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Monster Hunter Freedom Unite
Score: 79%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: Capcom
Developer: Capcom
Media: UMD/1
Players: 1 - 4
Genre: Action/ RPG/ Free-Roaming

Graphics & Sound:
Like sliding into your favorite, comfortable outfit, Monster Hunter Freedom Unite is familiar territory for fans of the two previous installments on PSP. The game has made some cosmetic upgrades that are subtle, like a starlet with good plastic surgery, but the "quantity vs. quality" scale has definitely tipped toward the former. It's not clear to us whether the PSP graphics get much better than this, anyway. Movies display both in pre-rendered CG and using the game's engine, all beautiful and available for viewing outside the fray once you unlock them during quests. The character and monster design is tops, not noticeably better than the last game, but notable for including more variety. New locations to explore also help enrich the front end of Monster Hunter Freedom Unite, even if the basic elements are visually similar to what has come before. Sound and music is still well done, but there's nothing new to say; the design elements here are starting to take on a feel of nostalgia, as opposed to the innovation and high-water mark for sound, graphics, and music we perceived in the first game.

Players new to the series will require some time to get acquainted with the many sources of information coming out of the game. Visually, we notice the on-screen clutter more than in the original Monster Hunter, probably because design interfaces have become more sophisticated and Monster Hunter hasn't kept pace. There are not only a lot of things going on around you in town or during a quest, but you have to juggle a bunch of menu-driven options, along with a map view of the action, while playing. Some smart features in multiplayer, like a visual symbol for your partner on the map and the indication of when he's mixing it up with a monster, help to keep you informed with minimal distraction. We wish more of this simplified interface would have made it into the single-player mode, and we still don't have the benefit of online play using some of the PSPs text/voice chat capabilities. An online-ready, Skype-enabled version of this game would be unreal, for instance... Monster Hunter Freedom Unite is really a "2.5" type of release, compared to its predecessor, good for the core fans but a bit too obscure for new players.

Not only can veterans of the series jump in immediately, bypassing training and newbie bootstrapping, but the option to load a previously developed character is now available in Freedom Unite. Great feature, but it further establishes that this is largely an add-on or expansion release, rather than fresh meat. Fans will love, love, love the option to bring forward all the sweat equity in their previous character, and Monster Hunter Freedom Unite supports up to two new characters saved in addition to the primary profile. New fans will still have all the training and ramp-up options available to them, so it's not like Monster Hunter Freedom Unite isn't a great place to jump on the bandwagon.

For the new player, orientation includes a visit to various town personages and a tour of the shops and locations, before running right out to battle monsters. You'll also still be in your street-clothes, so running out on a quest will leave you a bit exposed. Suiting up in armor and choosing a weapon gets you ready for a first quest, which may seem anticlimactic when you realize all that's required of you is to go out and gather a flower or some similar newbie mission. This sounds funny, but it highlights an important point about Monster Hunter Freedom Unite and the entire series: This is a deep, involved game that rewards patience and dedication. If you aren't prepared to put in several hours of building your character and constant questing, move along little doggie. The initial set-up is rewarding, but can feel a bit mundane compared to more involved quests later in the game. Monster Hunter Freedom Unite introduces earlier in the game some pieces that were absent or opened later in previous versions. The Felyne companions are now available from go, both in the kitchen and beside you in battle. The latter becomes a nod to solo players that want to experience the thrill of playing with a friend, but don't have any friends... A yowling cat, dressed for battle, may not be every one's ideal companion, but it helps to pass the time during a quest and provides some laughs. The kitchen segment is almost a mini-game in the way you build up a skillful crew by hiring and training, plus there is now a farm unlocked early in the game that features Felyne workers.

