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Let’s face it—most real-time strategy (RTS) games are relatively two-dimensional. Despite their contoured landscapes, you’re ultimately still playing on a flat map. But Aspyr Media’s Homeworld 2, a new RTS game set in outer space, changes all that. It forces you to fight in a truly three-dimensional space. The result is one of the most attractive, enjoyable games you’ll find on store shelves this year.

A sprawling space opera, Homeworld 2 tells the story of the Hiigarans, a space-faring race of people that has returned to Hiigara from a distant exile, only to find themselves persecuted by a warrior clan called the Vaygr. At the start of Homeworld 2, you and your fellow Hiigarans are putting the finishing touches on your new mothership, the Pride of Hiigara, when the Vaygr fleet launches a surprise attack. This sets in motion a series of events that will keep you on the edge of your seat straight through to the end of the game—if you survive that long.

The basic elements of Homeworld 2 will be familiar to RTS fans: Your mothership is your home base. It’s where your fleet originates, where you research new technology, and where you refine resources from nearby asteroids and debris fields. But while the mothership’s bulk enables it to withstand a tremendous amount of punishment, it doesn’t have to fight alone. The ship has enough manufacturing resources to create an entire fleet of spaceships: shipyards and carriers (both of which can create vessels of their own); stationary gun platforms; swarms of interceptors and bombers that buzz around like lethal, angry insects; and more. Understanding how to develop and use all these resources is pretty easy, thanks to a clear and straightforward tutorial you can replay in chapters if you miss some of the finer points the first time.

What makes Homeworld 2 different from other strategy games is its setting—outer space. And strategizing in three dimensions is very different from playing on a two-dimensional map. Rather than just swarming your strike forces straight at the enemy, for example, you’ll often get better results by using space to your advantage—sending forces in to attack from above, below, or behind.

Homeworld 2’s user interface is relatively intricate. Pop-up menus and overlays provide you with data about your fleet’s condition and operational characteristics, mission objectives, tactical analysis, research status, and more. But it’s all very logical and easy to understand once you grasp the basics of camera control, fleet movement, and resource manipulation.

The game’s visual details have a cinematic scope. The ship designs and settings offer the epic scale of a Star Wars movie and the complex technical detail and gritty realism of Blade Runner. The game also features awe-inspiring, colorful backdrops of nebulas, glowing planets, and blankets of stars.

The audio production is equally top-notch. Homeworld 2 features a properly grand soundtrack and excellent voice acting. The game’s events are often accompanied by radio chatter from squadron leaders, ship commanders, and other voices from your fleet—all of which could quickly become irritating in an inferior game. But here, it all informs and enhances game play.

The game’s single-player campaign is linear—each time you play, the Vaygr do the exact same thing. How you win your battles, however, is up to you. And if you tire of the single-player campaign, you can take on the computer in a skirmish mode, which lets you play as the Vaygr.

Homeworld 2 lets you challenge other Mac players online using GameRanger, direct TCP/IP connections, or LAN connections. But the game doesn’t support cross-platform competition—an unfortunate drawback caused by DirectPlay, the networking technology used in Windows versions. The game calls for an 800MHz G4 or faster running OS X 10.2 or later.

The Bottom Line Homeworld 2 is, without question, a tour de force in real-time strategy gaming. If you buy one RTS in 2004, this should be it.

Tarred and Feathered

The basic storyline behind Gish, a new side-scrolling platform action game by Chronic Logic, may sound a bit hackneyed. When his girlfriend, Brea, is captured by an evil fiend, Gish must descend into the labyrinthine subterranean sewer world of Dross to save her—jumping from platform to platform, knocking down walls, and battling all manner of strange creatures. There’s just one catch: Gish doesn’t have arms or legs. He’s a 12-pound, animated ball of tar—and the driving force behind one of the most unusual and memorable games I’ve played this year.

Gish isn’t your average ball of tar. He has menacing yellow eyes and a fanged visage—which made him an instant hit with the kids in my house. But his simple, hand-drawn appearance belies the sophisticated physical modeling behind his movements. Gish can make himself heavier by hardening up a bit—useful when smacking into objects and bad guys. Gish can also make himself sticky, to better adhere to walls, or slick, to better ease into tight spaces.

Getting used to Gish’s physics may take some time. But once you’ve done so, these attributes make for some pretty clever gaming. By sticking to a wall, you’ll be able to collect hidden bits of amber—the game’s currency. You can also pry stuck objects loose—for example, an impeding column—by alternately hardening and relaxing Gish’s body.

