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Computer Games Makers Have Not Myst a Trick


ATLANTA — Two years ago, visitors to the giant Electronic Entertainment Expo could hardly escape the constant boasts that this game or that game was destined to be "the next Myst," the subdued, surrealistic adventure that became the first true mega-hit of computer gaming.

This year, though, no one made that claim. Not even the folks actually producing the next Myst, a sequel called Riven. In fact, they take minor offense at the label, preferring to call their endeavor "the first Riven."

Whatever. Due on shelves this fall, Riven stood out as one of the few true gems at the annual computer- and video-game trade show. Sequels and knockoffs of successful games dominated the show's painfully loud and glitzy displays.

As the interactive entertainment industry matures and consolidates, computer- and video-game players should expect to find most of the innovation over the next year occurring in the margins with sharper graphics, crisper sounds and improved controls. Those looking for titles that fundamentally change gaming the way Doom or Myst or Super Mario 64 did will be disappointed.

That said, there's still plenty to look forward to. Across the board, advances in artificial intelligence and three-dimensional graphics have boosted the level of play in everything from sports titles to side-scrolling adventures. Even today's low-end games look and play better than most of yesterday's legends. Only a few have the potential to become the legends of tomorrow, though.

Riven, for instance, promises more of the kind of subtle, intelligent play that made Myst the best-selling computer entertainment title ever. Published by Broderbund's Red Orb Entertainment, Riven for PC and Mac continues the story begun in Myst as players discover new worlds in search of Atrus' wife, Catherine.

Like Myst, Riven integrates puzzles into beautifully drawn worlds. This time, though, creators Robin and Rand Miller made the worlds more interactive and connected the puzzles more seamlessly to a story supposedly even more involved and engrossing than Myst's.

The few images on display at E3 revealed scenes instantly recognizable to Myst fans, but with touches beyond anything seen in Myst. Fanciful creatures move in and out of scenery. Water shifts and sparkles. Perspectives change without distortion. Riven threatens to raise the bar yet again by gracefully merging aesthetics with a story that unfolds only as players want it to.

That sort of laid-back storytelling also characterizes Mindscape's Adventures on Lego Island, available this fall. The first electronic product licensed by the demanding Danish toy maker, Lego Island is designed for kids, but has plenty of adult appeal. Rather than write a simple building program, Mindscape designers opted to create an entire world made of Lego and allow visitors to explore it and change it at their own pace.

Players can wander around Lego Island and change houses, cars and even people, for they can build vehicles--from helicopters to Formula 1 cars--and then race them around the island. Players can also try to capture the Brickster, a Lego convict who's smashing up the town. Like Lego bricks, all of the elements work on their own or fit together in any combination.

And when players get tired of creating cool stuff, they can always switch CD-ROMs and start destroying cool stuff. MGM Interactive's Return Fire II for the PC and Sony PlayStation delivers all the fast combat action of the original, but with a new feel and look. Unlike the first Return Fire, the sequel due out this winter includes hilly terrain and a slick first-person perspective. The objective remains the same: Capture the opponent's flag and inflict as much damage as possible.

Whether against the computer or a human opponent, the combat is as furious as ever. Control of vehicles including tanks, PT boats, attack helicopters and fighter jets is technically accurate and made all the more realistic with the option of using a force feedback joystick, which jerks, sticks and vibrates to extend play beyond the standard boundaries of monitor and speakers.

In fact, these kinds of fancy controllers were everywhere. As silly as they might sound, the controllers gave a surprising boost to most games. Perhaps the best was Microsoft's SideWinder Force Feedback Pro joystick, which offers tight control and a wide range of feedback. In Playmates Interactive Entertainment's MDK, for instance, players can actually feel the recoil of their guns as they fire and the slight thump of footfalls as they run. And when players take fire from enemies, the stick jerks violently.

On a game like Microsoft's own Anarchy, the real potential of the stick, available this fall, becomes apparent. Anarchy, not scheduled for release until next year, combines the kind of third-person strategy found in games like Warcraft with lightning-fast, first-person shooting action. Taking a sharp turn in a chopper, the stick responds with a convincing pull that simulates G-force.

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