This is perhaps the highest praise for Freedom Unite: With a game of this complexity, you should be inspired to take lots of breaks, but you don't, and the state you achieve somewhere in the middle of your longer gaming sessions is vaguely trancelike. You often can't put down the PSP even when you badly want to put it down. That's not too common for more robust portable titles; in raw gaming appeal, Freedom Unite places well among the ranks of crazy popular online console multiplayer titles.
For those not indoctrinated in the Monster Hunter phenomenon, Capcom's franchise began on the PS2 and was migrated, fairly intact though enhanced, to PSP, the platform upon which the games have remained immensely popular in Japan. It's so popular that, as the box copy declares, Freedom Unite is the bestselling PSP game in the world (Freedom Unite was released more than a year ago in Japan, accounting for its ready-made world champion sales status upon U.S. release).
All of the action takes place in a fantasy realm of diverse terrain; the land is peppered with tiny villages full of peaceable townsfolk, but the little hamlets are often plagued by the scourge of wicked monsters dwelling in the wild zones beyond the towns' borders. In each town, there is a sort of hero/warrior, the Monster Hunter. In the game, you become a town's Monster Hunter, hopefully fulfilling your duties keeping the town safe from all sorts of nasties, ranging from relatively benign to truly vicious. That's really all the plot lesson you need before playing. The game world is rich and varied, and Freedom Unite possesses the particular ability to teach its own mythology as gameplay progresses, no matter one's level of past experience with the franchise.
Stateside gamers who are already Monster Hunter fans will find Freedom Unite largely a small refinement and expansion to Monster Hunter Freedom 2: the same game you love, but more of it. If you weren't disappointed in Freedom Unite's direct predecessor, I'm confident you'll enjoy this new title. There are, of course, more new monsters, but also featured are a few new locations and extra implements of the monster-hunting trade, as well as more quests. There are north of 350 quests in Freedom Unite. This is not a game you'll polish off in a week, not that Monster Hunter fans would want to. Freedom Unite also features new G-class quests, which are the highest level of quest, by far the most difficult. Monsters take a lot more damage before dying in G-class quests, and the same monsters from lower-level quests appear with new assault tactics, making matters rather dire. The rewards for completing G-class quests are great, but players new to the series will, and should, take a while getting to them.
Old hands can import their hunters from Monster Hunter Freedom 2, which is handy if you have favorites, but you should definitely take note that importing characters from the preceding game sets flags that you've completed quests and engaged in various other activities that you did in the earlier title but haven't touched in Freedom Unite. I originally created a new character but went back at one point and imported a legacy character. Imagine my surprise at discovering how much I accomplished in Freedom Unite just by sitting there during a very brief import process. Be warned, for the completionist, who probably won't care much for repeating things that have already been flagged as complete, that importing Freedom 2<//i> characters definitely diminishes the overall quantity of Freedom Unite's content.
Graphics are good in Freedom Unite, for what they are. There's a lot going on, the designers strove to give you a broad view of the area in which you're walking so the character models are often somewhat necessarily small. Freedom Unite, because of its very nature, just can't be the sort of game that makes you say, "Wow, that's on the PSP?" But where graphical elements can shine, they do; no short shrift here. Monster fight sequences are more impressive. Cut scenes are gorgeous, and I found the opening cinematic thrilling. While sound effects are good, though nothing special, the musical score is likewise stunning: It's one of the few selections of game music I'd love to own as a recording, purely for non-gaming listening.
Considering Freedom Unite has its roots in the oft-awkward mechanics of Japanese RPG titles, and this is further complicated by implementation on a portable platform, control and overall game navigation is surprisingly smooth. While inventory management, equipping, leveling and the like are handled in common J-RPG fashion, combat action is mostly hands-on: hack-and-slash, aim-and-shoot, what have you, with a fully interactive feel. Actual damage is handled by the underlying RPG system. Certain well-landed attacks liberate monsters of so many hit points; higher-level, stronger attacks with more powerful weapons claim more hit points, and the ultimate determination of a combat win is handled by that hit-point system. You don't feel like it's all just a numbers game, though, not while you're fighting. This no doubt contributes greatly to the popularity of the Monster Hunter Freedom games, as interactivity with at least some nod to action excitement is perhaps the thing we most value in video games over other forms of entertainment.
