The Game Room
Few games in mac history have engendered as much fervent devotion and as many feelings of betrayal as Halo. Four years ago, at Macworld Expo New York, Mac users got a first glimpse of the next version of this monumental first-person shooter. Since then, Halo has made the rounds -- first as an Xbox exclusive and then, in September, as a Windows-only release. Now, thanks to the efforts of MacSoft and Westlake Interactive, who worked practically around the clock for almost three months, Halo is where it belongs -- on the Mac.
Does Halo: Combat Evolved live up to the hype? After so long a wait, some gamers will inevitably be disappointed. But I'm certainly not one of them.
Halo: Combat Evolved offers something that most recent first-person shooters lack -- a good storyline. Halo includes a single-player mode that you care about. You assume the role of the Master Chief, a cybernetically enhanced soldier with tremendous strength, healing capabilities, and weaponry skills. You must square off against a vicious alien civiliza-tion called The Covenant, whose sole goal is the utter annihilation of the human race. Fate has brought you to Halo, a huge and mysterious ring-shaped world. Underneath the surface of this alien world lie secrets that could lead to mankind's salvation -- or destruction.
Killing Covenant baddies is bound to cause some bumps and bruises, and it will wear down your ammo supply. Luckily, there's almost always another health pack or ammo clip nearby. But here's a cool twist: although some games allow you to holster an armory of five or ten weapons at once, Halo forces you to be a little more selective -- you get only two carry-on items at a time.
Of course, no matter how great the single-player game is, you'd get bored quickly if that's all there were. Fortunately, there's a ton of multiplayer action here, too. Halo provides a game-finding service that lets you face off against Mac and PC users. There are individual and team-based modes, such as Death Match, Capture the Flag, and King of the Hill. You'll also find plenty of other multiplayer goodies: new weapons, such as the flamethrower and the Fuel Rod Gun; new ships, such as the Banshee (a Covenant flying ship) and the rocket-equipped Warthog; six new multiplayer maps; and more.
If you've already played Halo on an Xbox, you'll find some important differences in the Mac version. For one thing, the graphics are phenomenal. The Mac version of Halo supports the latest in high-end graphics technology. You can play Halo at resolutions as high as 1,600 by 1,200 -- assuming your video system can handle them. If you're using the latest ATI (Radeon 9800) or Nvidia (GeForce FX) hardware, you can take advantage of even more graphics power by turning on vertex and pixel shading to get much richer lighting, shadowing, and special effects. And with the upcoming release of an OpenGL driver update, the game will also support full scene antialiasing, which smooths the edges of jagged polygonal objects to make the game appear more realistic. Put together, the results are truly awe-inspiring.
Xbox users will also notice how responsive Halo is on the Mac. Despite its console pedigree, this game absolutely comes alive with a keyboard and a mouse. The keyboard layout is sensible and easy to remember, and the game supports multibutton mouse configurations and scroll wheels.
Level design in Halo can be vast, but you'll rarely get lost. Twisty passages often have visual cues that let you know where you need to go. Halo also makes great use of inverse kinematics -- a form of 3-D modeling -- to add more realistic motion to objects. Watch the limbs of your Covenant foes fly as you launch a grenade into their midst, or see fellow soldiers shudder and shake as your ship hits rocky terrain.
A glance at Halo's system requirements may startle some gamers, but in fact, MacSoft has been fair: at the bare minimum, you'll need an 800MHz G4 or faster with a 32MB video card. That's consistent with a top-model, two-year-old, flat-panel iMac. It's also fairly consistent with the PC version's system requirements. Of course, to really see what this game can do, you'll want at least a 1GHz machine. I played on a 1GHz G4 with 512MB of RAM and a GeForce4 Titanium card, and I saw playable frame rates throughout. In fact, Westlake has done a fantastic job of eking out every last ounce of performance it can from the game.
I also had a generally good experience with online play -- as long as I kept ping times (the amount of time it takes for a packet of data to travel from your Mac to the host server) under 150 milliseconds. Higher ping times sometimes result in periods of latency, which will make you a sitting duck in a game like this. But while you shouldn't have a problem finding a server with sufficiently low ping times, you'll get the best results when playing on a LAN. In fact, I can't think of a better game for a LAN party.
The Bottom Line By any measure, Halo: Combat Evolved is an absolutely fantastic game. Westlake and MacSoft truly pulled out all the stops to make this one of the best first-person shooters the Mac has ever seen.
Sometimes, fighting just two or three bloodthirsty enemies at a time isn't enough. If you long for the thrill and challenge of waging large-scale combat, take a look at Warrior Kings, a new strategy game from Feral Interactive. Despite some flaws, Warrior Kings brings unique charm and challenge to an old genre.
Warrior Kings puts you in the role of Artos, a young king in the midst of an epic struggle to regain control of his kingdom. Loosely based on medieval Europe, the game draws from European history and folklore. As a result, you'll find that Warrior Kings is more based in reality than some other games in this genre -- for example, all the combatants are human. (However, in some cases, you can call upon mystical forces to augment your abilities.)
Warrior Kings offers all the usual elements of a real-time strategy game (RTS): you'll gather resources, develop military units, and send them into battle. But it also adds some unique touches that help separate it from the pack. For example, there's a branching story line that lets you choose to follow Pagan, Imperial, or Renaissance paths. Each path provides you with access to different era-specific technology and different offensive and defensive strengths.
Another unique element is the game's emphasis on managing and maintaining supply lines. This is a grittily realistic aspect of war strategy that many games forget -- it's one thing to harvest resources; it's another to put them to use.
