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Game review: Does Cabela's 'Shadows of Katmai' do Alaska justice?

Rick Sinnott
Game image courtesy Cabela's

If there's one thing I miss in retirement, it's the occasional rush of adrenaline, often triggered by a close encounter with a moose, bear, or politician.

My wife has done her best to ease my transition from work to play. Which makes me think she's getting me the new Cabela's action game, Survival: Shadows of Katmai, for Christmas. She saw me thumbing through my Cabela's Christmas catalog the other day. Right up front, after the holiday whole-smoked ring-necked pheasant and sausage and cheese samplers, several pages of interactive computer games caught my eye. When I sensed her staring at me, I stood up, stretched, and walked into another room to give her a chance to examine the page more closely.

Natural habitats for big game

You know about Cabela's, right? More than 90,000 products designed for people, mostly men, who like hunting, fishing, and an infinite assortment of camouflaged clothing? If you are not a preferred customer with Cabela's, the World’s Foremost Outfitter, you probably don't deserve an Alaska Permanent Fund dividend. Cabela's catalogs help alleviate all the outdoor gear catalogs we get from sissy outfitters like L.L. Bean and REI.

Cabela's is not just for Alaskans, of course, and its outdoor gear is not limited to the glossy pages of the many catalogs they send me every year. They have a humdinger of a store in Kearney, Neb., with wildlife displays where you can "discover nature" and see "trophy animals interacting in realistic recreations of their natural habitats," according to their website.  

The website includes a photo gallery and video tour of the showroom, so you can get a sense of what you're missing if you have never set foot in one of their stores. If you take both tours on the website, you'll notice a big discrepancy in the size of the displays. Kearney was one of the company's first retail outlets, so I'm thinking the photo gallery shows the old store, before it was remodeled.  

The photo gallery of the old store illustrates a compact herd of trophy-sized bucks with at least one awesome representative from each of North America's deer species, except the moose. Wise choice there; the ceilings look a little low. The display features predators as well as the tastier trophy animals. A mountain lion is frozen in mid-leap as it lands on the back of a buck, which is what the bastards do. A pack of glassy-eyed coyotes contemplates a covey of flushing ring-necked pheasants, all cocks of course, just as one of the wily varmints gets his fangs in a bird.

Cabela's has come a long way since the 1960s. The video tour of the Kearney showroom shows a new and improved storefront and, whoa, you should take a gander at the natural habitats inside the new store. The ceilings are much, much higher to accommodate a mountain full of deer and wild sheep. Room for a moose? No problem.

The new Kearney store also has a slice of the African veldt with lions taking down a struggling zebra, which is what the bastards do, and even some elephants. Hard to tell if the elephants are stuffed or painted on the wall, but the blue sky, wispy clouds, and distant horizon lead me to believe it's the latter.

Kearney is not Cabela's only retail outlet. There are at least 34 other stores, and some of the showrooms rival or even surpass the one in Kearney. For example, the Reno, Nev., showroom encompasses 125,000 square feet, with multiple natural habitats, including an African environment with an honest-to-Pete stuffed elephant. And rhino. And hippo. The predators are up to their old tricks in the Reno store. A couple of wolves are within inches of driving a caribou off a cliff, because that's what the bastards do. The company's big store in Hamburg, Penn., occupies 250,000 square feet, nearly 6 acres, which, I think it's safe to say, is larger than some habitats occupied by endangered species, like the Moapa dace.

Katmai's target-rich environment

Sorry, I got a little over-stimulated and forgot about the game for a couple of minutes. The catalog's description of Survival: Shadows of Katmai whetted my appetite for an adrenaline rush second to none. I'll be put to the "ultimate test in the heart of the hostile Alaskan wilderness," according to the catalog. Like my old job as a wildlife biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, I'll "confront some of the world's most dangerous predators – and they're just as hungry as you are." Apparently – spoiler alert – the game provides a friend who may be able to help me "survive wave after wave of lethal predators."

The catalog teases you with a few screen shots. Maybe there are more screen shots or action clips on line. Yep, a Google search uncovers enough action to satisfy my curiosity until Christmas morning.

I'll be a Bush pilot hired for $10,000 to fly a "Dr. West" to Alaska. It's the middle of winter. We'll crash, of course. If we weren't flying over the Katmai region when lightning strikes the plane, I'd swear we were in Colorado, based on the granite tors and pine trees.

