Kaelin Consulting

Mark W. Kaelin

I have over 25 years of experience in the electronic publishing industry. I was an editor for CBS Interactive for eleven years, where I was responsible for acquiring, editing, and writing technical content for daily publication on CBS Interactive properties TechRepublic.com and ZDNet.com. My duties included the recruitment and development of contributing talent. Prior to CBS Interactive, I was an editor with ProQuest for 12 years, where I developed, designed, edited, and maintained an array of university and business school supplemental curricula products. Before ProQuest, I was a public accountant for five years, specializing in tax preparation and in compilation and review engagements. In addition, I have performed independent consulting services over the last 30 years for various business clients.

Lose yourself in Morrowind

Historical note: This column was never published. I wrote it for the July 2002 publication of The Louisville Computer News, but that monthly newspaper closed shop after the June publication. Unfortunately, my editor failed to inform me and I wrote and submitted this column anyway.

Name: The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
Genre: Role-playing
Developer: ZeniMax Media, Inc.
Publisher: Bethesda Software, Inc.
Multiplayer: No
Requires: Windows 98+, 800 MHz processor, 256 MB RAM, 1 GB hard drive space, DirectX compatible video and sound card (accelerated video and sound recommended)
Retail Price: $49.99
Street Price: $39.99

Role-playing games, where players assume a role and develop a character by exploring and interacting with a game universe, are a bit of anomaly in the fast-paced, action-packed dominated world of current gaming titles. Yet, the venerable single-player RPG spawns some of the most passionate electronic gamers you can ever hope to find. Each title is anticipated with Pavlovian fervor for months before it is actually released. This pattern held true for The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, the latest RPG from Bethesda.

Morrowind is one of the most ambitious RPGs to date. Building on a world established by two previous games, Morrowind is a sprawling world with potentially limitless game play. The island of Vvardenfell where the game takes place is massive by most anyone’s game standards and is completely detailed and fully realized. Morrowind marks the high watermark for RPGs and should not be missed by any gamer professing to be a fan of the genre. However, a little caution is called for; this game is not for everyone.

Fulfilling yet another prophecy

Morrowind sticks to a tried and true RPG main premise to establish the basic plot line. Your character will start the game as a confused, poorly skilled citizen of Vvardenfell that has just been released from incarceration. You are set on your way with a minimal set of instructions and with no sense of purpose. However, you are given the impression that your destiny is to do something great and profound. How you fulfill that destiny is going to be up to you and will be greatly influenced by the character you choose to create.

All of the traditional RPG character types are available. Anything from a rogue thief to an armored knight, including spell-casting mages and hybrids with both magic and fighting skills. The type of character you wish to play and the skills they possess is entirely up to you. But take note, personality plays a large role in how non-player controlled (NPC) characters react to you. If you are a thief or a vampire they will treat you as such.

Besides the main quest of fulfilling your prophesized destiny there are hundreds of smaller side quests that you can complete. These sub-quests are extremely important for developing your character’s skills and for raising or lowering your standing among the various factions of your politically dynamic little island. A player could conceivably ignore the main quest and concentrate on these sub-quests exclusively and still get 100+ hours of game play.

This is perhaps Morrowind’s most noteworthy accomplishment; it is completely open-ended. Quests can be completed in almost any order and at your leisure. The game does not penalize players for taking their time, nor does it penalize for ignoring the main quest. Player’s are free to develop their characters as they see fit. However, this freedom is also a double-edged sword. Less experienced RPG players may find the lack of direction frustrating and disorientating.

The Morrowind world is a detailed 3D environment with natural transitions from day to night. The weather is unpredictable and can restrict vision or otherwise hamper travel. Hundreds of inhabitants live their lives busying themselves with their own little adventures. The Morrowind world is absolutely huge in comparison to most any other RPG you have played. While that fact means there is much to do and see, getting there can sometimes be tedious and frustrating. Even with three different modes of fast travel, you will find yourself walking for much of the time.

Once you get where you are going, interaction with the locals is a straight-forward mouse click. Lengthy conversations are achieved by clicking key words revealed in the text. And there is a fantastic amount of text. Besides NPC conversations, players are encouraged to read the various books and documents found throughout the game world. These books describe the history of Vvardenfell and also provide your character with much needed instruction in key skills.

Scratch your niche

And this leads us to some of the problems I find with Morrowind. While I am normally the last one to complain about a game having depth and length, this game stretches it to the limit. There is so much room to roam in this game that it is easy to get lost. This lack of direction is exacerbated by the minimal mapping interface and its lack of an annotation feature. In fact, because this is single-player and because of the wilderness expanse you sometimes have to traverse, it is often lonely.

The inhabitants of this world reinforce this bleak existence. They seem to live very limited lives. They are always minding their store or standing on their street corner, no matter the time of day or the weather. It is somewhat perplexing to see a NPC standing in the middle of nowhere in a raging sandstorm and having that character react to you as if it was a mild and sunny day.

But these are relatively minor annoyances forced by game mechanics and can be forgiven. Some day technology will allow games to present more dynamic and alive worlds. In the meantime, if you think you can make an RPG that circumvents these game conventions, Morrowind ships with a completely functional game editor. Using the game engine and the editor, budding game developers could create an entire new game with new graphics, new quests, and new inhabitants. The recent trend of shipping editors with games intrigues me and I hope it becomes standard practice.

The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind is rated Teen (T) by the ESRB, which I find to be slightly harsh. The violence in the game is very mild, especially when compared to any modern first person shooter. My guess is that because the battles mostly involve humanoid characters the ESRB gave it a relatively high rating. The reality is that, because of all the reading, only teens and above would be able to play the game anyway.

All things considered, Morrowind is a very good RPG, one of the best of the genre right now. The game world is huge and players can immerse themselves into a fantasy universe of magic and chivalrous swordplay to their heart’s content. Playing all of the possible quests and interacting will all of the various characters of this world would take most players well past Labor Day.

However, Morrowind is not for everyone. This game is best reserved for the hard core RPG fan. The pacing for the game is closer to that of a text adventure and many gamers used to action will get frustrated very quickly. If unhurried, purposeful role-playing is your thing, Morrowind will keep you busy and happy through the summer. This is the epitome of a niche game so you have to ask yourself if you are fan of that niche. If you are, then you have found the game that fills it.

Extend your game’s life with mods

Originally published in June 2002.

Historical note: Another non-game review. Looking forward, I think I know why - I was trying to make it through The Elder Scrolls Morrowind. Little did I know at the time, modding was about to become a very big deal.

Let’s face it. Computer gaming is an expensive past time. Game players are spending $40 or more for games these days, not to mention online fees if the game is multiplayer. If the game is single player only, you could conceivably blow through it one week or maybe even one weekend, especially if it is a first person shooter. Buying a new game every other week to satisfy your craving for new game experiences can crimp your budget and cause friction with unsympathetic spouses. Neither of which is ever a good thing.

However, there is a way to extend the playable life of many computer games selling today. Recently, computer games have been shipping with, or have made available via download, resource tool kits that allow players to make modifications to the game itself. Affectionately referred to as “mods,” these changes can range from manipulating the color of a character’s clothes to changing the actual universe where the game is set. In some cases, these tool kits are so powerful that players have made completely new games and made them available for free on the Internet.

A brief mod history

The underlying concept behind mods has actually been around since the early days of computer gaming, only back then mods were created by hacking the game code. For example, many of the games for the old Commodore 64 were written in Basic. It was fairly easy to hack into those games and make modifications in how the game played. It was easy enough that even I could do it. Of course as the games and the systems that ran them became more sophisticated, hacking into them became more challenging. While the games soon became beyond the reach of the novice hacker, they were not beyond other more talented code-breakers. A culture of hacked and modified games developed and in many ways still survives.

Eventually, game developers saw the potential for bringing this hacker/mod community into the open. The developers began to encourage modifications and enhancements, which greatly increased their game’s popular longevity. For id Software and their Doom and Quake franchises, the ability to modify those games in conjunction with the shareware business model, helped define the first person genre and the player community it spawned.

One of my all-time favorite war games, Steel Panthers, was abandoned by its publisher around 5 years ago, but with the help and encouragement of its original developer, the game was modified, improved and is still going strong today. These improvements and modifications were performed by the community of Steel Panther players. The ability to create scenarios and recreate famous battles is an addictive drug for many strategy war gamers. This passion for Steel Panthers extends its life long after it has been abandoned.

The current mod squad

Dozens of more current games are mod-friendly, with the first person shooters leading the way. Extensive online mod libraries can be found for Half-Life, Return to Castle Wolfenstein, Max Payne, No One Lives Forever, Freedom Force, and most other titles in the genre. And the tools to create the mods are readily available. For modern games, Half Life is arguably the one currently sporting the most modifications. I have played a Half Life zombie version, several new single-player missions, a few team-based missions, and a handful of multiplayer scenarios including Counter-Strike. Development teams, well organized and dedicated, have even been created to produce these mods for Half-Life. There are literally hundreds of these mods available from several Internet sites devoted to the enterprise.

Max Payne, with its defining slow-motion “bullet-time” feature has been a natural fit for fans to develop Matrix mods. I played a fantastic mod that recreated the famous building lobby scene from the movie. This mod even included Trinity, scripted to help your Neo in key spots as she did in the movie. Some industrious and slightly-crazed fans are attempting to remake the entire Matrix movie using the Max Payne modification tools. A number of other inventive mods for Max Payne can be found at various Internet sites.

Modifications for other games not in the first person genre are not as prevalent, but they are worth the effort to find and can enhance your game experience. A conquest game like Civilization III always inspires its fans to create new and often impossibly challenging scenarios. The ability to tweak rules, create maps, develop new races, and control scenarios has lead to some interesting and befuddling mods that will feed your addiction all over again.

Traditionally, war games have always been mod-friendly because by their very nature they are designed for creating historic battles and conflicts of which there is an almost limitless supply. Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord, a truly remarkable 3D tactical battlefield game, is notably flexible in its design. Not only can you create new maps and recreate battles, but you can change unit specifications to the minutest detail all the way down to the camouflage. The mod community for Combat Mission is one of the most passionate I have ever come across. Forum flame wars have continued for months on whether some piece of armor was 2.75 or 3 inches thick, for example. This is bizarre behavior, even by my geek standards.

This past month, the traditional role-playing game Elder Scrolls: Morrowind was released (look for a full review in the next issue). This game comes with a complete RPG construction tool set. I emphasize complete. Every aspect of an RPG – quests, NPC dialogue, races, professions, maps, terrain – the works, is customizable. You could conceivably create a completely new role playing game using these tools. And, knowing RPG-players like I do, I’m sure someone or some group is already well on its way to doing just that. I have already seen recruitment postings for developers – this modification business is a serious business.

This is just the tip of the iceberg of course, but you get the general idea. Just because you have played the game that shipped in the box does not mean that you have played all the game you can play. Very creative and slightly crazed fans might have very well created new experiences for you. Go to your preferred online search-engine and do a search for your favorite game and see what is out there. While not all of the mods are top-quality, there are enough good ones to justify the effort. With these mods you may be able to continue playing your favorite game for quite a while. And who knows, maybe you will become one of the crazed and start developing your on mods.

Electronic games are dead. Long live electronic games!

Originally published in May 2002.

Historical note: This is a pure opinion piece - I must have been between games.

Back when I started playing, in the early 1980s, computer games were the sole province of geeks, nerds, eggheads, and other assorted socially-marginal types. That legacy of a small target market has hampered the acceptance of computer and console gaming as a “legitimate mainstream” form of entertainment. Coupled with the collapse of the console market in the mid-80s, the electronic gaming industry has been fighting an uphill battle to establish legitimacy as medium for delivering entertainment to the yearning masses.

However, during the past few years the electronic game industry has witnessed a major change in attitude from the more established entertainment mediums, especially movie-makers. The crossover of movies into electronic games and electronic games into movies has recently achieved an aura of standard operating procedure. Both sides of the equation seem to take it as inevitable that action games will be transferred into movies and action movies into games. This turn of events leads to the unavoidable question: Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Unfortunately, many of the game-based movies of the past have been – well, lousy. No real plot, no vision, bad acting, bad directing, and bad writing have all played a part in making these ventures both an artistic and economic flop. These previous forays into game-based movie making were obvious attempts at exploitation and not serious attempts at making a movie.

But I have been encouraged by the last three movies with game lineage that I have seen. Tomb Raider, Final Fantasy, and Resident Evil all had something more to give in terms of movie making then just rehashes of electronic games. These movies were made by people with an understanding of both movies and the games from which they stem. Perhaps we are witnessing the dawn of a new generation of filmmakers whose life experience include both a love of movies and of electronic games.

