The Game Room
The Star Trek science-fiction franchise seems cursed -- the last few movies have been unremarkable; the current television show is tepid at best; and a majority of the related games have, in a word, stunk. So it was with no small amount of trepidation that I picked up Aspyr's newest addition: Star Trek Elite Force II. But despite some minor glitches, this first-person shooter largely manages to escape the curse -- it is a worthy addition to the Mac shooter market.
Elite Force II is the sequel to a three-year old game, also by Aspyr. And like its predecessor, this game places you in the role of Lieutenant Alex Munro, the leader of a specially trained security force known as the Hazard Team, aboard the U.S.S. Voyager. Having successfully defeated the Borg and returned home from the Delta Quadrant, you suddenly find yourself reassigned to a teaching position at Starfleet Academy -- and champing at the bit for more action. Relief comes from none other than Captain Jean-Luc Picard, who needs you to round up your original team and join the U.S.S. Enterprise on a mission to save ships and colonies from a new wave of attackers.
The game has enough plot twists and production details -- for example, the introduction of a threatening new alien race, and voice acting from Patrick Stewart and other Star Trek veterans -- to keep occasional Trekkers satisfied. But make no mistake, this is an action game, through and through. Aside from the occasional puzzle, such as using your tricorder to change shield frequencies or hacking systems to gain access to new levels, you're here for one thing -- to blast almost everything that moves. And to that end, you're given a dizzying arsenal of Starfleet weaponry.
Elite Force II features a dynamic soundtrack that adjusts to the action around you; it's cleverly implemented, and it helps heighten the sense of tension. The game's graphics look astoundingly better than its predecessor's -- aliens and humans look startlingly lifelike, and environments feature a magnificent level of detail. Even better, you won't sacrifice game play for the extra visuals. Aspyr has cranked up all the action in Elite Force II. This is especially true for the game's multiplayer Holomatch mode, which enables players to engage in arena-style combat against one another (Windows and Mac players can square off over the Internet or over LANs), or against computer-controlled bots.
This game does suffer from a few shortcomings. Its AI, for example, occasionally causes computer-controlled friends and foes to get confused about where to go. Repetitive voice tracks might get on your nerves, too. The biggest frustration I experienced, however, was with the level-loading design. It seemed that I had to stop every couple of minutes and wait for a new level to load -- a tedious delay that broke up the pace of the action.
The Bottom Line Star Trek Elite Force II is an enormous improvement on its predecessor and a welcome relief in an otherwise beleaguered franchise. Despite some shortcomings, it offers plenty of challenge for action-hungry Trekkers.
X2 Wolverine's Revenge, by Aspyr Media, is one of the few games based on the Marvel Comics franchise The Uncanny X-Men to make it to the Mac. Sadly, it hardly seems worth the effort. Although it has a hero fraught with fighting potential, this game left me as cold as the northern wastes Wolverine came from.
Wolverine is one of the X-Men's most enduring characters. Logan, as he is known to his friends, is the classic antihero -- a man haunted by a past he can't remember and possessed by a nature that makes him as much a beast as a man. Wolverine benefits from the heightened senses of a predatory animal, preternatural stealth, and advanced healing powers. And it doesn't hurt that his skeleton is laced with an unbreakable alloy called adamantium -- the same material used to construct the razor-sharp claws that Wolverine can extend from each hand.
Unfortunately, Wolverine's special powers are wasted on an all-around mediocre game. Wolverine's Revenge plays out like so many other third-person shooters -- you explore levels, kill enemies who are either depressingly stupid or have ridiculously bad aim, and eventually square off against traditional villainous masterminds such as Sabertooth and Magneto. But simplistic level design leaves the game bereft of challenge or complexity. All in all, the action is formulaic, predictable, and fairly boring.
At least the game looks and sounds pretty. Wolverine's Revenge features a cinematic soundtrack that helps the game flow. Voice acting includes Mark Hamill as Wolverine -- that's right, Luke Skywalker fills in for Hugh Jackman -- and Patrick Stewart as Professor Xavier. The game's graphics are adequately attractive -- although occasional blockiness will keep you mindful of this game's console heritage.
Wolverine's Revenge suffers from another common console carryover, one I absolutely detest: the inability to save at will. This game lets you save only between levels. As a result, I often had to go through the same areas over and over to complete a mission before I could save again.
The game's console origins are also glaringly obvious in the input department. Playing Wolverine's Revenge with a keyboard and a mouse -- a common scenario for Mac gamers -- is frustrating and awkward. You'll be more comfortable with a game pad or other controller, but good luck setting it up. It took me an unusually long time to get mine working to my satisfaction.
Many Mac gamers have lamented the Windows-only status of Rollercoaster Tycoon, a popular theme-park strategy game in the vein of Zoo Tycoon. But while it doesn't seem likely that this game will make the switch anytime soon, there is another option for industrious Mac users who want the thrill of designing their own coasters -- NoLimits, a fun, new OS X roller-coaster simulator by Mad Data.
