As its title suggests, Monster Hunter puts you in the role of hunter in a prehistoric world populated by creatures bearing eerie similarities to dinosaurs. The types of beasts you'll come across are quite varied, ranging from small warthog-like creatures to gigantic dragon-like predators that could swallow your tiny human character whole.
The hub of the single player campaign is the village, which is where you can buy and sell gear, save your game, and most importantly, receive new quests from the village elder. With no option to just freely explore the game world, quests are the only way you'll be able to get out and about, so receiving new missions is vital. Missions fall into two broad categories-- find and fetch or search and destroy affairs -- all of which come with strict time limits of when you need to get the job done by.
Once outside the village, the first thing you'll notice is the game's impressive visuals. The various landscapes you'll come across -- ranging from rolling hillsides and forests to swamps and rocky mountains -- are all handled well, with each having a distinctive look. The creatures are equally well detailed, and sport realistic movements that lend to the belief that you're looking at real animals. The illusion is quickly shattered by their behaviour, unfortunately, as most don't react to your hunter's actions as you'd expect a real animal would. Placid herbivore creatures, for example, don't seem to be particularly skittish when your heavily armed human is in their midst, nor do they flee in panic if you attack one of the herd.
Combat against the game's creatures are Monster Hunter's bread and butter, with the game giving you plenty of melee and ranged weapons to do damage with. You'll start off with a basic knife, but will quickly move up to such things as large broadswords, wielding two weapons at once and bowguns. New weapons can be bought in the village, or you can bring in materials you find (such as animal skins or bones) to make your own. You're also given a wide range of other items to help you in your various quests, such as bait for fish, a mobile barbecue to cook your food on, paintballs to track fleeing prey and more.
The hunt itself -- traversing from area to area searching for items or your prey -- can be quite compelling, but the game falls down when it comes to combat because of clunky controls that are as much of a challenge to master as any giant beastie you'll run across. Movement is handled by the left joystick, while attacks are initiated via the right joystick. Tapping in certain directions initiates different attacks, and you can also string together simple combos. The problem lies in the imprecision of the right joystick set-up -- if enemies are straight in front of you it's no hassle, but once they start moving it's difficult to stop and reposition your character, meaning you'll find yourself swinging at air plenty of times. The game's clunky camera certainly doesn't help either. You can only reposition the camera by using the D-Pad, meaning you're forced to take your thumb off the left joystick if the view ever gets too screwy. (You can also centre the camera by pressing L1).
While Monster Hunter can be played entirely as a single player game, plenty of its tougher missions are designed for cooperative play online. Your alternative to "the village" is "the town," which serves as the hub for the online version of the game, and though it's a little bigger physically, it's functionally not that different. In fact, except for the part where you're either in a party of up to four human players or lone-wolfin' it, the offline and online modes are roughly identical. Of course, many of the quests are inherently more entertaining if you play them cooperatively.
Actually playing the game online is pretty straightforward, but getting from the main menu to a place where you can actually start playing an online session is a needlessly drawn-out process. Between hitting X to choose to go to "the town" and having a selection of lobbies presented to you, you'll have to hit the X button no less than 11 times and sit through three progress bars. If this doesn't sound fun, well, it isn't.
There's a tonne of other weirdly archaic design in the online game, such as the excessive number of tiers within the lobby system. First you have to choose a server, then a colour-coded "area," and then a "town" within that. The four-player limit for the parties works, considering the size of the maps in the game, but limiting the "town" population to eight players seems like an unnecessary bottleneck, forcing players to hop around from town to town to find a group they really want to play with. Other stuff, like the lack of headset support, just makes the whole experience feel really antiquated. It's as though Capcom has completely ignored the lessons offered by all the online console games over the past several years.
Additional reporting by GameSpot.com
Keep up to date with the latest games news, reviews and features by signing up to CNET.com.au's free Games Spotlight weekly newsletter. Sign up now!