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The Game Room

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At a Glance
  • MacPlay Freedom Force

  • Freeverse Software Deluxe Board Games

  • Aspyr Media Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3

  • Feral Interactive Worms Blast

At a time when many games seem to be looking for a darker edge, with angst-ridden heroes confronting heavy moral dilemmas, it's refreshing to sit down in front of a game that doesn't come with a lot of emotional baggage. From comic-book heroes to skate rats to tried-and-true board games, we've packed this month's Game Room with games that offer a more upbeat outlook. Of course, lighthearted doesn't have to mean lightweight -- all of these titles require deft reflexes, technical skills, and finely honed strategy if you want to stay in play.

I Need a Hero

If you're looking for something different from the endless parade of first-person shooters, Freedom Force should satisfy your craving. This gorgeous real-time strategy game (available from MacPlay) offers role-playing elements and an homage to some classic heroes. Freedom Force's graphics, story lines, and even its dialogue hark back to the Silver Age of Comics -- a period that stretched from the mid-1950s to the late 1960s -- when costume-clad superheroes like the Fantastic Four and Captain America defended humanity.

In Freedom Force, you control a collection of superheroes with monikers such as Minuteman, Alche-Miss, the Ant, and Man O' War as they protect the streets of Patriot City from a seemingly endless onslaught of treacherous foes. The nefarious mastermind is the evil Lord Dominion, who wields a mysterious substance known as Energy X. To complete each of the game's levels, you must accomplish a series of primary and secondary objectives. It's up to you to command your squad of superheroes to use their special powers as best suits the situation at hand, whether it's breaking into an enemy stronghold or saving innocent bystanders from bands of bat-wielding thugs. You can add to the capabilities of your characters, or even create your own custom superheroes, by transforming their experience points into tangible new skills and attributes.

Freedom Force looks great -- its scaling 3-D graphics and isometric perspective are similar to what you'll find in Blizzard's Warcraft III. And the game's control system is fairly easy to get the hang of, especially since the first few levels walk you through navigating, moving, and attacking. Keyboard commands exist for most major functions, but Freedom Force's origin as a PC game means that its control is really designed for a multibutton mouse equipped with a scroll wheel. I'd recommend getting one for optimal results.

Sound effects, music, and dialogue are all top-notch. The voice acting especially deserves a nod -- intentionally campy dialogue like “Might makes right” could so easily fall flat in the wrong hands, but it's handled with heroic aplomb. The music likewise does much to set the mood and tone of each scene.

Freedom Force has a multiplayer mode, but this aspect of the game feels thrown together. Players engage in what amounts to little more than a team deathmatch-style activity with no options for variation. Multiplayer Freedom Force could have been so much more with some variations, but the opportunity is inexplicably squandered.

The Bottom Line Oozing both charm and cheese, Freedom Force is an incredibly fun and well-executed game that's sure to appeal to strategy gamers, role-playing fans, and lovers of classic comic books.

Skate or Die

With Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3, Mac gamers can once again take to skate parks around the world and assume the guise of their favorite pro skateboarder. Brought to the Mac by Aspyr Media, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3 arrives almost a year after its PC counterpart, as console versions of the game languish in retail bargain bins. (In fact, the next version -- for both Mac and PC -- may be available in stores by the time you read this.)

In Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3, you can choose to play any of a dozen well-known pro skaters, including Chad Muska, Bucky Lasek, and Steve Caballero -- not to mention Tony Hawk himself. Or you can use the included editing tools to create your own skater or park. Each skater has unique strengths and weaknesses that you can capitalize on -- some are better at performing certain kinds of tricks, for example.

If you're new to skateboarding on the Mac, an included series of tutorials will help you learn your way around the keyboard or game pad as you figure out how to make your on-screen avatar ollie and grind without eating too much asphalt in the process. (Face planting on the concrete leaves a nice bloody smear that will make you think twice about trying that impossible trick again before you're ready.) Once you're in Free Skate or Career mode, you're welcome to explore the game's expanded levels (eight in all). You unlock new levels in Career mode by accomplishing a certain number of goals.

In addition to larger levels, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3 sports improved graphics with better animations and smoother shapes. There are a bunch of new tricks to learn, and the game's difficulty has been turned up a notch: progressing through Career mode, for example, requires that you pull off stunts that take some true mastery. And as with its predecessor, you'll have to string together combinations of stunts if you want to rack up the really big points.

Of course, no Tony Hawk game would be complete without a soundtrack of street music. This collection ranges from metal to ska to punk to hip-hop -- a little something for every Mac-bound skate rat out there.

