The opening line of the app store description targeted my heart with infrared: "From the makers of Deer Hunter 2014!" That's right, one of the many iterations of Deer Hunter, perhaps the greatest and daftest hunting game ever conceived of. Deer Hunter has been around in some form for over two decades but I've always known it as a mobile game, and in this modern incarnation it is an ostensibly po-faced recreation of trophy hunting that is secretly all about metal riffs and slow-motion bullet cameras. If you want to know about blowing away virtual animals, you don't go to Blizzard, you don't go to Nintendo, you go to the makers of Deer Hunter 2014. This team means business.
Let me be upfront: I don't think bloodsports or hunting are cool IRL, unless you're after your dinner. Killing animals is just bad juju. But Deer Hunter 2018 is all about hunting virtual animals with high-powered scopes and amazing shot feedback, and I am down with that big time. In fact what I enjoy most about Deer Hunter 2018 is how much joy it takes in being virtual, and moves the whole notion of hunting away from more serious simulations towards guitar riffs, weapon upgrades, and constant little feedback loops.
It's not that Deer Hunter 2018 is some undiscovered masterpiece. It's quite popular, as far as I can tell, and you probably need a certain sense of humour (and tolerance for F2P bullshit) to get as much out of it as I do. Yes it is free-to-play and, horror of horrors, is one of those which includes an energy bar. This starts off with 10 units and each hunt takes one. Running out happens very infrequently with me, but I did buy an instant upgrade to 12 units (I loved Deer Hunter 2014 so much I bought the starter pack at £4.99 out of principle).
And let's get down to brass tacks: have you ever seen a better microtransaction than the offer of a red-eyed, terrifying Alsatian?
Forget loot boxes: get your German shepherd now! In terms of the business model generally, there are lots of microtransactions and the game does have an annoying habit of giving you pop-ups about them now and again. However, I've played various Deer Hunters in the past for a long, long time without ever handing over money, and Deer Hunter 2018 feels like the same kind of deal. The energy meter might sound awful but part of why this is such a good mobile game is the structure - every hunt lasts under a minute, and you can zoom through them in quick succession. In other words, it's built for 10-15 minute play sessions so you rarely get to the point of having no energy. A perfect bus game. If you want to play for hours it'll be an issue, and if you really want to get into endgame stuff it's probably gonna cost, but I never do.
Now: bring on the ruminants!
Deer Hunter 2018's hunts put you straight into the exciting part: taking the shot. The main rifle mode (there are other modes featuring different weapons like shotguns and assault rifles) plonks you down in an environment, with limited left-to-right movement allowed, and usually the target's right in front of you or will shortly run on-stage. You tap an icon to bring up the scope, fine-tune your zoom using a little gauge on the top-right of the scope, then aim and tap fire. If it's a good shot the game, in a manner familiar to fans of the Sniper Elite series, immediately enters a third-person camera showing the shot being fired in slow motion, then follows the bullet as it flies towards the unfortunate mammal.
Kind of the best thing about Deer Hunter 2018 is what happens after this. The animal ragdolls are semi-realistic but they also collapse in some pretty amusing ways while a weedy sound effect plays - none of which would be especially funny if it wasn't for the triumphant metal riff that immediately then plays as the result screen pops up and starts cha-chinging through all the dollars you earned. Tonally dissonant? Maybe you're looking for Far Cry 5. Here it's daft but utterly in-keeping with the quickfire bangs and bloops of the game's structure, and soon you're almost unconsciously head-banging along.
The feeling only increases as the hunts swiftly ratchet up, with the infrared scope introducing some level of precision to proceedings. This allows you to see an animal's internal organs, and so target them - which is going to be essential for taking certain large creatures down in a single shot. The game begins by asking you target the lungs, the largest organ, before later moving on to the heart and brain. In cold English this might all sound quite grim but, again, the flourescent neon presentation and excitable exclamation mark just tickles me.
Deer Hunter 2018 has plenty of other modes to offer: the shotgun and assault rifle challenges, for me, don't quite recreate the enjoyment of the more precise rifle mode, but they're still fun enough and a decent in-game facility to earn quick cash when required. Much more to my taste is the dog hunting mode, simply because it's set up like a Benny Hill comedy.
Basically you go into a hunt, your little dog bounces around for a bit then runs into a bush - and two seconds later it exits the bush, pursued by a bear. Good boy!
Then you shoot the bear. And it's not just bears. This four-legged dynamo can flush out foxes and pine martens into the path of an assault rifle, scare grey foxes into your sights, and runs off-stage with a knowing bark. After the hunt, alongside the usual guitar squeal, you get a manly hunter voice saying "GOOOOD DOOOG!" which, again, cracks me up.
You may have noticed a theme here: almost everything about Deer Hunter 2018 I find hilarious. The way it just bops about from hunt to hunt, switching from high-fidelity rifle models to hair metal and a bear running in slow-motion towards your waiting shotgun... it feels like a real smorgasboard of comedic opportunities. Had enough of modern hunting? Why not try historical hunts, where you have to push the bullet down the chamber after each shot!
Oh, all that dry land stuff a bit passe? Had it with oxygen? Let's head underwater and spear some fish because, fuck it, it's all hunting right?
I love Deer Hunter 2018, but I can completely understand why some people might not. It's riddled with the F2P stuff, even if it doesn't get in the way of the fun (yet). Some folk just don't like the idea of shooting animals, even if it's virtual, and fair play. Me, I massacre hundreds of virtual humans every day, so when it comes to targeting a sheep's heart through infrared then watching the shot in slow-motion... well, I'm almost glad of the break.
I've always found that I rarely enjoy serious simulations, the ones that go into enormous detail in an attempt to replicate a real-world system, but I find more offbeat takes on activities have more inventive and unusual qualities. Deer Hunter 2018 to me is ingenious because it's taking quite a clumsy control method (aiming and shooting with a touchscreen) then building an experience around that which not only mitigates the loss of precision, but is enhanced by the unreality of its structure and effects. The experience is like a hundred different variations of a basic shooting game, but with enough humour and little upgrade loops and material that it continues to surprise. On my phone, games come and go. But I've always got a version of Deer Hunter knocking around, and this is just the latest.