Monster Hunter: World

Mar 10, 2019

Monster Hunter: World checks a lot of boxes. It has great map design, an exceptional original soundtrack, is visually impressive and hits upon a fun gameplay loop. That alone is enough to be noteworthy for a new release. Unfortunately it has both design flaws and a lack of polish that hurt the game that is, and make me wish instead for the game that could be.

Monster Hunting

The primary gameplay of Monster Hunter is of course hunting monsters – tracking monsters down to carve materials for your next upgrade.

Tracking

The tracking mechanics are disappointingly lackluster. The game opts for a very RPG approach. You wander around finding tracks; a bar is filled up as you examine them, and the location of the monster is eventually revealed. It’s all much too “gamey” for me.

There is so much potential for more exciting hunting mechanics in a fantasy setting like this:

Rewarding players for their ingenuity and attentiveness is always going to be more interesting than filling up bars. There was a missed opportunity for a more satisfying hunting experience.

The game does offer one good counterpoint to this complaint. Most monsters have a home that they run to when injured, and a feeding ground they visit when hungry or exhausted. These locations aren’t spelled out to the player and must be discovered through playing. This is one place where the game rewards attentiveness instead of simply putting the player through the motions. I just wish they took it further.

Combat

Combat actually feels pretty good. There’s a lot of weapon variety and most offer a unique or interesting moveset. Large weapons feel heavy, while small weapons feel quick and nimble.

Monsters feel lively, and different states such as enragement keep you on your toes. They usually have enough moves in their repertoire to keep the fight feeling fresh.

One issue is that monsters are not very reactive. They tend to repeat their AI loops and have no concept of adapting to the player. They do build up resistances to various status ailments, but this feels more mechanical than organic.

At various health thresholds the monsters will begin to retreat. This requires you give chase and follow them to the next battleground. While it can offer a nice breather as you prep for the next stage, this mechanic does get old after a while.

Monsters are generally well telegraphed which allows you to learn their tells. As a result of this fights almost always feel fair. When you faint it’s usually because you’ve over-extended and were taking too many risks. There is however one major exception to this:

Stuns, and similar status effects will completely remove player control over your character. A monster stomping nearby might trigger tremor which causes your character to wobble feebly as they attempt to regain their balance. I might call this artificial difficulty, but for fear of a semantic argument I think I’ll just say it’s game design that I don’t agree with.

Watching your character stumble around while waiting to see if the monster takes that opportunity to swoop is never how I want to go down. I am more than happy to be punished for over-extending, taking a needless risk, or just missing an essential timing. I want to feel that it was an error I made, and not that an invisible status buildup finally triggered at an inopportune time.

Eventually I designed a set of armour which prevented stuns, roars, tremors, and other tricks that remove the player’s control. Almost immediately I found the game was much more enjoyable to play. I’m sure long-time fans of the series will disagree, but my only conclusion here is that these elements do not make the game more fun.

Carving and Crafting

I really enjoy the carving and crafting system. Rather than a traditional level up mechanic, it’s a means of getting stronger that feels both rewarding and immersive. It also means that all players end up on an equal footing, where those who have invested more time are not necessarily any stronger.

Crafting armour also offers interesting bonuses which allow for a lot of creativity when designing a build. Finding the best combinations of bonuses and defenses can be a fun challenge, and the loadouts system encourages using a variety of builds for different weapons, monsters, or even in online play.

While carving does have an element of randomness, it’s done in a convincingly immersive way. Certain materials can be encouraged to drop by focusing on breaking certain parts of the monster. This makes obtaining rarer materials less of a hassle.

Overall the carving and crafting mechanics work very well together and make for satisfying gameplay.

Difficulty

Most games offer a slowly-increasing difficulty curve, with the odd peak or trough to keep things interesting. Monster Hunter: World, unfortunately, feels like a flat line.

As your gear is upgraded at approximately the same rate as the monsters, it can seem like you’re spinning your wheels in place. The story is constantly telling you that this next monster is the “really big one” but it never really delivers on that promise.