I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille

At the risk of sounding like a history professor (and a bad one at that), in the early years of movie making that medium also suffered ridicule and critical panning. Movies were considered a novelty, mildly intriguing, lightly amusing, but not really entertainment and certainly not art. Over the years, not only has film making become a mainstream form of entertainment but it has also become an art form. The sequence is similar for the television medium.

This transition from novelty to mainstream entertainment art form has not been fully realized in the electronic game industry. The status of electronic gaming must rise to the level of an art form, not only in the developers mind but in the mind of the public. This also means that game developers have to take their craft to the next level. By that I mean, games must be created from the ground up as a medium to tell a story. The interactivity inherent in computer games married to human imagination can transport players into places and events they could not experience in real life nor in movies. The true potential of the medium has not been reached, but this next generation, having grown up in the information age, is poised to reach that potential.

I have been encouraged by many of the recently released games. Game makers seem to have renewed their commitment to quality and craftsmanship. While many of the games are not groundbreaking or very innovative, they definitely exhibit a level of attention to details that was missing just a year ago. For example, most of the recently released games have not required the immediate download of a patch to make the game playable. Last year, smart players downloaded patches and had them ready to go before they actually purchased the game.

The beauty of the art work, the sophistication of the programming, the detailed writing and even some acting are all evident in so many recent games that I am giddy at the prospects of what comes next. Much of this renaissance in game development can be traced directly to the increasing status of electronic games as a mainstream medium for entertainment. The influx of creative influences from other industries is pervasive and the influx of new investment is reflected the in quality of the games.

However, with this influx of money comes a demand for a return on that investment. This has lead to a certain amount of industry contraction as developers are laid off and development houses are closed. Unfortunately, many of these game developers were also considered by the gaming consumer to be the best at their profession. The closing and absorption of these creative people and companies has created a vacuum that must be filled by independent developers. Just like independent filmmakers, we must look to these independent game developers for the next innovation in computer games.

When I'm good I'm very good, but when I'm bad I'm better

So that that brings us to my initial question, is this good or bad?  In the long term, for the health of computer games specifically and electronic games in general, I believe this is a good thing. The new influx of talent and investment will increase the quality of games developed and make those games more accessible to the general public. It will also increase the number of available titles and genres as companies try to reach the largest number of consumers. As electronic gaming becomes more mainstream it becomes more marketable and more attractive as an investment. The quality and sophistication of games, technically and artistically, will only get better.

But I also believe this transition means an end to the unfettered pioneering spirit of game development. Games developed in garages and basements will still be around, but they will be hard to find and definitely not mainstream. The crossover of games and movies has convinced me more than ever that electronic gaming has become big business with all the benefits and pitfalls that that may bring. My little obscure obsession has succumbed to capitalists and is now an attractive investment. I’m feeling nostalgic for the good old days already.

With a nod to the past and a peak at the future – Return to Castle Wolfenstein

Originally published in April 2002.

Name: Return to Castle Wolfenstein
Genre: First-person action shooter
Developer: Gray Matter Studios
Publisher: Activision, Inc
Multiplayer: Yes
Requires: Pentium III 450Mhz or AMD Athlon, Windows 9x, 128 MB RAM, 800 MB hard disk space, CD-ROM drive, 3-D Hardware Video Accelerator, Windows compatible sound card
Retail Price: $54.99
Street Price: $34.99

The year was 1992. In the United States, a recession was ending, a new president was in office, and a new computer game was about to change everything I had come to expect from computer games. Wolfenstein 3D from Id Software established a whole new genre of computer game that has come to be known as the first person shooter (FPS). At the same time, it started a chain of events that took a form of entertainment from the relative obscurity of computer geekdom to the multi-billion dollar mainstream entertainment business we know today.

Now comes an updated version of this historic game: Return to Castle Wolfenstein, developed by Gray Matter Studios and published by Activision. Updating the game with enhanced graphics, sounds, and true 3D environments, Return to Castle Wolfenstein (RCW) tries to recreate the jaw-dropping awe so many of us experienced back in 1992. While RCW is an excellent example of the state of the art first person shooter, the genre is beginning to show its age.

Escaping is just the beginning

The initial premise of RCW is similar to its decade-old predecessor. Your character wakes up in a Nazi prison and is about to be interrogated, tortured and eventually executed. Being a resourceful American soldier with a proper defiant attitude, you naturally must try your best to escape from this predicament by defeating an assortment of World War II rabble. Armed with only a knife and cunning, you must over-power your captures, steal whatever weapons and ammo you can find, and then make your way out of the labyrinth that is Castle Wolfenstein.

However, unlike the original game, freeing yourself from imprisonment is merely a stepping-stone to the other clandestine missions you will have to complete as an elite commando. In the best one man against all odds tradition, you will have to repeatedly use you cunning and guile to infiltrate enemy encampments, steal documents, and generally create havoc when and where you can.

Your over-arching mission, and the twist that makes RCW more than just a basic shooter, is to discover the secrets behind the Nazi plot to use the occult to create an invincible army of mutants. The brainchild of SS head Heinrich Himmler, and with the full support of Adolf Hitler himself, the Nazis apparently plan to use genetic manipulation and paranormal artifacts to create monstrous weapons and hideous soldiers. The idea of such dreadful weapons motivates your one-man crusade.

Using the Quake III Arena game engine, Return to Castle Wolfenstein is a marvel of current state-of-the-art game technology. The visual effects are stunningly rendered and the sound effects are fantastic. Their combined efforts create a surreal and ominous 3D environment that teems with tension and anticipation. Each new corner, every patrolling guard’s footsteps, ooze with palpable tension.

Probably the most talked about example of technical excellence in RCW is the fire effect. Yes, I’m talking flame-thrower. Before RCW, the flame-thrower was often cited as the most requested piece of weaponry yet to be modeled in a first person game. Apparently, the boyhood fascination and curiosity concerning the infamous WWII weapon has not been satisfied. Technically not feasible just a few years ago, the infliction of incendiary destruction on your enemy is now merely a click of the mouse away.

While technically-speaking RCW is masterful, the game play itself lacks inspiration. Maybe it is because I have played so many first person shooters in my day, but I found the game play to be mundane and, more importantly, unchallenging. Except for a few sneak from spot A to spot B levels, the game basically devolves into the simple shoot-everything-that-moves trap that hampers many games in the genre. Maybe the developers were trying to pay homage to the original game and its frenetic pacing, but some tactical and strategic planning would have been a nice diversion. And while the environments are ominous and creepy, they are often too easy to traverse in relative safety.

Once the single-player game is complete, you can test your skills in multiplayer mode. For multiplayer aficionados, RCW has garnered a reputation as one of the best games around. In multiplayer, Allied teams do battle with Axis teams in one of three modes: objective, stopwatch, or checkpoint. Multiplayer mode is really a completely different game than the single-player mode. This extra dimension is what keeps the RCW boxes hopping off the store shelves. However, old strategy buff that I am, I find the running, strafing, and shooting of these arena maps repetitive and, well, boring.

Just in case the talk about flame-throwers was not enough, I would like to emphasize that Return to Castle Wolfenstein is made by adults for adults. This game is not appropriate for children. It is rated Mature by the ESRB and it deserves every bit of it.

The man with two brains

When I think about Return to Castle Wolfenstein I am of two minds. On the one hand I appreciate the game’s technical brilliance. This game is a state of the art FPS and is deserving of many of the awards it has received in the gaming press. On the other hand, RCW is fairly mundane in terms of game play. Levels are technically well designed but lack inspiration. Experienced game players, especially those that play FPS games regularly, will find the single-player game a bit too easy and will probably be disappointed. However, if you are into multiplayer team-based game play, Return to Castle Wolfenstein could be just the ticket.

Dark Age, maybe, but a Renaissance is sure to come

Originally published in March 2002.

Historical note: I played DAoC for many years and made many, many friends.

Name: Dark Age of Camelot
Developer: Mythic Entertainment
Publisher: Mythic Entertainment
Multiplayer: Only
Recommended: Pentium III 450MHz or better, 128 MB RAM, 3D Accelerated Video, 500 MB hard drive space, 56k modem or broadband connection.
Retail Price: $39.99 plus $12.95/month
Street Price: $29.99 plus $12.95/month

The phenomena known as the massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG) has been frustrating for many gamers. The promise of persistent worlds where players from all over can get together, create unique characters, role-play, and explore is like a siren’s song for many. Players are, have been, and continue to be, drawn to the classic role-playing adventure. At each new launch, they return to the MMORPG, compelled by the desire to see at least one of these games reach its true potential. After several well-publicized disasters by other companies last year, game developer Mythic Entertainment has brought us Dark Age of Camelot. The question is, does DAOC finally reach Holy Grail status in this genre?

DAOC is by far and away the best of the MMORPGs available at the moment, but it still suffers from the same affliction plaguing all that have come before it. There is not enough role-playing and way too much hacking and slashing. There is not enough “game” in the game. So far, all of these massive online games have been weighed down by the leveling-treadmill that requires players to continually hack and slash their character to the next level. Until this redundant aspect of game play receives some innovation, the massive role-paying game will continue to be the nearly exclusive domain of hard core gamers.

In search of the Holy Grail

The backdrop for the world of Dark Age of Camelot is familiar to most of us. The game is set in the time period just after the death of the legendary King Arthur. In the geographical area which would eventually evolve into Western Europe you have three realms – Albion, Midgard, and Hibernia. Loosely, those realms translate into England, Norway, and Ireland. For the sake of this game universe, those three realms are in a constant state of war. And being in a constant state of war, those realms obviously need fighting bodies to carry out their aggressions and defend their borders. This is where your game character comes in.

Players can choose from a variety of character types, styles, and professions. Each character-set has unique features that make that character valuable to their chosen realm in some warring capacity. The strategy a player uses in designing and developing their character will determine that character’s ultimate profession. Of course, being a fantasy-type role-playing game, characters are not restricted to melee fighting only, magic plays a big part in each realm. After all, it wouldn’t be much of a Camelot legend without the mysterious Merlin casting spells everywhere.

Each character starts the game with very limited abilities and must earn new abilities by dispatching various creatures and training in disciplines peculiar to their race and chosen profession. This is the start of the leveling treadmill. Earning experience points generally involves killing roaming creatures like snakes, skeletons, reptiles, and bugs. After a player kills enough of what are called in game parlance Mobs (Mobile Non-Player Characters), they are ready to graduate to Player versus Player (PvP) combat.

DAOC employs an innovative twist on this part of the game by restricting PvP combat to what they call Realm versus Realm (RvR). This simply means that players can fight players in other realms, but not in their own realm. That is to say, Albion players can do battle with players from Midgard or Hibernia only. And vice versa. This restricts much of the arbitrary “newbie” killing that hampered the mainstream success of some predecessor massively multiplayer games. It is no fun to have your character harassed and killed by higher-level characters before he/she has had a chance to develop. The realm system means that there are safe areas where PvP combat is not possible, which gives players time to grow their characters and develop skills.

In terms of technical excellence, DAOC is really unsurpassed in terms of functional stability. Mythic Entertainment has done an excellent job of producing a nearly bug free MMORPG. While there are still balance issues to iron out between realms and professions, the game is generally well-rounded and players should have no trouble finding a realm, race, and profession that suits there role-playing aspirations. However, as you reach higher levels of around twenty-five, players will find some game regions are incomplete in that the creatures they dispatch stop providing much needed level-appropriate equipment. This is relatively minor problem that is being continually addressed with updates and program patches.

The game environments themselves are remarkably detailed and very picturesque. Trees look like trees, creature animations are on the mark and ambient sounds include bits of pizzazz like singing birds and chirping crickets. All three realms seem to be teeming with activity. Shop merchants and guards are friendly and are often able to help you gain much needed experience by offering tasks for you to complete. Players can solo their way through character levels if they wish, but the game is definitely designed around group play. To take full advantage of your opportunities, players will have to role-play group-friendly characters and join a player guild.

As I write this review, Mythic has just added three new “Epic” zones to the game for high level players. This has been one of DAOC’s saving graces so far, attention to customers. Unlike many previous MMORPGs, the people at Mythic seem generally concerned about how players feel about game play. They have employees with job descriptions that require them to interact with the players and address their concerns. Several tweaking changes have resulted from these interactions. Of course, one caveat to this is that sometimes the more vocal players are not necessarily the best players to listen to in terms of the big picture. In general though, the people at Mythic have done a good job of separating the good ideas from the bad ideas.

