capsule review

The Game Room

At a Glance
  • Aspyr Media Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

    Macworld Rating
  • Aspyr Media Bloodrayne

    Macworld Rating
  • Derek Arndt Barrage

    Macworld Rating
  • GarageGames ThinkTanks

    Macworld Rating
  • MacSoft Unreal Tournament 2003

    Macworld Rating

For Mac gamers, the reality of waiting months -- or even years -- for popular Windows titles to appear on their machines is nothing new. But when the game in question is Unreal Tournament 2003, the biggest, baddest first-person shooter to emerge on the Mac in years, the wait can be excruciating.

Six months after MacSoft unveiled a version of this popular sequel running on a Mac, Unreal Tournament 2003 (often shortened to UT 2K3) has finally shipped. And it's a doozy. I'll tell you how this much-anticipated release stacks up, and I'll offer advice on squeezing as much speed out of it as possible. Oh, and as if that weren't enough, I've also got Harry Potter, tanks galore, and one real stinker.

Unreal Fun

UT 2K3 is the sequel to a game that first appeared in 1999. If you're new to the series, Unreal Tournament is a futuristic gladiatorial combat game that sports both single-player combat and extensive cross-platform online support.

In the single-player campaign, you must win battles to progress to semifinal and final rounds. It's a perfunctory but satisfying process. But the series' real strength has always been its online multiplayer game play. And in that respect, UT 2K3 doesn't disappoint.

There are five online game modes: Deathmatch -- kill anything that moves; Team Deathmatch -- kill anything wearing a vest of a color different from yours; Capture the Flag -- get the flag and kill anything that gets in your way; Double Domination -- secure multiple points on a map for several seconds; and Bombing Run -- best described as the unholy union of UT 2K3 and rugby. Adrenaline capsules are an interesting addition to the game. Collect enough of them from around the map, and you activate several special modes, including faster movement, quicker weapons discharge, and more.

UT 2K3 is much more attractive than its predecessor. Level design is amazingly detailed and beautiful, whether it's the harshly lit innards of a dystopian industrial building or a sun-dappled grove of trees, rocks, and grass. And the game runs like a dream, even at the highest levels of detail -- assuming you have the necessary horsepower. I cranked up every detail setting I could find and ran the game at 1,280-by-1,024-pixel resolution on my dual-1GHz G4 with a GeForce4 Ti graphics chip, and I had no trouble. You can even run the game in Windowed mode, which lets you quickly hide the game when your boss walks by. But I wouldn't recommend running a lot of background applications while you're playing.

Some Mac gamers balk at UT 2K3's relatively steep system requirements: a 700MHz G4 or better and an Nvidia GeForce2 MX or ATI Radeon graphics chip with at least 32MB of VRAM. But these requirements are in line with the base-model flat-panel iMac -- a system that's been out for more than a year and a half. All the Macs in Apple's current lineup (except iBooks and the 12-inch PowerBook) should get along well with the game. What's more, the core specs are similar to what's required on the PC. Given the performance penalty that Mac users sometimes pay to play ported PC games, this is remarkable.

I was disappointed to discover, though, that you must load the CD-ROM to play the game. This may annoy PowerBook-toting road warriors who don't want to carry around extra software discs. The game also lacks direct support for the native resolutions of wide-panel displays.

UT 2K3 has a dizzying array of customization options. From within the game, you can adjust video and audio modes, player characteristics, networking specs, controls and input, and more. And the INI file stored in the game's Application Support folder will let you tweak settings for variables you can't access from within the game.

UT 2K3 also supports mods, third-party modifications that provide new maps, weapons, game-play modes, mutators that affect the game play itself, and more. The developer even includes a special UModUnpack application that makes it easy for Mac users to install mods in just the right place.

Likewise, UT 2K3 features a broad range of customization settings for online play. The game's integrated server browser lets you find servers that meet myriad criteria, such as empty, full, or password-protected. You can also host your own UT 2K3 server if you wish. And since Mac users aren't limited to Mac-only servers, you can spend your time serving up some ownage on your PC counterparts.

