Traditionally, the MMORPG genre hasn't done very well on consoles. Admittedly, very few attempts have even made it to consoles, but out of those, only some Phantasy Star offerings and Final Fantasy XI come to mind. And most who play FF11 play it on PC, where it is considered to play best. It's invariably more difficult to chat when playing a console MMO; there's no TeamSpeak service, and text-typing either involves an unwieldy interface or putting down the controller to type on a keyboard.
Enter Monster Hunter, Capcom's series of fantasy MMO-style RPGs. It started with the PlayStation 2 Monster Hunter in 2001, taking the MMO format and making it work offline. The PSP entries, known as the Monster Hunter Freedom series, provided multiplayer via ad-hoc. Meanwhile, a true MMO, Monster Hunter Frontier, has become popular enough in Japan to get an Xbox 360 release. The true sequel to the PS2 entries has dropped on Nintendo Wii.
Monster Hunter Tri is the first Wii entry of the series, the first Wii game to have unhindered online play, the first online RPG on the Wii, and just about the best console MMO ever. Taking all the quintessential elements of the genre and porting them to the Wii, it even finds ways to make communication work wonderfully and handles the Wii's unique elements incredibly well. In general, it just works, making it one of the best RPG experiences on the Wii.
Monster Hunter casts you as a novice hunter in a world where giant monsters roam. Your job is to hunt down these giant creatures by capturing or killing them. Sometimes, you merely have to gather items from the various wilderness environments in which the monsters live. There isn't a lot of story beyond that; it's all about doing the missions to get cool stuff.
Gameplay is split about evenly between online and offline play. Your character persists between both, but each has a complete environment and mission set of its own. Offline play takes place in the small Moga Village, whose people actively support you in many ways, since your ultimate goal is to save their island from the fearsome Lagiacrus, a giant electric sea dragon. Online play occurs in a desert city that's full of people who want to profit from the major Hunter's Guild headquarters.
While you're offline, Moga Village has a small group of people actively interested in helping you in any way they can. Even the captain of the traveling trade ship is rather generous, happily taking trades that only let him break even. They give you control of Pokke Farm, a reasonably nice house, and other resources that they come across throughout the story line. You'll eventually find a weird little guy called Opa-Opa, who replaces the Felyne Companions you had in Monster Hunter Freedom Unite.
While you're online, you'll see all of the same shops, though some may have more items in stock. Opa-Opa won't follow you on city missions, the NPCs are less helpful and polite, but there are more people to talk to, including the tutorial instructor from Freedom Unite. You don't even get tutorials online, but in the city, you can gather a team of four to team up on the quest.
The core gameplay is basically the same as Phantasy Star Online, or something almost precisely halfway between World of Warcraft and Devil May Cry. Run around, fulfill the quest conditions by smacking monsters or grabbing items, and slash things. In PSO style, your attacks are tap-based: Press the button, and the attack occurs. You can also chain attacks into combos. Unlike PSO, when it comes to combat options, your weapon is pretty much it. Fortunately, you have a number of attacks per weapon, as well as better evasion options.
Hits in Monster Hunter Tri are enforced by hitboxes, requiring that you consider your position and the direction you're facing before each attack. Notably, the game offers no aim adjustment, requiring that you take time to learn each swing and how best to hit with it. Tri has more wide swings than previous games, and you can use them to hit an opponent or push back entire groups. Play changes if you're using the Bowgun (the only ranged weapon in this entry), handling a little more like a third-person shooter but still requiring the same precision as in offline play.
Unlike most MMOs, players don't directly pick up equipment. Instead, you pick up items from monsters or the environment, and you need to have the blacksmith combine them into your gear, which is the only source of stats in this game. While this mandates doing some out-of-the-way farms, it eventually boils down to requiring you to take out specific monsters (usually bosses) a certain number of times. While this reeks of forced repetition and grinding, the game design turns most of the instances into fun, challenging fights.
Tri follows the series' existing formula, but it also innovates in ways large and small. The online component is silky smooth, even on clogged connections (I intentionally played while watching a YouTube HD videos, and there weren't any hiccups), allows full chat on the Wii without Friend Codes or any affiliated stupidity, and generally brings things to a whole new level. The game notably lacks the official Nintendo Wi-Fi symbol in favor of a unique variant, but the fact that Nintendo let them do this is amazing!
Then there's the introduction of underwater gameplay, which changes things about as much as you'd expect by erasing the fundamentally 2-D gameplay. The NPC chats are more entertaining than ever (complete with several sly and hilarious Internet meme references), the menus are refined, and even the controls have been slightly polished and optimized for your choice of Classic Controller or combination of Wii Remote and Nunchuk. I actually preferred the Wii Remote controls, where attacks are either a quick swipe for heavy attacks or a tilt and the A button for lighter techniques, but I found both control methods to be vastly superior to any previous MH game.
The game's graphics are also very beautiful and play out on Nintendo's lesson that top-notch looks aren't in how many polygons you push, but in how well you use them. Environments are lush, varied and pleasant to the eye, while monsters look consistent and realistic, even if they don't vary too much. Sound effects include some nice orchestral scoring, decent monster noises, and a surprisingly wide variety of Link-style voice sets for characters to use. Most battle sequences aren't accompanied by a score, so music serves as a warning that something's about to happen. NPCs mutter to represent that they are talking, but if you're looking for full voice acting, it's not present in this title.
In the end, Monster Hunter Tri takes all the essentials of the MMORPG format and ports them, almost perfectly, to the Wii. It's better than previous console attempts but is on par with the series in general. The new elements enhance play immensely, and the experience is almost perfectly tuned for any RPG fan.
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