The Game Room: Something for Everyone
Buckshot from a shotgun shell disperses in a wide pattern. That's just one lesson I learned while playing Max Payne, one of the games I review this month. And like scattered buckshot, the other products I look at cover the gamut -- from a noir-style action game in which you fill the shoes of a rogue cop, to a bouncing ball of clay for kids, a medieval-castle simulator, a free puzzle game, and even a book that will take you down memory lane if the words Pac-Man Fever stir a melody in your heart.
Max Payne is an undercover cop whose wife and child have been murdered, and he, framed for a crime he didn't commit, is on the run from the law. The victim of a cabal headed by a notorious crime family, Payne is out for payback. That's the gritty noir setting and the background of MacSoft's latest, Max Payne, a third- person action game a la Tomb Raider.
The game's title not only refers to the protagonist's name but also aptly describes what he suffers while you're playing the game. Taking you through the seedy underbelly of New York City's graffiti-ridden slums, rat-infested subways, dilapidated lofts, and dark and dangerous wharfs, Max Payne features action sequences that rival those of a John Woo movie.
Third-person action games are often criticized for their failure to deliver the precise aiming you can get with a first-person shooter such as Unreal Tournament. This could easily have been a problem in Max Payne, too: there's always another thug around the corner, armed to the teeth and ready to take you down. Max Payne's solution is a game-play feature called Bullet Time, modeled after the clock-stopping special-effects sequences used in The Matrix.
Worried about getting pummeled with a hail of bullets when you charge into a room filled with bad guys? Invoke Bullet Time; then dive in, take aim at your targets, and let loose with your own weapons. You don't walk, run, or jump any faster than your enemies -- but you have more time to react, and you can set up your shots more carefully.
Max Payne is, fundamentally, a tough game. You'll have to get used to its QuickSave and QuickLoad features, because you will die over and over and over again as you play, especially in several sequences where you have only one chance to get things right.
For all its difficulty, though, the game play in Max Payne isn't terribly varied. With a few notable exceptions, you'll find yourself running, jumping, shooting, ducking, blowing open crates and cabinets to replenish your stockpile of ammunition and health kits, and not much more.
But Max Payne's graphics are beautiful -- especially its graphic-novel-style interstitial sequences (narrated by Max himself, in true film-noir style). And its tone is perfect, right down to the self-consciously cheesy dialogue: "He was dead. I could tell by the empty, accusing stare in his eyes."
Despite its repetitive nature, the game is compelling enough to play from start to finish. There are no multiplayer options, though, so once you're done, you'll never play it again.
Max Payne is not short on gore. It's rated Mature for its use of violence and blood, so parents who are trying to limit their kids' exposure to mayhem may want to steer clear.
The Bottom Line
Bullet Time, the film-noir setting, and the hammy dialogue make Max Payne a unique addition to the pantheon of third-person action games available for the Mac.
Follow the Bouncing Ball
Ollo in The Sunny Valley Fair is an entertaining kids' game from Plaid Banana Entertainment, publisher of Moop & Dreadly in The Treasure on Bing-Bong Island -- an excellent adventure game for older kids (mmmm; The Game Room, August 2002).
Geared toward kids aged three and up, Ollo in The Sunny Valley Fair tells the story of an affable blue clay ball who helps his friends through adversities in the land of Sunny Valley. Ollo's anthropomorphic animal friends all have important jobs that he has to help with as this story's six chapters play out. For example, Ollo helps one friend grow a prize-winning tomato for the county fair. But the giant plant gets much bigger than Ollo expects, and the tomato rolls away, wreaking havoc as it makes its way through Sunny Valley.
Each panel of the story is rife with clickable elements that provide entertainment and education for young players. The game reinforces pattern and shape recognition, simple arithmetic, and other basic concepts. Specific activities garner marbles as rewards, which Ollo carries in a bag. When players get tired of the regular game, they can use their marbles to create a Pachinko-style marble maze.
The Bottom Line
Ollo in The Sunny Valley Fair combines learning and fun in an approachable game with excellent production values. It's probably not challenging enough for players of grade-school age, but preschoolers will love it.
Have Fun Storming the Castle!
If you've seen The Princess Bride, you know that storming a castle guarded by 60 men is easy if you've got a swordsman, a giant, and a wheelbarrow handy. Fortunately, it's not so easy to take control of the castle in Stronghold, a great blend of strategy game and city-building simulator that focuses on the creation and destruction of medieval castles.
Castles really were run like little cities, and that historical note wasn't lost on the game's developers. First you must find a suitable location with easy access to local resources, and only then do you begin to build. You can increase the population of the serfs you depend on for cheap labor, and you can tax them to improve your revenue base.
In the initial stages, Stronghold is all about collecting the resources you require to survive. As time goes on, your needs and those of your people grow more complex. To build specific fortifications for your castle, you must stockpile certain resources, such as wood, stone, or gold. Before you can attack your enemies, the game may require that you have specialized units, such as engineers who build smelters, which produce pots of boiling oil to dump on any who dare to scale your castle walls.
