UNREAL TOURNAMENT, Epic
What: First-person shooter. Details: Don't be fooled by the name--Unreal Tournament is much more than a spinoff of last year's hit Unreal. Tournament adds several new wrinkles to the current state of multiplayer gaming, including a host of new team-oriented play options. For instance, in Assault Match, attackers must infiltrate the enemy's base and destroy one or more objects to accumulate points, while defenders earn points by resisting this assault; Domination Match challenges players to secure "control points" dispersed throughout the level. You can also issue orders to your fellow team members, as in Red Storm's Rainbow Six. Visually, Tournament revs up the Unreal engine a couple of notches, increasing polygon counts--the number of 2-D panels that are stitched together to model 3-D objects--with dramatic results. You can now see facial hairs and expressions, and lighting effects and shadows look particularly spectacular. (Bug watch: The game's Web site notes that the game can sometimes fail to work properly with certain 3-D graphics cards, but it offers a workaround to fix this.) Tournament's most compelling feature, however, is its improved "bot" options. You can lead squads of these computer-controlled players against teams of humans or other computer opponents--in the latter case without having to go online at all. This neatly solves two of the bigger problems of online gaming: Finding a worthy human opponent and maintaining a fast, responsive Internet connection. You can give orders to your bots, customize them with simple menu selections and even give them the names of your choice. The amount of depth this creates is astounding. Bottom line: The fun of online gaming without the online waiting.
-- Tom Ham
Win 95-98, Linux, $55; Mac version expected mid-January
BLEEM 1.5, Bleem LLC
What: PlayStation emulator for your PC. Details: This $30 shareware program, developed by a San Diego-based start-up company, allows your PC to read and play PlayStation games, much like what Connectix's Virtual GameStation did for Macs. But Bleem is more than just an emulator--it actually makes console games run better. This program takes advantage of the higher resolutions, 3-D graphics accelerators and extra memory of PCs to increase the resolution and speed of games. The difference is amazing: On a PlayStation plugged into a television, games look pixelated and blocky. But on the PC, the same game features richer colors, dramatically sharper graphics and faster performance. And you don't need a super PC either; PlayStation titles such as Gran Turismo and Final Fantasy VII ran just fine under Bleem on a low-end, Celeron-based computer. Bleem doesn't, however, work with every game out there; I had trouble with some older titles in my own testing. Bleem's own database of compatible games lists 209 games as compatible, another 152 "partially" compatible and 144 "not yet" working within the program. So who's not happy with this? Sony, for one; it's tried but failed to have this game's distribution stopped by the courts (it had previously obtained a temporary restraining order against Connectix's emulator). And past users of this program, for another, who struggled with its earlier, buggier incarnations. Bottom line: Bleem me up!
-- John Breeden II
Win 95-98, $30 at http://www.bleem.com
THE HOME GENE-SPLICING KIT, You-Betcha Interactive
What: Twisted photo-maker program. Details: On first blush this CD-ROM, which lets you and the kids alter photos of friends and family with the whiskers of a cat or ears of a bear, seems silly. After all, no one actually needs this sort of software. But after playing with the program for a while, you begin to see its appeal. Basically, it's fun. And it's creative. And anyone who can click a mouse can use this gene-splicer to create and print out one heck of a party favor. The yucks begin when you open up to a user-friendly series of point-and-click tools that do the dirty work. Choose a supplied picture to mess with, or import photos of your own (scanned in from an existing photo, or taken with a digital camera and transferred onto your hard drive). Then create a mutant by replacing a facial part of your loved one with that of an animal, pet, another friend or a supplied photo. Spin in the Splicer, and faster than you can say Dr. Frankenstein, Aunt Maude has a pig's nose and elephant ears. Now that's technology at its best. Granted, like a particularly esoteric kitchen gadget, this splicer may get shelved after a few uses. But it's not likely to gather too much dust; sooner or later, the urge to mutate will strike, and this program will be ready. Bottom line: Silly, harmless fun, although not likely to stay in use for months on end.
-- Hope Katz Gibbs
Win 95-98/Mac, $25
1999 POWERDECK ATHLETES OF THE CENTURY, Upper Deck
What: Sports collector's item. Details: Trading cards went digital earlier this year, when Upper Deck began including one card-size CD-ROM (baseball, basketball or football, with plans for hockey in the near future) in each pack of the traditional cardboard variety. Drop that disc into your computer and up pops a multimedia presentation, complete with video clips of the star, statistics and background info. Not to be left out of the fin de siecle marketing frenzy, the company has now released this all-CD trading package, a four-card set of the "athletes of the century": Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Joe Montana and Babe Ruth (I guess baseball hasn't done much since the '30s). Each card's presentation has the feel of a slick ESPN segment, with high-quality video clips of the athlete's greatest moments, biographical information, action photos and career statistics--the kind of information you'd love to have on your analog cards if only there were room. These cards aren't something you're going to pop into the computer and watch over and over again, but the novelty factor should command a fair price when trading with friends. Bottom line: An interesting collectible, but don't stick them between your bicycle spokes.
-- Anthony Zurcher
Win 95-98/Mac, $20