Warrior Kings is at its best when you're commanding hundreds of soldiers on a 3-D battlefield and manage to make them respond to your commands effectively. Few other games could manage this scale without slowing to a crawl. However, this expansive scope can be a detriment, too -- maneuvering your camera around the battleground can leave you lost or confused about your position or your perspective.
The game also suffers from fairly obtuse artificial intelligence. Enemy troops and your own men exhibit a painful lack of situational awareness. What's more, learning how to maneuver troops and win battles will take time. Despite a tutorial mode that offers an overview of how things work, I had to play some levels repeatedly until I figured out what I was doing wrong.
Multiplayer gaming in Warrior Kings is another weak link. The game doesn't let you take on Windows players. And, at press time, only a small pool of Mac players was available online via GameRanger.
The Bottom Line Warts and all, Warrior Kings is a lot of fun to play. It will particularly appeal to RTS fans looking for new challenges. However, at $50 it's a little expensive -- especially given its shortcomings.
Mathematician John Conway's computer simulation, Life -- in which nebulous creatures grow and die off in never-ending, shifting patterns -- is possibly one of the most replicated games in existence. This classic program is also the inspiration behind Dr. Blob's Organism, a new action game by Digital Eel.
Although it's not the deepest game in the world, Dr. Blob's Organism is quick, easy to grasp, and fun.
Your petri dish is overflowing with a growing, pulsating, green blob of protoplasmic ooze. It's up to you to contain this nasty critter by repeatedly blasting its nucleus with energy.
You can spin the petri dish around to get a better shot at the beast. Every time the creature oozes over the edge, you lose a life. You can earn new lives or acquire power-ups using goodies that occasionally erupt from the organism. (Power-ups can sometimes imbue the organism with special abilities, too.)
This is all there really is to the game -- 21 levels' worth of slime blasting, complete with three levels of difficulty, five different blob abilities, and ten different power-ups. What the game lacks in depth, it makes up for in production value. It offers original music and sound effects, great animation and graphics, and an interesting twist on an old idea.
The Bottom Line If you're looking for a complicated game you can really immerse yourself in, Dr. Blob's Organism isn't for you. But if brainless arcade fun is more your style, give this game a try.
Hollow Ground is the gruesome, but worthwhile, first release by Swedish game developers Aescapia AB. While it has some amateurish angles, it will definitely appeal to old-school gamers who want to capture a piece of their past.
The story line is fairly standard: Earth is in shambles after destructive wars; the environment is ruined; and there's a big ugly monster generator hidden in an underground bunker hundreds of feet below the surface -- and only you can destroy it. But to do that, you'll have to make your way through 40 levels of chaos and destruction.
You can choose from one of four characters, each of which has different strengths and weaknesses. You'll find power-ups along the way that can juice up your weapons and defenses, or you can buy them between levels using credits you collect.
Hollow Ground's developers may get mad at me for saying so, but this game reminds of me of nothing so much as the classic arcade game Gauntlet. One reason is the game's perspective: like Gauntlet, Hollow Ground is rendered from an overhead view, using 2-D graphics. And although the graphics are a lot bloodier and more gruesome than what you found in Gauntlet, the game play is similar. You wade into crowds of shambling zombies and monsters, hack or shoot at them until you reach their generators, and then blast those generators to bits to prevent any more from emerging. You then wander around each level in search of an exit, often having to trip switches to enter the next area.
Hollow Ground does offer a few nice embellishments on this old idea. For example, a random level generator ensures that things are different each time you play. The game's initial interface and some of its design elements use hand-sketched graphics, which may make Hollow Ground look a little folksy and amateurish compared with what some gamers would expect even from shareware titles. However, I think it's a charming touch.
The Bottom Line Hollow Ground combines the classic appeal of coin-op gaming with Quake-like violence. It's an interesting and unique blend if your stomach can handle the gore. If you like the game, keep an eye out for its level editor, which is scheduled to be released soon.
If you bought Unreal Tournament 2003 and somehow missed the free update released in late October, go to MacSoft's Web site (www.macsoftgames.com) this minute and download it. You won't regret it.
In this update, the game's Mac developer, Ryan Gordon, not only optimized his original code but also added new code that helps the game take better advantage of the G4's Velocity Engine. And he totally reworked Unreal Tournament's audio system. As a result of all this tinkering, single-processor Power Macs should see a 25 percent overall boost in performance. (Dual-processor machines will see a smaller boost, as they were already benefiting from some processor-sharing code in the first release.)
This new version of Unreal Tournament -- dubbed 2225.1 -- also fixes a potential problem for Macs equipped with ATI Radeon graphics hardware and running OS X 10.3. What's more, the update finally eliminates the need to have the game's CD-ROM inserted during game play (though you'll still need to have a valid serial number). This addresses one of the main complaints I had when I reviewed the game last September.
First Look: ToySight
By the time you read this, Freeverse Software should be ready to release what may just be one of the coolest uses for Apple's iSight. ToySight is software that turns any compatible FireWire camcorder or Web cam into a game controller (www.toysight.com).
Inspired at least in concept by a Sony PlayStation 2 peripheral called the EyeToy, ToySight puts you in the game by letting you control sliders and target reticules using physical gestures. There's also a toy mode that's great for parties: activate it, and you can turn on special effects that make you look like a ghost or show sparks flying from your fingers.
I've played with a development version of ToySight and can say it's a terrific amount of fun. The included games are varied. They'll test your skills, and they look great. The games also feature a soundtrack that's sure to keep your toes tapping. I hope Apple catches on to how cool this is and offers Freeverse and ToySight's developers, Strange Flavour, a bundle deal -- every iSight owner should play with ToySight at least once.
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