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X3F Impressions: Deer Hunter Tournament

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Donnie Clay crawled as quietly as possible through thick lines of vegetation. He paused as his head broke free of the brush. In front of him was a jumble of hoof tracks that criss-crossed in every direction. Smiling, Donnie pressed a button on his Xbox 360 controller. "There's a tracking system in Deer Hunter Tournament," he said. "If you find deer tracks and aren't quite sure what they are, you can press a button which will orient you to the track."

Now set on the proper course, the producer of publisher Atari's Deer Hunter Tournament rose to his feet and continued to creep quietly forward. His high-caliber rifle, gripped in gloved fists, was equipped with a thermal scope.

A tracking system, and a scope capable of reading heat temperatures? Yes, Bambi appeared to be doomed -- so long as Donnie was able to claim him faster than legions of other eager hunters.

"In Deer Hunter 2005," Donnie said to a group of journalists at a recent Atari press event, "we actually had people post on our community bulletin boards ... about their own tournaments. They'd say, 'We're hunting here. Use this weapon and grab this animal, and see who can get the biggest one.' They were actually doing their own tournaments because there was no functionality for that in the game. So we decided to implement it, which is why this one is called Deer Hunter Tournament."

Creating a custom tournament is simple. Players log on to the tournament server and specify the rules of the competition: choose the area, the gun, and the target. Tournaments can last as long as a week or two, so players can participate when their schedule permits free time. Each player will have his own instance of the tournament area, a decision Donnie Clay deems vital to the hunting experience.

"I don't know if you guys are hunters," he said, "but you don't want a lot of people around while you're hunting. Number one you probably don't want to shoot them, and number two, if they make noise, your shot might be ruined. So you have your own instance."

Besides the thrill of popping a few rounds into wildlife, tournaments will also beget real-life prizes, though Clay wasn't willing to divulge many specifics. "On the PC version we're planning on giving away prizes to tournament winners. For the Xbox 360, we're still working on different ideas; one thing we're looking at is working with [in-game ad agency] Massive Incorporated to see what they could offer."

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Bagging a buck won't be a simple matter of peering down a scope and squeezing the trigger. One core focus of Deer Hunter Tournament is realism. Animals won't stare at you, frozen like deer caught in headlights (pun very much intended) and wait for you to claim their carcass as a prize.

"Animals can smell you coming, so you'll have to actually stay downwind," explained Clay. "You'll have to see which way the wind is blowing relative to where the animal is. We use actual models of their sight and scent capabilities, so at a certain distance they won't be able to see or smell you. We have their feeding habits modeled, so they'll go back and drink from the same area every day."

In order to get the jump on their future dinner, virtual hunters can go on scouting missions before tournaments begin in order to learn the lay of the land, determine animal refreshment locations, and even plant a few tasty treats to use as bait.

Because the fauna's enhanced AI won't allow for newbies to walk away with an easy trophy, Deer Hunter Tournament features an extensive tutorial that teaches hunting strategies derived from -- and able to carry over to -- actual hunting. "We'll teach you how to actually stalk, weapon handling and usage, actual hunting rules, bag limits -- you can't kill more than a certain number of animals during a certain time -- deer habits. There's also a bow-hunting tutorial as well."

Learning how to properly track your prey is only one half of the equation; you'll also need to learn how to efficiently kill it. "When you aim for an animal, you want to aim for certain areas such as the heart, which gives you a one-shot kill," Clay explained. "If the animal has internal bleeding, the meat will be ruined. If you don't kill it right off the bat, it will run off, and you'll ... probably find it a quarter-mile down the road, dead, the meat ruined."

On that note, Clay decided to give us a tour of one of the game's wilderness areas. Donnie's avatar (fully customizable) began at the bottom of a verdant hill that provided shade to a wide lake. Forest no doubt teeming with prey rimmed the borders, but a target had already presented itself in the form of a doe drinking gracefully from the lake. Content with his current position, Donnie raised his rifle and peered down the sight. Given its distance, the doe would provide a difficult shot, but was still close enough for Donnie to sink a bullet into its heart.

A cougar sprinted in from the side, rounding the opposite side of the hill. The doe turned, startled, and began to dash in the opposite direction. Donnie remained still. "There are dangerous animals in the game, such as bears and cougars," he said, fixated on his fleeing prey. "If you give away your position, if they know you're there, they'll come get you. They'll knock you out and you'll lose your trophies for the day."

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Still ignoring the predator, Donnie eased his aim slightly to the left and fired. Bullet-time took the reins as the camera tracked Donnie's bullet, which tore through the air and into the deer's chest. The doe, its momentum rudely interrupted, toppled end over end down a small bank that led into an eastern copse of trees. A byproduct of the game's physics engine, animals in Deer Hunter Tournament won't drop to the ground like dead weight if they were in motion when the bullet (or arrow) connected.

With a variety of weapons, track orientation, full-featured tournaments, and more intelligent wildlife, Deer Hunter Tournament seems to be taking the right steps toward fulfilling virtual hunting dreams. "We're definitely moving toward more of a simulation feel," Clay confirmed.

He paused. "We did take away some of the more annoying things, such as growing tired from running around."

Good to hear. Realistic hunting is all well and good, but running around in sweltering heat? Remember, class: gamers don't run, we just fiddle with analog sticks.

Deer Hunter Tournament will be available for Xbox 360 and PC this October.

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