NoLimits gives you the tools and know-how to build -- and then ride -- the roller coaster of your dreams. Although there are no strategy elements here -- you don't have the responsibility of running a profitable theme park or fixing a broken coaster -- NoLimits is a blast to play. The game's designers paid careful attention to physics modeling to ensure realistic results. In fact, pro coaster designers have actually used NoLimits to test their designs early in the coaster-building process.
The graphics are surprisingly good for a shareware game, though they lack the blow-your-socks-off quality that gamers with top-end video cards have come to expect. Still, they're good enough to give you a nice sense of vertigo when you first ascend that dizzying peak before plummeting, twisting, and turning your way around the track. Sound effects even include the whooshing of wind as you speed down the track -- a nice touch.
Riding coasters is fun, but building them is even more fun -- and really challenging. The game's editing tools let you piece together your coaster by laying out the track and then choosing the scenery. It's surprisingly easy to use, even if you're not used to 3-D design software. However, getting a roller coaster that actually works well is a whole different story -- it's as much art as it is science.
NoLimits also includes simulations of real-world roller coasters, such as the Texas Tornado and the Viper, which you can ride over and over again. Best of all, there are no lines, and you can always get a front-row seat in the first car.
The Bottom Line NoLimits is a fun and unique simulator that will appeal to coaster enthusiasts. There's even some learning potential here for physics students. At the very least, check out the demo.
FIRST LOOK | Nanosaur 2: Hatchling
By the time you read this, Mac-centric game maker Pangea Software should be shipping Nanosaur 2: Hatchling, a long-awaited sequel to one of the company's best-loved 3-D–action games. I took a look at a prerelease version -- and boy, how things have changed!
You may remember Nanosaur as the game that Apple included with the original Bondi blue and fruit-colored iMacs. Nanosaur 2 builds on the storyline of its predecessor. As a genetically engineered dinosaur from the future, you must snatch eggs while avoiding your ancestors, who threaten to bite, claw, or stomp you to Mesozoic mincemeat. This time, however, you're not running around -- you're flying. You are a futuristic pterodactyl-like dinosaur equipped with an array of weapons, such as guided missiles and bombs, along with other useful technology, such as a protective shield and a jet pack. If this seems like an excessive amount of firepower, bear in mind that you're fighting rebel forces from your own time who have gone back to the age of dinosaurs and set up their own defenses.
Nanosaur 2 makes full use of the power that modern Macs offer. The graphics are richer and more complex than any Pangea game to date. But what really makes the game unique is its built-in support for 3-D graphics using the red and cyan glasses from old 3-D movies. (Pangea includes two pairs of glasses in the box.) The effect is, in a word, startling. It has blown away everyone I've shown the game to.
Playing in 3-D mode is purely optional. Even without it, you'll be impressed by the quality of the game's graphics. Environments are detailed and lushly illustrated, character animations are more realistic than before -- the trees will even catch fire if y
The Bottom Line With plenty of great action and a stunning 3-D mode, Nanosaur 2: Hatchling is definitely worth checking out.
Light at the End of the Carpal Tunnel
Last year, Belkin answered the call from first-person–shooter (FPS) enthusiasts and produced a game controller just for them -- the USB-based Nostromo n50 SpeedPad ( ; April 2003). This year, the company has followed up with the new and improved n52 SpeedPad. And while it's still not perfect, FPS fans may find that the revamped controller can help them make some important plays.
The SpeedPad is a special kind of controller -- it's neither a joystick nor a game pad. Instead, this controller uses a specialized keyboard designed specifically for the needs of FPS players.
Belkin designed the n52 to be used as a left-handed controller (sorry, left-handed mousers). With three rows of keys, a rotating scroll wheel, an eight-way directional pad, a wrist rest, and a couple of thumb buttons thrown in for good measure, the n52 provides instant access to as many keys as you are likely to need to move, change weapons, perform special actions, or activate alternate weapons modes in just about any game.
If you're already familiar with the n50, you'll find some important improvements in the n52. The new controller adds a third row of buttons for even more programmability, and an improved scroll wheel that rotates 360 degrees -- as opposed to the throttlelike low-to-high setting on the n50.
Although the n52 is a bit bigger and bulkier than the n50, I found the n52 very comfortable -- and I wear a men's medium glo
Belkin says that you can program as many as 104 functions on the n52 (using shift states that allow you to program multiple functions for a single button). This is accomplished with software, which you'll have to download from Belkin's Web site. The software lets you create individual SpeedPad configurations for the games you play, mapping keys to individual functions within the game. As I noted about the n50, I wish Belkin offered prebuilt configuration profiles for specific Mac games (something they do offer for Windows users). Still, the Nostromo Array configuration software works well and looks cool.
The Bottom Line If you're looking to improve accuracy and performance in 3-D shooters and other keyboard-heavy action games, the Nostromo n52 SpeedPad may be right for you. Just plan on doing a bit of work to set it up to your liking.