To video games, Cabela's means The Gun, the pump-action piece of plastic with which you mow down herds of deer and squadrons of waterfowl. Yet it's never appeared for any Cabela's game on Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3. Until now.
Cabela's Dangerous Hunts 11, which releases on Tuesday, brings The Gun - more accurately, the Top Shot Elite - to high-definition gaming for the first time. While Dangerous Hunts is the first Cabela's title to employ a complete narrative story, written by Brad Santos (Resistance: Fall of Man) and tinged with survival horror themes, the star of the show is the Top Shot. I got my hands on it Tuesday when the Cabela's Dangerous Hunts trailer rolled through Eugene, concluding a 56-day nationwide tour hitting all of the outfitter's stores.
Light guns have been a Cabela's hunting staple on the Wii, as a peripheral housing the Wiimote and Nunchuk. Dangerous Hunts 11 continues on the Wii this year with the same kind of equipment. But to bring that to the Xbox 360 and PS3, Red Octane had to supply a motion-sensor bar in addition to building a firearm that incorporated each console's face buttons and dual sticks.
To its credit, Cauldron, the game's studio, doesn't use the bar just to plot a crosshair on the screen, it adds some motion-control melee elements when the fight for survival becomes more desperate. And should you think this is an on-rails shooter, it isn't. The maps seemed to be tightly drawn but you were free to move about them thanks to a thumbstick on the gun's grip. Tilting side-to-side pans the camera.
First, the story: You're Cole Rainsford, a name that simply must be said in a Sam Elliott voice. In 1982 your daddy went down into a cave looking for a big game trophy and came back with a nasty scar and one less eyeball. Fast-forwarding to present day, you're his hunting partner, along with your suck-up older brother. The game opens with your dad showing you around the land your rugged, squarejawed family has owned for generations, a back forty straight out of a Coors ad.
After the first assignment - track and bag a huge bull elk - Dad then introduces you to the family ritual, eating its heart, which is something that happily takes place off camera. After a snowslide separates you from the others, you fight your way back through moonlit, snowy woods through a wolf attack and finally, past a boss battle in the form of one big ass bear.
The wolf attack showed one aspect of the melee - you can kick away the beasts, or should one latch onto your limb, you can blast it off with a headshot (you won't damage yourself.). In one-on-one confrontations with wild animals, the game will also enter a bullet time allowing you to rack up more precise shots. This is key because headshots mean no trophy, and trophies mean unlockable content. (There are several arcade-shooting modes.)
The Top Shot allows you to cycle between three firearms, a three-round hunting rifle, a six-shot pistol, and a two-shell shotgun, with that oh-so-satisfying pump action reload. It has an adjustable stock and red-filter scope that works when you activate the game's "Hunter's Sense." That floods the screen with red static, which you can see through by peering down the scope. This points out things like animal tracks and your prey, from a distance. Hunter's Sense can be turned off if you prefer.
Other novel aspects of the Top Shot: In the bear attack sequence, swiping the weapon side-to-side initiated a dodge sequence that then opened the bear up to a targeted shot in its chest. Missing the dodge meant you were cub food. Eric Fanali, the helpful, camo-clad guide for the Cabela's trailer, told me that boss battles would incorporate some sort of unique tactic, with motion control in many of them.
Throughout this is the sense that you're not pursuing the game so much as defending yourself from it, feeding the survival-horror theme. Bottom line, this ain't Bambi, the animals ain't cuddly or peaceful, so they're either eating you or eating lead.
The arcade modes, more familiar to those who have played Cabela's cabinet games, can be played solo or cooperatively. It's a basic survival piece, seeing how long you can withstand the hordes of wild rhinos, cougars, lions and etc.
A note about the light gun: If little kids are playing, or if the TV's elevated, the sensor bar probably should fix to the bottom of the screen. For adults, or for close up gaming (in a small room), the bar should go on the top. All of this may be calibrated to suit your preference, but if you find crosshairs swooping all over the place, chances are you're standing too close. If you don't want to back up, recalibrate.
As for the Top Shot Elite's use beyond this game, it is compatible with Cabela's North American Adventures, which released last month. There's a rumor going around that the gun's useful for another Activision title that rhymes with Schmall of Schmuty. It's actually not. Only the two current Cabela's titles have programming that uses the sensor bar, and while the gun has two sticks, right handers will be operating them with opposite hands (movement on right, at the grip, look with the left, along the barrel). and left handers won't have their thumb on the front stick at all. Most importantly, there are no bumper buttons, so forget about grenades.
Cabela's Dangerous Hunts 11 is still a niche game, albeit one appealing to a sizeable audience. The Top Shot Elite makes it a $79.99 title ($59.95 on the Wii with the Wiimote/Nunchuk housing). That means for just $20 above a standard 360/PS3 game's price you get a quality peripheral, but the bundle is out of impulse-buy range and, for now anyway, the gun's only useful in just two games. Still, the Top Shot Elite is an enjoyable way to experience a shooter on the Xbox 360 or PS3, and the story offered by Cabela's Dangerous Hunts 11 makes it fun for more than just the hardcore outdoors set.