Choose wisely

Dark Age of Camelot is the first of several MMORPGs that will be released before the end of the summer. Only time will tell if it will hold its position as the best example of the genre until then. As multiplayer online games go, DAOC is stable, nearly finished, relatively polished, and somewhat fun to play. Which is not exactly a ringing endorsement, nor a resounding condemnation. If you are addicted to MMORPGs then Dark Age will feed that addiction. If you enjoy multiplayer online games, you will not be disappointed. If you have always wanted to try a game of this type, DAOC is an excellent and accessible version. However, if you are weary of the genre and are looking for innovation, wait to see if one of the yet to be released titles has something new to offer.

In the end, it all boils down to expectations and choices. Dark Age of Camelot is a good game, but not a great game. No new ground is broken, but the old ground is plowed thoroughly and in near-perfect furrows. The question players have to answer: Is the $12.95 monthly fee required to reap the benefits of what has been sowed in those furrows worth it?

Would you like to rule a civilization?

Originally published in February 2002.

Historical note: I have played every iteration of Sid Meier's Civilization games - it is the one game franchise I always have on my computer ready to play.

Name: Sid Meier’s Civilization III
Genre: Turn-based Strategy
Developer: Firaxis Games Inc.
Publisher: Infogrames Interactive Inc.
Multiplayer: No
Requires: Windows 95 or higher, Pentium II 300MHz or better, 64 MB RAM (128 MB RAM recommended), 550 MB free hard disk space, Direct X 8.0-compatible video and sound cards.
Retail Price: $49.95
Street Price: $39.95

According to Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, addiction can be defined as a “compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance characterized by tolerance and by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal.”  The addictive substance in question can be identified as any computer game from Sid Meier. This is most certainly true for his latest masterpiece Civilization III. For those of you not familiar with the computer game legend, Sid Meier and his nearly decade old Civilization franchise are inductees into just about everyone’s computer game Hall of Fame.

With Civilization III, Sid Meier and company have taken all they have learned from the three previous installments of their conquer the world strategy game and refined it into an elegant turn-based strategy game that is so addictive that I guarantee you will lose sleep, lose weight, and ignore your family. I say three previous installments because I consider Alpha Centauri, which takes place in the future on a colonized planet, to be part of the Civilization franchise. Sid Meier and his Civilization game defined what has become to be known in gaming circles as the 4-X game: eXplore, eXpand, eXperiement, and eXterminate. Civilization III is the new signature game of that strategy genre.

The 4-X’s explained

For those of you who may not know, the premise of any 4-X game is really quite simple in concept. Starting with one single settler, you must start a civilization, explore your surroundings and expand into new areas where new resources can be harnessed. As you expand, you must experiment with new technologies and advance the knowledge of your civilization so that it can continue to grow. Of course, there are eight or so other burgeoning civilizations trying to do the same thing. Since there can only be one supreme ruler, at some point these competing civilizations must be exterminated either by war, attrition or absorption.

While that may seem deceptively simple, the depth of Civilization III and the attention to detail famous in all Sid Meier games, makes game play quite addictive. There are so many factors to keep track of during each move – what is each city building, what land improvement is each worker performing, what resources are each citizen generating, what form of government is best for the civilization at this point, what research should be conducted, should the civilization declare war or conduct trade?  These are just a few of the questions that must be answered.

As you answer each question and plan your next move, you feel compelled to go to the next turn to make sure it is working they way you wanted. However, this feeling of being compelled to see the fruits of your labor during the next move is there at the end of every move. This is where the addictive properties of Civilization III kick in. As you play, time compresses, eating and sleeping become less important and family obligations just get in the way of your world conquest.

For Civilization III, Firaxis developed a new and improved interface that simplifies a very complicated game into an elegant, everything you need at your finger-tips, advisor metaphor. Using advisor screens, players can get a handle on the various aspects of their growing civilization, such as foreign relations, economics, citizen unrest, and military status.

The in-game graphics and sounds are wonderfully depicted and add to the overall feel of playing a supreme leader. The art is colorful without being overpowering and you will seldom find yourself wondering what unit that icon is supposed to represent. All aspects of game design are top-notch. The game manual is a small book of 235 pages and will take some serious study time to read completely. But it does come with an index to help you find what you are looking for later.

The one complaint I have with Civilization III in comparison to Alpha Centauri, the third game in the series, and the other previous Civilization games, is the lack of philosophical and historical discovery. I miss the little pieces of philosophical debate that takes place in Alpha Centauri as you discovered new technology. Those little multimedia pieces served to raise the stakes on the player’s decision to use or not use a new technology. There were social and ecological consequences to exploiting resources. While there are still consequences for using a certain technology in Civilization III, they are more abstract and less severe than before.

The game is rated E-Everyone by the ESRB. Which is appropriate for the game in terms of violence I guess, but certainly this game is beyond the cognitive capabilities of most pre-teens. Or if not beyond their cognitive capabilities, certainly beyond their attention span. My apologies to the child prodigies out there of course.

Crafting a civilization

This game is the epitome of the 4-X strategy game. If you have not played a game in this genre before, Civilization III is an excellent introduction. However, be forewarned that this is not a simple game to play and it is certainly not a quick game. Action gamers will have to do some major downshifting if they want to master it.

For lovers of this genre, many of which probably bought a copy of this game the week it was released, Civilization III is really nothing new. It is the same 4-X game we know and love, done about as well as it can be done. While it may not take the genre into any new direction, it is still a worthy addition to your game library.

Sid Meier is a master craftsman of computer games. He has mentored and developed a staff of fellow game developers that follow his established principles of high quality game play. Civilization III is the capstone achievement of the series. It is an example of what can be accomplished by talented, motivated and principled game developers.

Commandos 2: Men of Courage will test your fortitude

Originally published in January 2002.

Name: Commandos 2: Men of Courage
Genre: Action/Strategy
Operating System: Windows 9X/ME
Developer: Pyro Studios
Publisher: Eidos Interactive
Multiplayer: No
Requires: Pentium II 350 MHz or better, 32MB RAM (128 MB recommended), Direct X compliant video and sound card, 3GB hard disk space.
Retail Price: $54.99
Street Price: $29.99

I have been playing computer games for twenty years now and I have been writing about them for about fifteen. In that time, I have played bad games and good games. I have been frustrated by bad game designs and I have been amazed by game innovations. I have played the best and the worst. But I cannot ever remember being as frustrated by a game as I have been frustrated by Commandos 2: Men of Courage from Pyro Studios and Eidos Interactive. The odd part is that Commandos 2 is excellently designed in all aspects. The frustration comes not from the game design but from the challenge of playing the game. And I loved every minute of it.

I cannot remember playing a game that challenged me at every turn like Commandos 2. Sometimes my strategy was wrong, sometimes my execution, but at no time did I run out of options. Those options, those seemingly infinite possibilities, kept me interested even as my frustration grew. The relief and feeling of accomplishment upon completing each mission was invigorating and visceral. This is a must have experience for any hard core strategy gamer worth their salt.

As an aside, I would like to emphasize that this game is not for the novice. If your normal speed is Windows Solitaire or Tetris, this is not a game for you. However, if you enjoy an actual gaming challenge in the strategy genre, then you cannot afford to miss Commandos 2.

Of course you realize this means war?

The premise is quite simple. You are the commander of an elite platoon of World War II commandos. You must lead your commandos through a series of strategic missions that, if successful, will guarantee victory for the Allies. Missions take place in Europe, the Arctic, and the South Pacific. To be considered a success, each mission must be completed with all personnel intact.

The joy of Commandos 2 derives from the elegant manner you complete your mission and solve the puzzles laid before you. It is elegant because there is no right way. Each of your commandos has special attributes for dispatching bad guys and the way you choose to use those attributes is entirely up to you. You may decide to use traps to clear a path to your objectives or you may decide that an ambush would be more effective. Or, maybe you will use a trained mouse or dog to distract the enemy as you move a commando in from behind. In several missions you will have the use of spies which, when dressed in enemy uniforms, can distract guards while other commandos complete their tasks. The key is that you have options and that you must use those options to develop and implement a strategy.

Developing a strategy is the first step. Once you have a strategy in place, you must execute it. And the execution must be nearly perfect or one of your commandos will end up dead and the mission will be a failure. Often your commando will have only seconds to complete a task and return to cover. Failure to do so means a whole heap of trouble in the form of machine gun carrying goose-steppers. The tension and suspense generated will make you squirm in your seat. This is definitely a game that requires the player to save early and often.

The battlefield in Commandos 2 is rendered in beautifully detailed 3D landscapes and interior buildings. The isometric view can be manipulated on the outside maps into one of four directions. Inside buildings, the view can be adjusted to display any direction. This is my one quibble with the game. While it is easy enough to work around, I would have preferred a map that I could view from any angle. A few untimely deaths during play were caused by the viewing angle I had no choice but to use. A little more flexibility would have been a great help in avoiding those problems.

The actual game interface is a minimalist’s dream. Just a few icons on the side, several keystroke shortcuts to remember, and a few mouse clicks to master. The concept is very intuitive for any experienced gamer. Which is good, because the manual is just a pamphlet that explains the basics but does very little to prepare the player for the strategic headaches that will be presented.

From a production standpoint, the game is nearly flawless. Especially noteworthy is the art work. Each mission map is exquisitely detailed and vibrant, with soldiers and civilians moving about oblivious to your commandos as they infiltrate the area using stealth and guile. The sound and music is very good, although I wish my commandos would use a few more phrases when answering my orders. Each commando has three possible answers to every command and they grow old very quickly.

Sometimes frustration is a good thing

Commandos 2: Men of Courage is a very rare game for me. I cannot remember a computer game providing me such a frustratingly wonderful challenge. The integrate missions and the stringent requirements for precision of execution kept me on my mental toes at all times. Nothing like a computer game that stimulates the mind – your logic and your problem solving skills never had such a work out.

If you are looking for a game to pleasantly pass the time while you watch television, I suggest you stick to solitaire. If, on the other hand, you are looking for a challenging computer game that will frustrate and delight you, Commandos 2: Men of Courage will fill that bill. And, because the by the time you read this the holidays will be over, I imagine this game will be on sale, which is even better. Don’t miss it.

A holiday gift guide for computer gaming

Originally published in December 2001.

First off, I would like to take a moment to send everyone season’s greetings. December is a very special month in so many ways. For most of us the holiday season is a time of joy, spiritual renewal and peaceful reflection. Well, except for the chaotic shopping, planning, cooking, traveling and family conflicts we have to contend with. Who am I kidding, this is one of the most stressful times of the year. The last thing you want to worry about is what to get that computer gamer on your list.

And for computer gamers the holiday shopping season is marked by an over-abundance of new computer games. The multitude of desirable titles released this time of year is enough to make any gamer’s head spin. So many choices, so little time. I therefore, offer my gift ideas for computer gamers with the intention of reducing a seemingly infinite set of choices down to an almost manageable plethora of choices.

Let's get to the games

The best way to categorize games and the people who play them is by genre. Even for the hardcore gamer out there who enjoys all game types, there is a favorite genre. Find a player’s favorite genre and you can almost guarantee a well-received gift.

The most-hyped category every season is the action genre, which is usually defined by the first person shooter. There are several action games available this year that will please any action-freak, but the one most people are talking about is Max Payne. Using several new game-play techniques, particularly the slow motion “bullet-time” mode, and sporting a style-bending story line, Max Payne is likely to be named action game of the year and is a must-have for action gamers. Other action games to consider are Aliens versus Predator 2, Return to Castle Wolfenstein, and Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon. All of these games are distinguished by action, excitement and violence. This is not a genre for any pre-teens.

The strategy/adventure game genre is the computer game category that has been around the longest and it has therefore been forced to endure through several generations of hardware and technological innovation. That endurance is most often attributed to its compelling, mind-stimulating game play. Of course, many spouses would describe it another way – addiction. Strategy gamers can get so immersed in their games that the forget sleep, bathing, eating, and that they have a life outside the game.

Perhaps the most famous, or infamous depending on point of view, is the Civilization Series, whose current iteration is Sid Meier’s Civilization III. This is the consummate build an empire, take over the world game. Which may sound simple, but the game is notoriously difficult and confounding and when you play you will find yourself losing sleep, bathing less, and eating more pizza.

In the marked down bin this season you can find an excellent adventure game, The Longest Journey. This was released last year and is the best adventure game released in years and is much better than the more hyped adventures of Myst. For any adventure gamer on your list (and there are not too many of us around anymore) this is must-have game.

One of the hottest recent computer game trends revolves around the massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG). These games extend the traditional RPG to a persistent online universe where most of the other characters are played by real people from across the United States and much of the rest of the world. The human aspect of players controlling their characters adds an unpredictability to the entire game and helps keep things interesting.

