Virtual hunting games on target

Challenge: Software that lets players hunt for bear, deer and birds can be as frustrating as the real thing.

October 11, 1999|By Kevin Washington | Kevin Washington,Sun Staff

Snow crunches underfoot as small flakes begin to drift over the barrel of my shotgun. Even so, my fingers are warm without gloves and the tips of my toes still have feeling.

Trouble is, the ring-necked pheasant isn't cooperating. That's the problem with virtual hunting -- it can be just as frustrating as the real thing.

While the fall is a great time to get out of the house with gun, bow or fishing rod in hand for the last few days of civilized weather before winter, eventually the cold and frost will settle in. When they do, hunting and fishing software provide a level of comfort that a couch potato like me -- who sometimes finds his way out to the creek for a little fly fishing -- can enjoy all year.

About the only distraction is my wife standing behind me shouting, "Run, run!"

She's talking to the animals, of course, not me.

With the surprise success of "Deer Hunter" last year, outdoor titles have been phenomenal sellers, accounting for five of the 20 top-selling computer games last year. This year, publishers have jumped in with a parade of new titles and sequels.

Recent offerings range from the ultra-serious "Rocky Mountain Trophy Hunter II," with snarling bears charging at you, to the ultra-silly "Deer Avenger 2," in which you're a snarling deer out for vengeance.

If you haven't tried them, understand that hunting and fishing games don't pack the adrenalin punch of action-oriented titles like "Quake II." There's nothing fancy -- you just slip into a virtual world, gun in hand, while you stalk, wait and hope for a good shot.

While your hunt may be slow, your computer's engine can't be. At the minimum, you'll need a 200 MHz Pentium II with a decent 3D-accelerated video card. You'll also need plenty of hard drive real estate. You can get by with 120 megabytes with most titles, but "Deer Hunter 3, The Legend Continues" requires an incredible 440 megabytes for full installation.

The first four games we'll talk about retail for $20 and come from GT Interactive's WizardWorks division. WizardWorks started the craze two years ago with a contract with Wal-Mart, which wanted software for the sportsmen who have made the retailer one of the nation's top sellers of guns and fishing equipment. Let's head outdoors and see what we find.

Rocky Mountain Trophy Hunter II

The best of this bunch is challenging and detailed without losing its fun factor. RMTHII places you in the Rockies from Alaska to Colorado, where you stalk black bear, mountain goat and elk. Your weapons range from crossbows to rifles, but it's just as important to pack accessories -- bear bait, moose calls and scent mask.

What I loved about RMTHII is the cheat function. It makes the early hunts go well, and after you've practiced, you can turn it off for later hunts. Just as in the original, you can get that extra leg up -- as if you need one while packing a high-powered rifle. A few keystrokes will allow you to run, rather than plod, or display your potential targets on a map. But there's a cost: Your trophy room kills carry a notation, "Cheated: Yes."

When you turn off the cheat codes, you'll enjoy the stalking and tracking without getting lost in the minutiae of "Deer Hunter 3."

Bird Hunter: Upland Edition

This is a bit easier to play than RMTHII because your dog does all the work, flushing the ruffed grouse, woodcock, bobwhite quail and ring-necked pheasant from cover in Midwest, Southwest and Northeast locations.

While your targets are easier to find, hitting birds on the fly with a shotgun is an order of magnitude tougher than using a well-sighted rifle or crossbow on a deer. In practice, I hit only 19 of 100 clay pigeons -- I didn't improve much in the field.

Some of the hunts were more productive than others. My virtual Labrador retriever flushed quail repeatedly on a spring excursion to Texas. But my winter excursion to Minnesota produced no birds for 10 to 15 minutes -- a long time for a computer game, even if it's short in real life.

My dog kept racing ahead and I had to keep calling him back just to find him. Then, when the first bird flew from a bunch of cornstalks, I promptly and proudly shot it -- only to learn I had illegally killed a pheasant hen.

Wal-Mart FLW Tour Professional Bass Tournament

You won't make an illegal bag here -- if you catch a fish that's too small for the tournament, you're forced to throw it back.

FLW Tour is based on real, televised contests and provides the flavor of the ESPN broadcast with running commentary from Tommy Sanders, Jerry McKinnis and Chris Evans. The goal is to catch a five-fish limit of large-mouth, small-mouth or spotted bass that will put you in the money. You can choose from seven lakes, including Okeechobee in South Florida and Lake St. Clair in Michigan.

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