The Game Room
The measure of a game's action is sometimes referredto as its twitch factor, the frantic movement of your digits on a controller. Whether you're trying to stay alive or just attempting to beat the clock, twitch is what gets your heart pounding and mind racing. This month I look at several different takes on the action genre -- a modern relative of Dungeons and Dragons, a 3-D romp with a bouncing orb, an homage to top-down- scrolling games of yore, and three variations on classic puzzle games. One thing they have in common is some fast and furious play.
MacSoft's Dungeon Siege combines the hack-and-slash action of Diablo with the real-time strategy of Myth to create what is easily one of the most compelling and dangerously addictive games I've played all year.
Let me emphasize that this is not a role-playing game -- at least not in any conventional sense. Dungeon Siege is first and foremost a combat-action game that includes role-playing elements, such as a fantasy-based story line and the ability to improve character attributes and control inventory. If you're hoping for a Baldur's Gate successor, you'll have to look elsewhere, but this game does provide an abundance of dungeon-crawling battles, a beautiful 3-D world, and enough seamless game play to keep you entertained for hours.
When you create basic characters in Dungeon Siege, you don't assign them fixed classifications, such as warrior, archer, or mage, right off the bat. Instead, your heroes adopt characteristics over time, depending on which skills you emphasize when you send them into combat. There are four major skill groups: Melee (hand-to-hand combat), Ranged Combat (firing bows and arrows), Combat Magic, and Nature Magic. Experience builds the characters' skills.
In a single-player game, you can amass a party of as many as eight characters; each will emphasize different skills, depending partly on how much you can afford to pay and equip your crew, and partly on the characters' predilections. Real-time strategy comes into play as you move further into the story and crank up the game's difficulty. You'll need to figure out how your party will approach new foes and what each member will do. You can group them, issue formation commands, and even provide each member of your party with unique offensive and defensive strategies. For example, my two warriors with tremendous strength and powerful enchanted armor would usually rush headlong into battle, striking down anything that moved, while my archer and combat mage -- powerful in their own right but more susceptible to injury in hand-to-hand combat -- would hang back to fire at enemies from a distance and protect the pack mule. (His name is Midnight, by the way.)
Dungeon Siege also supports multiplayer gaming -- as long as everyone is on a Mac, that is. The PC version relies on DirectPlay, a Windows-only technology. MacSoft, on the other hand, includes support for GameRanger, the free Mac-only online game-matching service.
One of Dungeon Siege's most impressive features is its graphics engine, which loads levels continuously during game play, so you won't have to wait for new screens every few minutes. In fact, aside from a few interstitial sequences containing prerendered movie scenes, you can play the entire game from start to finish without ever seeing a load-level meter. It's remarkable technology, and it helps to maintain a sense of continuity. I've played for five or six hours at a stretch without any concept of how much time had passed. The endless parade of bad things to kill can get a bit tiresome after a while, but it's also very challenging and very fun.
Dungeon Siege offers reasonably stable performance and lets you save games at any point, in case you have to end a session abruptly. It's also extensively configurable. One currently missing feature is native support for the wide-screen format, which is becoming increasingly popular in Apple's product line. And that's a shame; the game's 1,024-by-768 limitation leaves nasty black margins on either side of a Cinema Display.
The Bottom Line Dungeon Siege is an almost perfect, action-packed dungeon crawl that will appeal to fans of Diablo and to real-time strategy gamers.
Great Balls of Fire
Following up on its recent Marble Blast offering ( The Game Room, June 2003), GarageGames has released Orbz 2.0 for the Mac, another 3-D-action title that places Mac users in the wake of a speeding ball. You may wonder whether a theme is developing. But don't worry about the similarities -- these games cover very different territory.;
In Orbz, you use your mouse to aim and shoot an orb through one of more than a dozen 3-D environments. These colorful and fanciful settings range from a bubbling spring to a construction site and a haunted graveyard. You pick up points along the way by bashing your orb into stars. Collect them all before time runs out, and you'll earn bonuses -- but that's easier said than done.
Although Orbz is incredibly simple to learn -- just aim and shoot -- the game takes some skill to master. The Orbz world is subject to the laws of physics, so your orb arcs, bounces, and rolls just as you'd expect it to in the real world. This means that you sometimes have to aim above your target, depending on its distance and the kind of surface you're firing from. You can occasionally find power-ups that help you along the way by increasing the strength of your shot, raising the value of stars, defending you against other players, and more.
Version 2.0 is Orbz's debut on the Mac, and it was definitely worth the wait. The game has incorporated numerous changes since its initial release, including the addition of a single-player mode. In that solo mode, you work through 35 progressively more challenging levels. High scores will earn you bronze, silver, or gold medals and unlock new orbs to play. The game can even register your high scores on a ladder-ranking service if you wish.
In multiplayer mode, you can take on as many as nine opponents, either on a LAN or on the Internet. You can decide whether to face off against computer-controlled Botz, which vary in skill level, or other human players. You can host your own game, join someone else's, or play on the developer's common-access servers. The simple and colorful graphics are reminiscent of console games, and they're very effective within the context of Orbz. Sound effects are likewise sparse but effective -- you'll hear a basketball-like thunk when your orb bounces against walls or other obstructions. And the whistle of a flying orb intensifies and fades just as you'd expect.
