The Game Room
The Checkered Flag
For years, fans of open-wheel auto racing were forced to seek out PCs or game consoles when they wanted to fulfill their need for speed. But open-wheel racing has finally come to the Mac, thanks to a Formula One simulator that's a blast to play even though it's a few years behind the times.
Start Your Engines
The game in question is Feral Interactive's F1 Championship Season 2000 -- developed for the PC by EA Sports -- and the results are great.
In the game, you can take on the role of a real-life Formula One team member, or even a real-life driver of one of those open-cockpit rockets. Among the identities you can assume are Team McLaren's Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard, and Ferrari's famed Michael Schumacher. You also get to race on simulations of the venues where actual Formula One races take place, with realistic and changing weather conditions, too.
No proper driving game would be complete without dozens of settings for your car's performance, and here F1 Championship Season 2000 doesn't disappoint: everything is up for grabs, including your car's aerodynamic characteristics, suspension, tires, gear ratio, and more. Once you've tweaked to your heart's content and are happy with your car's performance, you can save those custom settings for later reuse. But if you find that the individual tinkering decisions become overwhelming, you can fall back on a series of preset options.
Getting a Formula One race car around the track requires precision and control. The cars' power and low center of gravity make them corner hard and blast on straightaways like bullets from a gun, so it's vital to not let your concentration lapse for even a second, lest you be overtaken by other drivers. A single spinout is a good way to end your chances of winning a race -- even braking at the wrong time or failing to shift at the right time can mean the difference between first and second place. The twists and turns of the tracks offer a lot of challenges, too: this isn't left-turn driving around an American-style racing oval.
To prepare you for the challenges that await in Grand Prix and full-on championship racing, F1 Championship Season 2000 lets you learn the ropes in a Driving School module, test runs, and one-off races.
I heartily recommend taking advantage of the training -- it will make you a better driver.
If you want to make things easier on yourself, you can turn on computer assistance for driving, braking, and shifting. (This is also helpful for young drivers, as long as they know that they're not supposed to drive the family car with the same gusto they whip around a hairpin turn with.)
F1 Championship Season 2000 supports steering-wheel controllers for added realism. It also works with OS X 10.2.3 and later to add force feedback to Immersion TouchSense–compatible controllers. To get the force feedback, you'll need to download the 1.0.1 update, available online.
If you get bored racing against the computer, you can take on other players online -- the game supports peer-to-peer connections through TCP/IP. It requires a pretty low-latency connection to work well; someone else on your local area network would be ideal.
Now the bad news: F1 Championship Season 2000 unexpectedly quit on me more than once, making it far from the stablest game I have in my library. The first time I ran the game, it used display settings that generated an ugly, blocky mess on my screen. Customizing the extensive display settings with higher detail levels helped improve the look of the game dramatically without causing huge drops in the frame rate. If you're disappointed with how the game or its demo version looks when you first start it up, try tweaking the display settings.
As the game's name makes clear, F1 Championship Season 2000 is based on software that's a few years old. The graphics and sound effects are still fresh, and the game's system requirements are modest enough to include many iMac users in the race. That's all well and good, but we'd be remiss if we didn't mention that the 2002 version of this game is already available for the PC, and that the PC version of F1 Championship Season 2000 costs only a fraction of the Mac equivalent's price. Mac race fans have to hope that Feral can close the gap with future versions, giving Mac gamers one less thing to grumble about.
The Bottom Line Although it took its time getting here, F1 Championship Season 2000 is a lot of fun to play. It's a challenging and great-looking racing simulator that's sure to please anyone who's been waiting for a good Mac auto-racing game.
Swords and Sorcery
Heroes of Might and Magic is one of the longest-running role-playing computer-game franchises, a series that traces its origins back to the days of the Apple II. Now 3DO has released the fourth major installment of the turn-based strategy game for the Mac, Heroes of Might and Magic IV, and it's a significant departure from its predecessors. A new game engine and different rules bring about some notable changes that will appeal even to die-hard fans of the series.
In Heroes IV, you lead heroes and masses of soldiers into battle against unmerciful foes as you explore terrain; put necessary resources under your control; and add to your powers by collecting precious items, magical weapons and tools, and more. While the isometric graphics may give you the impression that this game is similar to Civilization III or Age of Empires, it's not. Instead, the emphasis here is on developing the abilities of your heroes as their experience increases, much like the development of characters in traditional fantasy role-playing games.
Heroes IV also has delightfully detailed story lines in its scenarios (individually playable levels) and in a multimission campaign that will provide you with dozens of hours of play. But focusing on the improvement of hero talents can work against you if you're playing a scenario that doesn't offer such improvements. In those scenarios, you'll just have to play the cards you're dealt.
The game's designers have tried to free players from the micromanagement that was necessary with earlier installments of this series, but Heroes IV's many different screens and resource-management interfaces can be daunting. I strongly suggest that new players take advantage of the game's tutorial to learn the basics of play. I'd also recommend that even people who never read instructions read the manual, which gives clear explanations of how different game elements work. Unfortunately, that manual hasn't been updated for Mac users; at one point it tells readers to review the Microsoft Windows tutorial.
