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An Early Look At Afrika

August 12th, 2009 by

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A hardcore safari / photography simulation released (so far) only in Asia on the least popular current generaton home gaming console, there are definite reasons why it’s taken so long for Afrika, or Hakuna Matata as it is known in some territories, to be given a chance in the western market. But soon, it will be, via niche genre publisher Natsume. Will it be worth hunting down, or should you leave it to die out naturally? This generation has seen some real advances in titles that can be classed as ‘mature’ in their content, but ‘mature’ of course is a very broad description. Generally the label entails fairly immature depictions of the four S’s; swearing, shooting, shagging and shitting. Afrika is a very ‘mature’ title, but this is no Grand Theft Auto: Kenya, nor is it, on the opposite end of the spectrum, just Pokemon Snap HD (you can have that idea for free Nintendo). It’s mature in the way that Flight Simulator X is mature, it is a sophisticated product that only those with a good amount of rationality, patience and interest will get anything from. Instant thrill seekers need not apply, as the game is the adventure equivalent of Flow, a title that has rules to follow, mechanics of play to attain high scores, but ultimately is a thoroughly relaxing experience.

Your first test of patience is from the very outset, as load times all round are this game’s biggest issue. The install itself took well over ten minutes, as well as downloading the various updates needed to bring the title up to date (this is an old title now remember?). Thankfully, even though I am playing the Korean / Chinese import version, there is no need to set up a foreign Playstation account to access these patches, and as with most games released to the Chinese market, the game also has an English option, which in this case was auto selected.

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Choosing to begin a new game you are presented with two budding photographer avatars to choose from, male or female. There is not the ability to customise the aesthetics of your Safari Persona, which is a real opportunity missed, but the model you plump for is bland to the point where they aren’t going to become an eyesore on the otherwise idyllic terrain stretched before you.

But before you get to that terrain you must first learn about how a basic camera works, how taking a single, steady, well composed picture of a common monkey is far better than a thousand hastily shot images of a Lion. It sounds boring, but if you have an interest in photography, it’s actually pretty invaluable, as it’s well written and clearly describes the process of capturing an image, including shutter speed, focus and depth of field. Controlling the camera in-game can be a little unwieldy at times, especially as it allows for very high levels of sophistication with it’s photo taking abilities, but it’s by no means unrealistic, even going so far as to requiring you to turn the controller on it’s side to take a photo in portrait.

When you first leave the base camp, the sense of scale really strikes you and although the ‘world map’ isn’t huge and the 4X4 provided very quickly gets you from A to B, it is presented in such a way that is impressive rather than expansive. Vast swampland areas stretch out to the horizon, beautifully crafted waterholes contained in a secluded area of desert, a beautiful mountain range in the distance scraping the roof of the sky, it’s all here, it’s all suitably epic and not once did I feel like this play area had been forced together by the designers. Whilst the game looks excellent on the whole, there are areas of rather flat textures, particularly the grassy patches, that look weak. Infact the grass of the game presents one of the biggest flaws in the title itself, hiding from dangerous wildlife to get a close-up shot is a great idea, but as there is no button to part bushels and long grass, you can’t get a clear shot. An oversight perhaps, but a frustrating one nonetheless.

The animals themselves are of course what you’ve come for and Afrika does not disappoint. If you thought Agro from Shadow Of The Colossus was a convincing portrayal of a real world animal, you haven’t seen anything yet. Description cannot do justice to how well the various Elephants, Zebras, Giraffes and other animals native to the continent move and interact with the environment. The partnership with National Geographic has obviously been fortuitous for the development team, as behavioral patterns are realistic to the point of astonishment. You know a game looks good when you are more than content to watch the interplay of two wild gazelles for, quite literally, half an hour, while waiting for that perfect image.

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Once you’ve got your shot, made sure to not aggravate the Hippopotami, Lions, or other fearsome creatures, it’s back to HQ to upload your images. This is done through a pseudo-email system and success in capturing the animal’s image under the conditions set out by your clients rewards you with money with which to buy better equipment. Better equipment means greater flexibility with your shots, greater flexibility with your shots means for more interesting photos. Once in a while you will be called upon to photograph a special event, and this is where the game shows off immensely. Capturing a leopard at high speed from the back of a Jeep, for example, is incredible, a real challenge to any virtual photographer but totally worth the effort at the same time. These are perhaps the most nail biting moments of the game and call for you to be well prepared and able to adapt to rapidly changing situations.

Along with Afrika effectively being a detailed ‘Photography For Dummies’, National Geographic’s involvement also extends to the point of including a library of super high quality images and video, as well as information on each animal in the game in one bestiary that slowly unlocks as you find each animal type. Combined, this makes Afrika perhaps one of the greatest ‘Edutainment’ titles ever made, teaching through doing and collecting rather than forcing poor minigames onto maths equations. For those with young children I can imagine this title going down very well and with the game’s most basic camera set to auto, even 6 year olds can get a decent shot, hell, most of them will probably get a better shot than you.

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There are definitely problems with the package, the aforementioned load times, slight inconsistencies in the game world’s physics, the inability to support custom soundtracks (specifically The Lion King soundtrack) and the translation at times is a little off. I doubt you’ll care though, because as long as Natsume don’t make too many major changes, and you didn’t stop reading this article after the first two paragraphs, you’re probably the kind of person who will thoroughly enjoy Afrika’s rare, tranquil and engaging offerings.

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