How to play it right this Christmas

From the vast range of games and CD-Roms on offer this Christmas, Andy Oldfield chooses his own personal favourites among the addictive, inventive and outright maddening.

Television is bad enough, with its seemingly endless repeats, but switching from the TV screen to the computer monitor won't do much to banish the sense of deja vu. Sequels and character licensing deals are the hallmarks of most of the popular CD-Roms you may find competing to overfill your hard drive at Christmas this year.

Blade Runner

pounds 44.99 (Virgin Interactive) Win95

The cityscape of Los Angeles 2019 in the film Blade Runner is almost a defining image of cyberpunk science fiction. Westwood Studios and Virgin have translated it into a cyberspace sprawling across four CD-Roms that rewards careful exploration. There's no need for the latest 3D accelerator in your machine - every motion-captured character is 3D-rendered and the special effects such as fog, rain and fire are more than convincing on a standard 2D video card. Attention to detail impresses not only visually, but also in the audio. In games-playing terms, too, there's a lot to master, and it's not a game to play with a Boxing Day hangover - gathering evidence and solving the clues as you track down Replicants is not easy, in this massively impressive game. Patience, rather than an itchy trigger finger, is the key.

Worms 2

pounds 29.99 (Microprose) Win95

Itchy trigger fingers come to the fore in Worms 2 - although strategy should not be overlooked as you take command of a platoon of worms intent on wiping out its rivals. If you play against the computer you'll be amazed at the pinpoint accuracy of your enemy; they're guaranteed to be hotter shots than you are, and to prevail you'll need to think in terms of ambushes, or find hidden super-weapons such as the devastating Concrete Donkey. The original was addictive in spite of its graphics; the follow-up is slick and a joy to look at. The Internet play capability is horribly addictive.

Quake II

pounds 34.99 (id Software) Win95

At last, you can see what's going on in Quake without having to reset the brightness and contrast controls of your monitor. Quake II is not only brighter than the original, it's bigger and brasher, too. The missions on which you and an improved arsenal of weapons embark are complex; mistakes in one may have repercussions in another. Smart adversaries to go with smart weapons means that while running down corridors with a finger on the fire button is still an option, it's not one that will get you very far. Multiplayer options are beefed up - 32 at a time can pitch in over the Net or a LAN. Mixed news for cheat freaks - don't count on your favourite ones working in Quake II.

Tomb Raider II

pounds 29.99 (Eidos) Win95/PlayStation

Lara Croft, the polygon pin-up, is back. In Tomb Raider II her quest is for the Dagger of Xian, and to get it involves beating off the challenge of two other interested parties. The form that this beating off takes is inevitably of a gross physical nature, involving much acrobatic leaping around, shooting and looking for medicine boxes to heal the wounds inflicted by new monsters. Some of the arcade-style action takes place in the great outdoors (Venice, Tibet, China) as opposed to the tunnels and catacombs of the original, which is a pleasant change. If that's not enough to tempt devotees of the original, the developers have thrown in some Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom-type traps, and augmented her licence to kill with a driving licence that comes in handy, as there are vehicles just waiting to be used.

Shadow Warrior

pounds 34.99 (Eidos) DOS/Win95

From the creators of Duke Nukem 3D comes a first-person shoot 'em up that looks strangely familiar. In Shadow Warrior, you get to play the part of Lo Wang, a master ninja assassin of 20 years' standing, who is fated to wander a number of Japanese scenarios (28 levels in all) basically killing everything in sight. You're likely to encounter such hazards to life and limb as female ninjas, koi with extra-sharp teeth, ape-like rippers, hornets and bunnies. Inaction leads to the on-screen character being reduced to such effete behaviour as brandishing chopsticks to catch passing flies - a humorous touch, apparently, although there are many more which are as ribald as anything found in Duke Nukem 3D.

Virtual Pool 2

pounds 39.99 (Interplay) Win95

Sports sims are steady sellers and Virtual Pool 2 looks as if it could emulate the achievements of its predecessor and become next year's number one sports title. Recent football sims seem to have reached the end of the line in terms of refinements, but this one has some enhancements over the original. Graphically, it's more sophisticated, but, more important, the degree of control allowed is now greater - miscues are astonishingly lifelike. The computer opponents play more interesting games. And there's a good choice of games other than the 8-ball you might play down the pub. It's hard to see how this one could be further improved.

Dogz II

pounds 19.99 (Mindscape) Win95

Recognising that virtual pets are the biggest work displacement activity yet designed to clutter a hard drive is a good enough reason for many to consider buying one. Child pressure is another. Dogz II lets you keep canines in your Pentium. Feed them, teach them how to do tricks, download goodies and toys for them from the Net. Watch them frolic around your desktop, peep out from behind the window of the application you're working in and go exploring through your folders. Pleasantly pathetic, really, even if they do double as neat screen savers. The faint-hearted will be pleased that pooper scoopers are not necessary.

