Not only is the cute li'l lion cub in this challenging, educational simulation not partial to meerkats, he (or she) is prone to eat them. Savage: The Ultimate Quest for Survival can best be described as Charles Darwin's take on The Lion King. As the title beast, players grow from furry infant to roaring adult, marking territory, clawing attackers, and, yes, stalking and killing prey. But the real star here is the scenery, a virtual Serengeti navigable in three dimensions (using the keyboard, mouse, or joystick) and populated by wildebeests, warthogs, and the occasional tourist.
Savage: The Ultimate Quest for Survival attempts to rule the Serengeti like the king of the jungle; in the end, though, its impact is much closer to a domesticated feline's meow than it is to a lion's roar.
The concept of the game is admirable: you play a lion living on the vast Serengeti, bringing down prey such as gazelles and wildebeests while avoiding deadly foes like hippos and leopards. Do well and you'll get a bunch of points for your troubles; do poorly and you may end up as an elephant's throw rug.
Unfortunately, the game's graphics and gameplay detract from what could have been an exciting quest. From the very beginning, the visual quality of the landscape is hampered by incomplete graphics. Hills that should be solid appear to have holes in them when viewed from certain angles; occasionally, when moving towards a river or climbing up a hill, you'll find yourself hanging in midair for no apparent reason. Your interaction with other animals is also erratic. Sometimes, when you have an animal cornered, you can't close straight in to apply the fatal blow. Even though it looks like you're close enough to strike, you're stuck in your tracks until you change your angle of attack. Perhaps this is a tribute to realism - no one said hunting is easy. But if realism is the goal, it seems curious that consuming an entire wildebeest doesn't completely fill up your food level, as it obviously would for an real-life lion.
There are ten levels in the game, each with a different objective. After you meet the goal, the level ends with a Doom-like tally that compares your performance in several categories to the level's par. Bonus points are awarded for each level; you also earn points each time you kill an animal. Again, this doesn't seem realistic - nature doesn't award bonus points for gratuitous killing. In fact, to the degree it wastes precious energy, it penalizes it.
One bright spot is the game's remarkable presentation of animal behavior. Over 20 different species appear in the game, most of which seem to act like the ones you've seen in those wildlife documentaries. For example, when you (the lion) fail to catch a wildebeest, the would-be meal scurries away, leaving you with nothing to show for your efforts but a drain on your resources. The hyenas in Savage pester and annoy your lion, just as they do on the Serengeti. And chasing helpless tourists can be fun -- especially as they scream for help to no avail. Like most creatures in Savage, tourists are fair game and worth points if killed. But be warned! Your lion can sustain injuries or even die while attempting to attack large creatures, be they humans or water buffalos.
If the gameplay leaves you unsatisfied (and it probably will), you can switch Savage into multimedia learning mode. With the same attention to detail as it puts into its wildlife documentaries, Discovery has created several self-running video clips for each level, highlighting a particular aspect of lion behavior or experience. For example, during your first encounter with giraffes, a clip informs you that adult giraffes have been known to kill lions who wander too close to their young.
But even with its wonderful videos and detailed animal behavior, Savage simply doesn't cut it as a game. You'd be better off saving your money and taking a real safari - or at least a trip to the zoo.
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