Monster Hunter has traditionally appeared on Sony platforms, receiving rather large success on PlayStation Portable in particular. It's one of those series, though, that hasn't yet fully crossed over into mainstream appeal in Western territories, but Nintendo seem bull-headed about breaking that barrier now that they have got their claws into the latest mainline entry into the franchise, and exclusively too. There's no reason why it should not be a success. It's an action RPG with a huge amount of depth, a superb online mode and there are also those selling points of the title: a few dozen vicious beasts for you to slay in some of the most terrifying, exhilerating, occasionally stressful and, ultimately, hugely rewarding battles ever seen in a game.
The crux of the gameplay relies upon you taking up quests, mainly for the purpose of gathering copious amounts of items to improve your character, thus enabling you to kick the faces off of ever more powerful foes. Accept a quest and you will be transported to a base camp from which you can set out through a variety of environments - plain grasslands, volcanic rocks, icy tundras, a dip under the sea - to accomplish your goals. These quests usually have a time limit of 50 minutes and can involve anything from picking mushrooms to going toe-to-talon with a flying nasty straight out of your nightmares.
Don't get ahead of yourself, however; Monster Hunter Tri requires a lot of patience before you can get the best out of it. You will not be tackling the mythical dragons at first, you will be paying your dues as you slowly but surely learn the intricacies of battle, gradually being educated in the ways of Monster Hunter combat. Go all out against larger enemies and they will, until you are some kind of armoured-to-the-tips-of-your-fingers super-being, decimate you. Monster Hunter is all about strategy, careful and timely use of both items and attacks, and not being afraid to retreat, regroup and try again. Each quest only allows you to faint thrice before failing you - and while it might be hilarious to watch cats cart you back to base on a makeshift stretcher, you'll soon find out that you'll need to keep your wits about you to avoid this scene if you have any hope of serious progression. A stamina bar also prevents you from tearing up around the areas at all times, forcing you to use evasions and your speed only when it's imperative. You can always extend your stamina meter temporarily with a nice steak or other item to give yourself a little extra advantage, though.
Battle length varies greatly. Small monsters, such as the tiny raptor Jaggi, can be dispatched in seconds. Jaggi's fiercer big brother, Great Jaggi, might initially take five to ten minutes. By the time you're facing larger boss characters, you're looking at 40 minutes of careful planning to bring down a single fearsome creature. Monster Hunter Tri does not let you off easily. It challenges you every step of the way, and allows you to find your own style of play by offering a wide spectrum of tool to utilise. Through trial and error, everybody will form a strategy that works for them. The more monsters and quests you take down, the greater your options; you'll unlock new weapon types to use, traps to lay, more resistant armour. Most satisfying are the items that you forge yourself from items found in the field or carved from the carcass of your latest conquest. If running around wearing the hide of a purple raptor while clutching a sword and shield wrapped in the tough skin of the Komodo dragon-alike Ludroth is wrong, there is no way I ever, ever want to be right.
If Monster Hunter Tri is sounding a bit daunting at this point - and rightfully so - fear not. The single player mode is geared excellently towards first time players, teaching you the ropes and making sure you know what you're doing. The story's base is a small village affected by the menace of sea monster Lagiacrus, a threat that you have been summoned to silence. The villagers will pitch tasks at you to rebuild their partially destroyed home, and by the time you've spent a few hours helping them out you'll soon be in the swing of things. Only then are you granted the ability to take on quests, though don't expect that much-important sense of strategy to kick in fully until you've had a few significant encounters. The single player in its own right is hugely substantial, taking around seven or eight hours just to get started, but it has a secondary purpose in preparing you for the big bad world of Monster Hunter online.
Nintendo have allowed Capcom a liberty or two with Monster Hunter Tri's online modes. The most crucial is the lack of friend codes, meaning you can play with anybody you like and add them to your in-game friends list with a simple message requesting their eternal loyalty. Capcom have also worked hard to include Wii Speak support for the Western release, though if that doesn't tickle your fancy you can easily take part in text chat with an on-screen keyboard (or a USB keyboard if you want to make the investment). Disappointingly, you can't use the pointer to type your messages, though. These things might seem completely standard to the HD systems, but the fact is that this represents a huge leap forward for online support on Wii. The fact that it's all free makes it even better.