I'll be equipped with a wicked-looking knife, a flare gun, a semiautomatic handgun, a bolt-action rifle, a shotgun, and plenty of ammo. I believe I'll also have a lightweight, 5.56 mm, air-cooled, gas-operated, magazine-fed, semiautomatic rifle, but I didn't see it deployed in the screen shots. Dr. West, a female, is armed only with her sharp tongue. So I'm responsible for saving her from the wolf packs that seem to materialize out of the woods at every turn.

No wonder Fish and Game wants to implement predator control out there.

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I'll lose Dr. West somehow and have to return for her. She appears to be wearing gear that is not sold by Cabela's, which is probably why she's always getting into so much trouble. When I find her, she'll be hypothermic, so I'll shoot a bull moose with a trophy rack, gut it, and stuff Dr. West inside its body cavity so she can stay warm and have plenty to eat until I come back for her. Dr. West seems to know something about a treasure hidden in these mountains, so I'll definitely come back.  

I'll see more moose and elk, and they're all fair game in this game. I'll shoot as many as I can, because you never know when you'll need a steak. Did I mention I had plenty of ammo? I know elk don't really exist in the Katmai region, but they do seem to inhabit all of Cabela's showrooms, so the game designer's confusion is understandable.  

All the moose and elk in the game seem to be bulls. Similarly, the showrooms have very few female specimens, and I don't recall seeing any young trophy animals. Normal reproduction must not be an option in Cabela's realistic recreations.

The shooting never stops if you want to live long enough to enjoy the scenery, but I won't have to pay much attention to reloading. I don't know how it works, but I never end up with an ammo can full of 5.56 mm rounds when what I need is a handful of shotgun shells. Which is a good thing, because when my gun is empty and a wolf grabs my foot in its jaws, I won't have much time to root around in the bottom of the ammo can for the right ammunition.

I'll know when I hit something because I'll see a bloody mist and the beast will drop like a rock. Oh yeah, take that, you tasty herd of moose. The sound effects are also great. The moose moan when they go down, and the wolves emit a gratifying yelp or snarl. Because that's what the bastards do.

Occasionally, the wolves will take a breather, and a roaring bear will challenge me. I'll be attacked by both black and brown bears. The black bears are as big as brown bears, and the brown bears are bigger than minivans. They often lurk in predictable spots, like a cave or on the roof of a building. Fortunately, a ghostly image of their vital heart/lung area will indicate exactly where I need to shoot. This target acquisition system would be useful in real life. It would also be helpful in the alien combat game I've played at a friend's house because some aliens' organs are where you'd least expect to find them.

I'll be attacked by one or more mountain lions, which is a little fakey because I'm supposed to be in the shadow of Mount Katmai and, in my experience, the nearest mountain lion sightings are on the Kenai Peninsula. However, I'm excited that the game includes a mountain lion, because that means version 2.0 might import other cool predators from the realistic recreations of natural habitats in Cabela's showrooms, like honest-to-Pete king-of-the-beast lions, leopards, and poisonous snakes.

If you are paying attention, you'll be wondering by now what the shotgun is for. Geese! Ponds are all frozen, but that's OK because these geese seem to roost in the pine trees. Don't believe what you might have learned in your hunter education course, flock shooting is definitely the most effective technique. Some shots bring down four or five geese. I'll also get plenty of opportunities to shoot ravens, because every time I climb a precipitous cliff to find more stashes of ammo and other cool things, a large flock of ravens tries to peck my fingers so I'll fall. Hard to use the pump shotgun one-handed, but the handgun proves useful for fending off the pesky birds. Can't hit a swooping bird with a handgun you say? These ravens shift to slo-mo when you aim at them. And you don't have to be locked on target to knock one down. Heck, little kids will play this game, so Cabela's can't make it too difficult to kill things.

Eventually, I'll find my way to a fenced compound – yep, that's concertina wire atop the chain link – that surrounds a large, Soviet-style, concrete building that's almost a dead ringer for Whittier's Buckner Building. This is the Katmai ranger station. Long abandoned. Cabela's Katmai is a post-apocalyptic national park, the kind Alaska's Congressman Don Young dreams about.  

Despite stumbling onto the dilapidated ranger station, there is no whiff of restrictive regulations in this game, thank goodness, and I don't seem to encounter any honest-to-Pete rangers who might question the trail of dead and dying wildlife. Because that's what the bastards do.

After a couple of hours of playing the game vicariously, I'm inclined to think I don't need to play the real thing.  I mean, there is a hidden treasure and all, but how many times will I have to die to figure out where Dr. West has hidden it? Maybe I'll tell my wife I'd like a plaid, flannel shirt and a pair of wool socks instead. Cabela's sells those, too, but L.L. Bean shirts come in more colors and patterns.

Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch.