It doesn’t take Detective Holmes to figure out that wolves are my favorite animals. I think I started liking them with the movies Balto and Balto: Wolf Quest, which I adored as a child. I read as many books on wolves as I could find, and I still keep a lot of my elementary-school drawings of black wolves sitting on the edge of a cliff and howling at the moon. I know, I know, wolfaboo alert…deal with it.
Which makes it almost unbelievable that I never played WolfQuest, a realistic wolf simulator videogame. I’ve been aware of the game for years now, but for some reason never checked it out. I never even looked up the premise or watched Let’s Plays of it online — so it wasn’t the price holding me back.
But a few weeks ago, Eduweb released a new and improved version of the 2007 game titled WolfQuest: Anniversary Edition (the game’s development was announced in 2017, 10 years after the original game’s release). I was curious and started watching some of the Let’s Plays…and I was instantly hooked.
Entertainment: 4/5 Intellect: 4/5 +1 for idea fodder Overall: 9/10
You start off the game as a 2-year-old wolf in Yellowstone Park who has left their natal pack to carve out a living away from the nest. Your primary goal is to survive by hunting prey and avoiding competitor species such as bears, mountain lions, and the enormous wolf packs that hold territory around you.
Your secondary goals, or “Quests,” allow you to follow the life cycle of a wolf trying to form a pack. As I understand it, most of the quests in Anniversary Edition are going to be the same as the original game’s (makes sense, since the wolf life-cycle hasn’t changed much in the past decade): learn to hunt, find a mate and court them, find and defend a territory, have pups and protect them from danger, make your way to a summer rendezvous location, and later teach your grown pups survival skills.
Right now, the game is in early release, so only the first two quests are out, along with about half of the species that will be in the final version of the game (can’t wait for the beavers!), but there’s still a sandbox-like gameplay where you can explore Yellowstone, hunt, and fight to your heart’s content.
What I Like:
Pretty much everything! First of all, playing this game is roughly the educational equivalent of reading five books on wolves from cover to cover. Apparently the game started off as a one-off educational project, and then transitioned into a full-on franchise once the wolfaboos got a hold of it.
It really brings a lot of concepts to life, like how dispersal wolves meet each other and decide to spend their entire lives together, or how/why wolves exhibit certain hunting patterns, or even how rain can make it so much harder to track prey. It’s easy to see how fluid the boundaries of a wolf pack’s territory are, and why carcasses are such big sites of conflict. It does an excellent job of emphasizing how often wolves have to sleep (16 hours a day, I’m jealous!) and just how far they have to travel in a single day to find a meal or a mate–and it does all of this without feeling boring.
The game even includes a few things I’d never even heard about, like a “trial period” during wolf courtship where each wolf tries to judge the other’s personality. I mean who would have thought that wolves “date” each other before “marriage”? Some humans don’t even do that!
The hunts are thrilling, all the competitors and potential mates are engaging, and it’s honestly just cool to zoom around with the speed of a greyhound (when in real life I can barely climb the stairs without feeling winded).
But my absolutely favorite part has to be Scent View, possibly the most enlightening and fun thing about the game. Humans have a relatively horrible sense of smell, and videogames aren’t exactly great at enhancing that. But we do have a great sense of sight, and videogames are great at including visuals! Players have the option of switching into Scent View, where the game’s world goes greyscale…except for colored footprints and floating scent particles, which lead the way to other animals in the game. The smells carry on the wind for miles. Sometimes you can track down prey a quarter of the way across the map! Not only does it do a great job of explaining how another species experiences a sense we don’t even have, but it’s just really cool to have that kind of ability. Scent view tells you everything that’s been in the nearby area for hours into the past. As one Youtuber pointed out, many of the sloping grasslands in Yellowstone look completely empty — until you turn on scent view, and see that there’s a herd of elk over the ridge, a coyote chased down and caught a rabbit half an hour ago, and your old rival trespassed into the area not too long ago.
Overall, I definitely recommend the game for both fun and education. If you like wolves, this game is definitely worth the $15.
As for everyone else…does the game hold up to more than just an interesting lesson?
What I Don”t Like:
The game is early access, so there are a lot of bugs–and that’s to be expected. The only bug that poses a major inconvenience is the lag. A huge appeal of the new game is just how gorgeous it is. Seriously, I never realized just how beautiful Yellowstone was until seeing this game. I’ve seen the beauty in countless Let’s Plays on Youtube, but unfortunately I can’t experience it for myself without melting my computer or getting trampled to death by elk. My computer actually got to 95 degrees celsius playing this game on the lowest graphics settings. Even all of the gamers on Youtube, who I assume do this for a living (and probably have a terabyte of RAM or something ridiculous like that), experience significant lag in their play-throughs. But I’m sure the development team is working on optimizing the gameplay. In the meantime, I just have a game with 2007-level graphics.
