Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Play on Worlds

By Marcel Meyer

JULY 5, 1999:  As a kid, I spent my lazy summer days roaming through the back-wood jungles of my family's track-housing neighborhood in north Houston. Every morning, a band of preteen adventurers met at the edge of the subdivision, where yellow dump trucks poured out slab after slab, and Bermuda grass bled into a jungle of soon-to-be-leveled forest. With fully loaded Daisy air rifles and Army green canteens slung about our necks, my compatriots and I fled into the wastelands of towering pine trees, flooded creek beds, and a subterranean world of underground drain pipes. Here we fashioned saplings into catapults, which swung us into the air (and the emergency room), and waged simulated wars against cootie-infected girl clans. Our pint-sized engineers fashioned bridges of David Lean proportions, and, in another instance, the troop slaved for weeks before abandoning the construction of an underwater Atlantis world.

Undeniably, we had vision and daydreams aplenty, yet our resources were sorely limited. So for what we could not accomplish in reality, we mastered indoors within the equally magical world of computer games. Here, rocket ships reacted to our every command, and all-night Space Invaders parties sapped our energy worse than the Texas dog days. But as the simpleton platforms of Atari and Intellivision fell prey to the advent of the IBM personal computer and faster, much-ballyhooed RGB "graphics," the game world traveled through its own kind of puberty, in which PC and Mac genres developed and blossomed like the ponytailed girls we once teased on the jungle gym. Today, the game industry continues to cater to the imaginations of the young-at-heart, and, despite the ill light cast upon Doom-style games by the tragic Columbine shootings, not all of this summer's already released and "coming soon" titles promote extreme violence. Some even cater to the 10-year-old tree fort crowd.

Below you'll find reviews for the summer's most anticipated titles, including some that are still not released. Most of these games require very fast computers to run properly, so please check system requirements before purchasing games for your computer.


Now Playing

Austin Powers: Operation Trivia, Berkeley Systems/Macintosh & PC

For anyone faintly familiar with Berkeley Systems' gut-wrenchingly funny You Don't Know Jack series, Operation Trivia should rouse your funny bone on premise alone. Players may either behave with Austin or team up with Dr. Evil to best the International Man of Mystery at his own game. Questions range from pop culture trivia, from as far back as the 1960s, to current puzzlers and brain teasers from the original movie. Care to spoon up a sample? What was the name of Austin's spy-mobile? Log onto http://www.berkeleysystems.com to play a stripped-down demo and de-robe the answer.


Drakan -- Order of the Flame, Surreal Software/PC

In the war-scorched land of Drakan, an untested heroine fighter named Rynn must rise from the ashes of her charred village in a quest to recover her kidnapped brother -- and free the populace from a dark, invading evil. Equipped with a mighty sword, keen intellect, and a Lara Croft-inspired hourglass physique, Rynn swears a life bond with an ancient red dragon and plunges into uncertain adventure, mind-boggling puzzles, and real-time in-game cinematics. As RPG titles go, Drakan distinguishes itself from the standard ill-conceived knockoff with its third-person combat perspective, a never-ending dreamscape of worlds to explore, and a unique aerial combat engine.


Heavy Gear II, Activision/PC

In the ageless war zone of Terra Nova, the very real threat of extraplanetary invasion forces an uneasy cease-fire between the Allied Southern Territories and Confederated Northern City-States. As an elite pilot of a newly formed mechanized Gear unit, your mission requires you to fly across the cosmos to the ruthless invader stronghold on the planet Caprice. Danger, chaos, and glory await, as your team fights valiantly behind enemy lines to procure top-secret intelligence vital toward the war effort. Decked out with an entirely new 3D hardware-only engine, Heavy Gear II aims to crank up the action where the Mech Warrior series leaves off. And with all-new squad-based commands, such as diversions, flanking maneuvers, and ambushes, fire fights now require more than simple guts and glory -- they demand careful strategy and anticipation of enemy counter-moves. Enlist today, and you'll quickly find yourself trudging through stunningly rendered battlefields, which span across Arctic zones, pungent swamp lands, and the neverending wastelands of fear.


Jack Nicklaus 6: Golden Bear Challenge, Activision/PC

No doubt productivity across corporate America drops steadily with each successive release in the Jack Nicklaus golf series. True to its legacy, Golden Bear Challenge reaches a new pinnacle in course detail, game interface, and opponent AI. Whether teeing off from Montecastillo in Spain or Nicklaus North in British Columbia, animated 3D objects like water splashes, waving flags, and soaring birds make for a devilishly good time. And with shot-by-shot commentary by CBS golf sportscasters Gary McCord and Jim Nantz, you too can experience the roar of sideline fervor after sinking a 40-foot chip shot.


