Analysis, Features

An Education in Monster Hunter

Monster Hunter is a reasonably popular game series with a reasonably large following of players, who have spent unimaginably countless hours just beating on monsters for the sake of entertainment. To most it’s just a video game like any other, but Monster Hunter is notorious for being a deep and challenging series, with mechanics that are relatively unique to their own concept. It’s easy to view them as a typical video game, but in many respects they also showcase why video games can make learning a fun and rewarding experience.

Monster Hunter is more or less explained by its own name – your primary objective is to hunt monsters. On a basic level, this seems rather rudimentary because a large portion of the video game industry makes games exactly like this, but it works differently in this essence. Battles gradually progress into these large-scale affairs, where the enemy can take up the entirety of your screen, and once it’s over you can choose to do it all over again, just because it’s fun. While it might not appear that these games are unique in terms of gameplay, it’s strange to see that a game of this ilk is so well-received in the gaming community.

Story is secondary in every incarnation of the series, and the developers know people aren’t playing to learn the next thing about the world of Monster Hunter. Despite this, there’s probably a lot to be learnt from the way that storytelling and world building is explored in each game. It’s fair to say that they’re relatively light in these respects, and the player isn’t expected to pay attention if they don’t wish, but for those that do, there are surprisingly entertaining characters and rich environments to fawn over. All of this is easy to glance over and are never really forced on the player, other than to provide logical progression in quests, and it’s not often that a developer would sacrifice story over gameplay in this manner.

What really makes the Monster Hunter mainline titles worth playing is the act of hunting monsters. Your typical progression lies in defeating monsters, carving them for parts, and then upgrading your weapons and armour using said parts. It’s a simple system that anyone can understand but laced with so many mechanics and nuances that it becomes a very deep and strategic experience tailored to how you want to approach the game. It takes time to learn how everything works, and the payoff becomes immediately gratifying when everything starts to click. Players can take the game at their own pace, learning each part piece by piece, though you can play however you wish without necessarily getting too seriously involved with the underlying mechanics of everything.

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And this is what I think sets Monster Hunter apart as an individual experience compared to other video games. Battling a monster is a relative experience to the player. Your reasons for accepting quests can range from doing it for fun, to needing parts for the next cool weapon you want to create, to wanting to just move on with the story. Sometimes it can be a straightforward experience, and other times it can be a long and difficult process. Being prepared, patient and mindful is all part of the learning curve that the game presents – and it’s quite a steep learning curve for the uninitiated. Those who stick with it will find themselves rewarded with a game that lasts well into the hundreds of hours, and those who don’t will have at least learnt something, even if it’s about things they don’t like doing. There are so many details to learn that it would be hard to justify learning everything unless you planned to solely play these games for months straight, and it wouldn’t be unreasonable to say that it’s easy to lose that much time in them. Each game in the series has added more features and lowered the skill-cap slightly to help induct new players into the fold, while still balancing core systems for players that really want to get into the nitty gritty of them.

Fundamental to what I think makes these games important in the wider gaming community lies in their ability to teach players about games as a medium of social interaction. Monster Hunter presents an unfathomable amount of unexplained data to players from the outset, and it’s up to them to decipher it on their own. Terms that come across as jargon first are somewhat harrowing, especially when the NPC’s aren’t willing to divulge any information, and the in-game manual can feel a bit lacking too. Luckily there is a huge community backing these games, consequently providing players with resources shared across the globe. A quick search on Google gives players access to information pertaining to how damage is calculated, weak spots, efficient ways of harvest parts, upgrade paths, invincibility frames, pretty much anything you need to know and more is freely available online.  Sharing tips and tricks with each other like in the early days of video games is a significant part of what makes them so valuable as examples of impressive social tools.

That isn’t to say it would be impossible to work this all out on your own, just that the game openly suggests working as a team will allow you to get way more out of it. Co-op play is one of the big draws of these titles, allowing you to play with up to three friends to take down huge beasts with one another. The game scales the difficulty of fights up in multiplayer but it would probably be fair to say that the game is easier with even just one friend helping you out.

Not to mention that good co-op games that last a long time are quite hard to come by any more, Monster Hunter does a great job of filling that gap in the market on the 3DS. Back when online play wasn’t available or as well developed as it was on the 3DS, players would group together in real life meet-ups just to play the game and build a community of like-minded players. These events were pretty popular and often endorsed by Capcom themselves, who were pretty keen to expand the community as much as they could. Events like this would provide new players with help from experienced players who would be happy to explain how the game works, which you a lot of games don’t advocate now, mainly because they just aren’t built for that kind of interaction.