For a game to feel rewarding you must overcome adversity, and I never felt like I was overcoming any serious challenge in MHW. There was a short acclimation period when learning a new monster, and then it became just another creature to farm. This feeling held throughout the game. Even the run up to and final boss itself left me with no faints, and only a sense of ennui.

There’s a few ways I would address this. Past a certain point in the game I would have liked armour values to be decreased. This would still encourage variety from the various armour skills but allow difficulty to scale up appropriately. Limiting the player to only one mantle, or removing the more powerful mantles would also be a welcome change.

I understand one of the goals with MHW was to make the game more accessible to a wider audience, and this goal was surely accomplished. In the process however they may have sacrificed too much on the difficulty front. A slider to enable a hard mode would not be unappreciated for those looking for more.

Past the game’s release more difficult variants of monsters were introduced. The original tempered monsters gave way to new arch-tempered variants (which are unfortunately time limited). They have more bark than bite however, and quickly fell to the Rotten Vale.

It’s possible that future “G-rank” monsters will step it up, but my guess is that new armour will quickly offset any difficulty increase.

Meownster Design

One post-release monster did surprise me though, and that’s Behemoth. Behemoth is a large bull creature from the Final Fantasy series. It’s the first (and only) fight that I would describe as genuinely challenging. It’s also the fight that I had the most fun with, and may be the redeeming monster of the game for me.

Both Behemoth and its upgraded form “Extreme Behemoth” require the player adapt their playstyle. It’s a punishing fight and very rewarding to complete. My only real complaint is that it’s a forced group fight. The monster’s health does not scale which means you have to rely on other players also playing perfectly.

Putting aside difficulty, many other monsters have their charm as well. The Paolumu is a personal favorite. It expands like a puffer fish, and when excited runs until it falls flat on its face. This attention to detail really gives the game its character.

As you play through the story though, you’ll find a number of monsters start feeling a bit samey. The Uragaan feels a lot like the Radobaan. The Lavasioth and Jyuratodus surely share a common ancestry. And let’s not even talk about the four variants of Rathalos/Rathian. I would have liked to see more variation within the existing monsters to give them more distinct identities.

What’s interesting to me is that while there’s many large monsters, and a handful of small monsters, there are almost no medium monsters. Filling in some more links in the food chain would make for a more convincing world. Introducing more behaviours such as bathing and grazing would build on this even more.

Complexity

MHW is a fairly complex game. There’s many overlapping systems, and I suspect most are vestiges of previous games in the series. Complexity however should not be mistaken for depth. Many systems could have been, and likely should have been simplified.

Quests

Quests are divided into categories: assigned (story missions), optional, investigations, events, special assignments, arenas, challenges, and Kulve Taroth sieges.

Having so many categories can be confusing for new players. It would be understandable if there were need for it, but many of these categories are ultimately redundant.

Optional quests contain mostly duplicate copies of other mission types. The names are changed but the quests otherwise remain the same. This means that completing all quests actually requires the player do so twice. Allowing the player to instead replay missions would be more intuitive behaviour and remove the need for this category.

Special assignments are quests which were published during a post-release game update. They could easily be integrated into the assigned quests menu (which notifies you of newly available quests), removing yet another category.

Challenge and arena quests are separated out into another menu system. It’s not clear to me why, but possibly to denote that they have leaderboard rankings.

Expeditions are a way to explore the world without taking on a quest. When I started the game and wanted to explore, this was my preferred way to play. There’s a number of mechanics that reward exploration early. Discovering camps unlocks shortcuts around the map. Grimalkyne quests and field researchers offer more immersive “in-world quests” with useful rewards. These were my favorite activities, and I was disappointed once they dried up.

Food System

I played for 250 hours before I came to fully understand the food system. I will attempt to sum it up briefly:

Food skills are determined by the color categories of foods that you select. If enough of a color isn’t selected (two foods per tier), then it falls back to randomly-cycling daily food skills. Each skill has a chance of activating based on the number of fresh ingredients chosen, unless you use a food voucher in which case all skills are guaranteed to activate. Fresh ingredients also determine max health and stamina, but items such as Ancient Potions can be used to maximize these instead.