My only other complaint about the game is, well…that there isn’t enough of it.
I didn’t know this going in, but the game’s primary goal is educational–in fact, the project was originally funded by the National Science Foundation. While that makes the game a great tool for learning about wolf behavior and ecology, it means that there isn’t much of the game out there. I completed the only two quests in about an hour and a half, and honestly just running around the park hunting and fighting gets old pretty fast. I’m still obsessed with the game, so I’ve started assigning myself achievements and challenges–but I don’t think that should be something players need to do for a game.
Yes, they will be releasing the other episodes in the future, but I worry that they’ll run into the same problem with each new quest. How many times can you start off as a lone wolf, raise a family, and then teach them to hunt? A lot of great games have infinite combinations of possibilities, like RTS games or MMOs. But WolfQuest: Anniversary Edition seems to stop just short of having limitless gameplay. There’s almost no replay value.
Which brings me to a category I’ve never had in a review before:
The game is still in early development, and the dev team is promising new episodes and quests. In the original WolfQuest, I’ve read, you could only play to the point where you brought your pups to the summer camp site (instead of sending them off to summer camp like most parents do). But the devs are promising an extension of this arc, allowing the pups to grow up to the age where they can start hunting. So it’s not super unreasonable to think that they could add on other episodes in the future.
“But they can’t just keep adding on DLCs forever!” you may say. Indeed, they cannot. But they may not need to. I think if the dev team pushes the game’s timeline to last an entire year, to the point where the pups are grown up (and either disperse or stay with the natal pack for a year), they could unlock an exponential amount of gameplay.
From what I’ve heard about gamers’ past WolfQuest arcs on Youtube, they get their pups to the summer rendezvous site, end that save file, create adult avatars of those pups, and then play as one of those pups to start the cycle over. I’ve also heard of people who like to play The Sims for as many generations as they can, helping each child through school, a career, and a family. It seems fairly obvious to me that allowing the game to loop from year to year would greatly benefit the gameplay and create hours and hours of more addiction.
But more importantly, putting the game on a loop (instead of passionate Youtubers making their own manual loops) would allow the player to keep a pack of wolves, instead of just a loner or a pair. And let’s face it, what do people want to know about wolves the most? Their social structures! Pack life is the only thing people ask about more than hunting, so if the goal is education, then it doesn’t make much sense to only work with a bonded pair. After playing the game for just a short while, I can definitely say that there are things to experience in the game that are impossible without a pack (ex. hunting bull moose is nearly impossible, even playing on easy).
Additionally, what makes Yellowstone a unique place to study wolves is the massive packs they form, with multiple breeding pairs and 3 to 4 generations of a single family bloodline, all living and working together. Those enormous packs are where complex social interactions like dominance and submission happen–right now, the dominant and submissive emotes are essentially useless, except perhaps growling or play-bowing.
If the devs could just make the yearly cycle loop around and keep a few more adult wolves in the pack, it would open up an entire new gameplay dynamic.
There are obviously other things they could do with the game, but I thought that would be the modification that would give the game the most bang for its buck. It doesn’t seem too difficult to put the game on a loop with more wolves, since the majority of the world and gameplay would stay the same–there’s just more NPCs following you around.
An interesting future direction that would take a lot more effort, however, would be to make the game a bit like an MMO. The virtual park is currently full of all sorts of NPCs — rival packs, other animals, etc. Now imagine for a moment that every one of those NPCs (or perhaps just the wolf NPCs) were “slots” a person count enter on a server. Instead of starting off as a dispersal wolf, you could start off as a member of the Wapiti pack, or perhaps even as one of the grizzlies or elk. The wolf players would be incentivized to protect their pups so that they could have more numbers against other rival packs. A few lucky people would get to play as mountain lions, but would need to strategize against the tag-teaming wolf players.
I think a lot of people have been wanting something like this ever since TierZoo became popular. Here, we might have the opportunity to play a miniature version of “Outside”! Multiplayer may be similar to this, though I don’t think that’s as competitive or dynamic.
I think either of these would skyrocket WolfQuest from being a niche educational game into a more popular, mainstream one, without losing any of the original intent. It should be obvious from the cult following WolfQuest has gained that the game has real potential to be more than “just” educational. Why not make it both educational and super fun?
Oh, who am I kidding? It’s already super fun!
Lead Image from WolfQuest.org