MDK

pounds 39.99 (Interplay) PlayStation

According to the manufacturers, the initials MDK, do not stand for "murder, death, kill" -\ but they might as well do. Alien Stream Riders are afoot and intergalactic hero Kurt Hectic has to save the Earth from destruction. Fortunately, Kurt has a sniper gun helmet and a powersuit with attached parachute so that he can run, fly in short bursts and unleash vicious volleys of bullets, bombs and grenades. He has to be careful, though. Indiscriminate destruction of aliens can lead to them reproducing tenfold. The action, though, is essentially non-stop blasting that is exhausting for anyone foolhardy enough to pick up the joypad in the first place - and many will do just that. Earlier this year it was a best-seller on the PC; the PlayStation version is just as frenetic.

All Star Soccer

pounds 44.99 (Eidos) PlayStation

Whereas most football sims aim for gritty realism or chase the Statto vote, All Star Soccer goes for the oddball approach. As a soccer sim, it's perfectly average. However, you can build weird teams of mismatched individuals, dress them eccentrically and see how they perform. The built- in character assassinations reflect terrace humour well: the Keegan perm caricature is particularly noteworthy. The humour carries over into play, too, the Cantona tackle is something else - it's enthusiastic enough to be at home in a Kung Fu movie. The commentary is first rate, as well. It starts off with standard cliches and then goes off at quirky, surreal or plain corny tangents: "Good atmosphere here: 70 per cent nitrogen, 20 per cent oxygen ..." Should appeal to all those who miss Skinner and Baddiel's Fantasy Football.

Hercules

pounds 39.99 (Disney Interactive) Win95/ PlayStation

The platform game genre, although legendary, is not quite as old as the Greek legends about Hercules, it just seems that way to members of the MTV generation. The feel of Disney's cartoon version of Hercules is faithfully re-created in the video game of the same name. Starting off as a 2D platform game, it experiments with moving in three dimensions as you progress, completing obstacle courses, leaping, ducking and pulverising your way from level to level. It does what it does well, but the inclusion of some video footage does not hide the fact that it doesn't try for anything original. Not that the kids at whom it's aimed will be concerned by that, they're more likely to bemoan the fact that it has only 10 levels - should keep them occupied for a week or so, though.

Star Fleet Academy

pounds 39.99 (Interplay) Win95

Star Fleet Academy on the other hand will last even a determined games player for ages, being spread across five CD-Roms. The player assumes the role of a trainee at the academy, where, alone or with other trainees, a series of missions are undertaken to gain experience and Star Fleet qualifications. The missions are a mixture of strategy and shoot 'em up games, with plenty of room for variation depending on the choices made, such as which class of Starship to command, etc. Technically, the games are accomplished rather than innovative, but the presentation is good and the intercut video scenes do fit satisfactorily into the storylines to be explored. Appearances by characters from the original Star Trek, such as Kirk and Chekhov, help to ensure that junior Trekkies continue to boldly go where their parents have gone before.

Final Liberation

pounds 39.99 (Mindscape) Win95

The Warhammer Epic 40,000 universe is familiar to many role-playing war gamers. It has benefited from the input of leading science fiction writers in its evolution as an established RPG scenario. Its transition from book and board to PC screen in Final Liberation is one that should appeal widely - the live-action video and computer graphics suit the subject matter well. Basically a war game in space, where humans on the planet Volistad have to retake lost ground from Orkish invaders, it works well as a generic Warhammer game but retains enough mainstream appeal not to alienate traditional war gamers. Appealing to both camps is a neat trick to pull off.

Backtracks

pounds 29.99 (Channel Four) Win95/Mac

Aimed at kids of nine to 14, Backtracks allows easy exploration of how music, sound and video imagery can be combined to produce various effects. It's a hands-on package based on 30 video clips, 32 music tracks and 45 sound effects that can be edited via a simple interface. Various projects are suggested, such as making adverts, making title sequences, and making TV trailers. It's a piece of multimedia software that blurs the boundaries between serious work and mucking about having a good time.

European Video Atlas

pounds 9.99 (Attica) Win3.x/Win95

There is homework to be done, even in the school holidays. European Video Atlas is a useful resource for teenage kids doing geography or economics. It's an EU multimedia atlas using ITN video footage and stills as well as a bundled gazetteer and a databank of statistics comprehensive enough for GCSE-level economic forecasting. Trevor McDonald is always on hand to guide you through the screens, which are less fussily laid out than in software such as Encarta.

Microprose (01454 893900); Eidos (0181-636 3000); Interplay (01628 423666); Activision (01895 456700); Mindscape (01664 481563); Disney Interactive (0181 222 1571) Channel 4 (01926 436444)

BBC Multimedia (0990 484849); Attica (01865 791346).

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