You’ll know, if you’ve ever visited Africa, just how captivating a place it can be. It’s exotic - the kind of place not everyone is able or inclined to visit, but it’s a part of Earth that has the power to remind you that you’re alive.
There isn’t that much game here, at least not in the traditional rapid-button-pressing sense (and certainly not in the even more traditional shooting-animals-with-rifles sense), but there is a lot of virtual nature to be seen and appreciated in an “ooh-look-aah” kind of way. Fortunately, there’s some reason to Afrika’s aestheticism: you take the role of a freelance photographer/researcher, either a French chap called Eric or a girl called Anna, and are commissioned to take (camera) shots at the wildlife, doing your best to meet clients’ demands for specific compositions and content.
The game uses some programming tricks to determine, with surprising accuracy, how well your snaps (and, later, video footage) have turned out. “Marvelous angle, but shame about the distance: Grade B.” That sort of thing.
Missions are assigned by email. Afrika is in the 21st century, don’t-you-know, and Eric and Anna are kitted out with a laptop and satellite Internet in their tent, as well as an MDF bookshelf. Missions are completed by replying with file attachments that satisfy clients’ requests. Other than the curious gratification of having your safari-recording efforts marked with a letter of the alphabet, good work is also rewarded with good money. And cash can be used to buy new equipment to assist your work.
Before you know it, you’re caught in a self-perpetuating cycle that dictates you spend every day of your trip looking for animals. The good news is that it’s rarely a mundane task. The only downtime comes when you’re waiting for a particular species of animal to arrive in a particular location and do something particularly silly. We had to wait half an hour just to take a prize-winning photo of a hippopotamus yawning as it wallowed in a muddy pool. This is living, yeah?
For a game that places so much value on the visual, on seeing unusual stuff and photographing and filming stuff, but which never goes as far as letting us interact directly with the subjects in question, it’s inevitable that Afrika is not entirely satisfactory. It’s easy to compile montages that make Afrika appear more technically awesome than it actually is.
Seen up-close and from infinite different perspectives – in motion, and in perfect stillness while waiting for something to happen – it becomes apparent that the graphics engine powering this experience is 50 percent incredible and 50 percent hideous. The incredible parts include the lifelike animation and hi-res textures of every last creature, the changing sky, and the draw distance. The hideous bits include the cheap-trick stretched horizon images, the PS2-level terrain textures, the invisible walls and the framerate, which is shakier than the hands of a debutant plastic surgeon. The overall effect is such that while Afrika looks great in the key places, you can tell it’s just an elaborate hoax.
There are other shortcuts taken which again show that Afrika isn’t truly committed to realism. For example, the screen flashes red for danger when you get too close to an animal that has aggressive/defensive instincts, but even if you stand your ground or move closer, the only real danger is that you’ll trigger a cutscene of the animal stampeding against a black background, out of context, and then find yourself dazed but waking back in your tent. There’s no Game Over screen in Afrika.
But hey, Afrika isn’t a traditional game: it’s one of the new-school of edutainment titles with a game-like reward system in place, to keep everything together. It’s even supported by the National Geographic, which provides entries in Afrika’s Geo Afrika mode (a safari-themed Encarta). It’s compelling stuff and makes for a great exploratory experience, even if it is a bit ropey in places.
Oct 13, 2009