For the past ten years or so, hunting games have been in a rut. The early-2000's glory days of wandering through an open world and carefully monitoring wind direction and animal tracks seem like ages ago. When one thinks of the genre today, they'll probably imagine the obnoxious, badly programmed shooting galleries that characterized Activision's Cabela's series, which left off in 2014 with the dismal African Adventures. Sitting quietly on Steam at that point was 2009's theHunter, a simulator that promised authenticity to a fault; by that I mean you actually had to pay for your animal licenses. Yeesh, no thanks. But here we are in 2017, and developer Expansive Worlds has released what it intends to be a hunting simulator with all the animals included at no extra charge. The question is, then, is theHunter: Call of the Wild good? Well, yes, but it does have problems.
The first thing you'll notice about Call of the Wild is its atmosphere. When you start the game up, you're greeted with measured, dignified orchestral music that evokes majestic images of endless forests and prairies illuminated by a grand sunrise. And once you've gone through its serviceable character designer, that's exactly what you'll see. Call of the Wild is - thanks in large part to a flawless lighting engine - one of the most stunningly gorgeous games I have ever played. Granted, this is afforded by a lack of explosions, but even when your perspective switches to third person for your ATV escapades, the framerate remains solid. That's not to say there aren't any fumbles on this end. You'll frequently see animals awkwardly snap between animation cycles (especially the black bear), because as authentically as they behave, their movement could use some work. And this is a bit of a nitpick, but smaller details such as rocks and poo piles have a habit of floating inches above any ground that isn't flat.
Ah, yes, the animal markings! As long as an animal is walking, resting, eating or crapping, it's leaving signs for you to follow. These clues are highlighted in a short radius around you, as are the distant calls of your unseen prey. So follow them, of course, but not too quickly. Within 500 yards of an animal, running is a bad idea, a fact that they'll let you know with a general increase in alertness and a warning call to their furry comrades. If you're not patient enough to keep your noise down, the venison will dart off, putting you back to square one. And if they're downwind from your stinky human body, forget about it. In truth, this game of stealth comprises over half of your time, so fortunately it's one of theHunter's best gameplay mechanics. Faster movement is of course louder, but beyond that, you want to stay low and behind cover- but not necessarily in it, because different plants, trees, and surfaces produce varying amounts of noise. Even when I deemed it okay to slip through a shortcut, I couldn't help but cringe at the sound of branches brushing on my jacket and twigs crunching underfoot. The sound design here is impeccable.
All this sneaking around wouldn't be too exciting if it weren't for the payoff, which epitomizes video game satisfaction. It's here that the tension ramps to its peak, when you're low to the ground; when you can see the deer but he doesn't yet see you. You aim carefully, and your gunshot echoes explosively across the land. The animal will need to be tracked to its deathbed, but as long as you've kept in mind basic anatomy and muscle control while aiming, this shouldn't take long. When you claim each kill, you're given a very informative screen detailing your shot, which annoyingly doesn't seem to get saved anywhere; take your screencaps. If your shot was mishandled, though, it's time to track the poor thing down and finish the job. Sympathy for my prey ensured that whenever I could, I followed every botched shot with a killing blow. Well, that and the fact that your weapon score and XP are amplified by a multiplier that resets if you don't.
Call of the Wild conveys progression not through the animals you'll unlock, but your gear instead. Every creature is available from the start, but if you're thinking about shooting that moose with your starter rifle, just put it away and look for something smaller. Among the huge variety of weapons, gear, and ammo types in the badly-interfaced ingame store, the vast majority is locked until you've built more experience. Aside from general XP, which can go towards perks such as knowing an animal's sex from its tracks, you also have weapon-specific XP that prevents you from buying the harder-hitting guns and bows until you've proven your mettle. Unfortunately, this is theHunter's biggest issue: it just takes too long to make any progress. I've been at this thing for well over fifteen hours, and have only unlocked a handful of guns and gear. This is to say nothing of the dearth of credits I have to pay for half of it, either. The slow burn of tracking down an animal and maintaining realistic caution is not the problem- it's the game's insistence on compounding it with an overly-complicated, drip-feeding XP system. This is alleviated by your instant access to a repertoire of helpful equipment such as ground blinds and ATVs, along with an abundance of small and medium game that your .243 can handle, but it hurts to see so many items remain unavailable after amassing an RPG-like playtime.
On a lighter note, there is more to do that will keep things varied. The two five-mile areas available - one based on the Pacific Northwest and the other based on Germany - are not only gorgeous, but packed with things to find that reveal hidden stories about the area. Both reserves also have an ongoing story that might see you doing things such as finding out who or what ransacked the local warden's camp. With purists in mind, the developers included an option to turn this off altogether, but I would advise against doing so given that having a set of goals can quicken the slow crawl of XP. Also included is an online mode, where a small but dedicated fanbase hosts servers waiting for you to join. Annoyingly enough, you can't uncover outposts or map secrets within this mode, but because you can still claim kills while chatting it up with others, you might want to stop by here from time to time.
While it suffers from seriously botched progression and a smattering of poor design choices, theHunter: Call of the Wild consistently provides a deep and satisfying hunting experience. Not only is it a dramatic departure from the mindless schlock we've been conditioned to seeing; it brings hunting to a height of simulation and strategy that I've never seen before. The game holds a special reverence not just for hunting, but for the spirit of the outdoors in general, making it a relevant testament to our natural landscapes in the modern era. If you're going into theHunter expecting to navigate smooth menus and unlock things at a steady pace, you're in for disappointment. If you're looking for an immersive and dignified hunting experience, you'll be absolutely hooked for hours on end. Falling into both camps, I know that the latter sensation ultimately prevails over the former. I'll be playing this one for a long time going forward, and not just because it takes forever to get new gear.