The Hunter, aka theHunter.
Bambi lovers, look away now — an outstanding PC sports hunting sim game was launched a few months ago. And it’s partly a local product from the Midlands. The Hunter was co-developed by Derby-based British indie studio Emote, and is offered as a 450Mb download (torrent).
At a time when some console sports games can cost more than £100, it’s nice to find that The Hunter is free to play. Yes, free. And it’s a proper ‘big world’ PC game, not a 20-minute bit of browser-based fluff. Emote aims to make money from selling access to premium animals and in-game hunting weapons such as a realistic carbon-fibre bow and arrows. After the download and install (choose the default install folder, or else problems ensue), you register at the website and then stroll off into a North American semi-wilderness.
Free players are restricted to hunting Mule Deer only. Paid-up players get to hunt Whitetail Deer, Turkeys (I sense a snowy ‘Christmas Special Edition’ in future), Roosevelt Elk, and Coyote. I’m not sure if you get them all mingling in the same environment, though. I guess the coyotes would spook the deer and eat the turkeys.
The ‘open world’ landscape is made superbly realistic via the Avalanche Engine 2.0, created by the game’s joint venture co-developers in Sweden. I doubt that the Crysis and Oblivion engines could render such a photorealistic sun-dappled woodland and wave-lapped shoreline in widescreen at 1920 x 1200 and with a decent frame-rate. I had all settings on maximum, and the game didn’t even stutter. In a game where quickly glancing around is so vital, a fast frame-rate is important. The sound design is as near-perfect as the graphics, which is useful since sound plays a vital role in tracking animals.
But there’s an odd side-effect of this being an ultra-realistic sim game (review, HD video) — which is that you don’t actually have to shoot anything. You can just stroll around and admire the beautifully realised sylvan landscape instead. You don’t have to unsling your rifle because, just as in reality, you can easily roam the wilderness for 40 minutes or more without seeing your cunning twitchy-eared quarry — or (for that matter) without seeing litter, yobs on motorbikes, grumpy families, stinging-nettles, monoculture forestry, doggers, horse-flies, barbed wire, surly farmers, slurry ponds, sat-nav guided lorries careering down narrow country lanes, or the many other dubious pleasures of the British countryside in summer.
Very restful and Zen — a game where nothing much happens except the weather. I wonder if Emote has considered removing the hunting element and marketing a version with LCD glasses and a soundtrack as a relaxation therapy aid for hospitals and old folks homes?
The other sales possibility I thought of was a premium British Edwardian-period ‘greenwood’ expansion pack, complete with antique shotguns, fancy waistcoats, forelock-tugging beaters, and wild boar / pheasant. That might sell well as a localised Japanese version.
I can also imagine an expansion pack for general wildlife photographers, bird watchers especially. Although the developers would first need to beef up the useless 600 x 480 in-game ‘digital camera’. Currently, though, virtual wildlife photographers can easily make full-size screenshots with a third-party app such as FRAPS.
Of course, you can decimate the local fluffy tailed critters if you want to. Finding them is a real challenge, though, and there’s no save-game function. It’s especially hard if you don’t use the fantasy ‘sat-nav for deer’ device (I’ve done without it so far). There’s a very interesting and quite enjoyable tension in the game between the really simple keyboard controls / genetically-intuitive environment — and the newbie-curdling difficulty of actually finding, tracking, and then stalking the deer without spooking them.
But just playing the game as a screenshot photographer is also cool. Visually you can ramp the game up to a maximum 1920 x 1200 widescreen, tweak the graphics settings, and enjoy Oblivion-quality (if rather unvaried) weather effects. Despite all this visual loveliness I couldn’t find a good set of independent in-game widescreen screenshots online, so here’s some I prepared earlier. No virtual fluffy-wuffies were harmed during the making of these shots…
Because the game controls are so simple, they don’t distract you from quickly developing strategy and trying out hypotheses. It’s the sign of a classic game that it starts out very simply — and then there’s a manageable but enjoyable difficulty curve.
I suspect that the Avalanche Engine must be procedurally generating game assets, hence the ability to pack a large free-roaming game world into a relatively-small 450Mb download, and to completely eliminate ‘Loading…’ screens. The install takes up 1.3Gb of disk space. Since April 09, over 1 million players have apparently downloaded and tried the game. Since the download and install process is not insignificant, I’d guess most of those people will have been within spitting distance of the game’s target audiences. Even if there’s a ‘regular subscriber’ rate as low as 3 per cent (I’m guessing here), that would give the game 30,000 regular paid players. Emote’s online Participate Engine component launches the game and tracks the usage and social ranking side of the game, giving the game a social-networking aspect.
Assuming the developers can grow the game steadily — regularly adding content, adding co-op play, listening carefully to vocal and shy fans alike — then in a few years The Hunter could be a very interesting case-study of how to launch and evolve a profitable niche game with minimal marketing costs.
A final note about the graphics. You may not be impressed by the initial skybox above the lodge / practice targets where you first begin the game. I wasn’t. It seems less polished than in the rest of the game — other skies are more realistic. Other small problems: there’s a little ‘texture pop-in’ on foliage, the field-of-view and anti-aliasing don’t look completely optimised yet, there’s no way to reliably detect wind direction from looking at environmental cues. But in practice you don’t really notice such minor flaws during play. For those thinking of installing on a laptop or an older PC, be aware that the game needs a proper Nvidia or ATI graphics card to run, and it won’t run on Intel or SiS ‘integrated on the motherboard’ graphics chips.
And… did I mention it’s free?