The Game Room
In Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy, Aspyr answers the question that has tugged at many a Mac user's soul: Which side of the force would you choose? Jedi Academy is the sequel to Aspyr's excellent 2002 game, Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast. Like its predecessor, Jedi Academy is a 3-D action game that puts you in the battle between light and dark sides of the Force -- but it has some important differences. For one, Jedi Academy is not focused on Kyle Katarn, the Jedi-turned-mercenary-turned-Jedi who was finally redeemed in Jedi Outcast. Instead, Katarn serves as your mentor after you crash-land on the jungle moon where Luke Skywalker's Jedi Academy is located.
In Jedi Academy, you are Jaden Korr, a Jedi initiate learning to master the ways of the Force -- and the decisions you make will determine whether you master the light side or the dark side. You're tasked with discovering what happened to Master Luke's journal, which disappeared after an attack on the Academy, and with learning about the mysterious Cult of Ragnos, which threatens stability throughout the galaxy.
At the game's start, you choose from a variety of species, genders, and appearances for your character. You also get to design your own lightsaber by selecting a hilt style and a blade color. Unfortunately, these choices have no bearing on the story that follows.
Although game play follows a linear progression, it's not a straight narrative; you decide which missions you'll go on. When you complete missions successfully, you'll receive points that you can use to further hone your Jedi skills -- a nice change from the previous game, which assigned new skills to players. You can develop light or dark Force skills; for example, you can learn to do mind tricks ("These are not the droids you are looking for"), or you can learn how to choke your enemies to death ("I find your lack of faith disturbing"). All the skills come in handy throughout the game -- however, you won't amass enough credit to master them all. This eventually sets you up for a climactic final battle that changes depending on which side of the Force you're playing.
In another nice touch, Jedi Academy lets you play around with weapons, vehicles, and other stuff from the Star Wars movies. For example, you can ride a tauntaun -- the shaggy, ill-mannered, bipedal critter that Han Solo rode across the snowy wastes of Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back -- or operate the controls of an AT-ST -- the armored miniwalker the Imperials used on the forest moon of Endor in Return of the Jedi. These test rides aren't a part of the game's main story line, but it's fun to play with the stuff you fantasized about as a kid.
Jedi Academy moves at a faster pace than Jedi Outcast did. In the process, it sacrifices a bit of character and plot development. My heart bled for Kyle Katarn -- he suffered tragedies that seemed almost Shakespearean. By comparison, Jaden's Academy experience seemed more like an episode of The O.C. with lightsabers.
Multiplayer gaming is exciting and fun in Jedi Academy -- it's much better than that of Jedi Outcast. There are new multiplayer game modes, such as Siege and Power Duel, as well as the classic modes found in Jedi Outcast (Free for All, Duel, Team Free for All, and Capture the Flag). If you decide not to play online, you can go solo on your own machine by populating your miniserver with computer-controlled Bots.
Jedi Academy runs well, but the Quake III Arena technology it's based on is getting long in the tooth. Although character animation and detail are fine, the scenery and environments -- especially open, outdoor areas -- lack impressive detail. John Williams's music loops do a lot to help heighten tension when they need to, and they provide familiar ground for Star Wars nerds like me.
Panther users should download the latest patch for Jedi Academy from Aspyr's Web site.
Back to the Future
It's gratifying to see companies such as MacPlay feed the nostalgia of old gaming fogies like me. In its retro game collection, Activision Anthology: Remix Edition, MacPlay gathers more than six dozen games originally developed for the now ancient Atari 2600. Using the power of modern emulation -- as well as some truly superfluous bells and whistles -- Activision Anthology lets you relive the glory days of swinging Pitfall Harry across an alligator-infested pond. The only thing that's missing is the stiff one-button joystick.
The collection provides a good cross-section of the Activision games that were once available for the Atari 2600. Though some of these games are probably better left in the past -- Skeleton and Dragster, for instance -- many others, such as Freeway (Activision's answer to Frogger) and the Pitfall and River Raid series, are certifiable classics. What's more, you even get to play some games that never made it onto store shelves.
