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Let the games begin

Let the games begin

Gaming is more than just good clean fun. It's also good business. Where customers buying business applications will only be back when it's time to upgrade, gamers will be back every time they get bored and need a new thrill. Keeping on top of where those new thrills can be found will make you their first port of call when the urge arises. Matthew JC. Powell takes a closer look.

Gaming customers are not like your other customers. They tend to be younger, with less disposable income. They also tend to be highly computer savvy, with a good understanding of the technical limits of their machines and a desire to stretch those limits. They are often wary of spending $90 on a game, but will sometimes lash out $300 for a 3D accelerator card, if its benefits can be made clear to them.

The trick for you is to know what games are coming before your customers do, and being the first place with the coolest software. All of their reluctance to part with money will disappear if they can be the first on the block to own the latest cool thing. Business software buyers generally don't care about such things, but for hard-core gamers, it's what life is all about.

Taking control

The days when a game controller was a straight up and down stick with a red button to make it go "boom" are long gone. These days, game controllers are steering wheels (sometimes with pedals), realistic aircraft controls, laser guns and other assorted weirdnesses. Many of them offer an "intelligent" interface with the software, meaning they vibrate when the game tells them to. You fall backwards when an ogre shoots you in Quake, or slide uncontrollably on oil in a racing game. It won't be long before someone introduces a bungee jumping game and includes a controller with elastic for your ankles. - Aldis OzolsThe return of Mac gamingAfter many lean years, the tide is turning back for the Mac platform, especially where gamers are concerned. Apple has pulled off this feat, not simply by selling cheap Macs for gaming customers, but by making its platform genuinely attractive to game publishers.

It has taken a great deal of effort and some hard decisions to turn the Macintosh into an attractive gaming platform again. Tony Lee, Apple's director of Consumer, Education, and SOHO, says he has never seen more emphasis on games than over the past few months.

"When I started nine years ago, we didn't want the Mac to be perceived as a machine for games, because we didn't want people to think that the Mac was a toy," he says. Now, with the introduction of the iMac, the move to USB ports, and a changing attitude toward game publishers, Apple is finally positioning itself as a compelling game platform.

The age of iMac

The most obvious sign of Apple's rededication to the consumer market is the iMac. Thousands upon thousands of the little blue machines have been sold since its launch less than two months ago, many to people who did not already own a machine and many to Wintel users making the crossover. These customers are obvious targets for sales of games which are available on both platforms, including the top-selling Tomb Raider series.

Michael Rogers, president of Aspyr Media (producer of Tomb Raider), is absolutely giddy about Apple's release of such a fast, affordable product. "To us, the only important number is the number of machines that Apple sells. With the iMac, they are clearly trying to increase their installed base. I couldn't be more pleased with the iMac," he said. This sentiment is echoed throughout the game industry, as the biggest complaint by publishers has been that the Mac market just doesn't generate as much revenue as the PC market.

But the increase in Macs out there, and by extension the number of potential Mac gamers, is not the only benefit that the iMac brings to the Mac gaming industry. Apple's decision to switch to USB ports for the iMac and future Macs means that USB input devices will need only a Mac software driver to make the leap over to the platform. Manufacturers of input devices don't have to go to the trouble of making an ADB-compatible product just for Mac users. Most USB products will be simultaneously available for both platforms.

Even more important than hardware changes has been the drastic change in attitude emanating from Apple. Gone are the days when Apple sent "evangelists" to persuade game publishers to bring their products to the Mac platform simply because "it's the right thing to do". Those evangelists of yesteryear now go by the moniker "partnership managers", and the only message they preach is one of market growth and profit.

Stepped up support

In addition to focusing on the bottom line, Apple has stepped up its support for game publishers by providing both technological and marketing assistance. Cindy Swanson, marketing director of MacSoft, says: "After speaking with Apple engineers at a recent games summit, a member of our Unreal team was able to increase the speed of the game by 15 per cent." She also praises Apple for its assistance in getting products to market and says this will help MacSoft achieve its goal of same-day releases for its PC and Mac products.

Many new game titles, as well as several USB-compatible joysticks and game pads, have been announced since the introduction of the iMac. If iMac sales live up to Apple's predictions, we could see an even larger wave of new games and gaming peripherals rushing into the Mac market to meet the demand. productsLogitechLogitech, leveraging its extensive experience with pointing devices to expand into the games market, has just released two new high-end joysticks for flight simulation enthusiasts.

The WingMan Force marks the company's entry into the new field of force feedback, and features a cable drive which is claimed to deliver a greater level of precision than the gear drives used on rival products.

The WingMan Interceptor uses mag-netic sensors for high precision without slop or wear. Together with its comfortable sculpted handle, integral throttle, and multitude of programmable buttons, this makes the Interceptor a very impressive controller. At the lower end of the market, the basic WingMan offers comfort and solidity in a more conventional joystick.

