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An Epic in Your Palm: Monster Hunger proves hard to put down 

Monsters have overrun the Snowy Mountains. Herbivorous Popo lumber across windswept ridges, defended by dense coats and scimitars of antlers. Deep in icy caverns, Giaprey

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Monsters have overrun the Snowy Mountains. Herbivorous Popo lumber across windswept ridges, defended by dense coats and scimitars of antlers. Deep in icy caverns, Giaprey lizards seethe over their flat, scrabbled nests. And above them all flies the lethal lord of the frozen landscape, the Wyvern Tigrex, swooping and shrieking and scattering the other monsters wherever he lands.

Monster Hunter Freedom Unite is filled with dramatic beasts and landscapes that range from tame to terrifying, frigid to infernal. And it demands an equal range of responses from every player. This is a game in which the player changes even more than the game. Instead of upgrading characters or buying new weapons, Monster Hunter Freedom Unite forces players to develop actual skills in order to confront the game's monstrous challenges.

Wading into battles and tapping the attack button quickly results in death. Each creature in the game's hundreds of hunts has been programmed to behave in a unique fashion, in a distinct landscape. These are monsters that back fighters into corners, flee the map in order to heal, summon allies and switch tactics. They force players to employ the full range of weapons, defending and attacking as well as sharpening blades and switching ammunition.

Players can obtain advantages through new weapons and suits of armor, but these are hard-won and must be built by the players themselves. Crafted from the bodies of monsters and the ores and plants that fill Monster Hunter's world, every item must be earned in order to be exploited. Suffering hunters might stop in order to collect some herbs to brew a cure. And the perfect weapon for slaying a monster may be forged on the field from the bones of the last beast beaten.

All of this happens in a landscape as vast and detailed as that of Oblivion, and the game is further expanded by downloadable hunts and wireless multiplayer. Factoring in the game's farming, fishing, gathering, mining, hunting and socializing, Monster Hunter Freedom Unite is more than an action game - it's a miniature world as redolent of life and death, freedom and fate as any other that can be played.

THE GOOD: I judge handheld games on how easy they are to pick up and how hard they are to put down. By partitioning the main gameplay into discreet hunts, Monster Hunter guarantees plenty of quests that can be completed during a commute or a coffee break. But the urge to craft the ultimate helmet, catch a rare fish or just defeat that #$(*!%@ monster makes it difficult to quit.

THE BAD: If I want to look around I have to remove my thumb from the analog stick and swing the camera using the system's D-pad - thus stopping my movement. This awkward arrangement is only partially the game's problem, since the PSP doesn't have a second analog stick. Still, it results in a perspective that is occasionally lethal in the life-or-death world of the monster hunt.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Monster Hunter Freedom Unite is a hardcore monster basher with a world so massive that it's epic, yet intricate enough to be personal.

Monster Hunter Freedom Unite ★★★★★
Rated Teen; PSP


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