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.

Love is a battlefield

Originally published in November 2000.

Historical note: this is still a fantastic game that I pull out from time to time. By the way, the title is a reference to one of my favorite singer/songwriters Nick Lowe.

Name: Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord
Genre: Tactical War Strategy
Format: CD-ROM, PC or Mac
Developer: Big Time Software
Publisher: Big Time Software
Multiplayer: Play-by-mail with TCP/IP Coming Soon
Requires: Windows 98/95 - Pentium 166 MHz, 32MB RAM, 100MB hard disk space, DirectX 6.0 compatible video and sound card.
MacOS 7.5 - 603e 133MHz, 32MB RAM, 100MB hard disk space.
Retail Price: $45, plus shipping. Only available from the Web site.

In the tag line at the end of this monthly column, I stake claim to being a gaming geek. Well, this month I am going to prove it to you.

Before fellow geeks Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak started the personal computer revolution they probably played board games. My pre-computer game years were spent playing board games based on warfare made by companies such as Avalon Hill, Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley. These games were played with dice, statistical tables, hexagonal maps, and cardboard cut-out tokens. Computer games dealing with warfare took this classic model and imported it, hexagon for hexagon.

For the most part, these classic-model computer games were relegated to the realm of gaming geeks because they were too involved for casual gamers. Playing a hexagonal war game on the computer takes commitment in time which can only be found in hard-core gaming circles. However, with the development of Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord by Big Time Software, a computer game based on warfare has finally overcome the hexagonal map and the delights of pure strategy gaming is now within reach of the casual gamer.

So that’s what a Panzerfaust looks like

In place of the hexagon and unit icons, Big Time Software has employed 3D graphics to model the battlefield. A tiger tank looks like a tiger tank, an American GI looks like an American GI. The battlefield is a 3D representation of a rolling pasture, a small French village or a German town. With 3D modeling, the battlefield becomes a real place with trees, rain, snow, and mud. Environmental conditions will often be the determining factor in deciding tactical strategy and ultimately the final battle outcome.

Combat Mission depicts the period in World War II just after the Allied European invasion, therefore available units are limited to that historic time. The game ships with approximately 100 different scenarios based on historic WWII battles. But the game also comes with a built-in scenario editor that allows users to develop their own battles. And if you are not industrious enough to make your own battles, the game will generate new, quick battles based on parameters you set.

The most innovative and significant new feature of Combat Mission is the “we-go” system. Although the game is turn-based, the turns occur simultaneously. In a turn, the player can give movement or targeting orders to units while they are frozen in a moment of time, but after all the orders are given the game elapses one minute of battle. During that sometimes excruciating minute your units are essentially on their own. The player cannot change orders, and the AI for both sides must cope with whatever the battle brings. If you have planned and anticipated well, your units should do well, if you have not prepared well, your units could panic, surrender or be killed.

After that fateful minute has passed, the player can review that minute as many times as they like. This recorded minute of battle can be played again and again from any perspective on the battlefield. Players can view the events as they unfold from every unit’s frame of reference in they wish, even the seen enemy’s. The minute’s battle results can also be viewed from any omnipresent perspective you wish. This is a wonderfully dynamic way to view a battle, one that the hexagon model could never deliver. The concepts of lines of sight and distance, so abstract in the previous classic model, are given new breadth by the 3D perspective.

Combat Mission is one of those games that are easy to play but difficult to master. The interface is simple, relying on right and left mouse clicks or shortcut keystrokes to issue orders to units. Players can set movement paths and firing postures for units one at a time or by platoon or company. The sounds of battle are simply fantastic, with sounds of bullets and bombs mixed in with sergeants barking orders and soldiers screaming for help. The 3D graphics are not state of the art, but that is essentially a technological limitation. The graphics are designed to represent units and terrain, not to simulate them in their entirety.

The graphics presented on the screen merely hint at the tremendous amount of calculation actually taking place. The AI incorporated into Combat Mission is remarkably complex and highly detailed. Big Time Software has employed years of research and beta testing into the underlying battle calculations to present the most realistic and true representation of battlefield results. This means that units interact in a predictable and consistent manner, allowing players to plan strategies based on tactical principles and not “gamey” anomalies.

Can warfare equal community?

The mainstream computer game industry has for all intents and purposes abandoned the war game genre because the games do not generally appeal to a wide enough audience, which means they do not generate much revenue, at least not for a large corporation. However, Big Time Software is essentially a 2-man operation. Combat Mission was developed as a labor of love, not necessarily to pad the bottom line. The huge documentation manual and the attention to the fine details are all in excess of what the big game development houses are willing to spend in time and money on a such project. The game is not available in retail stores, it can only be purchased at the game’s website.

As the game was being developed something very interesting happened. A community of Combat Mission game players gathered on Big Time Software’s discussion boards to talk about how the beta version of the game played, how units were modeled, and how much they loved playing the game. The discussion board now generates thousands of messages each and every day. This word-of-mouth advertising is really the only marketing taking place for the game. Yet, when it was released a few months ago, it sold out in a matter of days. Big Time Software has been struggling to keep up with demand ever since.

And that is the real beauty of Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord - the community that has spontaneously formed around and because of this game’s release. Players from around the world are designing and posting new scenarios. Ingenious and industrious players are taking advantage of the game’s open architecture to develop new 3D units, map terrain, and sounds. The game has morphed into an ever-evolving experience that will always bring something new to your computer screen. Now, if that is not gloriously geek-like, I don’t know what is.

If you normally play strategy games of any kind, you owe it to yourself to play this game. If you normally shy away from strategy games, especially war games based on the turn-based hexagonal model, you owe it to yourself to play this game. This is the only must have game I have played all year. Enough said.

Deus Ex: A foreshadowing of our gaming future

Originally published in September 2000.

Name: Deus Ex
Genre: First Person Action/Role Playing
Developer: Ion Storm
Publisher: Eidos Interactive, Inc.
Multiplayer: No
Requires: 300 MHz Pentium II (Pentium III recommended), 64 MB RAM (128 MB recommended), Windows 95/98, DirectX 7.0a with compliant video card (3D accelerator recommended) and sound card, 150 MB uncompressed hard drive space.
Retail Price: $39.95
Street Price: $29.95

"If the evidence doesn't seem to fit a particular conspiracy theory, just create a bigger conspiracy theory.” - Robert D. Hicks, In Pursuit of Satan

Deus Ex – pronounced De-S-Eks

Every once in a long while, a computer game hits the store shelves that transcends what up to that point had been the established industry standard to set a new level of accomplishment in computer gaming. Deus Ex, developed by Ion Storm and its resident computer game legend, Warren Spector, is the latest ambitious title that breaks those rules and sets that new standard. Combining elements from adventure, role-playing and first-person games, the plot and level of interaction in Deus Ex foreshadows the future of computer gaming.

Trust No One

The story in the game is long and complex, mixing and matching some of the worst and some of the best conspiracy theories currently prominent in modern folklore. The military-industrial complex using extraterrestrial technology, rich and powerful men hiding in shadows using ordinary people as their lab rats for biological weapons, and even old legends about Templar Knights are part of the twists and turns that serve as the Deus Ex plot.

Arriving in the middle of this swirling mass of popular evil conspiracies is your character, JC Denton. Fortunately, JC is the very latest example of man-machine evolution. He is augmented with nanotechnology that makes him stronger, faster, better than the average man on the street. JC is an agent for the United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition (UNATCO), an organization commissioned by the UN to combat the fringe terrorist elements of society.

Of course that only scratches the surface of the real story. JC realizes that appearances can be deceiving and soon begins to question who he is and what he is doing. This where Deus Ex really shines, because from that point on JC has to make some tough choices concerning whom to trust and more importantly, whom not to trust. Each and every choice has a ripple effect on the rest of the plot, leading JC in several directions and complicating matters almost beyond his control.

Besides JC, there is a multitude of characters inhabiting the tension-filled universe of Deus Ex. JC’s interaction with these other characters is where the adventure and role-playing elements of the game take place. By issuing quests, this interaction will determine the skills JC can acquire when they are completed. The character conversations also yield valuable information and clues that will advance the story.

