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By WES PLATT, WILLIAM LAMPKIN, DAVE GUSSOW, JOE HENRY and JEFF HARRINGTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 4, 2000


So PlayStation 2 is nowhere to be found. Gamers don't have to live by video game consoles alone.

In fact, as computer hardware has improved, so have the games available for computer play, from traditional and popular flight simulators to updated versions of classics.

The variety available should please not only hard-core gamers, but also those who are delving into gaming for the first time.

Here's a look at some of the games available for the holidays:

Combat Flight Simulator 2

PLATFORM: Windows

MAKER: Microsoft

PRICE: $49.95

Crimson Skies

PLATFORM: Windows

MAKER: Microsoft

PRICE: $54.95

Splash Japanese Zeroes in Combat Flight Simulator 2 or perform aerobatic feats of daring as a dashing air pirate in Crimson Skies. What to do, what to do?

Both games come from Microsoft and show once more that the company is capable of producing more than just your average sim.

If you're looking for realism, hop into a prop-driven Corsair and try your skills as a World War II ace in Combat Flight Simulator 2.

If you're looking for just plain fun, without all that retentive control memorization foolishness, then pack yourself into the cockpit of a custom, tricked-out airplane and become a terror of the Crimson Skies.

Combat Flight Simulator 2 is set in the Pacific theater of World War II. The modeling within the game is up to Microsoft's typical detailed standards, right down to the rivets on the fuselage.

Sure, the controls require some time and practice to learn, as with just about any Microsoft flight simulator, but if you're excited by the prospect of re-enacting WWII history, then it's probably worth the effort.

Crimson Skies, on the other hand, is a flat-out good time waiting to happen, without the learning curve.

But when I say waiting to happen, I mean it. The game shipped to shelves with some nasty bugs that cause the game to crash or take minutes to load if systems aren't configured just so. That frustration factor (all too familiar these days when games are pumped out of warehouses to stores without adequate bug testing) could be terminal for less patient players.

Once you get past those problems and manage to get Crimson Skies running, however, it's a delight.

This fanciful game takes place in a 1930s America that never was, in which air travel -- planes and dirigibles, primarily -- has become the primary mode of transportation. The setting is drawn from FASA Corp.'s board game of the same name.

As Nathan Zachary, legendary air pirate, you have the opportunity to fight raiders, snatch people off the tops of moving trains and fly through the Hollywood sign. On top of all that, you get to steal the legendary Spruce Goose!

The game doesn't have a hard-to-learn collection of controls, and if you fail a mission repeatedly, you aren't stuck, you just move to the next mission in the unfolding story.

As good as Combat Flight Simulator 2 and Crimson Skies are, they require large amounts of system resources to run optimally.

- WES PLATT, Times staff writer

Star Trek Voyager: Elite Force

PLATFORM: Windows

MAKER: Activision

PRICE: $39.95

Wow.

I'm a diehard Trekkie, but I installed Star Trek Voyager: Elite Force ready to hate it as much as I loathe the mercifully soon-to-end UPN television series.

Color me stunned with a phaser.

This game is fun.

Take the ultraviolence of Quake III and throw in the Prime Directive, in which Starfleet members try their best not to unnecessarily harm societies or individuals (but feel free to zap the Borg into oblivion!), and you've got Elite Force.

The concept is this: The starship Voyager has been hurtled into the Delta Quadrant and is trying to make a 70-year journey back to the United Federation of Planets in the Alpha Quadrant.

Capt. Kathryn Janeway, recognizing that personnel are limited to what she has (she certainly can't get any fresh troops from Starfleet Academy any time soon), has formed an elite fighting team to handle recon and rescue operations.

Voyager encounters gruff and eminently unlovable aliens that baffle the always-handy universal translator, leaving the elite team to work its gun-toting mojo on the bad guys in a series of episodic missions.

Killing is considered an option of last resort in the Star Trek universe, unless, of course, you happen to have a holodeck (in which case, anything goes). The body count can skyrocket to your heart's content in the holodeck death matches.

But the real fun is outside the holodeck, going from alien ship to alien ship, fighting the good fight and saving Voyager so it can continue its journey home.

Too bad the show has never been so fun or so engaging.

- WES PLATT, Times staff writer

Wizards & Warriors

PLATFORM: Windows

MAKER: Activision

PRICE: $42.95

D.W. Bradley, the creator of the original Wizardry game, has returned with a new game in a new fantasy world: Wizards & Warriors.

But, unfortunately, it's more of the same, sucking up a huge amount of a computer's resources in the process.

We've been here before: Build a party of adventurers of different capabilities, send them on a dungeon crawl, find an artifact, save the world.

As with so many other games of this kind, players can choose from several different races (such as humans, elves, dwarves and anthropomorphized pigs, lizards, cats and rats) and character classes (such as the obvious wizards and warriors, plus thieves, clerics, bards and assassins).

