Once again, it's time to roll out the red carpet at the Macworld Game Hall of Fame and honor the year's best pulse-quickening, mind-tingling games. For those of you who haven't made the pilgrimage to these hallowed halls, the Game Hall of Fame is located in historic Pittsfield, Massachusetts, a few hours away from my homestead on Cape Cod. Thank goodness the management lets me telecommute most days (the three-hour drive up the Mass Pike is a killer).
As I walk through the halls, polishing fingerprints off of the brass statues of past inductees and making room for the newest crop of winners, I can't help but look back on the past year with fondness. Sure, there were a few titles that made me want to give up my joystick forever -- I won't name any names. But after all was said and done, 2003 shaped up to be another solid year for games on the Mac. From old-school arcade games to futuristic shooters, zoo management to covert military operations, there was truly something for everyone.
Best Use of Animal Husbandry
This real-time strategy game, which lets you build, stock, and maintain your own zoo, emerged midyear and quickly became one of my favorites -- thanks in part to a feature that lets you knock down the walls of your zoo exhibits. (Nothing releases a little pent-up aggression like watching your lions and tigers eat demanding zoo patrons.)
Zoo Tycoon combines the voyeuristic thrill and strategic planning of Sim City with a nice dose of learning. As you build your zoo, you'll learn about the animals' natural habitats and what they need to keep happy and healthy. Do your job well, and you'll make the park a fun place for patrons to spend money -- and perhaps earn a small fortune. Do your job poorly, and your zoo may be shut down for animal cruelty.
What's Cool: A recently released Marine Mania expansion pack lets you add oceanic critters and dinosaurs to the mix. Who It's For: Strategy-game fans who dream of running a wildlife safari. From: Aspyr Media, 888/212-7797, www.aspyr .com; $50.
Best Way to Kick PC Gamers' Butts
Unreal Tournament 2003
MacSoft took its sweet time getting Unreal Tournament 2003 (UT 2K3) into the hands of Mac gamers, but the game was worth the wait. Chock-full of death and dismemberment, this unapologetically aggro first-person shooter is brimming with mayhem. Like its wildly popular predecessor, UT 2K3 lets you wield a variety of weapons as you participate in futuristic gladiatorial combat. But this time around, the graphics are better, the action is faster, and the contestants are tougher.
While you're blasting away your enemies, you can collect adrenaline capsules to activate special modes that enable you to move faster, shoot quicker, and more. And almost every aspect of the game is customizable, from player characteristics to networking options.
The best part of the game, of course, is playing online against PC gamers, blasting them to smithereens and then letting them know that you're playing on a Mac.
What's Cool: Hacking the game's INI file to maximize performance on your Mac -- for example, you can reduce the number of active audio channels (check out The Game Room, September 2003, for details). Who It's For: The Gatorade-swilling crowd. From: MacSoft, 763/231-8100, www.macsoftgames.com; $50.
Best Celebrity Endorsement
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2003
Spectacularly rendered golf courses and stunningly realistic character animation alone don't earn this Mac golf title a spot in the Game Hall of Fame. A lot of the credit belongs to TrueSwing -- an intuitive swing-control system that really puts players in the game. The visages of Tiger Woods and other well-known PGA golfers are icing on the cake.
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2003 features a Career mode that lets you work your way up the rungs of the PGA ladder. Other PGA golfers will even challenge you to games of skill that will test your mettle and put money in your pocket -- if you win.
The second of two major golf games reviewed by Macworld in 2003, Tiger Woods was truly the superior game -- notwithstanding a few graphical glitches on certain Mac configurations. In fact, it looks better, plays better, and offers more challenges than any Mac golf game I can think of.
What's Cool: Watching Tiger get more and more frustrated as he keeps duffing easy shots. Who It's For: People who took that "I am Tiger Woods" commercial seriously. From: Aspyr Media, 888/212-7797, www.aspyr.com; $40.
Best Difficult-to-Pronounce Game
Having grown up on a hearty diet of classic arcade games, I'd happily trade in 3-D graphics for a good 2-D shoot-'em-up (or shmup, in gamers' parlance) almost any day of the week. So developer Kenta Cho has a special place in my heart for distilling classic 2-D shooters down to their core and turning them into wonderful, abstract, psychedelic -- and just plain weird -- games. Noiz2sa is a perfect example.