The user interface for Deus Ex is your prototypical first-person-shooter (FPS) interface. Environmental manipulation, character interaction, weapons choices, and inventory management are all handled with the usual efficiency of the FPS format. The additional role-playing and adventure game elements usually take place during cut scenes. However, the Unreal game engine allows the “cut scenes” to actually take place within the game as semi-scripted events. It is difficult to explain, but it is very effective at maintaining plot tension because the player is never really out of the game watching a movie.

Deus Ex is a very slickly produced computer game. The various environments are detailed and the level of interactivity within the environment is truly amazing. Little atmospheric touches like flocking pigeons, strutting stray cats, harbor sounds when near the harbor, and jet sounds near the airport, help flesh-out a realistic game environment. The environmental textures are well detailed, especially at higher video resolution, and the character animation while a little stiff is serviceable. While the music and the sound are well-produced, they never jump to the forefront of the action. Some more enlivened weapons sounds, however, would be welcome.

Documentation is typical for the modern FPS. That is to say, it is sparse. The 20-page manual merely gives a taste of the knowledge required to successfully complete the game. The rest is learned in the training levels that can be played before actually entering the game itself. The installation was smooth, although it was very extensive in terms of required hard drive file space.

Truth versus Ambition

All of the preceding praise is not to imply that Deus Ex is perfect. With such an ambitious title, problems are inevitable. Sometimes the artificial intelligence controlling the enemy characters during battle is extremely dumb. Bad guys will run around corners looking in the wrong direction making them easy to handle. Other times the AI is omnipotent. If one bad guy sees you, every bad guy on the entire level sees you no matter where they are or what they are doing. This dichotomy means that some of the game is too easy and some is too difficult. Unfortunately, you never know which, so you can expect to unceremoniously die often.

Election-year politics has again raised the issue of violence in entertainment, including video and computer games. The game industry has been accused of marketing games to inappropriate age groups. I believe the industry is doing this and that it needs to stop, but that doesn’t absolve parents from their responsibility. Deus Ex is rated Mature by the ESRB. That means the game is not for children. And even though you can play the game without killing anyone, it still contains violent and disturbing images.

Bottom Line

Deus Ex represents the next step in computer gaming interaction. It is an ambitious title that tries to expand beyond conventional genres and often succeeds. However, the scope and ambition of the title often overwhelms the capability of current technology, revealing glaring holes in design and logic. Yet, even with the flaws, the game is highly recommended. If you equate the level of sophistication of Deus Ex with the level of sophistication in Donkey Kong some 20 years ago, you can get a sense of what the future holds for computer gaming. Experiencing such a ground-breaking game is well worth the cost.

Online gambling: A computer player’s perspective

Originally published in August 2000.

Historical note: After some changes to U.S. Federal law, you can no longer use a credit card to establish an online casino account.

Despite what your personal moral convictions may be, gambling is very big business in the United States. According to Hospitality Real Estate Counselors' 1999 Annual Casino Development Survey, 14 casino projects costing an estimated $6.7 billion are under construction or slated for development in the US. The Washington Post reports that Americans wager more than $600 billion annually in legal gambling operations. This is at least $100 billion more than they spend for food, according to industry figures and data from the U.S. Department of Commerce. In 1997, the gambling industry's gross revenues totaled nearly $51 billion, up from $10.4 billion just 15 years before.

With the now ubiquitous Internet, the industry is poised to expand again with the advent of online gambling. Using the border-less nature of the Internet to set up international online casinos and off-track betting facilities, gambling is now available via computer from the comfort of your own home. Without considering the moral or the legal implications, I decided to look at online gambling from the perspective of a computer game player.

Now, the industry pundits tell us that online gambling is a multibillion industry that will continue to grow for many years to come. However, the computer game player in me is not so sure about the veracity of that claim. Several obstacles seem to be blocking the establishment of the online gambling utopia envisioned by the industry.


There are well-over 600 different online casino operations listed on Yahoo. I tried a few and they all seem to be about the same. Most require the player to download some gaming software that handles the interface into the casino through an Internet connection. Some of the casinos only require a browser that supports Java to reach the friendly confines of their online establishment. All of the casinos I tried allow, and even encourage, players to try playing the games using “play” money before trying their hand with real U.S. dollars.

Using the fake money on Casino.net, I won $250 playing blackjack over the course of about 30 minutes. I was curious if my luck would change using real money. So I bit the bullet and allowed the software to extract $50 from my credit card and place it in my personal casino account. The transaction was frighteningly easy. Unfortunately, the best I could do over the next few days playing for real stakes was to break even. I suspect the difference was a reflection of my psychological aversion to risking my own money and not because the online casino had adjusted the odds through their software program.

On the other hand, the prospect of such shenanigans is not out of the question. In competition with the real-world casinos, the online variety, in their offshore protected universe, will have to work very hard to prevent any public perception of hanky-panky. To its credit, Casino.net went to great extremes to assure me that it was on the up-and-up. Claiming to follow the stringent regulations of Antigua and parading the assurances of the Ernst & Young accounting firm, the casino management guaranteed fair play. They even went so far as to show me a history of my winning and losing hands in both the “real-money” mode and the “play-money” mode, the results of which indicated little difference in winning percentage.

However, from the computer game standpoint, I was extremely disappointed. Cheap middle-school project graphics, nasal voice acting, and simplistic animation were comparable to computer games available in the 1980s. And I’m not talking about the good games from that decade either, I’m talking about the bad ones. This is supposed to compete with the neon lights and gaudy atmosphere of casinos?  I think Solitaire and Minesweeper offer more fun and at much less expense than any of the casino games I played online. If you listen closely, you just might be able to hear the sound of that predicted multi-billion dollar industry bubble deflating.

Horse Racing

While online casino gambling straddles a gray area of the law, in Kentucky off-track thoroughbred horse racing is a legislatively sanctioned activity. Using the TVG Television Network web site, I was able to establish an account and start losing hard-earned wages in less than 24 hours. This was again frighteningly easy using my well-worn credit card to make the transaction. After establishing an account, patrons can use their Web browser to connect to the site and bet a race at one of the participating racetracks throughout the country.

However, once again, the game player in me was gravely disappointed in the experience. No attempt was even made to make interface anything more than an efficient and antiseptic machine to make your bets and take your money. I am a great horse racing fan. I visit Churchill Downs several times a meet. The thrill of the stretch run, the sound of thundering hoofs, the majestic beauty of a thoroughbred, are all part of a unique experience. To treat such a thrilling sport so blandly should be a crime in this country, and probably is in the state of Kentucky. The concept of a multi-billion dollar industry presenting itself in such a lackluster fashion again shakes my faith in the industry-pundits’ rosy predictions. Horse racing on a computer, even with the ability to wager, just doesn’t compete with being there.

Breaking the Bank

Games are an integral part of our human existence. We use games to learn and grow by exercising our minds and extending our imaginations. Betting on the outcome of these games adds another factor into the mix, intensifying the play. This increased intensity can result in a gambling addiction in some individuals. There can be no question that gambling addiction destroys lives. The availability and ease of online gambling at home only exacerbates the problem.

Regrettably, the design of these online casino and horse racing games from the computer gamers standpoint lead me to believe that they are designed for gamblers not for game players. I find the lack of sophisticated production values in any of these online experiences disturbing because it indicates to me that their purpose is not to entertain but to facilitate and exploit gambling in the most efficient manner possible.

It boils down to your motivation. If you are a gambler, if the thrill of wagering on wining and losing is your motivation, you will find the online gambling experience unreservedly efficient. No bells or whistles will come between you and your wager. If you are looking for entertainment; if you frequent casinos to enjoy the energy, the lights, the food, and the atmosphere, then you will be sorely disappointed in the current online gambling experience. There are no neon lights or beautiful horses and the glitz is replaced by mouse clicks and cheesy sound effects. For those of us who play computer games there is nothing here for us at all. The games designs are amateurish and cheap. There is no excitement and there is no interaction.