Much of why these options are unlocked earlier is that veterans returning to the game will expect to find them immediately. Not having to rebuild a character is nice, assuming you put serious time into the last Monster Hunter release, plus you'll still enjoy the challenge of establishing a strong kitchen and farm. Fans know that the key to success in later missions, or against large monsters, is having the right combination of skills, equipment, and special items. Gathering is fine for newbies, but key items are more likely to be generated through production than by stumbling over them in the wild. The multiplayer option hasn't expanded greatly beyond what we had before, but players can now interact more, trading Felyne companions or items, and downloading custom quests. The absence of an online hub for Monster Hunter fans to congregate and launch missions is a tragedy. When various sports titles have mastered the concept of online gaming, a game three titles into its evolution has to be chided for not building in this functionality. The core fan is basically being asked to buy Monster Hunter Freedom Unite to access new, harder missions, plus some additional sidebar activities. This seems like more what we'd expect as a download rather than a packaged product, but as long as you come expecting this, Freedom Unite is a decent add-on.

Monster Hunter hasn't traditionally been an easy game to master, or to approach as a first-time player. There's ample training, which you desperately need, and support along the way in the form of books and magazines in your virtual home. NPC advice is also plentiful, but all this conspires to create some information overload in the novice player. The controls aren't terribly intuitive, either. There are lots of ways to accidentally trigger item use or put away a weapon mid-battle if you're not careful, because of how the buttons are positioned. This may be the first game with anything action-oriented mapped to the (Select) button! Talk about an odd choice for a "kick" action button... To be fair, the game is huge, almost endless in its possibilities for exploration, and relatively non-linear. We suspect these qualities are what won Monster Hunter a devoted fan base, and there's no question that if you master the basics, you'll find weeks and weeks (at least) of new things tucked away, even playing solo. The patience required to master the basics is what makes that a conditional statement, since some portion of the action-gaming population just isn't interested in the finer details of sword sharpness and elemental attributes. If you have patience to learn the ropes, and won't get upset when someone dunks a stick of RPG in your Action gameplay, Monster Hunter Freedom Unite may be for you...

Game Mechanics:
There's a perfectly good argument to be made that Monster Hunter Freedom Unite is not action gameplay. We'll disagree (we're funny that way) and say that most so-called Action/RPG titles are waaaaay short on the action. Monster Hunter Freedom Unite is refreshing in that it provides some exciting battles with monsters ranging from passive grass-eaters to aggressive, bloodthirsty killers. The controls are simple enough in that you use two attack buttons, plus the right shoulder button to defend. Items can be used in battle, some for offensive maneuvers and others for defense, plus you an establish some basic traps that work in concert with your weapons to subdue larger monsters. This item/weapon/trap pyramid becomes especially relevant when playing in a team, for multiplayer quests. Trying to get fancy when fighting alone usually results in a quick trip back to your camp on a stretcher. The attack buttons can trigger special moves when used in context, such as pushing the analog stick forward or tapping a button combination. The excitement fades a bit with certain weapons that are cumbersome to carry and don't allow a great range of movement. Each player's style will evolve out of his choice of weapon, but there are all kinds of customization possible to weapons, ammunition, and armor that will change how battles play out. The complaint most people will have is the clunkiness of the interface during battle, in terms of having to reorient the camera while stabbing buttons and navigating menus... Come at Freedom Unite expecting an action-oriented game and you'll be disappointed. Think of it like a rather exciting RPG and you'll be infinitely more pleased.

Pleased or not, there's no question that Freedom Unite is the ultimate Monster Hunter release. Adding this to your library if you already own the last version is going to net you some new quests, monsters, and features, but it's all evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Die hard fans won't think twice, and this is definitely the best place to jump on as a new player. Our problem with where the series has gone in the last few years is that it provided huge promise, delivered well enough, and then made small changes without addressing some of the biggest deficiencies, such as online play. The formula is still fun, the monsters still exciting, and who doesn't like being a hero to a bunch of needy villagers? Whether Monster Hunter Freedom Unite wins your heart or not depends on how much you take to its unique blend of action gameplay and stat-driven, task-oriented character development.

-Fridtjof, GameVortex Communications
AKA Matt Paddock

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