Network: A whole lot of Lara

Matthew Burgess gets a glimpse of what you're likely to be playing come Christmas
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The Independent Culture
THE COMPUTER games industry never grows up. This does not mean an idyllic, Peter Pan-style childhood but rather a perpetual adolescence. An electronic bedlam of guns, girls and fast cars - both on and off screen - awaited those who attended last week's European Computer Trade Show (ECTS).

Some 25,000 people thronged the halls of London's Olympia searching for the Next Big Thing in interactive entertainment - or at least another glimpse of pneumatic Tomb Raider heroine Lara Croft.

The show floor was dominated by the Nintendo stand, a sprawling conurbation of polystyrene and steel designed to reassure the trade that the N64 still means business.

The big N has recently come under fire for the lack of titles for its fading flagship, and this Christmas will be a crucial time for its fortunes.

Hopes are riding on the long-awaited Zelda: Ocarina Of Time, which was finally revealed in its completed glory. First impressions indicated another tour-de-force from Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of Mario 64 - you can find out for yourselves if Nintendo keep to their promised launch date of 22 November.

Elsewhere on the N64 front: the stunning Body Harvest (think 3D Defender meets Starship Troopers) should be another hit for maverick Scots developers DMA (Lemmings, Grand Theft Auto). Acclaim's Turok 2 was well received, as were glimpses of Perfekt Dark, Rare's (unofficial) follow-up to the ECTS Game of the Year, Goldeneye. Import chart-toppers F-Zero X, and 1080 Snowboarding are set for imminent UK release, but do not be seduced by the hype surrounding Mission Impossible - it is dire.

Nintendo also showcased the latest incarnation of its hugely successful Game Boy. The Colour Game Boy features - take a wild guess - a colour screen, as well as infrared communication for those two-player Tetris duels.

Sony opted for a sleeker, more open-plan site, studded with screens showing their latest promo video. The Playstation appears to be coasting at the moment, with most of its big new games seeming to be sequels. Of course, when they are as accomplished as Tekken 3, Tomb Raider 3 and Final Fantasy VIII, few would complain, but there is also a growing stockpile of mediocre titles - the underwhelming Ninja and Telstar's abysmal Assault being cases in point.

Fortunately, Sony's day was saved by one of the games of the show - the superb Metal Gear Solid from Konami. Following the fortunes of fearless mercenary Solid Snake, MGS is a brilliantly realised 3D action-strategy hybrid that pushes the console to its limits.

Also looking good were Silent Hill (also from Konami) and noir adventure Syphon Filter, but the fact remains that next to the graphical advances of the N64 and PC, the Playstation is really starting to look a little old.

Sega remained smugly aloof from the hordes at Olympia, preferring to show off its next-next-generation Dreamcast technology - complete with 'killer app' Sonic Adventures - at a suite in the nearby Hilton.

Developer reaction to Dreamcast was very positive - the Windows CE operating system means that PC games can be ported over with very little effort or cost.

Although understandably bullish about their new baby's prospects, there was a certain tension in the Sega suite - should Dreamcast go the same way as Saturn, they could well be joining Atari and Commodore in the video games recycle bin.

However, none of the main console players could really challenge the dominance of the PC as the premier gaming platform. Among the many highlights of the show were Shiny's innovative Messiah, 3D wargame Hostile Waters, and Daikatana, the latest blast-fest from John Romero, the creator of Doom.

Courting (if not indecently assaulting) controversy once more was Carpocalypse Now, the gory follow-up to last year's Carmageddon. With the ability to remove pedestrians' limbs rather than just mow them down, Carpocalypse Now looks set to provoke as much hysteria as its predecessor - coming soon to a Daily Mail comment page near you. On a slightly more cerebral front, 16bit classics Prince of Persia and Populous both received 3D updates, as did David Braben's iconic polygon shooter Virus.

With the British PC gaming market estimated to reach $500m by 2002 according to Datamonitor, it was unsurprising to find hardware companies muscling in on what is usually a software-based show.

The most dominant of these were Intel and 3Dfx, whose processors and graphics chipsets powered almost every PC on show. Special mention for hardware bargain of the show must go to the French company Guillemot, whose 3Dfx Banshee graphics card Maxi Gamer Phoenix marries Voodoo2 3D with a powerful 2D chipset for only pounds 99.

This Christmas will probably be the last dominated by the current generation of consoles. With worldwide revenues heading towards $15bn, the games industry ranks alongside film and music in the global entertainment market. Perhaps it is time to grow up.