Network: Wake up to a 3D wonderland

The days of slow-mo dots on screen are long gone, as the latest games move even closer to cinematic quality and reality. By Matthew Burgess
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Ten years ago, video games were a niche activity rather than mass market entertainment - due principally to their lack of visual appeal. Players had to exert their imaginations to transform a slowly moving dot on a screen into an enemy fighter jet and a mesh of jagged lines into a racetrack.

As the Year 2000 looms, however, such suspension of disbelief is not required. Water ripples, fire glows, brake discs are visible through spinning wheels, and even breath can be seen in cold environments.

Thanks to 3D graphics cards, most of the PCs sold this Christmas can easily produce such cinematic effects. Tiny's mid-range machines are particularly recommended for gaming, coming with the powerful nVidia TNT2 chipset as standard.

Add a force-feedback steering wheel, such as the well-crafted official Ferrari model (Guillemot, pounds 89.99), and the same PC is capable of providing a surprisingly lifelike driving experience. Rally Championship 99 (Actualize, pounds 34.99) and TOCA 2 (Codemasters, pounds 34.99) are among the most accomplished simulations out there, while anyone inclined more towards fun than realism should pick Microsoft's excellent Midtown Madness (Microsoft, pounds 34.99), or the cheap but compelling M25 Racer (Infogrames, pounds 19.99).

A special mention must go to Grand Theft Auto 2 (Take 2, pounds 34.99), which may not be a traditional driving game but is one of the most entertaining - and amoral - releases of the year.

Christmas wouldn't be the same without Lara Croft returning for yet another Tomb Raider sequel - The Last Revelation (Eidos pounds 34.99). However, hot on her heels this year is a past master. Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine (LucasArts, pounds 34.99) sees the titular hero beating la Croft at her own game in pursuit of another legendary Biblical artefact. And she has a new rival in the shape of Darci, the heroine of Mucky Foot's just- released Urban Chaos (Eidos, pounds 34.99)

However, the most eagerly awaited PC game this Christmas has nothing to do with movie heroes or girl power. Released this week, Quake 3: Arena (Activision, pounds 44.99) could become the best-selling PC game ever. Dispensing completely with a storyline in favour of all-against-all firefights known as death matches, the game is designed for play against multiple human opponents but provides an array of sophisticated AI opponents for those who don't want the costs of online gaming. Unreal Tournament (GT, pounds 39.99) is similar in both theme and quality and both already have fanatical Web-based followings.

For the player who likes a storyline with his or her carnage, last year's Half-Life (Havas Interactive, pounds 34.99) is still king of the hill, especially when combined with the new Opposing Force mission pack (Havas Interactive, pounds 19.99). Following close behind are the atmospheric System Shock 2 (Electronic Arts, pounds 34.99), Aliens vs Predator (Fox, pounds 34.99) and Kingpin (Interplay, pounds 39.99), which received a BBFC "18" certificate for its graphic violence.

First-person games are not always about random violence, though - there is a range of squad-based titles in which the mayhem can be carefully planned.

Rainbow Six: Rogue Spear (Take 2, pounds 34.99) allows the movements of an anti-terrorist team to be meticulously plotted before going into action, while in the outstanding Hidden and Dangerous (Take 2, pounds 34.99) the player must control a troop of soldiers behind enemy lines during the Second World War.

Team-based games, though, are best played with human allies as well as opponents. Team Fortress Classic, a free downloadable upgrade to Half- Life, is a co-operative shooter in which players can choose different classes of soldier (including medics, sappers and spies) before engaging in battle over the Internet. The captivating FireTeam (Cryo, pounds 34.99) is also based on collaborative online combat, but the battlefield is portrayed from an isometric viewpoint, and team members can speak to each other in real time via the (supplied) headsets.

Looming next year though is Command and Conquer: Sole Survivor, which promises to take the experience a step further - if your Internet connection is fast enough. In the meantime, Command and Conquer fans will have to make do with the latest in the series, Tiberian Sun (Electronic Arts, pounds 34.99). Based on the same tried and tested gameplay mechanics as its predecessors (mine mineral resources, build a vast army, go to war), Tiberian Sun can also be played online, and even runs well on aging machines. Further contenders in the strategy field are Age of Empires 2 (Microsoft, pounds 39.99), Dungeon Keeper 2 (Electronic Arts, pounds 34.99) and Total Annihilation: Kingdoms (GT Interactive, pounds 34.99).

For those who tire of the roar of virtual gunfire and prefer something a little less mayhem-orientated, there are a variety of games available that can appeal to children as well as to their parents. Foremost amongst these is the excellent Theme Park World (Electronic Arts, pounds 34.99), the sequel to 1995's classic Theme Park. All the aspects of creating a theme park can be tweaked, from the design of intricate roller coasters to the amount of salt on the punter's chips. What's more, each attraction that you create can be experienced in full 3D, and then posted on the Internet so others can enjoy a virtual visit.

Elsewhere in the more family orientated department is Puzzle Bobble 4 (Virgin, pounds 19.99), the latest version of the dangerously addictive Tetris variant, and Links LS 2000 (Microsoft, pounds 39.99) a beautifully presented consolation for those who are barred from the fairway by the English weather.

On the console front, Sega's Dreamcast will be high on many a Christmas list, not least because it can be used to surf the Web and send e-mail as well as to play games. Against the predictions of many critics, the console has made a strong start in a market dominated by Sony, whose Playstation 2 will not reach the UK for another year. Dreamcast has an excellent line- up of games already, from arcade favourites Sega Rally 2 (Sega pounds 39.99) and PowerStone (Eidos, pounds 39.99) through to well-received football title UEFA Striker (Infogrames, pounds 39.99) and oddball fish-em-up Sega Bass Fishing, which comes with its own rod-shaped controller (Sega, complete package pounds 59.99). Best of the bunch though has to be the flawless Soul Calibur (Sega, pounds 39.99), probably the most dazzling and inventive beat-em-up ever made.

The evergreen Game Boy (pounds 59.99 for Game Boy Colour ) looks like having another strong Christmas, being the only console to host a game based on the Pokemon craze (Nintendo, pounds 24.99). However, it is being jostled for shelf-space by the Neo Geo Pocket (pounds 59.99), a new handheld with some entertaining games and an excellent colour screen

The Game Boy's big brother, the Nintendo 64, is nearing the end of its lifespan, but it can also be bought for a mere pounds 59.99. Considering the amount of top-class software that's available for the Nintendo 64, it is surely the bargain of the season. Classics such as Mario 64, Goldeneye and Zelda: Ocarina of Time are available at discounted prices and among the best games ever made. New titles Jet Force Gemini (Nintendo, pounds 49.99), Turok: Rage Wars (Acclaim, pounds 39.99) and Donkey Kong 64 (Nintendo, pounds 59.99) are recent high-quality additions to the range.

Sony's all-conquering Playstation will be backwardly compatible with next year's Playstation 2, so the flow of software will not dry up for some time. Highlights this year have included the Seventies-styled getaway car game Driver (GT, pounds 34.99); eerie horror epic Silent Hill (Konami, pounds 39.99); and highly playable skateboard title Tony Hawk's Pro Skater (Activision, pounds 39.99).

It is Final Fantasy VIII (Sony, pounds 44.99), though, a hugely involving and imaginative role playing game, which provides a true vision of the future, stimulating emotions rather than just reflexes. Expect to see more of this, rather than mere technology-led upgrades of established genres, as the games industry moves into the next millennium.