Monster Hunter‘s trick—and it’s a persuasive one—is to deliver us back to a time when giant lizards trod the Earth, while keeping our current enviable status as masters of the food chain intact. In Jurassic Park, when the dinosaurs escaped their pens, humans became frail prey, cowering in toilets, whispering prayers under trucks. Monster Hunter‘s vision of the Jurassic-flung human is wildly different. In its reality, we are fearless predators, able to fell a T. rex with little more than a pair of leather sandals, a sword, and a satchel full of health-restoring berries.
For most of its history, the Monster Hunter series has played out this vision on handheld devices, allowing clutches of strangers—Japanese, mostly—to gather in public places and team up to make quick work of the megafauna that roam its bucolic scenes. The series’ evergreen popularity in Japan, where handhelds are ubiquitous and where playing video games with strangers on the train, in shopping centres, and at the school canteen is more socially acceptable, has been closely tied to the technology.
The move to consoles (and, at some point, Windows PC) with Monster Hunter: World is a daring one, then. Yet, what is lost in portability is obviously made up for in spectacle. In its new, roomy home on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC, Monster Hunter has space to flex and sprawl.
“We’ve heard time and again over the years how players of the handheld version of Monster Hunter want a deep, meaty experience on console,” says Ryozo Tsujimoto, the series’ long-time producer and a member of the Tsujimoto dynasty that has, for three decades, run the game’s publisher, Capcom. “We could have done it any time, but we wanted to wait ’til we had a sense of purpose, the feeling that the technology was right to realise the vision we’d have to make the kind of game we want to.”
That vision, according to Tsujimoto, is to build a rich and complex ecosystem, one that’s filled with a variety of creatures that exhibit multifaceted behaviour and harbour intersecting motivations. “In order to express all of that we required a certain degree of power and performance,” he says. “Our purpose finally aligned with the hardware on the market.”
In a closed demo room at E3 2017, the game’s director, Yuya Tokuda, plods through a forest clearing to demonstrate how the team set about realising that purpose. Leathery herbivores munch and sip by ponds. Tokuda pulls out a leather parchment map. The monster he’s hunting, a hulking carnivore called an Anjanath—which boasts neat rows of spear-like teeth, a pink face, and a feathery back—marks its territory with sticky mucus, the interpreter explains. Tokuda follows a lazy swarm of bright, luminous scout-flies, which pick up the monster’s mucous-y scent.
En route, a smaller predator, a Great Jagras, ignores Tokuda, attacking one of the resting herbivores instead before slurping its carcass up whole. Tokuda follows the Jagras at a safe distance, which returns to its pack and regurgitates the meal for a feast.
Monster Hunter games can be impenetrable for newcomers. Monster Hunter: World hopes to address the steep learning curve via a character known as The Handler, who gently whispers instructions in your ear. She suggests that Tokuda slip past the Jagras and continue into a dark cave. At its centre, Tokuda finds the sleeping Anjanath. Tokuda pulls on a sniper’s ghillie mantle, a cloak of leaves that turns his character into a shuffling bush. He throws a stone at the Anjanath, which wakes with a toothy yawn. Tokuda throws off the mantle and sprints past the creature, luring it out of the cave into the forest clearing, where he has more room to swing his great sword.
Rather than fight face-to-face, Tokuda uses the environment to daze and bewilder his prey. He lures it into some sticky grass using a slab of raw meat, plucked from his satchel. While the Anjanath is trapped, Tokuda grapples up onto a tree with his hookshot tool, from where he can drop down onto the creature’s head. A fleeing Jagras gets caught up in the scuffle, lending its jaws to Tokuda’s efforts. While the monster is distracted, Tokuda focuses his attacks onto its lingering tail. After a few strikes, it cleaves away from the creature. Tokuda harvests the meat in readiness to use it later to craft hit-resistant equipment.
The battle is staged, of course, but nevertheless, Monster Hunter: World promises a living ecosystem. As such, these long, exhausting battles, which unfurl like Greek myths, will be unpredictable. You never know when a third or even fourth party will enter the fray, or what effect it might have on what’s happening on-screen. In agony, the tailless Anjanath redoubles its attacks. At that moment, a winged dinosaur crashes through the canopy of trees. The Rathalos, Tokuda’s interpreter explains, is one notch higher on the food chain. The battle immediately changes focus and ferocity, as the two monsters tear into each other.
What’s most striking from the E3 demo is the way in which the monsters assimilate with the environment. “Making the creatures bed into the environment, to make it look like they are a part of the world, rather than merely an overlay, was a major undertaking with this project,” explains Tsujimoto. “The most difficult thing to do was to make a world with real depth: slopes that bring you up to high hills, winding caverns, hollowed caves. In the first instance we found the geography difficult to navigate. There’s this tension between creating believable terrain and terrain that, when a digital monster walks over it, it looks believable in terms of its animation. We had to essentially start again from the ground up.”
The refit extends to the game’s tutorials, which are fully voiced and overlaid onto the action, via The Handler. “We wouldn’t expect people to jump into the game and produce the kind of gameplay we’ve shown here,” says Tsujimoto. “Techniques are introduced gradually through the game. The idea is to build up your knowledge of the game, to train players to be able to pull off and share the more spectacular takedowns.”
Monster Hunter has accrued a mesh of complex systems over the years, explains Kaname Fujioka, the game’s executive director. “This is a rethink, in all kinds of ways: blending accessibility, not in terms of dumbing down what’s possible, but in drawing people in, teaching them the basics, then allowing them to express themselves and their will through those systems.”
For Tsujimoto it’s this capacity for self-expression that has been the source of the series’ popularity over the years and why he believes Monster Hunter: World could be the first game in the series to become a break-out Western hit. “Games that present opportunities for people to strategise, take action, and see the results of their choices are extremely popular today,” he says. “It’s a very compelling loop—allowing people to do things in the game that, in real life, only a tiny fraction of people would be able to achieve. Getting a chance to feel like you’ve brought down a monster and see a result of your strategising is something I don’t think people will ever tire of.”
Simon Parkin is an award-winning writer and journalist from England, and a regular contributor to the likes of The New Yorker, Ars Technica, the Guardian, and Eurogamer. His latest book, Death by Video Game: Tales of obsession from the virtual frontline, was released last year. You can find him on Twitter at @simonparkin.
This post originated on Ars Technica UK