The Game Room
Not everyone can be a secret agent, no matter what you might think if you watch 24 or Alias. But Mac gamers can put themselves into the heat of battle, thanks to two new games that take very different approaches -- although they both end up using plenty of ammo. We've also got something for the kids and something for the kids of the 1980s inside The Game Room.
"One shot, one kill" -- it's the mantra to memorize when you're playing Ghost Recon, a squad-based tactical action and strategy game that puts you in control of the Ghosts, a team of elite military reconnaissance specialists sent into hot zones to help defuse situations before they explode into global conflicts.
The game's back story seems pulled from a Tom Clancy technothriller, and it should: Tom Clancy's name is on the box. This is a realistic simulation of modern warfare, set in the near future. You don't go into hot zones with your particle-beam weapon blazing and endless supplies of ammunition; instead, you're equipped with the sort of armament you'd expect today's soldiers to have -- sniper rifles, assault weapons, handguns, knives, grenades, and so on.
Don't expect to find magical health packs littering the battlefield to charge you back up to 100 percent health, either. By the time you hear the bullets flying, it's usually too late to do anything but watch your corpse fall to the ground. Going in with guns blazing, as you often do in other 3-D action games, is a sure way to get yourself killed. You have to carefully plan your assault, handpicking your team from a group of experts and deciding how they'll be equipped for the mission at hand.
Once you've been dropped onto the battlefield, you give your team commands on-the-fly -- go here, cover this area, shoot anything that moves. This is a change from previous games in this series (Rogue Spear and Rainbow Six), where you had to plan your assault in a separate stage before you went onto the battlefield.
The game's interface can be a bit vexing. You'll see what's happening in a 3-D view, along with status indicators for soldiers, weapons, and threats; a command map; and more. It takes a bit of adjustment, but once you're in the swing of things, your team can become a lean, mean, well-coordinated killing machine.
To get yourself in shape, you can ease into Ghost Recon with training missions that let you practice the fundamentals. Once you're comfortable with the basic mechanics of play, you can run either quick missions or a complete campaign.
As in real life, soldiers gain experience and accolades with each successive mission. These lead to promotions that make them better soldiers and provide them with access to more sophisticated hardware, which you'll need to succeed.
If you're familiar with its predecessors, you'll be happy to know that Ghost Recon has a new, much better graphics engine. The improved visuals are augmented by realistic audio that even models birds and other wildlife indigenous to the areas you find yourself in. That realism also extends to bloody, bullet-riddled corpses, which is why Ghost Recon merits an M (for Mature) ESRB rating.
The Ghost Recon story line puts you in harm's way when a fictional hard-line communist regime hopes to regain power and return Mother Russia to her Iron Curtain ways; you and the Ghosts must stop it. But also included as a part of Ghost Recon is an expansion set called Desert Siege, which takes you to the East African nation of Eritrea, where you must repel an invading Ethiopian force that threatens to destabilize the region. Each campaign comprises a number of missions with different objectives -- reconnaissance, firefights, rescues, recovery, and so on.
You can also play multiplayer missions online. Ghost Recon is supported by (and hugely popular on) the Mac-only online gaming service GameRanger (www.gameranger.com), so you shouldn't have any trouble finding someone to play with.
Ghost Recon's system requirements are pretty reasonable, and the game features a built-in system that helps you tune your graphics settings so the game runs smoothly on your Mac.
The Bottom Line: If you enjoy 3-D action games such as Medal of Honor: Allied Assault and Quake III: Arena but find that the nonstop action leaves your brain wanting, then Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon is an excellent choice.
On Her Power Mac's Secret Service
The Operative: No One Lives Forever was a surprise hit when it was released for the PC. Few expected this first-person shooter to sell well, but a strong and likable heroine -- Cate Archer -- and a compelling story line that didn't take itself too seriously helped propel the game into the spotlight. Now, more than two years later, MacPlay has brought No One Lives Forever to the Mac.
A Cold War-era spy story set in the 1960s, No One Lives Forever draws its inspiration as much from The Avengers and The Saint as from the James Bond films. Cate Archer is a smart, sexy, resourceful, and ruthlessly independent woman in an era when only one of those traits was considered properly feminine. That's an issue that comes up in the game from time to time, as Archer has to overcome resistance in her own covert-operations group (ironically called U.N.I.T.Y.) before she can go on to thwart the nefarious, megalomaniacal plans of an evil covert group called H.A.R.M.
The in-game dialogue and interstitial sequences are rife with humor, and it's just the sort of tongue-in-cheek banter you'd expect from a game whose protagonist draws inspiration equally from Emma Peel and James Bond, with a pinch of Austin Powers to boot.
