especially MMOs. These are encounters in which a raid or dungeon boss will enter some sort of special “rage” or “berserk” mode if you don’t beat them quickly enough, and start tearing through your team even if you’d had zero problem up until that point. These are more than traditional gates, preventing you from moving on in the dungeon, they’re actually testing your ability to read the game mechanics, and are often designed so that even over-leveled characters hit a brick wall if they don’t understand the fight.

Nergigante doesn’t have such a mode, but what he does have are abilities and features that make it very hard to get past him without, you guessed it, preparation. He’s a comprehension check, testing to see if you understand things like elemental strengths and weaknesses, the telegraphing of powerful moves through special animations, and most importantly, the need to do some focused grinding.

I say focused, because the solution here wasn’t just “get stronger.” It couldn’t be that, because Monster Hunter games aren’t traditional RPGs where your character gets buffer through fighting enemies. Instead, nearly all of your stats all come from your crafted gear, and the crafting components available to you is gated by—you guessed it—which major quests you’ve completed. All of that meant that Patrick and I couldn’t just go hunt other random monsters and get strong enough to make the fight against Nergigante effortless.

Instead, we needed to look through our in-game guide book (or the numerous wikis online) to determine what Nergigante was weak against, then spend time in the blacksmith’s forge figuring out how to build the right armor and weapons for the fight, then go seek out those particular components. It became a small scale version of the sorts of epics behind powerful weapons—we were going out on quests in order to build the one weapon that could bring down this unbeatable monster. Here, finally, was the fantasy of preparation that so many series fans told me about.

And here’s where Monster Hunter: World goes from good to great: Once we got those weapons, we still had to prove we knew how to use them. And honestly, I’m not sure either of us was confident. But on Monday morning, a day off for us due to President’s Day, I shot Patrick an IM anyway:

So we went live to Twitch and (after 20 minutes of even more anxious preparation), we finally faced down Nergigante together. Now is when, if you don't wanna be spoiled, you should watch the archived video at the top of the page (or just click right here to watch on YouTube.)

What followed is one of my favorite gaming experiences of recent memory—it’s up there with our first on-stream PUBG Chicken Dinner. At no point did it feel like we had it “in the bag.” Even when it was wounded, even when it had forced it back to its nest, it felt like everything could go wrong—and many things did.

There’s a lot I could talk about here: the undulating rhythm of this fight, composed of brief openings in which we could deal meaningful damage and long stretches where every attack we tried required great precision, lest we be devastated by Nergigante’s powerful claws; the wins afforded to us by our use of the environment, which in one instance let us crush the dragon under loose hanging crystal stalactites; our use of items like flash pods, bombs, and healing powders—things that only 5 hours of play before we’d only seen as curiosities, but now felt like necessities.

But the thing most important thing, at the end of the day, was our familiarity and faith in our own weapons and skills. Patrick constantly found places to launch his character up into the air from, allowing him to land devastating aerial attacks. I spent the entire fight working down Nergigante’s tail, hoping that I’d be able to cut it off (and potentially get us a rare item in the process) before we finished the fight, or before it finished us.

At no point did Monster Hunter: World explicitly confirm that those strategies were working—in fact, I only removed the dragon’s tail seconds before winning the fight—but we knew from hours and hours of practice what our characters could do. That special mixing of ambiguity and knowledge is what elevates Monster Hunter: World to such a high level, and it came together perfectly in this fight against Nergigante.

We’re not done with Monster Hunter: World yet. We still have some more elder dragons to fight, for sure. And beating Nergigante doesn’t mean that those future challenges will be easy. But what it does mean is that when we reach our next wall, we’ll know exactly how to prepare to break through it.

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