One of the best things about the iOS platform is that games are often unexpectedly announced and released in a short time frame. Such was the case with Capcom's Monster Hunter Freedom Unite (MHFU) for iOS. Announced and released within a two month time span, MHFU took a lot of people by surprise, myself included. What surprised me most, however, was how well Monster Hunter works on iOS, especially with the addition of online multiplayer. That's not to say the game is perfect, but more often than not I have been pleasantly surprised by this port.
"Overall, Capcom did a wonderful job bringing this game over to iOS"
If you don't remember Monster Hunter Freedom Unite, the game was originally released for the PSP in North America in 2009. RPGamer reviewed the original PSP version back then and much of what Tom Goldman said in his review still holds true. In fact, I might actually rate the game higher now as one of the major flaws he sighted in his review, the poor PSP controls, no longer exists. Not to mention all of the new additions to the iOS version that also improve the experience.
The touch screen controls are surprisingly intuitive and have an easy learning curve. What makes the controls so good and easy to use is the smart, limited use of virtual buttons. Rather than overlaying twenty different buttons on to the screen to handle all of the games various attacks and special actions, you instead have three large buttons - one for attack, one for defense/special abilities, and one to dodge. You can hit the attack and defense/ability buttons or slide them in the four cardinal directions to perform different attacks or actions during combat. This, combined with contextual buttons that only appear when needed, meant that I spent very little time staring down at my hands to make sure that I was hitting the right buttons. Instead, I quickly learned the general region on the screen where I needed to hit and slide my thumb. It's easily one of the best implementations of virtual buttons emulating a controller that I have seen on iOS.
The camera was also really easy to control, at any time, I could double tap the screen to re-center it behind my character or use a finger to swipe it in any direction. The Target Camera from Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate makes a welcome appearance in this game. This new addition lets you easily lock the camera onto boss monsters. It's a saving grace when using virtual controls and makes even the most hectic boss fights fun and playable on a touch screen. I have taken down a number of big monsters alone and with friends using the touch screen controls and have had very few problems or missteps while playing. The lock-on camera also works when using a controller and has a few options to tweak or turn off the feature completely for Monster Hunter purists.
I also played for a significant amount of time using an Extended Made for iOS controller. Extended MFi controllers feature two analog sticks and two triggers. This, of course, is the ideal way to play MHFU. With the extra triggers and analog stick, the game plays and controls better than any of the Monster Hunter games on the PSP ever did, especially with the addition of the Target Camera. The game also supports Standard MFi controllers that don't feature analog sticks or the extra trigger buttons, though if you play with one of those you will still have to interact with the touch screen a bit. Either way, if you have a controller you are going to have a great experience with the game.
Arguably the biggest and most important addition to MHFU is that of four player online multiplayer. Using GameCenter, you can easily jump into a random Guild Hall lobby with up to three other gamers and go on hunts together. Capcom has implemented text chat while in a lobby using the Lobi App API. This means that the game overlays the Lobi chat interface over the game when you want to talk to other hunters. It's not a seamless integration, and it repeatedly asks you to install the separate Lobi app from the App Store in order to reduce chat interface load times. There is also no option to chat during hunts themselves, so you'll have to either lay out plans of attack before you begin the hunt or trust that your team members will know what to do. In my time with the game, there were several instances where I would have loved the option to communicate with my comrades, but found that often the simple beacon option that pings your location on the map was enough to tell everyone where I was and that I needed their immediate help.
You can also set up a private Guild Hall for your friends but there is no way to tell when your friends are online or to tell them your lobby number from within the game. As a result, when playing with friends I had to set up games through third party apps like Twitter or via text message. There were also a few occasions where I had trouble joining a friend's lobby and had to try multiple times before I could finally get in. In other instances, I would get a persistent online error that I could only fix by rebooting the game. Thankfully, rebooting was always a quick affair and the online error was rather infrequent.
The finicky nature of the online multiplayer and online chat are in large part due to the fact that these features are being layered onto a six year old game that was originally designed with just local co-op in mind. The fact that they implemented both into this game, albeit a bit clumsily, is wonderful and more than welcome. This is a game best played with friends and I had some wonderful adventures with friends taking on difficult monsters I never would have been able to beat on my own. I should also mention that when I was on an actual mission, the multiplayer experience was always stable and I never lost a mission or was killed because of a faulty connection. Once the game is working, it works like a dream.
The visuals have also been enhanced for this release. You could call this an HD remake for the iPhone and iPad. The visuals and models in general look very sharp and are comparable to Monster Hunter's newer counterparts and to other visually impressive iOS games. I should also note that this is a really solid and well made port. MHFU runs fantastically even on my old iPad Mini with its aging A5 chip set. I never experienced any random crashes or frame rate dips. If you have a newer iPad with a Retina Display, the game looks even better than it did on my machine and runs just as well. The game is also fairly light on battery life. I got around six or seven hours out of my iPad Mini from a full charge and that includes a lot of online multiplayer.
The game is a bit small on the iPhone 5/5s, especially the on screen buttons, but it is still more than playable. Between the three iOS devices I tested it on - an iPad Air, an iPad Mini, and an iPhone - I enjoyed the iPad Mini the most when using virtual controls, The light weight and smaller size made it easy to hold for long periods of time while at the same time providing me with a large enough display to see all of the action and not have my hands obscure much of the screen. Of course, if you are using a controller the larger 9.7-inch iPad is the way to go.
Overall, Capcom did a wonderful job bringing this game over to iOS. It looks better than ever, includes intuitive touch controls, has controller support, is a universal app that runs on iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch, and is being sold without any DLC or in-App purchases for one fair price. In fact, the only real complaint I have outside of the sometimes finicky multiplayer and lack of in-mission chat, is the omission of cloud saves. This is a game where you are supposed to sink hundreds of hours into improving your character and gear. It would be nice to have an easy way to back up that save and move it around. I would love to be able to start a character on my iPad at home and then easily move him over to my iPhone when I'm out and about. As it stands now, you have to create a new character for each device you own or resort to third party programs to pull the save file out of the app and transfer it manually. It's less than intuitive and not the least bit user friendly. It also seems like a rather strange omission, seeing as how forward thinking Capcom was when adding in all of the other iOS-specific features I mentioned above. Hopefully, iCloud support is something that will make its way into the game in a future update.
I had a great time with MHFU. I never had much experience with the franchise before and this iOS port was the perfect way to turn me into a fan. The pace of doing a mission, coming back to town, managing my gear and farm, then leaving the app lent itself nicely to the iPad and iPhone, especially in small thirty to forty-five minute chunks. The game is a slow burn, so it's nice to be able to slowly chip away at it with devices that are always on your person. Capcom gave this old PSP game new life and while tacked on to an experience that didn't originally have them, the online multiplayer and chat do improve the game greatly. With a few updates to add in some much needed cloud saves, make multiplayer lobbies more stable, and improve the chat, it could be even better. As it stands now, it is still an easy recommendation for Monster Hunter fans, people who have been curious about the franchise for a while, or just people looking for a fun cooperative action game on iOS.
Good Touch Controls
Full game; no in-app Purchases
Works on iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch
No iCould Support; Cloud Saves
Joining Guild Halls can be hit or miss at times
Lobi app for chat is not very good
No online chat during multiplayer missions
Verdict: An easy recommendation. A fully featured iOS game that improves upon its PSP predecessor.