Graphically, No One Lives Forever isn't on a par with the most recent 3-D action games released on the Mac, though it looks fine and runs smoothly. And given how old the original PC game is -- especially considering that its sequel is already available for Windows -- the $50 price seems a bit much. It's up to MacPlay to try and improve the speed at which it brings its converted PC games to market.
Game play varies from direct frontal assaults on your enemies to stealth operations where you have to sneak about without being detected. To that end, you're equipped with an arsenal of weapons and nifty gadgets that can help you get out of jams -- a hair barrette that you can use to pick a lock, for example, and an exploding tube of lipstick. You'll travel to exotic locations in Europe, North Africa, and even outer space as you seek to keep Archer out of H.A.R.M.'s way. There are also multiplayer modes and maps to keep you busy online. The game is rated T for Teen by the ESRB -- although there are plenty of explosions and a lot of gunplay, there's no excessively gruesome bloodshed.
While the Mac edition of the game includes the multiplayer maps and missions of the PC version, it lacks the mission editor of its PC counterpart.
The Bottom Line: First-person shooters are a dime a dozen on the Mac these days, but The Operative: No One Lives Forever's style and sense of humor put it in a class by itself. It's a bit long in the tooth, but it's still a fun romp.
No Castaways on This Island
The Learning Company has released the third title in its long-running line of Zoombinis education software: Zoombinis Island Odyssey. The series has distinguished itself with educators by providing fun and original math and problem-solving games. This new game also introduces kids to scientific concepts and ecology.
The Zoombinis return to their homeland to find the island devastated by the horrid Bloats. Zoombini Isle's natural habitat has been destroyed, and it's up to the Zoombinis to make things right: they must reestablish the natural ecology by cultivating insects, horticulture, and wildlife in a sequence of puzzles that test a kid's ability to perform logical operations.
In one game, you need to match tiles to their hieroglyphic patterns on a wall, in order to unlock a door. Another task, operating a catapult that launches the Zoombinis over a steep cliff wall, requires understanding gear ratios. Such activities help kids develop math skills without using stuffy numbers or equations. To solve problems, players must organize information and test their theories. Other exercises introduce kids to basics in astronomy and genetics, too.
All told, there are seven different puzzles, each with three levels of difficulty to keep players challenged. The puzzles randomize themselves, so kids can't count on using the same solutions each time. Some puzzles can get a bit frustrating, especially for kids who are used to instant gratification.
A help system will guide first-time players through the basics of how each puzzle works, without giving away the solution. Kids who don't solve the puzzles correctly the first time can revisit them later, too.
If you're a teacher who would like to incorporate Zoombinis Island Odyssey into your curriculum, it's worth noting that The Learning Company has produced an educator-enhanced version that includes whole-class progress tracking, printable classroom activities, and more.
The Bottom Line: Challenging and fun, Zoombinis Island Odyssey may help your youngsters develop math and logic skills -- without them even knowing it.
The two guys behind PomPom Games are clearly fans of the 1980s coin-op arcade classics designed by Eugene Jarvis. PomPom's last game, Space Tripper, was an homage to Defender. Its newest game, Mutant Storm, borrows heavily from Robotron: 2084.
Mutant Storm is no simple clone, however. It's a wild, positively psychedelic spectacle that puts you inside a ship armed to the teeth with weapons that can blast out any side -- top, bottom, left, or right. Swarms of enemies descend on you from all directions, and between dodging the bad guys and shooting at them, you'll need to get ambidextrous awfully fast, because you use one set of controls to move while simultaneously using another set to fire.
Though the action sounds thoroughly retro, the graphics are anything but. Mutant Storm makes brilliant use of OpenGL to render particle effects, draw 3-D objects, and generally wreak absolute havoc on your retinas as you play. And if you have an Adaptoid and a Nintendo 64 controller (Reviews, July 2002) or the X-Arcade ("Macworld's 2002 Game Hall of Fame," January 2003), you'll find that Mutant Storm is a perfect match. In particular, the X-Arcade provides the same two-stick design that made Robotron: 2084 such a hoot back in the Reagan era. Trying to play the game with the keyboard or the keyboard and mouse is absurdly difficult but not impossible; it's just much easier to play with a game controller.
Mutant Storm depends on an open-source multimedia technology called Simple Direct Media Layer to work on OS X. This requires that you install a new library in your Mac's Frameworks folder if it's not already there, and PomPom includes a separate installer with the Mutant Storm download.
A playable multilevel demo is available for download from PomPom's Web site; when you're ready to buy it, you can download the full 15MB game.
There's one thing I'm disappointed about: Mutant Storm lacks a soundtrack and really deserves one, even if it bulks up the download size.
The Bottom Line: If you're looking for a game evocative of Robotron: 2084 that's been thoroughly updated for the new millennium, look no further than PomPom Games' Mutant Storm.
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