Lands of Lore III, Westwood Studios/PC

Sixteen-year-old Copper LeGré deserves better. For despite the royal blood that flows through his veins, with a barmaid for a mother, his hometown of Gladstone looks upon him as nothing more than a "half-breed" -- a term which in schlock Hollywood movies, and the vernacular of role-playing games, always translates the same -- unlikely hero. And, as we all know, where unlikely heroes abound, so do challenges. In with tradition, our young copper-top champion quickly finds himself torn from sleep, his family slaughtered, and his very soul stolen by voracious, mythical beasts. Now, with a finite amount of time to recover his soul and restore order to the kingdom, LeGré must take care in the decisions he makes -- including which mini-quests to undertake -- as all affects how this RPG unravels. With 3Dfx enhancements and color-rich artistry which far exceed its predecessors, LOL III, while short on setup, offers a whole new grab bag of spells and weaponry which should please the most discriminating adventurers.


Magic and Mayhem, Mythos Games, Bethesda Softworks/PC

From the makers of the popular X-COM series comes Magic and Mayhem, a wickedly beautiful game which masterfully balances itself between the RPG and RTS genres. Only minutes out of the box, your quest to solve ancient mysteries and unearth primitive artifacts will propel you into an endless journey through Medieval, Celtic, and Greek realms. With mastery of more than 60 powerful spells and the ability to summon horrendous beasts from the pages of myth and folklore, your army must crush the dark forces which stand in the way of reaching glory and total enlightenment.


Might and Magic VII, 3DO/PC

Knights, strap on your best plate mail suit. Wizards, ready a nasty spell. Thieves, sharpen your lock picks, because the nether world of Might and Magic VII awaits your attempt to conquer it. Much more than just another Roman numeral tacked onto the bestselling RPG series, MM VII represents a new level of character-based adventuring. Donning the visage of a goblin, human, elf, or dwarf, player addiction seeps in quickly with a newly instituted in-game rewards feature, enhanced 3Dfx graphics, and the addition of 26 new ferocious monsters. And for longtime fans of the series, never fear, the humorous and unpredictable politics of dethroned King Archibald Ironfist abound once more.


Need for Speed: High Stakes, Electronic Arts/PC

Burn rubber off online tracks in this picturesque episode from the wildly popular NFS series. With a showroom of 18 high-priced dream cars, High Stakes grants longtime fans a much-awaited fantasy: stark reality. Forever more when your $195,000 Lamborghini Diablo plows into a sycamore, not only will the crash ravage your lap speed, but body damage is now rendered with eye-cringing visibility -- and affects acceleration, handling, and top speed. With even stricter enforcement from the highway patrol, and a pitiable initial budget, players will pay dearly for tough-talking fender banters.


Star Wars: Episode I -- Racer, Lucas Arts/PC & Nintendo 64 (coming soon for Macintosh & Playstation)

Based on the wondrous pod-racing sequence from the title film, Racer's multimedia options give a whole new meaning to the term "force feedback" joystick. For a new generation of starry-eyed kids, this turbocharged game fires the imagination as it drops them inside a turbine-driven chariot and blasts off through anti-gravity tunnels, flaming methane lakes, and Tusken Raider wastelands. With a goosebump-inducing soundtrack mined directly from John Williams' private reserve, this odd world game epic also features the voice of Jake Lloyd (Anakin Skywalker), and transports young Jedis-in-training across 20 distinct race tracks and a universe of dreams.



Coming Soon

Age of Empires II -- The Age of Kings, Microsoft/PC

Despite its overall poor canon of interactive games and its uncanny ability to drum up public displeasure, Bill Gates' six-headed hydra known as Microsoft continues to outperform the competition with its Age of Empires RTS series. Here again we witness yet another meticulously crafted old world setting, which spans more than a thousand years of Earth's history. In The Age of Kings, from the fall of Rome through the Middle Ages, players control the fate of mankind with a neverending series of point-and-clicks -- all accompanied by a wondrous music soundtrack of Hollywood movie proportions. Real-time action kicks up a notch, as new features, like military formations, garrisoning, and an even meaner computer AI make for brain-numbing, day-long combat epics. And in response to redundant battle sequences from the original bestseller, combat-weary players can now shift their focus from war to full-time commerce by way of added trade features. With 13 civilizations to choose from, including Frankish and Mongol, players will celebrate the varied cultural differences in combat strengths, building design, and unique attributes. Now boasting three different ways to achieve victory -- through traditional war, superior economy, or construction and defense of wonders -- the universe of AOE takes yet another step toward the gaming divine. (Oct)


