Monday, January 21, 2013

Great Games You Never Played: Afrika

"Fine, obscure gems." Part of a periodical series: Great Games You Never Played.

Back in 1999, Pokemon Snap proved that games about photography can be just as engaging as an action-packed shooter, yet ever since then, games with photography as the central gameplay mechanic have been few and far between. Some games like Dead Rising have featured elements of photography, but Afrika (a PS3 exclusive released in 2009) is the only other game I know of where photography is the main and only point of the game.

In Afrika, you play as one of two photojournalists sent to photograph and document wildlife in an African conservation. Each day begins in your tent at base camp, checking your email and conducting any preliminary business before setting out on safari. Email is the source of your missions, with various clients requesting photographs of certain animals, sometimes in specific poses or in a particular setting. You're then free to roam about the African wilderness sandbox-style, taking pictures and completing missions at your leisure. At first you're limited to the nearby steppe region, but as you advance through the main missions, you gain access to a swampland, a large lake, a rocky canyon, and a green plains region.

Photographs submitted for missions are graded based on technique, and your pay is based on the picture's grade. The money that you earn can be spent buying new tools and equipment (such as a portable tent so you can spend the night in the field, instead of having to return to base camp at sundown), as well as upgrading your camera body and lenses for better pictures. Missions are split between sandbox-style side missions where you observe the wildlife in real time, and important main missions where you watch a more dramatic, scripted cutscene (such as a fight between a lion and an elephant) and take pictures of critical moments.

The photography in Afrika is rather satisfying, thanks to the breadth of options for getting the right shot as well as the game's emphasis on emulating real photography. For instance, you can unlock eight different lenses, and some are more suited for certain kinds of shots than others, and you have to worry about settings like depth of field, aperture, and shutter speed (among other things). While the photography aspect is great fun, there are, unfortunately, a number of really annoying things about the game's design that feel like noticeable blemishes on a great formula. Still, there aren't many photography games out there, so Afrika is easy to recommend if you're interested in that style of gameplay. More of my thoughts await after the jump.

The two playable characters consist of Eric, a 27-year old journalist from France who likes to wear a beanie hat in the middle of Africa, and Anna, a 24-year old American zoologist. Character selection doesn't seem to play a big role in anything; no matter whom you select, the other character will still be present in your game as an idle companion character, helping you on your safaris. Your decision is basically just whomever you want to see yourself as in the third-person camera.

Gameplay starts out at its most basic and then expands as you progress through the game. At the start, you use the simplest possible camera, you're limited to exploring the immediate area around your base camp (in the Duma Steppe), and someone else drives the SUV for you. As you complete missions, you gain the ability to drive the SUV wherever you want, you gain access to new areas of exploration, and you unlock better equipment for your camera. The main missions also introduce entirely new gameplay mechanics along the way, such as using a trap cam to take remote photos, using an RC car for low-angle shots, and using a gun mic to record audio, which become part of your regular equipment.

The purpose of all of these mechanics is for you to be able to get the best possible shot of a certain animal for certain missions. Some animals are skittish and run away if you get too close, making it difficult to take a close-up shot; with the trap cam, you can set it up near their habitat, observe from a distance, and snap a photograph. These mechanics are particularly fun because they give you a sense of accomplishment and progression, making you feel like you're improving as a photographer, while giving you new ways to explore and interact with the environment since each new upgrade unlocks a whole new world of possibilities for you.

There are about 60 different animal species to photograph in Afrika, and your very first mission (which remains active throughout the entire game) is to photograph each new animal species you encounter. Some animals aren't present every day, only showing up randomly, some are purely nocturnal, and others aren't introduced until later in the game through story missions, so a large part of the thrill is in discovering a new animal and trying to collect 'em all, so to speak.

The developers, Rhino Studios, collaborated closely with National Geographic to make sure all of the animals looked and behaved as realistically as possible. The animals look truly photorealistic, and their behavior feels natural and authentic. I've never been on an African safari, but this is fairly close to how I imagine one might be in real life. The collaboration with National Geographic also means Afrika is a very educational and informative game. Even if you don't bother reading through the detailed field guide on each animal, you still learn a lot about specific animals through necessity of completing missions, such as how to differentiate a white rhino from a black rhino (hint: their color isn't indicative).

While your characters are at the Manyanga Conservation primarily for the purpose research, you receive a number of requests from nature magazines, artists, travel companies, and so on. Typically the client wants a specific picture (such as a meerkat standing up on its hind legs, or an elephant spraying itself with water). In the case of magazines, you actually get to see your picture published in the full context -- and you receive a number of requests for cover shots for National Geographic. These requests make up the bulk of the side-missions, which come in through your email periodically and can be completed at your own leisure.

As you complete missions you get important, main story missions that either advance you to a new area or feature a "big game hunt." Big game hunts are special encounters, rare and dramatic events that have you taking pictures of a pre-scripted cutscene. Your first big game hunt, for example, is to witness a cheetah hunt and snap pictures as it makes the kill. Your next big game hunt is to get a picture of an elephant mother nurturing her young, and you witness elephants crossing the swamp and take pictures as the mother helps the infant climb over a slippery ledge. These are fun because you never know what's going to happen, and you have to be ready to catch the critical moment on film because it can be over in an instant.

One thing that bothers me about the big game hunts, however, is that the game immediately tells you which picture was your best shot. A large part of the fun of the photography stems from evaluating your own photos and deciding which one you like best, weighing the different qualities to make a decision for yourself. It would have been nice, therefore, if you could've submitted your top three favorite shots and then let the client choose between those, but as it stands, submitting the photo is a boring, straightforward matter.