I believe that human beings will participate in games of chance online in some form and that gambling and wagering will be involved somehow. But we have a long way to go before the day arrives when that experience will be considered entertainment. As for me, I’m going back to playing computer games while I wait for the Breeders Cup at Churchill Downs in November. Bet on it.

With Planescape Torment, Dungeons & Dragons gets the epic treatment

Originally published in July 2000.

Historical note: Planescape Torment is one of the best RPGs ever made. You should play it if you haven't.

Name: Planescape Torment
Genre: Role Playing
Format: CD-ROM
Developer: Black Isle Studios
Publisher: Interplay Productions
Multiplayer: No
Requires: Pentium 200Mhz, Windows 95/98, 32MB RAM, 650 MB hard drive space, CD-ROM, 4MB SVGA video card, sound card
Retail Price: $55
Street Price: $40

By some unexplained twist of fate, the phenomena of Dungeons and Dragons and its role-playing progeny has never drawn my gaming-geek attention. Late nights in the basement wielding swords and casting spells under the fateful and sometimes whimsical eye of the Dungeon Master, while at the same time frightening a whole generation of parents worried about brainwashing cults of evildoers, just evaded my sphere of gaming experience. Although, when put that way, I must admit a certain visceral curiosity to find out what makes this genre so appealing to so many.

So in an effort to expand my horizons, I decided to give a role-playing game, one set in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons universe, a try. Planescape Torment from Black Isle Studios is my first foray into this mystical universe. And what a universe!  Filled with fiends, magic, mayhem, betrayal and torment, the world portrayed in the game is rich and appropriately demented.

My Name is Nobody

Plot is the vital factor in a good role-playing game and Planescape Torment delivers a simple, compelling, yet twisted, story. You play a nameless character with amnesia who awakens on a cold slab in a dark and dingy mortuary. You don’t remember how you got there and you don’t know why you were presumed to be dead. You are immediately befriended by a wise-cracking floating skull named Morte who helps set you on your way to discovering who you are and what led you be in such a predicament.

From that point on, you are driven by an almost obsessive need to find your true nature and to solve the mystery of your immortality. This overall quest is satisfied by the completion of numerous mini-quests involving the characters that inhabit the Planescape universe. Your character, the Nameless One, can choose to interact with the varied characters in one of three roles: fighter, mage, or thief. The usual role-playing character abilities of strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom, and charisma all factor in to your ability to play your chosen role and to interact with the environment. There are also several characters that the Nameless One can recruit to help in his crusade.

Gaining fighting skills and weapons or honing your mastery of spell casting will make you a formidable force in the Planescape, but the most vital ability involves dialog. My prejudicial idea was that role-playing games were mostly hack and slash affairs, but Planescape Torment enlightened my ignorance on that score. Most of the “action” in this game revolves around dialog with the other characters you meet in the game. To gain valuable experience, which increases your skills, you need to acquire and complete quests, which can only be accomplished by conversation with other characters.

This is my one gripe with Planescape, there is too much dialog, too much interaction. And believe me, this is something I never thought I would say. The game bogs down in a swamp of dime-store novel dialog that eventually wears your patience to a bare nub. You just want to get it over with, to just see the end. A little less background filler would have suited me just fine. Maybe some indication of dialog that was vital to the game progression versus dialog that was just atmospheric would have been the best compromise.

The user interface mechanics of the game are excellent. The game is played entirely by intuitive mouse-clicks which indicate traveling direction, attack modes, characters to talk to, and spells to cast.   During heated battles, you can pause the action to allow for some tactical planning. This single aspect saved me several times late in the game as the battles became more difficult and I had to direct the actions of more and more group members.

The experience of Black Isle Productions in making role-playing games is evident throughout Planescape Torment. The visuals of the game environment are detailed and striking. In the city of Sigil, where most of the action takes place, the markets are teaming with shoppers and the bars of full of loud heavy-drinking patrons. The city seethes with atmosphere and panache.

Combat in the game could not be simpler. Point at character with hostile intent, left-click, and you will engage the enemy in melee battle. Alternatively, you can right-click and cast a spell if you have that ability. This same simple combination works for all the members of your party.

The documentation within the box exhibits just the right amount of information. Explanations in the 48-page instruction manual provide players with enough knowledge to start their journey without giving them too many details about how to proceed. For experienced role-players, Morte will provide all the direction you will need to get started. Although I recommend that the inexperienced read the manual for some insight on your initial character skill level.

Casting Call

Planescape Torment is rated “Teen” by the ESRB rating system. Not only is this rating appropriate from a content perspective, but it also makes sense as a matter of practicality. The reading and comprehension of character dialog is vital to the progression of the game and the level of reading and comprehension sophistication it requires is definitely teen or better.

As a first venture into the role-playing realm, Planescape Torment was enlightening. In this game, role-playing means having to play a role. Players have to pay appropriate attention to character development both in terms of skill and demeanor. It also means plenty of reading, some of which merely makes the game longer but not necessarily better. Planescape Torment cannot be played in one weekend, at least not by normal casual players. The game will take time and patience. For the most part I enjoyed the game, but as I neared the end I was just wishing for it to be over. Like a Kevin Costner movie, I would like to see some of the unnecessary slow, epic-making parts cut to make a leaner, concise game. But if you enjoy role-playing games, Planescape Torment could be your “Dances With Wolves.”

Questions lead to queries which lead to quandaries

Originally published in June 2000.

Many of my friends, relatives, and associates consider me to be knowledgeable about everything computer-related. That is, they consider me to be a computer-geek. As such, they often come to me for advice on what computer to buy. This is a difficult question to ask a computer geek, especially one who plays and writes about computer games. When I buy a computer (or build it), I’m looking for the most bang-for-the-buck. No computer will ever be powerful enough for the hard core gamer. This is because computer games are constantly pushing the hardware to their extremes. And at the extremes is where I want to be. That is just the nature of serious, hard-core computer gaming. However, not everyone is as zealous and, consequently, not everyone is willing to pay for that extra bit of computing power.  This means that I must always temper my responses to such queries with several preliminary questions concerning the reasons for buying a computer.

The Questions

The first question to ask when considering the purchase of a computer is: What will it be the computer’s purpose?  Now, more often than not, the response to my question is that the computer will be used for word processing, home bookkeeping, schoolwork, and the Internet. This is the standard, pre-programmed answer. There seems to be a social stigma associated with an impractical answer like, “I want to play computer games, especially that cool game with the 3-D graphics.”  I know this, because that is always the next question to ask: Do you want to play computer games?

More often than not, the person considering a computer purchase will say that they have no intention of ever playing computer games. Of course, some six months later they invariably call on me to help them get this game they just bought to work on their 6-month old bargain-bin computer. The fact that they said the computer was to be strictly used for storing cooking recipes and not for gaming seems to have slipped their mind. I’ll dub this the, “I wish I had spent more money six months ago” quandary. Don’t let the quandary get you.

It is my considered opinion that computers or computing devices will be used for home entertainment more and more, finally reaching the point where the line between television, radio, and computers is blurred beyond distinction. I know this impending media convergence has been predicted for years, but I think it will eventually come to pass. But lets take that one step further. As the technologies of television, radio, and the telephone matured, consumers found reasons to own and use several of these appliances per household. I believe that in a similar manner everyone will eventually own at least two computing devices. I think four computing devices connected to the Internet in some fashion will be the norm. The technical elite already have at least two devices, but I predict that, even if you don’t have a computer now, you will have at least two in the future.

One computing device will be for word processing, maintaining household finances and for other mundane everyday tasks. The second device will be for entertainment. The entertainment device could be a powerful PC with high-end graphics and CPU cycles clocked in excess of a gigahertz or it may be a console device connected to the family television. Whichever flavor you choose, once you accept the proposition that there are at least two computing devices in your future, the purchase of one computer becomes a little less extraordinary.

The Queries

For those of you considering the purchase of the entertainment device in this scenario, you have several choices to make. Some of the console platforms currently in the development pipeline will hold their own against any lower-end PCs. In fact, Microsoft’s X-Machine is essentially a low-end computer tweaked for gaming. One of these devices may be all you need for the entertainment side of this two computing device equation. Personally, I avoid consoles because they lack the versatility of the personal computer. So, assuming a gaming computer is what you are looking for, the next question is what CPU to purchase.

Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) and Intel are running neck-and-neck in the latest, greatest, fastest CPU contest. The difference in speed between the AMD Athlon and the Intel Pentium III is negligible. The determining factor at this point is really price. As I write this column in the middle of May 2000, the Intel at optimum speeds is slightly cheaper. The best rule of thumb I can offer in the most-bang-for-the-buck consideration is to buy the second or third fastest CPU offered by either company. A CPU over 800 MHz will have you in gaming heaven for several years to come.

However, the gaming bottleneck in a computer system’s power has not been attributable to the CPU for some time now. The proper graphics video card, hard drive, and memory configuration are the components that make or break computer gaming machines. The various nVidia GeForce 256 cards (see the March issue of Louisville Computer News) are widely considered the best 3D video graphics cards to buy. Hard drives have gone through a major transformation over the last three years. Faster, sturdier and with capacity beyond contemplation only last year, big, super fast hard drives are the norm rather than the exception.

Of all the possible gaming machine components, the most future potential improvement lies with the memory, especially when considering overall speed. Several new technologies have reduced this last bottleneck. Double Data Rate (DDR) technology, RAMBUS, and the new Quad Band Memory are all technologies that make your RAM scream with speed. Currently, DDR is the technology that gives you the most for your money.

Before the end of 2001, we will be seeing computers with obscene specifications like 2GHz processor speeds, video cards capable of photo-realistic graphics at 30 frames-per-second, terabyte hard drives, and high-capacity memory subsystems handling gigabytes per second of bandwidth. Now, if that is just a bunch of meaningless numbers to you, let’s just say that such a system will support on-the-fly “Toy Story” graphics on your desktop.

The Quandaries

What does all this mean?  Well, for me it means that computer games are about to reach a level of unprecedented technical sophistication. Technical superiority, however, does not guarantee superior gameplay, but that is another column. So, what do you do if you are in the market for a computer now?  My best advice is to be honest with yourself. If you are going to play games, buy a computer system that can play the computer games you want to play. My recommended sweet spot is an 800GHz+ CPU, with 128 MB PC-133 RAM, GeForce 256 video card with DDR, 30 GB hard drive, and a 19-inch monitor. Other features include a solid 3D sound card, Ethernet capability, digital force-feedback joystick, and a CD writer. Good luck and good gaming.

It’s a pretty space simulation, but...

Originally published in May 2000.

Historical note: Of all the reviews I wrote for The Louisville Computer News, this is the one that drew the most criticism. Freespace 2 has some really passionate fans. What can I say, I am not one of them.

Name: Freespace 2
Genre: Space Simulation
Format: CD-ROM
Developer: Volition, Inc.
Publisher: Interplay Productions
Multiplayer: Yes
Latest Patch: Most recent patch Version 1.2
Requires: 200 MHz Pentium, 32MB, 400MB hard disk space, 8X CD-ROM, Accelerated Video Card
Retail Price: $50
Street Price: $30

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I have become jaded and maybe I expect too much for my entertainment dollar. When I purchased Interplay Production’s Freespace 2, I was filled with anticipation. The trade press was raving about this game. They were raving about its beauty, its artistry. They marveled at the game engine technology and the ingenious simulation of space physics. All important considerations to be sure, but now I realize that there was one important aspect missing from their praise – the story. What about the story?

The story that accompanies any space simulation is what gives that simulation its soul. When I play a space simulation without a compelling story, a soul, I feel oddly empty. It’s the same feeling I get when I hear Michael Bolton or Celine Dion sing. All the notes are in the right key, so technically its good singing, but its hollow and empty. Freespace 2 fulfills its technical promise admirably, but the game lacks heart. It is hollow and very disappointing.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one

The premise of Freespace 2 is your basic fighter-pilot-goes-to-war plot. You are a nameless fresh recruit sent to the front lines to combat an unknown enemy of unknown capability. As a rookie pilot, you are presumably (predictably) cocky, and you have to learn the ropes of flying and fighting in the frontier of space. As you complete the usual missions of escort that, reconnaissance there, destroy this, you are well aware that eventually you will have to watch your new friend die and you further know you will ultimately have to save the universe from destruction. The standard, “win one for the Gipper” plot. The plot methodically moves in its predictable methodical way to the open-ended conclusion that leads to a third installment of the series.

All is not lost

In contrast, the game play in Freespace 2 is truly a technical marvel. The game universe is exquisitely manifested in a tapestry of color and light. I found myself wishing there was no enemy breathing down my neck and no mission to complete so I could just fly around and sight-see. The huge capital ships are painstakingly detailed and project a looming, ominous presence to every frenetic battle that takes place around them.

Sound is very important in this game, especially if you have a 3D sound card. The pilot chatter, the sound of energy weapons depleting your ship’s shields, and the nerve-racking missile-lock warnings that trumpet your eminent destruction are very engrossing, especially with the enhancement of 3D positioning audio.

The game interface is fairly typical space simulation fare, but it is nonetheless well executed. Keyboard, mouse and joystick commands can all be programmed to meet your particular needs and game-playing style. The campaign can be played at several levels of difficulty, giving the game the flexibility to be enjoyed by players at many levels of expertise. These settings are well balanced, which means that the very easy setting makes Freespace 2 accessible to first time neophytes, while hard core space simulation buffs will be have all the action they can handle at the highest difficulty level.

Bottom Line

Like I said, maybe it is just me and my jaded, hard-core gamer attitudes, but Freespace 2 just left me wanting. In terms of technical excellence, Freespace 2 is unsurpassed. If that is all you require of your space simulation games, then Freespace 2 is worth the money. If you prefer a more meaningful and engrossing story, then one of the Wing Commander games may be more to your liking. As for me, when I finished Freespace 2, I deleted it off my hard drive and loaded Wing Commander IV.

Finally, my kind of action

Originally published in April 2000

Name: Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Rogue Spear
Genre: Action/Tactical Strategy
Format: PC on CD-ROM
Developer: Red Storm Entertainment, Inc.
Publisher: SouthPeak Interactive LLC
Multiplayer: Yes
Requires: Pentium 233 MHz, 64 MB RAM, Windows 95/98, 3D Accelerated Video Card
Retail Price: $50
Street Price: $30

One game has dominated my time the past few months and I feel compelled to share my experience with computer game players everywhere. Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Rogue Spear represents the top echelon of the action genre. The game has earned enough praise and recognition to be nominated for the best game in its category for 1999. I personally find Rogue Spear to be superior to Quake or Unreal Tournament. I know for many that constitutes blasphemy, but I encourage everyone to consider my heretic view.

Rogue Spear

Rogue Spear is the sequel to 1998’s highly touted Rainbow Six. When first released, Rainbow Six caused a stir in the game development community because of its innovative use of stealth in an action game. Rainbow Six effectively changed the rules for action games and lead to the development of several clones of the tactical squad-based action game. In 1998, action games followed the successful and market-proven model of Doom and Quake – fast, furious, and frenetic shooting. If it moved you shot it. With Rainbow Six stealth and planing are the primary objectives. If any shooting has to be done it comes after carefully moving into position for a clean shot. The key is this concept of the one-shot kill. No longer are gamers required to shoot an enemy 30 times to eliminate the threat. Now, one carefully placed shot is enough.

The premise of the Rainbow Six titles is simple enough. The game player assumes the command of an elite group of anti-terrorist specialists in various missions around the world. The group is highly secret, so much so that the Rainbow Six team does not officially exist. This means that failure is not an option. Using the very latest in weapons and equipment, you lead your squads on missions to free hostages, steal information, and stop terrorist activities. The campaign in Rogue Spear involves stolen nuclear weapons and an unhinged terrorist who plans to use them.

