'Afrika' Captures Frustration of Virtual Photography

Photo: Video Game: AfrikaCourtesy Amazon.com
With all its focus on the photography, "Afrika" falls short of delivering a quality gaming experience.

The unfortunate irony of "Afrika" is that for all the effort that was put into making the game a realistic reflection of photography in the wild, it actually just reflects excruciating boredom without the real-life payoff of seeing animals in the bush.

The game, published in the U.S. by Natsume for the Sony PS3, retails for $49.99 or less online.

In the game, you're a photojournalist in Africa, assigned to capture pictures of animals in the wild, sometimes in oddly specific poses or groups. You have a partner to work with, but he never seems to leave the tent. You also have a guide who shires you around in a jeep. Missions come in by e-mail to your laptop and you can accept them at your will.

Out in the wild, you sneak up on your target, sometimes hiding in the brush, to get that perfect shot. Once you've got a winner, you return to the jeep, ride back to the tent and send off the pictures in an e-mail. Whoever assigned the mission to you will either accept or reject the pictures and rate you on your performance in a number of areas from technique to distance.

You are paid for quality pictures and with the money, you can buy better equipment or new cameras.

With the exception of some fairly entertaining mini-games, that is basically the pattern the player follows for the entirety of the game.

The Good: Photographic Realism Can Be Engaging

That's not to say that the game does not have its depth -- it just seems to be designed with "educational" much more in mind than "engaging."

Any photographer will certainly appreciate the care that has gone into making the photography elements more realistic than any modern game in recent memory.

Each camera comes with a user's guide to teach the player the finer points of photography, and the reviews of the pictures give impressively comprehensive grades. Players have to be conscious of composition, lighting and distance in their pictures and few will get far without a good sense of timing.

The animals themselves are also impressively rendered in large, open environments. In a short jeep ride, a player can see monkeys, water buffalo, hippos, elephants and giraffes. In the tent, a guidebook offers informational material on all the animals for further learning.

The big game moments offer some excitement -- the player has to chronicle dramatic moments in the wild, like animals hunting down other animals.

But here is where "Afrika" runs headlong into its biggest problem: The things that make for a great photographer -- the patience of standing, waiting, not moving for extended periods in order to get that perfect shot -- are exactly the opposite of the action you'll probably want in a video game.

The Bad: Wildlife Is Frustrating, Game Not Engaging

Users get an early taste of this frustration as one of your first assignments is to snap a shot of a hippo in mid-yawn. Finding the hippos is not difficult -- just ask your all-knowing guide and he'll take you to their watering hole. Once there, however, the player has to stand awkwardly around some bushes so as not to alert the hippos and then...wait. And wait. And wait.

'Afrika': Realistic But Slow

In an age of hyperactive games with brilliant explosions and jet boots (see "Ratchet & Clank"), only the most determined gamers will have the patience to sit with their finger hovering above the "take picture" button for minutes at a time.

The game also suffers in nearly every aspect that is not photography-related. For all the effort put into creating a realistic photography experience, almost none was put into making a realistic gaming experience.

There is no voice work in the game, so every conversation is done through captions, and the other characters are for the most part thoroughly uninterested in you.

Somehow the game even manages to make romping around the Africa wilderness in a jeep boring, as the driver takes every bump and curve as if he's in a school zone. Even when the player takes the wheel, the controls are pretty unresponsive and the jeep has difficulty with fairly minor hills.

The situation with the most potential for excitement -- when an aggressive animal is charging the player -- is even cut out as the screen simply goes black when the animal gets too close and the player wakes up in the tent again.

It's obvious that making an exciting, adventurous game over an educational, realistic one was not the aim of developer Natsume, Inc., but an unwillingness to compromise on basic points of fun make the game nearly impossible to stick with for more than a couple of zebra encounters.

And at the end of the day, you're taking pictures of animals that aren't real.