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When was the first time someone told me to get a life? I've been sitting here at my PowerBook for 20 minutes pondering this one. I'm thinking junior high, but wouldn't it be difficult to say that to a 12-year-old and make it really sting? Besides, on the occasions when my classmates felt it necessary to actualize their emotions on the subject of Young Ihnatko, they universally preferred the "thrown beer bottle" method.

Regardless, I've been hearing it for years, from parents, coworkers, soon-to-be-former girlfriends--the list is endless. The difference between today and my younger days? I know how to deal with it: "Oh, I have a life," I retort, throwing a wallet of CD-ROMs at them. "See? I've got at least ten fulfilling lifestyles in there, from Korean War Fighter Pilot to Napoleonic War General."

And that pretty much shuts them up, particularly the future former girlfriends. Yes, thank goodness for simulation software, without which I'd occasionally have to leave the sofa and risk missing this week's episode of The Real World.

Terminal Reality's Fly 2K ($30; 877/463-4263, ) is an exciting offering, not the least reason being that it's the first aggressive attempt at ironclad flight simulation to come down the pike in years.

Fly 2K's raison d'être is to offer the best approximation of flight possible on a desktop Mac. It ships with five types of aircraft, and every dial, knob, and indicator is fully functional: if you can see it, you can kill yourself by messing around with it. A Fly 2K plane handles and interacts with earth and air precisely the way a real plane does.

What does all of this mean? It means that Fly 2K is a huge intellectual challenge, just like actual flying. Stultifying boredom soon gives way to the trance of Working On Getting Things Exactly Right, and when you touch down again, from minutes to hours later, there's an extreme sense of satisfaction. You didn't just slay the Orc of Ba'Hhhra with a quick stroke of your +1 vorpal blade, you flew a freakin' plane across the country on nothing but instruments, man!

Naturally, there are folks who'll be thrown off by the words boredom and trance -- however positively they're used--in a column about games. If you're looking for the sort of action that gives the more primitive sections of your brain a workout, you might be disappointed.

Fly 2K can be expanded and enhanced, though, so maybe some day it can be made more fun for everyone else. Given recent aviation news that's hit Entertainment Tonight, I think the company would be well advised to come out with a Celebrity Pilot Enhancement Pack, where you have to ditch an open container of alcohol and come up with a good story for the FAA and the press after overshooting the runway and losing a wingtip or two.

Perhaps the only uniformly disappointing area of Fly 2K is the crashing. Steer into another plane, and you'll just harmlessly bump away. . . . What fun is that? MacSoft's Falcon 4.0 ($29.99; 800/229-2714, ) is a vast improvement. Here, sending fellow pilots screaming into the waiting arms of whatever god they've arrogantly scorned is actually encouraged.

Falcon is a slightly less meticulous simulation of an F-14 fighter, with the accent on giving you access to all the jolly mayhem that America's Screaming Bringer of Death can insert into a rainy afternoon. So you won't see photo-realistic renderings of cabin views or experience detailed engine startup and spin-down procedures.

But in rebuttal to any complaints about the shallowness of the simulation compared with Fly 2K, I say this: Kill. Kill, kill, kill kill kill kill kill. And I'm a pacifist, you know?

Falcon is just a good hybrid that accents the simulation of combat piloting, as opposed to flying. Half of the game is just managing the complicated offensive, defensive, and control systems and still somehow getting yourself in the right position to take that shot. The flight and combat-training manuals that come with Falcon are worth half the game's price in and of themselves.

If only Falcon weren't so old. If this game were a hamster, it'd be dead by now. Version 4.0 was released nearly two years ago. That's not to say that there's any detectable level of lameness here. But when you compare its overall technical accomplishments to those of Fly 2K (released only a few months ago) you'll weep and gnash your teeth that Falcon 5.0 may never see the light of day.

Maxis's The Sims ($50; 877/324-2637, ) doesn't simulate war. It simulates something a magnitude scarier: life. Real life. Your Sim is a little cartoon human in a little house in a little neighborhood.

Learnin' to Fly   Intense realism (especially in the plane's instruments) is the hallmark of Terminal Reality's Fly 2K.

You create your Sim (which can be either male or female) as you would a character in a role-playing game and choose a career path for it to follow. You can customize its appearance, choose from a Maxis-supplied library of prefabbed Sims, or download user-created designs available online.

From that point onward, you're the Little Voice inside your Sim's head--its basic motivation. You don't physically steer the thing around its house or direct it by-the-numbers when it's in the bathroom. But you watch a set of gauges that indicate how your Sim is doing vis à vis its basic needs. When it's hungry, you tell it to make itself some lunch. Its overall happiness goes down a bit while it's working in the kitchen but goes back up and then some after getting a good meal inside it.

It's interesting. Simple actions can have big consequences. Watching TV makes your Sim happy, but watching too much TV will lead to, well, watching way too much TV, which means it won't socialize with the other humans and won't do well at work. But "buy" your Sim a mirror, and it'll get an improved outlook on itself, which will increase its self-confidence, which means it'll do better at work, which means it'll get a big raise, which means you can afford to buy it a big-screen home theater . . . which will make it really happy.

The game is fabulous eye candy. It's like an ant farm, except the ants are in color, and they wear pants. But what's the goal? Well, I don't know; as in life, you just sort of find amusement and distraction as you await the random Great Crash. In theory, you want to manage your Sim's life to ensure its personal happiness, fulfillment, and career success. But many play The Sims to lose. If you woefully mismanage its life, your Sim will grow increasingly grouchy and depressed, literally spending all of its time on the sofa, letting its job go to pot and refusing to listen to any of your input.

That attitude actually makes a lot of sense. After all, thanks to all of your simulation CD-ROMs, you're spending all of your time at the keyboard, living various digitally simulated lifestyles. Wouldn't it suck if after a few months of this, your Sim was having a more successful and fulfilling life than you were?

In his mind, the flight crew is incapacitated, and it's up to Andy Ihnatko to land the bird safely--which explains much of the content at

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