The second-generation of these games are just now coming out, but the older more-established game that sets the standard is Everquest. This game has been online for over 2 years and is still going strong. A new expansion that will add new races and a new world to explore is being shipped just in time for the shopping season.

One new kid on the block has garnered my attention and the attention of many gamers, Dark Age of Camelot. This game is revolves around the King Arthur legend with an emphasis on magic and knighthood. The distinguishing factor in DAOC is the idea of one realm fighting with another realm. Each realm is a separate universe controlled for the most part by the people playing the game. The gamers decide when their realm will attack another and, when attacked, the gamers have to defend their realm.

While I am not a big fan myself, sports games are the be-all, end-all for many. These games allow players to vicariously participate in their favorite sport in the cyber world. One of the longest running titles in this genre is the John Madden Series – NFL 2002. This is the ultimate football game for the personal computer and is always guaranteed to please the sports gamer on your list. Other sports covered by games in this genre include golf with Links Championship Edition, and soccer with FIFA 2002.

Unfortunately, good computer games for kids, age 12 and under, are few and far between. Most are just too simple for their intended audience. Kids are very sophisticated computer users and they get bored when computer game makers patronize them with simplified, dumb-downed game play.

One game that you will probably hear a lot about is based on the Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone book and movie. I have know idea how the game plays but you can be rest assured that anything with Harry Potter on it will be well-received this year. In addition, there are also plenty of educational titles that drill kids on math, English language, etc. I am not sure how much fun they are, and from a kids perspective they may be equivalent to underwear on the cool gift scale, but it might be worth a try.

There is one gift that you might consider for the nubile gamer just starting to get into the hobby. One of the best sources for information on computer games, besides this column of course, are the gaming magazines. Subscriptions to these magazines are relatively inexpensive and they often provide vital information on what game to buy and what games are in development. Computer Gaming World is the oldest publication and usually maintains a high standard of journalistic integrity. PC Gamer hasn’t been around as long, but is still considered to be one of the big publications in gaming. Other publications include Computer Gaming, Electronic Gaming Monthly, and PC Accelerator.

Well, this is just a sampling of possible gifts for the computer gamer on your shopping list. Computer gaming is a wonderfully diverse and engaging past time and I encourage everyone jump into this hobby. This holiday season is the best time to get started because of the number of choices available. There is sure to be some game that will please even the most discerning on you list. Again, Happy Holidays to all.

In the market for a new gaming system - You’re in luck

Originally published in November 2001.

Listen. Thump! Hear that? Thump! That’s the sound of me kicking myself. Now you ask, why would my friendly computer gaming columnist kick himself? Well, lots of reasons may leap to mind, but in this case it is because he bought a new, top-shelf, full bragging-rights, gaming computer four months ago that currently sells for $900 less than what he paid for it. Thump!

I know by the time this hits the newsstand we will most likely be officially in economic recession, and we will most likely still be engaged in a protracted war against terrorists, and I suspect that we will all be weary of bad news. However, it will also be the best time in years to buy a new gaming system. The combination of a technology downturn, a recession, an international conflict and a price war between the major players in computer manufacturing, will conspire, and have already conspired, to make this the best possible time to buy a computer system, at least for individual consumers.

Super powerful computers with Intel Pentium 4 and AMD Athlon chips, large amounts of RAM, fantastic amounts of hard disk space, DVD CD-ROM drives, CD-W drives, 3D video accelerators, and large flat-screen monitors are selling for $1200 or less. This much power for this low of a price is unprecedented. If you even have so much as considered purchasing a new computer recently, don’t hesitate to take advantage of the opportunity.

What you need

Accepting that this is a good time to buy a new computer, the question arises as to what makes a gaming computer different than a computer used for running a small business or for creating videos. In general, the base system is the same for all Windows-based computers sold these days. They all come with CD-ROM drives, large hard disks, and fast CPUs. For gaming, consumers should specifically look for these additional features: at least 256 Mb RAM, GeForce 2, GeForce 3 or ATI Radeon video cards, and CPUs running at 1 GHz or better. For a gaming personal computer that will play all computer games sold during the next two years you cannot compromise on these three specifications. You may get away with a smaller hard drive or the lack of a DVD drive, but you will regret not spending money on these three features.

In the interest of equal time and full disclosure, I will admit that I am not really familiar with the gaming capabilities of Apple PCs. I do know that, as a gaming platform, Apple computers seem to be an afterthought in the game software industry and suffer because of it. However, if you are “thinking different” you should concentrate on features comparable to those discussed for the Windows universe. The fastest processor with the most memory and the best video accelerator available is the mantra for Apple users as well as Windows users.

One piece of hardware often given short shrift when purchasing a computer is the monitor, especially when it comes to size and scanning specifications. I consider the purchase of a monitor to be an investment. This is because monitors can and should be used over the lifetimes of several computers. Each new computer you buy should not also need a new monitor; that is if you invest in a good monitor at the beginning.

When purchasing a monitor you should consider three specifications to be critical. One is size – get a large monitor, 17 inches at least. Two, get a monitor with a wide range of compatible frequency settings, preferably a multi-sync monitor. Not to get too technical, but this is basically how fast the picture is drawn on the screen. A monitor with a wide-range of available frequency settings will be compatible with more video cards, causing less future problems. And, three, get a flat-screen monitor (don’t confuse this with flat-panel – that is completely different). A flat-screen will reduce the glare and enhance the picture not matter the ambient lighting.

I also want to take a moment to discuss the onslaught of gaming consoles that just recently hit the market. While the computer is my platform of choice, and is all I really have time for, I do like these new consoles. They are powerful and easy to use and the games being released are better than most of the previous console offerings. I think this generation of consoles reflects a definite maturing of the industry.

On the other hand, I view consoles as consumables, something you purchase with the intention that you will one day throw it away. Computers are much too flexible and reusable to be just thrown away. Like a car, you sell your old computer, or you pass it down to the youngest child to use until they get older, or you give it away to charity. In less than two years, the X-Box or the GameCube will be replaced by their sequels while your new gaming computer will still be going strong. The system I have outlined will still be viable two years from now and with some minor upgrades, it will still be viable four years from now. That is because the CPUs, being the one central piece of hardware that is not easily replaced, have so outpaced the gaming software that it will take several years to catch up. This is another reason computers are so inexpensive right now.

Opportunity knocks

So if you are contemplating the purchase of a new gaming computer your timing is impeccable. The confluence of several flowing events and circumstances has created a buyer’s market in computers. The advantages of buying a computer now are not likely to be repeated anytime soon. For a gaming computer pay particular attention to the CPU speed, get the fastest, the amount of RAM, get at least 256 Mb, and the video card, get a GeForce or a ATI Radeon. I don’t know what the mood of the country will be as we approach the Christmas shopping season, but if you consider it your patriotic duty to be a spending consumer, you might at least be frugal about it.

Altered lives lead to altered thinking

Originally published in October 2001.

Historical note: This was written just after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Reading this little essay, I think I was trying to make sense of it and find a way to move on. My epiphany still holds true today. Violence, ignorance, stereotypes - they are all easier than peace, knowledge, and understanding, so they persist.

Let no one be discouraged by the belief there is nothing one person can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills, misery, ignorance, and violence. Few will have the greatness to bend history, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. And in the total of all those acts will be written the history of a generation.
— Robert Francis Kennedy, 1925-68

During a single lifetime there are likely to be several events beyond our control that will alter our lives and our perception of the world. These cathartic events are often violent and almost necessarily unforeseen. As I write this column, the country, and indeed most of the world, is filled with sadness and dismay. Terrorists, in a misguided act of desperation, have attacked the United States. The loss of life and the destruction or damage of national landmarks has irretrievably changed the collective perception of who we are and how we should conduct our lives.

I would like to take a moment to offer my heartfelt condolences to those who have lost family and friends in this great tragedy. I would also like to commiserate with all like-minded people who feel outrage that such a heinous act should ever occur. The senseless evil this single act of terror has thrust upon us is incomprehensible in its callousness and unfathomable to a rational mind.

I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next.
— Gilda Radner

My intention for this month’s column was to write a review of the recently released and highly acclaimed computer game, Max Payne. However, and I must confess this disturbs me a little, the violent imagery depicted in Max Payne, while quite acceptable while I played it, is now unpalatable. It disturbs me that such a terrible event was required to change my perception. In a few moments of real-life horrific violence, the cartoonish violence of Max Payne and of computer games in general, became sickening. And the reviews of such games become woefully insignificant to the point of questioning the very existence of these games. After all, computer and video games are not really necessary, are they?

Violence is easy

I imagine this questioning of how I live my life was similar to what many of us went through in that long week after September 11, 2001. For me, this questioning led to an epiphany of sorts with regard to computer games specifically and games in general. I believe that games are important to the human being and I believe history supports this proposition. Games have been part of human civilization since the beginning. We have an insatiable need for games. I don’t know why, perhaps it satisfies some base instinct, I will let psychologists and sociologists explain that, but the need is definitely there.

So by that definition, computer games are a natural extension of our need to play games. A validation of my hobby, at least in my mind. However, the question of why computer games are so violent remained. And then it came to me – my personal epiphany. Computer games are violent because violence is easy. Just as it is easier for terrorists to strike out in desperate acts of violence rather than to confront the real issues faced by the people they claim to be fighting for, so too is it easier for programmers to code violence.

Reacting to situations and confrontations with violence eliminates complicated artificial intelligence issues in the game just as it eliminates complicated human interactions in real life. It is much easier to shoot a target than to interact intelligently with it. This gives me hope that with better technology, and with the increased knowledge of how to use it, will come better and less violent games. As computer-generated game universes become more dynamic, the violent resolution of conflict will be one of many options and not the only option. Notably, this same line of reasoning can be expressed about human relationships and the benefits of better education, and increased tolerance and understanding.

This altered thinking made me nostalgic for the games I played twenty years ago. The games that hooked me, that made me want to play computer games well into middle age. To my surprise and joy, several of these games, Infocom text-adventure games, are now available for free on the Internet. A little joy was welcome after many weary hours in front of the television filled with too many haunting images. These games don’t stimulate your mind with pixels but with the written word. Playing a computer game that forces you to visualize a situation, to imagine a solution, is tremendously rewarding.

Thinking along these same lines, I began to reevaluate the desirability of multiplayer environments. Many online games evolve into online communities with online-only friends that are often as vital as any friend in the “real world.”  Community involvement can be a great comfort in times of stress such as these. Having a brisk conversation over a friendly game of chess, checkers or cards reminds one of a time when such games were played at the local courthouse, barbershop, or park. The Mayberry small town community available over a worldwide computer network. The Internet at its best.

He who lives by fighting with an enemy has an interest in the preservation of the enemy’s life.
— Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

Moving on

The tragic and terrible events of September 11th have changed the world, have altered our thinking, and have united us in a common cause. Only time will tell if the world will be a better place because of this. I will only allow myself to believe that it will. However, the months ahead will be trying and decisions will have to be made from often bleak choices that offer little solace.

While at these moments computer games are insignificant, they are part of human nature and we will play games again. But for some time to come, games with violent imagery are not likely to be popular. I suggest a return to games that stimulate the imagination, that transport players to places and worlds that can only be seen in the mind’s eye. I also suggest that online multiplayer environments are a good alternative to what has passed for good computer gaming recently. Text-adventures, chess, checkers, sports, card games – these are just some of the games we can choose to play that do not involve violence. These games will help release the stress of what promises to be tumultuous world events. May we all find peace and happiness in the end.

Looking for less chaos in my Anarchy Online

Originally published in September 2001.

Historical note: I had high hopes for Anarchy Online, but the game, ever after patches and expansions, never managed to reach my expectations.

Name: Anarchy Online
Genre: Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game
Format: CD-ROM
Developer: Funcom
Publisher: Funcom
Multiplayer: Yes, only
Requires: Windows 95+, Pentium II 450+, 64Mb RAM (128 highly recommended), CD-ROM Drive, DirectX 3D Video (accelerated video highly recommended), 700Mb hard drive space, Internet connection 56K
Retail Price: $49.99
Street Price: $34.99

At the beginning of this year I made a prediction. Unfortunately, it may be a prediction that comes back to haunt me. I said that this would be the year massively multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPG) hit their stride and became a mainstream phenomenon. I envisioned Dan Rather and his 48 Hours show doing an expose on this new form of entertainment sweeping the country. If several recent releases of MMORPG titles are any indication, my prediction may prove premature by a few years.

The game in question in this case is Anarchy Online, a tremendously ambitious title of the science fiction genre. Published by Funcom, the European company that brought us the wonderful adventure game last year entitled The Longest Journey, Anarchy Online is a gorgeous game in search of a soul. The panoramic graphic-vistas of its sci-fi setting cannot overcome its short-comings in the one area that really matters – game play.

