Only a week of normality left before Christmas, but that gives you time to pop down to your local games store and find a few stocking fillers.
So, rev up the CD player, and let's get going.
In the old days you had to be pretty single-minded to cope with an adventure game. All that typing GO LEFT, GO UP, only to have some bloody snake eat your bird - it wasn't exactly a thrilling multimedia experience. But if that's your picture of the adventure world, come back in - the water's lovely. This year has seen a rush of superb point and click graphical adventures.
These games started back in the days when Tolkein was almost as popular as dubious narcotic substances, so it's not surprising that fantasy themes dominate the genre. Funnily, though, only one of my five recommendations is a fantasy - but it's a stunner. Zork Nemesis has a family history going back to the earliest commercial text adventures, though Nemesis is a very different prospect. It has an atmospheric, dark and mysterious setting, enhanced by the way you can turn through 360 degrees, with a continuous field of vision. Okay, there might not be anything to do in many of the directions, but it's still streets ahead of the programmed flow of some adventure games. Sound, graphics and video are striking (they ought to be, this game only works with 16-bit or above sound cards, and 64K or more colours), and the beautifully crafted puzzles seem unusually logical for a Zork. There are five principle locations, starting with a wonderful, sprawling gothic temple - excellent stuff. (Zork Nemesis - brilliant fantasy adventure. Three DOS/Win 95 CDs. Around #40.)
Equally impressive technically, though completely different in feel is Toonstruck. Almost worth buying for the intro video alone, which is the best quality I've ever seen on PC, Toonstruck puts artist Drew Blanc, played by Christopher Lloyd, into his own cartoon world. The effect is brilliant. The Blanc character is a well integrated Christopher Lloyd video, everything else is drawn, and the whole thing moves with the fluidity of a cartoon. There are fairly limited options, and you have to do rather too much trudging the same ground, but it's loaded with humour. Don't be put off by the cartoon approach, this certainly isn't aimed at kids.
(Toonstruck - very entertaining and superbly slick adventure in a cartoon world. Two DOS CDs. Around #40.)
If Toonstruck isn't aimed at kids, Harvester is one to keep the kids well away from. It's a true 18 certificate game, with plenty of gore.
As the main character, you have woken up in a strange 1950s small-town America world, where nothing is quite what it seems. After all, which other hamlet has its own nuclear missile base and huge temple? I don't particularly like blood and guts myself but the potential for disaster gives the game a similar tension to Silence of the Lambs, and the scenario is sufficiently intriguing that you have to play despite yourself. There's a strong vein of humour to provide relief but this, too, is unsuitable for youngsters, grannies or the fainthearted. Like Toonstruck, Harvester places photographic characters in a drawn world (though the graphics aim for realism), but doesn't manage it so smoothly. (Harvester - a compelling, tense and bloody adventure. Three DOS CDs. Around #35.)
The most original idea of the crop comes in a French offering (don't worry, it runs in English), Versailles 1685. Surprisingly enough, this is an adventure set in the Palace of Versailles. The concept is absolutely brilliant. Think of all the possibilities of using a real place, photographed, scanned and enhanced as the setting. If the game disappoints a little it may be because the characters, taken from period paintings, animate like a children's TV puppet show, or because it's hard to get too excited about a bunch of 17th century Frenchmen. Still, the setting is great, you can look all around you in 360 degree splendour, and there's some brilliant period music to accompany your excursion around this glorious palace. (Versailles - terrific idea and excellent graphics; shame about the plot. Two DOS CDs Around #40.)
I loved all these games, but the best has to be The Pandora Directive.
Set in 2043, Pandora puts you in the role of PI Tex Murphy. What seems to be a conventional missing person's case quickly blossoms into a complex conspiracy involving the US National Security Agency and the infamous Roswell incident 100 years before. It'd be easy to think that this combination of a softened Blade Runner world and an X Files conspiracy was a rip-off - but it is done with superb style. The Pandora Directive combines good video with plenty of opportunity to choose the direction of conversations and enough puzzles to keep most happy. In between video sequences you can explore the world with full 3D motion, picking up objects and clues.