There's an undeniable instant gratification in visceral online games such as UT 2K3. Rated M for Mature, this game is definitely for older gamers, but some of the gore and language settings can be tweaked to a level that's more appropriate for younger players.

The Bottom Line Evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, improvements make Unreal Tournament 2003 a solid game that definitely belongs in the arsenal of any Mac first-person–shooter enthusiast.

Spellbound

If the blood and guts of Unreal Tournament aren't your thing, you may feel more at home with flying cars, chatty paintings, and a nearly headless ghost. I'm referring, of course, to Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, a 3-D–action game now on the Mac, courtesy of Aspyr Media. This is the second Harry Potter game to come our way, and it's based on the similarly titled book and movie in the enormously popular series penned by J. K. Rowling.

The game lets you control Harry as he and his friends Ron and Hermione explore the grounds of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, attend classes to learn new spells, and ultimately try to unravel the mystery of the Chamber of Secrets. Along the way, you'll get a chance to participate in Wizard Duels, Quidditch (the arena sport preferred by magic users in Harry's world), and other Hogwarts activities. You'll also collect Bernie Bott's Every Flavor Beans, which you can trade with other students for items necessary to complete various tasks.

Learning new spells is much less frustrating in Chamber of Secrets than in Sorcerer's Stone, which forced you to trace the outline of a spell with your mouse. Instead, you now repeat a keystroke pattern in time with what's happening on screen. (It's like playing Dance Dance Revolution with your fingers rather than your feet.)

One place where the game stumbles is in its Save feature. Revealing its roots as a console game, Chamber of Secrets forces you to find save-game books, distributed hither and yon throughout the grounds. This is damnably inconvenient if you suddenly need to use your Mac for something else.

Rated E for Everyone, this game is safe for the whole family, and the average user can probably play through the game in a few sessions. It's definitely light game fare, but it's also thoroughly fun.

The Bottom Line Noticeably better than Sorcerer's Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets offers casual gamers a fun tie-in with the popular book and movie, and it gives them a chance to experience the world of Harry Potter for themselves.

Bloody Mess

Meet Rayne. She's slender, curvy, and clad in skin-tight leather. She's also dangerous: a dhampir, the product of a union between a human woman and a vampire man. And she's got supernatural powers.

In Bloodrayne, a third-person shooter brought to the Mac by Aspyr Media, Rayne is an agent of the Brimstone Society, a covert fraternity that hunts down supernatural threats. The game follows Rayne on two missions -- one through the swamps of Louisiana, and one in Germany -- that take place between the First and Second World Wars. Zombies, Nazis, and various other menaces abound. So do performance problems, clichés, and an overwhelming lack of originality.

Aspyr's version of Bloodrayne managed to beat its Windows counterpart to market by a few weeks when it was released earlier this year. That said, the game's developer, Terminal Reality, clearly needed more time to work through optimization issues and other problems. Some sequences were excruciatingly slow and choppy -- hardly reasonable since the game sports a fixed resolution of 640 by 480 and fairly low levels of detail compared with other recent releases. The audio wasn't much better -- Rayne's dialogue sounded distorted and excessively loud in some sequences, while background noises and sound effects were barely audible.

Bloodrayne's installer is also subpar: I had to force-quit and restart it. I've never had a problem like that before.

But Bloodrayne's problems go deeper than its fit and finish. The game play is thoroughly derivative of every third-person shooter that's come along in recent years. If you've played Tomb Raider, or any of a hundred other similar games, you've pretty much done everything you can do in Bloodrayne -- straight down to a slow-motion mode (called Blood Rage) similar to that of Max Payne and Jedi Knight II.

The game designers' careful attention to jiggling breasts and the moaning sounds of Rayne feeding on her victims is lascivious, gratuitous, and insulting. This game has an ESRB rating of M, for Mature. Unfortunately, the board hasn't yet come up with an I rating, for Immature. This game deserves it.

