Games in which you play an animal are quite a trend: Goat Simulator has been one of the major success stories of the past few months, Bear Simulator has tickled a six-figure sum out of Kickstarter fans, and you can be sure that Gnu Simulator and Proboscis Monkey Simulator are already being developed by publishers eager to cash in on the craze.
But before the comedy goat and the comedy bear, there was the wolf, and it was a proper wolf.
In 2007, the Minnesota Zoo decided to develop a game to teach people about the everyday challenges faced by wolves in the Yellowstone National Park. Over a series of releases it developed a considerable fanbase, but in recent years public funding has been cut and WolfQuest may be limping down the road to extinction. Better play it now, then, before it slinks off into the mountains.
Just as in Mass Effect, you begin by designing your character. Except where previously you designed a Shepard, this time you're creating every shepherd's worst nightmare: a wolf.
Because it's been developed from a generous public purse (one senator called the $600,000 spent on creating it an 'extravagant waste of tax dollars'), WolfQuest is a more richly rendered offering than most freeware. The grand vistas of the Wyoming countryside provide a lovely backdrop to your roaming, hunting, and the object of your first quest - finding a mate.
so many bears
Once you've taken in the scenery, the first thing you notice in WolfQuest is that it's teeming with bears. There are so many bears in WolfQuest that when you do find yourself in elk territory, most of the elks have already been killed by rampaging grizzlies.
When you do get to hunt something that's not been eviscerated by ursine claws, you can deploy your scent-vision. Everything goes black and white except for smells, which show up as vivid smears of colour, in different hues for different species. Chases can be short and sweet, or long and diffuclt, depending on the animal. Hares are plentiful and easy to catch, but they're more of a snack-beast, while a full-grown elk has more meat but takes a long, long time to chase down and kill. This is accurate - wolves hunt by tiring their prey out on chases that can last for hours. You need to keep hunting and eating to survive, but scavenging is a handy way to top up your energy (again, this is true for real wolves). Once your nose has led you to elk-meat, it's time to sniff the wind for other wolves to fight, or make love to, or... or both?
More after the break...
Wolves are even more difficult to seduce than people
If you thought romance would be simpler as a wolf, you're in for a disappointment: satisfying your reproductive urges in WolfQuest involves almost as much wandering around, sniffing and whining as it does in the human world. A tantalising yellow wolf-scent often leads to a male who will threaten to beat you up, and when you do find a female she'll probably bite you and then urinate on your favourite tree. It's a lot like being in Plymouth on a Saturday night.
At last a receptive female appears, and the similarities to Mass Effect return: there are a number of dialogue options that are translated into the wolf-language of stance, barks, bites, whimpers and sniffs, and only by picking the right ones can you persuade the comely she-wolf to mate with you. Unlike Mass Effect, there's no mildly discomfiting scene in a space-jacuzzi - your new wolf-wife just agrees to follow you around everywhere.
Just as in human life, your brief summer of being well-fed and sexually active is followed all too quickly by the long, exhausting autumn of finding a place to live, having kids and then trying to make sure they're not eaten by bears.
the worth of wolf street
Overall WolfQuest is well worth a go, if only for an afternoon's trot around Yellowstone. It's graphically decent, has some exciting weather (at one point, lightning hit a tree near our wolf and the tree exploded) and, yep, it's free. The only gripe we have is the music, which basically two soft-grunge riffs that switch abruptly and at random. Turn it off, enjoy the birdsong and remember to press H (howl) every now and then.
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