The timer counts down.
I look around me at the steely, expressionless faces of my opponents. Everybody seems to have gotten their clothes from the same discount winter collection. A man with a face eerily similar to my own is wearing a purple version of my pink boiler suit. How embarrassing. Two seconds until go time. Weapons are drawn: the drill, the tackle box, the rod. One second to go. The vast icy expanse is the only thing left before me. Begin. Silence. Then, crunch-crunch go the footsteps in the snow. Hup-hup goes my man, as I furiously mash the space bar to no avail. A chorus of hollow scraping noises goes up around me as the ice is perforated by my enemies. The only option left to me becomes clear: become the ice fisherman I was born to be. This is Ice Lakes.
Ice Lakes is an ice fishing simulator made by indie developers Iceflake Studios. The premise is fairly self-explanatory: catch fish, but only on frozen lakes and rivers. This is very important to remember: if you prefer to catch your fish from moving bodies of water, then you’re in the wrong fishing spot. For those of you who don’t really know what ice fishing entails, let me educate you (for the record, I have yet to progress to using spoon jigs with a Chronomidae Larvae bait, so I can hardly be called an expert). The first step is to run out onto the ice and pick a spot. Ice Lakes has a convenient mini-map that gives you water depths, so you can pick the depth to suit whatever fish you are hoping to catch. I always go for the deepest because, of course, deepest is best, always. Drill your hole with either a small, medium, or large drill: the larger the drill the bigger the fish you can potentially catch (don’t make my mistake and lose out on an absolute monster by only drilling a small hole). Then you choose your rod, your jig (that’s the colourful fish shaped thing that goes on the end of your line to attract the bigger fish), your bait (mmm, trout jam), and your hook. Then, with a flourish, cast your line… or drop it into the hole. Adjust the depth of your hook, and wait for a bite. If your rod twitches, reel that bad boy up and ogle your prey. As the folks in the industry say, you just successfully “did a fish”. At least I think they say that.
So that is what ice fishing is, but what exactly does Ice Lakes bring to it? Well Ice Lakes allows you to fish on 12 different maps, such as “Roach Lake”, “Snowy Mountains”, and “North River”. Not particularly inspiring names admittedly, but they provide as varied an experience in regards to the environs of ice fishing as is really possible. Visually they are not the most beautiful arenas for man to battle his water-bound nemeses within, with quite blocky low-res textures and repeated assets such as houses and cars littering the areas, but ultimately most of your time will not be spent traversing these areas. The odd animal in the background and basic weather effects add to the realism, although the invisible wall that tells me there are “no fish here” filled me with uncontrollable rage: how do you know my unorthodox fishing methods won’t yield me a gargantuan land-salmon?! However, it must be noted that when you’re in “fishing mode” and staring at your hole, you can’t have a look around to see your surroundings or other fisherman, and there’s no pleasing sound of wind or snow. Once you drill your hole the game just shows a generic patch of ice in front of you, which is a shame because it breaks the immersion of the “simulator” somewhat and lessens the attraction of the 32-player online multiplayer mode. On the other hand, this is far from the core of the game.
The core of this game is the fishing, and this is what players should obviously be playing the game for. Unfortunately I am devoid of fishing know-how and therefore cannot comment on the actual realism of the simulation, however the variety that the game offers is demonstrative of the effort the developers have put into it. For you fishing fans, there are 20 Mormyshka jigs, 20 balanced, 10 vertical, 10 spoon, 10 spinners, 5 drills, 10 rods, 10 baits, 5 lures, 10 hooks, and over 20 species of fish to catch with them. To the laymen, this seems more than enough, although to the seasoned (I recommend white wine and parsley) fishing veteran this may seem small in comparison to games like Euro Fishing. All this equipment is bought with coins won in tournaments or custom games, although if you’re bad at fishing be prepared to spend innumerable hours trying to scrape enough for a decent gear upgrade.
The actual act of fishing in Ice Lakes is relatively simple, with the controls essentially limited to drill hole, cast line, adjust depth, reel in, and remove surface ice. The ability to move the rod in order to jiggle the line is a nice touch, and allows for another means of luring your fishy friends to an early, dry grave. The simplicity of the controls makes it easy for a layman to jump in and get fishing, even if they may unknowingly be using completely the wrong setup. Catching a fish is quite satisfying even if it is just clicking a button when you see your line twitch; the thrill of seeing if that fish is going to be a monster is strangely addictive, and seeing its name and weight pop up as it is pulled from the hole fills one with a sense of accomplishment. Once caught the fish is slapped down with a frankly hilarious squelch as it ragdolls across the ice beside you.
In short bursts, this is all surprisingly fun. However, Ice Lakes is clearly geared towards the fishing enthusiast who wants to kill at least an hour, if not several, in one sitting. As an example, the shortest of the 14 tournaments is one hour 45 minutes, and they get even longer after that. If this just seems simply unfeasible, you can start a custom game where you can choose the map, time of day, season, play time (min. 10 minutes, max. 180), and game type. Game types vary from total weight caught to biggest fish and most species caught. Obviously to have a chance of winning a game mode like “Total amount – pike” you’re going to need some prior knowledge of how best to catch pike, and here’s where the game really comes into its own or falls flat on the ice, depending how you look at it.
Despite its relatively simplistic graphics and slightly awkward third-person map traversal, Ice Lakes boasts a “fish behaviour engine” that includes fish AI and a swarm system for each species. This is where the realism comes in: in theory a fisherman can hone his real-world skills at home on his computer, in what is a mechanically, if not visually, highly realistic environment. This is great for fishing hobbyists, who can track the minutia of their stats and spend those long summer months practising for the winter, but it puts up a frustrating barrier for the average gamer. Ice Lakes is devoid of an in-depth tutorial, which is honestly unsurprising considering its target demographic, but it alienates a huge potential audience that have leaped at other niche simulator games in the past. To the average gamer Ice Lakes may seem rather arcade-y, in that it seems like a rather basic game where for all you know you have an equal chance of randomly catching any of the 20 species available regardless of how you go about it. This is obviously not the case, but the game fails to helpfully educate you otherwise.
Ice Lakes is a game that looks like a very casual simulator, and in that vein it will undoubtedly draw in a varied crowd. However, it doesn’t take long to sort the trout from the roach and leave the casual players behind, as it is clearly geared towards fishing hobbyists rather than gamers. This is by no means a bad thing, but it is something any potential buyer needs to be aware of. Fortunately the game is still growing and updating (with the neat addition of ice fishing cabins among others), so it may draw a wider demographic in time. For the moment though, Ice Lakes is a recommendable game, but only to fans of ice fishing, wherever the hell all of you are.