With lousy graphics, poor sound, a lame story, and tepid game play, you may wonder if there's anything good about Bloodrayne. Sure there is. It works with game pads.

The Bottom Line Everyone's entitled to trip up once in a while, and Bloodrayne is Aspyr's pratfall. Let's hope that this is the exception that proves the rule for a company that's otherwise known for its high-quality work.

Shooting Gallery

If you're in the mood to shoot something -- and if you don't mind completely brainless entertainment -- you should check out Barrage, an open-source game that has come to OS X by way of Linux. It's oddly reminiscent of the old-school Mac classic, Airborne, from Silicon Beach Software.

Barrage is as simple as it gets: you lob grenades and shoot at passing columns of tanks, jeeps, and soldiers. If you don't get them before they escape your field of view, you lose points.

The trick to Barrage is knowing how long it'll take your shells to arrive at their targets, and which shells to use. Small grenades are useful against troops and jeeps; bigger shells are needed to put tanks out of commission.

There's nothing more to the game than that. Aiming, reloading, and switching weapons takes some practice; using a multibutton mouse will help.

The Bottom Line Simple, repetitive fun can be a great stress reliever every once in a while. If that's what you're looking for, then Barrage is great. And what's more, it's free.

Tanks for the Memories

Back in my youth, I spent many a rainy afternoon playing Combat on my next-door neighbor's Atari 2600 console. It was a simple affair: we each grabbed joysticks and squared off on opposite sides of an arena, dodging around geometric objects and blasting each other on an overhead 2-D map.

With the release of ThinkTanks, GarageGames has recaptured the essence of what made this game so enjoyable. ThinkTanks is just as easy to play and as challenging as Combat. But it's a lot more fun, thanks to great 3-D graphics and other modern embellishments that make it more palatable for today's sophisticated gamer.

The action in ThinkTanks is rendered from a third-person perspective -- your camera is positioned above and just slightly behind your tank, so you can get a good view of what's around you. The screen displays the status of your foes while a small radar window shows the position of any nearby enemies. Maneuvering through the game is easy; the keyboard controls your tank's direction, while your mouse controls your tank's turret and cannon. There's even a 3-D crosshair system, which shows you approximately where your shells will land, simplifying the aiming process.

ThinkTanks has two basic play modes: Solo and Multiplayer. In Solo mode, you're cast as a brain-slave -- a disembodied brain in a jar -- serving at the will of Alien Mind Control. Somehow, you've slipped free of the effects of their brain waves and are now pursued by legions of bot-tanks, computer-controlled tanks whose sole purpose is to destroy you. The game progresses through multiple levels of difficulty as the bots get stronger, more numerous, and more reckless. Fortunately, you'll find plenty of power-ups that give you healing abilities and access to special weapons. (If you don't want to bother with the story line behind the Solo game, though, you can switch to Quick Play mode, which puts you right into the bot-blasting action.)

But where the game really succeeds is in Multiplayer mode. There are several options here: you can play in Battlemode or Team Battlemode (two Deathmatch-style games), as well as Scrum or Team Scrum (think rugby with tanks, either as a free-for-all or as a team effort). You can join a variety of online servers -- at press time these were mainly populated by bots, but other registered and demo-playing ThinkTanks gamers are becoming increasingly common. In fact, a game finder and ranking system is built right into the game. You can also create your own server if you prefer.

ThinkTanks has excellent graphics and simple but lushly colored environments. You can choose from several levels with three different themes -- hills and valleys are best for sniping and dog fighting, while darker, gloomier themes are better for ambushes. Lava fields add challenge and will require more strategy.

The Bottom Line ThinkTanks retains what's best about Combat and has new elements that bring the game up-to-date. It's a steal at its price.

At a Glance
  • Macworld Rating
  • Macworld Rating
  • Macworld Rating
  • Macworld Rating
  • Macworld Rating
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