The same things that make Monster Hunter super popular—wild boss designs, deep loot progressions, and big multiplayer brawls—are what can make it feel impenetrable to the uninitiated. I have no idea if Monster Hunter Now, Niantic’s latest augmented reality social game, can be as successful as Monster Hunter World or Rise, the most recent console releases in the series. But it certainly makes the basic formula approachable and appealing for anyone who wants to see what all the giant-sword-waving, armor-customizing, boss-breaking fuss is about.
Niantic’s latest post-Pokémon Go project, I got to try the upcoming mobile game at Summer Game Fest while speaking with senior producer Sakae Osumi and chief product officer Kei Kawai, and came away surprised by the simple but engaging combat and the clever ways the hunting aspect has been streamlined and folded into the stop-and-go rhythms of daily life. Monster Hunter Now is currently in closed beta on iOS and Android, with a full release planned for September. I didn’t get a chance to see how the monetization would work, a defining factor in any free-to-play game, especially Niantic’s, but I did get a good feel for the ebb and flow of the rest of the game.
Forests, grasslands, and deserts are mapped over top of your current location and populated with resource nodes and monsters to battle. You can activate anything within a small radius, incentivizing you to start walking around if a particularly useful material or enemy is just outside the periphery of your current range. Once you tap a monster to fight it, you have the option of recruiting other nearby players to help you or take it on solo. When the battle starts a 75-second timer begins ticking down, making every encounter brief, win or lose. Combat itself is straightforward enough. Swiping lets you dodge and maneuver around enemies while tapping initiates an attack. Tapping and holding, meanwhile, will raise a shield if you’ve got one, or charge up an attack depending on the weapon.
Stringing together taps and holds can unlock a couple more moves, while each hit charges up an ultimate meter that can be unleashed for extra damage. Perfectly timed dodges will also net you a short powerup to deal more damage on the counter. There are just enough options to stop it from feeling monotonous without scrambling your brain, at least for the handful of battles I played.
If you win you get some more resources for crafting additional gear, but if you lose you can just try again with a different loadout. Maybe the monster’s attack patterns are more conducive to a lighter weapon vs. a heavier one, or perhaps it’s susceptible to particular elemental effects. Calling in other players for backup will scale up the difficulty of the fight, but you’ll still have an advantage overall, especially since additional players can draw the enemy’s attention, freeing you up to be more aggressive.
But Monster Hunter Now’s most intriguing feature exists for when you’re not even playing it. A Palico cat companion will collect resources for you while you’re walking around with your phone in your bag, or randomly tag monsters in the vicinity. The latter allows you to build up a running log of monsters you can then fight later on, whether you’re nearby or not. You can even group up with friends at a coffee shop or someone’s apartment to battle through all of your backlogs together. It’s a great way to make progress without staying buried in your phone all day. It’s also a perfect opportunity for Niantic to monetize, and will see how that pans out in the future.
At the end of the day, Monster Hunter Now isn’t reinventing the series or genre with radical new ideas so much as transferring its core DNA to a more ubiquitous and accessible format. I’m not sure if the draw of outfitting my avatar with ever more bonkers-looking armor sets made from monster parts will sustain my attention over the long haul, but Monster Hunter Now is the first time the satisfaction so many fans get from the series has felt within reach. In fact, the game not taking over my life is exactly what I want from a new mobile hit these days.
Kotaku is covering everything Summer Game Fest, from the main show on Thursday to other events happening throughout the next week. Whether you’re into larger-than-life triple-A games or intimate, offbeat indies, you can keep up with all things SGF here.