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We Bless the Rains Down in Afrika

Import impressions of Sony's wildlife photography game for the PlayStation 3.

Ever since it was first revealed in an incredibly unrevealing trailer at E3 years back, I have found myself fascinated by Afrika. At first I was simply amused at the astounding lack of information there was to be had about the game--this was a title that got E3 screen time alongside the infamous Killzone trailer, yet even several trailers later, all we really knew about Afrika was:

A. It would probably take place in Africa.

B. Sony doesn't know how to spell Africa.

Is that a Palkia I see off in the distance?
Is that a Palkia I see off in the distance?
After years of speculation and anticipation, we got the Japanese version of Afrika in the office late last week. The language barrier can make for some slow-going and a good deal of bewilderment, but I think I've gotten a handle of the game. As I had initially suspected, it's quite a bit like Pokémon Snap, but with more safari and less track. It's also very peculiar in some very Japanese ways, from its apparent obsession with real-world photography minutiae to some of its structural weirdness.

You play as a National Geographic/Mutual of Omaha kind of freelance wildlife photographer in Afrika. You'll get assignments at your base camp via email, starting off with simple requests for pictures of different animals, though you're soon trying to capture shots of animals in specific poses or situations. Once you've got one or more assignments, you can hop in your little red safari jeep, where your driver will take you to one of a handful of zones where you can find meandering herds of giraffes, zebras, hippos, gazelles, and so on. Since you're usually not actually in control of the jeep, you can snap some shots as you move, but you'll need to hop out and sneak around to get the best shots. The animals are very sensitive to your presence, so to get up close takes patience and strategic use of cover. Some animals will charge, and if you don't get away fast enough, you'll end up passed out in your tent and without any of that day's photos.

The pacing can be incredibly slow, but there's a certain satisfaction to hiding behind a bush and waiting for a hippo to yawn to get the shot you're after. Still, I feel like I only scratched the surface of the photography part of Afrika. You start off with a pretty basic, off-brand point-and-shoot, though you're soon rocking some of Sony's finest photography equipment, which is ridiculously customizable. Frankly, it seems like you'll need to have a decent amount of real-world photography knowledge to wrangle some of the stuff Afrika serves up. It should be telling--about both myself and the game--that with all the F-stop and focus options presented, the feature I was most enamored with was the ability to tilt your camera sideways using the SIXAXIS motion controls.

These hippos are hungry!
These hippos are hungry!
The maddening thing about Afrika, at least for someone who cannot read Japanese, is that I very often had no clue what I needed to do to get more assignments and progress through the game. Though, even once I tracked down a decent FAQ for the game, there was still a lot of clunk--I found myself hopelessly stuck at one point because I was using my camera, rather than the provided binoculars, to scope out a cheetah, which prevented the game from triggering the next event. Predictably, Afrika doesn't quite live up to the visual promise of its original trailer, though I found the models and the animations for the wildlife to be a high point nonetheless. There's an appealing crispness to the visuals that really reinforces the sensation that you're in the middle of a wildlife documentary, but it also makes the game look kind of flat. It's got some crazy frame rate issues as well, even though the environments are pretty sparse.

Considering how many times Sony has trotted out some vague trailer for Afrika at some US press event, I've been of the mindset that they have to release the game here. Having spent a few hours with this profoundly quirky game, I now have my doubts that they will, or that they should.

PS: As much as I like the adventurous orchestral score in Afrika, I'd be exponentially more likely to recommend it if this were in it: