The Game Room
LucasArts' Star Wars franchise has been blessed with superlative computer and console games for a long, long time. In recent years, however, some mediocre games (most of which never made it to the Mac) have tarnished the brand's image a bit. Fortunately, loving Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast requires no Jedi mind trick. It's a gripping 3-D–action game that'll be the answer to the prayers of many a Mac Star Wars fan.
Jedi Bad Boy
Published on the Mac by Aspyr, Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast follows a dark-edged protagonist named Kyle Katarn. He's a Jedi bad boy -- a disciple of the Force who has given up his powers and chosen the swashbuckling life of a mercenary employed by the fledgling New Republic in the days following the collapse of the Galactic Empire (in other words, after the movie Return of the Jedi wraps up). Katarn is thrust back into the center of things when a new and menacing evil comes forth. After an encounter with Jedi Master Luke Skywalker, Katarn begins to regain his Force powers, and he slings his lightsaber on his belt, setting out on a quest for both justice and vengeance. As time goes on, Katarn's Force powers develop and reemerge. Then things get really interesting.
Flash back to me as an eight-year-old boy -- back when I actually had hair. I had a lightsaber I'd gotten for Christmas -- little more than a flashlight with a three-foot plastic cone on its end -- and used it to stage mock battles with my friends in our yard, reliving Obi-Wan Kenobi's epic confrontation with Darth Vader. That's what Jedi Knight II is all about: you get to slice things up with a lightsaber (including creatures -- one reason the game carries an ESRB rating of M for Mature). How cool is that? And in addition to the lightsaber, an impressive arsenal of equipment -- ranging from blasters to grenades to precision rifles -- is available along the way, so don't expect every confrontation to be in the form of hand-to-hand combat.
Based on the Quake III: Arena engine, Jedi Knight II features impressively detailed scenery that's architecturally and stylistically consistent with the Star Wars movies we grew up with. The story line is terrific, definitely fitting in with the Star Wars universe. There are plenty of scripted sequences that help flesh out the game's story and background, and the voice acting is, with a few exceptions, reasonably good. Jedi Knight II is challenging, too. In fact, some game levels are so tough that I had to resort to cheats to get through.
But Jedi Knight II is about much more than running through levels and accomplishing missions, although heaven knows there's a lot of that as well. The game is also about mastering Katarn's innate Jedi powers and improving his lightsaber prowess. There's even a Jedi variation on the Matrix-style Bullet Time slow-motion technique employed in MacSoft's Max Payne (mmmm; "Macworld's 2002 Game Hall of Fame," January 2003). It'll take you a while to master all of Katarn's powers, especially as his Force abilities are expanded further in Jedi Knight II's multiplayer mode.
What's more, the game's designers have done an excellent job of imbuing computer-controlled characters with some decent intelligence. I found a few stormtroopers that would occasionally run into walls or get stuck behind big objects, but for the most part, the computer does a good job of challenging even experienced players to use strategy and offense to the best of their abilities.
The game's multiplayer mode includes a built-in game-finding service compatible with the Windows version of Jedi Knight II. That's great because it means you can compete with your PC-using friends -- but a drawback is that Jedi Knight II has been available on the PC for a while now, so most of the PC gamers you'll encounter in pickup games will have months of experience on you. Like an old bantha being prodded by Tusken Raiders, I suffered countless humiliations served up by Jedis more adept than I, until I scaled the learning curve. It's the cross borne over and over again by Mac gamers who bide their time as games are ported over.
The Bottom Line: Jedi Knight II is one of LucasArts' and Aspyr's best games ever. Its Star Wars trappings are icing on the cake.
This has turned out to be a very mercenary month. But while Kyle Katarn seeks and destroys in a galaxy far, far away, John Mullins plies his trade a bit closer to home.
He's a covert operative for a clandestine agency called the Shop, here on planet Earth. As Mullins, you have to carry out operations in far-flung parts of the world, such as Hong Kong, Kamchatka, and South America, thwarting the efforts of a terrorist organization that has plans to use deadly bio-logical weapons. It's a story straight out of the pages of a Tom Clancy novel, and if you enjoy modern-day technothrillers, there's a lot to recommend Soldier of Fortune II: Double Helix, albeit with a few caveats.
Many of Soldier of Fortune II's missions emphasize your ability to move around undetected. A key element of the game is a sound meter that shows when you're making enough noise to be detected by nearby baddies. It's important to pay attention to the meter (located on your heads-up display), and it's sometimes handy to be armed with a knife, too.
With almost six dozen levels to explore in single-player mode, a wealth of options to choose from in multiplayer mode, and a random mission generator, Soldier of Fortune II offers virtually unlimited replayability. The random mission generator doesn't produce maps with the same degree of polish as levels created by game designers and third-party enthusiasts, but they're good enough and certainly challenging.
Soldier of Fortune II is based on the Quake III: Arena game engine, but its creators have added a new damage-modeling technology called, fittingly enough, Ghoul II. The new technology enables you to more realistically injure or kill your opponents in various ways -- shoot an enemy guard in the leg, for instance, and watch him crumple as his leg gives out beneath him. To keep him from calling to his comrades for help, though, you may need to finish him off with a shot to the head.
It's no wonder that the game carries an ESRB rating of M for Mature. Soldier of Fortune II features some serious gore and violence, though that can be tuned down somewhat by activating parental controls in the game's preferences.
