Way of the Hunter by Nine Rocks Games has been on my radar since the moment it was revealed. Open world hunting games are my jam. Beautiful environments filled with wildlife begging to be explored, and a gameplay loop that rewards patience and thoughtfulness. When I was finally able to dig into Way of the Hunter, I was both impressed and frustrated by what I found.
My house now
In Way of the Hunter, players will assume the identity of River, a young man who has decided to help his sick grandfather with the Bear Den Ranch, located in the Pacific Northwest’s Nez Perce Valley. River’s grandfather is an experienced hunter who took orders from restaurants and provided them with meat from his hunts. However, the old man has landed in the hospital unable to run his business, so his grandson must step in. Complicating matters is the threat of a disease possibly making people sick when they eat meat from animals in the area, so River has his work cut out for him.
After getting settled at the Ranch, players will be given a brief tutorial that teaches them the basics of the game. You’ll get a tour of the ranch itself, learn how to buy and equip weapons and gear, and pay the Bear Den Range a visit so you can learn the basics of shooting. Finally, you’ll be asked to head to a hunting stand behind the ranch and do a little population control on some badgers. This is your chance to get some time in with one of the core systems, your Hunter Sense. Hunter Sense allows players to focus on key details of the world, like the sounds of distant animals, tracks, need zones, and blood trails. It can also provide vital information about the animal you're targeting when you’re taking a shot.
Color my world
My first hunt after the badger massacre behind the ranch was a fantastic experience, all the way up to the point where I needed to locate the mule deer that I shot. After using the Hunter Sense feature to locate the deer, I crept to a range of 150 meters. First of all, the animals in Way of the Hunter are absolutely stunning to look at, and I caught myself just enjoying watching them drink for a moment before I got back to the task at hand. The crosswind meant that I didn’t have to worry about the animal picking up my scent, so I zeroed my scope for the range, then placed a shot that I was confident would be to the lung (it was). The deer jumped as the bullet made impact, a realistic reaction I wasn't expecting from a game. Once the herd scattered and my deer began to flee, I made my way to the spot where I shot it.
I was able to find the initial blood spatter without any trouble, but tracking that trail was a process that took me 11 minutes, and the carcass couldn’t have been more than 50 meters away. As a color-blind gamer, I simply couldn’t see the blood trail on the ground whether I was using the Hunter Sense to highlight it or not. I quickly headed into the game’s menus to adjust the color settings, only to find that there are zero options to adjust the color of tracks, droppings, need zones, or blood. It won’t cause frustration for color-blind gamers alone; I had a colleague play so I could test out the co-op mode and they struggled with blood trails as much as I did.
A solid foundation
Once I located my animal, my mood improved, as the summary screen for your hunt is fantastic in Way of the Hunter. It features four tabs, showing where your shot landed, how much energy it landed with, the weapon you used, the wind, and the distance. That’s all just on the first tab, the Bullet Camera. You can also view information about the animal, such as its sex, age, weight, trophy rating, and sell price. It’s a detailed account of how your hunt played out, and a fantastic way for players to learn where they went wrong and what they can do to improve in the future. It can also be accessed at any time by visiting the game’s menus, giving you a recent history of your hunts and the details of each one.
In fact, the more I became familiar with the way animal populations worked in Way of the Hunter, the more impressed I was. The system is built in such a way that your hunting practices have an impact on populations. If you shoot only high-quality males, you’ll find less trophy animals to hunt in the future. If you shoot all the females, the population will drop. Alternatively, if you hunt only the low-quality males, you’ll see the quality of the animals in that region increase. It’s a system that forces you to balance whether you want to target high-quality animals for your trophy room now, or if you want to focus on lower quality males to give yourself a better shot at a trophy animal down the road.
Bring a friend
Way of the Hunter features a co-op mode that will allow you to play with up to four people, either on public or private servers. What you do there will carry back to your single-player game, so if you visit a location and unlock a fast travel point, it’ll be persistent. Co-op is as bare bones as it gets, though, with no option to customize your character. This means if you don't identify as a white, bearded man, you're out of luck. There’s no way to change server settings mid-game, or even basic server settings at all outside of what map and difficulty you want to play on. You can’t fast travel to your friend, so if you’re in the middle of nowhere with no valid fast travel point nearby, enjoy the hike. You can at least use the auto-walk option that I stumbled upon after several hours of believing there was no such feature. Unfortunately, there was no full listing of PC keybindings in the build I was provided to inform me upfront. The list goes on for co-op, though, as there are issues with tracks, droppings, and blood trails not synchronizing between players, which sort of kills the ability to hunt as a cohesive team.
