With the release of Deer Hunter 5: Tracking Trophies, Sunstorm Interactive is now responsible for the creation of 10 deer-hunting simulations and add-on discs--eight in the Deer Hunter line and two Buckmasters titles. That track record should virtually guarantee Deer Hunter 5 to be a winner right out of the box. Instead, it reveals that developer Sunstorm Interactive has run out of new ideas for its flagship game line. It also reveals that the company apparently rushed the game out the door so that it'd be on store shelves in time for the Christmas shopping season.
One clue that more time could have been spent polishing Deer Hunter 5 comes in the game's online help file. That is, if you're running into trouble accessing the six items that can be used without opening your hunter's backpack, you might read the section called "Understanding the Backpack Inventory" to see what you're doing wrong. Amazingly, you'll discover a document that was left over from the QA process of the game's development. It repeatedly refers to the user in the third-person and the developers in the first-person ("We need to make sure we keep track of what sporting arms hit the game animals"). It says that only five slots are available for immediately usable items when there are actually six and that the primary sporting arm uses up one of those five slots (it doesn't). And the "Multiplayer Game Types" section says there are three types of multiplayer games and then goes on to describe just two, though that's really the least of Deer Hunter 5's multiplayer problems.
The most telling hint that the game may have been shipped before it had been through rigorous testing, however, is found in the readme file that comes with the 1.2 patch: It lists more than three dozen fixes for problems and bugs in the retail version. To be fair, no initial release of a PC game is 100 percent bug-free, thanks in no small measure to the issue of video and sound-card drivers. But most of Deer Hunter 5's first round of fixes involve things that should have been caught before the game shipped--racks on fawns, incorrect textual descriptions, faulty animal AI, incorrect scores, and so forth. Sunstorm should be applauded for releasing a patch so quickly, but it doesn't change the fact that the shipping version of the game should have been more thoroughly tested.
Once version 1.2 is installed, most fans will probably find Deer Hunter 5's setup screens to be instantly familiar. From the main menu, you choose from one of six hunter models (five male and one female, assuming the spooky-looking guy who looks as though he's ready for chemical warfare is indeed male), select from three difficulty settings, and decide on the hunting mode. Daily hunts are self-explanatory; tournaments let you compete against up to seven bot hunters in a hunt ranging in length from five minutes to an hour; hunting seasons let you "manage" a deer herd (in other words, planting crops and killing off undesirable critters) over the course of several years; and hunt online is the game's multiplayer mode, though LAN play means you don't have to be "online" to enjoy this option.
Deer Hunter 5's weapons rack is well stocked, with 12 rifles, three bows, two shotguns, and a pistol (the .44 Magnum from Deer Hunter 4 has mysteriously disappeared), and you can now carry a second weapon as well as choose various grain loads for every firearm (the online manual makes another miscue here by listing a single grain for each gun). As with any Deer Hunter title, you can also choose from a panoply of hunting accessories--such as scents, calls, bait, stands, and blinds--but seasoned Deer Hunter fans will notice the addition of several new items. Specifically, Deer Hunter 5's new dangerous animals means you can outfit yourself with new items to lure elk and bear into your gun sight (the online manual lists mountain lions as another threat, but there's no gear tailored to hunting them).
Gear or no gear, your chances of encountering any of these beasts unless you're ready to invest a considerable amount of time and virtual legwork into tracking them down are slim. In one session, after many hours of gameplay, the only new game animal we saw was a mountain lion fleeing for its life across the Mexican desert. That's too bad, because Hunting Unlimited, one of Sunstorm Interactive's other PC games, revealed just how exciting--and challenging--it can be to tackle these critters when they're in a bad mood.
After you've loaded up your backpack with equipment, you set off to one of seven destinations, including British Columbia, Montana, Idaho, Michigan, Texas, Mexico, and the target range in New York (you can hunt here, too, but without any special gear). Whitetail, blacktail, and mule deer can be tracked, and in the hunting season, you can try to thin the herd of bad genes and hopefully bag a truly memorable trophy buck after several years of work. Thankfully, the manual gives pointers on how you should "manage" your deer herd, and if you follow the instructions, you'll see some very nice racks start to appear on bucks--especially on the highest difficulty settings.
