Niantic is back at it with their Location-Based (LoBa) tryst with Capcom’s popular Monster Hunter franchise in a game called Monster Hunter Now. During PAX West, Niantic held a demo for the game stationed right outside the event, where I was able to talk to Niantic’s Chief Product Officer and Executive Producer Kei Kawai. In addition, the team ran a Webinar to bring media up to speed with their day one patch that included a multitude of updates to the test build I had been playing for several days.
Niantic has had what some would consider a rough go of it over the past few years, with the shutdown of several of their games like Harry Potter: Wizard’s Unite and the cancellation of potentially popular titles like MARVEL: World Heroes. With those games now sadly put to rest, Niantic’s new stab at another premiere intellectual property will have its day in the sun. In development since 2019, Monster Hunter Now has just been released on Android and iOS globally, and with over 3 million pre-registrations, there seems to be plenty of excited Hunters out there. I’ve spent several days with Monster Hunter Now and the first thing that comes to mind is that it’s a big step in the right direction when it comes to creating a LoBa game with tactics that can appeal more directly to gamers.
During my time with Kei during the PAX demo, he was steadfast in explaining how true to the series Monster Hunter Now is. We delved into the systems, and the pace of combat especially. Hunters have multiple weapons and gear sets to craft and upgrade, and more unlock as your Hunter level increases. Monsters will be weak to certain elements, and some weapon types feel much more suited to handle certain monster’s attack patterns, especially if you’re battling them solo, so it was imperative to frontload your assault with whatever advantages you could muster to be successful. Success wasn’t always whether you could stay alive through the battle, which could sometimes be a challenge, but there is also a 75 second timer that requires you to battle quickly or risk failing the battle. If you do fail, you can rechallenge the monster, but any health or items you lost in the previous battle will not be returned to you.
As LoBa games are concerned, Monster Hunter Now is marginally more active than games like Pokemon Go. The combat is by and large an evolution of some of their previous titles, but it’s still a very familiar form of gameplay that stays accessible to a wide audience. When battling, small monsters are relatively inconsequential, and while they do attack you from time to time, they aren’t going to hold your interest for more than a few seconds. The large monsters, on the other hand, will require that you learn their attack patterns, swipe the screen to dodge, tap the screen and activate abilities, and enhance your armor to unlock features to tackle the tougher monsters. The speed of combat is also determined by your weapon, and long holding the screen will also give you other options, like blocking with a sword and shield. Monster targeting is a good example of a more active tactical ability. You unlock monster targeting (targeting specific parts of a monster) by ranking up some of your gear pieces, and then upgrading them to the next grade. The higher the grade of your weapons and armor the more skills you unlock, and the stronger you’ll be against the toughest monsters.
During the demo at PAX, I was able to test out numerous weapons, like a great sword, bow, and hammer. I would then team up alongside my fellow Hunters at the event and take on some of the hardest monsters in the game such as 5 and 6-star Diablos. Team play was far more enjoyable than playing solo, even if it didn’t require as much activity on my end.
“I’ve seen people form tactical formations with four people. Some people will choose the bowgun to shoot from the back. The monster pays attention to whoever is in front of them, so some people play the tank role – we don’t really have roles in the game – but people started doing that.” Kei told me. After playing with a group during several tough monster battles, I could see how tactical roles would start to make more sense, especially when you have a timer ticking away. He also explained the paintball system, where you can tag monsters and take them with you to fight later with your friends. You can hold paintballed monsters for up to two days before they are released.
A feature that was added just before launch was the AR Camera Mode, which allows you to see your monsters in real-time out in the world. It’s an experience that many Pokemon Go players are familiar with, but AR generated monsters are humongous, and you’ll need ample space if you want to see the scale of some of the large monsters. Of course, this is more of just a novelty, to take pictures of the virtual creatures around you, but it’s still a fun one that the community really seems to enjoy. You'll also run through quests which include meeting your Palico pal and fellow hunter Qualily. Most of the quests at the start have you step through the basic features as part of a tutorial, and later turn into gathering and kill quests which you'll want to complete to level up faster. The special quests are on a timer, so you'll want to try to complete them everyday to get the maximum benefits.
Customization is also a big part of Monster Hunter Now. During my demo session, I didn't get to go through the process of character creations, and I was initially disappointed when I created my character when I was given the early access test build. Once in-game though, you can customize your character's look, with plenty of options to make a Hunter to your liking. Kei told me that, although there's no cosmetics to buy in game yet, the team wants to create a costume system so you can display the pieces of gear you want, even if you're wearing a set that looks different. This feature wasn't in the build or at launch, but seems to be something Niantic wants to include at some point.
Monetization follows a similar pattern to Niantic’s other offerings. You’ll need health potions to keep your Hunter in tip top shape, and you get 5 free ones a day, but if you need more than that, you’re going to have to buy the cash currency Gems, and spend it on more potions, or wait for your health to slowly regenerate. Health is important, because if your health is below 30%, you won’t be able to participate in large monster battles. You’ll also be able to spend those gems on other items, like more Paintballs (you generally earn 3 a day) or wandering orbs, which increases the area you can interact with by an additional 50% for 15 or 30 minutes. Finally, you can expand your item box, or buy Zenny (in-game only currency for upgrading weapons and armor) if you choose. None of the items you can buy are absolutely necessary, but they will certainly help you along the way if you do choose to spend.
Monster Hunter Now is certainly great, if you’re a fan of LoBa games, but my major nitpicks have to do with the feeling that Niantic hasn’t quite learned from their past mistakes when it comes to making these games enjoyable for long term players. When you build a location-based game, it’s clear that you expect players to join up, and take part in community activities. In MHN if you want to group up to battle, you’re going to need some Hunters that are there with you, in your immediate area. Unfortunately, mobile and LoBa games are so saturated at this point, that even if you find yourself at a major location hub where players meet, what are the chances they’ll be playing MHN instead of some of the other LoBa games like Pokemon Go, Orna, or Ingress Prime?
After the events of the past 3 years, Niantic should have learned by now that there is a very real necessity to “pandemic proof” your game, but not simply because there may be a real chance that players won’t be able to congregate in a single area, but because the market is so diversified, what will happen if the players you do have in your area aren’t MHN players? In many ways, Niantic’s new games are even competing with themselves in that regard, which means that, unless MHN opens up the possibility to group with players outside of an immediate location or receive monster spawns at faster rates even if sedentary, it could be difficult to build that kind of community that really resonates with players of LoBa games – even if Monster Hunter Now becomes a global phenomenon upon release.
I am still enjoying my time in Monster Hunter Now, at least for the moment, and my hope is to see the game continue to grow, especially for the Monster Hunter fans out there that are ecstatic to build a community that can’t get enough huntin’. If you’re ready to take the plunge, Monster Hunter Now is available…now, on the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store.