Network: Everything to play for

They came, they saw and they tried to conquer the competition at Europe's giant computer trade show. But does the games industry have anything new to offer?

September is the starting gate to Christmas for the video game industry: 30,000 movers, shakers and freeloaders headed to London's Olympia for the European Computer Trade Show (ECTS) last weekend to see the latest moves in a $10bn plus market.

Despite the imminent arrival of their make-or-break Dreamcast console, Sega opted not to exhibit at the show, except for a spectacular launch party on the opening evening. Few were surprised - Dreamcast's launch has already been well publicised, and Sega had nothing new to show. Cost must also have been an issue - a stand the size of Sony's and Nintendo's would have cost six-figures, and Sega's reserves must be running low after its huge Dreamcast advertising spend.

Though there was no official presence, there were many third-party titles dotted about. Many were lacklustre PC ports or tepid arcade conversions (such as the execrable Hydro Thunder), but amid the dross were real gems. Besides Dreamcast Game of the Show, Ready to Rumble, excellent futuristic racer Trickstyle and innovative 3D fighter PowerStone were two highlights.

Sony's stand did not bear the marks of a company unduly worried - or even particularly concerned - by Dreamcast. Its line-up of new games was typically strong, emphasising a firm commitment to its aging console. Particularly impressive was Dino Crisis - an atmospheric retread of Resident Evil in a Jurassic Park-style environment.

Of course, many of the other top titles were sequels, but the superbly executed likes of Gran Turismo 2 and Wipeout 3 will draw little complaint from the Playstation-owners this Christmas. The inimitable Lara Croft was back (again), but Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation looked just like the other three: four words summed it up: "same old, same old".

Even Ms Croft's escapades could not distract attention from the main attraction of the Sony stand. Running on grainy video in a back room were the first demos of the much-hyped Playstation 2. Updated versions of Gran Turismo and Tekken and some breathtaking technical demos (clouds of feathers, skeletal armies, beautifully animated water) pointed towards Sony's continued dominance of the console market.

However, by the time Playstation 2 makes it to the UK (Christmas 2000 at the earliest) such graphical trickery will be within the reach of most PCs. Time will tell if the games designers actively exploit such technology, or merely hide behind it.

One designer able to fashion definitive games from any generation of technology is Nintendo's legendary Shigeru Miyamoto, who appeared at ECTS for the first time. Acclaimed as a genius by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, as well as his game-industry peers, Mario creator Miyamoto's presence was an indication that Nintendo is finally taking an interest in the European market. This is due in part to the efforts of its UK subsidiary, Rare, which, Miyamoto aside, has produced the best games for the Nintendo N64 console. Three of Rare's new titles were on display: Donkey Kong 64 and Jet Force Gemini proved worthy additions to the Rare canon, but it was Perfect Dark, sequel to the illustrious Goldeneye, that attracted the most praise, with enthusiastic gamers proclaiming it "the absolute business".

Elsewhere on Nintendo's sprawling stand the main attraction was all-conquering Pokemon (Pocket Mon- ster) brand, that's currently Nintendo's main moneyspinner. Two GameBoy tiles, Pokemon Red and Pokemon Blue , will be released before Christmas, with a Star Wars-style merchandising avalanche to follow - you have been warned!

Many of the more interesting game ideas were found on the PC, with innovative God-game Black or White, bank-robbery sim Heist, and the self-explanatory Hitman, all looking promising.

The big PC sequels were also out in force: Quake 3, which eschews any pretence at storyline in favour of a deathmatch-style blastfest; and PC Game of the Show, Grand Prix 3. Both seem set to clean up this Christmas. Other standout titles were Team Fortress 2 (from the makers of Half Life) and Command and Conquer: Renegade - both 3D shoot-em ups designed to be played collaboratively over the Internet.

Of course, such gaming delights demand 3D graphics power and rival hardware manufacturers displayed their kit. The dream configuration for a PC was a 600MHz Pentium III combined with the new Guillemot 3D Prophet graphics card and a cinema-style surround system - should be enough for the next six months.

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