Did you get all that? I can’t imagine a new player would.

This system works fine from a game balance perspective. It allows players to optimize their preferred food skills and pay an item cost (vouchers or potions) to get a more aggressive buff. The problem is simply how complicated it is. I’m sure these mechanics could be organized in a way to satisfy player customization without requiring a video tutorial.

Gating the more powerful food skills behind random daily skills (eg. Felyne Insurance) also introduces an element of chance which I don’t care for. Instead, requiring the player give something up for a specific food skill would have created a more interesting choice without having to wait on lady luck.

Technical Issues

The game has been marred by a number of technical issues. Some have been solved, while others remain unaddressed.

PC Port

The PC version of the game started off rough, but has improved with updates.

In the original PC release of the game, aiming with a mouse moved a “virtual joystick”. This led to frustratingly slow and imprecise movements. Raw mouse input was finally patched in after many months, but bizarrely has been stowed in the options menu. Why this wasn’t set as default, or even made the only input option is even more perplexing.

Even today the radial menu is simply nonfunctional for keyboard users. The four cardinal directions can be selected, but items on an angle are unreachable. It’s possible this is an issue caused by key ghosting but I have not been able to find a solution.

Keyboard issues aside, the radial menu is a nice addition to Monster Hunter: World. I’d actually prefer to use it exclusively, but unfortunately the classic bar menu cannot be disabled.

Network errors are hit and miss for players. Some have been affected drastically while others have never seen one. I fall into the former camp. I’ve been booted from at least a dozen games with the error 50152-MW1. These seem to have been mostly resolved now, but during periods of peak server activity they can still crop up.

Bugs and Polish

Even a year after release, there are still many bugs and rough edges that have not been addressed. Many of these problems are low-hanging-fruit, and would be quite easy to fix.

These problems are readily apparent in playing the game. My question is why they never came up during initial playtests, or were addressed post-release.

Streamlining

Similarly, many of the game’s systems seem designed with the expectation that players will do one thing, while they actually opt for another.

The timer at the end of the mission defaults to “Start expedition”. Never once have I intended to start an expedition after completing a quest, nor do the players I group up with online. It vexes me that this is still the default option.

If there is reason to start an expedition though, why not put us into expedition mode immediately and let us return to base whenever we want? The timer offers little more than a forced time waster.

Most of the time you’ll want to return to the hub after each quest to take care of any business which has changed: restock items, turn in quests to the resource center, harvest the ancient tree, update the ecological researcher, talk to the ship captain, and send out the palico safari. Placing all of these maintenance tasks in close proximity would really cut down on the time spent before you’re able to get out in the field again.

PC mods have shown just how much quality-of-life features can add to the game. The mod Improved NPC Locations moves all NPCs into the Gathering Hub (or is it the Celestial Pursuit?). This also encourages players to spend more time in the multiplayer area between missions. The rest of Astora is singleplayer only, which really reduces the lively feel of the game.

Even the main menu could be streamlined. Through multiple clicks, you’re asked to start or join a lobby when you start the game. Seeing if your friends have a lobby open requires navigating to a submenu, despite being information that should be visible before deciding to start a new lobby.

It’s a small issue, but sums up a lot of the design problems.

Conclusion

Monster Hunter: World has so much going for it, and that’s what makes its flaws even more disappointing. If I had a magic paintbrush I’d change one hundred little things about the game and I’m still not sure if I’d be done.

Still, the game gets very close to being good. It hits on a lot of great mechanics and makes bold decisions. It eschews standard RPG leveling and encourages player choice in many areas. It looks good, sounds good, and sometimes even plays good. I just wish it didn’t leave me constantly scratching my head.

I’m giving the game a lukewarm thumbs up. I hope the developers continue to innovate on the Monster Hunter formula because they’re moving in the right direction. They need to spend a little more time polishing the rough edges and making sure their design lines up with how players are actually playing the game.