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Monster Hunter Freedom Unite – hands-on

Ever heard of Monster Hunter? If not, we can at least rule out the possibility of living in Japan. The RPG series is the biggest thing on PSP across the Pacific, and it’s easy to see why: it essentially brings the MMO experience to a handheld, which is a difficult but clever feat to pull off. While Monster Hunter isn’t a “true” MMO, it does provide an analogous experience: players create, customize, and equip a character that ventures forth into a vast world, meeting up with other players to work together to complete quests.

Instead of working within a persistent world as typical MMOs do, Monster Hunter brings PSP players together through Ad-hoc connections, allowing up to 4 people to form a party and do the obvious (hint: it’s in the title). This latest version, Freedom Unite (grammarz FTW?), is a renamed version of the most recent Japanese release, which was known as Monster Hunter Portable 2G. First off, if you have played the previous Monster Hunter, Freedom 2, you can transfer your character over, which is pretty darn cool.

Grind-averse gamers beware: Monster Hunter is social RPG gaming distilled to the core experience: you get a quest, you go kill monsters. Repeat. Still, the action that glues it all together is much more “hands-on” than your average MMO. Instead of having characters set on auto-attack, you manually choose when to land each strike, choosing between two types of attack. Positioning is also critical, as boss monsters have specific attack types that hit certain areas around them, or they may perform charging attacks.

There aren’t any “spells” or special abilities in Monster Hunter. Instead, item management is the other key component of combat alongside attacking and positioning. The game claims to provide 1500 weapons and 2000 sets of armor, along with countless potions, bombs, and random things like deodorant (which proved useful against a giant white gorilla that farts on you). When we first started, we got our asses handed to us by a dragon that loved to fly up into the air and come down with crushing force. Only after proper timing of healing herbs did we survive.

Weapon choices have a direct effect on how a character attacks. Our first weapon was a pair of swastika-shaped thingies that were fast, but had a short range. Later we swapped out for a huge sword that was much slower, but had way better range. While these mechanics are standard stuff in action games, it’s not so standard in an MMO-type setting.

For those that don’t want to group up, or don’t always have the chance, Freedom Unite offers a new AI companion that makes solo play a whole lot more convenient than previous entries. The cleverly named “Felyne” AI characters (surprise: they’re cats) tag along and provide healing and support to make item management easier during hectic battles. Still, for the full experience, grouping up with buddies is the way to go. Surrounding a gargantuan beastie, calling out warnings of incoming attacks, and handing off important items to each other is the true Monster Hunter effect.

During our play session we got to take down several bosses alongside a full group of players. Each encounter had a multi-stage progression: hurt a boss enough, and it retreats into a deeper area, until finally you track it to its lair. There was a strong sense of danger, as sudden attack lopped off huge chunks of our life bars and we scattered in all directions, frantically trying to heal before the next attack. For those lucky to have three other regular companions to play with, Monster Hunter Freedom Unite could provide a silly number of hours tracking down and slaying giant creatures. The solo play will probably be less compelling, but it certainly works to fill in the space between group sessions. We’ll see how much the Monster Hunter bug catches on when Freedom Unite releases this summer.

Apr 29, 2009