Like 'em or not, hunting simulations have proven to be one of the hottest game genres of the past year or two - so successful, in fact, that the market appears almost impervious to oversaturation. You'd have thought that big-name sports sim publishers, namely Sierra Sports and EA Sports, would have leaped on this trend right away, but instead, both companies entered the fray for hunting-sim supremacy fairly late in the game. Judging from Deer Hunt Challenge, it appears that EA Sports used that time to try to create something better than just another run-of-the-mill hunting sim - and in many ways it's succeeded.
A deer-hunting simulation can be no better than its basic components - hunting locations, weapons, ammo, gear, and types of prey - and Deer Hunt Challenge disappoints in none of these categories. You won't find manufacturer names like Remington or Winchester when it's time to pick a weapon, nor will you have the option to carry a hand cannon or black-powder rifle to bring down that prize buck - but don't think that means the selections are unsatisfying. Deer Hunt Challenge includes three rifle types (bolt-action, lever-action, and semiautomatic), four kinds of shotguns (pump, semiautomatic, side-by-side, and over-under), and three bows (composite, recurve, and longbow), then beefs up your choices by offering eight types of bullets and three gauges of shotgun shells. Options to change your gun's appearance (black steel or camouflage, in addition to wood grain) are pleasing to the eye but have little impact on the hunt.
No self-respecting deer-hunting sim would be complete without all the accoutrements necessary to lure your quarry into range, and here again, Deer Hunt Challenge covers all the bases. Scents, calls, antlers, decoys, tree stands, and binoculars can all be carried into the field in the game's hunting-trip mode - fortunately, your virtual hunter's aim isn't affected by carrying so much stuff. All items can be activated with a hotkey, but beware when using scents, calls, or antlers: Instead of being used on a one-time basis, they remain active until you deselect them. Outerwear comes in a variety of colors, but for some reason the game defaults to a blazing orange in hunting-trip mode - and there's no way to change it before the hunt begins. Instead, you have to pause the game and pick the most appropriate outfit, which your character is presumably carrying all bundled up with that other stuff.
Deer Hunt Challenge features six deer-rich locations in Iowa, Michigan, Montana, Nebraska, Oregon, and Texas, with terrain ranging from flat broom-straw fields and undulating rocky hills to snowy mountain forests. While the absence of any hunting areas in the southeastern US is disappointing, the areas that are represented are so large that it's hard to fault EA Sports for not including more. Unfortunately, the graphics used to render these vistas aren't exactly state of the art. Deer Hunt Challenge has some of the worst graphical pop-up ever, which is really annoying in a hunting sim. Just when you think you're about to reach the edge of an open field, scores of trees miraculously appear on the horizon, and you realize you're still smack dab in the middle of a forest.Things are even more disappointing when you run the game in Direct3D mode instead of Glide: Only a handful of 3D cards are supported in Direct3D mode, and the performance doesn't come close to what you get with a 3dfx-based accelerator running in native mode. And no matter how smooth the animations, you'll no doubt be aggravated at how slowly your hunter moves across the landscape, even if it is realistic.
You'll be hunting whitetail, blacktail, and mule deer, but a bunch of other critters also dot the landscape - groundhogs, squirrels, rabbits, badgers, and more - which are all fair game for you to shoot. It's an admirable touch that adds some much-needed detail to the rather ho-hum scenery graphics, but this little taste of tiny fauna actually backfires a bit: It will make you crave even more animals, the more threatening the better. After all, who wouldn't get an adrenaline rush if they suddenly spotted a charging bear or saw a pack of wolves approaching on the snowy horizon? But the absence of such creatures is understandable, especially if their inclusion meant lessening the quality of the deer animations. Spy a deer through the binoculars or scope of your rifle, and its behavior as it paws the ground, sniffs the air, and pauses in mid-bite as it catches your scent is convincing enough to truly get you into the hunt.
But what makes Deer Hunt Challenge a breed apart from other hunting simulations is its "challenge" mode, a series of increasingly difficult scenarios that not only introduce you to all the weapons and equipment, but also provide for some fast-paced hunting action and a great deal of instant gratification. For instance, in one level you might have to use a decoy by a riverside to draw in curious bucks; on the next, you'll have to squeeze off a kill shot with only a moment's notice as a herd bolts to safety. Cyberhunters looking for the most realistic experience available might scoff at these down-and-dirty "missions." But for the rest, they add a pick-up-and-play option to the proceedings that you just can't get from the usual hunting trip modes, even if you do manage to bag a buck in a few minutes.
The satisfaction of earning a top score for each scenario is rewarding enough in itself - and if you don't manage to rack up the best possible score, chances are you'll be back to try again later and see how much you can improve. Yes, it's very arcade-like, and yes, it takes away much of the challenge of getting into position to make that perfect shot. But it's still a lot of fun, at least until you get to an especially difficult mission and wish there were a way to skip to the next one and return to the trouble spot later.
Unfortunately, there's one problem with Deer Hunt Challenge that keeps it from achieving true greatness: It has no multiplayer mode. One of the great things about PC deer hunting as opposed to the real thing is that the Internet makes it easy to put your skills to the test against fellow hunters, but Deer Hunt Challenge doesn't give you a chance to do so. Considering how solid the rest of the program is, it's hard to imagine why the game shipped without any multiplayer support at all except that someone wanted it out the door before Christmas. There's no denying Deer Hunt Challenge is an extremely fun game even without multiplayer, but it's likely that multiplayer support would have boosted its appeal substantially. Even so, with its low price tag and great features, it is one hunting sim that fans will want to add to their collection, regardless of how many other hunting sims they've already got in stock.