It’s been said time and again: a Monster Hunter game is only as good as its monsters. If you’ve played a Monster Hunter before, chances are your lasting memories are not of the armour and equipment you crafted or of the story moments, but your clashes with the game’s menagerie of beasts. Whether it was a test of endurance against a particularly angry Tigrex or an underwater game of cat-and-mouse with the Gobul, Monster Hunter battles are often a mix of excitement and frustration, and that’s why they tend to stick with you.
Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate is the same way. It has a whole bunch of new, memorable monsters to fight, and if the 90-or-so hours I’ve spent with the game so far are any indication, they’re some of the most fun monsters you’ll encounter in your hunting career. The new and returning creatures in 4 Ultimate are probably the most balanced and diverse in the entire series—but more importantly, they’re also the most versatile and most entertaining.
Take the Seltas Queen, for instance, who can grab a regular Seltas out of mid-air with her tail and have it latch onto her back, creating something that looks like the Spider Slayers from the ‘90s Spider-Man cartoon. Or the Zamtrios, a giant shark on legs that can inflate itself like a balloon and roll around the environment, trying to crush you. Or the demonic Gore Magala, Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate’s flagship monster, who is able to infect lesser monsters with a virus that makes them extremely aggressive. 4 Ultimate’s new monsters are not only fun to fight, they’re also fun to watch, just because they’re so interesting from a visual standpoint.
Here’s the cool part, though: Director Kaname Fujioka tells Siliconera that every monster in the Monster Hunter series is animated by hand, not using any sort of motion capture techniques, even though so many of the monster movements are clearly based on real animals. I asked Fujioka about mocap during a talk about the challenges of designing monsters. Animating human beings is hard enough, but animating animals is even tougher, and Monster Hunter has, hands down, some of the best animation work in videogames. Is it all done by hand or is there some form of mocap involved?
“For cutscenes, there are cases where we utilize motion capture techniques for monsters which might have similar skeletal structure to human beings such as the Palicoes. However, in most cases, our animators create monsters’ motions by hand as it requires more careful craftsmanship as they talk with the game designers,” Fujioka replied. “It’s very important that the motion and the game mechanics are properly intertwined for the gameplay. When we try to showcase a monster’s personality and expressions, we reference frameworks from real life beings and habitats to make them believable. We visit zoos and aquariums and also watch documentary films for reference material.”
Getting every single monster’s animation just right is essential to Monster Hunter’s design. That’s because Monster Hunter is, at its most basic, a pattern recognition game. You have to know when a monster is enraged, when it’s exhausted, when it’s weakened, and when it’s just biding its time before it jumps back in the ring. If a player can’t figure a monster out by observing its movements, everything falls apart.
“It’s important for us that players understand what kind of tactics they need to use,” Fujioka says. “We give clues to players on how a monster may act based on its various expressions, and emotional and behavioural states (such as alarmed, enraged, exhausted, etc.) We plan for the monster’s behaviour first, so we keep in mind things such as distance between the player and the monster, logic behind the monster’s behaviours, and so on.”
He continues, “For instance, the Gore Magala has a status change in Frenzied mode in addition to the standard range of emotions, so additional development is needed to plan for this amped up state. When it’s Frenzied, a shift happens pretty drastically where the Gore Magala will attack in a very aggressive way. As a player, you’ll recognize the higher risk and revise your tactics so that you can adapt to this mode as best as possible.”
Realistic animation isn’t the only hurdle the Monster Hunter team has to deal with. Data for all of the monsters in the game has to be conveyed simultaneously to up to four players at once, so that everyone is having the same experience, and everyone can look for the telltale signs of a monster’s behaviour changing.
“It is challenging to make sure that the game mechanics on the frontend and the game data on the backend are in synch,” Fujioka says. “This factor is also affected by the network communication environment, which of course has evolved from the PlayStation 2 era to today, where much more information can be shared faster. This enables us to incorporate much more complicated mechanisms into the game design.”
“I remember being blown away by the integration of CG and live-action in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and after that I became much more aware of CG,” Fujioka reminisces, when the subject of technological advancements comes up. “I saw further progress of CG techniques in Jurassic Park and Toy Story and was very inspired by the rich emotional expressions I saw. I think these works marked a turning point for computer graphics. CG is integral for game development and is heavily affected by the overall advancements and technologies and hardware.”
“The same goes for Monster Hunter’s development progress,” he continues. “In the past, it was mainly about texture details and simple mapping for shadows but recently, mapping advancements can enable changes in reflection and transparency of lights, rendering surfaces, and other complex textures. In animation, it’s also become possible to make complex changes in real-time expressions. The vertical terrain in Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate has also benefitted from the advancement of this type of technology. With all the improvements available today, it’s important for us to make sure players have an immersive experience in the virtual world while balancing the proper game mechanics.”
Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate will be released next week in North America and Europe, on February 13th. In the meantime, here’s some cool concept images and renders from Capcom, showing off the design of its mascot, the Gore Magala.
A concept illustration for the Gore Magala.
Another illustration, with the Gore Magala facing two hunters.
The actual Gore Magala model in comparison to a human hunter.
The Gore Magala model in a default pose, ready for inspection.
Concept art showing Gore in his regular (bottom) and Frenzied (top) forms.
A render of the Gore Magala in his Frenzied state.
Gore sneaking up on an unwary hunter.