(This and the look at fish games which is still just a collection of notes, and then I’ll get back to development stuff. I happened to pick this game up a couple weeks ago while the full version was free…)
It makes me a heretic of sorts, but I live in Alaska and don’t hunt. Still, it’s clearly an activity which demands skill and knowledge, from which many people derive great enjoyment, obtain benefits such as meat and physical exercise, encourages wilderness conservation, etc.
Enjoyable activities which require skill and knowledge ought to translate well into good games. Tatem Games, the developers of Carnivore: Dinosaur Hunter (CDH from here on) appear to get this:
“Q: I want to stab dinos with knife and see a lot of blood!
A: Carnivores series are strategic hunting games, not regular shooters. We are not going to include more violent scenes, letting you drive pleasure from exploration and tactics that you use to hunt rather than from seeing poor creatures dying.”
(Carnivore: Dinosaur Hunter FAQ, copy paste)
CDH as a hunting simulation and as a game, gets a lot of things right, and at least one thing wrong. Let’s take a look at it.
For a what is a rather detailed game, the premise of CDH is fairly silly:
“2190 AD. On a routine exploration mission, research vessel FMM UV discovered a planet with a suitable climate for humankind. During the initial scouting expedition this young planet was declared inhospitable for colony life due to its unstable terrain and immense population of prehistoric reptiles. News of this amazing planet spread and reports of the “Dinosaur Planet” led an earth corporation to purchase the rights to the planet, and create DinoHunt Corp. DinoHunt created the unique opportunity for paying customers to become dinosaur hunters for the first time in 50 million years.”
(Carnivore: Dinosaur Hunter, in-game Help text)
Strictly speaking, it probably should be first time ever, but silly or not the setting is brilliant. By making the setting a distant planet in the future, the developers are allowed to hand wave a number of points that otherwise could frustrate the player’s enjoyment of the game. A handful of dinosaurs are iconic- Stegosaurus, Triceratops, Tyrannosaurus Rex… and need to be in any game about dinosaurs, yet they did not all live in the same places- often not even in the same time periods. Although some pigments have been recovered from dinosaur remains, we don’t actually know the coloration of most dinosaurs. And although paleontologists can infer a lot from the fossil record, behavior patterns of the white tailed deer are far better documented than those of the velociraptor. And how exactly does a lone hunter drag a multi-ton dinosaur carcass home? CDH doesn’t have to worry about these, the object is to provide a simulation that is good enough and reasonable, not something that is explicitly realistic.
Good enough in this case means that the dinosaurs hear, see and smell the player and react accordingly, but by paying attention to the wind and moving cautiously and deliberately the player is able to bag his quarry. Good enough also means, that there is flexibility for the player to hunt in many types of terrain not just what would be natural for the prey. The very large maps contain settlements and outposts for those players who want to play hide and seek with velociraptors amongst the ruins of civilizations, but also contain swamps, canyon systems, open beaches, and rolling hills for those who prefer a more ‘natural’ environment in which to stalk the Stegosaurus.
One of the ethical cornerstones of big game hunting is that the hunter has a responsibility to kill an animal that he wounds. In memoirs written by guides and large game hunters, the tensest moments always come when a client ‘wings’ an animal which escapes into dense foliage. In CDH, wounded dinosaurs leave a blood trail which is not extremely hard to track. Most of the dinosaurs, including the herbivores can be dangerous when cornered, and the game creates exceptionally well a horrible feeling when an animal flees into dense foliage or difficult terrain.
For each dinosaur you kill or tranquilize, you get a certain number of points, which gets modified by the options you selected at the beginning of the hunt. Having the dinosaurs appear on your map, or using a cover scent, for example reduce the number of points you receive. At the start of your hunt you may use your accrued points to select options ranging from which weapons you are carrying, to which map you want to hunt on, and which dinosaurs you want to target. It is worth noting that the island you hunt on may have any of the dinosaurs, in addition to the ones you’ve selected so while you’re sneaking up on a Parasaurolophus, an Allosaurus may be sneaking up on you. The target dinosaur selection, functions something like a hunting license and is a nice touch, as is the other dinosaurs still remaining present. This makes the maps feel like functioning ecosystems, though I never was able to witness a carnivore stalk a herbivore, even in the observer mode which deactivates weapons and makes the dinosaurs ignore you.
This points and license system however, is one area where the game gets things wrong. Generally in a game, you want to present the new player with your easier challenges and then open up harder ones as the player gets more skilled. Both in the game, and in actual hunting, pistols and bows are harder to use than high-powered rifles. People hunt with these weapons for an increased challenge or because of seasonal restrictions. However, the game starts you off with a pistol. Because of the limited stopping power of that pistol, shot placement is critical and you will end up wounding many dinosaurs early on, but running out of ammo before you can finish them off.
The game bills itself as a console quality first-person shooter, and it more or less is that. The control system attempts to mimic the dual analog stick input system, and the graphics are on par with early PS2 titles. An auto-aim or aim-assist, commonly seen in console shooters, even if it decreased points severely, would make the early game far more accessible.
In sum, this was a surprisingly enjoyable game that I would have missed had I not noticed it while it was free. It’s also a good example of how you can treat a topic as a game respectfully without bogging down in simulationist details.*
*- And that last line is why I wrote this post before heading into the fish games….