Why do I exist?

The premise of Anarchy Online is that a mega-corporation, Omni-Tek, has established a mining outpost on a planet known as Rubi-Ka. Of course, being a cold-hearted mega-corporation means that there are inevitable labor problems. In this case, those labor problems have escalated into a full-scale rebellion. And of course, in that a rebel lifestyle is just not for everyone, there is also a group of neutral fence-sitting inhabitants. Each player’s character must decide which of these three groups to join.

The traits for each character are drawn from a cadre of choices including breed, profession, appearance, height, sex, and initial skill set. The magnitude of available choices allow each character to achieve a certain uniqueness and give the player ample opportunity to create an avatar they can call their own.

However, this is where the fatal flaw appears. Sure each player has the opportunity to create a unique character for the online world and sure the traits that make up that character are varied and numerous, but the reason a character should be created to inhabit this world remain unclear. There is no “why” to effect your decision about whether to create a doctor, fixer, martial artist or soldier. A player can agonize about all aspects of their character but in the end a random character would be just as compelling. As it stands now, Anarchy Online has no story. Each character in the game is doomed to this life cycle – kill some computer-generated or player-versus-player bad guys to increase your level, so you can increase your skills, so you can kill bigger bad guys, so you can increase your level, so you can increase your skills, so you can kill bigger bad guys, rinse, repeat. Your character’s life or death and the life and death of the bad guys, have absolutely no impact on the daily operation of the planet.

The one area where Anarchy Online stands out is in the game graphics. Anarchy Online is absolutely gorgeous. The night-sky, with its three moons, will at times take your breath away. The beautiful panoramic vitas of the outlying wilderness areas are awe-inspiring. No other online game has come close to this expansive and beautiful setting. In this regard, the game is truly in a class by itself. It is just a shame that such extraordinary scenery is wasted on a game without a compelling story to tell.

The game also excels in terms of user interface and the mechanics of game play. Making good use of screen real estate, mouse buttons, and keyboard shortcuts, Anarchy Online is intuitive to play. The real meat of the game lies in the almost overwhelming scope of its useable items. Weapons, armor, clothes, implants and nanoprograms number in the thousands. Finding items designed for your character and then deciding what to actually acquire is dependent on your limited resources and the overall plans for your character’s development. The best way to manager your character is a true strategic challenge.

Anarchy Online game designers have done a good job of analyzing what was wrong with the previous generation of MMORPGs. For example, to avoid the problem associated with players “camping” static dungeons for valuable loot, players can purchase separate missions that only one character controls. These missions can be tackled single-handedly or with a group of your choosing, but the uninvited cannot participate. This single improvement solves a multitude of problems experienced in previous games like EverQuest.

Anarchy Online is violent in the sense that players, through their characters, are required to kill either computer-generated bad guys or other player avatars in order to advance in the game. However, the violence is fairly cartoonish and not too offensive. In addition, the designers have incorporated the idea that no one dies a permanent death on the planet. Even the computer-controlled bad guys are reconstituted through the wonders of nano technology and biogenetic engineering. The game is rated Teen by the ESRB.

Uncertain chaos

The Anarchy Online box has the tag line, “the future is in your hands.”  A truer statement cannot be made about this game. In the future, Funcom promises to fix the annoying bugs still in the game, many of which end with frustrating crashes in which your character is left hanging in a heated battle. In the future, Funcom promises an actual story to make Rubi-Ka come alive with a purpose. In the future, Funcom promises to balance game play so that some professions actually matter in this fantasy world of Rubi-Ka. Unfortunately, you have to pay for the future with hard currency in the present.

I have been looking forward to Anarchy Online for almost a year now. I thought this would be the definitive game of the MMORPG genre. And it still may reach that threshold, but I cannot recommend casual gamers buy this game on the hope that something wonderful may someday happen. The potential is tremendous but the reality of its present condition overwhelms that potential and trumps it. In its current state, Anarchy Online is spectacular eye-candy, a work of art that lacks soul, a populated sci-fi world devoid of purpose.

The blue shift must be to the short side of the spectrum

Originally published in August 2001.

Name: Half-Life: Blue Shift
Genre: Action/First Person Shooter
Developer: Gearbox Software and Valve
Publisher: Sierra Online Inc.
Multiplayer: Yes
Requires: Windows 9x+, Pentium 233 or better, 32 MB RAM, 2X CD-ROM Drive, SVGA Video. Recommended: Pentium III or better, 64 MB RAM, and 3D Video.
Retail Price: $29.99
Street Price: $29.99

Once upon a time, in a land not so far away, there was a computer game called Half-Life.  When it hit the retail shelves in 1998, it was collectively hailed as the best computer game of that year and for the next year after that.  Bars were raised, standards were challenged, and molds were broken.  The collective knowledge of what a first-person-shooter should be was established in that year.  Oh, but time is a cruel mistress.  And computer gamers being a fiendishly demanding lot, require more of their games especially in this genre than even the venerable Half-Life can deliver.

In its latest incarnation, Half-Life: Blue Shift, developed by Gearbox Software and published by Sierra Online, is beginning to show its age and its limitations.  While still maintaining much of the suspense and pending-doom-feel of previous chapters in this saga of an experiment gone awry at a super-secret government research facility, Blue Shift suffers from an engine that cannot match recent games in this genre.  A clear case of the children besting the parent that bore them.  The new generation of first-person games, using better more advanced game engines, encourage stealth and strategy, two aspects noticeably missing in Half-Life games.  Games like Deus Ex and No One Lives Forever create a deeper game experience by adding elements of suspense and surprise that Blue Shift cannot deliver.

Nip It in the bud

In Blue Shift, the player takes on the role of Barney Calhoun, a security guard at the Black Mesa facility.  For those of you unfamiliar with “Barneys,” that is the good-natured way players and developers refer to the Black Mesa guards common in the previous chapters of Half-Life.  These guards, often serving to relieve tension with comic-relief, maintain security at the top secret research facility that serves as the backdrop for all Half-Life chapters.

Your Barney arrives at work only to discover that the entire facility is experiencing major system glitches.  This forebodes of a long day at work.  Of course, other events in the facility will soon embroil you in a life and death struggle to make it to safety before aliens or the government terminate your employment, permanently.  The rest of the adventure plays out in similar fashion to the previous chapters of Half-Life, with players solving puzzles, dispatching bad guys and busting boxes looking for more ammo and first-aid kits.

While this is all painfully familiar, there is one difference.  This version of the Half-Life series has been upgraded graphically with the inclusion of a high definition pack.  The enhanced graphics give Blue Shift a much more crisp and vivid look.  The faces of characters are much more pronounced and a lot less blocky.  The colors are more vivid and the edges for each object are much clearer and reveal details overlooked in previous unenhanced versions.  This is the one area where Blue Shift really shines.

And, unfortunately, that is the real story here.  Blue Shift is fine example of expertly designed levels in the Half-Life environment.  The scripted events are funny when they are supposed to be funny and scary when they are supposed to be scary.  The game play is true to the Half-Life experience and each level is fun to play.  The problem is that there are not enough levels to play.  An experienced player of the first-person genre will blow through this game in a couple of hours max.  I spent extra time playing just trying to make sure I wasn’t missing something for this review and I finished in about four hours.  Selling at almost full-game price, Blue Shift should be about triple the length.  As it is now, it is merely a glorified and over-priced expansion pack.

The only way the Blue Shift box is worth the cost is if you have not played Half-Life: Opposing Force, which ships as an added feature.  This was the second chapter in the trilogy and is a fine game in its own right.  When considered to be two games for the price of one coupled with enhanced graphics for all versions, Blue Shift is almost worth the price.

Half-Life: Blue Shift is rated Mature (17+) by the ERSB for the game’s blood, gore and violence.  All games that place the player in the role of killing another human being are rated for older players and specifically not for children.  If that particular form of computer game violence disturbs you then I suggest you take the rating to heart.

Short shift

So where does this leave us.  Half-Life: Blue Shift is an excellent set of levels based on the Half-Life universe and game engine.  It is well produced in every fashion and the high definition pack does a great job of updating and enhancing the graphics of the game.  However, in the final analysis, Blue Shift is major disappointment.  For the money, the game is just way too short.  While the enhanced graphics are a nice feature, their inclusion does not override the short length of game play.  If you have never purchased Opposing Force, then you may be able to justify spending money on Blue Shift.  If you can find Blue Shift for under $20 and if you are a fan of Half-Life games and if you have never played Opposing Force, this game may be worth the price of admission.  But those are too many “ifs” for me to recommend Blue Shift in general.

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider - Absolutely

Originally published in June 2001.

Historical note: While it may not be the best movie ever made, Angelina Jolie, to her credit, sells the role. By comparison, everything about the Wing Commander movie was awful.

The convergence of movie and video game production is progressing steadily toward its ultimate destiny - one giant entertainment industry. Movies are being made into computer and video games and computer and video games are being made into movies. The blending of these two entertainment forms combines the best and the worst of each and, unfortunately in the recent past, the worst has been the dominant result.

Memories of such disastrous to mediocre film offerings like those based on Wing Commander, Super Mario Brothers, Mortal Combat, and Tron, haunt me even now. While, going in the opposite direction, computer and video game conversions based on movies generally make me cringe. These past lackluster efforts reflected a cynical attempt on the part of witless executives in each industry to exploit what they perceived to be a cash cow. At some point, someone has to make one of these movies for the right reasons. When that happens, the result will be a blockbuster, of that I am sure.

So it was with these haunted memories of past failures that I decided to be brave and travel once more into the breach. I went to see Lara Croft: Tomb Raider on opening day. The movie stars the beloved icon of third-person action/adventure games, Lara Croft. For the movie, Lara is played by the mysterious Angelina Jolie. Is this the movie that cements the bond between these entertainment forms?  I think it just might be.

First some background

In October 1996, when the first Tomb Raider computer game hit the shelves, the market was dominated by first-person-shooters like Doom, Quake, and a multitude of clones. Tomb Raider added two new aspects to computer games: a third-person perspective and Lara Croft. Soon after its release, Tomb Raider knock-offs engulfed the gaming market seeking to capitalize on a new trend. Notwithstanding the lackluster critical reviews, the game became a best-seller. I didn’t like the game myself – too much jumping, too many bugs, and too much emphasis on button manipulation. But critics don’t always predict success.

However, it was the establishment of Lara Croft as an iconic personality that changed the computer game industry forever. The character of Lara Croft transcended the medium in which she was first introduced to become part of the general culture. For the first time, a computer game character was recognizable enough to be used outside the medium to perform that one all-important capitalistic function – advertising. Visions of money danced in advertising executives’ heads.

The movie

And so it was inevitable that someone, somewhere would suggest that Lara Croft and Tomb Raider would be a good vehicle for a motion picture. Under similar circumstances, many very bad movies have been made, but that never deters movie-makers with deep pockets. I was braced for the worst and hopeful for the best.

Surprise!  Finally, someone has made a good movie based on a computer game. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider is a very slick action/adventure movie in the summer escapist movie tradition. Comparing this movie to series like Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, The Mummy, or any James Bond movie of the past, Tomb Raider more than holds its own. While it won’t win any additional Oscars for Angelina Jolie, it does hold your interest and it does entertain.

The plot is pretty standard action/adventure storytelling, the good guys must prevent the bad guys from doing bad-guy stuff. In this case, the bad guys are after an ancient extraterrestrial artifact that allows the user to time travel. The device is coveted by the Illuminati, a group often referenced by conspiracy-buffs as the people actually running the world. This super-secret power-hungry society wants to use the artifact to take full control and rule the world. Bad guys always want to rule the world, but no one ever explains why they want all that responsibility. Oh, well.

As you can see, the plot is merely a conduit for the action. And there is plenty of action. In fact the action sequences are fantastically staged and surprisingly fresh. The movie-makers took full advantage of Lara’s acknowledged prowess in survival skills and nimble antics to give viewers a wild ride marked by appropriate computer game style and attitude. The Lara Croft of the computer game is the Lara Croft of the movie.

Which leads me to the real gem of the movie: Angelina Jolie. This is first time I have seen Ms. Jolie in a movie and I was very impressed. I can see why she won an Oscar. She has tremendous screen presence. In Lara, she exudes confidence, power, danger, and sensuousness every second she is on the screen. And this tangible presence dominates every scene. Angelina Jolie is Lara Croft and I can’t see any other actress playing this part.

