The Game Room: Diplomacy, Dodges, Dragons
At a Glance
This month I bring you a veritable potpourri of game offerings from the far corners of the world. For would-be emperors, there's Civilization III. For off-road-racing enthusiasts, 4x4 Evolution 2 drives into these pages. For old-school fans of adventure puzzle games looking for something with a fresh twist, there's RealMyst. And finally, Icewind Dale leads you to icy regions of the world in a role-playing adventure.
Rule the World in an Afternoon?
Following up one of the most well loved turn-based strategy games in the history of computer entertainment is a daunting task -- just ask the creators of the anemic Civilization: Call to Power. Firaxis Games teamed up with Sid Meier, the original creator of the Civilization series, and the results are superb. The new installment of the series is deeper but easier to play than its predecessor.
With Civ III, you're once again thrust into the role of leader of a civilization, and you must raise up your people from Stone Age hunter-gatherers to a thriving, modern civilization. It's easier said than done. Finding the right area to establish your civilization is one problem -- a lack of natural resources can stifle the growth of your people. Finding the right balance between technological and social development and between diplomacy and military might offers an even greater challenge, and that's where the real meat of this title is.
As you start the game, you decide which tribe you're going to try to raise up into a world-building civilization. You have more than a dozen to choose from, including Rome, Greece, Germany, China, Japan, and India. The tribe you choose will determine what qualities your civilization has. The Romans are industrious and militaristic, for example, while the Babylonians favor religion and science. The Chinese emphasize industry and science, and excel in areas such as bronze working and masonry.
As you continue the game, you need to develop various aspects of your people's culture and their technological understanding of the world. You must help them accumulate research to make your civilization grow, especially if you want to see it move out of the Stone Age and into modern times. To that end, you guide your Science Advisor toward the areas of research you deem important.
You also have to maintain diplomacy and trade with neighboring civilizations, which can often help you in your ascension by bartering with you for certain technologies or information that your own people would otherwise spend inordinate amounts of time trying to discover themselves. It can certainly be a handy way of advancing, but it's also potentially dangerous -- a particularly covetous civilization next door could decide to wage war, or sabotage, or steal.
Civ III differs from Civ II in a few key areas. Most notably, there's no multiplayer mode. I don't think the game is diminished without it, since I found multiplayer rounds of Civ II to be tiresome and slow, and altogether not in the spirit of the game. Regardless, many gamers may be disappointed that they won't be able to compete against each other.
Civ III also features a more streamlined interface that's easier to control, and here's where I think the game succeeds best. Of all the praises I could heap upon Civ II, its ease of use was never one of them. The game was difficult, even daunting, to learn how to play effectively, and Civ III's designers have taken great pains to make this version easier to play.
Civilization veterans should be able to hop in and get started right away, and a tutorial mode will help neophyte civilization builders who have never played a Civ title before. Also handy for novice and experienced Civ players alike is the Civilopedia, a handy in-game reference guide that documents just about everything in the Civilization world.
I'm still waiting for MacSoft, the game's publisher, to fix a few blemishes -- bugs involving sound, for example -- as we go to press, but the release of one major patch has already fixed many problems.
Riding in the Muck
Racing games for the Macintosh are so rare that it's sometimes easy to overlook problems with them. 4x4 Evolution 2 has its share of problems, some of which are not easy to overlook.
In 4x4 Evo 2, you race off-road vehicles -- dozens of real-world trucks and SUVs -- over a variety of terrains, against either computer-controlled or online opponents. Online games are hosted through a built-in GameSpy client, which connects to Terminal Reality's multiplayer server. It was tough for me to find online opponents to play against, even though the title supports games between Mac and PC.
In the game's Career mode, you run races for money. You then buy items to customize your vehicle, such as improved engine parts, beefier tires, and mud flaps. If you win enough money, you can also buy new vehicles. As you win more races and series, you'll eventually gain the attention of teams, and joining those teams will give you access to special auto parts and race vehicles. You can also go on missions to earn money without racing -- for instance, you may be required to deliver supplies to a remote village.
If you just want to check out the tracks before you race, you can go into Free Roam mode. Hot Lap mode pits you against a double of yourself to try to beat your own best time. Quick Race lets you test out any truck and track, and you can even tweak weather conditions and time of day.
The game's computer-controlled opponents are, in a word, morons. Their path-finding capabilities are poor, and more than once I witnessed them smashing into each other nonstop in some bizarre off-road-truck variation on the pig pile.
Graphics are similar to those of the first 4x4 Evo game, and you can adjust them to speed up performance. Physics are supposedly realistic, but the whole game feels a bit low-gravity to me, as did its predecessor -- trucks have a tendency to bounce around and spend a lot of time in the air. Damage modeling -- the appearance of actual damage to vehicles as they smash into each other, trains, buildings, and objects in the road -- is nonexistent. 4x4 Evo 2 depends on licensing the designs of real-world trucks, and the manufacturers involved don't want depictions of their machines being banged up or destroyed. Understandable, I guess, but in a title that otherwise values realism, ultimately flawed.