To keep the backdrops consistent, all the video is blue screened onto the graphics, but it's not too painful. You can play in two modes, one with hints available (at a price), the other leaving everything up to you. (The Pandora Directive - the adventure game that sets the standard - superb. Six (yes, six!) DOS CDs. Around #50.)
Maybe you've had a glut of fun, though. After all, once you've seen Noel Edmonds the fifth time, how much more excitement can you cope with? Time to tickle the little grey cells. Microsoft continues to be irritatingly good at general reference. Its triumvirate of Encarta, Cinemania and Music Central has strong content and the best interface in the business. Also worth a look is the Wine Guide, if only because it's mostly derived from Oz Clarke material, though the format is beginning to look old-fashioned.
(Microsoft reference - excellent content and presentation. Around #30-50 per Windows 95 CD.)
If you like a Christmas mystery, take a trip into the Unexplained, an interactive documentary on anything that might grab the attention of an X Files wannabe. The look and feel is suitably mysterious, with a good mix of sound, image and occasional video. If you're a sceptic, you'll probably find the presentation unbalanced - some highly doubtful flying saucer stories, for instance, get by with hardly a raised eyebrow - on the other hand, one segment of the crop circles piece concentrates entirely on fakers. There's also the excellent bonus of a Web document on the CD with on-line links to relevant sites. The truth might be out there, but until it comes knocking on the door, the Unexplained is a great introduction.
(The Unexplained - a stylish tour of the mysterious. Windows CD. Around #30.)
If, on the other hand, your Christmas highlight is not Dana Sculley dressed as Santa, but the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, OUP have a little number that's right up your street. Thirteen world-class scientists, with the obligatory appearance by Stephen Hawking, look at the universe, from elementary particles through to time itself. Although there is some effort to animate concepts, it's mostly a matter of video shots of the great men at their blackboards. It took me back to my university days with a bang, but despite this, I found it strangely fascinating. Much more could be done with this topic, but at least The Chall-enge of the Universe makes an attempt. (The Challenge of the Universe - 13 big name scientists try to explain how it ticks, for the educated lay person. Windows CD. Around #50.)
From the sublime to the unlikely, there's fun for all the family (no, really) with Greetings Card Workshop. The interface for this application is simplicity itself - this is one granny can cope with - with an animated dog to guide you through your task. Entertain yourselves producing cards, calendars, banners, certificates and more. As usual with a Microsoft product, there's a hot link to a Web site that extends the possibilities. You won't have GCW for more than about half an hour before you're drooling over colour printer ads - cast an eye over Epson's crisp, cheap Stylus Color 500 at around #300. (Greetings Card Workshop - Blue Peter fun making your own cards. Win95 CD. Around #45.)
No more mister nice guy, let's go and kill something! From the firm that brought you Wolfenstein 3D and the remarkable Doom, this year's offering is Quake. Set in a crossover world of armoured knights and machine guns, Quake has a stunning 3D graphics engine - if your PC is up to it, Quake can lob your opponents' heads past your ears with frightening accuracy, and check out the nicely blurred underwater scenes. It might not have Duke Nukem 3D's spectacular weaponry, and it's certainly not as big a step forward from Doom as Doom was from its predecessors, but Quake is still a whole keyboard full of splatter. (Quake - super mayhem. DOS CD.
If you prefer your slaughter at a distance, try the latest in the Command and Conquer series, Red Alert. Interspersed with fair quality movies, you guide a host of little men and vehicles (plus one Tank Girl clone) across a battlefield in an unlikely us versus the Russians scenario, based on someone going back in time and taking out Hitler. If you've steered clear of this sort of game because it seemed too much like the old strategy board games, think again - it's fast, exciting and engaging. There are even options to play across the Internet. Red Alert comes in both DOS and Win95 versions, but the Win95 graphics are better. Honourable mention also in this category to Close Combat. Acting out a more realistic Second World War battle, Close Combat provides oodles of detail for the tactically minded. (Red Alert - battlefield excitement. Two DOS/Win95 CDs. Around #45. Close Combat - WW2 action. Win95 CD. Around #45.)