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3 doesn't support the wide-screen resolutions available on certain Macs, but instead limits itself to a maximum resolution of 1,024 by 768. This means that owners of wide-screen PowerBook G4s, iMacs, or Cinema Displays are stuck with black bands on either side of the screen.

The boxed version of the game doesn't include all of the features. You'll have to download a patch from Aspyr Media's Web site if you want to take advantage of the game's multiplayer mode or use force-feedback game pads. Even worse, this patch didn't appear until several months after the game began shipping. Although those problems have been resolved, it's dangerous to get into the habit of selling a product that doesn't do what it promises.

The Bottom Line Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3 offers new challenges and improvements. Too bad it's incomplete out of the box and old news for Mac gamers, who can opt for Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 instead.

No Bored Games Here

For people who crave an online challenge far from the madding pace of a typical shoot-'em-up, Freeverse Software has bundled eight classic board games with enough embellishments and enhancements to create a solid little package. Deluxe Board Games includes expanded editions of Freeverse's previously free offerings: 4 In A Row (a Connect Four-style game), 7th Fleet (a fun version of Battleship), Mancala (an African strategy game involving cups and stones), Reversi (the flipping game that's sometimes called Othello), and Go (a game in which you take control of the board by surrounding your opponent's pieces), as well as standards like Checkers, Chess, and Tic Tac Toe.

Each game has an online component, supported through Freeverse Software's GameSmith online service. GameSmith offers some nice features; its ladder rankings, for example, let you compare your ability with potential challengers' so you can size up the competition. And GameSmith's chat area can be much friendlier than those of other online gaming services. If that's not your thing, the deluxe versions -- all except Go, that is -- now also let you face off against the computer. So when you're on the road or don't feel like socializing with other gamers, you can fire up a computer-controlled AI instead. Choose one of multiple intelligence levels, ranging from Poopy Baby to Basque Poet, for your imaginary opponent.

Deluxe Board Games retains Freeverse Software's trademark offbeat sense of humor. Take emotidolls, for example. These graphical representations of you show your online opponent how you feel. However, unlike the more familiar emoticons, emotidolls demonstrate an entire body language -- for example, slumped shoulders or an elated disco dance.

As with any Freeverse offering, the production quality is top-notch, with attractive graphics and perfunctory but serviceable sound effects and music. And at $20, this collection is an excellent value (the bundle is free for users with .Mac accounts).

The Bottom Line With Deluxe Board Games, Freeverse Software has answered the call for simple, well-crafted, online-capable board games. Hopefully, this will draw new players to online gaming.

Nematode Navy

Team 17's popular Worms franchise hasn't had much support on the Mac over the years. So it's a little odd that the atypical Worms Blast, an arcade puzzler that takes a page from classics such as Bust a Move and Snood, is the first to appear. Nevertheless, this fun little romp from Feral Interactive has engaging graphics, a great soundtrack, and game play varied enough to keep you interested and challenged.

In Worms Blast, you'll man a small boat as one of a selection of different cartoon characters: Boggy B the worm, his sister Suzette, Chuck the pigeon, Ethel the pensioner, Calvin the sheep, or Stavros the skunk. Each character has special talents and a boat that handles a bit differently. The goal is to shoot down collections of colored blocks in the sky by matching the color of your weapon to that of the blocks. Special blocks will aid or impede you: bouncy blocks, for example, cause your weapon payloads to bounce away, while you can match rainbow-colored blocks to any weapon color. You'll also collect power-ups such as stars and crates along the way.

If that were all it offered, Worms Blast wouldn't merit much interest. To make things more challenging, the game provides different playing modes, each with its own rules and goals. In addition to an extensive Puzzle mode, the game features a Tournament mode, which provides five unique challenges, such as Target Alley, where you shoot moving targets, and Super Frogging, where you destroy on-screen targets while avoiding moving obstacles. A Versus mode lets you compete against other players (only on the same machine, alas) or against the computer. If you're a fan of pop-pop, Ambrosia Software's 2002 hit (   ; November 2002), give this a try. There are eight different games in Versus mode, including Deathmatch, Survival, Fight, and Star Race. In fact, some of these games are challenging to the point of frustration, and there are few options you can tweak to adjust that.

Superficially, Worms Blast's flat cell-shaded graphics may look a bit simplistic and boring, but the game's production value is terrific, and those simple graphics look great in motion. What's more, the variety of play modes will keep you busy for hours. Download the demo if you're still not convinced.

The Bottom Line Worms Blast is beguilingly simple yet extraordinarily challenging. The cute graphics mask a demonically challenging game.

At a Glance
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