A follow-up to Cho's earlier -- and equally unforgettable -- rRootage, Noiz2sa has players flying over a scrolling landscape and firing at anything that moves. The game eschews colorful, cartoonish graphics -- common in shmups -- for a minimalist presentation with an allure all its own: ships, bullets, missiles, and laser beams are all represented by simple geometric shapes. And once the bullets start flying, you'll be hypnotized by the action. Put simply, Noiz2sa is a visual extravaganza in motion. You have to see it to believe it.
What's Cool: People at Starbucks tapping you on the shoulder while you're playing Noiz2sa and begging for details about where to find the game. Who It's For: People who have a library of console shmups and wish there were more of these games on the Mac. From: Kenta Cho, www.victoly.com/~adam; free.
Best Use of the Force
Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast
The Star Wars and Star Trek movie franchises have both fallen victim to a wealth of mediocre -- and at times, utterly craptastic -- games. But a notable exception is Aspyr Media's Mac conversion of Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast. Based on the Quake III: Arena engine, Jedi Knight II lets you control Kyle Katarn, a Jedi bad boy who's turned to mercenary work to put food on the table.
Although Jedi Knight II uses a few tricks we've all seen before -- Max Payne's Bullet Time slow-motion mode, for example -- it uses them in ways that don't feel hackneyed or, pardon the pun, forced. Best of all, when you tire of the single-player mode, you can enter online arenas and pit your skills against those of other Mac and PC players.
What's Cool: Getting to slice and dice with a lightsaber. Who It's For: People who wish that Darth Vader were their father. From: Aspyr Media, 888/212-7797, www.aspyr.com; $50.
Best Military Training
Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Desert Siege
Squad-based military games are odd ducks: they're not quite action games, and they're not quite strategy games. They are, however, incredibly challenging and complex simulations of real-life military exercises. And this year, Aspyr brought an outstanding example of this genre to the Mac.
In Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon, you're in charge of a team of elite commandos called Ghosts. With each mission, you must complete a series of objectives and get your team out alive. There are secondary goals, too, which will raise your status as a covert-ops hero if you're able to complete them in time. Although the game is set in the near future, the weapons and situations -- such as quelling East African unrest or putting an end to an uprising that threatens Russian stability -- are definitely current.
Ghost Recon gives you more action and requires less planning than past Tom Clancy games, so there's a quicker payoff for the attention-deprived player. Improved graphics and more-realistic sound effects add to your sense of immersion. (The game goes so far as to provide birdsongs from the areas you visit.) And kudos to Aspyr for bundling both the original Ghost Recon game and its expansion pack, Desert Shield, in this combo.
What's Cool: Taking over a fellow commando's body to get the job done. Who It's For: Folks who'd rather be in Tom Clancy thrillers than read them. From: Aspyr Media, 888/212-7797, www .aspyr.com; $35.
Best Hacking and Slashing
As much as I wanted to love the long-awaited Mac release of Neverwinter Nights, and as much as I admire Geneforge 2's deep and varied story line, the Mac dungeon crawl that captured our hearts and minds most thoroughly this year was MacSoft's Dungeon Siege.
Best described as an action and strategy game with role-playing elements, Dungeon Siege breaks the role-playing–game (RPG) mold by offering greater game-play variety. Dungeon Siege combines RPG fun -- collecting stuff and leveling up your character with new abilities -- with heavy doses of action that encourage you to use squad-based strategy. Add to that an innovative graphics engine that doesn't make you wait for levels to load every time you visit a new location, and you've got hours of hacking and slashing to relish.
What's Cool: A pack mule that can carry tons of supplies but has a habit of running away from battle. Who It's For: Players looking for a successor to Blizzard's Diablo series. From: MacSoft, 763/231-8100, www.macsoftgames.com; $30.
Best Recycled Idea
Here at the Game Hall of Fame, I often find myself reminiscing about the eighties -- the golden age of coin-operated video games, and a time when a game's graphics could easily be duplicated on fabric by any neophyte cross-stitcher. One of the all-time classics of that era was Combat, an Atari 2600 game that placed you and a friend in tanks on opposite sides of a 2-D battlefield. This game was the inspiration for Bravetree Productions' ThinkTanks.
