The Gameroom: Myth, Magic, and Mutton
Whether you're in the mood for some lighthearted fun, a hard-core strategy-game challenge, or a 3-D action adventure, this month's column is sure to please. I've got 'em all in my bag of goodies--Sheep, Myth III: The Wolf Age, and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.
Baa Ram Ewe
At first, the idea of a game about sheep may seem almost absurd. How can these benign, cute, fluffy animals possibly create an appealing game? But Sheep isn't only about sheep--it's about herding them through dozens of brain-twisting obstacle courses that will challenge your puzzle-solving skills and your ability to keep up with the action.
You're either a shepherd or a sheepdog, and it's your job to keep your flock out of harm's way. The faster you do so, the more points you collect. You can also pick up Golden Sheep, which unlock bonus levels. You face strict time limits and must keep your herd together; if too many of your herd's sheep get killed, you'll have to replay the level.
The game looks reasonably modern because it uses 3-D-rendered (albeit cartoonish) graphics and displays everything from a bird's-eye view, above and at a slight angle to the action. You navigate maps of each level by scrolling up, down, left, and right. There's no shortage of eye-catching animation as you and your sheep encounter countless obstacles and hazards.
Getting your sheep to move is easy--they'll automatically head away from you unless you're holding a treat--but getting them to move in exactly the direction you want is a bit trickier. The sheep have different personalities and react to individual shepherds in different ways (you choose one of four shepherd personalities at the start of the game).
Shepherding may seem like a monotonous profes-sion in real life, but in this game it's anything but. These poor sheep face certain doom at every corner, whether it's from mutant sharks that live in cornfields, thresh-ing machines, helicopters and tanks, industrial machinery that can tear them to bits, or even space-born perils such as blasting rocket engines and black holes. Although your sheep run the risk of being vaporized, eaten, and electrocuted, graphics are comical and never excessively gory.
With adorable graphics, a bouncy soundtrack, and fairly simple game play, Sheep is suitable for the whole family--but don't think that just because it's cute it's an easy game. Many of the puzzles are maddeningly difficult. Luckily, you can save the game between levels, so you can stop the game and start where you left off if you get particularly stumped.
U.K. Mac game maker Feral Interactive financed the Mac conversion and is publishing Sheep internationally. Feral has struck a distribution deal with Texas-based GraphSim Entertainment. Hopefully, this arrange-ment will give Feral wider exposure in the lucrative North American Mac game market, where the pub-lisher has had a spotty presence in the past.
Sheep's major shortcoming is that it's native only for OS 9. It runs in OS X's Classic mode, but I'd love to see Feral update this game with a Carbon patch, as Blizzard Entertainment has done for Warcraft and Starcraft. Judging from the crowds this game drew at its Mac debut at Macworld Expo San Francisco earlier this year, Sheep may very well be popular enough to merit the effort.
Myth and Reality
If you ask any fan of Mac strategy games what the best real-time strategy-game titles are, chances are Bungie Software's Myth games will be on the list. The series has approached legendary status for its deep story line, focus on squad-based strategy, and terrific multiplayer capabilities. It has also spawned a subculture of custom-map and game-modification makers who have added new content to the game. For these reasons and more, it made sense for Take Two Interactive to continue the product when it acquired the rights to the Myth line.
The first thing to understand about Myth III: The Wolf Age is that it plays like the original. The next thing to understand is that it utilizes different technology, so throw away any preconceived notions based on how the first two Myth games and their myriad modifications looked and felt.
This game is a prequel, set 1,000 years before the events recounted in Myth: The Fallen Lords and Myth II: Soulblighter. The game's creators took into account the existing mythology of the Myth universe and built a story that fleshes out details Myth fans have pondered for years.
In this installment, you assume the role of Connacht the Wolf. This wild barbarian is mankind's greatest hero, a charismatic leader who takes legions into battle against the vile Myrkridia and the oppressive Trow, two races of beings that seek to destroy humanity.
Like the preceding games, Myth III unfolds in a series of chapters or vignettes similar to those of an epic fantasy novel. Whether the story works for you will depend on how much you've invested in the first two games--for neophytes, taking it all in can be a bit daunting. Cut scenes of unexceptional quality flesh out the story a bit. The two previous versions of the game used excellent cel-animated sequences to explain the story.
I miss these.
For people unfamiliar with Myth and Myth II, Myth III includes tutorials that help players understand the sometimes-complicated moves required for play. The tutorials also cover the basics of what each unit does and how they interact with their environment and one another.
As in the first two Myth games, initially you find yourself in a 3-D environment rendered from a bird's-eye view. Camera control in Myth has always been superlative, and this game is no exception: You can zoom, scroll, and pan, getting a clear understanding of your surroundings before moving troops into battle.
Myth III's graphics are definitely several notches better than those of the first two games. Wholly dependent on 3-D-graphics-card acceleration, this game has gone completely polygonal. The environment, all the creatures you'll encounter, and your troops sport excellent levels of detail. Even the gore is marvelously realistic, if that's your thing.