Activision Anthology revels in retro flavor. Its interface takes you back to the early 1980s, to a bedroom complete with a walnut-veneer TV and a boom box. While you play, you'll listen to pop music hits from the era -- eight songs from notable talents such as Flock of Seagulls and Billy Ocean. Thank goodness I could turn it off; the second or third time "Eye in the Sky" by the Alan Parsons Project fired up, I started to get a bit testy. I'll stick with my own iTunes library, thanks.
The games all run well. But the developer, perhaps worried that the old-school graphics wouldn't hold the interest of modern audiences, has expanded the game play with new OpenGL modes, which unlock as you play. These modes -- which project the games on spinning cubes, warp images, add motion blur, and so on -- don't augment the game play in any way and mainly succeeded in angering me.
Activision Anthology's system requirements are surprisingly steep: a 400MHz G4 or better machine with a 16MB 3-D video card. That's much higher than Stella, a public-domain Atari 2600 emulator I've played. I expect that part of the difference lies in the OpenGL modes that made me grind my teeth.
The Bottom Line It's fun to go back and play the games that gave you your first thumb calluses. But the developer's attempts to jazz up these classics with some modern flair fall flat.
Everybody Loves Rayman
Platform games are one of the most popular forms of console gaming. These action adventures let you navigate a character through a 3-D world, jumping across hazards, beating up bad guys, collecting goodies or power ups, and more. It's rare that they come to computers, though, and rarer still that one shows up on the Mac. But thanks to Feral Interactive, Mac gamers can now test their mettle on a hugely popular platform franchise -- Rayman 3: Hoodlum Havoc.
Rayman, for the uninitiated, is a wide-eyed, big-nosed cartoon character whose begloved hands and giant besneakered feet don't actually touch his body. Rayman lives in a strange, otherworldly place called the Crossroads of Dreams, which is occupied by creatures both fantastic and silly. The game's storyline goes something like this: André, a Lum with megalomaniacal delusions, has raised an army of Hoodlums -- Lums dressed in what appear to be potato-sacks and wide-brimmed hats -- to take over the world. There's only one problem: Rayman's friend Globox -- a big, blue, googly-eyed critter -- has accidentally swallowed André, and now the Hoodlum army is after him. It's up to Rayman to rescue Globox and to somehow stop the attack.
To that end, you'll navigate more than 50 levels, including bonus levels that unlock when you complete certain tasks. The environments Rayman and friends find themselves in are a feast for the eyes: swamps, deserts, mountains, forest glades, and huge mechanized monstrosities. The extravagant graphics have an almost dreamlike luminescent quality befitting a place called the Crossroads of Dreams.
Like many console converts, Rayman is easier to play with a game pad, although you can make do with the keyboard and mouse if you have to. The game offers plenty of flexibility in customizing video and audio settings, so you can optimize it for your hardware needs.
I did run into a bit of trouble with Rayman. Audio cues, such as comments from Rayman's buzzing buddy Murfy, occasionally came through in staccato bursts. Feral hadn't posted any fixes or updates at press time.
You can download a demo of the game from Feral's Web site.
The Bottom Line Rayman 3: Hoodlum Havoc is a rare find -- a 3-D platform game that runs on the Mac. In addition to offering fabulous production values, the game is a lot of fun to play. It'll make a nice addition to your collection if you haven't already played it on another system.
On the surface, Sveerz, a new release from Skunk Studios, looks like a lot of other action-puzzle games -- as colored objects descend, you must group and remove them before the growing pile reaches the top of the screen. But here, fortunately, is where the similarities end.
Sveerz adds a challenging twist to the action-puzzle formula by incorporating music into the game play. In Sveerz, music is more than just repetitive background filler -- it's part of the action. To make the colored blobs (the "Sveerz" of the title) disappear, you must match sequences of flashing colors and sounds. (It's reminiscent of Hasbro's classic electronic game Simon, which challenged you to mimic flashing red, yellow, green, and blue lights.) Add to that a timer and two-player support, and you have an extraordinarily addictive and fun game that's also great at parties.