Of course, the 3-D-accelerated scenery looks good -- graphics have come a long way from the days of simple lines in the days of Wizardry I -- but considering the competition, W&W is likely to get lost in the shuffle.

You can get strong multiplayer fantasy gaming with 3-D graphics in Everquest or Asheron's Call, and for single-player gaming, nothing, nothing, nothing can out-do Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn.

Two decades ago, D.W. Bradley sparked a fantasy gaming revolution with his games.

Today, he just rides a familiar wave. Not much new here at all.

- WES PLATT, Times staff writer

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2

PLATFORM: Windows

MAKER: Westwood

PRICE: $39.99

Don't look for much of a sensible or engrossing story in the new Command & Conquer offering.

The story -- Albert Einstein built a time machine, screwed up history and inadvertently created a world where the United States and Soviet Union can clash dramatically with lots of nasty gadgets -- is just the excuse for providing the real purpose behind this game: Blowing up lots of virtual stuff.

On this count, C&C delivers once more.

In the realm of real-time strategy and resource management, especially combat-oriented games, few can compare to C&C. Red Alert 2 is quick-loading, with a catchy percussive soundtrack and amusing graphics.

The game isn't for the squeamish and probably should be played only by adults (unless you don't mind your kids firing nuclear missiles at the other side and turning the enemy into gooey green puddles).

But if you check common sense at the door and engage that reptilian part of your brain that enjoys explosions and the hunt, C&C: Red Alert 2 should suit your tastes.

- WES PLATT, Times staff writer

Amazons & Aliens

PLATFORM: Windows

MAKER: Simon & Schuster Interactive

PRICE: $29.95

The concept of Amazons & Aliens is cute. Storks are the true masters of the universe, depositing life on various worlds and watching how the targets of their evolutionary experiments develop.

But cute goes only so far, and it's really a stretch that fails to make the game worth paying retail price.

In this game, you get three choices: Play either the big blue lummox Pimmons, the buglike Sajiki or the scantily clad Amazons.

You can play against the computer or against real opponents via the Internet. Games can be open-ended or you can become involved in a series of linked missions that form campaigns.

The graphics are attractive, the music is whimsical, and the basic premise is worth a chuckle, but the novelty wears off quickly.

Beyond the mildly amusing opening sequence and the specifics of the technology that evolves in these civilizations, there's not much to distinguish Amazons & Aliens from every other resource management game.

It's Command and Conquer, with sexist overtones, storks, psychedelic mushrooms and swirly lollipops.

- WES PLATT, Times staff writer

Midtown Madness 2

PLATFORM: Windows

MAKER: Microsoft

PRICE: $44.95

Ever wanted to careen down San Francisco's hills in the fastback Mustang that Steve McQueen drove in Bullitt? Drive a double-decker bus past Buckingham Palace in London? Midtown Madness 2 hands you the keys.

Pick either city to learn to handle your vehicle. In the San Francisco crash course, you're the stunt driver in a movie. You're given short but complex courses to navigate in a classic Mustang. As you complete periodic tests, you unlock another of the 10 featured vehicles, including an Astin Martin DB-7, a souped-up New Beetle and an American LaFrance firetruck. In London, you're a cabbie in training.

Once you feel comfortable behind the wheel (or keyboard or mouse), you can cruise around either city exploring or race against the clock or simulated competitors. You also can race against live players if you're connected to a network or over the Internet through MSN Gaming Zone.

My only complaints: The voice-overs get annoyingly repetitive as you restart test courses; the police don't always drive within the same laws of physics your car does; and the game has a few bugs that cause it to lock up on occasion. Otherwise, it's a fun game that reminds me why my 8-year-old shouldn't drive my car.

- WILLIAM LAMPKIN, Times staff writer

Who Wants to Beat Up a Millionaire

PLATFORM: Windows

MAKER: Simon & Schuster Interactive

PRICE: $19.99

The host is Egregious, not Regis, in this parody of the popular TV game show. But it's a pretty lame effort. The format is similar to the game show, based on answering trivia questions. After answering a question correctly, the player gets to punch one of five rich people, such as Ronald Hump. Get enough questions right and you beat the money out of the victim. Ha ha.

- DAVE GUSSOW, Times personal technology editor

You Don't Know Jack, 5th Dementia

PLATFORM: Windows

MAKER: Sierra Attractions

PRICE: $29.95

Before Regis hit the PC scene with his style of trivia, there was Jack, a fast-paced, irreverent and funny trivia game that won a legion of fans. Now Jack enters a new dimension: live online play. Players can choose the usual format, playing against the computer or others sharing a keyboard, or online. If you choose the Internet, the game will ask whether you want to play against someone you're meeting or a random game with others. It allows chat, though the pace of the game discourages too much talk (however, a pair I played found a way to, shall we say, comment when things weren't going their way). The online game has everything the computer version has, including familiar features such as solve the gibberish questions, Dis or Dat and the Jack Attack finale. A caution for parents: The humor isn't suitable for the preteen crowd.