Refining innovation

While the original Rainbow Six was innovative, it also suffered from some problems in execution, especially with regard to the artificial intelligence of the computer controlled enemy. In Rogue Spear the artificial intelligence has been tweaked and the interface refined to give the player a much deeper and impressive experience.

The key to a successful campaign in Rogue Spear lies squarely in the planning of each mission. Players can adopt the pre-canned mission plan from headquarters or they can create their own plan of attack on the planning map. With four possible squads for most of the missions, players have control over how the mission will play out. Combining reconnaissance, assault, sniper and demolition squads, players can meet mission objectives in many different ways. If the plan is good enough, the computer AI can even control your squads and accomplish your mission without your direct participation in the action phase of the game. But what’s the fun in that.

The action phase of each mission relies more on the tension of an unknown enemy than on the frenetic pace of other action titles. As the squads make their way through the mission objectives using your plan, the sense of imminent danger is palatable. Using terrific sound effects, including radio chatter from your team, the player is exposed to a build up of tension until that fateful exchange of gun fire with the enemy. The intensity of searching for the unknown enemy is exhilarating. It is the intensity before any actual shooting takes place that makes Rogue Spear a better action game then Quake or Unreal Tournament.

For those players who prefer action titles because of their multiplayer and Internet capabilities, Rogue Spear again comes through with terrific innovation. For multiplayer Rogue Spear, cooperation is the main focus. You and your squad must complete the mission objectives by cooperating and coordinating tactically. Because each squad member is controlled by a player over the network, the required teamwork is extremely difficult, but very rewarding. Each player assumes a role and more importantly establishes a stake in the mission outcome. This is truly engaging game play.

The graphics in Rogue Spear are exceptional, especially with the advantages of an accelerated video card. The 3-dimensional world rendered during the action phase of the game is interactive and dynamic. Glass breaks, vehicles move, bad guys stop to smoke a cigarette or relieve themselves. The level of realism includes sounds too. My bacon was saved several times because I could hear terrorist footsteps coming down the hall.

Of course, all of this reality greatly changes the feel of the game. This is not a game for the squeamish. The violence depicted is very realistic. Terrorists bleed when they get shot. They yell out in pain. They fall in lumps on the ground. The violence of Rogue Spear does not have the same comic book feel of other action shooter games. Parents should be careful about letting their children play Rogue Spear as the impression on younger children could be disturbing. The ESRB gives the game a Teen rating, but I would grade the level to be more Young Adult.

Bottom line

Over the past 20 years I have played many action games. Some have been good, a few have been great, but most have simply been forgettable. Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Rogue Spear is a great action game. It is the thinking man’s action game. Using an innovative game design, good story, and technical excellence, this game delivers a truly fascinating experience. Rogue Spear receives my highest recommendation.

There are plenty of 3D video card choices these days - choose wisely

Originally published in March 2000

Historical note: As far as I can tell, this was my first hardware advice column. It is also interesting to note that many of the video card manufacturers in 2000 no longer exist today.

Computer gaming can be an expensive hobby, especially if you are trying to keep up with the Jones next door. Hard core gamers require the latest and greatest in both software and hardware. The more casual computer gamer tends to ride the back end of the technology curve, squeezing out that last bit of hardware life before the inevitable obsolescence becomes overwhelming.

One of the best ways to increase the life of that computer you purchased only 1 year ago is to update the video card. The computer component industry, noticing this market potential and smelling profits, has obliged consumers with a multitude of video cards to choose from.

What to Consider

Before choosing a video card upgrade, players should perform a quick audit of the games they already own. The video card requirements of a flight simulation enthusiast are quite different from those of a turn-based strategy game player. A glance at the games you tend to play most often will determine the 3D features you need in a video card.

Another factor to consider before making a decision concerns the computer system for which the video card is intended. Modern, high-end video cards require AGP ports, which have been available for around two years. If your system is a 4-year old Pentium 133 with PCI slots and no AGP, your choices will be limited.

After considering the games you play and the system you play them on, you will have to consider three primary specifications: 1. Chip set, 2. Memory, and 3. Manufacturer. The ins and outs of chip sets can be very confusing, but it is also very important. Most video card manufacturers do not make the semiconductor chips that populate their cards. They use third-party chip-set makers for those parts and then add features and software bundles to brand those cards for themselves. There are basically four chip set manufacturers contending for “king-of-the-hill” honors in the 3D video card universe. Matrox makes the G400 chip, S3 makes the Savage 2000, 3dfx makes the Voodoo 3, and nVidia makes both the TNT2 and GeForce 256 chips.

Memory specifications have become a major issue in the video card market and should be considered when choosing an upgrade. The tremendous amount of data produced by these new chip sets can overwhelm ordinary RAM and decrease video performance. New memory standards have been developed to overcome this limitation with the most prominent being double data rate (DDR) technology. DDR allows two pieces of data to be transmitted in a single-memory clock cycle.

When it comes to considering a video card manufacturer, the usual suspects will distinguish the winners from the also-rans: reliability, customer support, price, and software bundle. From a gamers perspective, the software bundle may be the deciding factor. Several manufacturers have included complete computer games with their retail video cards. These games are usually enhanced to take advantage of the specific video card they are bundled with and are therefore the best example of the hardware’s capabilities.

One caveat to the intrepid shoppers out there. Buying a video card on the Internet in the OEM market, while less-expensive, incurs more risk. The OEM market is designed for knowledgeable third-parties building custom computer systems. Buying in this market not only means giving up the chance to play games specifically designed with your new video card in mind, it also means little or no customer support from the manufacturer.

The following is a brief discussion of several currently available video cards. By all means, this list is not all-inclusive, and prices are changing all the time, so shop carefully.

Hercules 3D Prophet DDR

After some researching on video cards in preparation for this article, several respected sources were found that proclaimed the Hercules 3D Prophet with DDR and the GeForce 256 chip set to be the fastest video card currently available. Using DDR memory, this card is the current king-of-the-hill in terms of sheer performance and it ships with an excellent set of features. It is manufactured by Guillemot with a suggest retail price of $299 and a street price if $259.

Leadtek WinFast GeForce

The WinFast GeForce from Leadtek is similar to the Hercules 3D Prophet using the same chip set and the performance enhancing DDR memory. However, Leadtek is not exactly a household name. Not that that is bad, but a little investigation is in order. Suggested retail for the WinFast is also $299, but it can be found on Pricewatch for as little as $275.

ELSA Erazor X2

Also sporting the GeForce 256 chip set from nVidia, the ELSA Erazor X2 gets kudos for adding a pair of stereoscopic glasses to its bundle of goodies. While ELSA cannot be considered a household name either, it is a name known to hard core gamers. ELSA has the reputation of adding beyond cutting-edge novelties to its products, which explains the glasses. Although using the same technology as the previous two cards, the Erazor X2 tests to be slightly slower. The card has a suggested price of $299, with a street price of $268.

Creative Labs Annihilator Pro

Of all the games listed in this roundup, the Annihilator Pro from Creative Labs is the one you are most likely to see on the shelf at the computer store. Using the same GeForce technology, the Annihilator Pro has near top of the heap performance numbers, but is much more readily available at the local store. Creative Labs has packaged less features with the card with a suggested price of $299. The street price comes in at a reasonable $245.

ATI Rage Fury Maxx

The Rage Fury Maxx from ATI Technologies is the first card mentioned to not use the nVidia GeForce chip set. ATI uses their own proprietary Rage 128 Pro chips with performance that benchmarks at just below GeForce speeds. Besides the 3D acceleration of this video card, ATI has included DVD hardware playback onto the card, which adds a feature aspect beyond computer gaming. Suggested retail for the Rage Fury Maxx is $269, but with careful shopping it can be had for $249.

S3 Viper II

With the acquisition of Diamond Multimedia by S3, the days of Diamond Monsters using nVidia or 3dfx chip sets is over. The S3 Viper II is built using S3’s Savage 2000 chip set. This video card does not come close to the performance of GeForce boards, but it does give you descent performance for a much lower price. The suggested retail for the S3 Viper II is $199, but you can find it for as little as $130.