Stronghold has several basic play modes, but combat-oriented missions and economic missions make up the bulk of your challenge. The combat missions include a 21-mission campaign, several scenarios involving the attack or defense of historic castles, and Mac-to-Mac multiplayer games over the GameRanger service or a local area network. The economic missions focus on your skills as administrator (instead of warlord), in either a five-mission campaign or individual missions with predefined goals. A Free Build mode lets you go wild with castle designs of your own imagination, unfettered by pesky enemies or economic goals.
The 67-page manual that accompanies Stronghold is more than enough to familiarize you with the game's details, from how to harvest and refine resources to how to attack your foes.
The interface and the military campaign have a couple of shortcomings. The game takes place on an isometric playing field, and switching between different modes and views can be cumbersome. It was jarring to switch cardinal directions when I wanted to check whether I had properly built a wall or placed a granary. The pace of the military campaign (a story line involving the overthrow of four corrupt barons in southern England) also seemed a bit plodding, and it lacked the overall sophistication of other games from the same creative team, including Caesar III and the Lord of the Realms series.
The Bottom Line
Medieval strategy games rarely have universal appeal, but Stronghold is a standout in the genre -- albeit one that has a few warts. With multiplayer gaming, free play, and a variety of play modes that allow you to hone your martial and administrative skills, there's a little something for everyone.
Destroyer of Productivity
Giles Williams has created a disturbingly addictive puzzle game called JewelToy, and I'll warn you now that it's one of those games you have to be very wary of. JewelToy will get you in trouble at work because it's such a productivity drain.
The game begins with an 8-by-8 grid filled with jewels of varying shapes and colors. You swap the positions of adjacent gems to create a row or column of at least three matching gems. Do so, and you'll make the gems disappear, but in their place you'll see more jewels drop from the top of the screen, Tetris style. Match more than three gems, and you'll score more points.
But there's more to this game than just shape matching. You also have to beat the clock. At the bottom of the JewelToy screen is a time bar that slowly ticks down. If time runs out, the game is over. Matching gems increases incrementally the amount of time you have.
Just because it's free doesn't mean that JewelToy skimps on the details. It sports an alternate set of graphics, an automatic hint feature that'll tip you off to combos
if you don't move for 20 seconds, a high-score list, multiple difficulty settings, built-in help, and even a pause feature so you can take a bathroom break (it blanks the screen, though, so you can't cheat). If the game has a rough spot, it's the sound: JewelToy uses a couple of sound effects borrowed from the movie Tron, and that's about it. But again, for the price, who am I to complain?
The Bottom Line
Other programmers on other platforms have recycled JewelToy's concept. But this polished little OS X gaming gem takes only a minute to learn, and it's just what the doctor ordered when you're looking for a quick diversion in your spare moments. Download it now.
Great Bathroom Reading
I've had a consuming passion for video games ever since I saw my first coin-op Pong game in the 1970s. As part of the first generation of kids who grew up with video games, I consider them an important part of my own history. That's why I took notice when Rusel DeMaria and Johnny L. Wilson -- both experts in the field -- collaborated on a $25 book, published by McGraw-Hill/Osborne, titled High Score! The Illustrated History of Electronic Games.
This 328-page tome starts with the prehistory of computer games -- for example, bagatelle parlor games dating from Victorian times -- and ends with the latest generation of video-game consoles: Microsoft's Xbox, Sony's PlayStation 2, and Nintendo's GameCube. In between, there are fascinating stories about the constant cycle of innovation and destruction that makes the electronic-game industry re-create itself every few years.
Early successes (the Magnavox home game consoles), giants (the Atari VCS and Nintendo Entertainment System), and coin-op standard-bearers (Asteroids and Dragon's Lair) are all recounted here, with many comments from the people who built the computer- and video-game industry into the multibillion-dollar empire it is today.
Even Apple makes a few appearances -- most notably for its success in establishing the Apple II as a viable game console -- complete with a sepia-toned photo of a bearded, shaggy-haired Steve Jobs and a clean-shaven Steve Wozniak, both in suits, posing with an Apple II.
Sadly, the Macintosh isn't discussed except in passing, since PC compatibles ultimately succeeded the Apple II as the dominant computer-gaming platform. It's a shame, because in the early days the Mac had compelling content you couldn't find on other platforms. Mac-game fanatics will surely love some of the trivia, however, such as a photo of an Afro-sporting but recognizable Bill "Burger" Heineman, and a brief history of id Software. There are also a few pages on companies that continue to be major players in the Mac market, such as Blizzard Entertainment.
The lack of extensive Macintosh content aside, this fascinating and well-researched book is a must-have for video- and computer-game enthusiasts who want a book that puts the last few decades into historical perspective. It's complete with tons of art and photos from throughout the history of electronic gaming, too, so there's plenty of material to stir your brain's visual center when descriptions of games may not jog your memory.
The Bottom Line
High Score! is a great coffee-table (or bathroom) book for game geeks everywhere, regardless of their platform preferences.
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