For car lovers, Logitech offers the WingMan Formula and Formula Force steering wheel and pedal sets. Both are stylish and solidly built, with force feedback featured in the more expensive system.

WingMan $69

WingMan Interceptor $129

WingMan Force $269

WingMan Formula $199

WingMan Formula Force $369

Microsoft

Microsoft, fast becoming a force to be reckoned with in the world of games controllers, is constantly updating its stable of upmarket devices. Both the Force Feedback Wheel and the Force Feedback Pro joystick incorporate optical motion sensors and 16-bit processors for accurate control and realistic sensation.

With its optical sensors and fully programmable buttons, the latest SideWinder Precision Pro takes full advantage of USB's inherent superiority over the traditional joystick port. Like its force feedback cousin, the Precision Pro responds to handle rotation, providing an extra degree of control which can be used to direct rudder movements.

SideWinder Force Feedback Pro $299

SideWinder Precision Pro $129

SideWinder Force Feedback Wheel $399

Saitek

Saitek's unique Cyborg 3D Stick is one of the few high-end joysticks which can be mechanically configured to fit either hand - most ergonomic designs are for the right hand only. It can also be adjusted for different hand sizes and thumb lengths. With its fully programmable buttons, handle rotation, and optional USB capability, the Cyborg 3D Stick is clearly aimed at creating a revolution in joystick design.

At the less ambitious end of the spectrum, Saitek markets a range of cheaper joysticks, such as the X8-30 with its throttle control and hat switch, and the basic two-button X7-32.

Cyborg 3D USB Stick $149.95

X8-30 Joystick $99.95

X7-32 Joystick $29.95

Thrustmaster

Long renowned as the top-of-the-line controller for serious flight simulation enthusiasts, Thrustmaster is facing serious competition from big companies armed with new technologies. To counter this pressure, the F22 Pro offers a design based on the "look and feel" of real fighter controls, with a glass-filled ABS handle, metal gimbals, and other very solid features. Combined with the Attack Throttle and Elite Rudders, this results in a very serious - and expensive - flight setup for the hard core gaming addict.

For less committed users, Thrustmaster offers the Top Gun, modelled on the classic FCS fondly remembered by older gamers, with its military-style handgrip, hat switch and four buttons.

F22 Pro ATFC Joystick $389.95

Attack Throttle $209.95

Elite Rudders $269.95

Top Gun Joystick $89.95

Game Net and Match

Finally (it's been a long time coming), a tennis game that is actually playable has been released. Out of Blue Byte Software and sporting the curious name of Game Net and Match, its release has been timely, coinciding with the domination of the US Open by our very own Rafter and Scud - now it's my turn to become world number one.

GNM is a masterpiece of playability, especially when compared to the dogs that have come before it. Problems like poor animation, bad viewing perspectives, and poor programming have plagued computer tennis for years, leaving players frustrated at slow gameplay and a lack of control - you'd be lucky just to hit the ball.

In GNM you don't have to be on top of the ball to hit it, but the further away you are, the wider the angle of the shot. In addition, holding an arrow key down while hitting the ball will influence the direction and length of the shot, so there are, in fact, two mechanisms acting to produce a wide range of angles. Holding two arrow keys down at once (forward and left, for example), will send the ball deep and left, but of course you'll have to work it out for yourself if using a joystick or gamepad. The strength of a shot is determined by how long you hold the stroke key down, which also disables movement, so power becomes dependent on anticipating your next position, and getting there early. A standard stroke, topspin, drop shot, and left and right slices make up the six-stroke repertoire, and obviously, each has its own advantage.

Playing options include Training with a practice machine that throws balls at you, Singles for a quick game, Doubles, Competition for a short tournament with or without other human players, Tournament for a one-off tournament, and Season for playing a whole year of tournaments.

When you create a player you must allocate attribute points to define your player's abilities. When you play Tournaments or Seasons, your player improves with experience, adding points to certain abilities. A ranking system analyses your performance over the last 52 weeks of a season, and places you on a ladder next to some 50 other names. Although there are 12 computer opponents (six male, six female), they do not play a part in Tournaments and Seasons, as there are obviously more than 12 competitors in the world.

Graphically, I wouldn't say GNM is anything amazing - after all, it is only tennis. But I would say it's more than satisfying, especially when played with a 3D card. Ball boys run across the court picking up balls, players emit winning gestures and acts of frustration, and the courts (clay, concrete, carpet, and grass) are colourful and clear. On the sound front, GNM does a good job of capturing the ambience of tennis, with a different sound for each ball stroke (crucial to detecting a drop shot from your opponent). Power grunts erupt when hitting hard, and some silly (but somehow funny) in-game comments by players including your own, break the monotony. Although there are crowd sounds, it would have been good to hear the odd bellowing spectator - the type that paints their face with zinc cream.