The computer-generated special effects and the stunt work are all top-notch. The innovative use of bungee cords in one of the action pieces was remarkable. Actually filming much of the scenes in the various exotic locales gives the movie a big-budget feel that belies its B-movie roots. However, I was disappointed in the soundtrack. The big-budget glitz so prominent in other production aspects was noticeably absent in the uninspired soundtrack. For the sequel, which I’m sure is being written at this very moment, I would like to see some prominent popular musicians participating.


Lara Croft: Tomb Raider is not Citizen Cane, but it is also not Wing Commander. This is a movie based on a computer game that was obviously made by people who understand what a computer game is and what appeal it holds for an audience. The movie captures the attitude and style of the computer game without reverting to the mistaken idea that computer games are only played by socially-inept little boys. The movie is clever and maintains a level of sophistication that places it head and shoulders above other movies with similar lineage. I was truly impressed by Angelina Jolie and here dead-on accurate depiction of Lara Croft as an attractive, self-sufficient, yet flawed heroine motivated by an inexplicably need for danger. While far from perfect, this was a fun movie. It is also a movie that marks the merger of film and video games into one form of entertainment, interchangeable in the eyes of the public. Entertainment is entertainment, the delivery method is now secondary.

I believe this summer marks a turning point in the evolution of entertainment in this country. Entertainment as an art form and a business is no longer constrained by the medium in which it is first presented to the public. Characters and stories can and will cross between the computer screen, the television screen and the big screen with increasing ease and increasing success. This summer will see another movie based on a video game, Final Fantasy, and a cross-platform video game version of the movie The Matrix should be ready by Christmas. And these are just two examples, more are on the way. If Lara Croft: Tomb Raider is any gauge, it should be a fun ride.

My journey with April

Originally published in June 2001.

Historical note: By this point in history, the adventure game was on the way out, but this was one of the last great ones.

Name: The Longest Journey
Genre: Adventure
Format: CD-ROM
Developer: Funcom 2000
Publisher: Funcom 2000
Multiplayer: No
Requires: Required - Windows 95 or better, 166 MHz Pentium, 32MB RAM, CD-ROM drive, SVGA Video. Recommended - Pentium II 266MHz, 3D Accelerator Video Card, and 64MB RAM.
Retail Price: $45.99
Street Price: $34.99

Historically speaking, the adventure game genre is often designated a classical form of computer game. Like classical music, adventure games have a long history of familiar titles that influence and permeate all current artistic and commercial endeavors in the industry. Adventure games are this industry’s foundation, the common heritage that give all computer games their lease on life. They are the seed from which this now prominent form of entertainment has sprung.

However, similar to its classical music cousin, the adventure game, especially in recent years, is not among the “popular” computer game genres. Spicier and trendier games in the form of the first-person-shooter or real-time-strategy genres have been making the headlines and dominating the attention of most computer gamers. So it was with great excitement and anticipation that I decided to play and review The Longest Journey from Funcom 2000. Just about every trade publication in the gaming industry has praised this adventure game for its excellence and I could not agree with them more wholeheartedly.

So it begins

One of the main features that separate the adventure game genre from many other computer game genres is the plot – adventure games have one, or at least should have one. The Longest Journey reads like a good fantasy-science fiction novel with plot elements that include dreams, magic, time travel, and dimensional shifts. The player experiences the plot through the story’s protagonist, April Ryan. April is a young art student with a troubled past and an uncertain future. She is also precocious, witty, and above-all, smart. It is so nice to play a smart character for a change; one that does not feel compelled to shoot first and ask questions later.

April’s journey begins with her concern over the intense lucid dreams she has been experiencing. As the story unfolds, she finds herself in the midst of the proverbial good versus evil, chaos versus order, conflict. Along the journey she discovers strengths she didn’t know she had, like courage, compassion, and self-sacrifice. The journey is actually two parallel journeys, one journey will prevent a cataclysm and the other will allow April to discover her place in the universe. In the context of the game, each is equally important.

The story touches on many mystical and philosophical questions dealing with subjects as diverse as religion, urban decay, drug use, child abuse, magic, big-business corruption, cola-wars, pre-marital sex, homosexuality, and man-machine technology. This gambit of issues is interwoven in an intriguing story complete with puzzles and quandaries requiring out-of-the-box thinking. This game will stimulate both sides of your brain and challenge even the most experienced adventure gamer.

Game play and user interface is fairly typical adventure game fare, with mouse clicks being the main mode of interaction. April is free to explore her world and interact with the characters she meets and the game does a good job of rewarding the player that takes the time to explore. Using inventory is intuitive and the amount of inventory is mercifully not arbitrarily limited. Suffice it to say, if you can pick it up and take it with you, then do so.

The Longest Journey is set several hundred years in the future, but elements of contemporary life remain, so everything is familiar, but in an unsettling way. The art work for the backgrounds and cityscapes are magnificent. It is almost guaranteed that you will find several scenes desirable for Windows desktop wallpaper. The sound and musical score are excellent and do a commendable job establishing the feel for each particular scene or situation.

In game animation uses 3D modeling for April and all the characters she can interact with. The character animations are stylized and will not be easily confused for an attempt at realism. Rather, the animations fit the overall tone of the game and the artwork in it - a sort of surrealistic combination of modern pop art styles. The surreal nature of the art helps give the game an edge that never allows the player to feel that all is well. There is a constant feeling that something is about to happen. This is very important for any adventure game and in book parlance The Longest Journey would be described as “a real page-turner.”

And so it must end

The Longest Journey is rated M-Mature by the ESRB rating system, but decisions about appropriateness should go beyond that rating. This game is designed from the ground-up for a mature audience. All of the themes are adult, all aspects of the game are approached from adult sensibilities. Not only is the subject matter too mature for children, but from a strictly playable point of view, players without at least a college perspective will most likely be bored by the extensive exposition and contemplative pacing.

In addition, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that the game’s overall tone will probably not sit well with the more politically right-aligned members of society. Funcom is a Norwegian-based company and the game reflects a more liberal attitude common in that part of Europe. It is an attitude that Jerry Falwell and his ilk would probably find disconcerting. Most traditional authoritative institutions are on the receiving end of at least one of April’s barbs. Personally, I rather enjoyed them, but if you are overly sensitive to such criticism then I would think twice about playing this game. If, on the other hand, you find volleys fired at sacred institutions appealing, this is a game for you.

Bottom line

The Longest Journey is one of the best adventure games I have ever played and has single-handedly reestablished the viability of the genre in the eyes of many hard-core computer gamers. Myst may have sold a zillion copies and this game may only sell a few thousand, but The Longest Journey is infinitely better. If you played Myst and enjoyed it, get this game and see for yourself what an adventure game should be, because this is the best of the genre available.


This away team is not far enough away

Originally published in May 2001.

Historical note: After eight years beta testing for Activision, this game was the beginning of the end. It was obvious to me that the suits were making design decisions at this point not the developers. This game was destined for painful obscurity.

Name: Star Trek Away Team
Genre: Squad-based Strategy
Format: CD-ROM
Developer: Reflexive Entertainment, Inc.
Publisher: Activision, Inc.
Multiplayer: Yes
Requires: Pentium II, 266MHz, 64MB RAM, Windows, 500 MB hard drive space, 4X CD Drive, Sound card, Mouse, Network Interface Card or Modem for Multiplayer
Retail Price: $49.95
Street Price: $29.95

When I first started playing Star Trek Away Team in its beta form, I had every intention of enjoying it and writing a positive review. The premise of an elite force operating clandestinely throughout the Star Trek galaxy as a first line of defense for the Federation of Planets was intriguing. But after playing the game I just can’t say I enjoyed it. Star Trek Away Team, published by Activision and developed by Reflexive Entertainment Inc., is, to put it simply, bland. The reality of this assessment is all the more disturbing to me on a personal level because my name is in the game as a beta tester.

While Star Trek Away Team (STAT) is not really bad, it is definitely not really good either. It falls in the twilight zone of mediocrity that dooms the game to the bargain bin, probably by the time you read this. However, this is not to imply that the game is not well-crafted, because it is, but instead, the implication is that it fails to break new ground or even prove interesting in previously plowed ground.

The Lowdown

The basic plot is that there is this special ship with a special hand-picked crew, whose mission is to infiltrate hostile areas of space, complete a designated dangerous mission, and escape undetected. Sort of a Mission Impossible meets Captain Kirk. Of course, the whole project is hush-hush and no one, save a few high-level admirals, even knows of the unit’s existence. The player omnipotently controls this special away team unit as it probes the mysterious undertakings of the Federation’s most nefarious enemies, including the Romulans and the Borg.

As the story unfolds, the crew discovers an insidious plot against the Federation. This conspiracy threatens the Federation and all it stands for down to its very core. Lucky for you, Data and Worf make cameo appearances to help save the day. Unfortunately, the player does not get the opportunity to direct those stars or make use of their unique abilities.

The game bills itself as a squad-based tactical strategy game, however the available tactics are quite limited. Each possible member of the Away Team crew has specific abilities in terms of useable weapons and skills. This limitation is apparently supposed to pass for strategy because once on the mission, there is really no strategy at all. Each mission is basically blast your way through or sneak your way through. No matter the nature of the mission, the only way to complete it successfully is to solve the myriad of puzzle-like obstacles that stand in the way. Gone are the tried-and-true tactics of most squad-based strategy games - combined arms, ambushes, crossfires, or any of the other tactics veteran game players are familiar with.

Viewing from an isometric angle, players move their away team using simple mouse-click commands. Ordering your engineer to use his or her code breaking device is a simple mouse-click here and a mouse-click there. This basic ease-of-use interface holds for all team functions whether it is firing phasers or healing the wounded.

One of the few bright spots in STAT is the voice-acting. It is top notch, with characters properly using verbal inflection and syntax without the typically stilted I’m-reading-a-cue-card delivery. In fact, the production values of the game are quite stellar and beyond reproach. Tapping the vast array of sound and music from the television shows and the movies, the game sounds great. Phasers sound like phasers and the transporter sounds like the transporter. And most importantly, the game is very stable. Kudos to Activision and Reflexive for producing a nearly bug-free game.

However, the actual meat of the game seems borrowed. All of the elements, the art work, the game engine, the general plot, the characters – everything is familiar to a fault. Not Start Trek Universe familiar, but previously-played game familiar. The feeling of “been there, done that” is too much to overcome. Another major flaw is the lack of interactivity the player can have with the environment. Away team members can only interact with the universe in specific and limited ways. If they can’t use a tricorder on it, it doesn’t exist. There are no real conversations with computer controlled characters and, oddly enough, the computer controlled characters themselves don’t interact with each other. The characters don’t salute each other, say hello, carry on conversations, nothing.

This game is rated T (Teen) by the ESRB, presumably for the violence. From my perspective, the rating seems one level too high, especially when considering the comic-book nature of the violence and the situations. If your children regularly watch Star Trek on television, I feel certain they can handle the content of this game.

Go Team Go

Obviously, I did not like Star Trek Away Team. But the reasons why I didn’t like it are subtler than the usual reasons I don’t like a particular game. I am a huge Star Trek fan. The universe originally created by Gene Roddenberry is rich, deep, and hopeful for the future of human kind. The possibilities for good computer games using the characters and universe created by Star Trek seem endless. Inexplicably, computer games created using the franchise have been mediocre and generally ignored by the game buying public. This game just continues that trend.

The game mechanics are top notch and implemented with near perfection. The story is plausible for that universe and creates some excitement and generally holds the players interest, even though many aspects are rehashes of television episodes. This not why the game falls flat.

No, the real culprit is the game play itself. As I said, it is boring. The missions are uninspired, the crew is not very interesting, no character development takes place, and no moral dilemmas are presented. This is a game that goes through the motions and it shows. Star Trek Away Team is a perfectly executed tepid computer game.

May the GeForce3 be with you

Originally published in April 2001.

Entertainment is big business. Billions of dollars are spent each year, and billions more are being earned, on products designed to occupy our discretionary time and, more importantly, money. Once at the fringe of the entertainment industry, electronic game development has taken its place as a ruthless business with acquisitions and business failures more common than ever before.

Two prominent companies have suffered major turns of fortune during the past two months. Sega, an icon of the console market, has removed itself from the hardware fray in the battle of platforms to concentrate on software and game-concept development. While 3Dfx Interactive, Inc., the company that made the phrase “accelerated video graphics adapter required” a standard for computer games has been absorbed by the upstart competing chip maker nVidia Corporation.

While the Sega decision seems to be sound business in the wake of the Microsoft X-Box announcement and the Sony Playstation 2 release, the collapse of 3Dfx falls squarely on the companies’ leadership and their failure to foresee the insatiable quest for more video speed from PC-gamers. The recent release of the nVidia GeForce3 chip-set was the final nail in the coffin for the once-supreme accelerated-video company.