The game grades your photographs based on viewing angle of the target, the size of the target in the frame, whether you had the shot properly focused, and so on -- pretty straightforward metrics. The real trouble with the grading system, however, is that the money rewards are pretty much worthless. The idea is to reward you for taking good pictures so that you can buy newer and better equipment to take even better shots, but as long as you put even a halfway decent effort into your shots, you'll be swimming in money, able to buy every new item the moment it shows up in the store with tons of left-over cash. I feel this aspect of the game would've been better if they paid you less for each photograph so that you actually had to manage your money, thus making it more important to get good shots. 

Eventually you unlock the ability to go on nighttime safaris to capture shots of the nocturnal wildlife, but these safaris aren't nearly as interesting. For starters, you can't drive the vehicle yourself, so you're limited to exploring wherever your partner happens to drive, and even if you get out of the car to walk around you're not allowed to stray too far from the vehicle. Besides that, there are only a handful of unique nocturnal animals to photograph, so nighttime safaris don't feel especially satisfying or rewarding.

But the game isn't just about photographing animals. Every so often the game gives you a unique objective to mix things up. A couple of missions have you taking photographs of landscapes and notable landmarks; some missions have you recording audio samples of animal noises; a few missions have you collecting animal skulls for study; one mission has you track a lioness with a GPS device attached to a camera strung around its neck. While only playing a minor part in the actual gameplay, these kinds of missions go a long way in keeping the gameplay varied and interesting.

Partway through the game an over-arching storyline develops that has you investigating the possible existence of a presumed-extinct animal. Mysterious signs suggest a large, carnivorous, unknown animal has been living in the Manyanga Conservation Area, but no one's been able to spot it; you're periodically sent to collect evidence of its existence and to report that evidence back to the research HQ. Over the course of the game, they send you the results of their studies, and the final stretch of the game builds towards a dramatic, climactic encounter with this mysterious creature. It's a particularly fun questline because of the mystique and the fact that it's a multi-stage, recurring mission.

The biggest complaint I have regarding Afrika is how much of your time it needlessly wastes. Yes, it can be annoying sitting there waiting for an animal to strike a certain pose, but that's not what I'm talking about. That stuff is all part of being a photojournalist, and the anticipation of waiting is a large part of what makes getting the perfect shot so satisfying. What's inexcusable are the long, boring car rides to and from locations until you're able to drive the vehicle yourself. You're stuck passively observing your surroundings while your companion takes the least efficient route to your destination and makes clunky, awkward stops at every slight turn or change in incline. Once you've taken your picture, you have to sit through this long, boring process again on the return trip back to base camp.

It gets better once you're able to drive the SUV yourself, because then you're actively doing something and controlling the game, and when you're ready to return to base camp, you can just select "End Safari" from the menu and instantly return to your tent. But even then, a lot of time is spent each morning just traversing the map to reach your destination (the mission structure of "wake up, check email, drive to destination, take picture, return to base came, upload photo, go to sleep" gets a little repetitive after a while), and even more time is spent aimlessly wandering around looking for an animal that might not even have "spawned" that particular day, or being misled by obtuse objectives that don't follow logic.

One mission requested that I take a picture of elephant tracks, so I drove out to the swamp and checked around all of the areas elephants were known to frequent. I even found a group hanging out in one particular area, but after spending nearly ten minutes carefully searching the area for tracks, I couldn't find any. Frustrated and concerned that I wouldn't find a logical conclusion to this mission, I checked a guide, and found out the elephant tracks I was expected to photograph were in a completely different spot where I'd never seen elephants before. How was I supposed to know to find elephant tracks there? Did the game just expect me to scour every square foot of this swamp searching for tracks?

Likewise, you need to use the trap cam for various missions, but you can only place the tripod in highly specific, preset areas. This wouldn't be such a big deal if the icon for these trap cam spots showed up at a reasonable distance, but it doesn't appear until you're about five feet from the location, which often means walking around a 1000 square-foot region knowing you're in the right place to take a picture, simply unable to find the spot for the trap cam. Then you've got the various requests for a picture of an animal against the sunset. These are the biggest wastes of time in the game, because there's no option to rest until late in the afternoon. You have to wake up at the crack of dawn, drive to your destination, and leave the game running for about 20 minutes before you can get the shot.

And of course, a review of Afrika wouldn't be complete without the inevitable comparison to Pokemon Snap. Both games are all about photography, but they go about it differently. Pokemon Snap is a pure "rail shooter" with preset "levels," whereas Afrika is more of a free-roaming sandbox game. Having the freedom to move around and explore is a big part of what makes Afrika such an immersing game, but the creatures of Afrika are a little mundane and boring compared to pokemon -- I can't help but think Afrika would be more exciting if it were set in Jurassic Park or something. The other thing Pokemon Snap has over Afrika is that you could interact with the pokemon, sort of manipulating the environment to create fun new poses and scenarios, all thanks to the apples, pester balls, and the poke flute -- there's nothing quite like that in Afrika.

If there were more photography games out there, Afrika's shortcomings might stand out as crucial problems warranting a mediocre review score. But since there are so few games about photography, it's hard to complain, especially when there isn't a single example of another game doing the same thing, only better. Afrika is not perfect, but its problems are easily excused if the prospect of a photography game intrigues you, because the photography element is absolutely worth it. 

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