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There are key skills to adapt from these games too – patience, observation and attack being some of the pretty important lessons to take away.
Patience is paramount in tackling a quest. If you rush in headfirst without caution, you’ll just find that you’re going to get knocked back and struggle to make any impact on the task at hand. The best thing to do is take a step back and…
Observe the situation. Keep an eye on what is happening and watch how things are moving. What happens when you change your position? How about looking at the task from a different angle? Take your time and understand why things are happening the way they are. When you’ve decided it’s time to make a move…
Attack! Now that you have knowledge of what is happening when and why, you can make a rational decision on when to act. Be confident in your choice and if things don’t work according to plan, learn from it and start over again.
Trying to word these into a vaguely real life scenario rather than attaching it to the specific game experience isn’t easy and it’s likely very tenuous, but you can see how it can share parallels to real world scenarios.

Other games have tried to emulate the Monster Hunter experience, but Capcom still hold the title for creating the most gratifying version of them all. The God Eater games throw a distinctly more anime twist your way, with a heavier focus on story and character development. Toukiden provides a more historic Japanese take on the genre, providing a much more visual spectacle for the player. Releasing later this year is the PC game Dauntless, which is shaping up to be a very interesting take on the monster hunting genre, and while it appears to offer a very similar experience to the Monster Hunter titles, it’s looking like it will showcase it to a completely new audience.

Personally, I’ve found Monster Hunter just has the best game to offer of the lot. It’s not for everyone but what it does offer is unparalleled by any other game trying to do what it does, and Capcom knows it. These games are as simple or complex as you want them to be, and it lies in the player’s hands to tailor the difficulty to what they want. This might put some people off, but I would encourage everyone to at least give it a try before brushing it off completely. There’s a lot to learn about game design, mechanics and community building from the franchise, and it’s not often that developers manage to make something that can create such a diverse and unique experience. They might not be perfect, but they are a great example of how we can learn so much about the industry and each other on many levels.

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Features

Dropmix – An Early Look

Harmonix’s latest venture is a curious mix between a card game and a music mixing app, due for release in September. My initial worries of this being a huge leap from their regular titles were put to rest when they showed off the game on a livestream on Wednesday. Taking clear inspiration from DJ Hero, Harmonix have quite literally hybridised a new genre of their own.

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Dropmix is all about remixing. Utilising a deck of cards that represent different popular songs, you can layer different elements from each to create a brand new track, most of which actually sound pretty great regardless of what you’ve mixed. There’s a peripheral attached that connects to your tablet/mobile device via Bluetooth, with 5 slots for you to lay your cards on, and a button at the end aptly named the “Dropmix” button.

Remixes are beatmatched to the first card played with the rest of the tracks following the tempo. Cards also shift pitch to match major and minor key changes, making everything just flow together super smoothly. It’s just very impressive on a broad scale, and so far it looks like it just works.

The competitive element of the game is interesting enough; each player picks a themed deck and earns points when they play a card, with different colours tracks earning you bonus points as they are played, the first player to 15 points wins the match. Each colour card represents a different part of the track, some cards have effects like dropping other cards out of the mix, and the Dropmix button which, when pressed, spins a wheel that can clear all of your opponents cards of a certain level. There’s lot of nuances to the game which leaves room for a lot of advanced level tactics that you would find in any other card game.

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This looks like a lot of fun to play and my only concerns so far are to do with price and the variety of songs available. Although it’s a fresh take on rhythm games (if it technically fits there), it’s not the first of its kind in the card game genre, feeling a little reminiscent of Sony’s ill-fated Eye of Judgement which required the Playstation Eye Camera for the PS3. Despite its cult following it didn’t really garner the attention it needed to sustain itself, and I hope Harmonix don’t end up falling into the same pitfall with Dropmix.

While I don’t necessarily see it taking off as a seriously popular trading card game to rival the likes of Magic the Gathering and Yu-Gi-Oh, I can definitely see myself spending a lot of time just making new songs and having fun with the whole mixing element of the game. It’s looking like a great little alternative game to play between friends, especially if you’ve only got a small amount of time to just occupy yourself, made evident by the fact it’s a mobile platform app and not attached to a home console.

The entire thing will retail for $99.99 including the app for either iOS or Android, the peripheral, and starter decks. Expansion playlist packs will retail for $14.99 containing 16 cards, and ‘Discovery’ packs are set to cost $4.99 holding 5 cards each. The Discovery packs will apparently show what’s inside so you can avoid rebuying the same cards. So far there are no international price points set. It was also announced there would be over 300 cards released this year alone.

