Monster Hunter Tri sticks out like a sore thumb on the Wii, and we mean that in a good way. It's epic in length, slow to develop, rich, exciting and - should you get into it - hopelessly addictive. It's jam-packed with complex systems, and has one of the best, most fully-featured online multiplayer modes on the system. On the flipside, it's also unapologetically hardcore; the sort of game which will terrify, frustrate and probably bore the pants off a huge proportion of the Wii's casual audience - and quite possibly some more committed gamers too.
While the game's fans don't want to hear it, Monster Hunter Tri suffers from some spectacularly off-putting flaws, and takes hours and hours of commitment before you get to see the game at its best. Part of me really, really, loves it. Part of me wants to shut it in a cupboard and never see it on my TV ever again.
In case you haven't heard of Monster Hunter before, it's a Japanese phenomenon that has so far never successfully crossed over to Europe. For once, the nature of the game is pretty much spelt out in the title: while you might call it an action RPG, there's actually precious little role-playing as such involved, and even less in the way of plot. You're a hunter. You hunt monsters. You arrive in a village, take quests from non-player characters (primarily in the neighbourhood hunter's guild), then go out into the wilderness and either slay x number of type y monsters, or collect x items (sometimes by slaying the type y monsters who inconveniently use them as vital organs). There's really not much more to it than that.
Well, there is, actually. The real trick to Monster Hunter is that - unlike a conventional RPG - your skills don't level up. Instead, successful monster hunting is all about gathering and upgrading the tools you need to do your job: better armour, better weapons, better items that confer skill bonuses. You can buy new weapons and armour at the local blacksmiths, but you'll soon discover that the best items need to be crafted, and they need to be crafted from materials that you can only pry from the steaming corpses of dead monsters.
And this is where the addiction comes in. By killing the local dagger-fanged, razor-clawed, armour-plated fauna you can get the stuff you need to have the local craftsman (well, crafts-creature) make up a selection of ever stronger and cooler-looking helmets, breastplates, shields, swords, hammers, axes, lances and guns. You then won't be able to turn up the chance to try these out in yet another quest, which will then start you on the path towards your next upgrade or acquisition. Suddenly it's 3am in the morning, you have work tomorrow, but you just need five more scales and a chunk of metal to make up your next codpiece (well, belt, but who can get excited about one of those?).
This is surprising, because a lot of the actual gameplay is either fiddly, peculiar, or just plain broken. Take the actual monster slaying for example. While there's more to the combat than some critics have suggested - button mashing won't actually get you very far once you're beyond the first 6 hours of play - it's not spectacularly sophisticated, and most of the skill comes down to the choice of weapon, the timing of your attacks, blocks and evasions. Oh, and simply facing in the right *@#?% direction in the first place.
That's because Monster Hunter Tri denies you any form of lock-on, deciding instead that it would be much better if you constantly had to adjust the camera angle while you're fighting. This is infuriating, and doubly so if you're trying to play with the standard-issue Wii Nunchuck and Remote, as you'll be doing it by twitching the D-Pad left and right. It is better with the Classic Controller (available in a premium bundle with the game), but would it be too much to ask a game to be built for the default controller of the system you'll be playing on?
You'll also spend a fair bit of time fiddling around with a constrained inventory, a system of item storage boxes and the need to gather, barbeque and scoff meat and provisions in order to maintain your stamina, as that's frequently the only thing standing between a speedy exit and you becoming a big monster's breakfast. There's a Pokemon style monster-logging task to keep busy with, and a selection of fishing, farming, cooking, trading and management systems that - frankly - we haven't the time or energy to go into here. All we'll say is that if you like this sort of thing in RPGs, then you'll enjoy Monster Hunter Tri all the more - they give the game its depth and distinctive feel. If, however, it all sounds like hard work and you just want to clobber things until they croak, then Monster Hunter Tri probably isn't for you.
It's worth trying, however, because the stars of the show - the monsters - are so spectacular, and because fighting them offers you the kind of challenge that so many games these days are missing. Quite reasonably, albeit frustratingly, the game hits you with the small fry at first, but slowly the big, bastard-hard beasts come trickling through, and it's at this point that the game really begins to take wing. On the one hand, Monster Hunter Tri can be mercilessly tough; it's easy to get smacked down by a big monster in seconds after a long period of hunting and get sent straight back to your camp to recover, and clusters of smaller monsters can prove suddenly and horribly fatal. Yet there's nearly always something that brings you back for more. I guess you just can't keep a good hunter down.
It's also a more dramatic and attractive game than it sounds. By Wii standards the visuals are stunning, with a lovely coastal landscape to explore at the beginning, and more varied environments to explore as time goes on. There's also plenty of sub-aqua hunting to enjoy, as your hero squares off against killer sharks and mighty dragons underwater. There are some effective shocks and scares, and some great moments of suspense when you suddenly realise how hopelessly ill-equipped you are to deal with the current beast, and had better scarper PDQ. The slightly primitive ecosystems and monster behaviour occasionally remind you of the Wii's limited hardware power, but for the most part the world of Monster Hunter Tri is a fascinating one to explore.
We haven't even come yet to the game's strongest point: online play. Unlike most Wii games, it's quick, easy and entirely possible to launch into a session, and while even the hub areas are instanced for just four players, there's a lot of fun to be had in gathering a party together to take on a big quest or a particularly titanic monster, it makes the fighting that bit easier - and you'll also get a chance to show off your current choice of arms and armour.
Just make sure you pay attention to the in-game advice and noticeboards, or you'll spend your first hour online trying to quest on your tod and wondering where everyone else has got to. Getting online is easy, but making it work can be tricky. If you have a Wii-speak microphone and other players have the same, it will probably make everything that bit easier (unfortunately, nobody we played with had one up and running).
Monster Hunter Tri's single-player campaign is huge, and if you connect with the game then you'll easily sink tens of hours just into that. Throw in the online mode, and it's hard to think of a Wii game that offers better long-term value. Graphically it's one of the best games on the system, and the creature design is what you'd expect from the creators of Resident Evil and Devil May Cry at the top of their game.
That said - and this is vital - it's not the easiest game to connect with. The first few hours can feel painfully slow, the actual combat feels clunky and repetitive, and the game contains a bewildering range of systems to master. It's actually quite hard work. If you don't mind that and you like the sound of stalking the kinds of creature who would eat T-Rex for breakfast and have Godzilla as a mid-morning snack, then Monster Hunter Tri could turn out to be your favourite game of the year. If that sort of thing bores or annoys you, then feel free to give it a miss.