- DAVE GUSSOW, Times personal technology editor

Frogger 2: Swampy's Revenge

PLATFORM: Windows

MAKER: Hasbro Interactive

PRICE: $29.99

The classic arcade game Frogger goes from dodging traffic crossing roads to an array of new challenges in Frogger 2: Swampy's Revenge. Now, Frogger and girlfriend Lillie Frog have to avoid lawn mowers, bees, birds and, of course, Swampy the Alligator to save frog babies and move through 30 levels. And if the new challenges aren't enough, the game includes multiple player choices, as well as the classic game. It's still addictive.

- DAVE GUSSOW, Times personal technology editor

NASCAR Heat

PLATFORM: Windows

MAKER: Hasbro Interactive

PRICE: $39.99

While NASCAR is one of the hot sports these days, I have yet to catch the fever. So I turned to a friend who is a fan to get his impressions of this game. His conclusions: NASCAR Heat is a welcome change to the typical racing game, with easy installation that had him playing within minutes. The real fun was the realism of the racing action (including destroying his car on his initial run at the Bristol Motor Speedway). The game offers 27 drivers and tracks featured on the NASCAR circuit. It has normal or expert levels, so players can pick up the nuances easily.

- DAVE GUSSOW, Times personal technology editor

Family Feud, Wheel of Fortune 2, Jeopardy 2

PLATFORM: Windows

MAKER: Hasbro Interactive

PRICE: $29.99 each

Not all TV game shows translate into good computer games. Turning to a friend familiar with both the TV and earlier computer versions of these games, I got this report. Each game stuck with the TV show formats. On a PC, Family Feud seemed a bit slow, and Wheel had annoying ads for prizes. Mom didn't care much for either, but her 13-year-old daughter liked both. Jeopardy, on the other hand, came up with new features, including multiple player games, video with host Alex Trebek and a sample test to see if you could qualify for the TV show. Mom says she'll play this one for a while.

- DAVE GUSSOW, Times personal technology editor

Buzz Lightyear of Star Command

photo
[Photo: Disney Interactive]
Buzz Lightyear battles his way through one of the 14 missions that take place on seven planets.
PLATFORM: Windows

MAKER: Disney Interactive

PRICE: $19.99

Pet owners may debate "which do you like, dog or cat?" but younger fans of the movie Toy Story always ask the decisive question: Buzz or Woody?

Well, in my house, you can forget Woody. Buzz Lightyear is the landslide winner, and no Electoral College will dispute that outcome. From 2-year-old Caleb's obsession with his older brother's Buzz action figures (the various Woodys sit together, slumped in the toy basket) to their cheering of Buzz in the movie and its sequel, the silver superhero is tops in our home.

Thus, when we finally went tech and bought a computer this year, the first CD game they picked out was Toy Story. Now, with this latest Disney offering, it's all Buzz, and the action is enough to impress 10-year-old Brittany and 7-year-old Justin. The CD offers 14 missions on seven planets and features enough levels and action to keep any child thrilled for hours. The graphics and characters are vibrant, and the user can choose the difficulty level.

The only caution concerns the CD's sometimes user-unfriendly setup. We had to change our screen resolution for the game to work, it took a long time to decipher how to use some of the weaponry available to Buzz, and there are areas where it is impossible to exit from the program. (The user manual is rather useless on these points.)

- JOE HENRY, Times staff writer

Chicken Run

PLATFORM: Windows

MAKER: Activision

PRICE: $19.99

If it's hard for a movie to capture the magic of a good book, the same is doubly true for a computer game take-off of a good movie.

The designers of Chicken Run the CD-ROM learned that lesson the hard way.

The clever and realistic animation that made the movie such a hit comes across well on the game. And my family enjoyed the downloadable screensavers, depicting the chickens' futile attempts to escape the confines of Tweedy's Farm.

Beyond that, the game ruffled my feathers a bit. The setup was slightly laborious. We had to change our screen resolution for the game to work and decide just how much memory we wanted to devote to features we might never use.

More troubling is that the CD-ROM is light on games and heavy on self-promotion. You can load clips from the movie and play CDs on Rocky's Radio in addition to using the screensavers.

There are only two games included; both involve helping the chickens escape from Tweedy's. The trio of youngsters in my house (ages 4 to 9) liked "Run Chicken Run" the best. The objective: Use planks and pipes to cover up open holes as the chickens weave around the farmyard toward an open gate.

The other game, "Spring Chicken," is a more tedious exercise of bouncing the chickens across the yard to clear a fence to freedom.

For Chicken Run fans looking to relive memories of Rocky's and Ginger's escapades, this game is their ticket. But if they hope for something challenging and fresh . . . well, unlike our fowl friends in the movie, this just doesn't fly.

- JEFF HARRINGTON, Times staff writer

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