Matrox Marvel G400

Whenever someone discusses the Matrox Marvel G400 you hear the same thing over and over – good 3D performance and the prettiest display of any card. The G400 chip set is almost infamous for how beautifully the video card displays colors. This is also another card that caters to the multimedia demands of the market with excellent TV-out and video-editing capabilities. Matrox prices the Marvel G400 at $270, with a street price of $257.

3dfx Voodoo 3

The last video card manufacturer to discuss is 3dfx. When this company introduced its Voodoo add-on 3D acceleration card to the market, it almost single-handedly started the current faster-is-better craze. However, other manufacturers have been able to make a performance jump past 3dfx and its current Voodoo 3 offerings. That being said, 3dfx Voodoo 3 cards can still be found in PCI configurations, which means they can be used in older computers without the AGP slots required by the other cards. These cards offer good performance and rock-bottom prices starting at $115.


There is a tremendous amount of information to sort through when deciding on the appropriate video card. So much information, in fact, that it cannot be adequately covered in this column. All of you pondering the multitude of choices to be made are encouraged to do some research before making a decision. And there is one more aspect to contemplate: Every one of the manufacturers listed above will have new, faster, and more-powerful chip sets and video cards available before the Christmas buying season begins in October. Merry Christmas!

What does it take to be a railroad tycoon anyway?

Originally published in February 2000

Name: Railroad Tycoon II – Gold Edition
Genre: Strategy
Format: PC on CD-ROM
Developer: PopTop Software, Inc.
Publisher: Gathering of Developers, Inc.
Multiplayer: Yes
Requires: 133 MHz Pentium CPU, Windows 95/98 or NT 4.0, 64MB RAM, 220 MB hard disk space, 4X CD-ROM, 800 X 600 video card, sound card, 28.8 Kbps modem.
Recommended: 1024 X 768 video card.
Retail Price: $49.99
Street Price: $39.99

I must admit, I have a definite passion for computer strategy games. For my money, the genre engages the mind and feeds the soul like no other. A well-designed strategy game requires the player to contemplate tactics and plan their next move even when they are not actually in front of the computer screen. Finding that one perfect strategy can become an obsession that infiltrates your normal everyday activity like an addictive drug. Come to think of it, addiction is probably the best description of the effect a well-designed strategy game has on a player.

Unfortunately, for the most part, strategy games have been inaccessible to anyone but the core gamer because of their complexity, their subject matter and because of the commitment these games require in terms of time and effort. With Railroad Tycoon II – Gold Edition, however, much of those seemingly inaccessible hurdles have been circumvented. The concept of a railroad tycoon is familiar to almost everyone with the possible exception of the very young. Indeed, it may be argued that the economic concept of supply and demand, central to the railroad tycoon premise, is easily understood by anyone who has ever received an income, even if that income is only an allowance. This baseline of understanding makes Railroad Tycoon II readily accessible to young and old alike, and its excellent design makes the game extraordinarily playable.

The Premise

The premise of Railroad Tycoon II seems simple enough: build a railroad, make money, and become rich and powerful. But the simplicity of the premise is devilishly and delightfully deceiving. Playing the game you will quickly realize that building a railroad that makes money and in turn makes you rich is much easier said than done. Depending on the scenario, players will have to decide what route their railroad will take, which cargo to transport, which destinations will yield the greatest returns, what to build at each station, and which equipment to buy. And these are just the decisions to make before a single train leaves the station.

The user interface in Railroad Tycoon II is elegant and visually stunning. Simple mouse clicks and click and drag operations will have you laying track in no time. Although this ease of use does have a downside. Because it is so easy to get carried away by the ease of laying track, an undisciplined player may find themselves financially strapped. Players must pay special attention to the information provided while performing building functions lest they run out of capital. Lack of capital is a definite tycoon-wannabe no-no.

The scenarios provided in the Gold Edition include not only the scenarios from the original release of Railroad Tycoon II but also scenarios from the 2nd Century expansion pack. In addition, there are twelve new, never-before released, scenarios. The scenarios range from the relatively sublime to the downright impossible. The packaged scenarios encompass the breadth of European and North American railroad development from the early industrial age to the near future. Whether its establishing a connection between Chicago and New York City or completing the transcontinental railroad, players will be challenged with a plethora of logistics decisions.

The economic model that determines how much capital is available and how much capital can be generated by proper railroad management is elegantly straightforward, yet subtly complex and magnificently confounding. Determining which region needs what resources and how best to get them there is a never-ending challenge. This is one of those wonderful strategy games that many can play, but few can master.

The production values for Railroad Tycoon II are tremendous. The user interface is elegant, and the graphics beautifully rendered. As you move across the landscape, sheep bah, cows moo, and industrial production grinds on. The sound of steam engines moving from town-to-town, blowing their whistles and clanging their bells, fills your head with images of nostalgia from a bygone era.

When it comes to music in a strategy game, my personal preference is to turn it off. But not in this game. The music for Railroad Tycoon II is a perfectly appropriate acoustic blues sound track. The music rides in the background, enhancing the game experience and not detracting from what is happening on the screen. This is a rare and welcome combination in any computer game, and a lesson I wish other game developers would take to heart.

During the past year computer and console video games have increasingly been blamed for violence in our society, most specifically teenage violence. I never subscribed to this notion, but have tried to be sensitive to those parents who are legitimately concerned about the impact violence has on their children. Railroad Tycoon II contains no violence, unless you count new reports that one of your trains has been robbed by the James Gang. The game is appropriately rated for everyone by the ESRB system. If you are a parent looking for a good non-violent computer game, I submit that this is it.

Bottom line

When you spend much of your time reviewing and previewing computer games, you tend to get a little jaded. Most of the games you play barely register in your conscious mind and you sort of muddle through. But every once in a great while a game comes along that manages to grab your attention. Railroad Tycoon II – Gold Edition has certainly done just that. You may have noticed the word “elegant” used several times in this review?  That is because “elegant” is the best overall description I can give for this game. If you have never played a strategy game, this is an excellent game to introduce you to the genre. If you have played strategy games before, this game is a must. 

The good, the same, and the downright ugly

Originally published in January 2000.

Inventory Clearance

It’s that time of year, but I’m not talking about winter. I’m, of course, referring to inventory clearance time!  Just like your friendly neighborhood computer game dealer, I have excess game inventory to get off my shelves. In particular, I have several games to review: Nocturne, Half-Life Opposing Force, and Panzer General 3D Assault. Rather than string out these reviews over the next 3 months, I have decided to offer a 3-for-1 fire sale and give you the quick review of each. This will give everyone a fresh start on Year 2000. (Assuming the Y2K bug has not ravished civilization, etc.)

Basically, the reviews of these games can be summed up as: the same but different, but still good; more of the same, which is good; and flashy but not so good. You’ll have to read ahead to figure out which is which.

Panzer General 3D Assault

I have played Panzer General I, II and all the variations sold over the years based on that game engine. I find the Panzer General series to be generally enjoyable, and probably most importantly for the series, very accessible to both novice and hard-core gamers. The new 3D version is no exception to this general rule. Panzer General 3D carries on the “beer and pretzels” tradition of its predecessors and gives players and enjoyable leisure strategy game.

Gone is the top-down view of the battlefield so popular in previous releases of this series. That view, reminiscent of board games, the genre’s ultimate ancestry, has been replaced with a full 3D interface. Players can swing 360 degrees and get a view of the battle from all sides. The power and benefits of this battlefield view take some adjustment, especially for long-time 2D strategy gamers like me, but after the player learns its subtle intricacies, the interface works very well. I hope to see 3D interfaces used in strategy games more often.

If you have played games in this series before, this 3D version will offer no surprises in gameplay except for the 3D environment. This is where Panzer General 3D Assault falters somewhat. The battles of World War II are too similar and the objectives of each mission are too familiar. The feeling of déjà vu is deep and prolonged. However, if you have never played games in the Panzer General series, this game is an excellent introduction, most likely selling at a bargain price after Christmas.