Bursting on to the accelerated graphics scene just a few years ago, nVidia has gone from an also ran to the cream of the crop by concentrating on the technology their chips can deliver. The company has done an excellent job of positioning itself as the default chip for video card manufacturers and computer-makers like Dell and Gateway. And in two recent coups they have formed partnerships with Microsoft and Apple Computer to supply video components for upcoming products. That’s right – there’s nVidia-made graphic acceleration coming to both Apples and X-Boxes.

To their credit, nVidia has achieved its noteworthy success by sticking to what it knows best. The company’s abilities lie in developing the technology of accelerated video in the form of the chip-sets that reside on video adapter boards. They leave the actual circuit board construction to other vendors. This keeps costs down and frees up resources for continued research. The GeForce3 chip-set is nVidia’s latest in a long line of company-developed technical innovations.


Besides the usual mega-pixel pushing pipelines and polygon-count rendering numbers, the specifications that set the GeForce3 head-and-shoulders above the other chip makers revolve around three technological innovations: programmability, the Vertex Shader, and the Pixel Shader. The purpose of these three innovations is to off-load most of the video calculation requirements from the CPU and pass those to the video card. This increases the CPU’s capacity to perform other calculations necessary in modern computer games such as calculating artificial intelligence algorithms.

Programmability – Previous 3D accelerators depended on the CPU to interpret instructions from the game software. The 3D accelerator’s job was to pump out the video information as interpreted and presented by the CPU. The GeForce3 is programmable in much the same way the Intel Pentium or AMD Thunderbird are programmable. The GeForce 3 can interpret instructions from the software and then create and push the polygons itself using the shader scheme incorporated into the video card, which is called the nFiniteFX programmable architecture.

Vertex Shader – The vertex shader controls and manipulates the polygons required by the game. Polygons are the wire-mesh outlines that represent characters and scenes in 3D games. This programmable shader can deform, stretch, or shrink objects in the game in real time without taxing the CPU.

Pixel Shader – This little technical gem processes the texturing and lighting effects of a sequence. Simply put, this is the covering that goes over the wire-mesh. The pixel shader can handle multi-texturing using only one complete texture rather than the several textures required in current video technology. This will reduce required memory and greatly enhance the depth of any scene, which will produce real-time effects similar to pre-rendered sequences in game cut-scenes now.


The impact of all this technical mumbo-jumbo will be felt by the computer-game industry for many years to come. This is the beginning of the visual nirvana that hard-core computer gamers have been clamoring for since the first pixel hit the first phosphorous screen in a little game called Pong. (Young readers will have to look up Pong in the history books.)  This new technology promises computer graphics so advanced that in some cases you won’t be able to tell the difference between computer games and movies like Toy Story or A Bug’s Life. But the key for the computer gamer is that this level of detail will be rendered and delivered in real-time as you play the game.


Probably just as important from a game development perspective is the GeForce3’s marriage to DirectX 8, Microsoft’s latest multimedia application programming interface (API) which is now integral to the Windows operating system. The close cooperation of Microsoft and nVidia means that computer game developers and publishers have a standard language to use when sending data to the video card. This is significant because in previous 3D-acceleration innovations, the proprietary nature of the introduced technologies limited the number of developers actually willing to take advantage of the new features. The programmability of the video chip-set and the standard interface of DirectX mean that developers can concentrate on game development without worrying about various video card drivers or quirky APIs.

For many casual gamers out there this may seem a techno-geek’s dream with very little application to anyone but the hard core gamer. In the short-term that may prove correct, but in the long-term, these technologies are going to trickle down to all computer games and all hardware configurations. Also a consideration is the near-core computer gamer. These are the gamers that play games often but don’t spend time and resources on upgrading equipment or purchasing the latest and greatest game. They are the normally content gamer who is satisfied with 2-year old games and the 2-year old hardware required to run them.

Bottom line

It has been my experience that when a technological leap of this magnitude occurs in the computer game industry, these near-core types are some of the first to adopt. The GeForce3, and the incremental improvements that will be made to it in the run up to Christmas, could very well be the catalyst that drives computer sales and other game-related upgrades. This is the magnitude of the visual improvement. The “wow” factor of the GeForce3 could prove too much to withstand. The one variable that could quell this computer game buying enthusiasm is the economy. However, from a purely technological standpoint, and assuming computer games on the horizon live up to their hype, just about everyone who plays computer games, no matter how casually, will be considering the purchase of new video hardware before the end of the year.

Living is the operative word

Originally published in March 2001.

Historical note: This one of my favorite games of all time - it was funny, challenging, and smart.

Name: The Operative: No One Lives Forever
Genre: First Person Action/Shooter
Format: CD-ROM
Developer: Monolith Productions, Inc.
Publisher: Fox Interactive
Multiplayer: Yes
Requires: Microsoft Windows 95+, Pentium II 300 MHz, 64Mb RAM, 400Mb hard disk space, 4X CD-ROM drive, 8Mb 3D Accelerator Video Card, 16-bit sound card.
Retail Price: $39.99
Street Price: $29.99

Ever since Sean Connery uttered those immortal words: “Bond … James Bond,” modern culture has been inundated with images of suave, sophisticated, and debonair spies combating evil, getting the girl (or guy) and generally saving the day. As with all cultural icons that begin to take themselves too seriously, the James Bond persona has become a favorite subject for parody.  Austin Powers is the most recent parody incarnation, but before that there were the classic spoofs portrayed in the Avengers, Matt Helm and the-like.

Cate Archer

Mrs. Peel, the female lead in the Avengers series, is probably the best match you can find to describe the female lead in Fox Interactive’s first-person-shooter (FPS) The Operative: No One Lives Forever. Like Mrs. Peel, Cate Archer is a stylish, attractive heroine with leggy features, cat-like reflexes and a dangerous attitude. This is one “hip chick” in the 1960s tradition of the term.

Ms. Archer is part of an international spy network sanctioned by the United Nations know as UNITY and operating in the depths of the Cold War circa 1967. Previously relegated to mundane administrative functions, Cate finds herself pressed into field work and the dangerous adventures she has always coveted. She’ll have to deal with villainous spies and with the male chauvinist attitudes of her superiors in order to be successful, but with the player’s guidance, she is up to the task.

Taking cues from the best-selling FPS-games of recent years, No One Lives Forever (NOLF) is plot driven rather than kill-everything-that-moves driven. A terrorist organization known as HARM has systematically eliminated UNITY operatives until there are only a few remaining. Much to the chagrin of the pompous UNITY leadership, they must send a woman into the field to do a man’s work. As the game progresses, Cate proves herself again and again as more than a match for the villains and thugs that get in her way as she uncovers the evil plans of HARM. Of course, as with any good spy yarn, the circumstances are dire and millions of lives are at stake.

The things people say

The game interface for NOLF follows the usual control scheme of the FPS genre. Most of the important activity revolves around the mouse and the keyboard shortcut keys. Players can change the configuration to suit their whims but the way that is accomplished is more difficult than it should be, requiring many mouse-clicks and too much trial and error. The reconfiguration of controls seems to be the last thing producers think of when developing a game, which is a shame because it is probably the easiest game aspect to actually code.

The game ships with a shareware version of  Microsoft’s SideWinder Voice Technology called Game Voice. I was not impressed. I believe that voice recognition will become an important part of game interfaces in the very near future, but we are not there yet. I give Monolith high marks for the try, but, for now at least, the mouse-keyboard combination is much more efficient.

There is one game-characteristic in NOLF that sets it apart from other action-oriented games – the dialogue. The overall tone of the dialogue is witty and quite funny, especially the conversations that take place between guards and other thugs while you sneak around levels. In many cases, I found myself quite content to sit in a corner and wait for the conversation to end before resuming the pursuit of my mission objectives. Like Deus Ex, it is not really critical that you kill each every bad guy on a level to complete your mission. In fact, judging from some of the conversations, these thugs are pretty pathetic and could do with a little mercy.

Psychedelic extras

It is obvious that Monolith has put an extraordinary amount of effort in designing NOLF to be a complete spy-parody experience. All of the levels are highly detailed and the environments and predicaments Cate finds herself in are varied and intriguing. These environments run the gamut from underwater scuba diving, underground tunnels, trains, airplanes, and even outer-space. The animation, the quality of the artwork and the precision of the sound effects are all top-notch.

Another unique feature of NOLF is the extra CD-ROM that ships with the game. This CD contains several purely audio tracks in addition to some game data. These music tracks are playable in any CD-player. The tracks are psychedelic, acid-tripping, 1960s-inspired music pieces that bring back memories of black-lights and lava lamps. Very kitsch and very cool.

However, this high-level of sophistication does have its price. Several times during play, the game has crashed my system to the point where I was required to cold boot. For the uninitiated, a cold boot simply means turning the computer off while still in the game and in Windows. This is a very bad thing. Several patches have been issued to help solve these problems and they are available on the website.

NOLF carries an appropriate ESRB rating of Teen. The game does contain violence and players will be required to shoot human bad guys during the course of play. However, if your children have been able to handle the Austin Powers movies with no ill effects, I believe they will be able to handle the cartoon violence of NOLF.

Bottom line

For fans of the first-person shooter, The Operative: No One Lives Forever is not a game to be missed. Continuing the precedents set by Half Life and Deus Ex, NOLF creates and interactive world in which the game player is required to make decisions that will determine how the plot unfolds. While NOLF does not reach the pinnacle set by those other games, it does hold its own when compared to the current less than stellar competition. At a price that is almost half the cost of many other games, No One Lives Forever is a bargain. Don’t pass it by.

Learn how to play

Originally published in February 2001.

Historical note: This was my first attempt at pontification. I think I got much of it right.

Half this game is ninety percent mental.
— Yogi Berra

Something has been stuck in the back of my mind since Christmas 1999 and I want to take a moment to discuss it. I have been playing and enjoying electronic games for over 20 years now. I have played every type and genre of game imaginable. I have played so long that I have become knowledgeable enough to write this monthly gaming column. However, I have also become so knowledgeable about computer games, and possibly so single-minded, that I have forgotten that many of you are not familiar with the peculiarities of my favorite past time.

This point was brought home to me in Christmas 1999 when I innocently recommended a computer game to a friend: Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri. Now, this is an excellent game, one of the best strategy games I have ever played. But for my friend, who was, and still is, new to the complexities of computer games, a textbook on theoretical physics may have been just as enjoyable. She was not prepared to study a 100-page manual or survive the steep learning curve required by Alpha Centauri. For me, overcoming and mastering the strategy was what the game was about. For her, playing computer games is supposed to be a leisurely pursuit requiring little effort and even less time.

This difference in playing styles is causing a real dilemma for the game industry. As a game publisher, do you make games like Alpha Centauri, which earns rave reviews from hard-core computer game players like me, but only sells 10,000 copies?  Or do you produce games like Myst, which appeal to the casual gamer but are despised by us hard-core types, and sell 1,000,000 copies?  As electronic games move to an online environment, there should be room for both hard-core and casual game players. The challenge for the industry is how to make games accessible to all styles of play.

This line of thinking led me to another thought. Not all computer game players were raised on Infocom text adventure games like Zork. These games required days of actual game time and often required months to complete. These marathon games defined my frame of reference for what an electronic game is supposed to be. These were the games that immersed you in a vibrant detailed virtual-world without the benefit of any graphics at all, only the players’ imagination. Responsibility for much of the game aspects in a text adventure falls squarely on the player. The player is responsible for visualizing the environment and the problem at hand, and then deciding what comes next. The satisfaction of making a decision that leads to a new and unanticipated game response is a standard rarely matched even by today’s games.

A Bright Future

I bring the specter of player responsibility for game play to your attention as a precursor to my thoughts on the future of computer games. In the past few months, I have spoken in this column about the exciting future I see for electronic games. The technological advances currently in the pipeline, both in terms of software and hardware, are mind-boggling. Electronic games, whether played on the personal computer or on a stand-alone console, will be the entertainment medium of this generation. Game culture will infiltrate mainstream culture. Instead of discussing ER or Temptation Island around the water-cooler, people will discuss what they did last night in some virtual online environment.

Television, radio, films – they are all passive forms of entertainment. However, playing a computer game, especially as they become more sophisticated, more immersive, means being a participant. This subtle, yet significant change in the entertainment dynamic, again adds a layer of responsibility to the experience. And there is the rub. Game players will have to know how to play. With a television you only have to turn it on. With a game you have to read the manual, you have to devote time and energy, especially if you want to master its intricacies. Will the general, entertainment-starved public study the manual, transverse the learning curve, and persevere in the face of frustration for the promise of a unique gaming or entertainment experience?  Will you work hard for the sake of your leisure activities? 

