It's a game about duck hunting. The ultimate game about duck hunting. And yes, Bill, it has a career mode.
I thought he was joking when he handed it over. Shannon, our industry relations guy, is well-known for his dislike of writers who don't actually write reviews for the review copies of games they take off his desk, and considering it'd been weeks since I'd snatched a copy of some RTS game or another and not played it, I'd assumed this was my penance.
"I want a review of this one, Pitts," he said, foisting a copy of Mid Carolina Media's Ultimate Duck Hunting into my hands. And he meant it. Cruel practical joke or no, I knew if I'd have any chance of landing that review copy of Chromehounds I had to play ball. Such is the way of things in the gritty world of games journalism.
So I loaded up the game and got myself ready to shoot me some ducks. But first I apparently had to train my dog. This the first clue that what I had on my hands was no mere Deer Hunter clone. Yes, it was a first-person shooter. Yes, the object was to shoot things and yes, it looked like the game character had a mullet. But that's about where any similarities to my expectations ended.
After creating my character (Bubba John Jack) I had to spend a few minutes at the baseball diamond training my yellow lab, Skeeter. I ran Skeeter through the basic commands (back, over left, over right, sit and c'mere) using a whistle and a throw toy, and as soon as he got smart enough to not be stupid I fired up career mode and headed out to hunt.
Career mode in Ultimate Duck Hunting rewards you with skill points based on how well you shoot ducks and which ducks you shoot (red ducks take points away and blue ducks give bonus points). You can then spend these skill points to "improve your dog," bumping up one of his four stats (speed, stamina, sense and obedience). It's important to do this because in Ultimate Duck Hunting, your dog starts out pretty damn dumb. I maxed out Skeeter's "sense" and "obedience," giving him a higher-than-average chance of detecting the downed ducks and willingness to follow my commands.
After training mode, you're given a choice of marshes in which to shoot things. I donned my waders, hitched up the boat trailer, threw Skeeter in the truck and headed to Arkansas.
At this stage, the game delivered a fairly standard animal shooter. Having grown up in Texas, I've shot my fair share of guns (my first when I was 9), but I've never hunted duck so my ability to relate the experience to real-life is a bit limited. The gun physics seemed passable to me (although the shotgun didn't quite "kick" enough for my taste), and the ducks shed an entertaining amount of feathers as they spiraled out of the sky. The way they quacked helplessly as they flapped about in the marsh was also strangely satisfying.
But that's where the game's problems threatened to ruin my fun. Skeeter's dumbness, combined with that of the game's controls combined to make the retrieval process less than enjoyable, which, I assume, is also fairly realistic. To move and shoot, the game employs the standard WASD command scheme, which allowed me to maneuver Bubba John Jack with my left hand while aiming and shooting my shotgun with the mouse in my right. The problem is that to command Skeeter, I had to use the arrow keys while moving Bubba John Jack with my left hand and sighting in on the downed ducks using the mouse. I do not have three hands, so this was a bit clunky. Thankfully there was no time limit.
The graphics are pretty and do a good job of representing the various geographical locations, and the duck calls are fairly realistic and entertaining to observers. I'd say, on the whole, the game does a great job of translating the experience of squatting in the swamp shooting ducks and for anybody with a hankerin' to simulate the experience in the off-season, this is your game. For everyone else, Ultimate Duck Hunting offers a fun way to waste a few hours shooting things. And really, who couldn't use more of that?