If nothing else, Cabela's line of hunting games has been consistent. Some of the later entries are more engaging than the earlier ones, especially Cabela's African Safari and the Dangerous Hunts series, but overall, they have provided a virtual hunting experience that doesn't veer too far into simulation territory and has remained accessible. Of all the things the series has experimented with, however, the developers haven't made a hunting game similar to the big arcade hunting games like Big Buck Hunter, which are mostly point-and-click affairs. That all changes with their latest game, Cabela's Monster Buck Hunter, a Wii exclusive that proves to be a fresh and exciting hunting game — provided you play the right modes.
Cabela's Monster Buck Hunter comes with two completely different game modes. The first, and most different as far as the series is concerned, is Top Shot. You'll be given 12 different areas in which to hunt, and you only have one objective: beat the required score in order to advance. Unlike most hunting titles where you have to control where to go and fish out the game yourself, this one is played like a traditional light gun game where the camera is on-rails and you simply shoot the animals that pop up on the screen. It does get a little more complicated than that; standard hunting rules from the older games still apply, so headshots aren't nearly as valuable as heartshots. Better scores are acquired by using the right gun and making the cleanest kill. To that end, you can switch guns on the fly so that deer and other ground creatures are only hunted with rifles while birds must be hunted with shotguns. To help you out, you also get power-ups once certain criteria are met, like scoring multiple kills in a short time period or getting a five-star kill. Those power-ups include freezing all animals on-screen, no reloading, and an X-ray mode to better see your prey.
Believe it or not, Top Shot mode proves to be one of the best new modes the series has seen in a while. Its simple nature allows it to feel like an arcade game and makes it more accessible for players who still want to hunt but don't want to deal with the waiting and tracking that goes along with it. The strategy of switching between two different guns keeps it from being dull as you constantly have to keep in mind what you're firing and what you're targeting in order to get those big points. It is a very primal arcade experience where points are the only thing that matter, and on a system where light gun games should thrive, it makes that case very convincingly. One complaint to be levied against the mode is the length. Since it lasts for 12 rounds, the player must be committed to see it through to the end, and it can take some time to get there. If you want to play this in multiplayer mode, stick with individual rounds since the length of the competition mode, combined with the fact that players will have to alternate between rounds, makes this an experience that can drag on for way too long.
The other mode the game has is Career mode. Here you'll traverse the same 12 locations, but you'll have to contend with specific hunts. Each area has multiple hunting challenges that give you a specific area to roam around in and a specific target to hunt as well as scores to reach. Like Top Shot, the scoring is the same, with more points awarded to hunters who use the right weapon and get cleaner kills. The same power-ups are also available here, like X-ray and thermal modes, but others, such as no reloading and freezing, have been swapped out for things like slowdown. There are 96 different hunts located in this mode, along with sub-modes, such as the ability to play individual hunts outside of the main career path and events where you hunt down one of each type of species in a single bout.
Your enjoyment of Career mode will be entirely dependent on how you feel about the series' direction with its other titles. In recent games, you get a bit of a story since you follow your hunter as he travels the globe, hunting game and talking about his experiences. Here, the Career mode is more of a throwback to the early Cabela titles, where you were simply placed in a small, restrictive environment and are expected to meet score-based goals. You never have to worry about different game types or penalties. It's a simple approach that works well and includes Top Shot mode, which already feels like a simple hunting game; a more fleshed-out Career mode would have been a nicer inclusion instead.
As you would expect, the controls are good. The game can be played either one of two ways: Nunchuk and Wii Remote combined or Zapper style. For the Top Shot mode, there's no difference between control types. The B button fires the gun, the A button switches power-ups, C reloads and Z activates/deactivates the power-up. Your analog stick switches between gun types, and the Remote controls the cursor. For this mode, both control schemes work fine, and it's really a matter of personal preference.
Career mode, however, is a different story. Zapper mode remains the same, but a few more buttons are used to perform tasks such as sending out dogs. The analog stick is now used for movement, and zoom is triggered by the C button combined with the stick. The Nunchuk/Wii Remote combination does the same thing but adds motion controls to the mix. Tilting the Remote up and down reloads the gun, and tilting the Nunchuk up and down controls zoom. For this mode, the controller combination works best mostly because the game is controlled like any other first-person shooter. It's possible to control this mode with the Zapper, but it takes more acclimation to get it right, and it feels less familiar to the average player since few games give you movement controls in Zapper mode. Another issue that may throw off Zapper owners off is the aiming, where the cursor seems to be below the line of sight. It's something you'll get used to, but because of it, you probably won't be aiming down the sights of this gun if you want to be fairly accurate.
