You're a lone wolf trudging through Yellowstone National Park. After several near-misses with nimble rabbits and a scary run-in with a nasty rival, you feel quite famished. You need to find nourishment fast, but the elk you've been tracking for a while remain elusive. In a fit of frustration, you let loose with a long, throaty howl. Awooo!
Just hit the H key on your computer keyboard -- to howl, that is. You'll do it often in the new computer game "WolfQuest," not because you have to but because it's fun.
Co-created by the Minnesota Zoo and St. Paul-based Eduweb, the game debuted officially Thursday night as a free download from www.wolfquest.org.
"WolfQuest" is designed to teach kids 10 to 13 about wolves, but that doesn't mean it's not fun or thoroughly engrossing for all ages.
You begin by naming and customizing your wolf, even its coat pattern and color. You also can change other options, such as turning down the wearying music and fiddling with the graphics for the best display on your PC or Mac.
You survive by hunting elk and other wild animals.
There are two ways to track your prey: by following directional clues on a compass and by smell. Called ScentView, the latter changes the first-person view of your wolf's world into stark black and white, while the scent trails left by various creatures are depicted in brilliant colors to show how much wolves rely on their keen sense of smell. You'll want to use this mode as you close in on prey, because the control is much more reliable than the wayward movement of the normal view.
ScentView also makes it easier to find other wolves, which you'll either chase off to claim more territory or, to win the single-player game, woo to be your mate. Yellow spots on the ground, which you'll sniff to see how recently they were left, show where other wolves have marked their territory. In later levels than the one I tested, once you have a mate, you can mark your territory, too -- using your keyboard's P button, naturally.
Authenticity abounds in "WolfQuest," from the smartly written user manual to the realistic actions you see when your wolf meets others and you choose from social interactions such as "Do I know you?" and "I want to be boss." Even that addictive howl is sampled from a four-legged resident of the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minn.
The game seems ideally suited for its target age range. Walking in to say good night before bed while I was playing "WolfQuest," my 12-year-old daughter perked up with an "Ooh, what's that?"
A half-hour later, I finally had to remind her that it was past her bedtime and that I needed the computer back. With a mournful cry -- on-screen and off- -- she relinquished control of the PC. Asked for her quick opinion, she acknowledged that the control can sometimes be frustrating, but that nothing beats howling. Awooo!
Randy A. Salas • 612-673-4542.