Personally, I’m hoping for a Will Smith deck.

Check out the whole livestream here:

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Reviews

Resident Evil 5 Review

Resident Evil 5 rides off the coattails of its predecessor’s success, trying to balance itself between the popular shooters from when it released, and its own history in the survival horror genre, but feels like it’s not quite sure who it wants to be and never really finds it’s footing in either genre.

Set in a fictional region of Africa, you’re dropped into the roles of Chris and Sheva, chasing down a bio-organic weapon that’s about to be sold on the black market. It’s not long before things take a turn for the worse, and they’re dropped into a situation that’s quite recognisable for fans of the series.

The game starts off with sequences reminiscent of Resident Evil 4, and initially pulls it off pretty well. There’s a timed sequence where enemies slowly pour in and you need to fend them off while waiting for an escape route to appear, and shortly after you’re forced to tackle a head exploding parasite, much like in the previous game. The groundwork of 5 feels very familiar and it’s at this point when the game’s at its strongest. It’s just a shame it doesn’t feel particularly fresh.

Resident Evil 5 features multiplayer, meaning you can either play as Chris or Sheva through the game, though they play exactly the same in almost every respect, only differing in their voice acting and animations. In comparison to Ashley in the last game, having someone else to rely on makes a big difference, with the game making balance changes so you don’t have too much of an advantage. Most of the time you’ll be trying to strike a balancing act between each other, finding out which guns you’re comfortable with and swapping ammo between each other in order to make sure that you’re never left short in the middle of battle. Ammo is pretty abundant for the average damage weapons, but if you’ve picked a powerful gun like the Magnum you’ll be lucky if you find one clip every chapter.

Each level is strangely paced, alternating between high tension shoot outs and the sluggish puzzle areas, though these aren’t particularly challenging and just try to utilise the fact you’ve always got someone with you at all times. The most common puzzle you’ll come across is “pull these levers at the same time” which requires the minimum amount of communication to constitute a ‘puzzle’. Shoot-outs are very frequent and gradually become a bit stale, especially towards the end of the game.

Unfortunately the controls are also a little at odds with the dynamic that the game is trying to achieve. The game controls almost identically to the title before it, and those controls worked – tense, rigid, your aim slightly unreliable, it gave off a terrifying feel. 5 pits you against a lot enemies, and unless you can funnel the infected towards you down a corridor you’ll often find yourself cornered and outnumbered. The slow, slightly imprecise aim and movement of 4 doesn’t translate well into what is a more action oriented game, especially in the vehicle segments where your aim almost doesn’t matter because everything is moving so much already.
The bosses are the main highlight, with their interesting designs being obvious. They also give the co-op reason to exist, even if their weaknesses are very easy to spot and exploit for the most part. Licker’s also make a welcome return, being one of the few enemies that are relatively frightening compared to the rest of the enemy cast, though you’re better off just avoiding them entirely.

The game finds itself at odds with trying to establish itself as an action title, while still trying to hold onto its horror roots. For the most part, it’s fun and engaging, but lacks the finesse that its predecessor had. It’s probably unfair to constantly compare it to its older brother, but unfortunately it likes to stop and remind you of it at every corner. Resident Evil 5 isn’t a bad game; it just wishes that it was something that it’s not. As much as it tries, the game never really sets the groundwork for what it wants to be, and by the time it does the experience is over.

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Features

Uncharted: The Hollywood Problem

The Uncharted franchise has been a long-standing system seller for Sony since its original release on the PS3 back in 2007. Spanning 3 sequels and a few spin-off titles, Uncharted has been critically acclaimed by critics and the public alike. Having sold over 25 million copies across the series, it’s fair to say that it’s quite popular with a lot of people, and the main character has become a bit of a mascot for Sony in the industry. Some would say they’re examples of the best video games ever made – but for me, the Uncharted series is something that I haven’t ever quite got my head around. Time and time over I’ve heard that they are examples of great gameplay, level design and innovative storytelling, but to me they showcase a dull and mediocre side to video games. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I despise them, my time spent in their world has not been favourable compared to many others that have shared the experience. I’m here to address some of the issues and problems I’ve faced with them, and provide an alternative perspective to the mainstream regarding what is often considered one of the PlayStation’s top video game franchises.