With gameplay near perfect, and good graphics and sound, it seems a shame that GNM lacks a few game options. Most annoying is the inability to turn off the animation that occurs between points - you can cancel it by hitting the space bar, but if you're careless, it might also trigger your serve. GNM's Auto-Save feature works well, but means you can't go back to a previous point in the game, nor can you have two different saved games in the same game option - that is, if you interrupted a tournament, you can't start another one without automatically deleting the first.

However, a lack of options isn't enough to spoil the game - GNM, I feel, will be wearing the "best tennis game" crown for a long time to come.

GNM was developed by Media Games, and is published by Blue Byte Software. Minimum requirements include a Pentium 133, 160MB hard disk, 16MB RAM, and 4x CD-ROM drive. It supports 3Dfx and Direct 3D, and can be played over a LAN, or the Internet via a 24-hour dedicated server, which spits out a world ranking of online players. by Craig SwansonSwatting terroristsIn case you've ever wondered (and I'm sure you have), SWAT stands for Special Weapons And Tactics, and that's what you'll be using in SWAT 2 from Sierra.

From an isometric view, jam-packed with colourful high-res graphics, you control your squad of SWAT officers, whose primary objective is to preserve lives (including terrorists). Alternatively, you can play as the terrorists, and act on your policy to terminate lives with extreme prejudice.

A wide-reaching variety of scenarios include anything from terrorist situations with hostages to hold-ups and domestic shootings.

Each scenario requires planning and a careful approach, or you'll end up like I did - with a room full of dead SWAT officers.

A full range of SWAT devices, like tear gas, flashbangs, and sniper rifles are yours for the choosing, but you'll have to keep within budget constraints. To succeed, you must position snipers wisely, enter rooms cautiously and, above all, think before acting. This is not a "shoot at anything that moves" game. SWAT's AI is forever re-evaluating a situation, and refrains from simply shooting at whatever is close.

A steep learning curve makes this game annoying at first, but persistence and patience will lead to enjoying what is a very complex and true to life (in the US anyway) game.

Don't forget to pick up all evidence to reveal the master plot at the end. See it at www.swat2.comCarmageddon 2 - Carpocalypse NowWhat an apt name for the second installment of this hit-and-run fest for sickos. I fail to understand the point of this game. It begins as a race, with a certain amount of laps to be achieved, and then turns into mayhem, with computer cars going all out to write you off and wipe out pedestrians at the same time.

Nevertheless, it was fun (in a sick kind of way).

The new Carmageddon features 30 tracks and 10 mission levels, 40 cars that have several ways of portraying damage, 150 types of pedestrians including zombies, a bigger variety of animals (to kill), 90 different power-ups and weapons, and 10 brand new environments that contain moving trains, aeroplanes and more.

Carmageddon's environment is very interactive - you can drive just about anywhere, including the inside of buildings (smashing windows on your way in), and under water.

Be warned there are a hell of a lot of pedestrians and animals running about, in and out of buildings. In fact, they're everywhere - it gets messy out there!

If serious driving is your thing, then the sluggish car handling and general state of pandemonium in Carmageddon 2 will not appeal. But on the other hand, if you're a closet road rager . . .

CH Products

CH Products has been making high-quality game controllers for many years. Claiming the title of the first force feedback joystick to the market is the Force FX, with its handle shaped like that of a real F-16 fighter. It incorporates two four-way switches, five fire buttons and a trigger, all rated to over one million actions before failure.

Other CH products include the Flightstick Pro, with an integral throttle, four-way hat switch and three fire buttons, and the CH Racing Wheel for motor sport fans.

Force FX $399.95

Flightstick Pro $149.95

Racing Wheel $189.95

QuickShot

Having begun life as a manufacturer of cheap joysticks, QuickShot is gradually extending its range upmarket with some innovative offerings. The 3D Striker combines a rotation-sensing handle with 39 programmable function buttons on an integrated gaming control board in an effort to bring all the controls of a game together in one device.

The GenX500 is an ergonomically shaped joystick with hat switch, throttle and rotational control, shaped for the right hand. The GenX500L is an exact mirror image, aimed at the 10 per cent of consumers who are left-handed.

3D Striker $129.95

GenX 500 $69.95

GenX500L $69.95

Contacts

Logitech

www.logitech.com

Distributors: Dataflow Tel (02) 9417 9700, BJE EnterprisesTel (02) 9858 5611Microsoftwww.microsoft.comDistributor: Tech Pacific Tel (02) 9381 6300Saitekwww.saitek.comDistributor: Innovision Technology Australia Tel (03) 5831 8833Thrustmasterwww.thrustmaster.comDistributor: Playcorp Tel (03) 9329 2999CH Productswww.chproducts.comDistributor: Action Hi-Tech AustraliaTel 03 9808 2100QuickShotwww.quickshot.comDistributor: Action Hi-Tech AustraliaTel 03 9808 2100Playcrop(distributor of GNM)Tel (03) 9329 2999Dataflow(distributor of SWAT 2)Tel (02) 9417 9700Hilad(distributor of Carmageddon)Tel (02) 9700 9377


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