The Game Room
MacSoft has a knack for delivering some of the best strategy games on the Mac. Age of Mythology, its newest addition to the genre, is no exception. Developed by the same people who brought us the Age of Empires series, Age of Mythology shares many of the traits of those earlier games. But thanks to great graphics, challenging play, and an interesting new twist, this game is anything but derivative.
Age of Mythology focuses on three ancient civilizations renowned for their mythology: the Greeks, the Egyptians, and the Norse. Each culture has unique attributes, such as the way its people gather and use resources, how they build structures, and, of course, what they believe. Gods and monsters play a central role.
The notion of unique civilizations isn't new to this type of game. However, unlike the Age of Empires games -- which featured a dizzying array of ancient civilizations but didn't do much to distinguish them -- Age of Mythology creates tangible differences.
You'll raise your civilization through various aspects of economic and technological development. Gods are key to this endeavor: different gods demand different forms of worship, and they respond with blessings to help you along. If you sufficiently curry your patron god's favor, you'll earn upgrades in weapons and armor, as well as the ability to acquire mythological beings. These creatures and heroes can help when it comes time to wage war against your neighbors.
The graphics in Age of Mythology are fantastic. Although it features the same isometric view as the Age of Empires titles, Age of Mythology includes a new 3-D game engine that lets you zoom in on the action, with beautiful results. Also worthy of note is the included map editor, which lets you design your own game maps.
In addition to offering an extensive single-player campaign, Age of Mythology supports multiplayer gaming over LANs and through the game-matching service GameRanger. Alas, you won't be able to take on PC gamers. A proprietary technology called DirectPlay hampers the Windows version of this game.
The Bottom Line Age of Mythology's impeccable credentials and flawless Mac conversion make this an instant classic for strategy-game fans.
Who You Gonna Call?
Feral Interactive's Ghost Master is a strategy game with an unusual twist: you're the bad guy. Oh, and you're dead.
Welcome to the town of Gravenville, which is currently under siege by the living. As a civil servant in the afterlife, you are charged with scaring them. Together with your spectral squad, you'll haunt more than a dozen different locales, including residences, the local police station, and a hospital.
Strategy games inevitably require resource gathering, and the coin of Ghost Master's realm is Plasm -- the substance that's created when people are scared. The more you frighten the residents of Gravenville, the more Plasm they generate. You can click on humans to figure out what scares them and maximize your fright potential. Larger spooks tend to generate bigger scares, but they also require more Plasm. You'll also discover that most ghosts are fettered to specific types of objects -- some need to work near beds, for example, while others are tied to electrical devices.
Although Ghost Master is primarily about scaring folks, some twists and turns keep things interesting. Missions have primary objectives -- to scare people or to make them discover certain things -- as well as secondary objectives, such as freeing ghosts from traps. Unfortunately, some of the goals are remarkably hard to achieve.
If you've spent any time playing The Sims, Ghost Master will seem familiar. In fact, Gravenville residents even communicate in Sims-like babble and dialogue bubbles. However, Ghost Master's game play is a lot richer and more complex. And thanks to its good tutorial, Ghost Master takes only a short time to learn.
Ghost Master has a wicked sense of humor -- its level names spoof popular Hollywood movies, which in turn inspire some of the characters and situations. It also features a great soundtrack.
Ghost Master offers only single-player modes, but I don't consider that a detriment -- not every game needs to have multiplayer features shoehorned into it.
The Bottom Line Ghost Master marries a unique concept with great execution. It's marred only by a few flaws in level design that make some parts of the game more frustrating than they should be. Overall, though, it's a great game -- especially for fans of horror movies.
Hang OS X
If you're looking for an extreme sports challenge but are burned out on Tony Hawk's Pro Skater series, Aspyr Media has an alternative that will let you use some of the same skills in a very different setting: the waves.
Pro surfer Kelly Slater is a Mac user in his own right. He was featured in early Switcher ads showing off video footage he'd edited with his Mac. But until recently, if you wanted to play his game, you had to buy a video-game console. Now Aspyr has brought the surfboarding action to the Mac.
The trappings of Kelly Slater's Pro Surfer will seem familiar to anyone who's played Tony Hawk. The trick engine is similar; it has a career mode, in which you unlock new areas by achieving goals; and you can pick an identity from a variety of real-world pro surfers. In fact, the actual mechanics of surfing are not unlike those of riding a half-pipe in Tony Hawk. While riding waves, you try to string together as many tricks as possible to earn ever-higher combination scores. A trick meter gauges the success of your sequences. Once you've maxed out the meter, you'll be able to pull off mad tricks that wouldn't otherwise be possible.
The game's graphics are fantastic. In fact, they're better than what I've seen in the console versions -- water effects are detailed and lifelike, with beautiful particle and translucency effects that really bring the game to life. However, as with many games that have console pedigrees, you'll find it more satisfying to play on a game pad than on the keyboard, which I found cramped, lousily configured, and uncomfortable to use. The soundtrack is also good, evoking the mood of hanging out at the beach and trying to catch that perfect wave.
