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Virtual hunting games on target; Challenge: Software that lets players hunt for bear, deer and birds can be as frustrating as the real thing.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Snow crunches underfoot as small flakes begin to drift over the barrel of my shotgun. Even so, my fingers are warm without gloves and the tips of my toes still have feeling.

Trouble is, the ring-necked pheasant isn't cooperating. That's the problem with virtual hunting -- it can be just as frustrating as the real thing.

While the fall is a great time to get out of the house with gun, bow or fishing rod in hand for the last few days of civilized weather before winter, eventually the cold and frost will settle in. When they do, hunting and fishing software provide a level of comfort that a couch potato like me -- who sometimes finds his way out to the creek for a little fly fishing -- can enjoy all year.

About the only distraction is my wife standing behind me shouting, "Run, run!"

She's talking to the animals, of course, not me.

With the surprise success of "Deer Hunter" last year, outdoor titles have been phenomenal sellers, accounting for five of the 20 top-selling computer games last year. This year, publishers have jumped in with a parade of new titles and sequels.

Recent offerings range from the ultra-serious "Rocky Mountain Trophy Hunter II," with snarling bears charging at you, to the ultra-silly "Deer Avenger 2," in which you're a snarling deer out for vengeance.

If you haven't tried them, understand that hunting and fishing games don't pack the adrenalin punch of action-oriented titles like "Quake II." There's nothing fancy -- you just slip into a virtual world, gun in hand, while you stalk, wait and hope for a good shot.

While your hunt may be slow, your computer's engine can't be. At the minimum, you'll need a 200 MHz Pentium II with a decent 3D-accelerated video card. You'll also need plenty of hard drive real estate. You can get by with 120 megabytes with most titles, but "Deer Hunter 3, The Legend Continues" requires an incredible 440 megabytes for full installation.

The first four games we'll talk about retail for $20 and come from GT Interactive's WizardWorks division. WizardWorks started the craze two years ago with a contract with Wal-Mart, which wanted software for the sportsmen who have made the retailer one of the nation's top sellers of guns and fishing equipment. Let's head outdoors and see what we find.

Rocky Mountain Trophy Hunter II

The best of this bunch is challenging and detailed without losing its fun factor. RMTHII places you in the Rockies from Alaska to Colorado, where you stalk black bear, mountain goat and elk. Your weapons range from crossbows to rifles, but it's just as important to pack accessories -- bear bait, moose calls and scent mask.

What I loved about RMTHII is the cheat function. It makes the early hunts go well, and after you've practiced, you can turn it off for later hunts. Just as in the original, you can get that extra leg up -- as if you need one while packing a high-powered rifle. A few keystrokes will allow you to run, rather than plod, or display your potential targets on a map. But there's a cost: Your trophy room kills carry a notation, "Cheated: Yes."

When you turn off the cheat codes, you'll enjoy the stalking and tracking without getting lost in the minutiae of "Deer Hunter 3."

Bird Hunter: Upland Edition

This is a bit easier to play than RMTHII because your dog does all the work, flushing the ruffed grouse, woodcock, bobwhite quail and ring-necked pheasant from cover in Midwest, Southwest and Northeast locations.

While your targets are easier to find, hitting birds on the fly with a shotgun is an order of magnitude tougher than using a well-sighted rifle or crossbow on a deer. In practice, I hit only 19 of 100 clay pigeons -- I didn't improve much in the field.

Some of the hunts were more productive than others. My virtual Labrador retriever flushed quail repeatedly on a spring excursion to Texas. But my winter excursion to Minnesota produced no birds for 10 to 15 minutes -- a long time for a computer game, even if it's short in real life.

My dog kept racing ahead and I had to keep calling him back just to find him. Then, when the first bird flew from a bunch of cornstalks, I promptly and proudly shot it -- only to learn I had illegally killed a pheasant hen.

Wal-Mart FLW Tour Professional Bass Tournament

You won't make an illegal bag here -- if you catch a fish that's too small for the tournament, you're forced to throw it back.

FLW Tour is based on real, televised contests and provides the flavor of the ESPN broadcast with running commentary from Tommy Sanders, Jerry McKinnis and Chris Evans. The goal is to catch a five-fish limit of large-mouth, small-mouth or spotted bass that will put you in the money. You can choose from seven lakes, including Okeechobee in South Florida and Lake St. Clair in Michigan.

FLW Tour is for serious fishermen -- the average gamer will find it only marginally entertaining. There are dozens of choices of lures, lines and rods. And while help is available from a fish finder, a professional fisherman and an underwater fish camera, the game requires more study than RMTHII.

Still, FLW Tour will keep hard-core bass junkies challenged with three levels of play. The harder it gets, the bigger the bass.

Deer Hunter 3

The latest installment in the popular hunting series is the toughest game of this bunch.

My hunts began in April, long before the deer season, when I seeded a field in corn and wheat to attract bucks and does. I also found the best tree, put up a stand, and set up a decoy. When the season started, I bagged a couple of does but no bucks.

The cheat codes were problematic. Every time I entered a code that would put me close to a big buck, he was off and running before I could shoulder my rifle. To make things worse, a computer voice hollered "Loser!"

"Deer Hunter" 3D scenery is superbly detailed. And of all the virtual animals I've seen, "Deer Hunter" has the most natural.

Deer Avenger 2

This laugher from Simon & Schuster Interactive is the sequel to last year's hunting parody. Just don't expect much in the way of a hunt. It's an arcade-style shoot-'em-up. Humor is the target from the moment our hero watches his doe date mowed down by a bunch of bozos in a pickup truck and then heads off to civilization in search of revenge with a variety of nonlethal weapons.

Parents should be warned that this game is a bit raunchy. For example, our Deer Avenger meets a cleaning lady who threatens bodily harm to the hero in a torrent of bleeped profanity.

"Deer Avenger 2," which retails for about $15, is a great hunting alternative -- you never have to worry about which choke to put on your shotgun or how often to spray masking scent on your body.

For a couch potato, our hero couldn't be more right: "This is what computers are made for."

Kevin Washington is an assistant city editor at The Sun and dedicated virtual outdoorsman. The games were reviewed on a 350 MHz Pentium II computer with 128 megabytes of RAM, a 32X CD-ROM and a 32 megabyte Nvidia Riva TNT2 Ultra video card.

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