The game’s creative level design often makes use of destructible objects. For example, you can knock away blocks or entire walls to reveal new passages. Occasionally, you’ll even unlock secret levels similar to those in classic video games such as Pitfall and Super Mario Brothers.

Gish offers several additional game modes to keep things interesting. The Collection mode is a timed puzzle game in which you must retrieve as many globs of amber as you can before the clock runs out. The Versus mode lets you compete against another player on the same computer. This mode offers a variety of unusual games that make full use of Gish’s physical properties—for example, there’s Sumo, in which two players try to knock each other off a floating platform; Greed, where the player who collects the most amber wins; and a racing game called Dragster. Alas, Gish doesn’t support gaming over a network. But sitting next to your opponent can be more fun, anyway.

Gish is complemented by an eclectic and enjoyable soundtrack—though the game’s other sound effects are a bit sparse. Gish requires a 1GHz machine or better and OS X 10.1 or later.

The Bottom Line Gish is an absolutely top-notch game that shows just how creative and imaginative an independently developed and published game can be. Download the demo and give Gish a try.

Play like an Egyptian

The ancient Egyptian god Seth (also known as Set) has unleashed an awful drought upon the land, and the queen has called upon you to make things right. To do that, you’ll need to redirect the mighty Nile River to irrigate the earth and make crops flourish. This is the premise behind Rise of the Nile, a new action-puzzle game by Evil Genius Games.

Rise of the Nile is an old-fashioned pipe-laying game with a new twist. You’re presented with various pieces of river—some sections are straight while others zigzag or bend. Your job is to assemble the pieces into closed loops—rotating them if necessary—to complete your irrigation system. Once you do, the earth absorbs the water and turns green with life.

Of course, Seth won’t be pleased with your interference. He’ll throw rocks in your path and send armies of scorpions to kick up the dust. You can fight Seth’s scorpions with the flaming Kopesh Sword, an extra goodie that shows up from time to time in place of a river segment. You can also use the sword to crush rocks into dust and to bury sections of river in the sand when you make a mistake. For big mistakes, you can release rushes of sand to bury an entire section of river.

Rise of the Nile requires that you cover a certain percentage of each level with fertile ground. You can lay river pieces over ground that has already been irrigated—a handy way to fill in dry land within a closed loop. The lusher your vegetation becomes, the more points you’ll rack up. You’ll occasionally find sacred symbols, such as an ankh, hidden in the sand. Placing water pieces over them will earn you bonus points.

The game offers two playing modes. In Strategy mode, you’ll have to contend with an overflow meter, which declines every time you trash a puzzle piece that won’t fit. When the meter runs dry, the game is over. The Timed mode adds to the challenge by forcing you to lay down an adequate number of river segments before the clock runs out. However, the clock runs a little too fast to be anything but frustrating.

You can turn off the game’s sound effects and music—a good thing, as they get irritating quickly. You’ll need at least a G3 with 128MB of RAM and OS X 10.2 to play.

The Bottom Line Rise of the Nile adds an interesting twist to a tried-and-true puzzle genre. But its timed challenges are likely to leave you frustrated.

Get Dirty

Over the past couple of years, Aspyr Media has built a collection of extreme-sports games that includes skateboarding, surfing, and wakeboarding. They’ve now added motocross racing to the mix with MTX: Mototrax, a top-notch game that puts you behind the handlebars of an off-road dirt bike as you race the pros and perform stunts.

Like most games in this genre, MTX: Mototrax lets you create a custom rider—defining your physical features as well as your equipment—and then gives you a choice between two game paths: Career mode and Freestyle mode. In Career mode you’ll move up through different motocross disciplines, developing skills, unlocking new tracks, earning money and sponsorships, and developing alliances with new motocross racing teams. Win enough races, and you can upgrade to a more powerful bike. You can also compete against as many as seven online opponents.

You can test your skills at different types of events, including motocross races, which happen at large outdoor tracks filled with winding trails spread over varied terrain; supercross races, which take place inside stadiums and require that you exercise more skill in turning tight corners and hitting jumps; and freestyle events, which focus specifically on your ability to perform tricks in rapid succession. Freestyle events are essentially the motorcycle equivalent of a skate-park half-pipe; you have a series of goals to complete in a specific amount of time—such as getting enough air on your jumps to hit floating hoops. Some of these sequences, however, are challenging to the point of frustration.

In the game’s Freestyle mode, you can forgo racing entirely and instead focus on developing your tricks. More-difficult and more-creative tricks will earn extra points.

The game includes an integrated track editor, which lets you create your own supercross courses inside an arena—it’s a bit like assembling a Hot Wheels track. But while the editor has a good collection of track pieces, your design possibilities are ultimately limited by space constraints.

