ULTIMA IX: ASCENSION,
What: Final chapter in the Ultima role-playing-game series. Details: Ultima IX: Ascension, the end of a long tradition dating to the early '80s, does justice to all that has come before. You start the game (as in its predecessors) as the Avatar, a normal human from earth called to save the mythical land of Britannia. This time around, the entire land of Britannia has been re-created in stunning 3-D, with you controlling the Avatar from an over-the-shoulder view. I've come to know this land like my own home, but from the new perspective it feels as if I'm visiting these places for the first time. Gameplay is uncommonly easy by this genre's standards: The first few levels of the game are basically a tutorial that teaches you survival skills such as archery, swordsmanship and swimming. In another break from role-playing tradition, you don't pick your character class--warrior, wizard, paladin, etc.--either. Instead you answer a series of head-scratchers such as "Would you kill an enemy if he was the sole supporter of a young child?" and your answers determine your character's evolution. Bottom line: It's sad to see the Ultima series come to an end, but this title is both a fitting end and an excellent introduction those new to the series or to role-playing games in general.
-- John Breeden II
Win 95-98, $50
What: 3-D action platform game. Details: Although the game may look like a kids' title (note that you don't have to kill anything here), Rayman 2 has enough depth and challenge to keep a seasoned gamer busy. As in other platform games, such as the Donkey Kong and Mario series, our hero Rayman must roam through vast levels--lush forests, magical caves and even a pirate ship--to regain his special powers; along the way, he has to save his imprisoned friends. There's plenty of room to get lost here; players can pretty much wander around at will and search for hidden areas. True to the genre, Rayman has the ability to climb, jump, swim and shoot energy balls from his hands, but game play can be downright difficult compared with the competition. One level, for instance, challenges you to jump from one platform to another, consistently running, while a pirate ship fires cannonballs at you. In terms of graphics, the PC version--with the help of a 3-D accelerator card--looks extraordinary, with exquisite detail in the environments down to the reflections and lighting. Bottom line: This takes the genre to a new high level.
-- Tom Ham
Windows 95-98, $40; Nintendo 64, $60; PlayStation, Dreamcast versions in development
What: "Miami Vice"-meets-"Mad Max" racing game. Details: While the original Interstate '76 made up for subpar graphics with colorful characters and solid game play, all this sequel has to offer is bad fashion and a new-wave soundtrack. In the single-player mode--which is too easy and too short on even the top difficulty setting--gamers take control of drivers Taurus and Skye, who have to find the missing hero of the original game, Groove Champion. This requires lots of driving around, blowing up things and jumping from one moving car to another. The main problem with this sequel (it offers more options than an expansion pack but less depth than a brand-new, stand-alone game) is that the original's complex game play has been tossed aside for a completely unrealistic, arcade-style feel. This oversimplified control doesn't work on the PC like it can on a console title. And the 3-D accelerated graphics aren't up to speed with the current wave of games: There's too much pop-up when distant objects come into view onscreen, the cut-scene video clips look grainy, the polygon-based characters appear way too geometric and the in-car views are just horrible. Going online--assuming you're not playing this across a fast local area network--makes things even worse, with delayed deaths, recurring slowdowns and even rougher roads. Bottom line: Even the '80s weren't this bad.
-- John Gaudiosi
Win 95-98, $40
CABELA'S OUTDOOR TRIVIA,
What: Trivia board game on the small screen. Details: Cabela's has finally found a computer game that doesn't shame its name. In contrast to the longtime outfitter's lame series of hunting games, Outdoor Trivia Challenge is moderately interesting, fairly well done and even constructive. Basically it's a slide-pursuit game, like Parcheesi or Candyland, but instead of the players tossing dice, the game pitches multiple-choice questions. There are 1,500 of them in five categories: ecology, fishing, hunting, outdoor survival and wildlife. You can play against human opponents or the computer at three knowledge levels, but stick to humans if you want a challenge; the computer might as well be choosing its answers at random. Correct answers move your animated man or woman along branching pathways, on which some squares toss you backward while others boost you along or yield tokens that can be used to stymie opponents. The questions themselves, however, seem to have been compiled by some harmless drudge who seldom ventures outdoors. You'll be zapped for calling a crayfish a common wetlands predator, a truth that many a poor minnow has learned too late, but will come away with some nice factoids, such as that a small flock of game birds is called a trip. (Hint: Ignore Cabela's urging to carry a snakebite kit, which doctors consider useless.) Bottom line: Knowledge is the only reward in this game; if you win, you beat your opponents to . . . a Cabela's store.
-- Hank Burchard
Win 95-98, $20
CAPTION: Ultima's familiar game landscape looks new in 3-D.
CAPTION: A seriously flawed Interstate '82 proves that not every sequel can follow the original's road to success.