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The Goods | CYBURBIA

It's No Easy Task Being Master of All Creation

July 02, 1996|DAVID COLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Playing God is hard work.

You can't just sit back and decide who ascends to heaven and who descends into hell: You have to look after these pieces of divine real estate. There are rewards / punishments to maintain, angel / demon training centers to staff, soul-friendly roads to build and cosmic disasters, such as the Four Surfers of the Apocalypse, to avoid.

That's the idea behind "Afterlife," a new CD-ROM game from LucasArts that is clever, mind-boggling and inventive--to a fault. It's available in both Macintosh and Windows versions for about $50.

"Afterlife" is a simulation game, known in digital parlance as a sim, examples of which are "SimCity," "SimHealth" and "SimTower," made by Maxis. To play them, you take on the role of a big-time planner, overseeing the construction and development of a city, health system or office building. In playing the hugely popular "SimCity," for example, you have to zone land, build roads, provide public transportation, etc. Then you have to balance taxes and public services to keep the city running smoothly. There are people who gladly spend hundreds of hours with the game.

The creators of "Afterlife" sought to apply similar principals to fantasy. "I also knew that I wanted it to be different from every sim game out there," says Mike Stemmle, creator of "Afterlife." "But 'Afterlife' is the first and only sim game that puts players in charge of the great beyond, the hereafter, the proverbial undiscovered countries: heaven and hell."

You do zoning in "Afterlife," but it's for sloth, gluttony, envy and the other deadly sins. Or when creating heaven, try diligence, temperance, contentment and other divine rewards.

You place these zones in a grid and then build roads so that your souls can move among them. Then, the software takes over and builds amusement park-like fun centers for heaven and creepy, dangerous-looking edifices in hell. You create both worlds simultaneously and can view them together or zoom in for close-up looks of each. You have to carefully balance the populations of both worlds, providing for their inhabitants' needs and dole out limited resources in a wise fashion.

So far, so good. "Afterlife" is a witty spin on the traditional sim games and it uses the conventions of its target to help lampoon it. But satire is not truly great unless it is as engrossing and inventive as its victim. And here is where "Afterlife" falls far short.

The use of real-world issues gives "SimCity" a vibrancy that "Afterlife" simply can't match. "Afterlife" is wildly inventive but goes off in so many directions that it's wildly unfocused. You have to deal with incredibly complex rules having to do with karma stations, cosmic siphons, "topias" (as in utopias and dystopias), portal anchors and dozens of items in which I could not get much interested.

Also, the graphics are unsatisfying, at least early in game play. The buildings look fuzzy, and you can't zoom in for a close enough view to get details. Judging from screen shots on the LucasArts Web site (http://www.lucasarts.com), the visuals get more interesting. But I gave up long before I reached these higher realms.

Maybe I'm just eternally in purgatory.

* Cyburbia's e-mail address is david.colker@latimes.com.

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