Comics & Games Retailer
Games that Play a RoleBy Oliver Chin
In this sluggish economy, when Americans cope with ongoing array of international crises, they retain the luxury of indulging in fictitious ones in the comfort of their own homes. Consumers, oblivious to high credit debt and stagnant wages, continue to spend hard earned money simply to be entertained.
To this end, spending on video games has never been stronger. New titles go "gold" even before their official release date, as pre-orders are placed months in advance and online communities are stoked with teasers and beta tests. Following the trends of media viewing and cross merchandising, the pipeline of comics and animation titles continues unabated. Kids are hooked on the mobile GameBoy Advance and TV properties such as Dragonball Z - The Legacy of Goku (Infogrames) or movie tie ins such as Stuart Little 2 (Activision). On the PC, they can relive popular Nickelodeon shows such as Rugrats or Sponge Bob Square Pants (THQ).
But increasingly teens as well as adults are turning to more sophisticated time sinks known as real time strategy games (RTS). Many blur the line with the Role-Playing Game (RPG), as players trade in their decks, dice, and miniatures for computer monitors, keyboard templates, and multi-button joysticks, in order to become upwardly mobile characters in virtual worlds.
Rocket Propelled Games
Playing on the PC or online offers traditional RPG players a host of modern temptations: hi-resolution graphics, thrilling cinematics, and instant gratification. For younger players, the appeal boils down to addicting gameplay, 3D worlds, and the challenge of duking it out with strangers over the Internet. Some PC Games offer recognizable pleasures. In Star Trek: Bridge Commander (Activision), Trekkies can fulfill their lifelong fantasy of captaining the Enterprise. Likewise in Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds (LucasArts), fans can choose which side of the force to fight with, the Empire or the Rebellion.
Of course, one can always play by oneself against the computer. But some people find the thrill of victory more satisfying over a human opponent. On this front, there are a bevy of titles that break new ground both creatively and technically. In the category of "Massively Multiplayer Games", Electronic Arts recently produced Earth and Beyond. As opposed to more typical Dungeon and Dragon scenarios such as Everquest or Ultima, here players can explore an evolving galaxy with their own starship. UFOs, war, trade, politics, and exploration are all thrown into this universal stew, as you cooperate with or battle against other pilots. In this storyline, humanity has divided up the solar system among the races of the Progen (Mars), Terrans (Earth), and Jenqai (Jupiter) over two hundred years of warfare. From competing space stations, they vie for control over a stargate and fear the return of the aliens who originally built it.
Mythology, Craft, and Winter Nights
Among the host of other prominent RTS and RPGs, are ones that provide different angles of both fun and mayhem. The Age of Mythology by Ensemble studios (yet another division of Microsoft) adds a spin to their series of historical combatants by tossing in legendary monsters and a laundry list of deities. Now one can command forty creatures (Cyclops and Centaurs, oh my!) along with the cast of gods from Greek (led by Poseidon, Zeus, Hades), Norse (Thor, Odin, Loki) and Egyptian mythology (Ra, Set, and Isis) to wreck havoc upon opposing armies.
The usual range of game procedures is included (gathering resources to construct an array of specialized buildings which yield particular troops and weapon upgrades) along with some new twists such as God Powers (temporary ability to cast lightening bolts, spot earthquakes, and the like), Mythological Units (drafting those loveable monsters), and Advancing through Ages (Archaic, Classical, Mythic and Heroic).
The latest in another wildly successful series is Warcraft III by Blizzard. A la Lord of the Rings, orcs and knights have been clashing with great enthusiasm for many years, but now find themselves joined by the Undead, plague carrying interlopers, and Night Elves, ancient defenders against the scourge. Across a medieval 3D landscape, players scroll across an unfolding map that depicts towns and castles, roads and rivers, and day and night. Gold must be collected and trees felled by peons, in order to create a progression of structures, and raise a marauding army.
Controlling leading characters known as heroes, one also manages bands of soldiers who may display special abilities (to injure or heal) or obtain specific bonuses. Magic and spells (offensive, counter, autocast, and otherwise) play prominent roles. Banding together in teams in matches against each other, players also can use a tool known as a "world editor" to tweak the game to their liking by customizing terrain, characters, goals, and powers.
Lastly is Infogrames' Neverwinter Nights, which inhabits upon a customary D&D environment but allows the player the freedom to tailor both his settings and characteristics. In the world of Forgotten Realms, you can be a Wizard, Barbarian, Paladin, or Cleric. Beyond these familiar choices come a plethora of options. Up to 64 compatriots can embark on a sixty hour adventure.
But what makes this adventure unique is that you can take turns as "Dungeon Master" to control the game experiences of the other players. By using Neverwinter's client software, a player can control others' gameplay as it happens, from populating forests with monsters and villages with peasants, to laying everything from traps to items of magic along the way.
The aforementioned titles have each sold hundreds of thousands of copies and reaped millions of dollars in revenue. Consequently each new blockbuster tries to maintain their own momentum (with endless software updates, chat rooms, and online communities) to build loyalty to their own brand. Who has time to play 60 hours a month for more than one game? In the midst of this snowballing online and PC-based success, traditional RPG game manufacturers (board, card, and puzzle) must constantly rethink how best to compete for players' attention and allowances.