Meerkats have long suffered the reputation of being lazy sods who just lay around in the jungles of Africa eating bugs all day thanks to a certain film from a certain company with a certain round-eared mascot. Of course people who actually have an interest in wildlife (and form their impressions of the world from something other than dubious animated morality plays) know that this is hardly the case and in fact these viverrids are social animals that eke out their existence in the African savannas (though they do eat bugs all day.) At long last a game developer has seen fit to focus on the lives of meerkats for sim-gaming fans; the only question you have to ask yourself is whether or not that's a game you really want to play.
Unlike most sim games, players aren't in any kind of "god" role: instead you take direct control of a female meerkat who is separated from the rest of her pack after they're driven from their territory in the nice part of the savanna by meerkat interlopers. Your goal is to find a partner to found a new pack in the more barren terrain on the other side of the river, increase your numbers and expand your territory with the ultimate goal of reclaiming your ancestral lands.
You'll begin at night on the riverbank with your first task being to dig yourself a burrow to take shelter in, which is also when you'll encounter a couple of the game's shortcomings. When it's dark in the game, it's pretty dark and when you first start out with most of the screen being a collection of muted blues it can be difficult to figure out exactly where you are or which thing on the screen is your meerkat. Of course meerkats aren't nocturnal, so having trouble getting your bearings at night seems to make sense logically, but it would have been nice to give players some kind of orientation before dumping them into a situation where it's not clear what they're supposed to be looking at.
Finding a burrow that's hard to see at night with a meerkat that's also hard to see isn't an easy task, but thankfully you have a handy map you can call up. Whilst the map is great, it won't be long before you'll start wishing there was an on-screen radar to show you things like the location of the next home burrow or where nearby meerkats are so you didn't need to constantly refer to it.
During the game you'll have a series of messages pop-up to give you an objective or instruction on a new control aspect you need to use. You'll really need to pay attention to them because they don't repeat and you cannot review them later. Despite instructions, figuring out how things work can be a challenge however, because some of the language used can be a bit awkward and the game mechanics aren't illustrated by in-game tutorial or manual illustration. The gradual progression of events gives you some time to figure things out via trial-and-error so it's not a game-breaking issue, but we feel more work could have been done to ease players into how the game is played.
Gameplay is divided into days with each day lasting about fifteen minutes and visible lighting changes informing the player of the passage of time (though there's also a gauge in the upper right corner of the screen.) Initially things start out pretty slowly: you dig a burrow on your first evening, find your partner the next morning and then spend another day or two just foraging and looking for food so you can have some "puppies" to enlarge your pack. It takes another day or so for your puppies to grow up, so until your kids are ready to do some work it's all down to you to do the heavy lifting.
The name of the game is "Lead the Meerkats" and that's exactly what you need to do – other meerkats aren't really autonomous, so you need to command them in some way. Every morning everyone comes out of the burrow to see the sun, including the wee ones, but someone needs to get in the habit of watching them because as your territory grows you'll encounter predators that could be a threat. One of the principal jobs is childcare, so you'll need to put your partner on babysitting duty whilst you do all the digging and foraging on your own. Once you've gotten enough of your brood through to adulthood things will become easier, though there's still some idiosyncrasies to get used to like the controls.
The use of the Nunchuk may prove off-putting to players who have previously played sim games on a PC or even ones on the Wii like Ubisoft's Anno, where a more PC-like pointer-and-icon interface was employed. moves your meerkat in any direction with the Remote being used to guide an on-screen cursor for context-sensitive operations, call up the map or rotate the overhead camera, though that's not recommended since there's rarely anything blocking your view and your map doesn't rotate which can lead to disorientation. Though we can't help but feel that a more accessible interface could have been devised using a combination of context-driven pointer and on-screen icons to eliminate the requirement for the Nunchuk, but once we got used to the gameplay mechanics the controls didn't impede gameplay in any way.
Outside of childcare, your meerkats can be directed to do everything you can do and more. Posting lookouts will become quite necessary later on in the game to keep an eye out for predators. A green circle complete with a sweeping "radar hand" will indicate the radius covered. The higher the meerkat, the greater this area is, in order to simulate the greater view obtained. If you fail to do this then you'll have no warning of predators at all: one second you're scrabbling at a tarantula and the next a hawk is attacking one of your tribe, but with a bit of warning everyone can dive into the burrow - otherwise you need to fight or someone's gonna be dinner.
Attacking large predators, prey animals (large invertebrates, snakes and lizards) and rival meerkats is a simple point-and-click affair. Foraging can be a little on the tedious side because prey animals need to be attacked at least twice before they can be taken to a nearby burrow and you cannot attack in concert, though once you have a big posse of meerkats you can stand away from them and click on the critters to let them do all the hard work, running off once they've gathered the goods. Larger prey like scorpions (magic ones that are bigger than meerkats in this game!) will take more than one meerkat to lug home so you might need to click on them some more to add a couple more bodies to the hauling effort.
Attacking predators is slightly less tedious because you can attack in groups, but more tedious in that it's the only part of the game that requires the use of motion controls (your meerkat can dig a bit faster or lug heavy prey herself with a little bit of controller shaking, but it's not necessary.) Good old one-two Remote and Nunchuk motions will quickly wear down the health of a predator with a bunch of meerkats attacking it, though you'll probably still need two or three attempts complete with lots of controller shaking to finish it off. Your meerkats will gamely attempt to take it down without controller movement, but you'll barely see the lifebar move and if the predator has hold of one your pack members, you'll have a limited amount of time in which to free your comrade before they're taken away for supper.
If you manage to kill the cobra, hawk, giant lizard or whatever you'll get rewarded with a resource disc (think of it as concentrated predator – just add water!) you can take home like any other food item. Every 100% in your puppy gauge in the upper left means one more puppy in the litter the next morning. Your pack can have up to forty members, which might seem excessive given that you can only lead nine at a time, but after suffering predator losses and putting up sentries and baby sitters, you'll find that it's handy to have that reserve, especially once you need to start fighting the rival meerkats for the "good lands" towards the end.
The environments are quite large and you'll never encounter any loading times (though you will notice the odd stutter resulting from background loading) to put the brakes on things, though there is a trade-off. The map is effectively divided into four parts: two on each side of the river, with numbered home burrows and unnumbered boltholes (indicated with crosses on the map) indicating places you can call home. Once you've linked up the numbered burrows in sequence play will automatically move to the next section of the map, cutting you off from the previous one – something to keep in mind if you're not ready to move on yet and want to increase your numbers.
Lead the Meerkats is a pretty nice-looking game with a decent level of detail, even if most creatures are a little on the small and chunky side. The soundtrack uses African rhythms as you'd expect and is a good accompaniment to the game's activities. Actual wildlife sounds feature prominently in the sound effects with little meerkat sounds abounding as well as those of predators. Having a hawk swoop down out of nowhere into your midst to grab a meerkat can actually make you jump if you neglected to put any sentries in place and the loud shrieks, hisses and growls complete with on-screen predator alert will be enough to get you sending everyone underground in no time!
Bringing a sim game to WiiWare itself is pretty ambitious, though making one based around meerkats seems a bit more risky, especially if you're rooting it in reality as has been done here. In the end you're not doing much different than regular meerkats would: breeding, foraging and expanding territory with the odd predator attack for a diversion, which might not be of interest to everyone. We found it to be a fun experience, despite some slightly annoying controls and obtuse instructions. If you like sim games or meerkats and want to try your hand at building a pack of your own, it's certainly worth a look.