The monsters of Monster Hunter Tri don't resemble any creatures you'd glimpse in real life, yet there's something remarkably authentic about them. These raging beasts react to your presence with the kind of violence you'd expect. They howl with hatred, stare you down, and charge toward you with a single focus: destroy the intruder. So begins a typically intense encounter with one of Monster Hunter's hulking foes, and it's one that could end with your limp body crushed under a gigantic wyvern claw. But with the right preparation and skill, you can overcome, and that moment of triumph is among gaming's most satisfying. This action/role-playing series finally reaches its potential with Tri, which renders its wild paradise in beautiful detail and lets you team up with friends or strangers online to tame it. A few of the game's facets are stubbornly mired in the past, such as a couple of awkward control issues and some online oddities. But this is, finally, what Monster Hunter had the potential to be all along: intense, involving, and most importantly, great fun.
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Your role in Monster Hunter Tri is that of the great savior of Moga Village, which is having trouble with sea commerce, what with a terrifying sea monster bullying the local sailors. But as a neophyte hunter, you can't just plunge into the restless waters and take a whack at the thing--it takes some decent gear, the right support items, and a good amount of skill to take on such a creature. Luckily, the local guild girl is on hand to help prepare you by handing off quests and sending you into the surrounding wilds. There, you chop up heinous beasts (plus a few adorable ones), as well as collect all manner of rocks and flora, which are important for creating the potions, traps, and other support items necessary for survival. The single-player campaign starts small, sending you off to attack fleet-footed dinos, collect herbs, and roast meat with your handy barbecue spit. It's a sluggish introduction, but there's a lot to take in, especially if you're a series newcomer. You've got a farm, where cat creatures called felynes harvest important plants, mushrooms, and more. You've also got a fishing fleet to order about, a cook who drums up some tasty meals (possibly some disgusting ones as well), a blacksmith who fashions new weapons and armor out of all the sundry monster bits you bring him, and plenty more. There's a lot to Monster Hunter Tri, and the first few hours do a good job of helping you get your bearings.
It's when you take on your first giant lizard--the Great Jaggi--that Monster Hunter Tri begins to sink its sharp claws into your flesh. Standard quests generally come with a time limit, and taking on one of the game's massive monsters might fill that entire schedule. Every creature, from the slithery Royal Ludroth to the fire-breathing Rathalos, employs a number of devastating attacks that can take off a big chunk of your health bar if you're not completely invested in the battle. Monster behavior is consistent enough that you'll learn how to react to certain patterns and take advantage of openings, yet there's also a certain element of unpredictability. A heavy creature might suddenly bound forward with surprising speed, drop to the ground and roll, or vomit mud on you. It might become suddenly enraged and go berserk, flailing about with abandon--all legs, claws, and tail. All the while, you might need to fend off smaller creatures that will be jumping and buzzing about. Or perhaps another great beast will enter the fray--an occasion that's certain to get your heart pumping. Even if you've fought the same creature a dozen times before, this capriciousness makes every encounter as thrilling as the last. The moment you hear the soundtrack signal the presence of a great monster, you get that tingle that tells you another fight to the death is about to begin.
This Barroth was clearly paying attention in school on 'stop, drop and roll' day.
One of Tri's great additions to the series is its underwater battles. Many of the monsters are amphibious, so you battle them on both land and under the water. The action is slower underwater than it is on land, as you would expect, and monsters have a whole new set of attacks to contend with there. For example, on land, the grimacing Gobul (think of it as an oversized angler fish) lurches and rolls about while you stab its most vulnerable parts; underwater, it digs under the seabed and dramatically bursts forth from its hideout or sucks you into its toothy mouth. The camera speed is a bit lethargic, but the game controls well when you're swimming among the fishes--that is, assuming you're using a Classic Controller or the new Classic Controller Pro. (There's a bundle available that includes both the game and the Classic Pro.) Fumbling with the remote's D pad to maneuver the camera while thumbing around to attack and open menus makes using the Wii Remote and Nunchuk the lesser option; the Classic Controllers are much more comfortable. Yet, even if you go with a Classic Controller, you're stuck reaching for the remote to add a beast to your monster list. Doing so involves opening a menu, grabbing the remote, pointing at a monster onscreen, and dragging an icon into a box at the bottom of the screen--possibly while you are under attack. This awkward system was a terrible idea; fortunately, adding monsters to your list is purely optional, and you only need to do it once per species.
No matter which control method you use, Monster Hunter Tri provides a good challenge. Preparation is the absolute key to success, so you need to take the right supplies for the mission. Take plenty of pickaxes if you need to gather bloodstones; take a few traps and tranquilizer bombs if your goal is to ensnare a monster without killing it. Even the type of armor you equip makes a big difference, making you vulnerable to certain attacks more than others. As long as you're properly prepared, you'll rarely feel cheated when a Barroth turns you into a monster meal. As with the other games in the series, Tri's combat is thoughtfully paced. You can't mash buttons and expect to emerge victorious. Once an attack animation has begun, you have to wait it out before you can dodge out of the way or start a new barrage. Unfortunately, some animations feel too long; expect to encounter some frustration when you get knocked backward because your character simply had to flex his muscles after quaffing a health potion, for example. But overall, there's a good, methodical rhythm to the combat that feels appropriate, whether you're wielding a quick-strike weapon like a sword or a slow, laborious one like the new switch axe.