The Game Room
The Command & Conquer series helped define the real-time strategy (RTS) genre. But despite continued success on the PC, the series hasn't appeared on the Mac since its initial release more than six years ago. Now Aspyr has brought the game back to the Mac, with Command & Conquer Generals -- a fun, challenging, and thoroughly modernized game.
Command & Conquer Generals includes all the hallmarks of a classic RTS game -- you'll command military units, manage resources, and create different types of buildings, all while trying to take control of enemy territory. However, the scope and nature of this game make it significantly different from its forebears. Instead of just pitting two warring superpowers against each other, Command & Conquer Generals better reflects the realities of modern warfare. You'll navigate between three different armies -- the United States, China, and a fictional terrorist organization called the GLA. This lineup shifts the balance of power within the game. Instead of just trying to build up fast, powerful units, you have the option of using less-conventional means of warfare, such as salvaging your enemy's weapons or committing acts of terrorism.
A sizable single-player mode lets you take command of each major power as you try to complete more than half a dozen missions each. You can also face off against the computer in skirmish battles or go online to compete against other Mac players. Despite early suggestions that the game would allow cross-platform competition, Aspyr ultimately wasn't able to make it work. (The game arrives more than a year after its PC counterpart.) Instead, you can connect to other Mac players through the online GameRanger service or by entering TCP/IP addresses, if you prefer a private game.
Command & Conquer Generals isn't for dabblers. The game's Hard and Brutal levels are exactly that -- unless you're a superior RTS player, the AI will lay you out flat. I'm an RTS fan and I couldn't handle it at the Brutal level. Heck, Normal was enough for me most of the time.
Fans of other RTS games, such as Warcraft, will likely need to unlearn some habits before they're able to play Command & Conquer effectively. I found the process of controlling troops obtuse. I kept deselecting units instead of directing them, and then discovering later that I'd lost a prime parcel of real estate because my soldiers were standing around gabbing instead of garrisoning a building. While this isn't really a flaw with Command & Conquer, the different approach may frustrate RTS fans who have grown accustomed to other games.
Graphics in the Command & Conquer series have come a long way since its last Mac release. No longer is Command & Conquer limited to tiny, 2-D, bitmapped sprites rendered in isometric perspective. The game now features richly detailed and lushly animated polygonal graphics, which you can zoom in on to get a better view. Tanks leave track marks, and exploded vehicles and ordnance leave marks on nearby walls. It's all very impressive.
Command & Conquer Generals requires a 1GHz Mac with a G4 or faster processor and a decent graphics card. But even my dual-1GHz Power Mac G4 equipped with an ATI Radeon 9800 Pro Mac Edition video card got bogged down when there was a lot happening on screen at once.
The game is rated T, for Teen, and is chock-full of violence and explosions.
The Bottom Line Despite the steep system requirements, publishing delays, and lack of cross-platform support, Command & Conquer Generals is a fun -- and seriously challenging -- addition to the real-time strategy genre.
If you're a fan of graphical adventure games such as Cyan's legendary Myst series, you should check out Riddle of the Sphinx II: The Omega Stone, from The Adventure Company. This beautifully rendered game features a globe-trotting adventure and plenty of challenging puzzles -- in fact, there may be more challenge here than you're ready to take on.
Riddle of the Sphinx II is a sequel that picks up just a few minutes after the first game ends. However, you don't need to be familiar with the first game to play. In Riddle of the Sphinx II, you're an archaeologist whose colleague has just discovered an ancient scroll bearing ominous warnings that prophesy the end of the world. As you unravel the scroll's mysteries, you'll travel to locations as varied as the Great Pyramid of Giza, Chichén Itzá, Easter Island, and Stonehenge.
The game's action centers on solving puzzles and exploring. You'll spend much of your time uncovering clues, solving puzzles and riddles, and piecing together bits of information from research notes, maps, and other data you'll collect on the way. I found the game's puzzles tremendously challenging. They're certainly not for the impatient.
Navigating Riddle of the Sphinx II, however, couldn't be easier. You simply point and click with your mouse. The game's cursor is dynamic, so it shows when you can move forward or back or whether you can interact with spots or objects. Although each frame is a prerendered image, you can pan in 360 degrees to get a full sense of where you are. Occasionally, you'll even interact with other people -- live actors who have been blue-screened into the action. The game's sound effects and soundtrack are top-notch.
To play, you'll need a 600MHz G3 or faster and 1GB of free disk space. The game play is divided between four CDs, so you'll spend a good bit of time switching out discs. It's a shame the developer didn't combine the action onto a single DVD instead -- after all, every current Mac has a built-in DVD player.
The Bottom Line Riddle of the Sphinx II: The Omega Stone has plenty of challenges to keep fans of graphical adventure games busy for quite some time. However, be prepared to put a lot of effort into puzzling out the game's clues.
Busy As a Beaver
Didi and Ditto are red and blue beavers who inhabit a land of colorful and eccentric cartoon creatures such as Couki the dog, Zolt the wolf, and HipHop the rabbit. They are also the title characters of Kutoka Interactive's latest learning adventure, Didi & Ditto Kindergarten, aimed at children four to six years old.
