Games reviews

Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn

The folks at BioWare and Black Isle Studios have done it again, serving up another heap of RPG goodness in Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn. Set in the Dungeons and Dragons Forgotten Realms universe, Baldur's Gate II starts you off in a cell with little memory of where or even who you are. As you make your way out of your prison you catch a glimpse inside the mind of the man who imprisoned you - a demented and depraved mage named Jon Irenicus. It's up to you to track down your captor and put an end to his villainy.

Of course, you'll get sidetracked along the way. Baldur's Gate II is loaded with tons of side-quests and sub-quests (and sub-sub-quests) - so many, in fact, that it would be well nigh impossible to complete them all. This multitude of quests, which range from clearing out a troll-infested keep to infiltrating an evil cult, gives BG II a non-linear feel without distracting too much from the main storyline.

The developers have concentrated on making story and character interaction an important element in BG II, and it shows. Battles are balanced with tonnes of dialogue, and party members will initiate conversations with each other, increasing the role-playing aspect of the game. The combat is often challenging - requiring a combination of strategy and raw strength - always rewarding, but rarely difficult to the point of being frustrating, since a change of tactics will usually get you through even the harshest of battles.

BG II is no Diablo-style point-and-click slashfest, and novice players may find managing their party a daunting task at first, but once you get used to constantly pausing the action to issue commands, you'll appreciate the versatility of the game's controls.

BG veterans will applaud the many improvements from the original, especially the increased 800x600 resolution (higher resolutions are possible but unsupported) and an adjustable interface that now allows you to hide one or both side panels or to completely remove the interface, allowing you to see more of the in-game action.

Though BG II doesn't use a high-tech 3D graphics engine with fancy buzzwords (it does support OpenGL for visual effects), the backdrops are stunning and the spell effects are impressive with or without 3D acceleration. The areas aren't limited to dingy grey dungeons, either; you'll traverse a wide range of richly coloured environments, from seaside port villages to an elven city in the trees. The sound complements the picturesque visuals, with a moving orchestral score backing up some of the best vocal talent in the business.

With its excellent graphics and sound, and massive amounts of addicting gameplay, the Baldur's Gate series remains unparalleled in the RPG world. If you're looking for the best RPG action the PC has to offer, look no further than Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn.

Product: Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of AmnDeveloper: BioWareURL: www.interplay.com/bgate2tipsBe sure to rescue Aerie from the circus tent in Waukeen's Promenade and have her join your party; she may not look tough, but she's a feisty cleric/mage with some powerful spells.

When taking on a group of umber-hulks, a web spell comes in handy to keep the beasties at bay while pre-venting confused party members from wandering into the heat of battle.

A bard may not seem like the best addition to your party, but their extremely high lore ability comes in handy for identifying magic objects.

Crimson Skies

Flying a plane has never been this much fun! Crimson Skies combines the thrill of a good dogfight with high-flying stunts and swashbuckling adventure.

Crimson Skies takes place in an alternate-reality 1930s America after war has torn the country apart and left in its place a group of rival territories, such as the Republic of Texas, the Nation of Hollywood, and the Confederation of Dixie. Most of the streets and railroads have been destroyed, leaving air travel as the most popular - and most dangerous - form of transportation.

As the gallant air pirate Nathan Zachary, you must lead your band of gypsy Fortune Hunters through a series of missions, fighting off dastardly villains, rescuing damsels in distress, and maybe pocketing a little cash in the process.

Crimson Skies plays more like an aerial Interstate '76 than Falcon 4.0. Rather than just shooting down hordes of enemy planes, many missions require you to perform hair-raising stunts, like docking with an enemy zeppelin or rescuing a hostage from the top of a speeding train. These stunts add excitement to the game, though some of the more difficult ones can be very frustrating. Thankfully, Crimson Skies allows you to skip a mission after three failed attempts, which means even novice flyers will be able to play through the entire game.

The world of Crimson Skies is filled with some eye-grabbing sights. Details abound, from parts flying off a plane under fire to a cloud effect that rivals that of any other flight sim. The 1930s' era is brought to life via the sound: humorous radio chatter combines with an awesome soundtrack that mixes Indiana Jones-style theme music with Big Band swing.

