The Game Room
Get out the caffeine and say good-bye to the realworld -- assuming, of course, that you've ever been well acquainted with it. EverQuest, one of the most popular and most widely discussed entries in the MMORPG genre (for the uninitiated, that's massively multiplayer online role-playing game) has at last come to the Mac. And it didn't earn the nickname "EverCrack" without being highly addictive.
EverQuest puts players in the online world of Norrath -- a giant fantasy realm populated by all manner of creatures both mundane and magical, and chock-full of treasure and tribulations. It's up to you to uncover it all -- first by yourself and then with other EverQuest players.
As in any good role-playing game, your first step is to create a character for yourself. In EverQuest, you'll choose from one of many races, specifying your gender, religious persuasion, facial characteristics, and even style of hair -- or fur, as the case may be. You'll also assign your character a role in society. (You can maintain several characters simultaneously -- if you have time to keep up with them all.)
For newbies, EverQuest can be painfully dull. Low-level characters need to gain experience somewhere. This means you'll spend most of your time killing rats, snakes, bugs, bats, and other vermin outside the walls of whatever city you start your adventure in. Penniless and without substantial equipment, you'll have to depend on your wits and your talents, in whatever profession you choose, to get you through. But eventually, you'll amass fortune, formidable skills, and all the tools you need in order to truly get into the action.
Talking with computer-controlled NPCs (Non Player Characters) can lead to new quests and adventures. Once you've gained some experience, it's often wise to ally yourself with other EverQuest players and form a party. Many of the areas that midlevel and high-level characters explore are teeming with vicious, powerful monsters. Navigating those levels alone is virtually impossible; it takes teamwork.
Above all, EverQuest requires dedication. You won't become a seasoned player in an hour, a day, or even a week. Some EverQuest players have logged hundreds of real-time days in the world of Norrath and still haven't fully explored it. So make sure you're up to the task before you dive in.
All told, you're going to lose more than 2GB of disk space when you install EverQuest's four CDs. On the bright side, you don't need to insert a CD to play. However, the EverQuest CDs aren't your only cost. You'll also have to pay a monthly subscription fee to play (your first month is free). As an incentive to get more Mac players to sign up, the game includes a second registration code that a friend can use to activate a short-term subscription, using your discs to install the game.
EverQuest's interface, with its multitude of separate windows, may be daunting to new users, but it's easy to customize. You'll need to have a decent video card and hefty amounts of RAM if you want to crank up the graphics options and detail levels. (Sony recommends a 64MB video card and 517MB of RAM.) Even then, don't expect too much. EverQuest is years old now, and the graphics reflect that. You won't find the high level of detail that you will in, say, Unreal Tournament 2003. But that's not the point: EverQuest is a shared, collaborative, online social experience, which is a lot more than can be said for the average shooter.
The Mac version of EverQuest is independent of the PC version. This is a downer for PC EverQuest users who want to switch, as they'll have to start from scratch with new Mac characters -- you can't import them. On the upside, it also means that everyone you meet in Norrath is a Mac user, so we're all on a level playing field for once. EverQuest has a rating of T for Teen.
The Bottom Line Sony has brought a solid and fully realized online world to Mac gamers. Let's hope that the company continues to support Mac users with new premium online titles.
Living in Sim
SimCity is an old and storied game franchise; I remember playing it back in the days of black-and-white Macs. Now in its fourth iteration, SimCity is back and better than ever, with enough options, drama, and detail to satisfy even the most power-hungry players.
SimCity 4 grants you unprecedented, godlike authority: for the first time, you can shape the terrain, form a wilderness, and even populate it with herds of wild animals. Once you raise your city from the earth, you're responsible for every aspect of how it's run. And while you have a bevy of advisers to help you make decisions, you're the mayor, so it's on your head if things don't work out.
Your city will need basic elements, such as electricity and clean running water. Then you'll need to zone different areas for residential, commercial, industrial, and agricultural purposes. You're on a limited budget, so don't expect to raise a city like San Francisco or Paris immediately. It takes time, proper planning, and attention to detail -- all while keeping an eye on what costs money and what generates revenue.
SimCity 4 also breaks new ground by letting you get inside the heads of your residents (Sims). You can transplant individual Sims into your city's new houses. They'll buy cars, get jobs, meet people, and have accidents that require medical attention. Along the way, they'll express their frustrations and offer suggestions for improvements. For example, I learned from one of my Sims that the hospital I'd put on the other side of the city was too far away. So I ended up building a clinic nearby to help her and other residents.
All of this micromanagement has an interesting effect on game play. Past SimCity games let you stay focused on the long view and paint your city's layout in broad strokes (a tract of residential housing there, a spot for industrial waste over here). In SimCity 4, the long view is still important -- in fact, a new feature lets you take a regional approach and build several different cities that are linked together by transportation hubs, shared utilities, and more. But SimCity 4 truly thrives when you focus on the small picture, building neighborhoods and city centers that your Sims want to live in.
This attention to detail has an inevitable downside; the larger your Sim world gets, the slower the game runs. SimCity can make heavy demands on your hardware. Thankfully, you won't find the same performance problems and bugs that plagued the Mac conversion of Sim City 3000. (A different developer handled SimCity 4.)
One place where the game slips up, though, is in its online support. Two buttons that promise to link you to extras such as
As voyeuristic as it sounds, there's nothing untoward in SimCity 4. The game is rated E for Everyone. However, it may be too complicated for young gamers. In fact, it's fairly complicated for older players. While the game's basic tutorials will get you started, I would have appreciated more training. The first time I tried to make a city of my own, I failed miserably. It took a lot of trial and error to understand many of the game's nuances -- some of which might have been clearer with a bit more hand-holding at the beginning.
The Bottom Line Intricately detailed but massive in scale, SimCity 4 is the most challenging, immersive SimCity yet.
All That You Can Be
America's Army: Operations is the most unlikely military recruitment tool I've ever seen. It's also a compelling game with single-player and multiplayer elements. And it's at last available on the Mac.
Released for the PC by the U.S. Army last year, America's Army: Operations offers a simulation of what it's like to be in the Army. You train, work your way up the ranks, and ultimately become part of an elite Special Forces unit.
Let's get one thing straight at the outset, soldier: You're in the army now. You're here to take orders. Step out of line, and you'll find yourself pacing a jail cell at Fort Leavenworth. I took a pot shot at a growling sergeant one time on the rifle course and quickly found myself behind bars. The game also takes online rankings very seriously: mess up badly, and you'll be demoted.
As both a game and an informational tool, America's Army is full of interesting details about what life as a soldier is like, from basic training at Fort Benning to advanced training and deployment as a medic, combat engineer, scout, or Special Forces member.
As in EverQuest, online play is a crucial part of the America's Army experience. The multiplayer missions let you select the server you'll connect through, your team, and your role within the team. Missions are based on actual situations and locales in which the U.S. Army has been deployed in the past, and for the most part they require unequivocal cooperation with your teammates. This reliance on multiplayer capabilities is all right, but it penalizes players who don't want to -- or can't -- get online.
America's Army is a rock-solid, reliable game; I didn't encounter any crashes or unusual behavior. I also found acceptable performance in online play -- a pleasant change of pace from some other online games I've played recently.
The game offers detailed graphics and sound, and it supports wide-screen resolutions. (The graphic depictions of violence merit a rating of T for Teen.) However, at more than 300MB, the game requires a fast connection -- or saintly patience -- to download. You download a free copy from Macgamefiles.com or get it for $6 from the developer's Web site.
The Bottom Line If you're an enthusiast of team-based tactical games like Aspyr's Ghost Recon, you'll probably love America's Army: Operations.
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