I'm going to tell you, straight-up, that Monster Hunter is one of the best games ever made. And it arrived almost fully-formed. The first entry was on PS2 and, while Capcom subsequently spent over a decade adding to and refining this base, the Monster Hunter series since has been defined by this origin point. It also moved away from home platforms, to an extent: major success was found first on the PSP and latterly on 3DS, and mainly in Japan. The series has done much better in the West recently, but in Japan it's a phenomenon – and Monster Hunter World is the big heave to change that. This is a fresh start.
To an extent, anyway. What Capcom's managed to do with Monster Hunter World bears comparison to the developer's (excellent) Resident Evil 7, which reinvented the third person survival-horror game in first person VR – while retaining the atmosphere and certain elements of the originals. MHW's big change is not so much addition as the removal of limitations. In the old games maps were divided into discrete areas, separated by short loading screens, and the environments were topographically basic in function – with the suggestion of an ecosystem, but no real substance to it beyond the occasional canned animation of predator attacking prey. Even in the superb Monster Hunter Generations, the last mainline title to see a western release, the game's PS2 roots still dictated the core.
The first thing you realise when playing the MHW beta is why the game's name is 'World.' Capcom's developers have zeroed-in on the 'ecosystem' aspect of the game and focused enormous resources on making these environments feel alive and dynamic. A lot of it is smoke and mirrors, sure – the insects that buzz across your screen, the effulgent gas slowly rising from a swamp, the way Aptonoth (Monster Hunter cows) move locations every few minutes. But as soon as hunters or monsters turn up, and everything starts reacting, this becomes a magical show.
MHW's beta included three hunts, the opening sally pitting you against the Great Jagras, a huge lizard-like beast that Has One Simple Trick You Won't Believe. I found this guy when a group of Aptonoth suddenly started getting twitchy and jostling around – before the Jagras pounced from some nearby reeds and grabbed one, before swallowing it whole and distending his stomach to accommodate the rather bulky meal. Now more of a ball than a lizard, the Jagras started kinda waddling away. The surviving Aptonoth scattered away, before gradually reforming and moving on. I hadn't moved a muscle the whole time.
Now yes, that's a canned animation and I've seen it several times. But it's one of dozens that I've seen in this beta alone, and what's so exciting about them is how bespoke they can become. Later in that Jagras fight a massive T-Rex type thing turned up mid-fight, grabbed the Jagras in its jaws, and shook it side-to-side mercilessly. It tossed the Jagras aside, which immediately got up and scarpered, then turned and started carting (KO-ing) us poor hunters.
In another fight, we had a Barroth on the ropes when this incredible fish-lizard-dragon thing (it looks a lot like a Plesioth) suddenly rocks up, goes straight for the other monster, dives into the ground, pops up from underneath and winds itself around the Barroth. The sinuous animation on the new challenger and the Barroth's furious exertions in the centre were just stunning – and over the next few minutes the Barroth moved in vain from place to place, the hunters and predator chasing it together, until the poor thing was finally beaten down. As we tried to carve it, the Plesioth-thing attacked us, and it felt like it was protecting a hard-won meal.
OK, the last point may have been wishful thinking on my part – but that's what it felt like. And all of this has to be understood in the context of these giant and seamless open environments. A big part of the thrill of Monster Hunter was always finding the beast and then fighting it across different areas, the hunt moving back-and-forth as the momentum swung. This is still happening, but since there are now no 'breaks' for loading the chase is even more of a thrill – a beast takes off and you spring after it as a group, hacking the legs, sometimes unable to keep pace, watching a tail disappear around a corner. The transitions are so exciting, as well as giving you a grand tour of these wonderful places, that 20 minute hunts are so absorbing they feel like two minutes.
The beta allowed you to try out all of the game's weapon types — the combat system's beating heart. Many of the movesets will be familiar to long-time players, but all are utterly reborn in gorgeous new animations and (on PS4 Pro) a 60FPS option that makes them look even better. The underlying precision is the same – once you've begun an attack, your hunter can't move until the animation has played out, so the game punishes spamming. But the fluidity with which your hunter now moves from one swing or dive to the next makes it all feel so much more naturalistic and responsive, especially when you manage to pull off re-positioning yourself with the bagpipes around some giant T-Rex thing's legs, before playing it a funky tune.
The combat has another addition I didn't think I'd like, but ended up loving. I mentioned MH being a precision game. Every monster is divided into multiple areas which take more or less damage, and may have a particular type of armour – so hitting a tough carapace with a longsword, for example, is not going to get you anywhere fast. Previously, players had to look up all this stuff online, and the community resources for this are amazing, but it was all in your head and kind of outside the game. Drumroll please: MHW adds damage numbers. Every time you hit a monster, you see numbers from 1 upwards which also display in different sizes and colours (i.e. a good hit looks like a better number).
Such a minor thing. But what it means is that you instantly know whether you're wasting your time hitting that beast's big toe, and should focus elsewhere. I really just did not like the look of this feature, and the final game should include the option to let you turn it off, but in practice it works really nicely, and ends up enhancing the main business of beast-smashing. I noticed this especially when using weapons that I'm not very experienced with, like the heavy bowgun and hammer, because it quickly clued me into better strategies. I knew that, if I got enough orange numbers flowing out of this Barroth's head, eventually it would crack.
There's so much more to talk about. I played the three beta hunts over and over, trying out different weapons and team sizes, and every time they played out differently. That poor Barroth – as if being killed by a fish-dragon wasn't enough, the next time I hunted him a Diablos turned up. The Diablos is a lategame monster and, to use the technical term, a right bastard. Barroth bravely ran away as soon as it turned up, at which point we decided to take on Diablos – which went *cough* really well.
The final Anjanath hunt in particular was a thrillride. This monster really shows where the game is going, delivering sprawling rock-em sock-em battles across the entire map, isolating players and finishing them off, and turning on a dime when other monsters suddenly turn up. The brakes were off in this one, and everything got a lot faster and mistakes were punished more. The opportunities this grants, conversely, feel so much greater when you manage to execute – like here where the glider ghillie suit (aka the "I Am Batman" suit) gets me onto Anjanath's back, and then the new grapple hook helps keep me there.
When everything comes together, this is just stunning. The obvious caveat is that I'm a Monster Hunter lover, and MHW will be judged on whether it can bring new fans into the series. In this context it surprises me that certain elements like item selection survive (there's a new radial wheel as well, which is great) and that the UI is still relatively busy – to a certain extent you have to be sympathetic, because MHW is a complex game, but there is so much stuff on-screen at some points that it could be a turn-off.
One change I don't especially like in this context, is the 'scoutflies' which lead you to monsters. This is essentially a minigame where finding things like monster tracks or mucous builds up a little meter, and eventually a green trail leads you to your quarry. It does take away a little bit from the opening of any hunt, where your team spreads out and tries to narrow down where something is, before converging. Monster Hunter doesn't feel like a game that needs such overt guiding lines. But if it helps out new hunters, and keeps them playing, then not only can I live with it but I'm delighted to see it.
Monster Hunter began on home console. But over the years, I'd gotten used to it in another way, and came to love all of its limitations alongside the great stuff. One of my long-term hunting companions said, while we were playing, that he knew it was daft but he couldn't help but in some way miss the loading screens. I knew exactly what he meant. I missed the potion-drinking animation too, then as we settled into this new world that soon all seemed so silly. In this new form, shackles are lifted.
It's strange but this is in some ways how I'd always imagined Monster Hunter; like a daydream brought to life. But it could get even better. Monster Hunter World is the reinvention this series needed and, if the beta is anything to go by, the full game is going to be an absolute beauty.