MTX: Mototrax looks great. Aspyr did a nice job of converting the console version of the game. It also runs fast as blazes on my 1.5GHz PowerBook G4. The game requires at least 800MHz. The game’s soundtrack features the typical mix of metal and punk, including bands such as Disturbed, Metallica, and the Misfits.

One of the game’s most surprising features is its price. MTX: Mototrax is debuting for $20. This makes the game less expensive than some shareware games, with much better production quality.

The Bottom Line Motocross is a novelty on the Mac. And MTX: Mototrax is a solid introduction to the genre. If you’re looking for a different kind of racing game, MTX: Mototrax merits a look.

Precision Gaming

Razer has a reputation for creating top-quality mice designed specifically for the gaming community. Its newest release, the Viper, is a high-precision optical mouse that offers greater sensitivity than many other mice, as well as several other useful amenities.

The Viper sports 1,000-dpi optics—that’s about 25 percent higher than you’ll find in many other precision mice. This results in greater sensitivity, and lessens the chance that your cursor will get the jitters if your hand moves fast across the table in the midst of a particularly frantic fragging session.

The Viper also has an ambidextrous two-button design that fits a variety of hand sizes. Razer coated the two buttons—which are contoured to the sides of the mouse—with a rubberized material to prevent sweaty fingers from slipping and to make the mouse easy to grip. A clickable scroll wheel sits nestled between the big buttons. The underside of the Viper has Teflon-coated feet, which cut down on friction against your desktop. Of course, the design isn’t all about function. The casing’s translucent black material shows off the red glowing optics as you move the Viper across a desktop surface.

Alas, the company doesn’t make its own Mac drivers; the included CD offers only Windows drivers. However, its Web site points Mac customers to the venerable shareware application USB Overdrive ( ). Most full-featured OS X games include tools for programming a second mouse button and scroll-wheel commands. But Mac users will lose the ability to adjust sensitivity and acceleration settings—something that Windows users can do.

The Bottom Line Razer’s Viper was built for speed. If you’re looking for a fast mouse designed for the demands of fast and furious gaming, this may be the one for you.

First Look|Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

At the risk of making generalizations, I find that most Dungeons and Dragons fans also have an abiding love for Star Wars. Aspyr Media has brought the two together, with the Mac version of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic —a single-player role-playing game (RPG) set in the Star Wars universe.

Knights of the Old Republic takes place four thousand years before Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker enter the picture. The Sith, Star Wars’ resident bad guys, are waging war against the Jedi Knights, protectors of the Republic and all-around hero types.

In typical RPG fashion, you select your gender, character class (soldier, scoundrel, or scout), and physical appearance before you begin playing. At the game’s opening, you’re sent to rescue a captured Jedi warrior, who then recognizes your potential as a Jedi pupil. Eventually, you’ll be initiated into the Jedi order, where you’ll learn important offensive and defensive skills that help you tap into the universal power known as the Force.

Of course, what you do with your power is entirely up to you. Your alignment with the light or the dark side of the Force is mainly determined by your actions—the way you speak with nonplayer characters, the decisions you make, and the quests you pursue. All these things have a profound impact on whether you ultimately become good or evil.

Although Knights of the Old Republic is exclusively a single-player game, you’ll meet AI characters you can invite to join your party. You control each of these characters individually, so you can use each of their unique skills to complete the task at hand.

The game includes plenty of combat, which combines the turn-based strategy of an RPG with the real-time action you’d expect of a fully 3-D game. When your party encounters an enemy, the action pauses so you can tell them what actions to take. Combat then proceeds until one side has won or until you tell your characters to change their strategy or weapon.

Aspyr has set the game’s system requirements rather high. Thanks to some nifty graphical effects, the game requires Panther or later and at least a 1GHz machine.

Knights of the Old Republic should be on store shelves by the time this issue reaches you. But you’ll have to pay $50—more than twice what the Windows and Xbox versions currently cost.

The Bottom Line The sheer abundance of game play and the ability to choose your own destiny make Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic a must-have for Star Wars enthusiasts.

[ Senior Editor Peter Cohen regularly practices his Jedi Force powers, but he still has to get up off the couch to get the remote. ]

Set in outer space, Homeworld 2 forces you to think about strategy from all angles.Gish moves just like a bar of tar would if the ball of tar were alive—and really angry.In Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, your actions will determine which side of the Force you end up on.Race against other motocross pros in Aspyr’s MTX: Mototrax.In Rise of the Nile, you’ll bring life to the Egyptian desert by harnessing the power of the mighty river.
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