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Photo-based games occupy a small but notable niche within gaming. Pokémon Snap, for example, delivered a short but fun photo-safari way back on the N64. More recently, photos formed a facet of Endless Ocean's undersea exploration. How does Wild Earth: African Safari hold up in comparison? Read on.
One of Wild Earth: African Safari's best qualities is its polished set of animal behavior animations. Not only do players get to see elephants, lions, zebras, hyenas and others, but they get to see them behave like real animals. They run, eat, react to human presence, predators, and to other animals in their herd. The player's objective is to capture these behaviors on film.
Unfortunately, the solid animation concept is countered by an overall poor visual quality. Low frame rate, coupled with low levels of detail, detract from the realism yielded by animals' behavior and interactions with their environment. The grass and trees don't sway in the wind and there are no reflections in water. Locations look more like an Africa-inspired theme park than living, breathing Africa. Graphically, Wii is capable of much more than what Wild Earth: African Safari delivers.
A redeeming quality of Wild Earth: African Safari is its on-assignment objective commentary and narration. A male and female guide talk back and forth, describing animal behavior and sharing facts about why they act they way they do. The voice acting is both charmingly entertaining and enjoyably educational. Hearing this narration, the game sounds like a real safari, or at least like watching a nature show on television. The witty dialogue is indebted to the writers, who even manage to sneak in a Hunt the Wumpus reference on the first assignment.
Environmental sounds and music are less memorable. Generic-sounding animal grunts accompany the occasional swish of grass or splash of water. Thankfully, there is an option to adjust the volume of narration, sound effects and music each, independently.
While Wild Earth: African Safari isn't on rails like Pokémon Snap, it might as well be due to generic terrain and proximity-scripted animal behavior events. In a real-life safari, the guide determines where the group goes; in than context, an on-rails solution would have more sense than a free-roaming scenario, especially amidst dangerous wildlife.
The game operates primarily through a first-person perspective, which proves nauseating after too long. While it's true that the way we see is similar to first-person perspective, peripheral vision coupled with our other senses makes us aware of our surroundings beyond what we see in front of us, translating best into a third-person perspective. A real photographer would not constantly look through his or her camera at everything for the same reason: there's too much motion involved in seeking subject matter, not to mention hazarding navigation.
As mentioned earlier, animal behavior is one of the highlights of the game; it's realistically animated and fun just to watch. Sometimes, though, it's unclear as to where the action is taking place. Gameplay tips are displayed helpfully on load screens, but while on assignment the game doesn't give players much direction as to what they should be looking for. An objective compass appears if players stray too far from the action, but it's mostly useless as there are no visual clues as to how to read it. Younger players especially would benefit from a more obvious indicator.
Where Pokémon Snap awarded points based on the subject's pose, size, and centering, Wild Earth: African Safari reduces the artistic aspect of photography to the point of a tourist's snapshot. It only cares that players got the shot -- that they captured the subject of the objective -- and not how well it was done.
Though the game doesn't seem to care about the quality of shots, players can save their favorites to an in-game portfolio. The downside of this is incredibly large save data. At a time when many Wiis are feeling the storage squeeze, Wild Earth: African Safari's elephantine save data size doesn't help. While most others take up only a handful of blocks, this game takes up a massive 128 of them; its only equal in size is Brawl. Players shouldn't have to choose between their save data and a WiiWare or Virtual Console game, especially on a game like this one.
Multiple players can cooperate on assignment or compete in a variety of animal-based motion mini-games. In the on assignment mode, one player 'drives' while the other shoots photos. Roles can be set to switch by time or objective. In practice it works just as well -- if not better -- for two people to share the controls in single player mode by letting the driver use the nunchuck and the photographer use the Wii remote. This way the photographer also controls look direction and favorite photos can be saved to the portfolio, a feature not present in multiplayer assignments.
The mini-games are based on the actions of African wildlife. One has players washing animals via aiming the remote, another has players lift both remote and nunchuk to make a frog hop, and so on. While fun, they feel out of place because they make the player become the animals they were previously photographing. Why not follow the photographic safari into to the darkroom to develop the photos? Players could go through all the steps and motions that photographers go through to develop film. There's much shaking, pouring, twisting and other motions that would fit in perfectly with the photography theme of the game. Instead of blazing a trail however, Wild Earth: African Safari is content to follow the well-beaten mini-game path.
Wild Earth: African Safari feels like a game on the fence. It doesn't know whether it wants to be a serious, realistic photo safari sim or a lighthearted romp for younger players. It has elements of both, but it's never wholly one or the other. Wild Earth: African Safari could have been a great game for either audience had developers chosen one direction and pursued it. As it is, Wild Earth: African Safari suffers from a lack of direction and doesn't succeed much at being either.
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