Old and New
Back when Myst was first introduced, 3-D graphics acceleration was still largely relegated to the high-end workstation market. In its original incarnation, Myst used snapshots to depict its lush 3-D scenery. Move a step, and the screen would show you a new image. Fast-forward to today, when 3-D graphics acceleration is ubiquitous, from the slowest iMac to the fastest Power Mac G4. Myst's original developer, Cyan, has revisited its landmark 3-D adventure puzzle game, this time crafting the world the way it originally intended: using a real-time 3-D engine.
Yes, it's still Myst -- there's no death match between Sirrus and Achenar here; instead you'll spend your time solving puzzles and exploring. And if you've already made it through Myst, well, there's not a lot of point in playing RealMyst if you're looking for many new challenges. The puzzles are the same as before. There is a new age, though, at the end with a few new puzzles that helps tie this game to its sequel, Riven, a bit better than the original.
You can adjust detail level and resolution using a simple interface that launches with the game. The 3-D engine works well enough to create more of a sense of "being there" than the HyperCard-derived slide-show engine did in its original form -- there's fine attention to detail, such as debris caught in the wind, birds flying, and water lapping in waves.
Unfortunately, the 3-D engine is also pretty slow and clunky. Moving around is imprecise, and you may need to hurtle yourself at objects that you want to grab and manipulate, drunkenly staggering around Myst's environments. But once you've located a puzzle, you lock on to it just as you did in the original, which makes manipulating the puzzles easier.
RealMyst is a valiant attempt at resurrecting Myst and trying to make it relevant to today's audiences. If you haven't played it and the slide-show-style presentation is what has turned you off, this may be the excuse you need to give Myst a try. Ultimately, though, RealMyst is more of a novelty for dyed-in-the-wool Myst fans than it is an intriguing title for folks who haven't already played the game.
Face Your Demons
MacPlay's latest role-playing game has some impeccable credentials. Originally crafted by Interplay's Black Isle Studios and based on the Baldur's Gate engine developed by BioWare, Icewind Dale was released for the PC before Baldur's Gate II hit the shelves. This role-playing adventure is set in the same Forgotten Realms as the Baldur's Gate games. It's a brand-new experience, though, as gamers travel to (and under) the cold, forbidding Spine of the World -- a frozen range of mountains.
If you have any experience with the Baldur's Gate games, you'll be right at home here; the interface is identical and the graphics are similar as well. The adventure itself is set in a fantasy realm where swordplay and sorcery are as commonplace as the nightmarish creatures that seem to dwell in every darkened corner of this game.
Icewind Dale puts you in charge of a party of up to six adventurers. You create the characters, each with specific skills and attributes. You equip them with items both magic and mundane -- everything from potions to weapons to armor -- and attempt to keep them alive as they complete quests and face an endless onslaught of monsters. As in any epic fantasy yarn, your adventurers go to many exotic locations, meet many exotic creatures, and kill many of them for fun, experience, and profit.
Speaking of endless onslaughts, it's worth noting that Icewind Dale features a huge amount of combat. There's a lot of storytelling, and twists and turns that are affected by the characters in your party and your interactions with nonplayer characters. But combat is where it's at in this game.
Icewind Dale has much in common under the hood with the original Baldur's Gate game -- many interface panels and some graphics are the same. Fortunately, my experience with it was not as fraught with the same problems as the Mac release of Baldur's Gate.
It's easy to get frustrated early with Icewind Dale, especially if you're not intimately familiar with the other games that BioWare and Black Isle Studios have crafted. Right off the bat, my party was slaughtered as I sought the right balance of characters and attributes and tried to figure out various techniques for making sure they were put to good use. For example, I quickly discovered that it was a bad idea to arm Magnus Ravenclaw, my noble but physically weak magic user, with nothing more than a quarterstaff and then pit him against a slobbering ogre in hand-to-hand combat-especially when Xena, the burly human fighter, might sooner dispatch the foul beast with a few quick snaps of her broadsword. Fortunately, Icewind Dale lets you restore from saved games, so you can repeat events-and perhaps achieve a more positive outcome-before continuing.
Of course, it can be argued that half the fun of playing a role-playing adventure game is doing it with friends-anyone who has spent a Saturday evening playing dice-and-paper adventure games can attest to that. Here, Icewind Dale doesn't cheat you. The game features TCP/IP-based multiplayer gaming, so you and other Icewind Dale users on the Internet can go goblin hunting together. You can join or host a game from within the Icewind Dale interface. And a plug-in is available in case you'd prefer to use the popular and free online Mac gaming service GameRanger instead.
Macworld's Buying Advice
If strategy games are your thing, you'll be hard-pressed to find a better value than Civilization III this season, warts and all. Off-road-racing games are rare on the Mac, so 4x4 Evo 2 is an option, though not a particularly compelling one. And if you've been looking for an excuse to try Myst but haven't gotten around to it yet, RealMyst might give you the excuse you've been looking for. Finally, if you want to lose yourself for hours in an immersive role-playing game and you've already played Baldur's Gate II, give Icewind Dale a try.
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