Soldier of Fortune II's rendering technology is not without flaws, as is evident in the game's first level, a flashback sequence set in Prague during the waning days of the Cold War. In this scene, you'll see rain falling and creating water droplets inside roofed objects, including cargo containers. Oops
Also, the game occasionally bogs down, with unplayably slow frame rates even on a dual-1GHz Power Mac G4, a machine well above the game's recommended minimum system requirements. The Windows version of Soldier of Fortune II can be piggish, too, so I can't blame this slow speed on the Mac conversion alone -- yet I wonder if something could have been done to speed up the Mac version a little bit.
The Bottom Line: Soldier of Fortune II offers impressive multiplayer gaming capabilities and nearly infinite replay value, thanks to its random mission generator. But it's enough of a system hog that it may tax even faster Macs to the breaking point.
It's Tee Time
The Mac has not been a stronghold for sports games, to say the least. One big exception has been Links, the all-time best-selling golf simulation, which has appeared on the Mac in numerous incarnations. The company that developed Links has been absorbed into Microsoft, but that hasn't stopped the appearance of Links Championship Edition on the Mac, this time in a conversion published by Bold.
Links Championship Edition is without question the most intricate and detailed golf simulation I've ever played on my Mac. It features excellent graphics with realistic animations of more than a dozen different pro golfers, along with breathtaking re-creations of 13 real-world golf courses. And a new physics engine makes Links Championship Edition frighteningly, frustratingly challenging as you try to sink the ball in the hole.
It's huge in scope. The entire collection is packed on four CD-ROMs. After installing it, you can opt to place various support files -- including golfer animations and course graphics -- onto your hard drive, which reduces disc swapping at the expense of drive space. A full installation takes up more than 2GB.
This simulation of real-world golfing is so complex that it will easily frustrate folks who don't spend enough time reading the documentation and getting familiar with the sometimes cryptic interface.
Links Championship Edition sports a dizzying array of features and functions that I could only dream of trying to get a full handle on, but one thing is clear: the interface is daunting. Preferences windows pop open and display a bewildering assortment of buttons and check boxes, drop-down menus, and other features; even the main window can become cluttered with various camera windows and other gewgaws that help you determine where your shot is going to go. All told, the simulation will be intimidating for someone who just wants to whack a ball a few times.
Included with the program is Arnold Palmer Course Editor, a sophisticated 3-D–design application that lets you create surprisingly realistic and detailed golf courses of your own. The program itself also supports the use of courses designed by other users (on PCs and Macs), so you can download and share courses to your heart's content. There's even a multiplayer mode, so you can use the GameRanger game-finding service or direct machine-to-machine play via TCP/IP.
The program uses OpenGL to produce realistic and detailed 3-D topography, though I did encounter some problems with screen resolution and bit depth that I couldn't resolve until I upgraded my Mac to OS X 10.2.
The Bottom Line: Links Championship Edition is a startlingly realistic simulation of golfing, but its complex interface may make it daunting for casual duffers.
The Good Kind of Bugs
After striking gold with the excellent Otto Matic ("Macworld's 2002 Game Hall of Fame," January 2003), 3-D–game maker Pangea Software decided to revisit one of its earlier successes, the cute-insect game Bugdom. The sequel, Bugdom 2, is a third-person action game like its predecessor, but it features new game play and new characters.
In Bugdom 2, you're in charge of Skip, a young grasshopper who has been accosted by a bully bee on his way to visit his family. The bee absconds with Skip's knapsack, and an adventure ensues as Skip chases the bee across the land of Bugdom in a quest to recover his goods.
Skip's strength is in jumping and flying for short periods, and that's been taken into account as part of the game's thoughtful and creative level design. Bugdom 2 is very much a classic 3-D platform-action game, different enough from its predecessor to appeal to folks who've had enough of the original and are seeking new challenges.
Yes, Bugdom 2 has the normal allotment of platform action: jumping, running, and accomplishing various tasks. But it's got some variation that keeps it from being boring: Skip balances precariously on top of balls, surfs down drainpipes and into sewers, and even mans the controls of a balsa-wood model airplane, bombing enemy anthills and avoiding leaping frogs and squadrons of bad bugs.
Skip's not alone in his quest -- Sam the Snail and Sally the Chipmunk are usually nearby, and if you help them by plying Sally with acorns or finding Sam's lost shell, they'll reward you with objects you need, such as keys to new levels, maps, and so on. Skip must also help his mice friends, who find themselves caught in mousetraps, a situation similar to that of the trapped ladybugs in the original Bugdom.
Bugdom 2's controls are simple. You use the keyboard to navigate, jump, and pick up and kick objects. Rich, colorful palettes, amusing animations, and high-quality music and sound effects abound (although the limited character dialogue is a bit on the amateurish side). And at a time when some games tax even the fastest Macs available, it's refreshing to see a game so thoroughly optimized for "older" Macs: minimum requirements call for an iMac DV.
Pangea's games don't cater to hard-core gamers; instead, the company focuses on developing games that will appeal to as broad an audience as possible. To that end, Bugdom 2 succeeds admirably -- there's plenty here to keep gamers of all ages occupied for hours. And since its violence is pretty comical and never gory, the game is perfectly safe for all audiences.
Because Bugdom 2 is a third-person action game, your view of the game's world is from just behind Skip himself. The game automatically controls where the "camera" is positioned -- and as is the case with many third-person games, objects sometimes block your view. Unfortunately, in some of the more densely populated levels, this can happen at particularly inopportune times, such as when a bad bug is bearing down on Skip.
The Bottom Line: Bugdom 2 is proof that good ideas can be improved on. With beautiful graphics and varied game play, Bugdom 2 will keep fans of the original and new players alike challenged and interested for hours.