Playing in a 3D wonderland

From Indiana Jones to the final appearance of Lara Croft, we preview the games likely to be occupying space under Christmas trees
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The Independent Online

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.

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, £89.99), and the same PC is capable of providing a surprisingly lifelike driving experience. Rally Championship 99 (Actualize, £34.99) and TOCA 2 (Codemasters, £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, £34.99), or the cheap but compelling M25 Racer (Infogrames, £19.99).

A special mention must go to Grand Theft Auto 2 (Take 2, £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 £34.99). However, hot on her heels this year is a past master. Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine (LucasArts, £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, £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, £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, £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, £34.99) is still king of the hill, especially when combined with the new Opposing Force mission pack (Havas Interactive, £19.99). Following close behind are the atmospheric System Shock 2 (Electronic Arts, £34.99), Aliens vs Predator (Fox, £34.99) and Kingpin (Interplay, £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, £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, £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, £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, £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, £39.99), Dungeon Keeper 2 (Electronic Arts, £34.99) and Total Annihilation: Kingdoms (GT Interactive, £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, £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, £19.99), the latest version of the dangerously addictive Tetris variant, and Links LS 2000 (Microsoft, £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 £39.99) and PowerStone (Eidos, £39.99) through to well-received football title UEFA Striker (Infogrames, £39.99) and oddball fish-em-up Sega Bass Fishing, which comes with its own rod-shaped controller (Sega, complete package £59.99). Best of the bunch though has to be the flawless Soul Calibur (Sega, £39.99), probably the most dazzling and inventive beat-em-up ever made.

The evergreen Game Boy (£59.99 for Game Boy Colour ) looks like having another strong Christmas, being the only console to host a game based on the Pokémon craze (Nintendo, £24.99). However, it is being jostled for shelf-space by the Neo Geo Pocket (£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 £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, £49.99), Turok: Rage Wars (Acclaim, £39.99) and Donkey Kong 64 (Nintendo, £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, £34.99); eerie horror epic Silent Hill (Konami, £39.99); and highly playable skateboard title Tony Hawk's Pro Skater (Activision, £39.99).

It is Final Fantasy VIII (Sony, £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.