My favourite shooting game of the moment, though, is Mercenaries. Latest in the Mechwarrior 2 family, this game puts you at the controls of a lumbering mechanical killing machine. Although land-based, it's very much the same follow-a-mission concept as used in the big space games. There's the added incentive of managing a mercenary force, so you can combine business with shooting pleasure. This is one of those games it takes a while to get on top of, but it's worth taking time to pick up the keyboard controls that compliment your joystick. (Mechwarrior 2 - Mercenaries - superb shooting action. DOS/Win95 CD. Around #44.)
The very first computer game was Spacewar - there's always been a strong link between our screens and science fiction. I've got three strong contenders to put you into Luke Skywalker mode. In fact the first, Tie Fighter, recently re-issued on White Label, does quite the reverse, as you become one of the Imperial baddies, shooting up the wimpish good guys. Like Mercenaries, there's a bit of a learning curve, but no-one has improved on the effectiveness of the flight and fight experience in Tie Fighter. It may not be as graphically advanced as the competition, but there is a real feeling that you're there.
A bonus over its predecessor X-Wing is the ability to extend missions by taking on extra tasks recommended by the Emperor's dark-cloaked minion.
Superb stuff. (Tie Fighter - still the best space dogfight available.
DOS CD. Around #15.)
Although Deadly Tide is set underwater, it's a space game at heart. Trying to rid the oceans of a crowd of nasty aquatic invaders has you frantically pumping your joystick. This isn't a subtle find-and-shoot game, there are hundreds of the little buggers. Linking animations are of mixed quality - the flight shots are great, but the people are poor - but who cares about that when there's another nasty to chase? A strange control mechanism provides a partial autopilot through the murky waters. There's a nice mix of pure fly-and-shoot with missions where you have to find objects on foot. Great stuff. (Deadly Tide - underwater epic. Four Win95 CDs.
Despite not having Tie Fighter's uncannily effective flight controls, I have to save the space order of merit for Wing Commander IV. This is one of the most expensive games ever made (with millions poured into the linking movies), and it shows. There are real actors, real sets, and sometimes even real dialogue. The flight sequences have excellent graphics - way ahead of Tie Fighter - only the ship doesn't really do what you want it to. Even so, if you want to combine space battles with an excellent PC movie, this has to be the number one choice. (Wing Commander IV - good space fights, excellent movies. Six DOS CDs. Around #60.)
GAMES PC BOX
If you think you can cart the office PC home and use it for fun, you're in for a shock. A decent games machine long ago eclipsed the average corporate desktop. Realistically, you should be looking at a Pentium 120, 16Mb of memory, plenty of hard disk, decent sound card, SVGA and a quad-speed CD-ROM (throw in a 28.8 modem to play on-line). Until recently DOS or OS/2 would have been the best operating system, but now there's no contest - it has to be Windows 95. Support for DOS games is sufficiently good that most recent ones can be run without resorting to MS-DOS mode, but the real clincher is that an increasing number of titles are written for Windows 95 itself. That leaves DOS and OS/2 high and dry, while NT has problems with some DOS games and most of the Win95 variety.
At the office, mice are the only acceptable pointing devices, but don't take your business prejudices home. A number of games, especially those with a space orientation, need something more than the arrow keys or a mouse. Now that Windows 95 has joystick support, you don't need to be a weirdo to have a stick on your desk - be proud to waggle. It needn't set you back a lot. Most sound cards provide the interface, so a basic joystick like the TechoPlus Hawk+, retailing at well under #20, will transform your flying life.
For serious zappers, something more is required. It's downright confusing having to refer back to the keyboard all the time: more sophisticated joysticks offer a range of buttons and controls, increasingly supported by games. Check out Microsoft's little beauty, the Sidewinder Pro 3D.
Whatever you buy, if you intend to play games like X-Wing and Tie Fighter that use the corners of the joystick movement for calibration, make sure your stick has corners. Otherwise (I've been there) trying to guess where they are will drive you slowly mad.
The ultimate cool yuletide pointing device award has to go to Microsoft's Intellimouse. This mouse has a wheel. Don't panic if you like your mice with balls, though - the wheel is on top, between the buttons. It provides a wonderfully responsive scroll control if your application supports it.
Now's the time to be seen with an Intellimouse as, with hardly any software yet available for it, it's a pure poser's accessory.
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