The Game Room
More than 20 years have passed since the original release of Tron, a movie in which a computer programmer gets sucked into the world of bits and bytes. Since then, Tron has become a touchstone for people who grew up in the early days of video games and home computers. Now, with the release of Tron 2.0, a new first-person shooter from MacPlay, the story of Tron is back -- with a modern plot, some new twists, and much of its original charm. Too bad the game feels old.
Tron 2.0 is set in the present day, where Alan Bradley -- creator of the original Tron program -- is working on a new digitizing technology that a rival company is eager to steal. As a result of corporate sabotage, his headstrong young son Jet -- a talented programmer in his own right -- is digitized and whisked into the computer realm.
As Jet, you suddenly find yourself in a world where programs look like people. Unfortunately, a lot of them seem to want to derezz you -- that's computer speak for kill. Your claim that you're a user and not a program is laughable insanity to some and complete heresy to others -- it's as if you were calling yourself a god. When it turns out that a virus is infecting both the programs and the environment, you must put a stop to it -- and protect your dad's AI program, Ma3a, from corruption.
In the story-driven single-player mode, you'll use your identity disc -- a Frisbee-like weapon -- to blast foes while earning as many upgrades as you can.
Another challenge involves riding lightcycles -- motorcycle-like vehicles that trail impenetrable barriers behind them. The game is essentially an updated version of Snake. Your goal is to trap your opponents inside your own barriers while avoiding theirs. Although it's not a new concept, Tron 2.0 manages to add a few new twists, such as power-ups, speed zones, obstacles, different lightcycle models, and more.
Tron 2.0 includes a multiplayer mode. You can compete in a platform arena game, in which you try to hit other Mac or PC players with your identity disc. Players on the same LAN can compete in a multiplayer version of the Lightcycle game, too.
If you're a big fan of the original Tron aesthetic -- defined by abstract and stark geometric designs offset with brilliantly glowing neon detail -- you'll adore Tron 2.0. The game brings to life the movie's landscape and includes other nice throwbacks such as the voice of actor Bruce Boxleitner, who played Alan Bradley in the original movie.
For the most part, though, there isn't really anything new or unique in Tron 2.0. The single-player mode has the same challenges you've seen in a million other first-person shooters. You'll collect keys (called Permissions) to unlock new areas and search out power-ups (or Subroutines) that imbue you with new abilities.
Tron 2.0 does offer an interesting take on managing power-ups. Unlike some first-person shooters, it doesn't give you unlimited weapons or powers. Instead, you have to manage your memory resources carefully (only loading the subroutines you need for the given task at hand), optimize the code when you're given the chance (to help reduce resource use and hopefully cram more subroutines into memory), and upgrade when you find new and better subroutines.
I didn't run into any problems while playing Tron 2.0. However, I would have appreciated a windowed game mode -- an option that is becoming a standard in many new games. As it is, I was stuck watching full-screen resolutions that are lower than my Apple Cinema Display's native resolution. Another annoyance is that the Mac version arrived about nine months after the Windows release.
The game requires Mac OS X 10.2 and a 700MHz G4 or faster.
The Bottom Line Tron 2.0 is basically a reprise of the 1982 movie Tron. Its game play will be familiar ground to first-person–shooter enthusiasts. However, novel graphics and an interesting power-up–management system add nice twists for fans who haven't already played the Windows version.
Gamer, Know Thyself
Maybe it's a character flaw, but I really do like gratuitously violent action games. Getting my heart rate up and exercising my lizard brain's fight-or-flight instincts is, to me, the essence of what makes gaming fun. So saying that The Journey to Wild Divine required a bit of mental readjustment is no exaggeration. Instead of rewarding speed, sharp shooting, and reflex, this exploration and puzzle game emphasizes peace, relaxation, and developing a meditative focus.
To play The Journey to Wild Divine, you hook yourself up to a USB-based biofeedback device called the Light Stone, which gently cuffs the tips of three of your fingers with clips called Magic Rings. The clips' sensors measure your heart rate and galvanic skin response, the same basic electrical properties lie detectors measure. The game then uses this biofeedback to help you learn to control -- or, at the very least, better understand -- your physical state. In one puzzle, for example, you're challenged with keeping several balls suspended in the air and spinning, simply by controlling your breathing. (You're also encouraged to laugh and sing.)
Visually, the game has a lot in common with the Myst series; the world within the game features beautifully illustrated scenes of temples and other buildings ensconced in lush foliage. Video sequences feature attractive, peaceful people who teach you how to interact with the game.
