On June 22, 2009, arguably the biggest PSP game in Japan finally burst out of its cage and unleashed hunting fever on the West. Backed by an impressive ad campaign and publicity drive from developer and publisher Capcom, Monster Hunter Freedom Unite has certainly penetrated the collective gaming consciousness in the West more than any other Monster Hunter title so far. The question is, will it be enough to rope in new players or will the series remain a niche franchise for none but the most ardent and hardcore fans?
Monster Hunter Freedom Unite isn't a "new game" per se. It's an expansion. Graphically, it's the same. Pretty much everything in Monster Hunter Freedom 2 is still in this game, albeit some have been given a few tweaks. If you've played through any of the previous games in the series you should know by now if you're a fan or not. Those of the latter persuasion may want to steer clear of this game, but I still recommend a cautious playthrough. But if you're a fan looking for more, then dive right it because it's going to be one hell of a long, arduous but incredibly enjoyable journey.
The whole game is centered around hunting monsters and gathering crafting materials from them and from the environment. You start out by doing innocuous little gathering and slaying missions, gradually inching your way up to dealing with the big bad brutes you may have seen in the ads, videos, and screenshots. Once you get to them, you'll have to deal with them the same way you've dealt with their smaller brethren -- hit them enough so you can either kill or trap them. It's a very generalized idea but that's it in the nutshell. The series never has been too heavy on the story.
While the idea of farming monsters may sound like a tedious and repetitive process, the unpredictability of each encounter still manages to keep the game fresh. Not every monster behaves the way others do, and there are some that will completely destroy any of the strategies you've formulated in the past. Even the ones that you're confident of going up against can quickly turn the tables on you if you're not careful. This requires thinking and rethinking, preparation, and careful study of your enemies' behavior. Of course you'll grind, but it's more than a matter of finally getting that elusive material you need to improve your equipment. It also constitutes honing your skills -- knowing when to block, when to dodge, when it's safe to consume a healing potion.
It probably goes without saying that Monster Hunter Freedom Unite, as with all other games in the series, has a rather steep learning curve. In fact, in some cases it feels like a 90-degree incline. Newcomers and solo players alike get some much-needed help this time, however, thanks to the new Felyne Comrades. The computer AI isn't a suitable replacement for an actual human companion, and chances are you probably won't take it against the tougher baddies like Rajang and Akantor, but it does a serviceable job even against the mid-level monsters when you're going solo. The ability to fine-tune your Felyne companion's stats and abilities as well as switch them over to cooking duties when you're not using them gives the feature added depth as well.
Speaking of companions, Monster Hunter Freedom Unite is best enjoyed with the company of other hunters. Plus, some of the monsters are practically unbeatable if you go at them alone (unless you cheat, that is). The game supports ad-hoc multiplayer for up to four people, and even if you don't have any friends nearby who are willing to go on a hunt with you, you can still join up with other hunters if you have a PS3 or a PC. That takes a bit of fiddling, but you can find a lot of helpful advice on the Net and doing so will only increase your enjoyment of the game.
Even if you've seen all there is to see in Monster Hunter Freedom 2, Monster Hunter Freedom Unite still throws in enough new stuff to keep your interest. There are new items and equipment, although it may take some time before you start seeing the latter. I didn't spot anything new equipment-wise when I created a new character but they started showing up when I loaded my Freedom 2 save. There are also new G-rank quests more sadistic than the previous ones. These can be gotten mostly from the new quest givers although there have also been some additions to the Elder quests.
There's not much change gameplay-wise aside from small things like item box navigation controls and weapon tweaks. This also means that the frequently-cited difficulties like clunky combat mechanics and the sometimes frustrating camera controls are still there. The Pokke farm has seen minimal changes too. You can still use it to gather and mine materials that you can't be bothered to find in the field. Other changes include new stats and information in the Guild Card, more upgrade materials, and of course the new monsters. There's also a handy new Data Install option. Installation takes a while but when you pair it up with the background loading feature it does speed up loading times.
All together, Monster Hunter Freedom Unite is a worthy addition to the Monster Hunter series. Fans will most certainly eat it up, and it serves as a great jumping off point for new players. The sheer number of new additions will without a doubt consume more of your time than any other PSP title. The steep learning curve is alleviated somewhat by the Felyne companions and the myriad in-depth, if lengthy, in-game tutorials. It has enough word-of-mouth cred -- and commercial backing -- to catch the eye of new hunters, but in the end it's the gamer's dedication, patience, and ability to shoulder more than a few frustrating moments that will decide if it retains its players. Still, your patience will pay off by giving you one of the most rewarding experiences you can have on the PSP. Sticking to it is well worth your time.