ThinkTanks puts you in the turret of a metal machine and sends you across a 3-D battlefield to take on anyone who crosses your path -- online or on your own computer. Strategically placed power-ups charge your cannon with special abilities, while jump pads let you snatch a brief bird's-eye view of the battlefield. It's an old concept smartly updated for gamers whose graphical tastes tend toward Unreal Tournament, but who still have a hankering for simple game play.
What's Cool: Being able to run your own multiplayer server from your Mac. Who It's For: People who get a twinge of nostalgia when they see the black, rubbery, single-button joystick of the Atari 2600 in video game retrospectives. From: GarageGames, 541/345-3040, www .garagegames.com; $20.
Best Great Game Made Greater
Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne
Expansion packs too often fall into the trap of just padding original games with more fluff but not offering anything substantive. This is definitely not true of Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne. This official add-on to 2002's Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos makes an already good game even better.
As a role-playing strategy game, Warcraft III puts you in charge of heroes of each of the four races that populate the war-torn world of Azeroth. The Frozen Throne has an additional single-player campaign that starts off where the first one ended. You'll also find tons of new objects, units, and other goodies -- including a new level editor for folks who want to make their own mods. And The Frozen Throne offers new depth when you go head-to-head against PC and other Mac gamers online through Blizzard's free Battle.net matchmaking service.
In case you've somehow missed Warcraft III altogether, Blizzard has now put the original game and the expansion pack together -- along with a pair of strategy guides to help you along -- in a package called the Warcraft Battle Chest.
What's Cool: Replaying the game from the beginning and finding new ways to win. Who It's For: Players who just can't get enough of Warcraft III. From: Blizzard Entertainment, 800/953-7669, www .blizzard.com; $35.
Best Sense of Humor
The Operative: No One Lives Forever
Many games take themselves way too seriously. So when MacPlay released The Operative: No One Lives Forever, it was a welcome respite from the usual posturing and pontificating. Brandishing a corny sense of humor and outrageous, tongue-in-cheek caricatures, The Operative mixes first-person–shooter game play with sixties-era style. In it, you assume the role of Cate Archer, an undercover agent charged with foiling the efforts of an evil underground group that's bent on world domination.
Although the game's graphics look a bit dated, The Operative is a whole lot of fun. It definitely kept me laughing. And as in classic spy movies, just when you think you've seen it all, there's another stunt to challenge you. It's one part James Bond, one part The Avengers, and a dash of Austin Powers -- served up shaken, not stirred.
The Operative: No One Lives Forever 2 should be hitting store shelves around the time this issue lands in your hands. While I haven't had a chance to put it through its paces, the sequel has the same trappings that made the first installment so much fun. Dramatically improved graphics and other embellishments should make this title worth keeping an eye on.
Who It's For: The nifty sixties-era lounge music, included in the box as an audio CD. Who It's For: Anyone who's ever dreamt of being (or being with) Emma Peel. From: MacPlay, 214/855-5955, www.macplay.com; $30.
Best Place to Get Classic Games
In 2003, I reviewed MacMAME (Mac Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator), a free emulator that revives classic arcade machines from the seventies, eighties, and nineties on your Mac -- in much the same way that VirtualPC emulates a Windows-compatible computer ( www.macmame.org ). But although MacMAME emulates the technology underlying arcade games, it doesn't actually include the games themselves. For that, you need ROM image files culled from the arcade game's original chips.
Until recently, MacMAME users who wanted to get these ROM files had two options: buy the original arcade games and use byzantine equipment to read the data; or download ROM files from the Internet via pirate Web sites and peer-to-peer services. The former is a daunting, time-consuming, and expensive process, while the latter is an easier and cheaper, but more legally precarious, approach.
But now a company has stepped in to give gamers legal and easy access to game ROMs. Based on the same concept as Apple's iTunes Music Store, StarROMs ( www.starroms.com ) sells vintage–arcade-game ROMs that work with MacMAME and its kin. The company kicked off last October with dozens of ROMs from classic Atari arcade games such as Missile Command, Tempest, Asteroids, and others.
As this issue went to press, the selection on StarROMs' Web site was limited to Atari games. However, with dozens of classics to choose from, there should be enough to keep even extremely ardent arcade enthusiasts busy for hours. The company says it plans to flesh out its selection as soon as deals with other license holders are finalized.
