This has been a good year for people who like to play video games. As usual, lots of sequels have hit the store shelves, but there were also a few signs of life and imagination on our monitors. A few.
We decided to revisit some of the titles that were our gang's favorites this year; most of the PC games listed here aren't even terrible resource-suckers (although you are advised to inspect the listed system requirements carefully before purchase and to steel yourself for the bizarre ritual of "updating your drivers"). For those who want to make their processors creak under the pressure, Quake III Arena--one of the most anticipated games of the year--is supposed to ship any day now.
The premise of this real-time space strategy game--a race leaves its ravaged planet in search of its ancestral home--has been done before, but Homeworld ups the ante in big ways. The game is truly three-dimensional, allowing you to explore space in all directions--and be attacked in all three dimensions. Each ship, from your mother ship to the smallest scout, is remarkably well detailed, and this game also holds its replay value well. Online (and over a local area network), up to eight players and computer opponents can compete in highly configurable multiplayer games. Win 95-98, $50.
AGE OF EMPIRES II:
THE AGE OF KINGS, Microsoft.
This sequel is the same idea as the first Age of Empires title with an interface-lift: It's now easier to use and navigate, and players can now set way-points, formations and even the aggression level of soldiers as they build their empires in your choice of 13 civilizations, from the aftermath of the Roman Empire to the Middle Ages. A key new feature is the ability to designate "gather points" before you start producing soldiers: When a unit is produced, it will automatically march, ride or sail where you previously told it to go. Win 95-98, $40.
The real action in this game is on the Internet, where multiplayer combat involving two to 32 players awaits. Here the player becomes part of a "tribe," in which each member must work together to survive battles with competing teams. For your side to succeed, you need to have teamwork and a decent commander running the show. Each commander views the action from an overhead view and can issue directions from a simple "go here" to more complex, multitasked objectives requiring precise coordination between players. Win 95-98, $50.
Five and a half years after SimCity 2000--and long enough after the original SimCity for its first fans to have grown up to become city planners and civil engineers--the sequel finally arrived this year. The good news is, SimCity addicts won't have an abrupt transition to make. The bad news is, there aren't many surprises: SimCity 2500 might have been a more accurate title. Win 95-98, Mac, $50.
RollerCoaster Tycoon puts you in control of building, managing and maintaining your own virtual theme park. The controls are easy enough so that even newcomers to the sim genre will be developing their own Wally World in minutes, custom-building coasters or choosing from an assortment of pre-constructed rides. Warning: Make a ride too nauseating and you'll spend your time watching miniature janitors clean up after riders who couldn't hold their lunch. Win 95-98, $30.
The Falcon series is still the benchmark against which other combat flight simulations are measured. Several technological advances over Falcon 3.0--and most of the other air-combat sims today--are noteworthy. Terrain visuals are remarkable in their detail, and outside-the-cockpit special effects are minutely detailed as well. The Flight Handbook--the pilot/player's bible--will certainly be daunting to anyone new to high-end flight simulations, but 4.0's Instant Action mode can get beginners into the air and closing with the enemy right away. Win 95-98, $60.
Although the game-play mechanics are nearly identical to that of Capcom's megaselling Resident Evil series, Dino Crisis manages to give players a new and pulse-quickening gaming experience. Players take on the role of Regina, a member of an elite squad of military agents sent to find and rescue a missing scientist named Dr. Kirk. The best things here are the dinosaurs themselves; the raptors move with such speed and grace, it's extraordinarily creepy. A first-rate musical score responds well to what's happening in the game and adds to the thrills. PlayStation, $50.
FINAL FANTASY VIII,
The latest Final Fantasy title tells the story of Squall Leonheart and his band of five cadets, who join a resistance group and eventually become involved in a battle to save time itself. The action, featuring an extensive battle and magic system, takes place across massive landscapes and in outer space. One result of this title's emphasis on story line, though, is that this game is more linear than previous entries in the series; you have to complete particular tasks in a particular sequence or you stay stuck in one chapter. PlayStation, $50.
This title, the first "must-have" for the new Dreamcast console, is the closest experience yet to watching an actual game. But the title delivers more than looks. Its controls are intuitive and approachable, even for beginning players. This is video-game football at its finest. Dreamcast, $50.
JET FORCE GEMINI,
The planet of Goldwood has been taken over by the evil alien Mizar and his horde of drones, and it's up to the Jet Force Gemini team to wipe out the deadly threat and rescue the Ewok-looking inhabitants of Goldwood, known as the Tribals. Players alternately control three different characters, each of whom has special abilities that come into play throughout the game. One drawback: The game can get tedious in levels that require visits from all three characters. Nintendo 64, $60.
CAPTION: From top: Dino Crisis, Final Fantasy VIII, NFL 2K, Age of Empires II.