For a hunting game, Avalanche Studios and Expansive World’s fantastic, deep simulation theHunter: Call of the Wild makes for a pretty meditative game experience that’s also become one of my favorite games of a busy with favorite games kind of year. While it’s not for everyone, it’s a game almost everyone can play because of the sense of freedom the two massive maps allow. Want to go for a miles-long hike in the woods snapping photos of wildlife? Go for it. Want to just take a few deer down for experience and cash for better gear? That’s the point of the game (if you couldn’t tell from the title).
That said, this isn’t a hopped up Duck Hunt or a blazing fast-paced arcade experience with bucks popping up like brainless buckshot fodder. You’ll be trying to be as quiet as possible as you work your way around to your target only to have it scamper away after you’ve made too much noise or committed some other faux pas. Amazing visuals and sound design aside, this one’s going to be a niche game for some players who simply don’t like the sport. On the flip side (and as noted for a second time), those looking for a game where easy to kill woodland creatures are a “thing” will probably tap out from the laid-back (yet paradoxically tense) art of tracking, trailing and taking down a target.
The game lets you chose between one of two hunting reserves (one European, the other American) where you arrive with a tricked-out smartphone and some starting gear. That phone acts as your all-purpose map/hint guide/GPS and a few other things and it’s always a tap away when you need it. Your guide pleasantly welcomes you and walks you through the basics as you track your first deer. You can choose to ignore your guide’s prompts and go off on your own, but getting that first deer nets you some much-needed cash that you’ll find comes in handy when unlocking hunting blinds and other locations.
That said, once you’re headed off on your own, you’ll get updates on people in the area who might need you to snap photos of an animal somewhere in the vicinity or otherwise assist them in something related to sneaking around or slowly crawling around trying to avoid snapping twigs or crunching through the brush, which will send your target scooting away. You’ll need to listen to and use assorted calls, learn to tell the difference between old poop and fresh to recent drops, scan tracks and in general, work your way up to being a far better hunter/nature guy or gal as the game progresses. Night hunting/exploring is particularly challenging, especially if you’re willing to turn off the visual cues and try to make your way through the darkness using skills you’ve picked up during the daytime.
Yeah, that’s me stumbling and bumbling through the early game and discovering how gorgeous it all turned out. You’re under no pressure at all to get stuff done once you begin trekking about, although your guide will ask if you’re out for a jog if you start running and let you know it’s good for your cardio. You’ll get the opportunity to summon an ATV at some point, but that’s a far noisier way to travel and you’ll not get much accomplished if you’re riding off trail and scaring anything you might need to photograph for a client.
As for the hunting element, it’s excellently implemented and while there was an early bug when some hit animals didn’t go down, the game keeps things pretty realistic. Hitting vital areas can drop some animals quickly, while others will run off, eventually bleeding out. You’re shown post-kill where your shot(s) hit and this works well when you’re wondering why that deer ended up a quarter mile away from where you took your shot. I’ve heard of players accidentally getting their character killed when a wounded animal charges their way, but that hasn’t happened to my explorer (yet). I think you can fall to your digital death as well, but I tend to play very cautiously so stuff like this doesn’t occur.
As you can see from the videos above and below, this is one truly stunning game to look at. Both art direction and sound design work together in bringing a true sense of immersion and hey, if Avalanche or Expansive ever want to make something like a fantasy-themed RPG using this engine, you’d never hear from me again. But hey, you’d know where I’d be, right? There are a few gripes, though. The game’s font is too darn small on a TV under 40″ and swapping items can be a bit annoying when you end up sifting through your inventory even with the quick select system. Amusingly enough, your hi-tech phone does NOT act as a camera at all. You carry a separate camera for photographing stuff as well as a big ol’ pair of binoculars with kind of dirty lenses, just like the old days.
The really funny thing here is I despise camping, have never hunted (but have cooked some pretty tasty venison thanks to a few folks I know who’ve gotten me some to try out) and still came away with a lot of love for this game. This one’s a long haul of a game experience that no two players will approach the same way and even if they do in a co-op hunt, it’ll take teamwork as well as time to make the best of that time spent. Let me distract you with some more footage of my meandering about while I go sign off and fire this up again. I’ve sunk about 35 hours in and still have yet to see everything.
Oh, the game isn’t slow at all. I was just trying to not disturb anything lest it scamper over me if it panicked. Hey, I never like dying in too-silly ways in games where you’re not supposed to be part of the food chain. Eh, Circle of Life and what have you. With my real-life luck, some deer will run into me as it’s crashing through a convenience store window. Ouch.
Score: A (90%)
Review code provided by the publisher.