This leads me back to my friend and her reluctance to spend the time and effort necessary to successfully play Alpha Centauri. I understand her unwillingness to give such a large chunk of her already active life to the playing of a computer game. However, much of the entertainment we will experience in the very near future will take place in a virtual world and will require this level of commitment. I wonder what it will take for her, and other casual gamers like her, to accept the burden of learning how to play a game.

Final thought

I want to leave you with this thought. Electronic games are more like sports than they are like television. Just like taking up golf requires that you buy the equipment, take some lessons, and practice before you actually play, so does taking up the “sport” of playing computer games. As electronic games become more immersive they also will become more complicated and as they migrate to online multiplayer environments, gamers are going to be forced to practice before they play. So before you jump into a multiplayer frag-fest, or find yourself in an online romance novel, you better take some time to read the strategy guide, learn the game, and practice, practice, practice.

A little more quest please

Originally published in January 2001.

Name: EverQuest: The Ruins of Kunark
Genre: RPG
Format: CD-ROM
Developer: Verant Interactive
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Multiplayer: Yes, exclusively
Requires: Windows 95X/2000; Pentium 200; 64MB RAM; 3D Accelerated Graphics Card; 600 MB hard disk space; 28.8 Internet connection
Retail Price: $39.99
Street Price: $29.99

Several months ago, I suggested in this column that reluctant computer game players be adventurous and try one of the currently available multiplayer online games.  After several months of procrastination, I decided to take my own advice and give one of these massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) a try.  I settled on EverQuest: The Ruins of Kunark, developed by Verant Interactive and published by Sony. (Note: an expansion pack is now available for high-level players called the Scars of Velious)

The MMORPG genre is, and you heard it here first, the computer gaming buzzword of 2001.  In fact, don’t be surprised to hear 2001 referred to as “The Year of Massive Multiplayer Online Games,” or some such hyperbole.  Hype aside, there are several multiplayer online games poised to hit the market during the first quarter of 2001.  This bubble of releases coming down the pike indicates a major new trend in computer gaming, so there is a kernel of truth somewhere in the marketing buzz.

What It Is

EverQuest takes place in a traditional role-playing fantasy universe complete with wizards, dragons, warriors, and other assorted monsters and characters all striving to survive and thrive in a mystical virtual world.  Players can choose to role-play characters from several different races, including a race of lizards known as Iskars.  In addition, each character is required to choose a professional class.  This class determines your home city, how other characters will react to your character, and most importantly, how you will play the game.  Will your character rely on magic or brute force, will you be good or evil?  These are the questions you will have to answer even before entering the world of EverQuest.

The EverQuest world is divided into several continents, which are themselves further divided into several zones.  The zones can be cities, deserts, forests, mountains, dungeons or anything other type of area found in a role-playing environment.  Each zone has certain monsters, non-player characters and specific dangers that must be dealt with properly and carefully.  This is where the EverQuest community, existing outside the game itself, becomes so important.

Because much of the information about monsters and zones is left for the adventurer to discover, EverQuest players have banded together to form Web sites and discussion boards where detailed information discovered by one player can be shared with others.  These communities often take the form of guilds where higher-level established players and their respective characters mentor newer players and their recently established online personas.

The user interface is extremely simple and should be readily mastered by even the most inexperienced computer gamer.  Using a traditional keyboard/mouse combination, players can target other characters, hail them, attack them, or, as is often the case, run from them.  Banks of programmable hot keys makes the EverQuest interface almost infinitely customizable.  The ability to set your own interface standards should satisfy even the most demanding veteran game player.

I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the in-game graphics employed by the EverQuest game engine.  Streaming graphics data over the Internet in packets that are assembled in a fulfilling form on my computer screen is quite an achievement.  The virtual world is full of color and movement that gives the game environment a level of richness that is comparable to what is available in traditional single-player games.

The environmental and character sounds were also a pleasant surprise.  There are ambient sounds throughout each zone that invoke a sense of danger or pending excitement as you make your way through to your destination.  The monsters voices are wonderful, with skeletons that cackle, lions that roar, wasps that buzz, Griffins that scream, and ghouls that wail a skin-crawling wail.  I saved myself a terrible death several times by hearing an approaching monster before I actually saw it.  For some monsters, seeing it means almost certain death so it pays to keep your ears open.

Of course, dying in EverQuest does not really mean actually dying.  What it means is that you re-spawn in a different zone without any of your previously accumulated equipment.  If you want any of that equipment back you have to travel back to your corpse, which lies in a fetal position at the exact spot where you “died.”  These corpse retrievals can be quite difficult, but are almost always necessary.  This is one area where being a guild member can be very beneficial.

And What It Ain’t

Strictly in terms of technical achievement and innovation, EverQuest is an excellent MMORPG.  Bringing such a rich and vibrant fantasy world to over 300,000 players worldwide through as little as a 28.8k modem, is a wondrous accomplishment.  However, in terms of overall game play, I was a little disappointed.

First and foremost, this is supposed to be an RPG, which means there should be many opportunities to role play.  Unfortunately, there are very few.  In fact several players have been banned from the online world for taking the evil-nature of their characters too seriously.  Another aspect of role-playing games is the quest.  In EverQuest, the quests are either too few or too difficult for low-level players.  The game designers need to add quests, especially at low-levels, and they need to make these quests readily available and easier to find.  Most advantageously, the quest information would be relayed during role play. 

With so few quests available and so few role-playing opportunities, players are left with only one thing to do – kill monsters.  The game digresses into a first-person shooter game where players kill a monster, heal up, kill another monster.  The fact that you are a cleric or a warrior or a necromancer is really irrelevant, your only mission is to kill monsters and gain experience so you can kill bigger monsters so you can gain more experience.  The pattern is oddly addicting, but when you take a step back and look at it, you are left feeling empty and asking yourself, “Why am I playing this game?”  This is not a good question for a game player to ask.

The other major problem I have with EverQuest involves the people at Verant Interactive and Sony.  With 300,000 registered players paying $10 per month in addition to the $30 they paid just to get access, I would have like more time, effort and forethought placed on making my game experience more enjoyable.  (Do the math and you can see why there is industry buzz!)  Ideally this effort would be in the form of better customer service.  There are official discussion boards where players can ask questions, but there are only 2 or 3 moderators to give the official answers to such queries.  With such a huge online population, there should be hundreds of representatives whose sole job description is to converse with customers on the discussion boards.  Mark my words, the first developer that takes such a proactive approach to their online game, will be the game that defines the genre for the masses and displaces EverQuest as the current game of choice.

In the end, I like EverQuest: The Ruins of Kunark as a first-generation MMORPG, but I believe the second-generation will be markedly better.  If you are thinking about purchasing a game in this genre, EverQuest is a good choice, but the better choice may be to wait for the next wave.

Gift ideas for the computer gamer

Originally published in December 2000.

To borrow a phrase – I feel your pain.  Friends and relatives on your holiday gift list who play computer games are notoriously difficult people to pin down on just what it is they want, or more correctly, just what they are willing to wait for.  It is particularly bothersome that many computer gamers, especially of the hard core variety, cannot wait a month or more to get their greedy little hands on the latest greatest game or joystick, or whatever.  I know I seldom can wait that long.

Oddly enough, the computer game industry may help you out with this problem during this holiday shopping season.  Many of the most anticipated gaming titles are being delayed until mid-December this year.  Some publishers may have taken to heart complaints and accusations from years past that games were being released unfinished in anticipation of the holiday rush.  Other publishers are probably trying to time shipments around the release and marketing hype of the Playstation 2.  Whichever is correct, this slight delay may provide just the opportunity you need to find a gift your computer gamer won’t be returning the week after Christmas.

The Games

Over the past year, I have reviewed several computer games and several pieces of hardware for the Louisville Computer News which would make excellent gifts for the computer gamer on your list.  The only question is whether your particular gamer has already obtained the title.  Of the games I reviewed, Deus Ex, developed by Ion Storm and published by Eidos, is probably the current top contender in the trade publications for “game of the year” honors.  This game combines role playing, strategy and first-person-shooter action into one compelling game.  Deus Ex would be a welcome addition to any game library.

The other likely award-winning title I reviewed this past year is Close Combat: Beyond Overlord from Big Time Software.  This is a groundbreaking strategy game title that moves the entire war simulation genre into the 21st Century and away from the board game era of hexagons cardboard tokens.  For war strategy game buffs, this game is a must.  The game is only available online.  And since you will be surfing the Web anyway, you check out Steel Panthers World at War.  This is the latest update to the excellent Steel Panthers series of tactical war strategy games and would compliment the genre bending innovation of Close Combat.  Most importantly, it is a free download so you can’t go wrong.

If you have a role-playing gamer on your shopping list, I have two suggestions for you.  The first is EverQuest: The Ruins of Kunark, a massively multi-player game published by Sony and developed by Verant Interactive.  This is your typical Dudgeons & Dragons role-playing adventure game set in the atypical environment of cyberspace.  Most of the other characters in this virtual world are controlled by online game players from all over the world.  This lends the game a considerable amount of uncertainty and increases the prospects of experiencing the wonderfully unexpected.  However, for the more traditional role-playing gamer there is Baldur’s Gate II.  This role-paying game continues the legacy of fine games from the development team at BioWare Corp. and the publishing house of InterPlay Productions.  Baldur’s Gate II, with its detailed environment and deep story line, is the epitome of stand-alone role-playing games.

Two new games have currently hit the retail shelves and they are generating good buzz from the game community.  Links 2001, from Microsoft, is the latest golf simulation game to hit the market.  It has been receiving rave reviews from the gaming press and the screen shots I have seen are truly remarkable.  With a total new game engine and an included course editor, golf game addicts may have found their own version of nirvana.  The other game generating an inordinate amount of gamer buzz is No One Lives Forever, from Fox Interactive.  This game gives players the opportunity to be a secret agent.  But more than that, it allows players to explore that wonderful spy life of the 1960s, albeit with that distinctive tongue-in-cheek attitude of Austin Powers.

Somebody on your list would probably enjoy one of the more quirky variety of computer games available.  The best example of quirky computer game this year would have to be The Sims and its expansion pack, The Sims Living Large, both developed by Maxis and published by Electronic Arts.  Sims are simulated virtual people that the player can control as they live their everyday lives.  The Sims get up in the morning, shower, eat, go to work, come home from work, watch television, fall in love, fall out of love, get married, have children, and die.  What happens to fill in the blanks between all that depends on how well the player manages their Sims.

The Game Gear

Computer game players require several peripheral pieces of equipment not normally included with the basic small office-home office (SOHO) computer.  For gamers partial to flight simulators or racing simulators, the quality of the input device, the joystick or the driving wheel, can make or break a title.  One of the best of the newer force feedback joysticks is the MS Sidewinder Force Feedback 2, from Microsoft.  An 8-way hat, push throttle, programmable buttons, and on-board power supply make this joystick a winner for any serious simulation lover.

In order to play the latest computer games, the gaming computer requires two enhancements not necessary for normal number crunching or word processing: 3D graphics and 3D sound.  The fastest video cards on the market are using the GeForce2 GTS chip set from nVidia.  These cards scream with raw power and will make any computer gamer salivate in Pavlovian anticipation.  Combined with a new Creative Labs SoundBlaster Live Platinum 5.1 sound card, a computer gamer could get lost in blissful game immersion.

A less glamorous, yet just as vital, piece of computer game hardware is the hard disk.  The price of these workhorses of the computer infrastructure has dropped through the floor and into the basement in the past few years.  Massively huge capacity drives are now available in retail boxes and sold as standard upgrades that increase the useful life of older computers by years.  As games become more richly detailed the demand for megabytes of hard disk space are going to increase geometrically.  The is no such thing as too much hard disk space for a computer gamer.

So Many Games So Little Time

Before we go any further, I want to acknowledge that I seldom spend time discussing children’s computer games.  This is mainly because I never play them and therefore cannot offer intelligent opinions regarding their overall merit as computer games.  That being said, I do think there are several children’s stories and characters ported to the computer game platform that warrant further investigation.  Sticking to established favorites from Disney, or new favorites like Blue’s Clues and Pokemon, should result in a good children’s computer game.  A children’s game that teaches kids reasoning skills while at the same time entertaining them, will do wonders for those children years from now.

Well that is pretty much all I can mention in the space provided.  Of course, there are literally hundreds of games and pieces of gaming hardware to choose from and this is in no way near a complete list of even the best of those choices.  However, these suggestions should give you a head start in finding that perfect gift for the computer game player in your life.  Happy Holidays.