Seven-year-old Seth sits at the controls of a miniature sub, his sights set on a banded octopus. He zeroes in on the giant sea creature and presses a button. Startled, the octopus begins waving its legs in a slow-motion gesture of surprise. Seth, of course, lets out a scream of delight. “I killed it!” he proclaims in victory. “No you didn’t,” I explain. “You took its picture.”
In a culture suffused with violence — and in which controversial properties like Grand Theft Auto and Postal grab all the headlines — it’s easy to forget there are alternatives to blood and gore. The truth is, dozens of offerings like Venture Africa and Snapshot Adventures are on hand for satisfying the gaming appetites of pacifists and concerned parents. The latest is Sea Life Safari, a 3D photo-shooter from WildTangent Game Studios.
Unlike Seth, adults won’t have any problems picking up on the peaceful underpinnings of Sea Life Safari. In the game, you ride a small submarine through costal waters, snapping photos of exotic marine life and taking in the sunlight-dappled sights.
Your goal is to collect photos of as many different sea creatures as you can. In all, there are about 50 species to discover, from dolphins and seahorses to Tiger Sharks and Lion Fish. The sub moves around on autopilot, freeing you to aim, zoom in and capture your subjects on film. You can also toss harmless gadgets at the fish to get a rise out of them and make your pictures more interesting. Crabs wave their claws in defiance, for example, and Banner Fish give the lens a goofy grin.
After you take 24 pictures, a crusty old professor scores your photos based on framing, distance, position and character. The idea is to get the best photo possible for the professor and for your personal logs, so a close-up of a stingray with its tail extended after being struck with a gadget will earn a better rating than the backside of a distant turtle. (Despite the professor’s comments, Seth liked his picture of “the turtle’s butt.”) The feedback the game offers is impressive, with the professor accepting and rejecting photos based on their quality.
Sea Life Safari features five locations to explore: Coral Reef, Ship Graveyard, Deep Sea, Abyss and Volcano. With the exception of Coral Reef, each one is locked. To access the next area, you must take at least one photo of all of the fish in your current location. You can also collect gold shells by tossing gadgets in their vicinity. I developed a routine of passing though a stage once to take photos and again to gather shells. Do well behind the camera and gather enough shells, and you’ll start racking up Achievements.
The game works on several levels. First, the thrill of discovery compelled me to complete the current stage and move forward. I don’t want to spoil anything, so suffice to say there are some real treats to unearth, with my favorite one being near the end of the Deep Sea level. It’s a real eye-opener! Also, there’s a lot of satisfaction to be found in taking good photos. I often returned to areas I’d completed just to get that perfect shot.
The controls are well designed, too. Using just your mouse, you can look around the outside of the sub, zoom in on a subject, snap a photo and launch a gadget. At first, I didn’t like the sub being on autopilot, but after spending a few hours in the game, I can see the developers wanted to keep things simple. Still, an optional freeform mode in which advanced gamers could steer the sub using the mouse along with the WASD keys would be a nice addition.
Sea Life Safari also looks and sounds nice. While I’ve seen more sophisticated underwater lighting effects in other games, the coral reefs are bursting with color and detail, the sunken ruins elicit genuine wonder and the animation of the various sea life is well done. Once, while coasting through an ancient city, I stopped fretting about photos and just soaked up the serene visuals and the tranquil sounds of whales calling each other.
You will hit choppy waters from time to time. For starters, the levels take too long to load, and for the first 40 seconds or so, the progress bar is blank, leading me to wonder on more than one occasion if the game had hung up.
In addition, my tests with Seth show Sea Life Safari is too text heavy in the beginning to hold the interest of children. Although Seth picked up on the interface straight away, I had to explain the game’s goals to keep him from bolting away to play Guitar Hero 2. And when you go to post your score online, the program switches to windowed mode and stays that way until you switch it back to full screen mode yourself.
If you can deal with these issues, you and any youngsters in your house will find Sea Life Safari to be a compelling and enjoyable game. So take the plunge and try the demo! You’ll be shooting like a pro in no time.