The Game Room
With the exception of the first game on this month's The Game Room list, every game we discuss here is available via online purchase and download. Now you can satisfy your need for Mac-based entertainment without leaving your keyboard. And you'll find a pretty varied selection, too.
Harder Than It Looks
I have to admit that in the wake of F1 Championship Season 2000 (mmm; April 2003), I didn't have very high hopes for the next racing game on my agenda, Aspyr Media's NASCAR Racing 2002 Season. Formula One racing is challenging, not only because of the high-performance vehicles but also because the twists and turns of the tracks keep you on your toes constantly. NASCAR racing, on the other hand, takes place largely on oval or circular tracks. How hard can it be to drive in endless left-turn circles?
Try asking yourself that question after you've innocently tapped someone's bumper and spent a while somersaulting over a half-dozen other stock cars at breakneck speeds.
In NASCAR Racing, the devil is in the details. While the actual mechanics of circling around a track may, on the surface, seem very simple, the physics are complicated. You're going bumper-to-bumper with a packed crowd of other cars, and this ain't the 405 freeway at rush hour: everyone's pushing 180 miles per hour with 750 horses under the hood. At that speed and with that much raw power, even the smallest miscalculation can result in catastrophe. You have to not only know what you're doing but also make sure that your car is set up well: the camber of your suspension and the type of tires you choose will have a profound effect on your car's performance and handling characteristics.
NASCAR Racing sports some spectacularly disastrous but utterly bloodless crash scenes, and it's safe for the whole family to play. If you just want to get out and race, the game has an Arcade mode that'll let you do just that. But this is ultimately a very carefully constructed simulation. If you want to take the time, you can go up against NASCAR celebs such as Bobby Labonte, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and others as you take to tracks such as the Talladega Superspeedway and Chicagoland Speedway, over the course of an entire season. You'll hear radio chatter from your pit crew telling you what's happening on the track. You'll experience equipment failures as parts of your car wear down from use and abuse. Darrell Waltrip himself was recruited to give tours of each track.
The computer-controlled players will give you a run for your money, but in case that's not enough, NASCAR Racing sports online play. Internet play is best with opponents who have low-latency connections -- this is a very fast-paced game, and slow or lost network packets will have a deleterious effect on your gaming experience. The game also supports force feedback, so if you're running Mac OS X 10.2.3 or later and you have a supported force-feedback wheel, you'll feel it rumble and shake as you play.
NASCAR Racing has demanding system requirements -- you'll need a 733MHz G4 or faster with at least 256MB of RAM to get the most out of it. The Mac game conversion is streamlined for symmetrical multiprocessing, however, so if you have a dual-processor G4, you'll see better results with less horsepower -- even a dual-500MHz G4 will be suitable. I saw rock-solid 30-plus frames per second on my dual-1GHz G4 with a stock GeForce4 MX graphics card at 1,600-by-1,024-pixel resolution.
The Bottom Line Another great auto-racing game for the Mac has finally arrived. NASCAR Racing 2002 Season may not have much appeal beyond our NASCAR-crazy shores, but this phenomenally detailed, sophisticated driving simulation deserves your attention, no matter where you are.
An Old Favorite Returns
It's been seven years since Spaceward Ho last made its presence known on the Mac, and a lot has happened since then. Countless new Macs have come and gone, Internet use has gone from curiosity to commonplace, and Mac OS X has been released. The latter two events alone gave Delta Tao compelling reasons to revisit its classic strategy game and perform some tweaking. The result is Spaceward Ho 5, a game that's better than its predecessor but starting to show its age.
Spaceward Ho is a turn-based strategy game in which you explore outer space and colonize worlds. Some worlds are rich in minerals and can be mined for their resources. Some can be terraformed to support colonies that will ultimately generate income for your empire. And some are completely useless. It's up to you to determine how you manage your resources and your income to support your burgeoning space empire. To do that, you build fleets of spacecraft: scouts to visit remote worlds, colony ships to populate them, satellites for your defense, and a diverse armada of defensive and offensive vehicles of different shapes and sizes.
If you're familiar with previous incarnations of Spaceward Ho, you'll find some important improvements in version 5. For example, you can group different types of ships together in a single fleet, and there are new ship types, such as a tanker (for convenient between-colony refueling). The game's interface has also been reworked.
Thanks to its wacky Wild West motif -- right down to the copious use of cowboy hats -- it's clear that Spaceward Ho doesn't take itself too seriously. But the $50 Spaceward Ho's cartoonish graphics look jarringly out of place when compared with the ultrapolished games in Spaceward Ho's price class. And that price seems fairly out of whack; while Spaceward Ho may be a classic, it doesn't have the production quality of other games that have come along in the past half-decade.
But despite its looks, Spaceward Ho is a serious game. It takes a lot of strategy and skill to plan for a successful out-come, unless you ratchet the computer competition's intelligence down to near-moronic levels. The game features computer-controlled players whose abilities you can adjust using a simple slider.
If battling the computer doesn't interest you, Internet-based multiplayer gaming is also an option, through Delta Tao's dedicated online service. Humans can also play cooperatively against computer opponents.
The Bottom Line Spaceward Ho's cartoonish graphics and silly theme will be familiarly endearing to some but will not appeal to everyone. Underneath is a fantastically fun game that's at last been updated for OS X and Internet play.
