What’s an Orc anyway? A computer gaming gift-guide for the layman
Originally published in December 1999.
Historical note: This is the first of many holiday gift guides to come.
The holiday season is upon you and its time to buy a gift for the computer game-player on your shopping list. Once again it’s time to wade through the often perplexing, sometimes inexplicable realm of computer gaming to find that one game your special gamer doesn’t have already. The mind-numbing maze of visually stunning marketing glitz on the boxes overwhelms your senses as you make your way down the computer game aisle. Which do you choose?
If you’ll give me a few minutes of your time I will try to narrow your possibilities. However, please understand, this is a very short list of possibilities. There are hundreds of game titles to choose from, not to mention computer gaming hardware. The short list I present here are gifts that should please, if not delight, any game player. The only caveat is that you must know your gamer’s preferred genre and the capability of the computer on which they will play these games. With that disclaimer out of the way, let's begin.
The first is game I will mention is a no-brainer. Half-Life, from Sierra Studios, was Game of the Year in nearly every industry trade journal last year. Half-Life combines action, strategy and a spooky atmosphere with an engaging story line to form the quintessential first-person shooter. If you have a computer gamer on you shopping list that does not own Half-Life, your shopping is over. Now that a re-boxed deluxe version is available, Half-Life is also a good bargain.
For the strategy game player on your shopping list, look no further than Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, published by Firaxis. Mixing a wonderful blend of philosophy, conquest, economic management, and diplomacy, Alpha Centauri is guaranteed to keep any strategy game enthusiast up past their bedtime. Because the game was released in March 1999, it should be available at a bargain price. In addition, a relatively inexpensive expansion pack has been released for Alpha Centauri called Alien Crossfire.
An old but neglected genre of computer game, the squad-level tactical simulation, experienced a renaissance this year. Hidden & Dangerous, published by TalonSoft, and Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six and its sequel Rouge Spear, published by Red Storm Entertainment, have rejuvenated the genre in spectacular fashion. Both games revolve around the player’s ability to lead a team into tight places, complete the mission, and make it back alive. The nature of the genre is squad-level military combat, which means the games may not be appropriate for smaller children.
Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings, published by Microsoft, is the real-time strategy game to get this holiday season. This game is getting rage reviews for its depth of gameplay and its eye for detail. Other real-time strategy games are available but Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings seems to be receiving the most gamer-buzz. For the bargain minded, the venerable classic Starcraft from Blizzard Entertainment can be procured for a song these days.
There are two primary titles that will appeal to all male pre-adolescents, although they may not necessarily appeal to their parents. Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation and Quake III: Arena were developed and marketed with teenage boys in mind. I leave it to you to decide what that says about society in general and the gaming industry specifically. Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation, from Eidos, marks the return of the animated, yet alluring, femme fatale Lara Croft. An increased number of polygons promise to enhance her substantial assets, which should make her exploration of ancient Egyptian locales even more fascinating. Quake III: Arena, from iD Software, will appeal to the thousands of gamers already playing multiplayer Quake II. This third version of the famous first-person shooter is designed from the ground up for multiplayer, no-holds-barred frag-fests.
There are strategic war games and then there are strategic war games. The Operational Art of War, from TalonSoft, is considered by many, including yours truly, to be the ultimate pure game of war strategy. Almost perfect in execution, this extremely detailed and infinitely repayable game will keep any war-game aficionado up to the wee hours of the morning.
System Shock 2, from Looking Glass Studios, is an engrossing role-playing game with action elements in the tradition of a good science-fiction thriller. Like its predecessor, this sequel is getting rave reviews from the industry and jaded core-gamers alike. Everquest, from 989 Studios, is also a role-playing game, only this game's world exists in cyberspace. Assuming one of the several roles available, the player enters a fantasy world inhabited by characters controlled by other human beings over the Internet. Characters build up experience and obtain objects, spells, and reputations as they interact with other players in a vast environment where having friends is more important than being feared.
Heavy Gear II, from Activision, and Mechwarrior 3, from Microprose, are the leaders of the pack in the never-ending battle for giant-robot-combat-simulation supremacy. While both portray futuristic mechanized warfare, they are different enough to stand on their own. Heavy Gear II emphasizes tactics and stealth, while Mechwarrior, with its larger robots, emphasizes destruction and mayhem. Both require an extensive amount of enhanced 3D hardware to operate properly, so adequate computer capability is vital.
The realm of the space-combat simulation game has been rather quiet recently, at least in terms of the number of games available. (Year 200 promises to change that, but that's another article.) However, during this slow period a gem of game has moved to the forefront of the genre. Independence War, from Infogrames, while relatively unknown, was one of the best games published last year. Chances are that the serious space simulation fan on your shopping list already has this game. But, if they don't, you will not go wrong making a gift of this terrific game.
When it comes to hardware, gamers have a penchant for wanting the newest and the fastest. Computer hardware is the "muscle car" of yesteryear. The newest and the fastest for this holiday season is any video card with the new NVIDIA GeForce 256 chip. This is the next generation of 3D-accelerator video card and it sets the high-watermark for this essential piece of hardware. A word of warning, the GeForce 256 is a very demanding piece of technology and won't work properly in older systems. Please check the required specifications of the GeForce and capabilities of the computer in question before you buy.
Perhaps a safer hardware gift, at least in terms of compatibility, would be a force feedback controller from Microsoft, Thrustmaster, or Logitech. The concept of force-feedback joysticks has been around for a relatively long time, but until recently they were beyond a reasonable, consumer-level, price range. Now, these marvels of conspicuous consumption are relatively inexpensive and come in varieties ranging from force-feedback mice, to gamepads, to joysticks, to driving wheels, to the ultimate luxury controller, a force-feedback fishing pole.
Microsoft's IntelliEye Mouse is destined to be a common stocking stuffer this holiday. This mouse drops the ball used to make the cursor move across the screen and instead makes use of laser technology and optics to control cursor movement. This eliminates the moving parts contained in previous mouse devices. You know the moving parts that used to clog with gunk and make the mouse unusable. The laser optic system should prove to be more reliable and more durable.
Speaking of stocking stuffers, no computer gamer will turn-up their nose to a strategy guide, especially when that guide provides the intimate details of how to play, and more importantly win, their favorite game. For some games, these books have become much more than a way to get through tough levels or obtuse puzzles. They have become a vital enhancement to the overall game experience.
Computer gaming magazines like Computer Gaming World and PC Gamer are excellent sources of information for the game player on your list. These publications keep gamers abreast of the latest trends and wet their appetite for the next great game coming down the pike. I'll leave it to the reader to determine whether that is a good thing. Subscriptions for gaming magazines are very inexpensive and are the computer gaming gift that keeps on giving, at least for a year.
The Bottom Line
This holiday shopping season is shaping up to be one marked by thousands of choices. Whether you choose to shop at the local mall or online, you will be bombarded by advertising and marketing glamour with every turn of the corner or every click of the mouse. Before entering the fray to find that perfect gift for the computer game player on your list, do some research, learn some lingo, and plan your attack. Don't let the number of choices make shopping a dreaded chore. I believe I speak for computer gamers everywhere when I say that some measure of pleasure can be derived from even the most marginal of computer games. So relax and enjoy the adventure, and remember “tis’ the season to be jolly.” Happy holidays and have a magnificent new millennium.