Over the course of the last five years or so, it’s been theHunter: Call of the Wild which has been standing atop of the hunting tree.
Coming in various guises since the original 2017 release – with both the 2019 and 2021 editions building on the base game – it’s been the go-to hunter as Avalanche Studios have continued to keep it fresh.
Of course, there have been numerous hunting titles to try and topple that king: the Hunting Simulator series probably getting close to nailing that killer shot. But now it’s the turn of Way of the Hunter, a product of Nine Rocks Games and the might of THQ Nordic, to creep through the bushes, setting sights on theHunter, hoping to take it down.
The shots are most definitely fired too, very nearly hitting with precision. But whilst Way of the Hunter brings some good ideas, executing many of them well, there’s just too much scrappiness to ensure this does more than slope off into the woods in hope of trying again another day. That does mean there’s some serious promise for Way of the Hunter 2, though.
Before going too deep into what is on offer with Way of the Hunter, and which bits hit and what misses by a mile, we must address the elephant that sits in the corner of any ‘hunting sim’ experience. To give Nine Rocks and THQ Nordic their dues, this is a game that is firmly focused on ethical hunting, something which the story happily rams down your throat at every given opportunity. It’s appreciated too, giving plenty of insight and significance into why there is a place for the hunt, even in these modern day times.
Way of the Hunter is a huge game, one that is very much open from the off with some massive areas to explore. It places you in the shoes of River Knox, grandson of one of the best hunters of recent decades, as he heads back to his grandfather’s old hunting lodge to reminisce over good times. Pushed along by a pretty well told tale, it’s not long before River is found taking in all manner of missions and tasks, working objective structures and jobs that the old man – and some of his nearest neighbours – have set. I’m pretty loath to go too deep into the narrative here, as some of it is really well put together, voiced and visually delivered in multiple ways. There are certainly some twists that unfold as you get to know the Knox family and their closest friends.
For the most part you’ll be left to go it alone, following a tutorial in the opening stages. We found this to be a bit hit and miss, and whilst it certainly goes deep into the complexities of Way of the Hunter, it seems to forget some key points. You may well find yourself spending far too much time wandering around in a multitude of circles as you try to understand how best to gain insight into the mechanics at play.
We found it took a few hours to really click, but once it does so, Way of the Hunter begins to show its true colours; a stealthy, slow, precise hunting sim that works with the source it is given really well.
Learning the ropes as a newbie hunter is great, and as you discover how best to track the animals that frequent the world you are in, it fast becomes second nature. You’ll just have to get over those slow opening moments first. And once that tutorial is out of the way, online multiplayer will let you hunt with friends; albeit without the story to push you along.
The hunting itself is well defined – in fact, we’ve been surprised at how detailed and extensive it is. Slowly creeping around in the undergrowth may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but you soon learn that it’s an essential part of being a successful hunter. Move too fast, walk when you should be crouching, crouch when you should be prone, and rarely will you ever be able to get near the prey, or cross it up in your sights.
But take it slow, scope out the surroundings with your binoculars, take note of in-field analysis as to popular animal tracks, droppings and feed areas and it won’t be long before you’ve got both big and small game ready to be shot.
Your targets are extensive too. Ducks and pheasants soon give way to badgers and various deer, elk, moose, bear and more. Find a flock, a gathering, a herd or single animals and as you hold your breath, zeroing your sights for the optimum shot, a simple pull of the trigger will be the fine line between success and failure.
Miss and you’ll be left to try again, usually after heading back to your nearest cabin, sleeping to advance time before traipsing back – on foot or in car – for another go.
Hit, and Way of the Hunter gives all the juicy details you could ever want. It plays out a visual showing how your shot has taken your prey, what internals it has hit or miss, and a whole variety of other stats and figures. Whether you then claim it for profit, or chuck it up on your taxidermy stand is then up to you. There’s a possibility that there is too much info being thrown your way at any one time, but the plethora of info found in-game as the hunt is in progress and via the absolute ton of menus and sub-menus will mean you’re never left wanting.
Way of the Hunter is deep in terms of equipment too. Various guns can be purchased, amended and stored, with each being good for specific kills; there are plenty of scopes, binos and callers to help the hunt too. A perks system meanwhile will see you gathering up helpful abilities and skills the more you play. There’s never anything here that will see you becoming a super soldier – Way of the Hunter is far removed from that type of game – but little boosts to traversal speeds, shot recoils, and an upgrade or two to the clever Hunter Sense (something which will help your cause in tracking) will give something to aim for outside of the narrative challenges.
Don’t think you’re ever tied down to following those missions either. The open-world of Way of the Hunter is ripe for exploration, with a number of points of interest unfolding as you navigate the lands. Log cabins, hunting stands, task boards and more will see you wanting to explore the initial Nez Perce Valley, and then Transylvania, maps; each some fifty-odd square miles in size. For those wanting it, a photo mode lets you get all arty with what is on display too.
You may well wish to take some photos too, as at times Way of the Hunter looks brilliant. The areas you work through are dense with fauna and flora, rich with tons of animals that react to your every move. The lands really do feel alive. We’ve trodden gravel paths, climbed mountains to gaze over glorious vistas, paddled in streams and wandered the deep forests in hope of stumbling across hidden joys. It’s certainly a game that can wow in terms of graphical style.
But, and this is where we start the negativity, Way of the Hunter can also feel extremely sloppy, scrappy to an extent. Visual pop-up is a huge annoyance, no more so when you’re cantering along at speed in a vehicle to find a tree stump jump out of nowhere, beaching your off-roader. There are weirdnesses with the lighting too, and whilst the day/night cycle should be applauded, constant flickering and movement of light brings some strange effects.
You can throw in a host of stutters and tearing, whether that be whilst moving through the world, from fast travel to fast travel, or even as you bring up binoculars and scopes, hoping to take aim on an animal. Stutter is something you really don’t want as you try to keep up with a stampede of elk.
Further issues arise in trying to take kills; we’ve had a badger scamper up a hillside, taking aim as he’s twirled in mid-air before falling from the sky into the middle of a lake. Similarly, taking in a duck hunt – we all love duck hunts – has seen a flock sit motionless above our heads, never freaked or spooked by the constant shots ringing out as we’ve taken down an entire group. Way of the Hunter certainly let us get our eye in.
It’s problems like this which really put a dampener on Way of the Hunter, especially when similar feels reach out to the audioscape – we’ve fast travelled from one cabin to the next to be greeted by what seems to be a jet engine, constantly droning. We think it’s meant to be the whistle of the wind through the forest trees, or perhaps it’s that of a raging river, but it’s about as far removed from either of those as you can imagine.
Talking sound though, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the vibes that come out of the hunt; birds raise alarms and scatter, deer scamper, turning back on occasion to ensure herd safety, and the recoil from a shotgun never fails to make an audio impact. The firing is more than meaty enough.
But problems exist with the online multiplayer as well. Granted we’re playing ahead of the official street release and would hope that lag issues will be fixed by the teams behind it, but currently the lag and stutter which affects the visuals plays into the online scene too. It’s not disastrous, but is rarely fun; kill shots take down animals even if they show to be miles wild, and again it all feels a bit slack.
The visual problems are the talk of this wilderness and without them Way of the Hunter could well have had enough about it to challenge the most prolific of marksmen. See through the problems – and constantly berate the fact there is no mini-map – and you’ll find a massively deep, hugely ethical, hunting sim that does a lot right. If you’re up for the hunt, Way of the Hunter will occasionally give you the tools to do it.
Way of the Hunter is available from the Xbox Store