This all probably sounds great to someone who's never played any previous Deer Hunter games, but the truth is that Deer Hunter 5 doesn't have much to distinguish it from Deer Hunter 4 aside from new locations, the hunting season, and the bot tourney. The tournament may sound like a good idea, but in practice, it falls far short of expectations. The hunters act like, well, bots, never indicating they've seen you even if you walk right in front of them as they line up a shot for the perfect kill. And as strangely as the deer sometimes act in other single-player modes (despite the alleged fixes in the patched version, they often will run directly at you when spooked), they outdo themselves this time around by repeatedly rising and falling after being downed by a bot hunter.
What's particularly troubling is that Sunstorm doesn't seem to have any intention of improving any of the peripheral aspects of its basic game design for the Deer Hunter series. Take the backpack, for instance. You can carry an enormous amount of stuff in this thing, but you have immediate access to only six items--and the question is why just those six? Are you carrying them in your hands, or are they dangling from your clothing? Once the backpack's opened, you should be able to use anything in it without dragging it to a slot where it can be activated by a function key. If this is an attempt at realism, why not go the extra step and limit the terrain that certain vehicles can traverse and allow them to take damage when you hit trees or large rocks? (Yes, your vehicles are impervious to damage and can go almost anywhere.)
This type of "more work makes better play" design permeates all the Deer Hunter games, and while it was easy to overlook in the earlier games because of their other excellent features, it's high time some of them are addressed. Take sighting in weapons, for example--why can't there be an auto-sight option that provides reasonable accuracy but still rewards those who take the time to do it themselves? And if you've ever walked a couple of kilometers from your vehicle, you'll appreciate the cheat code that takes you back to it in a flash, so why didn't Sunstorm simply incorporate a "back to vehicle" option that pops you to the truck and deducts the appropriate amount of walking time? Do they think we enjoy walking or running back to our ride when we know there's almost zero chance of finding a target along the way?
Other anomalies remain from previous Deer Hunter games, including a weird reload animation that shows your character raising his weapon as if to sight a target before lowering it to begin the loading process, as well as the inability to use maps while in vehicles (you can use calls while in vehicles--their efficacy should decrease significantly inside a truck). The "describe scene" function is as useless as ever: You stand beside a deer track and use it to hear "Hold up, this is a good spot," but you move just six stepsforward and you get "Well, I guess it's time to move on." Man, what a difference six yards makes in your chances of bagging a deer!
While the animation for animals is first-rate as usual--deer sniff the air to catch scents, pause when hearing unusual sounds, and crumple to the ground in brutally lifelike fashion when lethal shots are administered--the hunter animations are sparse and unconvincing. A glance at the third-person perspective reveals a hunter gliding over the ground and floating into the air whenever you hit the jump key. Few will play from this perspective, of course, but it's indicative of the lack of enhancements in this latest Deer Hunter game.
What's most disappointing of all is the game's multiplayer mode. The "play the deer" option that made earlier versions so entertaining is gone in Deer Hunter 5--and its absence is even more irritating because it could have let players play as a bear, elk, or mountain lion! It was fun enough to drop deer excrement close to a hunter to earn points in a multiplayer game in Deer Hunter 4, but it would've been much more rewarding to move in stealthily as a bear or mountain lion and maul a heavily armed hunter. It's also worth noting that the minimum requirement for playing online is a broadband Internet connection, a requirement that's apparently being ignored--and after two weeks of searching, we've never found a game with a consistent ping of under 400ms. Since the game uses a peer-to-peer connection in which the host computer's performance determines lag time for all users, this makes for some truly horrible online play.
Longtime Sunstorm fans probably already own some of the Rocky Mountain Trophy Hunter games in which you can hunt elk, bear, and other deadly game, and Deer Hunter 5's addition of a year-to-year hunting season and "bot" tournament mode offer little more entertainment value than Deer Hunter 4 does (though die-hard hunting fans may enjoy culling the herd in an attempt to breed a massive buck). About the only other feature that sets Deer Hunter 5 apart from its immediate forebear is the inclusion of rare deer, such as albinos, unicorns, and "demons," but these appear too rarely. To put it bluntly, Deer Hunter 5 isn't a bad game. There just aren't many reasons for Deer Hunter 4 fans to upgrade to it--or for newcomers to opt for the earlier, more Internet-friendly version of the game.