You'll find a lot more creatures to kill in Myth III, thanks to the addition of dozens of new unit types. Many of them are just different subcategories of the same monsters, each with distinct capabilities. For the most part, friendly units haven't changed a bit, but there are afew additions.
Multiplayer gaming in Myth has always been a cornerstone of game-play longevity, and you'll find that it's no different in Myth III. However, there is one important change--instead of using the Bungie.net gaming service, you play through GameSpy.com. Despite the lack of a GameSpy Arcade client for the Mac, the service supports Mac players using connectivity built into the game itself. And Mac gamers are perfectly able to play against their PC counterparts. If you don't want to use a service, you have the options of LAN play and TCP/IP-based hosting.
One important aspect of Myth multiplayer gaming is the variety of game types you can play. Myth III serves up a healthy portion: there are more than a dozen options, including old favorites such as Steal the Bacon, as well as Scavenger Hunt, Flag Rally, and Assassin.
On its own merits, Myth III: The Wolf Age is a solid real-time strategy game. It's not all it could have been, however. Alas, the team that made this game won't get another crack at a sequel--the group disbanded shortly after completing Myth III for the PC. One can only hope that Take Two Interactive and Myth's publisher, MacSoft, won't let the franchise die here; Myth means too much to too many players to let it drift away.
That's the name of the first spell Harry Potter, as a first-year student at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, learns to cast. When my kids got this game, it set them into gales of laughter as their mother and I ran around the house waving pretend magic wands, shouting, "Nintendo!" instead. In case you've somehow missed the phenomenon, I'm talking about Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, the phenomenally successful book, motion picture, and now computer game. Aspyr Media licensed this one for the Mac from the folks at EA Games, and it's a terrific romp through a make-believe world of wizards, ghosts, gnomes, trolls, and other fanciful beings.
This game follows the story presented in the first book of J. K. Rowling's series, which tells the story of the young orphan boy Harry Potter. Sent to a boarding school to learn his forebears' wizardly ways, he soon confronts the same evil that killed his parents when he was just an infant.
Based on the same underlying technology that powers the first-person action game Unreal Tournament, Harry Potter is shown from a third-person perspective similar to Tomb Raider's, and many of its puzzles are of the same type as that game's--you have to find and activate locks that open secret passages and new areas, collect items, and overcome various menaces. This involves a lot of climbing, jumping from platform to platform, and other hallmarks of the third-person-action genre.
As Harry makes his way through Hogwarts, he learns new spells and accumulates goodies, such as Chocolate Frogs and Wizard Cards, all of which he can put to use as he progresses. Harry will interact with all the major characters from the first book: his friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, Albus Dumbledore, Professor Quirrell, and even, eventually, the dreaded Voldemort.
Although Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone uses the same technology as Unreal Tournament, don't think for a second that this is a hard-core action game. There is no blood and gore, the puzzles are fairly easy to solve, and the levels are easy to navigate. It is challenging, though, and on more than one occasion--especially when Harry confronts menaces--the challenge can get frustrating enough to create a white-knuckle experience.
Because the game is designed to be accessible to younger players who presumably have less experience, it simplifies navigation and game saving. Each level features floating books, which, when Harry touches them, save the game where it is. And if you activate the Autojump option, it's much easier for Harry to hop from platform to platform. Kids will still need to be familiar with the keyboard to activate various functions--they'll use the arrow keys to move and the mouse to learn and activate new spells. An introductory level also helps players understand how to move in and interact with their environment.
Every level has a definite starting and ending point. While this may put you off if you were hoping to explore Hogwarts and its grounds unencumbered, it does provide a straightforward and linear experience for younger or less-experienced players.
One fantastic inclusion in this game is Quidditch, the arena sport that witches and warlocks play on broomsticks. It's a high-speed team game involving different types of magic balls that players must dodge, throw through hoops, and catch. The game's designers have done a great job of re-creating it, and it's arguably the part of the game that's the most fun.
The production quality is top-notch, with a rich color palette and eye-catching special effects. Some of the graphics appear a bit blocky, but animation is overall smooth.
Music and sound also add special appeal. Hogwarts is full of creaks, rattles, the moans of ghosts, and other ambient noises (which may put off the very young players). It definitely creates a sense of place.
Some might say that the world created by J. K. Rowling should have stayed on the page, and in truth nothing can re-create an environment as rich in detail and imagination as that of her books. But there's still a vicarious thrill in being able to experience the world of Harry Potter through the eyes of Harry himself. In that respect, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone succeeds admirably.
Macworld's Buying Advice
Sheep and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone are both family-friendly games; these titles let players of all ages have a bit of fun. Sheep is an entertaining combination of action and puzzles, while Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone brings third-person 3-D gaming to an extraordinarily popular franchise. Myth III: The Wolf Age also has a lot to offer fans of real-time strategy games, although the game's emphasis on the mythology of preceding games may confuse Myth neophytes.