The hunting game market has been a decidedly niche one for a time. In many ways this is unsurprising, as there aren’t a whole lot of gamers who would consider stalking bear through the Alaskan wilderness a particularly exhilarating experience. Nonetheless, the Cabela’s franchise has become something of a monolith in the genre, continually churning out games to satisfy the virtual hunters of the world. This year Activision looks to broaden the appeal of their franchise by introducing a variety of new features and a light gun in Cabela’s Dangerous Hunts 2011. While it doesn’t quite get there in terms of being a truly great game, the latest title in the Cabela’s franchise is certainly a worthy effort which will provide some fun to gamers of all stripes.
The biggest innovation that Dangerous Hunts 2011 brings to the table isn’t actually in the game at all; it is the Top Shot Elite, the light gun which can either be bought solo or bundled with the full game. This controller is simply awesome for a number of reasons. First off, it is, to my knowledge, the only fully functional wireless light gun which is available on all three consoles. As of right now it is only useful for the two most recent Cabela's games, one of which was wii exclusive, but the mere fact that there is a light gun on all consoles hopefully will open the way for more games which make use of it in the future.
However, Activision wasn’t content to just say “okay, since we’re first we can make a crappy peripheral and no one will care”. Instead, they have poured a lot of energy into making the Top Shot Elite a truly excellent piece of hardware. One of the thumbsticks is placed on the back of the trigger grip along with the A and B buttons, which makes all three incredibly easy to reach and use. The other thumbstick and d-pad are both on the front of the gun, with each one being next to the X and Y button respectively.
The placement of all the buttons feels very natural, although I would have preferred for the face buttons to be a little bit further back on the barrel. Add in a pump action portion for reloading, a fully adjustable stock (which can be detached) and a detachable scope that can also be moved according to your standards and you have one truly excellent, well designed piece of hardware.
In fact, the only drawbacks which I could find with the Top Shot itself was that if you wanted to use the scope the game had to be recalibrated pretty much whenever you moved and you had to stand decently far away in order to calibrate it. I personally didn’t make use of the scope very much, instead opting to just aim with the on screen reticule, meaning that the calibration never really became much of an issue for me. It was a little bit more frustrating to have to stand well back from the television in order to actually have the Top Shot recognized and not go crazy. It didn’t interfere with gameplay a lot, but it would have been nice to be a bit closer.
The other slight downside, which was to be expected when playing with a light gun, is that it is more difficult to both aim and move precisely when using the Top Shot Elite than a standard controller. For the slower portions of the game this doesn’t become a problem, but during the more intense sections, like when you are being attacked by a pack of female lions who are darting around, the sensitivity of the Top Shot makes the game incredibly difficult. This fact is compounded by many of the enemies being able to take a surprisingly high amount of damage. It became so overwhelming at points that I had to switch to the more precise control of a gamepad just to progress.
No matter which method you use to experience the game, Dangerous Hunts 2011 does an excellent job of pacing and creates an incredibly tense atmosphere. Levels are littered with hidden enemies which must be spotted and avoid by using hunter’s sense, a feature that lights up both possible threats and helpful items. Because of the omnipresence of hazards, you never feel as if you’re entirely the hunter, as there is always a sense that you are also the hunted.
This tension is only furthered by the ambient sounds of animals which carry across the African savannah, the game’s primary setting. These noises will have you checking your 6 continually, afraid of what might be coming up behind you, even though there rarely is anything. These occasionally culminate in slow-mo cinematic moments where you’re forced to score a heart shot on a leopard jumping at your throat or avoid a stampede of wild buffalo by moving your controller of choice rapidly to one side. The entire mode is a delightful one with just a standard controller and becomes downright awesome when combined with the Top Shot Elite.
Adding even further to the creepy factor is the all around sound design. In addition to the growls and cackles that carry across the grasslands, the animals sound very realistic once you get up close and personal with them; although often times you’ll be too busy fighting for your life to notice. Complimenting these superb animal sounds is a cast of voiceovers which are top of the line and a soundtrack which swells nicely with the action. If there’s one gripe with the aural portions of the latest Cabela's game it is the constant sound of footsteps which predominate the game. I get it Activision, I’m walking, I can tell that by the fact that I’m getting closer to something, you don’t need to remind me of that through the continual crunching of my feet on dirt.
Were this same level of polish displayed throughout the entire game it would be a must buy for near everyone, however, it does suffer from some decently destructive drawbacks. Chief among these is the level design. The levels are incredibly linear, to the point where it seems as if you are walking down a tunnel lined by grass and trees. This in and of itself is a pretty egregious error, but it is compounded by the prevalence of invisible walls littering the level, resulting in you not being able to obtain some of the experience awards which are dropped.
Also, in a fact which is more disappointing than surprising, the story never really gets fully developed. The inclusion of a story was one of the big selling points of Dangerous Hunts 2011, but it just comes up a little bit short in this case. The inclusion of a narrative is a step in the right direction for hunting games but there needs to be a little bit more ambition in terms of storytelling if the developers want the series to garner mass appeal.
A similar type of attention is necessary to some of the more technical parts of the game if it is to continue to progress. The environments aren’t particularly varied and some of the cutscenes also aren’t certainly anything to write home about. To be sure, the graphics aren’t bad for a hunting game, but they certainly wouldn’t be considered great by any means.
The graphics are also a convenient microcosm for the entirety of Cabela’s Dangerous Hunts 2011. If you compare it to almost every other hunting game on the market, the latest game in the Cabela’s series blows them away by miles simply because it is a cohesive experience which sports some features that even non-hunters can appreciate. In addition, it can be played with a superbly well integrated peripheral that enhances the experience both during story mode and in the unlockable shooting galleries. Unfortunately, it is still lacking some of the technical facets of great mainstream video games. If a truly great hunting video game is ever made it will almost certainly trace its roots back to this title, but until then both sportsmen and non-sportsmen alike can at least find a decent amount of enjoyment in this title.
[Cabelas Dangerous Hunts 2011]-$39.99(Wii), $57.99(Wii Bundled w/ Top Shot Elite), $38.99(PS3), $77.26(PS3 Bundled w/ Top Shot Elite), $38.50(Xbox 360), $77.26(Xbox 360 Bundled w/ Top Shot Elite), $29.00(DS)