Controlling your planes is easy, but you'll definitely want a joystick for the best Crimson Skies experience. The various planes handle differently depending on their engine and size, with larger aircraft like the dual-hulled McDonnell Kestrel offering greater stability in exchange for limited manoeuvrability, and smaller models like the Hughes Bloodhawk sacrificing control for speed.

Crimson Skies does suffer from a few technical problems. Choppy frame rates and sound skips crop up periodically, and painfully long load times between missions bog down the gameplay. Also, your wingmen may occasionally appear from out of nowhere and ram directly into your plane; it's hard enough dealing with actual enemies without having to worry about kamikaze attacks from your allies. Hopefully, a patch will take care of these issues.

Even if you've never touched a flight sim in your life, you'll have a blast shooting down fighter aces, skimming Hollywood studio lots, and buzzing Manhattan skyscrapers. Crimson Skies is simply the best air combat action the PC has to offer.

Product: Crimson Skies

Developer: Zipper Interactive

URL: www.microsoft.com/games/crimsonskies tipsThe first person view is good for dogfights, offering the least obstructed view, but stick to the exterior view for stunts, so you can see your plane in relation to the surrounding objects.

Pick the right plane for the job. Fast planes are good for dogfights, but if you're taking on a zeppelin, a slower and more heavily armoured aircraft comes in handy.

If the Pandora radios in a distress call, drop what you're doing and rush to her aid. If the mothership gets shot down, it's mission over.

Homeworld: Cataclysm

It's back to the mothership once again in this sequel to the first (and possibly best) 3D real-time strategy game. With a host of new features and improvements, Homeworld: Cataclysm improves on the original while maintaining the gameplay that made it great.

The plot of Cataclysm plays out a bit like Alien or The Abyss: a civilian mining vessel, the Kuun-Lan, responds to a military distress call and ends up fighting to save the universe from imminent doom. As the missions progress, the Kuun-Lan must jettison its unnecessary mining parts to make room for new modules, such as a Hangar Bay and Engineering Module, eventually transforming into a mighty warship.

Cataclysm introduces a host of new ships, including Mimics, which can take on the appearance of enemy ships for infiltrating enemy fleets, and the Leech, which can latch on to enemy ships and gradually eat away the hull. They've also added a new alien faction called the Beast, with the ability to infect ships and bring them over to the side of the Beast.

Homeworld fans will be pleased to discover that developers Barking Dog have made several adjustments and improvements to the game. You can now assign waypoints to your ships for increased control and save games mid-mission (a blessing for getting through some of the more difficult missions), and a time compression feature lets you speed up the game during slower moments like gathering resources or travelling long distances.

Cataclysm uses the same engine as Homeworld, so the graphics don't look much better, but it's still a gorgeous game with intricately detailed ships and plenty of flashy explosions and lighting effects. A moody and haunting score combines with quality sound effects and voiceovers for an equally impressive audio experience.

Navigating the 3D environment was one of the harder aspects of Homeworld and it remains one of the trickier aspects of this game. The camera, though, is easy to control, and once you get used to switching back and forth between the game world and the Sensors Manager, issuing orders to your troops becomes gradually easier.

Skirmishes and multiplay add to Cataclysm's longevity with several fully customisable game style options, and with the in-game matching service, finding a mulitplayer game is a snap. Up to eight players can battle over the Internet in games like I Hate Harvesting, which eliminates the need for gathering resources, or Bounty Hunter, which rewards players with resources units for destroying enemy ships.

Cataclysm shows what can happen when developers listen to the fans and make changes according to their suggestions and complaints. While the gameplay remains the same, the new features and improvements make Homeworld: Cataclysm even more enjoyable than the original.

Product: Homeworld: Cataclysm

Developer: Barking Dog Studios

URL: http://homeworld.sierra.com/cataclysmtipsIf you're having trouble on a particular mission, restart the level with the difficulty set to Easy.

Use Mimics to take out mines. Get close to the mines in enemy form and when you remove your disguise, the mines will float toward your ship.

You should also use Mimics (kamikaze-style) for taking out large Beast ships, since other fighters will become infected if they get too close.

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