The appeal with Kinect was always supposed to be that you didn't need a controller to play. With the "You Are the Controller" mantra so engrained in Kinect's marketing, it's a bit of a surprise to see a Kinect game ship in a large box with a hefty peripheral. Cabela's Big Game Hunter: Hunting Party certainly does something different to set it apart, but ultimately falls short.
It's rare that a game's execution is hampered by its concept because so often we see it happen the other way around, but here the goal of making a family hunting game betrayed the team's ability to make a game that's actually fun for the whole family.
The first thing anyone is going to notice is the Top Shot Sport, the light gun peripheral packed in with the game. The game's box and instructions warn players that law enforcement could mistake it for a real firearm, but if there's ever been any kind of real weapon painted orange with glowing lights on it, we haven't seen it.
The Top Shot Sport is actually pretty cool: it's built extremely well and feels good to hold and shoot, and features an adjustable stock and a flip-up sight as well as a working pump on the barrel. A neat touch is that to put in batteries (it requires two AAs) you open the barrel, slide them in and then flip it closed again as if loading shells into a real shotgun.
The Top Shot Sport works similar to the PlayStation Move: three "orbs" are positioned on it and glow different colours to tell Kinect where it is. The main orb will change colour when you fire or pump. Once it's calibrated (and you will need to go through the two-to-three minute calibration process each time you start the game) it works well enough; it's not as accurate as a Wii Remote, but the game itself takes this into consideration so you won't be complaining about missed shots very often.
During the calibration process the game does ask that you close all blinds and turn off any lamps in the room, so while during our play sessions any extra light sources did not affect our gameplay, be advised that your experience may vary.
The Cabela's series has been going for quite some time and typically offers an accurate hunting simulation: players need to stalk prey and pay attention to things like wind and sound. Calling Hunting Party a hunting game is a bit of a misnomer; this is not a hunting game, it's an on-rails light gun shooter.
If you've played House of the Dead, Time Crisis, Virtua Cop or any of the similar games you know what to expect from Hunting Party. You are automatically moved through various courses with regular stops to shoot at targets or dodge obstacles. This is where the "hunting" aspect becomes muddled: you're encouraged to shoot as many animals as possible, which is the antithesis of actual hunting.
Before each course, a narrator guides you through a map detailing what you'll find on your run. Deer will be here, sheep will be there, watch out for this water tower and so forth. The narrator will explicitly state "there are many X here. Shoot as many as you can." The contradiction with the actual activity is rather glaring, especially when the game penalises you for headshots — claiming they "ruin the trophy" — when you're going to be shooting upwards of 30 deer in a level. How many "trophies" do you need? Of course, once an animal's been shot it just falls to the ground and disappears anyway.
You're also able to kick predators that get too close by making a kicking motion, which was probably meant to be more of a last-ditch defensive effort during development, but in game the ability can be used over and over again. The feeling of being up against ferocious beasts is somewhat lost when you can kill leaping cougars one by one simply by kicking them.
Moving through levels you'll need to switch between your rifle and your shotgun depending on what you're shooting; game requires use of the rifle, while ducks call for the shotgun. To switch firearms you either put your arm out to your side or double pump the Top Shot Sport. Unfortunately neither works very well and points will be lost because the game didn't register your switch and you shot a duck with your rifle.
The game looks and sounds quite nice, with lush landscapes populated with well-modelled animals. They behave quite naturally for the most part; when sneaking (activated by ducking), they won't notice you until you fire a shot, and once you do their heads will pop up and they're off in a flash. When being stalked by cougars, they'll try to flank you if there's more than one, making that the most realistic representation of "hunting" in the whole game. The music never evolves past generic guitar riffs, but the tempo fits the pace of the game and it fits well.
During gameplay there were a few issues we ran into, including a game-breaking bug where a "tutorial" screen popped up right before a "boss" fight against a bear but the screen never returned to normal, so the bear was still able to attack while the game refused to register any of our shots, forcing us to let the bear kill us so we could start the level over.
The game is called Hunting Party, so you'd expect it to have a strong multiplayer element, but unfortunately (or is it fortunately?) this isn't the case. There's a "versus" mode where up to four players can compete for a high score, but it requires players to take turns passing the peripheral back and forth at various points throughout a stage. It's a limitation of the hardware, for sure, because there's no way they could pack in more than one Top Shot Sport, but taking turns and passing a controller back and forth is how you add multiplayer to a single-player game and isn't something you expect from a game with "party" in the title.
The game's biggest enemy is its own title, as it's neither a good representation of hunting nor a party game due to it only allowing a single player at a time. It's being marketed as a game to play with the family, but small children will probably not be fans of being encouraged to shoot as many animals willy-nilly as possible.
It's a shame, too, because the peripheral is very unique and it works well. If the designers had spent a little more time thinking about exactly what kind of game they wanted to make, we could have had something more notable. As it stands, the best things about Cabela's Big Game Hunter: Hunting Party are definitely the included peripheral and the 20 point Achievement you earn for kicking a bear.