Homeworld, Sierra Studios/PC

Dune meets Wing Commander with the induction of Homeworld into the ever-exploding genre of real-time space combat games. Very soon, strategy fans will drape themselves in a wondrously finished universe of well-worn politics and group battles -- a universe that seems to aspire for a behemoth share of the lucrative Starcraft market. With God-mode-like user controls that allow players to manage all aspects of a well-armed Armada, including fleet color schemes and ship maintenance schedules, this truly elevated game interface puts the player in the catbird's seat, and then torques up the action to the point of total and utter war fatigue. With a fully scaled 3D realm, void of null-zones, players must invent and employ strategy and tactics with the cunning of a seasoned battle general -- and still make it home in time for dinner. With exquisitely detailed carrier and fighter ships, the only question left unanswered about this much-anticipated title should hinge on whether Chris Roberts (Wing Commander series) receives inspirational billing in the end credits. (Aug)


Lego: Various Titles, Lego Media International/PC, Playstation, & Nintendo 64

Low-tech meets high-tech with a trio of games from the original dreamworks company, LEGO. Strapped into the driver's seat of Racers, kids age 6-12 may customize multicolored cars and discover hidden shortcuts in order to wage blazing-fast action against champion-level competitors. For underground thrills, Rock Raiders offers the 8+ crowd a chance to build a subterranean crystal-mining headquarters, which falls under constant attack from fierce Rock monsters. And for the music prodigies of the family, LEGO Friends, designed specifically for girls, allows ingenues to assemble a band, create music, and perform onstage. (LEGO Racers: Jul 5; LEGO Rock Raiders: Sep 15; LEGO Friends: Sep 15)


MDK2, Bioware Corp, Interplay/PC & Console Platforms

Where might one procure the world's most interesting bomb, or for that matter, a portable black hole? Answer: within the distorted and wacky universe of MDK2. This highly anticipated (and wholly irreverent) sequel, shipped direct from the award-winning designers of Baldur's Gate and Shattered Steel, offers a fresh catalog of modish gadgets, lustrous weapons, improved stealth abilities, and eight all-new levels of 3D action. With the option to play as either the unlikely hero Kurt, the six-legged Uzi-toting robotic dog Max, or the terribly eccentric Dr. Fluke Hawkins, it's your mission to thwart the evil Streamriders' plot to return to Earth and dominate humanity. (Fall)



Game for Anything

Command & Conquer -- Tiberian Sun, (Westwood Studios/PC)

Set in a post-apocalyptic future, terrorist leader Kane rises from rumors of his own death to wage war once again. For fans of the original Command & Conquer, this updated title should spread player addiction faster than the worst strain of Tiberium crystal. (Aug)


Darkstone, (Delphine/PC)

If early word of mouth holds true, and Darkstone captures half of its intended Diablo market, this hack-and-slash RPG just might earn a coveted nomination for game of the year. (Jul)


Pokèmon Snap, (Nintendo, Inc./N64)

Players must shoot off roll after roll of film with virtual cameras in a journey across the varied terrain of Pokémon Island. In order to win the game, amateur photographers need to coax wild Pokémon to sit still long enough to snap off perfect poses, and fill an in-game Pokémon album. (Jul)


Force 21, (Redstorm Entertainment/PC)

Welcome to 2015 A.D. Take a seat. Make yourself comfortable, and prepare for the advent of WWIII. High-tech, 21st-century weaponry awaits the push of your finger in this 3D tactical war game from the makers of the popular Tom Clancy -- Rainbow Six covert ops game. (Aug)


Quake Arena, (id Software/PC & Macintosh)

Arena, the highly anticipated third installment of the genre-defining Quake series, promises improved game speed, graphics, and riveting multi-player death matches.(Sep)


Star Trek - Starfleet Command, (Interplay/PC)

As a young starship captain, it's your goal to explore, fight, and earn promotions through a universe filled with Romulans, Klingons, and the cold terror of space in this graphics-driven RTS. (Aug) --M.M.


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