We’ve seen our share of animal husbandry and virtual space oriented applications, but Sony Online Entertainment is launching a new version, Wildlife Refuge, that shows the genre still has life. The new game is noble, too, seeking to educate people about endangered animals of the African savanna, and contribute certain proceeds to charities.
Reminiscent of games like Digital Chocolate’s Safari Kingdom, Wildlife Refuge takes a very new approach to virtual spaces by combining the other game concepts from titles like Treasure Isle. Long story short, players are researchers on the African savanna and it’s their job to set up a refuge for the endangered wildlife of the region. Given a virtual space, players decorate and tend to the creatures that live within the digital refuge, caring for them until they can breed and their offspring be set free. Each of these actions within the refuge consumes the typical energy, and while players might be groaning “not again” at this point, this is where the game changes.
While many animals can be purchased from the game’s store, this is hardly the fun part. Since this is Africa, players have to go exploring out on safari. Driving their off-road jeep around the savanna, players use a treasure hunting mechanic to inspect and search trees, rocks, dens, and so on. Consuming “fuel,” each search will yield coin and experience, and the occasional collectible item. From snakes to butterflies to poacher equipment, these act like standard treasure hunting collections and can be turned in for rewards when a set is complete.
As players search for these “basic” things, they will also occasionally uncover animal tracks. By following these, players could discover rare and exotic African species such as a black rhino or baboon. Depending on level, these creatures, which are “injured,” can be taken back to the refuge and nursed back to health. These exotic creatures cannot be purchased, they must be found.
This is the most gratifying element to Wildlife Refuge, because it allows players to get something truly unique for their virtual space, and something their friends may very well not have. It’s sort of like collecting cards when you were a kid; it was always gratifying to find that one rare card in a pack.
Once a rare species has been successfully caught, there’s a little bit of prep work to be done in the refuge. Animals cannot merely be placed. Exotic creatures require a certain level of “Ecosystem” to be used and in order to raise this, the player must decorate the space with ecological décor such as plants, trees, rocks, etc. For every animal placed, a certain amount of Ecosystem is removed, so players must constantly add to it in order to support more animals.
In addition to plant life, players can also construct special buildings that will provide some Ecosystem, along with something extra. For example, a water tower will produce coins on a daily basis, while a “camera trap” (a tree stump with a camera attached to it in order to take photos of animals) will produce items for one of the “treasure” collections noted earlier. However, each building must be constructed in stages, requiring more than one energy to complete and requiring the player to purchase, with in-game currency, building supplies to even start.
There are also farming elements. Players can plant crops to sustain their refuge; every couple of hours, these must be watered and will yield rewards once grown and harvested. Other plants, which yield Ecosystem, also must be watered and reward coins, but are not consumed in the process.
As for social elements, the biggest aspect of the game is visiting one another’s virtual spaces, and helping them out from time to time. Namely, this consists of getting rid of poachers and a nasty plant called the thorny acacia (which also appear while exploring the savanna). Players can help each other by gifting animals, building supplies, and a few plants. The developers claim that players can also share animal offspring with one another, but we have yet to unlock this feature. Unfortunately, while the rest of the game plays quite well, the social elements feel a bit underwhelming.
Breeding is another highlighted feature that unlocks slowly. Rescued animals have a set number of stages in which they can be cared for. Once the right stage is reached, fulfilled via a click every couple of hours to a day, breeding can start if a male and female are present.
One feature that’s front and center from the beginning is a very nice almanac of all the creatures in the game, both male and female. Part of the game’s quest, as it were, is to educate people about endangered species, it not only displays the rarity and level requirement of the species, but also its habitat, its real world threats, and its level of vulnerability in reality.
To further educate people, SOE has also incorporated two charities into its game. The first is a Cheetah Statue that provides extra fuel for exploring the African plains, but more importantly, its proceeds go directly to the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF). There are also frighteningly cute Baby Cheetah animals that not only provide significant experience and extra energy, but send proceeds to Cheetah Kids, a program dedicated to educating kids about wildlife conservation and motivating them to do their part.
Overall, there is really nothing to complain about with Wildlife Refuge. Not only does the game contribute to a good cause, it also takes the repetitive mechanics of past games and gives them a far more gratifying purpose. Everything does not revolve around just the aesthetic here, but rather the prospect of finding and collecting these animals, then utilizing animal husbandry, décor, and farming to support that. Furthermore, the game is beautifully made and very clean. Suffice to say, even if one is tired of old concepts, Wildlife Refuge is a title that makes them feel new again.