GUILD WARS, NC Soft
Most "massively multiplayer online games" -- for example, EverQuest or Second Life -- start out as more work than fun. Players must go through long introductory periods of trekking back and forth across the game's universe before they see any real kind of action.
Guild Wars is a massively multiplayer game for the rest of us. For starters, you can play it by yourself instead of having to assemble a party with four other people (although it is more fun that way). You just set up your character, based on one of six available classes, equip him or her and set off into the land of Ascalon. Guild Wars' vast maps are filled with monsters, treasures and no lack of combat -- as well as cities that allow you to meet other players, trade, buy and sell items and form parties for further adventures.
Guild Wars offers two styles of game-play: a traditional role-playing approach, in which you develop your character and unravel the story over multiple quests, and "Player Versus Player," in which you run straight into combat. The latter isn't a massive free-for-all; battles still only happen in certain areas that have been reserved for organized tournaments between teams of up to eight warriors on a side. (So good team-building skills are a must.) Anybody who's enjoyed a multiplayer first-person-shooter game should be familiar with most of these fights, which follow such popular designs as "king of the hill" and "capture the flag" (here, "Capture the Relic").
Best of all, Guild Wars -- unlike every other massively multiplayer release -- costs nothing extra to play each month. There are no subscription fees and no plans for any; the Austin-based developers say they'll make their money by selling expansion packs to gamers. Given how many people Guild Wars has already drawn online, that just might work. -- Tom Ham
Win 98 or newer, $50
This cult favorite e-mail program has been around long enough to call it "mature" -- but this update adds as many problems as features, making it look awfully immature. The sense of a rush job begins with a splash screen that reads "v.3," the number of the last major update, and things only go downhill after that slipshod start.
Consider how the Bat treats mail formatted in a Web page's HTML coding, which allows for richer, better-looking messages but can also hide security risks. Ritlabs' clumsy, bossy solution is to force Bat users to open incoming HTML mail separately in their browsers, while not allowing them to send any HTML-formatted content except as an attached file.
The Bat's screen in general looks cleaner, with fewer windows. But the distracting, lime-green mail ticker still scrolls the headers of new messages across the screen until you shut it off, while toolbar icons remain largely cryptic. The abysmally written help system fails miserably at explaining such oddly named components as the Message Dispatcher and Sorting Office. Eventually I pieced together that these parts let you manage your mail before downloading, when it's still sitting on your Internet provider's computers -- but this feature never worked for me anyway. I had no more success with a new spam-filtering tool; to judge from reports in Chisinau, Moldova-based Ritlabs' tech-support forums, that's been disappearing on other Bat users as well.
The Bat offers quite a few promising features, such as virtual folders that group messages matching preset search criteria, but they all wind up being defeated by their own glitches, cryptic user interfaces or terrible documentation. The market for mail software could certainly use more competition, but it's not likely to come from this flawed contender. -- Rebecca Rohan
Win 95 or newer, $45 athttp:/
Whether you fancy yourself a fighter or a farmer, you can find something to appreciate in this castle-building game. Aspire to be the Alan Greenspan of the Middle Ages? Try the game's Path of Peace, in which you concentrate on nurturing your economy and developing your town into a thriving city where the greatest danger is a hungry bear. More the Genghis Khan type? The Path of War has you pouring boiling oil over your castle's walls on the heads of unwanted guests, then marching out to reduce enemy castles to rubble. A would-be Napoleon? Try the Kingmaker mode, where you skirmish with enemy lords played by the computer (or other gamers over the Internet) across a variety of maps.
Unlike earlier Stronghold titles, this one portrays its world in three richly detailed dimensions. When you order archers into a tower, you can zoom in and see them jogging up the stairs. Outside your castle, you can glimpse waterfalls and streams, trees you can fell and packs of animals that will breed and grow unless you hunt them regularly.
Showing all this living detail does require a more powerful machine than Stronghold veterans, or gamers in general, are used to. I played it on an absurdly high-end desktop -- 2.8 GHz processor, a gigabyte of memory and a 512MB video card -- and still experienced long pauses as armies prepared to clash.
You may find yourself as bogged down as your PC. The list of things to manage boggles the mind: Beyond overseeing farming, mining, cooking and street-cleaning, you're also expected to assign people to make dresses for your lord's parties and even torture criminals to "convince" them of the error of their ways. -- John Breeden II
Win 98 or newer, $40