The game offers four modes: a fast-paced arcade mode that uses short sequences of colors and a tight time limit; a memory mode that tests your skills at remembering long sequences; a puzzle mode that challenges you to strategically connect combinations of Sveerz and clear the board; and the most challenging mode of all -- Rhythm mode. In Rhythm mode, you not only have to remove the Sveerz in the correct sequence, but also must replicate the rhythm with which the sequence is sung to you. It's like playing the popular Dance Dance Revolution arcade game using your mouse instead of a dance pad.
When you're finished, Sveerz records your name and remembers your high score. It also offers the option of going online to compare your best scores with those of other Sveerz players worldwide.
I did run into a few minor problems. The game insisted on installing itself in my Applications folder, forcing me to manually drag it into my Games directory instead. And despite choosing Smooth Singers as my Voices option, I always ended up with the Sveerz Tones when I started a new Arcade game. However, I was able to change this option once the game started, so it was a minor annoyance.
The Bottom Line Sveerz is a unique addition to the puzzle-game genre. It's definitely worth the time it'll take to download it and try it out -- especially if you're looking for a fun party game.
Bigger Planet may not be the most prolific game developer on the planet, but it has a knack for making really nifty games. Now the developer has self-published a new shareware title called Starbase Defender, which harks back to the good old days of coin-op gaming.
While Starbase Defender borrows a bit from arcade classics such as Missile Command, Rip-Off, and others, it's certainly not stuck in the past. With 3-D graphics, interesting effects, and an electroclash soundtrack, this game has a modern flair while winking back to that classic era for inspiration.
In Starbase Defender, you're charged with protecting six glowing Cores, which are essential to the survival of your station. Alien ships are, of course, hell-bent on stealing them. And if the aliens grab all six, the game is over.
To fend off the invading hordes, you have an arsenal of three swiveling cannons, as well as shields that can withstand direct hits from missiles and other projectiles. When the fighting gets particularly tough, you can activate your Nova weapon to temporarily slow down your opponents and to give yourself a bit of a breather.
But you won't rest for long. With 18 different bad guys and 70 waves of attack culminating in an epic confrontation with the alien fleet's admiral, Starbase Defender will keep you on your toes. The pace of the game ramps up quickly after the first few levels. In fact, some gamers may have trouble keeping pace.
Starbase Defender is an odd contradiction. Although it sports extremely simple game-play mechanics -- basically you're just pointing and clicking on points in the sky -- it requires some deft skill. You have to time your shots just right by tracking where each ship is going. And you must simultaneously make sure your defenses don't get pummeled by incoming bombs and protect inbound ships. It's quite a juggling act, and it's not for the faint of heart.
The Bottom Line Starbase Defender is a fun mix of old and new. While it may not hold your attention for hours, it's a great pick-me-up with lots of challenge.
FIRST LOOK: XIII
Feral Interactive really hit the ground running in 2004 with several new game releases, and even more are promised in the next few months. One of the most interesting games waiting at the starting gate is XIII, a first-person shooter with a conspiracy-laden plot worthy of an episode of Alias or 24.
XIII's roots actually lie in a decade-old French comic-book series of the same name. In the game, you're the purported assassin responsible for the death of the president of the United States. Though you definitely have the assassin's face, you can't remember a thing -- not even your identity. All you're sure of is that the roman numeral XIII is tattooed on your chest, and that you're really good at killing things. Can you uncover the plot before you're silenced forever?
The game's story line is entertaining, and it's suspenseful enough to compensate for the fact that there's not a lot new here in the way of action. Borrowing liberally from the comic book's look-and-feel, XIII trades hyper-realistic 3-D graphics for the cel-shaded design of a graphic novel. The results are both unique and refreshing. The game also features voice talents of celebrity actors such as David Duchovny from The X-Files, Batman's Adam West, and hip-hop star Eve.
XIII supports multiplayer gaming online or over a LAN. Feral has even managed to include some multiplayer content that was previously available only in the game's console releases -- a little extra taste that our PC counterparts didn't get.
In February 2004's Game Room, I previewed a beta version of ToySight. This offbeat game collection works with the iSight (or any FireWire camcorder) and lets you use gestures to control what's happening on screen. ToySight is now out, and it's definitely worth a look -- it's also a great way to make your Mac the focus of your next family game night or party.