ROM files will cost you anywhere from $2 to $6 -- a small price to pay to own a legitimate piece of gaming history. You can get an even better deal by using your credit card to buy StarROMs credits -- the coin of StarROMs' realm -- in bulk. Once you buy the games, they're yours to keep. There are no restrictions due to digital-rights management, as there are with music you buy through the iTunes Music Store.
Best Gaming Twosome
NASCAR Racing 2003 Season and Logitech Momo Racing Wheel;
With some games, it doesn't matter whether you use the keyboard or a game controller -- the experience is about the same. But for others, the difference is like night and day. NASCAR Racing 2003 Season is that kind of game. It's also the swan song of a terrific game franchise that carefully simulates what it's like to muscle a roaring NASCAR racing vehicle around real-world tracks.
People unfamiliar with the sport may not see much challenge in NASCAR driving --
after all, you're just taking left turns continuously, right? No, not by a long shot -- riding in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the freeway is one thing, but at 190 miles per hour, it's a whole different story. Careful fuel management, listening to cues from your pit crews, and keeping an eye on your gauges and other drivers all add up to a nail-biting experience that won't let you look away from the screen for even a moment -- unless you want to end up as roadkill.
NASCAR Racing 2003 Season earns an extra half mouse over its 2002 Season predecessor, thanks to an updated driver, a team and sponsor roster, all 23 real-world NASCAR tracks, and a dramatically reworked physics engine. These features, along with new graphics and AI improvements, make the game even more realistic and challenging than before.
But to really experience the true power of this game, you'll need Logitech's Momo Racing Wheel. NASCAR's new support for force feedback brings a whole different level of realism to the game by making the steering wheel shimmy and shake as you plow your 800-horsepower rocket-sled around the track.
What's Cool: Taking a U-turn out of pit row and plowing your car into oncoming traffic just to watch the other cars flip over, and then replaying the chaos from different angles. Who It's For: Jeff Gordon wannabes. From: Aspyr Media, 888/212-7797, www.aspyr.com; $30; and Logitech, 888/863-8312, www.logitech.com; $100.
On the Horizon
Although these titles arrived too late to be considered for this year's Game Hall of Fame, they certainly have me on the edge of my seat. In fact, most of these games should be hitting stores in time for the shopping season.
Few who witnessed Halo's debut at the June 1999 Macworld Expo keynote speech would have believed it would be 2003 before MacSoft finally got the game into the hands of Mac users. If you've already played Halo on your Xbox, you can expect a very different experience on the Mac. For one thing, it looks much better, thanks to support for high resolutions (as high as 1,600 by 1,200) and the pixel-shading technology found in newer graphics cards. Halo also sports a new weapon, new vehicles, new maps, and several customizable multiplayer games -- including PC-to-Mac multiplayer gaming support.
Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six 3: Raven Shield
If you like Ghost Recon, take a look at Aspyr's Mac conversion of Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six 3: Raven Shield. As the leader of a special operatives unit called Rainbow, you'll lead missions against a hidden terrorist threat as you travel to locales such as London, the Caribbean, and Rio de Janeiro. Also keep an eye out for Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell, which puts you in the role of a stealthy undercover operative working for the U.S. government.
Unreal Tournament 2004
The Mac version of Unreal Tournament 2003, from MacSoft, may have arrived more than half a year after its PC counterpart, but the next installment is shipping at almost the same time. The latest edition of this futuristic arena combat series offers new game-play modes, weapons, player modes, and vehicles.
Favorite features included with the original Unreal Tournament but missing from UT 2K3 -- for example, the Assault mode, where players try to achieve mission objectives -- will make a comeback in UT 2K4. And fans of long-range shooting will be happy to have the Sniper Rifle back in their arsenals.
Law & Order: Dead on the Money
For something totally different from just about any game discussed this month, there's Aspyr's 3-D mystery game based on the hugely popular television drama series Law & Order. The game features the faces and the voices of the actors you know from the show. You'll help Detective Lennie Briscoe collect evidence and information about a Central Park murder, and then you'll present those findings to Lieutenant Anita Van Buren. Once you've got a suspect in custody, it's up to you to help Assistant DA Serena Southerlyn build a compelling case worthy of a guilty verdict.