MacCentral's holiday gift guide: Games galore

Are there avid Mac gamers on your shopping list this holiday season? If so, you'll find that there's a sizeable choice of top-notch Mac games to buy for them this year -- Mac game publishers have been hard at work to get great titles out in time for the holiday rush. MacCentral's holiday gift guide is here to help you make some sense of what you'll find on store shelves.

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Through an exclusive arrangement with MacCentral, Apple's Macintosh Products Guide has setup a special page on Apple's Web site to give you a way to view a brief description and prices of the products mentioned in this gift guide.

Action games a-plenty

Action games are always a popular diversion for folks who want to take out their aggression on their Macs. And this year there's a veritable bumper crop of cool action games to play, thanks to the efforts of commercial and shareware Mac game publishers alike.

Aspyr Media has several of the top action games for the Mac in its arsenal this year, with World War II-themed first person shooters like Medal of Honor: Allied Assault ($50) and Return to Castle Wolfenstein ($50). Medal of Honor has distinguished itself by offering missions based on real efforts from soldiers during World War II, while Return to Castle Wolfenstein combines Nazis with zombies and other supernatural critters for a more fantasy-oriented romp. Aspyr also used the Force to bring Mac gamers Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast ($50).

MacSoft's Max Payne ($40) offers Matrix-style slow motion "Bullet Time" in a third-person shooter package. Bullet Time comes in awfully handy when you're trying to aim at the endless hordes of underworld thugs and mafiosi that get in your way. And just in time for Christmas, MacPlay is shipping The Operative: No One Lives Forever ($50), a first person espionage shooter set in the 60's with a heroine that's a bit like Emma Peel from the Avengers, but as well-equipped as James Bond.

If "old-school" arcade gaming with some modern embellishments is more the style of some of the folks on your list, make sure to check out a few shareware favorites that are sure to keep them company during cold winter nights: There's Ambrosia Software's superlative brickbashing game Pop-Pop ($25), which combines Breakout and Street Fighter together in a unique and memorable combination. And Pompom Games has recently released a game reminiscent of the arcade game classic Robotron 2084 called Mutant Storm ($20).

Simulation games sizzle

There are a few game genres that have been overlooked by Mac game publishers over the years, and simulation games are definitely one of them. Just in the last few weeks, however, we've seen a couple of surprising entries from UK-based Feral Interactive (whose games are distributed in North America by MacPlay and Aspyr Media.

Feral is now shipping F1 Championship Season 2000 ($50), a simulation of Formula One racing for the Macintosh. It's licensed from EA Sports, and while the name implies that this game is old, it's completely fresh on the Macintosh. It's also the first time that Mac users have had a real open-wheel racing simulator in years. The game follows the teams, drivers, and venues that Formula One racing followed during the 2000 calendar year, and despite the game engine's relative age, looks fabulous on newer Macs when you crank up the detail settings in its extensively customizable options area.

Few sports scream "American" more than NASCAR racing. While on the surface it seems like there's little challenge driving a 700 horsepower car around a track making left turns continuously, you'd be surprised at just how much strategy is involved in getting around your competitors and getting to the front of the pack. That's where Aspyr's NASCAR Racing 2002 Season ($40) comes into play, a game that should be hitting store shelves just about now. This title follows the teams, drivers and locations of this past year's NASCAR events.

Without any flight simulators available from the "major" Mac game publishers, it's easy to think that this segment of the Mac game market has been totally overlooked. It's also dead wrong. Laminar Research's X-Plane ($60) is enormously well-regarded by flight simulator enthusiasts, partly because the developer provides you not just with a robust flight simulator, but all the tools you need to create your own experimental aircraft too. What's more, the engine is flexible enough to accommodate new scenery (Laminar offers a Mars CD kit now) and has also been used to create two other games -- Young's Modulus ($30) -- a "mecha" (that's a giant robot) simulation, and Space Combat ($20), which takes users to outer space.

For a simulation of a different kind, look to Aspyr Media's perennial favorite The Sims ($50), a simulated life game that has you making decisions for pretend people, from what sort of job they have to how they'll decorate their house. The game continues to spawn endless expansion packs, including Vacation, House Party, and soon, Unleashed ($30 each).

Smokin' strategy games

A perennial favorite of gamers, strategy games run the gamut: They can be as basic as chess-like board games, more advanced turn-based titles that put you in charge of large-scale troop movements or the developments of civilizations; real-time games that put you in the heat of action while managing units and resources, and more too.

One of this year's top picks for strategy game fans is the hugely popular Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos ($50) from Blizzard Entertainment. The third installment of Blizzard's landmark Warcraft series, the new game involves players in a different scale of play than before: While previous Warcraft games made players focus on massive movements of troops, this game focuses specifically on "Heroes" in charge of smaller groups, on specific missions and quests that lead toward an ultimate goal. What's more, a Mac OS X-native editor enables you to create your own Warcraft world, if you wish. And there's multiplayer action galore thanks to Battle.net, Blizzard's own free gaming service. Warcraft III is also available in a Collector's Edition ($80) that includes an art book, soundtrack CD, cinematic DVD, signed manual and limited edition prints.

If there's a Star Wars fan on your list, consider Aspyr Media's Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds ($40), a real-time strategy game based on the Age of Empires engine. If they already have that one, there's also the Clone Campaigns expansion pack ($30). If they're struggling with the game, you can even pick them up a strategy guide ($10).

Feral Interactive and US distributor MacPlay have brought forth the "God" game Black & White as a "Platinum Pack" ($50) that combines the original game -- released last year -- with its newly offered Creature Isle expansion pack ($30). If you're buying for a Black & White fan already, look for the Creature Isle add on separately, too.

Casual classics and kids' fun

Want something a bit more low-key for those free moments between meetings, or lunch breaks when you feel like goofing off? Consider some of MacPlay's Value Series titles ($20) -- games like Jinni Zeala, a recreation of solid-state pinball fun, or Alchemy and Bejeweled, two arcade puzzle games made by PopCap Games. 3D card game offerings from Freeverse Software like 3D Hearts Deluxe and 3D Spades Deluxe are now available for purchase in stores ($20 each).

If younger gamers are on your shopping list, you might want to think of games with more educational value. Kids ages 7 to 10 with a penchant for math and science will be drawn to The Learning Co.'s Zoombinis Island Odyssey ($20). Preschoolers will love Infogrames' offerings like Blue's Clues Preschool and Dora's Backpack Adventure ($20 each), based on popular shows broadcast on cable television network Nick Jr.

Toys for the gamer who has everything

And if the gamer on your list is all set for software, you might want to think about putting some game-related hardware under the Christmas tree this year. The X-Arcade from XGaming< is a real arcade-style joystick that's programmable, and works on the Mac (as well as PCs and game consoles). It's perfect if you're thinking about a gift for an insatiable fan of MacMAME, the freeware arcade game emulator, and it's available in both "Solo" ($100) and two player ($180) versions.

Fans of first person shooters and 3D action games often scoff at game pads and joysticks, but Belkin has created a game controller just for them: The Nostromo N50 Speedpad ($35). Designed as a left-handed USB-based controller, the Speedpad can be programmed for movement, weapons switching and other features, and incorporates a directional pad and scrollwheel. The Mac drivers aren't included in the box but they're ready for download from Belkin's Web site.

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