It's as if Capcom had designed Diablo instead of Blizzard, and instead of opening treasure chests to find items, you dig through gigantic piles of dinosaur poop.
Being one of those guys who has spent hundreds of hours hacking through countless monsters hoping for a single item to drop in Diablo II, it doesn't take much to sell a game like Monster Hunter Freedom Unite to me. Is there loot? Yes. Does the loot look cool? Okay, whatever, let me play. Unfortunately, I've never been able to get into the series' PS2 or PSP incarnations for a number of reasons, mostly because you need to play it with other people, and I didn't know anybody who played.
I finally got a chance to do some monster hunting in the company of some fellow loot whores last night, and I can safely say that if you have some local friends who are into killing dinosaurs and making armor and weapons from their harvested innards, you might want to check it out.
On the surface, Freedom Unite's not unlike a 3D action game: Movement is handled with the left analog nub, while you use the Triangle and Circle buttons to perform various combos and attacks. Depending on your weapon of choice, however, you might be doing a couple big swipes and then blocking (Heavy Sword) or just unloading all you've got from a safe distance (Bow and Arrow). You dodge with the X button, and quaff potions and set traps with Square.
There's a bit of a learning curve to the controls - everything feels like it's just a bit laggy, and keeping the camera centered with L trigger is a vital skill that I feel you shouldn't be forced to learn. The awkwardness does fade over time, but there's still the feeling that the game isn't nearly as responsive as an action game normally would be.
That might be because, to a certain degree, Monster Hunter's not really an action game - monster battles play out more like raid bosses in an MMOG like World of Warcraft. These creatures are huge, screen-filling beasts that take at least ten or fifteen minutes to kill, and have shifting attack patterns and multiple phases. Instead of just running in and slashing away, you'll need to get your teamwork on to plan and coordinate attacks. That's why you'll need partners: a Bowman to support from afar and set traps, a Heavy Swordsman to do big chunks of damage, a Double Swordsman because, well, two swords are better than one, duh.
Capcom boasts that there's at least 500 hours of gameplay here (the producer showing me the ropes said he has 800 hours in), and it does seem like an experience as deep and time-consuming as a MMOG. In addition to the sheer abundance of equipment you can acquire by harvesting dead monsters or doing jobs, every weapon and piece of armor has unique properties, and each weapon type handles so differently you could say each one's like a character class unto itself. And yes, it all looks really freaking cool, from ornate heavy armor made of dragon scales to a huge black sword that was about twice the size of the character wielding it and looked like something out of Soul Calibur. Loot whores, you should be drooling by now.
There is a single-player mode in which you get a cute cat ally instead of actual party members, but the real heart of the game is the multiplayer. Admittedly, the cat is pretty adorable, with its own cat-customized armor and weapons, like a samurai helmet with a cat paw emblem. It will also help you dig up treasures hidden in piles of dino poo.
Regardless of the appeal of the cat, multiplayer is the core of the game, though it's also where the price of entry gets a little steep. Unlike in Japan, where kids get together in real life to play, we asocial types in the West prefer to do our multiplayer gaming over the interwebs, where finding partners is fast and easy. Unfortunately, Freedom Unite only supports ad hoc wireless and not full-fledged online play. That means you can only play in person, just like Pokemon back in 1997.
There are a number of unofficial solutions to getting the game online, like Xlink Kai or Sony's Japan-only Adhoc Party. You'll need to shell out some dough or jump through some hoops to get them to work. If you're too cheap or too lazy (or both!) to make the effort to interact with actual people, well, there's always your cat. Sigh. Just like in real life.
Look for Monster Hunter Freedom Unite this June/July.