The Game Room: Let Chaos Reign
If money is no object and you want the best gaming experience as you fly, get Bose's $300 QuietComfort headset (www.bose.com). It's pricey, big, and bulky, but its performance more than makes up for that. Powered by two AAA batteries, the QuietComfort reduces the sound of jet engines and other background noise by using an active noise-filtering technology. If you're looking for something that costs a lot less money and is a lot less bulky, consider Sony's over-the-ear MDR-Q33LP/S headphones ($30; www.sony.com). These tiny headphones eschew the typical headband of normal stereo headsets in favor of clips that rest comfortably behind your ear. They provide a full, rich sound that's better than most of the earbud-style headphones I've tried, and they slip easily into a laptop's carrying case.
Blizzard Entertainment is neither the largest nor the most prolific game developer on the planet, but it is one of the most influential. And that's easy to understand: the company's real-time strategy games are fun to play, immersive, and incredibly well produced. Nowhere is Blizzard's commitment to detail--and to the Mac--more evident than in its most recent release, Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos.
Warcraft III is the latest installment in the game series that's largely responsible for popularizing the real-time strategy genre. It's the first full Blizzard game that has shipped simultaneously for both Mac OS and Windows (both versions are included on the same CD-ROM). And it sets itself apart from the gaming competition in myriad ways, most impressively by incorporating one of the most fantastically rich and detailed level editors you could ever hope to find, so you can create your own games from scratch.
The game returns you to the war-torn world of Azeroth, a land populated by humans and a menagerie of bizarre and terrible fantasy creatures. Humans have battled mainly with the bellicose and mighty Orcs over the decades (and in the two previous games in the Warcraft series), but these are not the only species now vying for control of the land. Night Elves have also come to the fore, along with a shambling army of horrifying undead creatures collectively called the Scourge.
To master previous installments of Warcraft, and its real-time strategy cousin Blizzard's Starcraft, players have come up with a fairly simple formula for success: harvest as many resources as possible in the shortest amount of time possible, amass troops, and hurl as many of them as possible at the enemy. Starcraft junkies are intimately familiar with "Zerg rushing," as it's called. There's an element of that in Warcraft III, but the game's designers have altered the formula to include what Blizzard calls "role-playing strategy."
Warcraft III's single-player scenario focuses much more on individual troop movements and small skirmishes than on epic battles. You control heroes--advanced warriors with special spell-casting abilities who gain experience as they go along; heroes must complete specific missions to advance the story.
In an effort to foster a careful balance between the size of players' armies and the size and wealth of their domains, Warcraft III introduces the clever concept of "upkeep": the larger your forces get, the more expensive maintaining them becomes. A growing army requires ever increasing amounts of resources.
The game's refinements also include features that make resource acquisition and battles more complex than before. For example, you can barter with merchants to obtain resources that you can't generate yourself but that might help you in your quest. And in addition to your opponent, you'll have to battle roaming monsters who limit access to new sections of the map and to resources such as gold mines.
While previous Warcraft games used cartoonish sprite animations that were state-of-the-art for the time, Warcraft III has been thoroughly modernized with polygonal 3-D graphics and 3-D topologies for game maps. This makes the game's basic system requirements nothing to sneeze at: you'll need decent 3-D-graphics acceleration, and your Mac's processor can't be a slouch, either. There are arguably more-complex and visually richer games out there--but because of the depth of its detail (livestock snuffling and walking about, waves lapping on shore, reeds and trees swaying in the wind, and more), Warcraft III sets a high standard.
Of course, no Warcraft game is made complete simply by its single-player scenarios. When it comes to multiplayer battles over a network, Warcraft III serves up action in spades. The game is playable on local networks and over the Internet via Battle.net, Blizzard's worldwide network of online servers. You can find opponents to play against anytime, day or night, on Battle.net, which is intelligent about matching you with gamers who are looking for the same kind of game as you are, and it lets you chat online with other players.
One piece of advice: Avoid using computer-controlled players when you're in multiplayer mode. The computer doesn't make mistakes and is relentlessly efficient, so it's hard to defeat. Several of us at Macworld have gone two-on-one, allied with experienced Warcraft players, and we've still had our butts handed to us by computer-controlled opponents.
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the game is the OS X-only Warcraft III World Editor. The depth and breadth of this program is magnificent. It allows you to import your own audio and graphics, script complex interactions, sculpt terrain, and place objects, so you can create your own Warcraft III-based world to explore. It's possible to build entirely new games that have nothing to do with real-time strategy, per se--a friend of mine is creating a nonviolent world his young daughter can explore and play in, for example. (The regular Warcraft III game is violent but not gory, and it carries an ESRB rating of Teen.)
While playing the game, I have run into a few problems. Warcraft III has quit on me unexpectedly and frozen up once or twice in OS X. To Blizzard's credit, Warcraft III is continually updated (the latest download can be installed automatically by connecting to Battle.net). This doesn't matter to me, however--the game is too fun to put down for long.
If you can still get a copy, I recommend picking up the Warcraft III Collector's Edition. It costs a bit more than the basic game, but it comes in a box that'll look fine on a shelf with the rest of your collectibles. The collector's box includes a DVD that sports all the cinematic sequences from the game, along with a CD of the game's soundtrack. Four art prints of each of the different species in the game are also included, as is a marvelous book with details of the artistic design behind the game. These extras are more than worth the $20 difference in price, and it's all too rare that you can lay your hands on such a special edition in a Mac-compatible form.
Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos is an absolute must-have. A natural evolution of the real-time strategy genre, Warcraft III adds some new technologies and embellishments to a proven formula, and the result is an exciting and challenging game.
Outrun but Not Outfoxed
Foxchange Software's Cave Dig 3 has been around for a while, but it recently got an overhaul for OS X. If you've never played the game, this version's release is an excellent opportunity to give it a shot.
In Cave Dig 3, you assume the role of Simon, a genetically altered fox who finds himself in a world of caves. Each cave sports a single exit--a door--and to locate it, you'll have to navigate a dangerous subterranean labyrinth. Along the way, you can collect gems, dig, avoid being crushed by rockfalls and boulders, and figure out ways to foil the nasty critters that dwell in the caves' dark places.
A solid arcade puzzle game, Cave Dig 3's most obvious progenitors are games such as Sokoban and Dig Dug--classics that you'll remember well if your game days go back to the 1980s or if you had an original Nintendo Entertainment System in your house. Foxchange has done an admirable job of capturing some of the elements that made those games so popular--colorful graphics and rich sound effects, enough of a plot to catch your interest, and simple game play that's challenging and fun. With very light slapstick violence and no blood and guts, Cave Dig 3 is suitable for the whole family, too.
A very useful feature in Cave Dig 3 is the Play Cave's Solution option, which plays back the correct way out of each cave and shows you what you must do to get through it.
Unfortunately, Cave Dig 3 sports some spelling and punctuation mistakes that a thorough proofreading (and, hopefully, a minor update) should correct. Such errors mar an otherwise professionally presented game.
The Bottom Line
A well-crafted retro-style game can be appealing. If figuring out puzzles while finding ways to foil bad guys sounds like fun, download Cave Dig 3 today.
No Kiddie Rides Remain
An earthquake has struck a theme park, and it's up to you and the Rescue Heroes to save the day. You'll also be controlling a giant robot called the Ultimate Robotic Vehicle, or U.R.V. for short. That's the premise of Rescue Heroes Tremor Trouble, a new game from Knowledge Adventure, aimed at four- to seven-year-old children.
The Rescue Heroes are popular Fisher Price kids' toys; they're nonviolent action heroes who rely on teamwork and a desire to help others, rather than on weapons or superpowers, to get the job done. Designed to be positive role models, the Rescue Heroes find themselves in precarious situations, as in this latest installment.
After you sign in and specify your difficulty level, you must respond to four crises happening in different parts of the theme park--rescuing people and animals along the way. Floods threaten the animals of African Savanna World, while broken gears and stalled gondolas cause problems for the folks in the High Sierras. You have to put out electrical fires and reassemble roller-coaster girders in Gold Rush Gulch, and rush to save a sunken submarine at Deep Sea Wilderness.
Each part of the park features two distinct activities, which more or less correspond to an action sequence and a skill-building sequence. Tremor Trouble is strictly a "soft learning" game--there are some skill-building exercises that emphasize sequencing, pattern recognition, and so on, but there's nothing terribly taxing.
As you complete each activity, Rescue Heroes boss Warren Waters and other members of the team thank you for your help and tell you what a terrific job you did. And if you complete all the activities in one part of the park, you get one-quarter of a large diagram of the U.R.V., the giant robot assisting you in all your theme-park rescue adventures.
With multiple difficulty levels, Rescue Heroes Tremor Trouble offers some replay value, but the limited number of activities won't keep active players busy for too long. What's more, the game runs only in OS X's Classic mode and OS 9. While it runs well, I'd like to see Knowledge Adventure step up to the plate with a native OS X version already.
The Bottom Line
If your preschooler or early learner loves all things Rescue Heroes, Rescue Heroes Tremor Trouble might be worth the trouble. Otherwise, look for games with more activities and more-robust challenges than this game has to offer.
Gaming on the Go
Owning a laptop that's a killer gaming rig is no longer just a dream. While gaming with a laptop still has (and will likely always have) some inherent shortcomings, there's no reason you can't turn your PowerBook or iBook into a great gaming system. PowerBooks, with better graphics systems and more-powerful processors, have the upper hand in the games department, but an iBook performs respectably, too, especially if you prefer casual games or can get away with playing older games that have less-demanding hardware requirements.
No matter which PowerBook or iBook model you choose for games, there are a few inexpensive embellishments that will greatly enhance your game experience. Mice and headphones are two of them.
A two-button mouse is a must-have for any gamer; you just can't get the same performance from a touchpad, no matter how well engineered. I'm quite fond of Swann Communications' Opti-Glo Mini ($30; www.swann.com.au), a two-button USB mouse with a scroll wheel. It's not designed specifically for games, but it's tiny and portable, and it offers everything you need to play demanding games when you're on the road. Its translucent glowing parts look cool, too.
You should also invest in a decent set of headphones. I've seen a few sets of adequate flat-panel speakers that are inexpensive and portable, but headphones are infinitely easier to work with. Headphones give you much better positional identification than speakers do--it's a lot easier to tell whether the bad guys are off to your left or your right.