While you'll see plenty of action during combat, Heroes IV is suitable for all audiences (there's no blood-and-guts imagery). Don't think this is a kids' game, though -- it's tough work, even for experienced game players.
Heroes IV isn't without flaws. The game seems particularly poky during computer-controlled player-combat sequences, and wh
If you tire of the campaigns included with Heroes IV and the separate scenarios grow tedious, you can play online against other Mac gamers via the GameRanger network-play system or direct connections. An included editor also lets you craft your own scenarios and campaigns.
The Bottom Line Expanded roles for heroes, broader specialization options, and detailed stories make Heroes of Might and Magic IV an interesting, albeit flawed, addition to the series.
A popular television show aimed at preschoolers, Dora the Explorer is about a backpack-toting young girl who likes to go on adventures with her talking mon-key, Boots. Now here comes Infogrames Entertainment's Dora the Explorer: Backpack Adventure.
Dora and Boots, along with Dora's anthropomorphic backpack and map, have to return books to the library, and it's up to you to help them get there. Along the way, they meet and help friends -- such as Benny the bull, Isa the iguana, and Tico the squirrel -- while doing their best not to upset nasties like the Grumpy Old Troll and Swiper, the sneaky fox.
One of the TV show's trademarks is its use of Spanish, and this is echoed in the game. Backpack shouts "Delicioso!" when you feed him a book, and Dora sings her theme song, "Come on! Vamanos!" -- it's a nice, unintimidating introduction to Spanish vocabulary for some players, and it'll make kids growing up in bilingual families feel right at home. But this game isn't a Spanish-language tutorial -- the bilingualism is just a bit of added flavor.
Game activities emphasize basic skills such as pattern and shape recognition -- to make the troll let Dora pass, for example, kids must match shapes to cutouts. Understanding that preschoolers have limited attention spans, the game's designers have included an Adventure mode that unfolds like an episode of the show, as well as a free-play mode. Other activities encourage kids to use the mouse, recognize and match numbers, and use reasoning and logic skills. As players finish each activity, they get a sticker that they can place in the Sticker Book and print.
Three different skill levels will keep kids busy for a while, too. Because of the target age range, there's a limited amount to see and do, but Dora the Explorer: Backpack Adventure will keep young fans of the show entertained.
For whatever reason, the game's audio -- music, sound effects, and dialogue -- sounded gravelly on my system. And in the Adventure mode, I felt put off by certain sequences I couldn't skip -- this is sure to be a source of frustration for youngsters who just want to get on to the next activity rather than wait.
The Bottom Line Irrepressible and exuberant, Dora the Explorer: Backpack Adventure offers preschoolers friendly encouragement as they learn shapes, numbers, and basic reasoning skills.
The 3-D Game Pad
If you're a new gamer looking for the best game controller for first-person shooters such as Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, third-person shooters, and other 3-D games, conventional wisdom says that all you need is a good multibutton mouse and a keyboard. But now Belkin has released Mac drivers for its Nostromo n50 SpeedPad, a development that tosses conventional wisdom out the window.
The SpeedPad is a game controller specifically for the 3-D-game crowd. It's a marvelous design and its software works well -- I just wish Belkin's own Mac support was a bit more comprehensive.
Unlike a game pad or joystick, the SpeedPad isn't meant to stand in for your mouse; instead, the SpeedPad replaces your keyboard as your secondary input device. Intended for use with your left hand (so lefties will probably not enjoy using it), the pad features ten primary function keys that can be programmed in three different shift states. Under your thumb you'll also find a throttle wheel and a directional pad. The net result is that you can program dozens of different commands for the SpeedPad.
The software is flexible enough to emulate keystrokes and input entire macros. This comes in handy if there's a complex series of actions you'd like to activate with just one key, such as engaging weapons or accessing inventory items that are available only from certain windows. You can also set key-repeat rates, which is useful for those moments when you need to go into rapid-fire mode and spray the room with bullets.
Belkin already has an expansive downloadable library of SpeedPad pre-sets designed for specific games. Alas, none of these presets can be imported into the version of the Mac software I tested, and Belkin could tell me neither when Mac-specific presets would be available nor whether the Mac software would be updated to allow the PC presets to be imported.
While this isn't an insurmountable problem, it certainly makes the SpeedPad less appealing, since you'll have to create custom settings for each game you play -- an arduous, time-consuming, and frustrating task. The Mac software is well done, so let's hope that Belkin finishes the job by supporting its Mac gamers with settings files, too.
The Bottom Line By keeping your left hand stationary, you can improve performance and accuracy in 3-D games. To this end, the Nostromo n50 SpeedPad is worthwhile. Too bad its Mac support just ain't all there yet.
MacCentral.com Senior Editor PETER COHEN has wrecked numerous high-performance automobiles -- but only on his Mac..