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Ups:Realistic 3D terrain and deer behavior, lots of options, captures "feel" of deer hunting.
Downs: It’s a hunting game, so it’s not for everyone; somewhat smallish hunting areas, a few bugs.
System Reqs:
Pentium-166, 32 MB RAM, 6X CD-ROM, SVGA w/ 2MB, 3D card recommended.
buck1.JPG (5100 bytes)OK, let’s get this out of the way first thing. I hunt. Every opening day of elk season, I take a week of my vacation and head out to the Bitterroots with my hunting buddies. Most times we bring back elk and deer, sometimes we don’t, but we always have a great time. And, believe me, until Trophy Buck, I was as puzzled as anyone by the popularity of hunting games. The mute fact that Deer Hunter outsold games like Half-Life and Starcraft baffled me, mostly because Half-Life and Starcraft are great games, and Deer Hunter and games of its ilk are just crap.

But I thought these games awful for reasons different from those of a good number of the members of the gaming community, many of whom seem shocked that anyone could take pleasure from "shooting defenseless animals", even on the computer. I’m not going to argue the morality of hunting; it’s legal, so as far as I’m concerned it’s your personal choice. You don’t want to hunt, that’s just fine. But I will say that a gaming community that is constantly hounded by hand-wringers who insist that violent games lead to psychotic behavior (for example, this January’s characteristically brain-dead article on violence and video games in the Reader’s Digest) seems disingenuous at best when carping about how terrible it is that people want to shoot Bambi. Give this some thought next time you cap someone in the head from behind while playing Tribes.

buck2.JPG (4554 bytes)OK, end of preachy digression--no, I objected to these games because they were of abysmally low quality. OK, I know that one of the reasons the games sold so well was because of their low system requirements, but hey, Warcraft II runs on a 486, and it looks, oh, about a million times better. Besides the low graphic quality, the games in no way captured the feel of hunting. Typically, you stood in one place and clicked on the wretched-looking landscape until you somehow hit the right pixel. This feat of skill and woodcraft was then rewarded by a short movie of some animal out of a bad documentary, which you then tried to shoot with a bullet whose flight pattern obeyed no known laws of physics or nature. And did I mention that these games were really, really, ugly?

Well, it took a while, but with Trophy Buck the hunting genre finally has its first unqualified success. Its fine 3D accelerated graphics, realistic animal behavior, nicely modeled gun physics, and variety of hunting areas and hunting options places it far above other games of the genre; it stands out like an eight-point buck in a flock of turkeys.

buck3.JPG (4245 bytes)Sierra Sports did the right thing in making this game’s interface and gameplay much like your standard 3D first-person shooter. If you’ve played those games, you’re familiar with Trophy Buck’s interface, which is intuitive and unobtrusive. As in Quake or Shogho or Unreal, you wander the landscape looking for your targets. But in this case, the terrain is one of eight hunting areas—ranging from the Texas scrubland to Iowa farmland to the Montana mountains—and the targets are whitetail and mulies. Actually, the game plays more like Thief than other 3D shooters—stealth is rewarded. If you run around this landscape firing off BFGs, you’re not gonna see any deer. Nope, stalking deer takes more than a bit of cunning. You’ll find yourself watching the wind’s direction, taking advantage of cover, waiting quietly and stalking very, very, lightly. The deer will also leave sign around; you can find them them by looking for droppings and tree rubbings. Often, you’ll shoot one, only to have it run off; you’ll have to track it down by following its spoor. It takes some patience, but so does deer hunting, and when you finally do get that six-pointer in your sights, it’s a very rewarding feeling.

The graphics are well-done, especially the terrain--which not only looks good, but also has some bearing on how you play the game. You’ll quickly learn to use the cover provided. All eight of the hunting areas have a nice regional "feel"—you won’t confuse north Georgia with Iowa, and both will demand slightly different hunting strategies for success. You can also add some variety by changing the month you hunt, as well as the weather. There’s a big difference between hunting on a clear October morning and a snowy December one. The deer look good as well; they’re actually modeled in 3D—that’s right, no more FMV—and though it’s sometimes difficult to tell spikes from does at a distance, that’s the case in real life as well. It’s best to hold your fire until you’re sure.

buck4.JPG (4679 bytes)Deer behavior is also pretty realistic. It’s a kick to have a deer in your sights while you wait for it to wander into range, then suddenly see it stiffen, stop, and run off in the opposite direction as it catches wind of you. The deer stay in cover most of the time, and they also seem to "bed down" during the afternoon; it’s much harder to kick them up then. Of course, this "realism" only applies at the highest setting. If you set the game’s options on easy with a high deer concentration, it’s like hunting in a petting zoo.

The game also offers a wide range of weapons—twelve different rifles, two shotguns, three bows and a muzzleloader. You can also choose from a variety of ammo loads and sight reticles for you scope, though there doesn’t seem to be any provision for varying magnifications; you can’t pick out a 4 x 9, for instance, and are stuck with one scope magnification level throughout the game. Again, the wide range of weapons adds to the game’s longevity. Hunting with a bow is an entirely different game than hunting with a rifle. You can also indulge in carrying some of the paraphernalia so dear to hunters by visiting your truck screen and picking up some antlers to rattle in bucks, some deer estrus scent, a pair of binoculars, or some scent-away.

buck5.JPG (3836 bytes)Trophy Buck goes out of its way to help beginners; not only do the options allow you to set various skill levels, but the game also includes the "deer finder" feature, which is sort of like deer radar, and will tell you the exact position of every deer in the woods. I’m trying to get my wife to buy me one of these for my birthday. The online manual is very well-done as well, and includes a wealth of information on deer behavior and offers useful hunting tips.

You can hunt in several different modes, including hunting trip, career, and tournament, and the game includes LAN and internet multiplayer support.

The game does have a few problems.  Each of the hunting areas is relatively small—it only takes a couple of hunts, even working slowly, to cover the entire area. And there are some bugs and glitches—sometimes the wind gauge will suddenly record gusts over 100 miles an hour, and I’ve seen deer get stuck in place, especially when they get near creek or pond banks. And at the lower realism levels, the deer’s behavior can border on suicidal.

Besides these small problems, though, Trophy Buck is an excellent game. Frankly, after suffering through so many dumbass hunting games, I was dreading reviewing this one. But now it’s found a permanent place on my hard drive, right there next to Starcraft and Half-Life. If you’re a hunter, this one belongs on yours, too.

--Rick Fehrenbacher