You've got to hand it to WizardWorks for improving on its successful Deer Hunter series. When it published the first Deer Hunter, the blocky 2D bitmap graphics and your inability to move once you picked a spot on the map made it look like a joke to veteran gamers - but hunting enthusiasts gladly settled on the mediocre production values for the chance to nail a prize buck. Yet instead of cranking out a similar sequel under the assumption that you can't overestimate the tastes of the American public, WizardWorks and developer Sunstorm Interactive completely revamped the game engine in an effort to create a more realistic experience. And while Deer Hunter II's 3D graphics weren't quite what you'd call cutting edge, the difference between that first game and its sequel was substantial.
Not long thereafter, Deer Hunter 3 added a season mode that gave you the opportunity to plant corn and wheat to attract deer, photograph the big bucks you'd like to bag but can't when the season is closed, set up permanent tree stands, and more. Unsurprisingly, Deer Hunter 3 jumped to the top of the charts, and fans uniformly praised the game's vastly improved 3D graphics, animations, and realism. These good features have carried over to Deer Hunter 3 Gold, which further improves on Deer Hunter 3 by adding a new hunting area, a map editor, a new weapon, and an enjoyable new multiplayer mode. Though Deer Hunter 3 Gold does give you an extra state in which to hunt (Wisconsin, in addition to Missouri and Utah), it still falls short of the dozen locations in four states offered in Deer Hunter II. Fortunately, a map editor is included for creating your own hunting site - and the editor actually lets you import satellite U.S. Geological Survey terrain-elevation data to ensure your re-creation is authentic, down to the last gully and hill. Converting that data can be tricky, and the editor isn't the easiest thing to use even if you're building an area from scratch, but you can bet there'll soon be plenty of user-created maps available for download.
Deer Hunter 3 Gold's graphics engine is the same as Deer Hunter 3's, which is just fine considering how much better the game's visuals are to any other hunting sim on the market. Even at lower resolutions, the trees and bushes in the game no longer look like 2D cutouts plopped into the hunting area, and at higher resolutions the graphics are eerily realistic. Look closely, and you'll see smaller flora sway in the breeze. Glance around as you wait in a blind, and you'll see dragonflies, rabbits, squirrels, and even fish, if you're close enough to a lake. The deer themselves are the most impressive: In high resolution, the animals look so lifelike that you might find yourself hesitating to shoot.
Sunstorm added only one weapon to the arsenal for Deer Hunter 3 Gold - a 7mm rifle - but that's probably because it had covered all the bases in the preceding game. With seven rifles, three shotguns, two bows, two pistols, and a black-powder rifle, about the only source left to turn to for additional hunting weapons is the world of fantasy. All the usual hunting accoutrements are available in the game, including scents, decoys, blinds, a compass, a GPS system, a journal for recording info, and more - along with boats, trucks, snowmobiles, and ATVs to let you get around the huge maps in a hurry. You also get to create as many hunters as you like, and you can choose from three male and one female character model. However, even male players might end up choosing the woman, as the three guys look like poster children for the evils of inbreeding.
But the best addition to Deer Hunter 3 Gold is undoubtedly the new "play the deer" multiplayer feature. The usual competitive and co-op modes are still available, but they don't compare with the challenge of donning hooves and fur, and sneaking to within 100 meters of a hunter (who knows you have to get close to score points) and dropping a little deer doo-doo before running like hell to get to the safety of cover. GameSpy support makes it easy to find games, and online gameplay is fairly smooth.
Several publishers have tried to snatch the deer-hunting-simulation crown from Sunstorm and WizardWorks. That's led to some innovations in the gameplay, such as the mission-based design of EA Sports' Deer Hunt Challenge. But the bottom line is that when WizardWorks says that Deer Hunter 3 Gold is "as real as it gets," it's not kidding. For deer-hunting fans, Deer Hunter 3 Gold is easily the best choice for a realistic hunting experience on the PC.