Gorgeous. Beautiful. Dazzling. Astonishing. I could spend this entire preview going through a thesaurus and picking out synonyms for really, really good looking just to describe just how ridiculously, stonkingly fantastic this game looks. The environments are crisp, with lush greenery broken up by dancing butterflies and gently falling leaves and all this for a 300 MB client download. Even the glazed, blank look in the eye of a dead deer is simply bewitching.
Did that last line shock you at all? If so, then this game probably isn’t for you, because The Hunter is all about shooting defenceless animals. The twinge of guilt I felt (seriously, and speaks volumes for the graphics, animation, and AI, even at this stage) when I murdered that virtual deer was tempered by sheer cathartic joy at having finally caught one of the bastards after almost two hours of unsuccessful tracking and stalking.
The Hunter is an online single-player game, which initially seems like a bit of a contradiction, but it makes sense before long. The game itself, the hunting aspect, is single player. You get missions from your browser, or decide where to go and hunt, and then open up the game client, select your loadout from a variety of weapons and items (and rather fetching camo gear) and get on with the business of shooting poor furry creatures for fun.
The online aspect is more to do with the community. While there are no other players wandering around the island when you’re off hunting, they’re all there online, convening on the message boards. The idea behind it seems to be to unite the game and the reality; from your virtual hunting, you can talk with real hunters, and, indeed, it’s mentioned on the site’s own About page that real hunters should feel free to brag about their latest.
That’s not to say that the virtual hunt is entirely single-player, though, or that there’s no real progress. Leaderboards are up on the site to show off who the best hunters are, and are tracked by either score for the kills, or the range the kills are made at. Your character is created by selecting an avatar and then randomly generating a name, which has given me the vaguely-surprised looking Solomon Gentry gains stats as you progress, making the hunt easier. If you use a particular weapon more, you’ll become more accurate with it. If you spend a lot of time tracking mule deer, you’ll have an easier time doing it in the future.
More weapons and hunting licenses for different creatures will be available as time goes on from in-game stores. It’s a little unclear as to how these are going to work, there is a mention on the FAQ page that some will be secret stores, so perhaps there’s an element of exploration. Either way, while the game is free to play, a lot of this extra stuff is going to cost real money. There’s also talk of a subscription, presumably unlocking all of the extra weapons and the like as long as it lasts.
Inevitably, though, it’s the hunting that’s the most important part, and it holds up well. I’m speaking as someone who’s never hunted in his life, but it’s pretty much how I’d imagine hunting would go. It’s a game that requires a lot of patience and probably a lot more than many are likely to invest. Getting the hang of moving quietly, finding tracks and droppings (marked, amusingly, with a red glow to make them easier to spot), and then using your hand-held Huntermate computer to work out the likely positions of your prey takes time, so it’s a good thing the forum is there and full of excellent advice to help out the cack-handed like myself.
The Huntermate works to cut out a lot of the chaff, and make the hunting a lot smoother. Generally, it displays a GPS map, which updates as you find out more about your target. When you hear a sound, it logs it, and the area it came from. Find tracks, and it’ll tell you the direction the prey was moving in. Find droppings, and it’ll tell you how old they are, and gives a radius the target could’ve moved to assuming it wasn’t startled, and stuck to its normal, wandering speed.
There’s a fair bit of waiting and moving slowly involved, and the actual kill is never a shoot-from-the-hip experience. You get in position, and either draw the target nearer, or carefully edge closer yourself while trying to keep it roughly where it is. Then you miss completely, swear loudly (alerting everyone in the office), sulk for five minutes, and realise that you’ve already started to hunt again. As soon as you get your first sniff of success; like the first sight of a Mule Deer, when you’re close to capturing your prey, and even your first kill, The Hunter becomes incredibly compelling.
Excitingly, it looks like there’s a lot more to come. It’s hard to say what’s going to be added and when, but long term, it looks like there’ll be competitions for small groups of players to band together, MMO-style ‘instanced’ areas for people to hunt in groups, and, without a doubt, more critters, more weapons, more areas, and more seasons. If this continues to grow and grow, it could fill a niche that’s been poorly neglected since the Deer Hunter series got stuck in a rut. No pun intended.