Kelly Slater's Pro Surfer doesn't offer Internet-based competition, which is probably just as well, as I've had little success with Tony Hawk's online modes. Aspyr advises Panther users to download a Pro Surfer patch (available from the company's Web site), which fixes problems specific to that operating system.
The Bottom Line Fans of Tony Hawk's game franchise won't find a ton of surprises here. Still, Kelly Slater's Pro Surfer is well executed and fun to play.
My Money's on the Monkey
Freeverse Software is one of my favorite independent Mac game developers, partly because it has an irreverent streak that imbues every game with a healthy sense of humor. Nowhere is this more evident than in its Burning Monkey series.
In the newest addition, Burning Monkey Casino, Las Vegas gets the smoldering-simian treatment. The collection includes five games: Slots, Three Card Monty, Poker, Scratch 'N' Win, and Black Jack. Each game is customizable -- even Three Card Monty (the classic card-shuffling game made famous by street hustlers). A stand-up comic (doing the worst impression of Henny Youngman I've ever heard) pops up every few minutes to interject one-liners. Thankfully, you can shut him off if he becomes unbearable.
The entire Burning Monkey Casino collection is brim-ming with Freeverse's trademark humor and high production values. It comes with a great soundtrack that evokes Vegas lounge acts. In fact, it even offers a separate lounge-act feature in which a gorilla serenades you. Each game features animated backgrounds and special effects that will make you feel as though you've been transported to a casino in Vegas or Atlantic City, circa 1959.
And if you find you've bet the farm and can't cover your debts, the Borrow Money button is only a click away. (I wish it were that easy in real life!)
The Bottom Line Burning Monkey Casino offers cute, lighthearted fun for players looking for some quick and dirty Vegas-style action.
Shoot-'em-ups -- or shmups -- are some of the most popular arcade games of all time: Xevious and Super R-Type, for example. But while this genre once dominated the game market, shmups have largely been cast aside in recent years, in favor of showy 3-D games that look pretty but often don't measure up in game play.
Active Lancer, a new game by Freeverse Software, is a throwback to the golden days of shmups but offers enough new embellishments to keep the action challenging and fun for gamers young and old. It features elaborate 3-D cinematic sequences worthy of a big-budget game, as well as a lavishly illustrated and lushly rendered environment. It's also got a body-rocking soundtrack and game play up the wazoo.
In Active Lancer, you pilot an elaborate, formfitting flight suit complete with no less than five different kinds of weapons, ranging from particle beams to guided missiles. Your mission is to fly over the surface of an alien landscape and annihilate a marauding interstellar species -- while defending yourself against an onslaught of opponents that populate the land, air, and sea.
Each level in the game ends with a boss -- a large alien craft that's much stronger, better armed, and substantially tougher to beat than its smaller counterparts.
As you fight, you collect power-ups, which you can use to charge up your weapons. Sharpshooting will also give you the chance to recharge. The more bad guys you blast, the higher your Rage meter gets. When it maxes out, you can activate a Berserker mode that temporarily causes you to speed up, while also powering up your weapons and recharging your shields.
To share the challenge of making it all the way to the end, you can use Active Lancer's two-player mode, which lets two gamers play simultaneously from the same computer. You can also team up with players over a LAN or through Freeverse's own GameSmith service. However, Freeverse notes that game play through GameSmith can suffer from latency issues.
The Bottom Line Like many shmups, Active Lancer is tough to beat but very rewarding if you make it all the way to the end. The game's excellent production quality is proof that there's a lot of life left in this venerable genre.
Knight for a Day
Vivendi Universal Games has launched a new game franchise for kids. It's based on Fisher-Price's Imaginext toy series -- action play sets for kids aged five and up. Vivendi's first game, Imaginext Pirate Raider, which I reviewed last December, let kids take to the high seas as marauding pirate captains. For its second release, Imaginext Battle Castle, the company turns its attention to knights, castles, and dragons.
Like its predecessor, Imaginext Battle Castle is packed with action, although there's absolutely no bloodshed or overt violence. On their journey, players get to build castles, challenge knights to duels, participate in castle sieges (and the defense of castles), go on rescue missions, and more. The missions grow progressively harder. The successful completion of each mission rewards players with new items they can use for their ultimate confrontation, with a mighty dragon.
All of the challenges in this game are age appropriate -- just what you'd expect from a major publisher of kids' software. However, if your little ones have already played Pirate Raider, Battle Castle may seem repetitive. Also, there's no option for turning your knight into a girl. That's historically accurate but a bit backward-thinking these days -- even given the toy series' boycentric approach.
The Bottom Line Imaginext Battle Castle is a great tie-in for kids who already play with Fisher-Price's Medieval World toys. It's also a fun romp for kids who want to pretend to be a knight for a day.