The Journey to Wild Divine is lovely to look at, but it's also steeped in daffy, over-the-top New Age imagery that some users may find intellectually insulting -- I sure did. It's a shame, because the game is grounded in solid science and can definitely help you relax and focus, in the same way that meditation and yoga exercises do.
In fact, I learned a lot about myself while playing with this system -- for example, I didn't do so well after three cups of morning coffee, or after an argument. The breathing and relaxation exercises definitely helped me gain a better state of body awareness -- something I was able to draw from when I was away from the computer. But Light Stone? Magic Rings? Give me a break; it's a biofeedback monitor, not some soul-healing transformative experience.
The Bottom Line At $160, The Journey to Wild Divine isn't an impulse buy. But compared with the prices of most biofeedback devices, it's a good deal -- at least if you're not turned off by the New Age mysticism.
Go Speed Racer
For whatever reason, few auto-racing games make their way to the Mac. So seeing shareware developer CodeBlender turn its attention to the genre is nice. With Rally Shift, a series of rally car races take to the open road on windswept mountain passes, dirt trails, and more. Unfortunately, the game's novelty can't compensate for its many flaws.
Rally Shift puts you in the driver's seat of one of several mythical rally sports cars. To avoid licensing complications, CodeBlender subtly altered the appearances and names of real-world cars such as the Subaru Impreza WRX, the Mitsubishi Lancer, and the Ford Focus -- all of which are very popular on the rally racing circuit. The game has a navigator who tells you -- both with spoken commands ("turn left, then sharp right") and with graphical icons -- what surprises the road ahead holds. This lets you focus entirely on downshifting, braking, accelerating, and whipping your car around corners at breakneck speeds. Milliseconds count in these kinds of races.
Considering that Rally Shift is free of the creative restrictions imposed on licensees of real-world car designs (car companies rarely let game developers depict realistic damage), it's a shame that CodeBlender didn't take better advantage of the opportunity. I was disappointed the first time I flung my little racer headlong into a tree and drove away unscathed.
The game's initial release includes five racecourses (the company has promised to add more later). But while the courses are sufficiently challenging, their designs leave much to be desired. Most of the tracks are surrounded by large amounts of open space, so you don't get the sense of speed or immediacy often associated with rally races. And the graphics you do see up close -- such as rocks and trees -- are bland and unimpressive.
CodeBlender lets you tweak some of the game's settings to improve performance and detail. For example, you can switch resolutions, improve texture details, and set dust and smoke levels. You can also activate anisotropic filtering and reflection details to give the graphics a more natural look. But unless you have a high-end Radeon or Nvidia graphics card, you may take more of a performance hit than you'll want to take. The game's minimum requirements are a 400MHz G4 processor and an ATI Rage 128 graphics card with 8MB of VRAM.
You can also exert control over your car's performance -- choosing between manual or automatic transmissions, as well as making basic adjustments to gearing, suspension, and transmission. If you want to do more, you can download CodeBlender's Rally Shift Garage, an add-on utility that lets you extensively modify car characteristics. Why this feature hasn't just been integrated into an update to the game is puzzling.
Rally racing requires a lot of finesse and technical sophistication; it would be nice if the game offered a tutorial mode to help neophytes learn how to operate their cars effectively. Instead, newbies are thrown in the deep end with nothing more than a few single races and practice modes before entering the championships -- which they must do to move on to new levels. Rally Shift supports third-party steering wheels, a nice touch for racing enthusiasts.
The Bottom Line CodeBlender deserves credit for bringing an underserved genre to the Mac. But as a shareware game, Rally Shift has trouble overcoming its limited budget. The game suffers from weak level design, spartan graphics, and basic game-play flaws. Definitely try the demo before you buy.
FIRST LOOK: World of Warcraft
Blizzard Entertainment has decided to bring its popular Warcraft strategy-game series to the world of massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs). The result is World of Warcraft, a highly anticipated release from a com-pany with an excellent track record in Mac gaming.
In World of Warcraft, which is currently being beta tested, you enter a persistent online world populated by the characters, places, and situations that have become hallmarks of the Warcraft series. But instead of controlling large numbers of troops and resources, you're now responsible for taking care of just one character at a time. Who that character is and what it does is entirely up to you.