In this version of the future, our planet is 90 percent underwater, due to decades of environmental devastation. The surviving humans have been relegated to floating cities anchored to the land beneath. An unknown pollutant is contaminating the world's oceans -- thanks to an alien invasion force lurking below the seas, on the ocean floor. In CodeBlender's first game release, DeepTrouble, you are a submarine commander whose job it is to destroy the undersea outposts of the alien invaders.
DeepTrouble follows a simple format: Locate the alien fleets and constructions, torpedo the ships, destroy energy generators, and blow up the constructions. Rendered in a third-person perspective, the game shows you your sub floating in front of you as you navigate through trenches and submarine canyons on your quest for alien targets; you occasionally come across sea life and the random submerged city or sunken oil tanker. You'll also find energy pods, weapons pods, and other goodies to recharge your sub's defenses. DeepTrouble has ten levels of increasing difficulty.
Sadly, DeepTrouble's creators don't hold to a tenet of good writing: Show, don't tell. The game gives away far too much at the outset rather than incorporating the premise into game play. What's left in the game gets repetitious quickly.
DeepTrouble has a solid game engine at its core. There's an undeniable challenge in piloting a submarine and using torpedoes -- both require more strategy and planning than flying a lightning-quick jet fighter or racing a car. I hope that CodeBlender revisits DeepTrouble for a sequel -- it's a great idea that deserves a fair shake.
The Bottom Line CodeBlender should apply what it's learned with DeepTrouble to future releases, because the company shows promise. But this game is more of a miss than a hit.
Tetris Meets Bubble Wrap
I could hear the undisguised snuff of contempt come from the occupant of the seat next to me. Waiting for a connecting flight in Chicago's O'Hare airport, I had my PowerBook open for a fast and furious round of GameHouse's Super Collapse II, a recent addition to the company's line of arcade puzzlers for Windows and Mac OS. Snuffy, after eyeing me sideways, started charging at hordes of bad guys as he played Half-Life on his obscenely large and ugly Wintel laptop.
"Figures," he probably thought. "The Mac user doesn't play real games. After all, there are no real games for the Mac."
I admit that I may be projecting a bit, but heaven knows I've heard this sort of dreck come from PC gamers often enough over the years. Shows you what they know: Super Collapse II is as real as computer games get. And while it may not have the sexiness of a 3-D shooter, it has the addictive quality of a controlled substance.
On the surface, Super Collapse II seems simple to the point of being mundane: rows of colored boxes emerge from the bottom of the screen. Click on three or more blocks to make them disappear. The more blocks that disappear at once, the higher your score. Bonuses are rewarded for clearing the playing field or keeping the number of rows to a minimum at the end of each round. Special bonus rounds can also reward you with huge points if you're able to clear all the blocks in a few seconds.
Super Collapse II combines the geometric calculation of Tetris with the sublime tactile joy of popping sheets of Bubble Wrap. It does more, too. The latest in the Collapse series, Super Collapse II has been enhanced with four different play modes: the traditional form I've just described; Strategy, which eschews time-based play for a thinking player's game; Relapse, which sends boxes collapsing in from both the top and the bottom; and Puzzle, which tests your ability to completely clear the screen of carefully constructed layouts.
For a single puzzle game, $25 might be a bit more than some folks are willing to spend, but there's no question that Super Collapse II is a quality piece of work. The game incorporates nice music and sound effects, and it even has a few graphical embellishments, such as simple particle effects when the boxes break. If arcade-style puzzlers are your thing, check it out.
The Bottom Line Super Collapse II is a great diversion, especially if you're looking for something to keep you occupied at lunch or between flights -- no matter what the PC user next door might think of you.
Phelios is a company that doesn't get a lot of exposure, but it's got some really great products in its library. One of the company's recent releases is a pleasant little side-scrolling arcade game called Helix. Its premise is simple but well executed.
All the green dolls in your factory have been taken by a mysterious force from another dimension. As the pilot of a remote-controlled helicopter, you must get them back. You can use your built-in teleportation device to get them back on board as you hover above them, blasting enemy installations and marauding monsters, and grabbing power-ups and diamonds (which give you extra lives) along the way.
Helix is tougher than it sounds, because just as in real life, gravity works against you, drawing you downward all the time. Hovering in place long enough for your transporter to beam aboard the wayward dolls is tricky, especially when enemy cannons are firing on you. You'll have to negotiate treacherous terrain, pass through tight caverns, and hover in tiny caves in your quest for the dolls, who are spread across four worlds and a total of 100 levels. Helix also sports a toe-tapping synthesizer-driven soundtrack and eye-catching graphics, including parallax-scrolling backgrounds.
I can find only one shortcoming, and it's that you have to download the game twice -- once for the demo and again to download the full version after you've paid for your registration code. This can be a bit of a hassle for people on bandwidth-limited Internet connections -- the full game clocks in at 24MB. Phelios offers a CD-ROM as an option, but that adds $10 to the cost of the game.
The world of Helix harks back to the glory days of 16-bit gaming on consoles such as the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo. While I don't like to live in the past, I have fond memories of those days, so it's always a pleasure to take a trip down memory lane with a game like Helix, which executes the concept that made those older games so much fun to play.
The Bottom Line Helix is a sure-fire hit for gamers who remember the late eighties and early nineties as a golden age of gaming goodness.
When he's not doing his duty, MacCentral.com Senior Editor PETER COHEN pushes the pedal to the metal every chance he gets.
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