Macworld Ultimate Gaming Guide: Comin' at Ya

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Fact: The world is not flat. This notion, pretty well settled for the general population in the fifteenth century, seemed only to have reached the computer gaming world a couple of years ago. Until this obvious idea dawned on game designers-and, not coincidentally, until computers became powerful enough to do something about it-game environments were not only flat but pixelated to boot. No longer.

Thanks to advances in games and the hardware that runs them, many modern Mac games are visual delights. Not only are environments more expansive but games now also boast special effects such as fog, realistic shadows, reflective surfaces, and shimmering liquids. And best of all, there are no more blocky pixels-these worlds are smooth as silk.

acceleration for displaying 3-D graphics-achieved via dedicated processors that blast pixels and polygons to your monitor as quickly as possible.

Without 3-D-acceleration hardware, a game's graphical duties are left to the Mac's main processor-a processor that's already tasked with running the game, managing audio, and keeping track of where you've moved your joystick, all while doing heaven knows how many unrelated system-level housekeeping chores. With 3-D-acceleration hardware in place, the Mac can hand off these processor-intensive graphics tasks to this specialized graphics chip set. Without 3-D-acceleration hardware, games still work, of course, but they might not run as quickly and they certainly aren't as attractive.

Hardware isn't the only important factor in 3-D gaming. Another is the 3-D standard-or API (Application Programming Interface)-employed by the game and supported by a particular chip set. Currently two standards are commonly used in Mac games that support 3-D-acceleration hardware: QuickDraw 3D RAVE (Renderer Acceleration Virtual Engine), from Apple ( ), and Glide, an API developed by 3Dfx ( ). Generally, RAVE games run on some variety of ATI Technologies' Rage chip set-the Rage II, Rage IIc, and Rage Pro-although video cards from other companies, including Mactell, support RAVE as well. Glide games work only with cards based on 3Dfx's Voodoo and Voodoo 2 chip sets.

Now that you know the basics, let's get down to the nitty-gritty: Is your Mac's on-board acceleration up to snuff, and if not, which acceleration hardware should you add to your system? To find the answer, Macworld Lab played two of today's most popular 3-D hardware-accelerated games-MacSoft's Quake and Unreal-using the built-in hardware acceleration of two Macs, as well as three PCI graphics-accelerator cards that offer either RAVE or Glide support installed on a Power Macintosh G3/266 with 128MB of RAM. Here's what we found.

Let's get the sad-but-true facts of gaming life out of the way first: If you have built-in hardware acceleration based on anything less powerful than a Rage Pro-that means those of you with a first-generation iMac or Power Mac G3 or any earlier machine-the RAVE version of Quake performs so poorly as to be unplayable, and Unreal refuses to run its RAVE driver at all. Quake performance on a G3 that has a built-in Rage II chip set and on the iMac with its Rage IIc chip set is lackluster, and because the Rage II doesn't support shadows adequately, large areas of the game's environment are overly dark. (At press time, Apple announced that the iMac now includes the ATI Rage Pro chip set with 6MB of dedicated RAM. This update should bring the iMac's performance in line with the Xclaim VR card tested in this story.)

If you have a Mac with on-board Rage II-based hardware acceleration, you can play the nonaccelerated versions of these games-provided that your Mac meets the games' system requirements, of course-but if you want to play the hardware-accelerated versions, you have to purchase a separate 3-D-acceleration card. iMac users, unfortunately, are precluded from doing so by the iMac's lack of a PCI slot. (Of course, Quake and Unreal aren't the only games in town. Hardware-accelerated games such as Bungie Software's Weekend Warrior, Pangea Software's Nanosaur, and Activision's MechWarrior 2 run perfectly well on a Rage II.)

ATI's ( ) Xclaim VR Rage Pro card fared better than the Rage II in both our objective and subjective testing. RAVE games were not only faster with the Rage Pro but they looked better as well. Shadows, for example, while not adequately supported on the Rage II, look fine on the Rage Pro. This makes a big difference in a game such as Quake where, without shadows, you lose much of the game's atmosphere.

Yet despite the Rage Pro's advances over the Rage II, we found that the Rage Pro still does not perform exceptionally well in Unreal. In our test, the Rage Pro chip set found on ATI's Xclaim VR card was able to churn out only 8 frames per second in Unreal's opening flyby scene (see the benchmark, "3-D-Accelerator Tests"). Although you can improve this frame rate by reducing the quality of the graphics from within the game's Options window, you'll miss out on Unreal's flashier visual elements.

The Rage Pro card proved far better at accelerating Quake, thanks to Quake's less demanding graphics requirements. The Rage Pro-based Xclaim VR produced a very smooth 22 fps.

While RAVE-supported games are definitely a big step up from the plain-vanilla software-accelerated versions, games that support 3Dfx's Glide API, running on a card with the Voodoo or Voodoo 2 chip set, will knock you out.