I haven’t anticipated the release of game like I anticipated this one since Half-Life last year. Every review I read said this game was destined to be a classic, a “best-of-year” candidate. Boy, did I get sucked in by the hype. I absolutely hated every aspect of this game. I hated it so much, I stopped playing in the middle of it and removed it from my hard disk. I don’t know what the other reviewers were smoking, but they saw something in this game I didn’t.

The setup for Nocturne is that you are “Stranger,” a member of a secret government organization that fights the evil manifested by vampires, werewolves, zombies and ghouls, among other things. You fight this evil with an array of weapons in a third-person perspective environment. There are four missions, each taking place in a unique, although obligatory dark, setting.

Sure, the graphics look good, but so what?  The game play in Nocturne is pathetically inadequate. Stranger enters rooms and the third-person camera angle prevents the player from seeing the monsters attacking. How can you fight what you can’t see?  Here’s how. Simply turn on the auto aim function. If you enter a room with a bad guy, Stranger will point to it, even if you can’t see it, and you fire until Stranger returns to normal position, which means the attacking monster is dead. This is supposed to be fun?

I really wanted to like this game, but it offers nothing for me to recommend it to anyone. It is supposed to be frightening, but the poor game play distracts from any possible tension. The game engine itself is impressive but Nocturne just doesn’t do it justice. Stay far away from this game even when it reaches the bargain bin.

Half-Life Opposing Force

Half-Life was just about every trade publication’s Game of the Year award winner last year. And this was with good reason, as it remains one of the most engrossing first-person-shooter (FPS) games available. Now, comes an expansion pack for this popular game. Half Life: Opposing Force gives players the opportunity to play for the other team, so to speak. In Opposing Force, you play a marine corporal in a squad sent to the Black Mesa Research Facility to find Gordon Freeman (the hero in Half-Life). Unfortunately, or fortunately for those playing the game, your mission quickly changes to one of survival.

While the environment of Black Mesa is familiar, the developers did a fairly good job of avoiding repetition from Half-Life proper, except where necessary. The mission levels are generally challenging and there are several new and nasty aliens to contend with. Of course, there are also an array of wonderfully new and destructive weapons for dispatching your enemies.

Although Half-Life: Opposing Force does not traverse any new ground from the original Half-Life, it does extend the play of last year’s Game of the Year. Lovers of Half-Life will enjoy Opposing Force for that reason alone. In order to play Opposing Force you have to own Half-Life. So if you have been in cryogenic freeze for the past year and don’t yet have Half-Life, get it now and get Opposing Force later. Both games should be available at bargain prices, so maybe you should get both.

The Last Word

So to sum up, we have two games that play well but break no new ground and one game that should be buried in the ground. All of these games should be readily available at your favorite computer game store at significant discounts to their suggested retail prices. Happy gaming.

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.

Online Gaming - Is this really the future?

Originally published November 1999.

Historical note: Wow things have really changed since I wrote this column. In the intervening years I have spent an extraordinary amount of time playing MMORPGs like Dark Age of Camelot and World of Warcraft. I have also made many new friends through those games.

I had never succumbed to the allure of online multiplayer gaming. All night mind-numbing frag-fests playing Quake, Unreal or any other first-person-shooter bore me to tears. I want to be stimulated not lobotomized. The very idea of high-speed, kill or get killed, twitch marathons makes be yawn. Yet for most, this is what online multiplayer gaming is all about.

At the other end of the spectrum are the role playing online games like Diablo, Ultima Online and EverQuest. The concept of creating alter egos in an alternative universe, where you spin your wheels trying to gain skill and wealth, has never appealed to me. On the other hand, I can appreciate the concept’s appeal to others. For me, I think I spend enough time spinning my wheels in meat-space. I want a break when I venture online to play a game.

So, you ask, why are you writing a column about online gaming and the services that make it possible?  Well, it’s simple, really. Within the past few months, there has been a marked change in the way online multiplayer gaming is conducted. High-speed Internet access has brought increasing numbers of “real people” to the online gaming community. (I use the term “real people” loosely). By that I mean hard-core, anti-social, sophomoric gamers are not the only ones playing online anymore.

This new found wealth of real people, with real lives, who just want to play games, makes online multiplayer gaming a pleasure and not a tribulation. The inhabitants of this budding gaming community can carry on an intelligent conversation over a hand of bridge or poker. They understand the finer aspects of strategy in Alpha Centauri. For the first time, I get the sensation that I am really interacting with other people and not just their unseemly caricatures.

Defining Online Multiplayer Games

These days, online multiplayer games generally fall into one of three categories: 1. Traditional games like chess, checkers, card games or board games, 2. Retail games that have multiplayer capability, or 3. Online only games designed from the ground up to be multiplayer.

Of these categories, the traditional games present the least barriers to actually playing the game itself. Yahoo is an excellent place to start. Yahoo offers several traditional board and card games using java-based programs. The beauty of this approach is that all you need is an up-to-date web browser. When players open an account they are given 1,000 points to use for wagering in those games that require it. However, in the end, the points really mean very little. I often play poker with players who have “earned” significant negative points.

Besides poker, Yahoo offers backgammon, blackjack, checkers, reversi, mahjong, go fish, and pinochle, just to name a few. All of the games are completely free of charge. The only catch is that you may have to view some advertising between hands.

Retail games available for online play besides the first-person shooters include Heavy Gear II, Close Combat III, Panzer General I, II, and III, and Civilization. Of course this is just the short list. Dozens of retail games have online multiplayer capability, with more being released each week. To play these games you need to have the retail version installed on you PC. I also recommend that you have a fast Internet connection, especially for those first-person melees.

The last major category is the online only games, which consist mainly of EverQuest, Diablo II, and Ultima Online. All of these are role-playing games set in a cyber-universe with a fantasy or mystic theme. This category is very popular (just not with yours truly) and that popularity has not gone unnoticed by game company executives. Several new games of this type are on the horizon, including one featuring space exploration.

Gaming Services

In addition to those already mentioned, there are other services that cater to the online multiplayer. These services specialize in multiplayer gaming and for the most part do it very well. Mplayer.com, Heat.net and Microsoft Gaming Zone all serve as matching services that provide would-be players the means to meet, set up games and then play. The meeting takes place in chat rooms, often called lobbies, where players with a similar game interest can meet, get acquainted and agree on game parameters. I found that most lobbies on the Mplayer.com service were inhabited by well-behaved game players, all looking to establish a gaming community.

These player-matching services earn their living through advertising. Although the advertising is constant until you actually enter a game, it doesn’t really interfere or intrude with the main business at hand. However, if you have an aversion to advertising you can often find an online multiplayer game server without it. The game companies provide most of these servers themselves.

Activision is a prime example. Activision provides server access for players of Quake II, and other games they publish. Most recently they have established a server for multiplayer Heavy Gear II. These servers are absolutely free and can be accessed over the Internet through the user interface in the games.

The user interfaces of all online multiplayer services are functional and most have been around long enough for the bugs to be squashed. MPlayer in particular does a good job of automatically updating not only their proprietary software, but also the software of the retail games when needed.

Get in the Game

Online multiplayer gaming has finally arrived. The maturity of the technology and more importantly the maturity of the game players, have, for the first time in my mind, made online multiplayer gaming a viable reality. If you have been hesitant to play online, like I was, now is the time to give it a try. While there are still some rogue hard-core gamers online, they do not dominate the services like they did before. Because there is no money involved and because the danger of being embarrassed by a prepubescent sociopath has been almost completely neutralized, there is no reason not to join the fun.

All of the multiplayer services mentioned do what they do competently. I am partial to Mplayer.com, but all of the services work just as well. Mplayer.com was just the first one I tried. Once again, I implore you not to be the old curmudgeon I was; get online and get in the game.

Heavy Gear II – Ready to rumble

Genre: Simulation/Action

Format: PC on CD-ROM

Developer: Activision Inc.

