I am not one of those people who can best be categorized as “twitch gamers;” i.e., I need constant motion on the screen, and my fingers always need to be in the process of pressing buttons. I’m a patient individual, I enjoy great storylines in games, and I like taking my time and relishing various elements like the environment, backdrops, atmosphere, and overall attitude and style. Therefore, I actually went into Afrika with a bit of excitement; I have always been a fan of nature and while the idea of snapping photos of various wildlife may not appeal to everyone, I was prepared to embrace the idea. But after several hours, my eyelids were beginning to fall and my brain was loaded with the many, many ways Rhino Studios could’ve made this a worthwhile, rewarding experience. The number of glitches and wasted opportunities just kept piling up and that’s really unfortunate because the concept is quite original and even promising.
As always, we put most of the emphasis on a title’s gameplay but when we’re faced with a video game based around a safari, the visuals are crucial. After all, people don’t go on safaris to do much of anything but look and see; it’s a feast for the eyes and ears as travelers come back with hundreds of pictures and excited statements like, “guess what I saw!” Unfortunately, Afrika’s graphics fall well short of the intended goal, despite a decent amount of color and nice animal detail. The problem lies in the overall polish as the natural pieces of the landscape – bushes, trees, watering holes, etc. – are decidedly lacking. They just aren’t all that crisp and clean, and even worse, they don’t respond realistically to the surrounding wildlife or your character; you’ll notice this as soon as you step near a bush and half your body disappears while the bush never reacts to anything. So yeah, kinda pretty but still very late-90’s-like.
There isn’t much to say concerning the sound, unless I can spend the next four or five sentences talking exclusively about the animal sounds. There are no human voices in the game so don’t expect your chosen character or your tour guide to say anything, as their lips will move but we’ll still have to read the text. …like I just said, outdated. The soundtrack is okay and it’s somewhat fitting, but it’s nowhere near effective enough. As for the gameplay effects, all you’ll ever hear is the crunch of your shoes on the soil, the click of your camera, and the best part of the game (by a long shot), the sounds of those interesting creatures. Just about everything, from the hippos lounging in the water to the cheetah chasing down a gazelle to the vultures overhead, sound just about right and helps to immerse you into the safari adventure. Being outside on your own and looking for the best possible photographs isn’t unpleasant, but with an uninspired soundtrack and no voices, things just seem a little bland.
Yeah, I know what some of you are thinking: how can a game where you take pictures be any fun? Well, I can pretty much guarantee I would’ve had a great time with this game…provided the developers had put a true-blue next-gen effort into Afrika. Instead, we get a half-complete, technically flawed production that is little more than a disappointing shadow of what it could’ve been. At the start, you choose either the male journalist or the female zoologist but as the first example of a missed opportunity, both characters are identical with the exception of gender. Furthermore, while the other character will be involved, he or she will just sit in the tent and feed you painfully obvious advice. You have a laptop, a map to check where you’ve been, a set of relevant tools, your trusty camera, and even a diary that keeps track of your safari accomplishments. Every day, you set out via jeep and see if you can snap pictures that will satisfy your “mission” requirements.
These missions come in the form of e-mail assignments on your laptop and the good news is they can range drastically and force you to be inventive in the field. For instance, while your first few trips into the wild will only result in you snapping shots of all the new animals you see, you’ll soon be trying to catch a hippo yawning, a giraffe bending down to get a drink, and a cheetah that chases down its prey (you have to take the shot from the moving jeep, too). When taking a picture, you have to consider all sorts of things – as any photographer would – and you will be graded on Angle, Technique, Target, and Composition, and other factors like Rarity and Clarity. The better your grade, the more of the reward money you will see; only an “A” gets you the full amount. Using the camera is as easy as accessing it with the Square button, moving it around with the left analog, zoom with the right analog, and snap the shot with a careful press of the R1 button. Too hard of a press will cause your hand to shake and the picture will come out blurry.
You can even tilt the controller on its end to achieve a vertical (landscaped) picture, which might be best for creatures like giraffes. Furthermore, better cameras – which you will unlock as you progress – and different lenses will have a significant impact on your photography skills. And of course, it’s best to stay out of sight and approach your job with a calm and quiet demeanor. Sadly, it’s really only this last element that feels as if it was implemented correctly; the photography aspect just never comes together. It’s a science, of course, but the difference in cameras really didn’t have as big of an impact as we would’ve liked, and to combat shaking, it would’ve helped if we could actually see ourselves shaking. The view through the camera always looks exactly the same, so it’s tough to tell if it’s going to show up blurry, regardless of how you press the R1 button. The photography is just nowhere near dynamic enough. How’s about holding our breath to steady the camera like we do in some shooters? Just a thought.
But that’s what I mean. This is the driving force behind the game: a mediocre effort the whole way ‘round that is never dynamic and only feels tedious. For instance, you can never control where you drive in the jeep, which is, in my opinion, the single biggest drawback of the game. The tour guide drives like a little old lady and besides, wouldn’t it have added to the strategy to have control over our vehicle? You know, if you drive too fast or get too close, you can scare away your targets, which is why you would have to be careful. No, instead we get the on-rails gameplay that only lets you start and stop the jeep with no manual control over the direction. It’s all the more linear because you almost never run across any animals that aren’t on your mission agenda, which is ridiculously unrealistic and essentially eliminates the exploration aspect. The latter should’ve been a big deal but all we do is go where we’re driven, take the shots we’re asked to take, and that’s it.
Some of you may be asking about the possible tension and fear involved with photographing the more dangerous animals out on the African plains. But it’s basically non-existent. While it’s certainly true that you might be a bit more cautious about approaching a lion, the entire process still feels the same and if you’re attacked, you just lose all the photos you’ve taken (guess the animals eats the film, but not you), and you’re returned to base camp. You can shop a bit with the money you earn and trying to take the best picture possible isn’t entirely devoid of entertainment, especially if you’re a nature and/or photography fanatic. But if the barrenness of the plains doesn’t get to you, the lackluster gameplay will, especially when you consider the technical shortcomings: the jeep will hitch and jerk its way into base camp (and come to bizarre starts and stops when out in the field), the animation of the animals is barely average, and for some unknown reason, it takes an eternity to save a game. What’s that about?
I liked the field guide that allows us to learn more about the animals we’ve photographed and I suppose they did try to make the actual practice of taking pictures a “simulator,” but in the end, it’s just too dated and uninspired. The graphics don’t cut it, not being able to explore on our own is a huge issue, being led around by the nose throughout gets tiresome, and the limitation of the character (he/she can’t lie down, crouch, or move stealthily; just walk around) is downright silly. We first heard about Afrika even before the PS3 launched, which might be why this game feels as if it should’ve been released years ago. And even then, it likely would’ve been viewed as a disappointment. For $49.99, it’s a definite pass; maybe when it drops down to budget price all you nature fans might give it a try. Just don’t expect much…at least it’s cheaper than a real safari.
11/2/2009 Ben Dutka