When creating a character, you choose from among the Alliance races (human, dwarf, night elf, or gnome) or the Horde races (undead, tauren, troll, or orc), select a class or profession (everything from mages and warlocks to warriors and rogues), and define physical characteristics. You can configure your character's gender, hair, face, and skin tone to create a somewhat unique personality -- though you're bound to run into a couple of physical doppelgängers. The game lets you create multiple characters, so you can experiment to find what you like best. Right now I'm switching between human, troll, and undead characters -- and I'm having a lot of fun in the process.
When you begin playing, your character is relatively weak, defenseless, and ill equipped.
As you explore, other characters assign you quests to help you gain experience. These quests usually result in the exchange of money or goods, which you can then use or sell. As in the real world, money is an important resource in World of Warcraft: you'll need it to buy food, medicine, supplies, and (occasionally) training.
The best way to accumulate experience -- and thereby raise your character's standing -- is to fight. But don't expect your new mage to get to Level 40 just by zapping hungry wolves and angry forest bears for 36 hours straight. In an attempt to avoid level inflation by players who send characters into constant battle, Blizzard has implemented a new rest system in World of Warcraft: Players who keep their characters well-rested get an experience bonus when they go into combat.
To help differentiate your character from others in its class, you can have it learn secondary skills -- for example, fishing, first aid, cooking, or creating armor -- which you can then use to produce goods for selling to other players. Admittedly, you'll spend most of your time in World of Warcraft participating in quests that reward you with great wealth, skills, or valuable items. But these secondary skills are a lot of fun to hone, and very rewarding in their own right.
The game's graphics, sound effects, and music are superlative. And the user interface should be familiar to anyone who's played Warcraft III. However, the depth and complexity of the game's information screens may be a bit daunting if you're new to Warcraft; you have to juggle palettes to view inventory, character and skill attributes, spells (if applicable), and more. I highly recommend using a multibutton mouse to help manage the clutter. That said, Blizzard deserves credit for creating an interface that's much more intuitive than that of some other MMORPGs I've played.
The Bottom Line World of Warcraft, even in its current beta stage, is an incredibly rich, complex, and fascinating world to explore. However, developing a high-level character isn't something that happens in minutes or hours -- the process takes weeks and months. Make sure you're up to the commitment.
IN THE WORKS: Close Combat: First to Fight
After years of porting Windows games to the Mac, MacSoft owner Destineer is now working on its first original game -- a team-based, tactical, first-person shooter (FPS) called Close Combat: First to Fight.
First to Fight puts you in control of a four-man United States Marine Corps fire team as they make their way through a densely populated urban war zone. The action is set in a real, but as of now unidentified, Middle Eastern city, in the year 2006. I got a peek at an early version of the game and was impressed not only by its fresh take on the tactical FPS genre, but also by its realistic depiction of modern military strategy.
Using a system called Ready Team Fire Assist (RTFA), First to Fight makes sure your computer-controlled teammates move as real Marines would when faced with similarly perilous situations. For example, they'll cover all angles when you're walking up a staircase, and use a leapfrogging technique called bounding when running across open spaces. This attention to detail is a welcome improvement to the incredibly stupid artificial intelligence that sometimes dominates the tactical FPS genre.
The effects of the game's advanced AI extend beyond mere formations. You'll also have to deal with the emotional experience of being in a war zone. The men on your team may respond negatively to external forces -- for example, the fear of hurting civilians -- or they may experience a morale boost after the completion of an objective. Conversely, your enemy can be positively and negatively affected by your actions. This sophisticated form of psychological modeling is an essential part of what makes First to Fight unique.
First to Fight also makes use of the idea that your team is part of a larger organization -- an operational concept called Marine Air Ground Task Force. The idea is that Marines are never alone. Your fire team can call in air strikes or other forms of ground support whenever they need to -- and they will need to. Some operations may require that you call in air strikes from Cobra helicopters, for example. Enemy strongholds can get softened up with some 81mm mortar shelling.
The United States Marine Corps was directly involved in developing First to Fight. Active-duty Marines recently back from combat duty in Iraq and Afghanistan have shared their experiences with the game's design team to help make the action more realistic. In fact, the Marines plan to use a version of the game as a training simulation.
Destineer developed the game's 3-D–engine technology. The engine supports high-end features such as volumetric shadows, normal maps, and specularity, to provide highly realistic shadow, texture-mapping, and lighting effects. The game will require at least a 1GHz processor and an Nvidia GeForce4 MX (or equivalent) graphics card -- which is fairly typical for a game of this caliber.
Though no price or release date has been set, Destineer expects to ship First to Fight by the end of the year. Best of all, the Mac version, which will be published by MacSoft, should appear at the same time as its Windows counterpart. Look for a full review once the game is out.