Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle It's All In The Game

By Marcel Meyer

DECEMBER 21, 1998:  Passthehataroundfor Charon's fee, for 1998 nears the banks of the River Styx. Instinctively, the year seems to ache for a Kevorkian release.

Of course, with the headlines punched out this season, it's no wonder. The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal left a stink on the White House lawn large enough for John Glenn to view from space. Around the world, markets crashed. Above the world, the international space station lost thrust. In Hollywood, Steven Spielberg brutally portrayed WWII in Saving Private Ryan, while in the Middle East, Iraq brought us to the brink once more. Gene-splicing divided the homeland, where Bill Maher pressed his glowing cynicism over a pop culture obsessed with guns and buns.

Regrettably, America took yet another collective leap toward disillusionment, and, understandably, more and more of the citizenry found ways to tune out. Some people went the traditional Elvis route -- they shot their televisions. Some people shot themselves. Others logged onto the Internet, still hungering for a braver, newer cradle of humanity. Yet in cyberspace they discovered monsters roaming just as freely, with Matt Drudge leading the horde. Undeterred, many let loose their corporeal shells for the adventure of an on-line persona. Here they reclaimed a healthy tan atop cyber-sand, and traded physical existence for a richer fantasy life. Teens chased bosomy heroines around the globe. Thirtysomethings simulated flight into a burning sunset. Others cocked a pistol in their virtual hand and blasted half-life frustrations at a disheartened monitor. As a departure from the waking universe, Americans (and the world) continue to utilize the below top-selling PC titles as life jackets to escape the sinking ship, S.S. Reality. Can you blame them?


Age of Empires: The Rise of Rome

Microsoft

With four new civilizations -- Rome, Palmyra, Carthage, and Macedonia -- primed and ready for conquest, this expansion pack for Age of Empires adds glorious battle scenarios, an expanded weapons arsenal, and an epic-quality soundtrack. Forget pages of text-heavy directions. In minutes, a user-friendly interface puts you in command of Scythe Chariots, Camel Riders, or Slingers, charging through the hot embers of battle. With exquisitely rendered buildings, warriors, and landscapes, The Rise of Rome transforms the atrocities of war into an almost clinical experience.


Flight Simulator 98

Microsoft

The Flight Simulator game titles traditionally embrace reality versus fantasy. Yet for the legion of fans thrust behind the wildly popular series, nothing satisfies more. Propped inside a photo-realistic cockpit, the'98 edition offers would-be pilots expanded service from more than 3,000 airports worldwide. New whining jet turbines, pre-flight briefings, and 3D acceleration propel players across digital friendly skies. Also included on the tarmac this year are three new aircraft: the Bell 206B Jet Ranger, the Cessna Skylane 182S, and the Learjet 45.


Half Life

Sierra Online & Valve

From the box cover, Half Life throws its chest out like yet another Doom spin-off. But what is inside is an entirely different monster. That is to say, entirely different monsters. Deep in the stomach of the Black Mesa Federal Research Facility, a covert project gone amiss propels the world into a battle for sanity. Climbing upward, like a dry land Poseidon Adventure, protagonist Gordan Freeman must engage the help of shell-shocked scientists as he guns off terrifying creatures summoned through a tear in the fabric of space-time. Dark hallways, heart-ripping action, and an artificial intelligence unlike anything of this planet launches this well-conceived action/drama into an elevated realm of shoot-em-up gaming.


Need For Speed III

Electronic Arts

Drop the hammer. Watch the RPMs climb. Burn rubber, and outrun the fuzz. Equipped with 11 all new elite cars, including the Aston Martin DB7, Ferrari 550 Maranello, and the Lamborghini Diablo SV, Speed III truly kicks up the drama. A street-pumping techno-rave soundtrack makes for exhilarating road action, and the detail and craftsmanship of newly paved courses screech with every turn of the wheel. This game delivers the ultimate driving experience, but it also requires a supercharged processor to run with precision.


Sin

Ritual Entertainment

Appropriately enough, everything you touch in this game gets you into trouble -- especially a drug called "U4." Disseminated on the streets by the evil vixen Elexis Sinclaire, U4 genetically alters the biology of its user. As Colonel John Blade, it's your job to investigate the matter, and search for a less banal name. Sin provides rock 'em sock 'em death matches, sweet, sweet, badass weapons, and interactive environments which make for high-velocity action. The tacked-on plot, however, needs the blessings of a priest.


Star Craft

Blizzard Entertainment

Yet another near-perfect invention from those master wizards at Blizzard Entertainment. This space-western fills its saddlebags with the blood and guts of Diablo, and the unparalleled mayhem of WarCraft. Capped off with an intelligent story line, exquisite game play, and engaging movie sequences, Star Craft swims through your life like a behemoth filter feeder, sucking up every last second of available free time. Start the game as a fresh-faced Terran, and end it transformed into a mutinous, scarred alien species. Nuclear winter, gargantuan battle cruisers, and the blasting effects of a holy war pointedly impress upon you the adrenaline rush of a near-death experience.


Star Wars: Behind the Magic

LucasArts

Once again, master filmmaker/marketer George Lucas puts a new face on his 22-year-old movie and squeezes another fist full of dollars from an aging cash cow. Billed as a treasure chest of excerpts from lost Star Wars film footage, reference guides, comics, documentaries, and the like, Behind the Magic also includes a sneak peak at Episode I. Story overviews, behind-the-scenes visits, and new characters, locations, and vehicles from the upcoming prequel complete the mix. Although interesting from a technical and production standpoint, this reference title will mostly likely appeal to die-hard fans only.



Tiger Woods 99

Electronic Arts Sports

Lauded as the first and only golf game with real-time 3-D acceleration, Tiger Woods 99 checks in well above par. The game delivers a great deal -- super-fast swings, golf with the legends, Pebble Beach -- but the supposedly photo-realistic fairways, blue skies, and cheering fans appear rough around the edges. Even so, prize money from an exclusive Electronic Arts Sports Internet Tour will no doubt lure desktop golfers into the fray. After all, how else might you win a $20,000 purse during your lunch hour?


Tomb Raider III

Eidos Games

Teen boys salute at full mast while an unabashedly busty heroine tees off for global adventure. From the Arctic Pole to the islands of the South Pacific, cyber-vixen Lara Croft quests for lost artifacts related to a meteor crash from centuries past. Less non-linear in its story line, and more choose-your- own-adventure, this go-around equips Ms. Croft with dream-inspired moves, such as crawl, monkey swing, and speed dash. Additionally, Tomb Raider III's improved texture palettes, accelerated game engine, and a new landscape system exude a richer, active aesthetic. As with the first installments, however, the subtleties of the plot (surprise) drift about like a hot air balloon.


Ultima Online: The Second Age

Origin Systems

Like no other role-playing game of its kind, Ultima Online transforms a fictional world into a living, breathing, fully interactive community. In the land of Britannia, every day, thousands of virtual adventurers log on to talk with friends, build cities, run taverns, or lust after gold and quest for the unknown. With new lands to explore, an enhanced interface, and a new chat system, The Second Age continues to blur the line between daydreams and reality. Here, race, color, and creed fall by the wayside, but great prejudices endure against players with sluggish modems.


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