Monster Hunter: World
Who it's for: Those looking for an immersive, lengthy adventure to while away winter.
Console: PS4, Xbox One, PC
I've always liked the idea of the "Monster Hunter" series more than the actual games. The scope of the series always seemed too big for handheld systems (I tried to jump in after the last console entry on the Wii). Add in the extreme level of complexity, and I just couldn't get into the "Monster Hunter" mythos.
The latest entry, "Monster Hunter: World," changed that. Not that the game is less complex than previous entries. It's not. But the progression is better managed. You will be reading tutorial messages for nigh on 20 hours and still learning new things for many hours more.
The story is simplistic: An Elder Dragon has migrated to the New World, and you're part of the group following it to discover, explore and colonize the new continent. Don't expect Homer's "Odyssey," though, as the shallow narrative takes a distinct back seat to the hunt.
The basic gameplay can be boiled down to a loop of preparing to hunt, hunting, harvesting parts of your downed foes (as well as items from the environment), using them to craft more powerful weapons and armor, and starting over.
Out of this premise comes an amazing amount of depth. That's thanks to the amazing variety in everything. You'll have access to 14 different weapon types, each completely distinctive and requiring its own tactics in battle. You'll need to master a number of them to tackle the huge number of equally huge beasts waiting to rip you to shreds.
In addition to easing the barrier for entry, "Monster Hunter: World" features a number of notable improvements over the last few entries. Harnessing the power of current-gen consoles, the game embraces its "World" subtitle by expanding the hunting zones. Instead of a collection of small-ish, self-contained areas that require a pause to load when you travel from one to another, "World" features a smaller number of distinct expansive environments.
Each environment — forest, desert, land-based seascape (yeah, you read that right) — features its own ecosystem. Take a walk and you can observe the world working around you. Monsters live their own lives, eating, fighting and trying to survive depending on their personality and other traits. You can walk right past a herd of grazing beasts and they will barely acknowledge your presence, and other times you may unintentionally wander too close to a lair and find yourself broiled before you can unsheathe your weapon.
Players can tackle much of the game solo — well, solo if you don't count your faithful cat-like Palico companion, who will help you in battle so long as you keep him well-outfitted also. However, there's a lot to be said about jumping online and playing with a hunting party. Four hunters make slaying some of the game's giant beasties a little easier, and there is a certain camaraderie that forms when you find a group that syncs and communicates well.
Some may find the game's length daunting. If you just play through the story, you won't have touched more than half the content. Side-quests abound, each offering plenty of creatures to hunt and gear to craft. It will keep the most intrepid players busy for dozens of hours.
And then there is the late-game content — stronger monsters, more loot, high-level quests — that will keep you busy until the seasons change one or two more times. I would be remiss in not mentioning how "Monster Hunter: World" performs on PS4 Pro and Xbox One X. Capcom has created a world that truly shines in 4K HDR, should you have the console and television to take advantage of it. Following a recent trend, players can choose different settings that prioritize resolution, framerate or simply graphics.
No matter which way you go, you'll be treated to a visual feast with lush environments, fluid animations and stunningly detailed creature models. It's definitely one of the best-looking games around, which complements the epic gameplay as well.
Before playing "Monster Hunter: World," I wasn't particularly interested in this series. Now, I just want to keep playing to see what new goliath I will find around the next bend and what new weapon mode I'll be able to create after I kill it. It's a seriously deep game, but one that rewards players the entire time.