Version tested: PlayStation 3
- "Can you run over small animals in this game? i read somewhere that later on in the game you can drive yourself around, so they better make it realistic so you can run over a lion or something and break its legs off."
- - Forum post by "contempt456" on GameFaqs.com.
Bad news, I'm afraid. No, you cannot run over a lion in Afrika. Nor can you break its legs off. Nor can you tie an elephant's trunk in a knot, cut off a giraffe's head or inflate a hippo till it goes pop. You can't even make a monkey wear an embarrassing hat.
So Afrika is probably not the game for you. In fact, Sony has decided it's not the game for anyone outside of Japan - at least not enough people to make a release commercially viable. If you want a copy, you'll have to import one. And unless you can understand Japanese, you'll spend the first hour or so turning to websites like GameFaqs as you try to work out what's going on.
This isn't too tricky, as there's not an awful lot going on. You explore pretty African landscapes and take pictures of animals. That's about it. Tedious? You may well think so, if breaking the legs off lions is your idea of a good time. But give it a go and, like me, you could find playing Afrika to be a relaxing, rewarding and enjoyable experience. Even though at no point do you so much as get to give a zebra a Chinese burn.
You play as a wildlife photographer based in an unspecified African country, almost as if the game designers consider all the countries of Africa to be basically the same anyway, in the same way some non-Europeans think Spain is the same as Ireland. There are two characters to choose from - a small American lady and a tall French man.
Why the French man is wearing a beanie hat in the middle of Africa is anyone's guess. Perhaps he's just incredibly lifestyle, in which case he should be at home with his Wii and white furniture. It might have been nice to have the option to play as, you know, an African. There is a non-playable African character in the game, though. He gets to drive the jeep.
Whichever character you don't pick will be waiting to welcome you at base camp. Here you can store and select camera equipment, look at the map and rest overnight. You can also chat to the American lady / French man between missions. If you don't understand what you're chatting about because you can't read Japanese, you can have a nice time making up what they might be saying in your head. ("Hello. See any lions today?" "No, just boring old gazelles again. Has Hollyoaks started yet?")
Most importantly, base camp is where you'll find your laptop. This is used for storing your photos, updating the electronic field guide with new animals you've spotted, buying new items and saving the game. It's also where you receive emails from clients with briefs on what they want you to photograph next (helpfully for non-Japanese speakers, the emails have relevant images attached).
Some briefs are quite simple - you may be asked take a photo of a zebra eating his lunch, or an ostrich wandering about. Others are more specific and tougher to fulfil; you might have to capture an elephant spraying water with its trunk, or a meerkat doing pilates while eating a kebab and wearing a turquoise poncho. (Maybe not the last one, but that's how it feels sometimes.)
Once you've worked out what you're supposed to photograph (perhaps with the help of a handy internet guide), it's time to head out on the plain. For the first handful of missions, your driver will automatically take you to the best spots. You can relax for the duration of the journey, using the right analog stick and your virtual binoculars to enjoy the view. It's not quite breathtaking, and you couldn't describe the visuals as photo-real. But the sheer scale of the landscape is striking, and there is an impressively high level of realism to the lighting, textures and environmental details.
The orchestral soundtrack adds significantly to the overall experience. Sometimes it's so sweeping and elegant it's reminiscent of Sydney Pollack's 1985 big screen adaptation of Out of Africa, or an episode of The Flying Doctors. Most of the time, it's so blatantly nicked off John Williams you keep expecting a diplodocus to come lumbering across the screen.
There are no dinosaurs, of course (sorry, contempt456), but there are more than 50 different species of animal to photograph. Gazelles, giraffes, lions, rhinos, elephants, zebras, hippos, leopards, cheetahs... The gang's all here, though only by completing missions and unlocking new areas will you get to see the lot.
The basic mechanic for taking photos is simple. You press the square button to point your camera, zoom in and out with the right stick and hit circle to take your snap. The challenge is getting the shot without scaring off your target. Or, in the case of some animals, without getting so close they go mental and attempt to murder you.
(Sorry again, contempt456 - there's no blood and gore. The screen simply fades to black and you wake up back at base camp, with the French man / American woman leaning over you, saying something in Japanese. Perhaps, "You're lucky you've still got a torso, mate. By the way, Dave says he's bored of driving the jeep and can he borrow your camera.")
If you want the best photos, you'll have to do a lot of standing about, creeping around, crouching down, hiding in bushes and keeping still. This isn't as dull as it sounds. No, really. It can actually be exciting to nudge the analog stick ever so gently, watching to see if the hippo will notice you edge two inches closer, or see your patience rewarded as the giraffe fails to spot you in your hiding place and walks directly into your line of sight. But most of all, there's the huge sense of satisfaction when finally you get that perfect shot.
It's even more gratifying when you get back to base camp and email your photo to the client. In return, you'll receive a rating based on your technique, angle, the subject you photographed and your distance from it, and you'll be paid accordingly. Earnings can be used to purchase new items, such as a bigger hard drive to store your photos on, and of course new cameras. You start out with the basic Tsetse camera (why is it named after a disease-spreading parasite? It's a bit like calling a new car the Vauxhall MRSA) but you can unlock and purchase much fancier ones - with the word SONY stamped on them of course.
True, none of this could be described as thrilling, but every so often you're rewarded for your patience with a set piece. These usually involve photographing one of the big game animals in action - a cheetah taking down a gazelle, for example. Still no blood and gore, contempt456, but the animations are extremely realistic and just as violent as they should be. Relatively exciting, then.
(Besides, I've been on a real safari. There's a lot more waiting around and being still than there is in Afrika, not to mention more mosquitos, dust, sunburn and having to share jeep space with aggressive estate agents from Cape Town. And to be honest, the most interesting thing I saw in four days was a monkey do a wank and eat it.)
The game follows pretty much the same pattern as you progress: new areas, different animals, bigger zoom lenses, and lots, lots more photographs. Also you get to drive the jeep, which handles just fine. It's great to have the freedom of deciding where to go, and thank goodness Dave gets a day off. The cameras get increasingly complex and you can start mucking about with focus, frames per second and all that. But for the most part, it's straightforward stuff.
The incentive to keep playing comes with the promise of new animals to discover and the gratification from fulfilling the briefs. That might not be enough for you, contempt456. Afrika isn't about violence, and it's not designed to provide fast-paced thrills or test your reflexes. It offers a more serene, relaxed, even soothing experience, and rewards you for patience and gentleness.
It's not perfect. The visuals are a little disappointing; they're pretty rather than stunning. While the animals look realistic they don't exhibit much individual behaviour, and their actions can be predictable. And, oh all right, hiding behind bushes can get a bit boring.
Still. Afrika is one of the most pleasant, enjoyable and gently engrossing games I've played in a while. It's a shame Sony isn't releasing it here, and it's worth importing. Especially if you're the type of person who can imagine experiencing a special kind of thrill from snapping a monkey up a tree instead of shooting a zombie in the face. Though it's not as much fun as running over a lion, obviously.
7 / 10