Like Marble Blast, Orbz 2.0 is available only for online purchase and download, so don't go to your favorite store looking for an Orbz box.
The Bottom Line Orbz's simple mechanics, nonviolent play, and cartoonish graphics make it a sure hit for families who want something everyone can play and find challenging.
Who's the Boss?
You won't find a lot of new top-down-scrolling arcade games these days -- and that's a shame. Done right, scrollers can provide some furious action as you face off against a seemingly endless onslaught of foes emerging from the top of your screen. One of the things that makes these games so appealing is the boss level, where you take on a single massive foe -- a huge space battleship or a giant monster with writhing tentacles, for example. Armed to the teeth with a dazzling array of firepower, this mammoth nemesis hammers you with an almost incalculable cloud of projectiles. (This is generally when you start pumping in quarters like mad.)
Game developer Kenta Cho distilled the essence of the boss level into an abstract, hypnotic, and downright addictive game called rRootage. And thanks to the efforts of Adam Green, it's now available as a free download for OS X.
rRootage features a unique but easily navigable interface and a vector-style graphics engine that, combined with a pulsing techno soundtrack, reminds me of another retro Mac game I adore, Battle-Girl. To play rRootage, you choose one of four game modes -- each imbues your craft with special powers, such as bombs that nullify incoming bullets, and shields that deflect enemy fire -- and then select a difficulty level. The constantly scrolling grid underneath your vessel gives you a clear sense of rushing over a vast terrain as you blast your enemy to smithereens. A convenient meter helps you track just how close your enemy is to final annihilation, while other status counters display your score, level, and number of remaining lives, as well as any applicable attributes of your ship. Flashing particle disintegration and showy lighting effects remind you that this is an OpenGL-based game.
rRootage is a heck of a twist on the venerable but sadly neglected genre of top-down scrollers. Aside from a few holdouts (such as Ambrosia Software's Deimos Rising and GameCube's Ikaruga), few new scrollers have made their way to the market in recent years, so rRootage is a welcome breath of fresh air.
Although rRootage is still a work in progress -- the game is currently at version 0.22 -- it feels fairly complete. It offers support for joysticks and multiple resolutions, and it can play in full-screen or windowed mode. Noticeably lacking, however, is any Mac-specific documentation or technical support. Still, this is a solid conversion and lots of fun to play.
The Bottom Line rRootage won't appeal to everyone. But if you're a true fan of the genre, this is an instant classic that deserves a special place in your collection.
You won't find any truly original concepts in Power Chips & High Roller, a new pair of action puzzle games by Mumbo Jumbo (sold through MacPlay), but the titles do offer top-notch production value, excellent soundtracks, and some high-paced action.
Power Chips adds some Vegas flash to the classic action puzzle Collapse. You start with a green felt table and a horizontal row of betting chips in various denominations. As new rows fall from the top of the screen, your job is to cash out groups of three or more chips with the same denomination quickly enough to keep the ever-growing pile from filling your screen and ending the game. Bonus chips can dissolve rows, columns, neighboring blocks, and more. For an extra challenge, you can switch to Time Attack mode, which pits you against the clock.
The idea may not be new, but the game is fun and addictive. Its jazzy soundtrack is one of the coolest I've heard this year. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a way to make the chips fall faster without starting a new game at a higher level.
The second game, High Roller, adapts the Bejeweled concept to a 1950s-era muscle-car motif. In this case, your playing field -- set into the car's dashboard -- remains full as you match groups of three or more similarly colored translucent dice to earn points. Bonus dice abound. High Roller also has a Time Attack mode, but unlike the one in Power Chips, it's ridiculously difficult unless you have lightning-fast reflexes.
What separates Power Chips and High Roller from the plethora of puzzle games on the market today is high production quality. Both have great (if repetitive) soundtracks and enough dazzle, flashing lights, and sound effects to keep you interested. High Roller's translucent, gleaming dice look good enough to lick, and the sound of those Power Chips cashing out is oh so satisfying.
The Bottom Line If your game collection already includes Bejeweled and Super Collapse, you have no need for Power Chips & High Roller. However, if you're intrigued by action puzzles but have avoided buying one because the available puzzles just didn't offer enough eye candy to hold your interest, this disc might be worth a look.
A Work of Art
Shareware developer Dracosoft's latest creation, Cube It, offers yet another take on the classic Collapse. This time, the action takes place within primary-colored squares reminiscent of Piet Mondrian's abstract modern art (or of the Partridge Family's school bus, if art history isn't your thing).
Like most Collapse remakes, Cube It features a slowly scrolling series of blocks -- in this case red, blue, and yellow squares -- that build up at the bottom of your screen. You must click on three or more blocks of the same color to make them disappear before the pile reaches the top of the screen. You can also click on bonus blocks to make all blocks of a single color disappear, or to freeze the clock for a few moments and catch up.
While Cube It's style is great, its sound effects are spartan, and music is nonexistent. On the upside, however, it's a scant 600K download, suitable for even the most bandwidth-limited dial-up user. Performance needs some optimization -- the game occasionally slowed down on my 500MHz PowerBook G4 system running OS X 10.2.4. For users who want to try it out before spending $10, Dracosoft offers a 60-minute demo version.
The Bottom Line It's not the most impressive Collapse clone out there, and it could use some performance tuning. Still, Cube It is a competent little puzzler. Plus, it's cheap and tiny.