It should be noted that a version of Cabela's Monster Buck Hunter comes packed with the Top Shot, Activision's version of the Zapper. Unlike most of the faux gun peripherals on the market, this one is designed to look and feel like a hunting rifle or a hunting shotgun. What's also different is that the controls are reversed a bit when using this controller; the Z button now becomes your trigger, C zooms in Top Shot mode and reloads in Career mode, and B activates your power-up. The gun feels sturdy, though a bit front-heavy, and the shape is a better fit than the handgun configuration of some other third-party manufacturers or the sub-machine gun shape of Nintendo's own controller. It shares some of the Zapper's problems, namely that the crosshairs seem to drop below where you're pointing the gun, and the configuration is better suited for Top Shot mode than it is Career mode. The only new issue is that the controller configuration makes it only compatible for the two of Cabela's newest games, Monster Buck Hunter and Big Game Hunter 2010, since the other Zapper-ready games only recognize the B button for shooting. The more natural reaction for those who touch this gun is to use C for shooting instead. Nevertheless, this is a good option for those who would like a better sense of immersion with the game.
For the most part, the graphics tend to be pretty impressive. Everything is locked at a steady 30 fps, and the movements on the animals are smooth and have no sudden transition issues. The environments look good and sport some nice touches, like moving grass and splashes in the lake when a bird hits the surface. There are no issues in draw distance, another plus when considering that you'll be hunting down animals from afar. As far as the animals are concerned, they look fine from far away, and you won't be mixing up your animal types since they look fairly close to the actual animal you're supposed to shoot. You'll never really be able to get close to any of them before they run away, and fallen animals tend to disappear before you can inspect them closely. On your hound, the texture is blurry, and it almost seems like the animal has no eyes. Barring that flaw, the overall graphics aren't exactly pushing the limitations of the Wii, but they don't embarrass the system, either.
Almost all of the Cabela games have strong sound elements, and this title is no exception. Career mode gives a chance for the sound effects to shine, as the audio is filled with effects and little else. Gunfire from the different weapons in your arsenal sounds good and very distinctive, so players can really tell the difference between the different rifles and shotguns based on audio alone. The environmental sounds, such as wind blowing and insects chirping by lakes, are nice, but it takes care not to overpower the more important effects, like the trampling of the deer or the flapping of ducks and geese and barks of hunting dogs. The use of Dolby Pro Logic II is readily apparent here, as those effects give both rear and front speakers a workout and really immerse you in the environment without giving off false readings.
Switch over to the menus or to Top Shot mode, and you'll hear something you never thought you would hear from this series: rock music. There are no lyrics, and this isn't exactly instrumental versions of popular rock songs, but there is the distinct sound of the electric guitar replacing what would normally be a banjo or acoustic guitar. It may seem out of place at first, but one round in Top Shot mode will show you that it is a good fit since it gives off the same high-energy feeling you'd have if you were playing this in an arcade. As for voices, there really isn't much to say about them. You only hear one person telling you whether or not you've taken a good shot or hit a high score, and there isn't anything too distinctive about the voice.
While Cabela's Monster Buck Hunter may have strayed away from crafting stories like the series' recent offerings, it remains a fun diversion for gamers who secretly enjoy the sport of hunting. The Career mode may be a bit too simplified, but the arcade nature of the Top Shot mode makes it fun for those who miss classic light gun gaming. With good graphics and sound, the game ranks up there with some of the best the series has offered, and fans will immediately take a liking to this entry. If you've already resolved yourself to buying it, the only question remaining is which version would suit you best. If you know that you crave some authenticity, don't mind having another plastic controller shell in your collection, or will be playing Top Shot mode almost exclusively, get the rifle and game combo. In some cases, it proves to be a better shooting peripheral than the official Nintendo Zapper, even if the configuration currently makes it only suitable for this game and Cabela's Big Game Hunter 2010. If none of the aforementioned things matter to you, grab the standalone version with the knowledge that it will still be a good shooting experience.
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