Once you play these games with a Voodoo card, you'll be hard-pressed to go back to anything else. Textures are beautifully smoothed, fog and smoke shroud the landscape, coronas appear around light sources, liquids shimmer, and frame rates increase. Although cards that support RAVE produce many of these same textures and lighting effects, they fail to do so as convincingly and quickly as Voodoo cards. The Voodoo-based card we tested-Village Tronic's ( ) MacPicasso 540 + 3D Overdrive-produced Unreal frame rates that hovered around a reasonably playable 18 fps on our test machine. In Quake these frame rates shot up to a smooth-as-silk 26 fps. Voodoo-based acceleration cards produce similar results regardless of whose name adorns the card. You won't, however, see similar results between a card based on the original Voodoo chip set and one that sports 3Dfx's latest offering, the Voodoo 2.

We had an opportunity to examine just such a Voodoo 2 chip set in Micro Conversions' ( ) 12MB Game Wizard and were dazzled by the results. We're talking 31 fps in Unreal and a screaming 48 fps in Quake running at a resolution of 640 by 480 pixels. That 12MB of on-board RAM allowed us to increase Quake's screen resolution to 800 by 600, and even at this more demanding resolution, Quake ran at 31 fps. Additionally, Micro Conversions promises that this card-and its 8MB sibling-will also run RAVE games. Regrettably, the RAVE drivers were unfinished at press time, but they should be available for download by the time you read this.

Incidentally, if you want to play Glide-supported games on your Mac, it's also possible to use a Voodoo card intended for use with a PC.

The trick is to use the proper drivers and pass-through video cable. Griffin Technology (615/255-0990, ) supplies the latter in its $15 NE 3D kit. Included in the kit are the pass-through cable, a monitor adapter, a CD-ROM with helpful utilities, and instructions on where to find the latest Macintosh Voodoo drivers on the Internet.

Our objective and subjective tests agree: If you're serious about games, desire the best graphics a game has to offer, have a Mac with a full-size PCI slot, and want hardware acceleration right this minute, a Voodoo card of some stripe should be in your Macintosh-assuming you can live with the relatively small number of titles that support such cards. If you're willing to wait, you should see some exciting developments in 3-D-acceleration hardware over the next few months (see the sidebar "Down the Pike"). Regardless of whether you buy now or later, one thing's certain: 3-D-acceleration hardware is your ticket to greater gaming glory.

The Macintosh 3-D-acceleration hardware market is at a crossroads. Previously, 3-D hardware acceleration was considered a nicety&#150a;welcome adjunct to a game but hardly a necessity. That's changing. It's no secret that nearly every game now released for the Macintosh is a port of a PC product, and increasing numbers of these PC games now support 3-D-acceleration hardware. Mac users expect their games to look as good as those of their PC counterparts; therefore, Mac games must now also support hardware acceleration.

Although RAVE is a cross-platform API, it's not a major player in the PC gaming industry. For this reason, you'd expect RAVE to fade away on the Mac, but that doesn't appear to be happening. Two of this winter's hottest games&#150A;pyr Media's Tomb Raider II and Bungie Software's Myth II: Soulblighter–support both RAVE and Glide (see the sidebar "Games and Standards"). The reason for RAVE support is obvious. Although Voodoo boards currently produce better-looking games, far more Mac users have RAVE-compatible hardware, thanks to Apple's inclusion of the Rage chip set on current Macintosh models. This number is only likely to increase, and game vendors simply can't ignore this market.

Micro Conversions' Voodoo 2-based Game Wizard cards are just a hint of things to come. Other companies, such as TechWorks, are also working on Voodoo 2 accelerator cards. You should also soon see a Mac gaming board based on 3Dfx's Voodoo Banshee chip–a graphics chip set that provides both 2-D acceleration and Voodoo 2-based 3-D acceleration on the same card. And for those who are looking for Voodoo on the cheap, Village Tronic should have released its $99 MacMagic, an 8MB Voodoo card, by the time you read this.

But wait, there's more. ATI has recently released the Rage 128 chip set for the PC–a powerful set of processors that supports Direct 3D and OpenGL, two popular 3-D APIs for the PC. Given ATI's dedication to the Mac market, you should see comparable Mac-compatible Rage 128-based cards released in the near future. Expect these cards to support both RAVE and OpenGL.

With these new cards and the additional memory they'll carry, you should see significant improvements in gaming performance. Not only will frame rates increase but you'll also be able to play games at higher resolutions–1,024 by 768 pixels will become the new standard. Textures will be more complex and varied, and surfaces will be more realistic–water will ripple as well as shimmer.

And as hardware becomes more capable, game programmers will create games that take advantage of these capabilities. With faster and richer game play just around the corner, the future of Mac gaming looks bright indeed.

January 1999 page: 188

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