Fast travel specifically feels underutilized even outside of co-op. You can’t fast travel to your vehicle, although you can recall your vehicle if you’re near a parking lot. What ends up happening is you wander deep into the mountains or woods on a hunt, only to find it getting dark and you not having anywhere to sleep and pass time. Way of the Hunter desperately needs to add the ability for players to make a camp anywhere they want, allowing them to bed down for the night, then get up in the same location the next morning and continue their journey.
Way of the Hunter unfortunately struggles throughout much of its actual gameplay. While it is a beautiful game that players will love to document via the built-in photo mode, it offers limited graphics options for PC users, with no way to increase a seemingly narrow field of view. My RTX 3080 Ti and i9-11900K obliterate the recommended settings, but I was held to under 60 fps at 2560x1440 in most cases. My PC could power through to provide okay performance, but I’m worried for players who have mid-range rigs or play on console. Some additional research may be required before you buy.
While both Nez Perce Valley and Transylvania shine visually with their dense forests, rolling hills, and panoramic views, the same can’t be said for the audio design. I’m fine with the voice acting, music, and a lot of the sound effects that play naturally throughout the game, but there are times where the ambient sound fails miserably. There were quite a few instances where I would approach a small, still body of water only to be punched in the face with what sounded like a roaring river full of frogs. On one occasion, I was in a tree stand overlooking some drink zones for about 30 real minutes, and the sound file just played the same noises on loop, drowning out any calls I might have picked up from nearby wildlife. The only wildlife I could hear were the frogs. I can still hear them now like an annoying song that I can’t get out of my head.
I wish that was the end of Way of the Hunter falling short, but it’s not. I was also faced with bugs both in the open world and in the game’s quests. For one objective, I needed to take a book to a cabin. I grabbed the book and drove out there, only to find that I couldn’t place the item on the table as instructed. Thankfully, I unlocked the fast travel option for that location, so every time I play I pop over to the cabin and try again, only to realize I still can’t give this person their book back.
Hunting in the open world, I’ve gotten stuck on so many trees that I can’t count them. I mean stuck to where the tree won’t let me go and I must jump, go prone, and wiggle my way free. I’ve had blood trails just vanish while I was fumbling around trying to overcome my color blindness. Small, moving animals you spot through your binoculars often only partially render and skip across the map, making any shot at them impossible, not that you’d try to shoot a running badger at 100 meters or further. I’ve had hard crashes to the desktop and extreme audio stuttering when I’m driving. It’s never everything, but it’s always something.
Miles to go
Way of the Hunter is a game that I should love, and despite the plethora of problems, there are fantastic ideas here and a world that could be incredible if it’s given a lot more attention from Nine Rocks Games. However, it’s not there yet. It’s not even close to where it needs to be, and I’m not talking about the amount of content on offer. There is more than enough game to play here. What holds Way of the Hunter back is that most of it doesn’t feel fully realized or polished. Performance is an issue, bugs are an issue, accessibility is an issue and, in many cases, the quality of the game’s systems are an issue. While I suspect things will improve over time, Way of the Hunter is a long way from where my expectations lie.
This review is based on a PC digital code supplied by Nine Rocks Games and THQ Nordic for coverage purposes. Way of the Hunter releases August 16, 2022, on PS5, Xbox Series X|S, and PC for $39.99 USD.
Way of the Hunter
- Gorgeous world to explore by foot or by vehicle
- Taking a shot feels and looks good
- Realistic reactions from animals build immersion
- The wildlife is absolutely stunning
- Hunt summary screen is fantastic
- Animal quality and population changes with gameplay
- Two huge maps to to hunt for dozens of hours
- No color blind options or custom HUD colors
- Seemingly narrow FOV can't be adjusted
- Sketchy performance even on a high-end PC
- Ambient water audio can be downright bad
- Bugs range from silly to progression blocking
- Fast travel options are limited
- Co-op is bare bones and littered with bugs
- Can only play co-op as a white male