For context’s sake, this piece is only in reference to Uncharted 1-3, in particular the PS4 remasters. Uncharted 4 may have ironed out some of these problems, or maybe they’re the fault of a sloppy port. Also this is full of spoilers. Take this piece with a grain of salt.

I guess it would be ideal to start with a brief explanation of what Uncharted is on a basic level, and how it works. Created by Naughty Dog (the team behind Jak and Daxter and The Last of Us titles), the Uncharted series follows Nathan Drake, an explorer and salvager of lost artefacts, as he travels the globe in search of hidden treasures. You play as Nathan, killing bad guys and clambering around the ruined and rocky environments, in order to prevent these treasures from getting into the wrong hands. The whole thing is a very cinematic experience, akin to the Indiana Jones movies more than anything and it tends to wear its inspirations very proudly on its sleeve. The games scream Hollywood appeal, and it’s hard not to find yourself getting involved with the characters.

I think this is where my first problem stems with them. It’s hard to translate the action and scope of big budget Hollywood blockbusters to video games without removing some of the magic and intensity that you see on the big screen. The best way to do that is to remove the player from the equation and roll cutscenes for scripted set pieces that can’t be interfered with. A lot of the time, Uncharted does exactly this, but the frequency of set pieces like this over a 9 hour period tends to drain them of the spectacle that they’re supposed to be. It’s hard to care about being ejected from an aeroplane when about 20 minutes ago you were trapped in a capsizing cruise liner with water gushing in from every corner, about an hour before that you were running around the streets of Yemen in a drugged up haze, prior to that you had escaped a burning castle in France, and so on and so forth. Each moment tries to up the ante compared to the previous experience, but nothing ever really feels like it’s at stake.
The games will often give players the chance to experience a lot of these moments with full control over Drake, which in itself is something that should be lauded – a lot of games would tell the player not to worry: the game is here to make sure everything goes according to plan by taking over the reins. In that respect Uncharted does something right, but handing the situation over to the player comes at a price. This is a Hollywood movie where the main character has infinite lives: failing to make a jump in the burning building, or taking a wrong turn in the capsizing ship will kill Drake, meaning you have to repeat from the last checkpoint. The game does a good job of leading you on the right path out of disaster, but if you make a genuine mistake the game resets you to a few seconds prior and any feeling of danger just spills away. The situation is just as much out of your hands as it was when the game was handling it, but now you just need to lean on the forward direction to advance. After a few of these set pieces, it stops being engaging and nothing tends to feel like an actual threat, just another obstacle for you to meander through. There’s no intensity to the action – just casual frustration.

Related to feeling out of control of the entire experience, is how the whole thing handles. It’s not that the controls don’t feel tight or poorly executed, which they definitely aren’t. There’s just no need to put any effort into controlling Drake, making it feel like a bit of a brain-dead endeavour. This is mostly in reference to climbing and exploring segments of the game, but applies to shoot-outs to an extent too.
Climbing is very simple – you point your analogue stick in the direction you want Drake to go and you press X to make him jump between gaps, if you time it right. Hell, you can sometimes time it wrong and still get where you need to go. The game doesn’t punish you if you’re feeling impatient and just hit X constantly to try and get to your end goal faster, but it begs the question, what is the point in these segments? They’re abundant throughout the entire game and don’t add anything to make the game interesting, fun or engaging. You can quite easily just button mash your way to the top of a cliff without thinking about it. Frequent segments like this detract from the movie feel that the game seems to be striving for. You don’t see Indiana Jones climbing cliff faces every 10 minutes, and when he does climb mountains it feels like he’s risking life and limb to get something out of his reach. There aren’t any moments like this in the Uncharted games. Drake feels like a climbing machine, and when you move from a shaky ledge and see it drop to the watery oblivion below you, it never feels like it’s going to happen to you. Sure, if you hold onto the shaky ledge for too long you’ll drop with it, but it doesn’t feel like an obstacle blocking your path. There’s only one way to your destination typically, the ledge breaking is basically telling you to keep moving onwards. You can’t return to the previous area now because there’s no way back up. Climbing is an entirely linear and disconnecting experience, and never feels like it achieves anything other than slowing you down to pad out the game.

Combat is also unrewarding and just a pain in general. The game offers two ways to defeat enemies: stealth takedowns, or to go in guns blazing. Initially I thought “great! I love stealth games” but the game doesn’t want you to succeed with that tactic alone. On some levels, it seems fair that the game wants you to try to vary the way you play, but when it’s presented in this manner it can feel like you’re being cheated out of tailoring the experience to your own preferences.
I remember a specific moment in Uncharted 2, after climbing up the train in the snow,  vigilant enemies waiting at the top for you (one of the best set pieces of the three titles in fact). I spent what felt like an age replaying the segment, taking down all the enemies without being spotted, only for the game to follow up with more enemies that spot you almost instantly regardless of how you approached the situation in the first place. This just felt like the game was telling me I was playing wrong, and that winning isn’t determined by trying to outsmart the AI but by shooting more bullets than them in the long run. You can’t complete a stealth run of the game, and the game doesn’t throw a lot of incentive at you to even try getting stealth kills. It honestly feels like they forgot to flesh out a sneaking mechanic and just left a bare-bones version in to give you an alternate way of kicking off a skirmish.
Gunplay is just as aggravating as stealth is too. There’s a variety of guns to try out and play around with, and although most of the rifles all function the same, there are a few cool different weapons dotted around that makes it potentially easier to win a shoot-out. The issue with combat is that the series (Uncharted 3 in particular) liberally throws in random difficulty spikes throughout the story, just for the sake of trying to change up the pace. Quite often you’ll be tossed into a situation where you’re being ambushed from several directions and your only option is to switch between cover every 15 seconds in order to just avoid dying constantly. This is where the games tend to get very frustrating, and it becomes more like a chore. Winning a firefight never feels satisfying because you always feel like you’re resorting to the cheapest method available just to stop the rinse and repeat of respawning. While I’m not expecting the levels of satisfaction that I’d get from beating a boss in a Legend of Zelda title, I’d expect to at least feel a sense of pride in my ability to win against the odds, but instead all I’ve learnt is how far games can push me before I just get really impatient with them.
While there is a variety in weapon choice, the variety of environments that gunfights take place in are a lot more sparse. By the end of the first Uncharted I found myself cynically groaning every time I saw some hip-high broken rubble, with a few AK-47’s scattered around for good measure. The pattern didn’t change with 2 and 3, and by the end of the third game, getting into a shoot-out was something that I dreaded.
Enemies also suffer from this same lack of diversity too. There are about 3 types of human enemy; ones with no armour, ones with head armour, and ones that are armoured up to the teeth and have Gatling guns or something powerful to that effect. The weaker enemies will die to a single head-shot, and the more armoured ones tend to take a few more or even an entire clip of ammo to the head, providing you can land those shots. The idea of bullet sponge enemies is just so lacklustre and boring that the parts of the game that suffer with difficulty spikes aren’t hard because they offer a challenge to what you’ve learnt while playing the game, they’re just hard because the game wants to put the equivalent of a human brick wall in your path. There’s no need to learn attack patterns, alternative weak spots, or discover alternate routes to avoid the enemy entirely. It’s a battle of endurance; can you kill the enemy before you need to move to the next block of cover, or will they just overwhelm you with their sheer number advantage? It might seem silly to constantly compare these games to Indiana Jones, but in Raiders of the Lost Ark, there’s an important moment where Indiana is outmatched by a rather large guy in a fist-fight by a plane. Eventually, Indiana manages to outsmart his enemy by luring him towards the planes propellers. Uncharted lacks these moments, instead replacing them with enemies that you don’t need to outwit, just put more holes in them than they can put in you.

To Naughty Dog’s credit (and to address some kind of balance), the Uncharted games are narratively pretty sound, and the characters are a lot of fun to interact with. They play out like big blockbuster movies, and I suppose that’s their intent, to which they do achieve. The premise of each of the three is often promising and some of the set pieces are actually a great spectacle to watch unravel. I had a lot of fun with Uncharted 2 especially, and consider it the strongest of the three PS3 titles. Naughty Dog clearly have a lot of love for adventure movies and have tried their best to bring that sense of action to the world of video games, but maybe I’m a bit cynical about big Hollywood action films.

Despite all this, I’m really curious about Uncharted 4 and it’s on my ‘To Play’ list of PS4 titles. Naughty Dog obviously know what they’re doing and I think I’m in the minority of people that really just can’t get to grips with Uncharted (and The Last of Us but that’s a whole other thing to get into). Maybe I’m just too impatient with them, or I’m just not approaching with enough distance. Maybe I’m just thinking too much about it. I appreciate that a lot of people really do love these games for whatever reason but I just can’t see past what I think are glaring faults and issues with the game on a mechanical level. Maybe playing Uncharted 4 will change my stance a little bit, but as it stands I guess the Uncharted series is one of those that just goes right over my head.

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