Camera control, operated with the d-pad, is very good. You can also sprint around at a good pace, rather than being confined to a slow shuffle for all of your pedestrian transit. The integrated map, displayed in the lower right corner, is great at its job, keeping you moving in the right direction without getting too lost too much. It's a suitable dashboard GPS system for the up-and-coming Monster Hunter.
Freedom Unite is indeed complicated, so face buttons often do double and triple duty, but the contextual design behind what the buttons do and when they do it is very well done, even if the context switch occurs in a mere moment. At the outset, it's daunting when you try to remember all the things Triangle does, and whether or not you have to press Square first, and in what situations you have to push which buttons in a specific order. Run through all of the tutorials and start taking on real quests, and you'll quickly discover that you've easily learned what to do and when. The difficulty of quests ramps up gradually, and you should not find yourself fumbling too much for the right buttons, not at the outset, nor, after hours of play, while in the midst of far more difficult combat.
Freedom Unite incorporates an ad hoc (local) multiplayer mode supporting up to four players, and each participant must have his own copy of the game. This works as you'd hope: allowing human-engineered squad tactics against difficult foes. It has all the hallmarks of playing a fun RPG in a social setting, as long as you can find two or three friends who've invested the kind of time required to become competent at monster hunting. It's not even a matter of dreading lower-level quests with co-op players who aren't very good at the game but still love it. It's a matter of finding people who'll even bother with the game's complexity. I can get just about anyone to play Killzone 2 until the sun comes up, but Monster Hunter, you need to have that thing for it. I had the best time teaching my daughter the basics of the game — she's never even seen a Monster Hunter title before Freedom Unite — and playing ad hoc multiplayer with her. It's just plain fun. You'll have to rally your personal Monster Hunter troops, or be very patient in bringing new players into the fold, to get anything out of the ad hoc co-op feature.
A lot of people will disagree with me, but Freedom Unite is not as hard as it seems. It's certainly not hard to enjoy. There's definitely an intuitive tactical element required in fighting well against high-level monsters in G-class quests, and you're going to make critical mistakes. You're also going to lose — a lot. The game does a great job keeping you on the hook till you get better. I think "A Clockwork Orange" is a fabulous novel, not so much for its semi-prescience or horrific depiction of an impersonal, dystopian future, but for the fact that Burgess interweaves in his prose a rather large vocabulary of invented street slang — called Nadsat in the novel — that reads a lot like unintelligible nonsense compared with contemporary English. Yet by the end of the novel, the reader has learned a good measure of fluency in Nadsat. Freedom Unite is vaguely similar on that point, in that it hands you a world and play mechanics of tremendous complexity, but the game deftly teaches you how to play along the way, sparing you the urge to toss the UMD against the wall in disgust.
My only complaint with Monster Hunter Freedom Unite, besides the fact that long-loyal series fans don't really get the enormity of fresh content that new players will experience, is that it's not a game particularly well-suited to a portable console. Due to both its addictive quality and the longer, more difficult quest design, it's a bit odd playing Freedom Unite in portable-sized chunks as opposed to marathon sessions. As technologically accomplished as the PSP may be, those marathon sessions will play out on a smaller screen with control configurations that sometimes feel cramped. There are also some people who will simply never enjoy this type of game, but I expect those of you so opposed already know your gaming tastes don't lean this way. These small issues aside, Freedom Unite is an excellent Monster Hunter title, and it's certainly the place to start if you're new to the series but have been meaning to give it a go.Score: 9.0/10
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