Gameplay is much the same online as in the single player, even sharing the same quests and allowing you to do all the things you would offline such as buying and forging things, only with the added benefit of being able to team up with up to three other players to fulfil said quests. Strategy becomes more important than ever online, plus you have to learn to maximise your abilities through teamwork; the faint limit of the single player is still present, except there are just three chances for the team as a whole. The online versions of the quests also tend to be tougher, thus meaning more reward potential, and special event quests will be available regularly. Get bored of questing and you can all merrily shop, drink, eat and arm wrestle together at the cities' taverns and stalls. It's all server-based, with servers being divided according to skill level and then divided further still into separate cities and city gates so that there's plenty of room for everybody to have a private game. Even running with hundreds or thousands of people online at a time it's absolutely flawless. There hasn't been an occasion that I've noticed lag yet.
In addition to the story mode and online, there's also an Arena mode to play offline. This allows you to team up with other people on one Wii system, taking on boss characters in a gladiatorial setting. The aim, more than anything, is to test out your skills with different equipment sets and try to beat monsters in the quickest amount of time, your score being stored on a leaderboard. It's useful for practice and for messing around with things you might not necessarily have cared to yet in other modes.
Capcom were allowed the opportunity to design their own controller, the Classic Controller Pro, especially for use with Monster Hunter Tri (though of course it works with other Classic Controller-supporting games, too). The Wii Remote and Nunchuk are a decent standard control option that do the job well enough, but they pale in comparison to the Classic Controller Pro. Simply put, it makes the original Classic Controller obselete, and the very second you begin to use the Pro controller Monster Hunter Tri improves fivefold. The refinements - extra grip afforded by the handles, the shoulder buttons being adjusted into a PlayStation-style layout and the movement of the connecting cable from the bottom to the top of pad - make it one of the most comfortable pads ever created. It should have always been this way.
The right stick makes for better camera control than the Remote's D-pad, the close-together face buttons superior to the way commands are spread over the buttons of the Remote/Nunchuk 'Freestyle' set-up, meaning you can chain vertical and horizontal attacks, evasive maneuvers, and item usage with ease. Avoid the second Classic Controller set-up, however, which has the right stick used for attacking; it just doesn't work very well. The Remote is still used in whichever control option you go with, as you can pick it up and point at items for more information, or register monsters in your log book, when you are in the menu screens. It's fiddly in the heat of battle, but a cool feature nonetheless. The only thing that could be considered frustrating about the controls is the lack of lock-on to aid battle, but this is overcome easily and swiftly forgotten with a little practice.
Whoever is responsible for the localisation should be given credit, as Monster Hunter Tri shines in this department as much as any. While there appear to be character limitations, resulting in some of the items names being a tad confusing, the descriptions and dialogue are spot on. They're a perfect mix of informative and humorous, to the point that you're probably taking on much more information than you realise. In a game with as much to it as this, that's a massive help. Unfortunately, the absolutely tiny text will require some squinting to make out at all times, which detracts from things.
The most impressive thing about Monster Hunter Tri is the sense that you really are in a world. There is a huge amount to do, and not even all of it involves fighting. You could quite happily spend time fishing, catching bugs or mining without killing a thing, and even within the fighting there is variety. You have to adapt to different conditions according to environment, such as slower movement underwater or the necessity of hot drinks in cold areas to stop your health slipping away, and because every monster is so different you must be constantly on the ball to deal with their approaches. Against the non-common, screen-filling beasts, you're always up for an intense fight that requires all your concentration if you don't want to end up as a pile of bones.
The visuals, easily the best 'realistic' ones on Wii, take you in completely, with beautiful lands stretching off below the cliffs and superb subtle lighting effects; the fire torch sometimes appears to enhance nothing, but put it out and reignite it a few times and you will soon appreciate the faint orange glow that it gives off. The monsters are the most impressive part, though. Every inch of them covered in detailed textures and they act just as you would imagine. Their animation is perfect, with muscles flexing beneath skin, and in combination with the semi-realistic cries and the way that they interact with each other - carnivores preying on herbivores and the like - it feels as if you're in the middle of one of the most dangerous ecosystems ever conceived. This feeling is only heightened when coming up against boss characters, each accompanied by their own flourishes of orchestrated music. The first appearance of Lagiacrus will put the fear of God in you, and it's not the only instance of such a feeling. One of the best things is that there are no health bars or statistics spraying around the screen aside your own, which stay firmly out of the way at the top. The health status of your enemies is hinted at through the way they move; limping if they are close to death, for example. This makes for an extremely immersive experience, though regular loading times as you switch between areas do take away from this slightly.
Anybody that has ever complained about a lack of games on Wii needs to immediately look in Monster Hunter Tri's direction, where they will find, if they are willing to put the time into it, one of the best, most time-consuming games you will find on any system. This is a highlight of Wii's catalogue, and both the massive single player and online mode should keep people playing for a long, long time. Happy hunting.