Publisher: Activision Inc.

Multiplayer: Yes

Requires: 166 MHz Pentium CPU, Windows 95/98 with Direct X, 64Mb RAM, 450 Mb hard disk space, 4X CD-ROM, 3D Accelerator, Sound Card.

Recommended: 233 MHz Pentium CPU, Internet Connection for Multiplayer

Retail Price: $55

Street Price: $40

Originally published in October 1999

In the never-ending battle between giant robot simulations, Heavy Gear II from Activision rises above the rest to take the prize as the best of the genre, at least for this year. Combining detailed simulation components with a technically brilliant gaming engine, skillfully constructed scenarios, and an engaging back-story, Heavy Gear II sets the highest standard. If you have to choose only one game from this genre, this is correct pick.

The Heavy Gear universe, as created by Dream Pod 9, takes place in the 62nd century, when humankind has colonized planets throughout the galaxy. As is human nature, these colonies form their own societies and their own cultures, which leads to the inevitable conflict over which society is superior and thus more deserving. The conflict to be resolved in Heavy Gear II centers on a surprise attack on one of these colonies, Terra Nova, by forces from Earth. The player assumes command of a squad of Gears in a struggle to save the colony.

Many changes have taken place since the release of the less than stellar Heavy Gear from last year. However, two of the changes in Heavy Gear II make this sequel stand out. The first is the new game engine designed by Activision called Dark Side. This new game engine allowed Heavy Gear designers to create an interactive environment. Unlike the Mechs of Mechwarrior fame, Gears are smaller, quicker and more agile. Gears can crouch, kneel, crawl, ride on wheels or treads, and pick up discarded weapons lying on the battlefield. The expanded capabilities of the Dark Side engine make the animation of these detailed movements seamless and fluid.

Because of the Dark Side engine, the environment in Heavy Gear II is alive. Players can use terrain for cover and to set up ambushes. Squads can be maneuvered into flanking positions, to literally surround the enemy. Gears with special equipment can even be deployed in space, where the ability to think in three dimensions is critical.

The other change from the original Heavy Gear that fans will greatly appreciate is the improved design of the campaign scenarios. It is no longer adequate to merely dive headlong into battle. The successful Gear pilot must consider the tactical layout of each scenario and make wise use of squad personnel and the gears they pilot. For many of the scenarios, the difference between winning and losing is determined by choices made at the squad management screen before entering the battle. This level of pre-battlefield management is often missing from games falling into the combat simulation category.

Players can pilot Gears in several different areas of the game: 1. Instant Action, 2. Campaign Mode, 3. Historical Battles, 4. Multiplayer Mode, and 5. Training. Instant Action is a highly configurable scenario creator. Players can set up scenarios ranging from action free-for-alls to stealthy reconnaissance missions. In addition, players can choose from a dozen different worlds or environments, each one presenting a particular challenge.

The artificial intelligence of the computer controlled Gears is very good. The enemy will use terrain and stealth to cover their attacks, enemy squads will split up and try to flank your position, and enemy Gears will be sacrificed in order to draw you into the open. The scenarios are very challenging not only in terms of mission objectives but in terms of enemy tactics.

My only real quibble with Heavy Gear II is the control interface. While the controls are configurable, the mechanism for changing controls is not intuitive. In true Newtonian fashion, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Changing one control key will likely result in a conflict with another command, but that command and its control settings are invariably located deep in some other area of the setup function that is difficult to locate. This back-and-forth and trial-and-error is frustrating to say the least. However, once you get the keyboard, mouse, or joystick they way you want, the combinations quickly become second nature.

The power of the Dark Side game engine means that the artwork in Heavy Gear II is quite striking. With a vast amount of optional environment settings, players will find little repetition in available settings. The campaign mode in particular offers environments ranging from desolated deserts to high-rise urban areas reminiscent of the movie Blade Runner.

Often overlooked by the novice game player, but very important to the overall feel of any computer game is sound. Heavy Gear II takes full advantage of the newest sound cards and uses 3D positional systems to enhance the gaming experience. Enemy Gears attacking from behind sound like they are behind you. Small weapons fire in the distance over a rise sounds like it is in the distance and over a rise. I recommend the purchase of a good pair of headphones for the best 3D sound experience.

The only other problem that I can find with the game is the occasional clipping of environmental animation. Clipping, for the un-accelerated among you, is the odd anomaly that appears in a 3D computer generated world. The anomaly usually manifests itself in the form of a floating tree or a translucent mountain range. These problems are sometimes annoying, often humorous, but seldom game ending.

Heavy Gear II features a robust multiplayer system that is accessible through the Internet or via TCP/IP local area network connection. The Internet connection can be established directly using Activision’s free servers or by using the MPlayer Network. Multiplayer modes include deathmatch, steal the beacon, duelist, strategic, and capture the flag. The strategic multiplayer is perhaps the most intriguing. In this mode teams of players try to capture the other teams base while defending theirs from similar attack. The night I visited one of the Activision servers, there were forty connected players, with about 30 actually playing in one of ten games.

The ESRB rating for Heavy Gear II is Teen, Ages 13+. In this time of heightened sensitivity to computer game violence, I think the rating is appropriate. However, a similar game released one year before would probably garnered an Ages 10+ rating. As always, the best judge of what is appropriate for your children is you.

Without hesitation, I can honestly say that Heavy Gear II is the best robot combat simulation on the market today, and probably will be the best of the genre through Christmas. The game combines the elements of simulation, action, and strategy with the depth of a well-established universe to create a challenging and engaging game experience. The breadth of customizable Gears and scenarios and the excellent implementation of multiplayer game modes make Heavy Gear II playable well beyond the single player campaign. Heavy Gear II is definitely worth your hard-earned dollar.

Hidden & Dangerous – You’ve got to know your limitations

PUBLISHER: Talonsoft

DEVELOPER: Illusion Softworks

SYSTEM REQUIREMENTS: P233, 32MB RAM, and 3D Accelerator

SIMILAR TO: Rainbow Six

CATEGORY: Tactical Combat

ESRB: Mature

 Historical note: I don't remember the details, but I do remember my editor needing a column in hours not days. Consequently, I reviewed a game I never actually played. Not recommended. By the way, I still have not played the game.

Originally published September 1998

Hidden & Dangerous, from Illusion Softworks, is a tactical squad combat game. Recent game releases like Rainbow Six and the Special Operations series have made this genre one of the fastest growing in computer gaming today. A tactical combat game combines the planing elements of turn-based strategy games with the action of first-person shooters and the relentless time-constraints of real-time games.

 I have not played Hidden & Dangerous, but I have heard excellent things about it on the grapevine. The buzz that this game has generated has wetted my appetite to play it. Maybe only once or twice a year does a game generate this kind of grassroots excitement among core gamers. I always take notice, because those games usually end up winning awards at the end of the year.

 The game consists of six campaigns, all occurring during WWII, beginning in Italy in 1941 and ending in the Czech Republic in 1945. The player commands a squad of the British Special Air Force (SAS). The missions are loose translations of events that actually took place in the war. Each potential member of the squad has specific character attributes and specific training. Finding the best combinations of character traits and training is at the heart of this game.


Now when I do get around to playing Hidden & Dangerous, I have the feeling that I may need help finishing some missions. Even games that capture the fancy of the elite core gamer succumb to the all-encompassing realm of the cheat code. To implement the cheats, follow these steps:

First, enter "iamcheater" at any opening screen or menu. Enter the following codes during gameplay. If entered correctly, you will hear a clicking sound.

NOTE: These cheats have been known not to work with patched version 1.1. You can try typing "iwillcheat" instead of "iamcheater" to get some of the codes to work. Good Luck.

Columns from the Louisville Computer News

For several years in the 1990s and early 2000s, I wrote a monthly column for a local newspaper called the Louisville Computer News. The column was about computer gaming and the people who play them.

The assignment was great experience and helped me develop skills I would use later in my career. So, before looking forward on this website, I thought we should take a look back.