When Didi and Ditto get caught up in a chase between Zolt and HipHop, Zolt captures one of the beavers (your choice of character will determine which one) and refuses to let go until he's fed. To free your sibling, you'll set off on an adventure to track down six fruits and vegetables -- Zolt, it turns out, is a vegetarian.
Along the way, a variety of activities helps reinforce early learning skills. In one game, for example, Grumpy Bug must mix some grease for a wagon you and Couki need. His machine works by spelling out the letters of different words. In another activity, you'll practice counting skills by catching bug-eyed bees in midflight and placing them in a beehive.
Each screen features rich and colorful graphics. To keep things interesting, the scenes are rife with clickables -- hotspots that uncover an animation, a comical interlude, and other surprises. All told, there are 14 activities that cover the gamut of early learning, including counting and sequencing, identifying shapes and colors, pattern matching, phonics, rhyming, spelling, and early math. Three levels of difficulty and some randomization will keep kids coming back for more.
The game's Macromedia Director–based engine is a bit slow on the draw. As a result, the animations didn't always sync up with their soundtracks and reaction to input was occasionally slow. But Didi & Ditto's charming graphics, engaging game play, and top-quality voice acting help compensate for these limitations.
The Bottom Line Kudos to Kutoka for developing yet another rich and challenging world in which kids can play, learn, and explore. This gem belongs on the shelf of any parent looking for an original and fun game for their kindergartner.
If you're looking for a simple 2-D scrolling game to play in your spare time, I recommend checking out Pharaoh's Gold, from F. C. Covett and Danlab Games. This arcade-style action puzzle is a throwback to the early nineties, and it's good fun.
In Pharaoh's Gold, you must save the world from the Pharaoh's curse by retrieving all of the tomb's stolen gold. Despite the simple premise, there's more to the game than meets the eye. At one point, you'll even be whisked off to an alien world as you seek to uncover the Pharaoh's mystery.
Each game level is a maze from which you must collect coins and treasure. Do this successfully, and you'll unlock an exit gate. Of course, snakes, treasure hunters, mummies, and other troublemakers will get in your way. You'll have to learn their movement patterns to avoid them.
Playing Pharaoh's Gold is extremely easy: the keyboard's W, A, S, and D keys control your movement. You can scroll the map to see what lies ahead by holding down the spacebar.
Although the game uses a sprite-based engine and simple game play, the developer used OpenGL to manage the 32-bit graphics. The results are attractive but unnecessarily demanding. You'll need a 450MHz G3 or faster and OS X 10.2 -- that's certainly more than games of this complexity demanded a decade ago.
Pharaoh's Gold has original sound effects and a pleasing soundtrack. And if you really like the game, you can use its built-in map editor to create new level designs.
Best of all, you get all this for just $5. You can even download a seven-level demo version to try out before you buy.
The Bottom Line Pharaoh's Gold harks back to an ancient time: no, not to the reign of the pharaohs themselves, but to when simple game play was enough for hours of entertainment.
FIRST LOOK | Shrek 2: The Game
By the time you read this, Aspyr should be ready to release a new game based on the hit computer-animated movie Shrek 2.
Shrek 2: The Game is a third-person action adventure that puts you in the scenery and situations depicted in the movie (as well as some completely new situations). In this game, you'll journey to the land of Far, Far Away; explore the Spooky Forest; visit Billy Goat Gruff's Bridge; and more. There's action but no real violence, so this game is suitable for the entire family.
You'll take turns playing as each of the game's main characters, including the giant green ogre Shrek, his cohort Donkey, and the sequel's breakout star Puss-in-Boots. Each character has unique moves and abilities. For example, Shrek is slow and ungainly, but he can knock people off their feet with his powerful punches. Donkey's four-legged gait makes him fast and gives him quite a kick. And Puss-in-Boots is an agile jumper and climber.
Game play is simple and straightforward -- but it's a little bland. You control movements via the keyboard and mouse -- jumping, punching (or kicking, depending on your character), and otherwise interacting with the environment. Your characters will leap onto platforms and giant fungi; activate buttons, locks, or other simple puzzles; and shimmy along ropes and overhead bars. As you travel, you'll learn to avoid pitfalls and other traps while collecting as many coins and power-ups as you can. At the end of the game, you can use the coins to purchase magical items such as potions or points.
The Bottom Line Shrek 2 certainly doesn't break new ground, but if you want a game that's fun for the whole family, it's worth a look.
Call of Duty
; Aspyr Media, www.aspyr.com; $50
In June 2004's Game Room, I took an early look at Call of Duty, Aspyr's latest entry into the popular genre of World War II first-person shooters. Now the game is out, and the finished product is definitely worth picking up.
Made by some of the same designers that created Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, Call of Duty features superior graphics and a grander scale of battle. The single-player campaign lets you switch between American, British, and Russian soldiers as you take on the Nazis. The game's flexibility ensures that there's more than one way to complete a mission. The game also supports cross-platform multiplayer challenges, giving you plenty of replay value after you're done with the single-player missions.