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Brainy Strategy Genre Now Has Looks Too

July 27, 1998|AARON CURTISS

Strategy titles have been around since the earliest days of computer gaming. Until just the last few years, though, they remained the province of serious players who enjoyed the intellectual thrill of planning a campaign and watching it unfold in a relatively slow, mostly text-based environment.

Ever meatier processors, bigger hard drives and expanded memory have changed all that, giving players the opportunity to manage battlefield operations in real time as they dispatch units across gorgeously detailed terrain to engage electronic or human enemies.

So now the cerebral satisfaction of battlefield command can be matched by the visceral thrill of actually watching troops ruthlessly dispatch foes or by the frustration of seeing--and hearing--them meet their makers.

And as both the genre and the overall market expand, strategy games have begun seeping into various niches. Of course, most remain the kind of off-world adventures that pit the fate of humanity against an alien onslaught. But three new titles--"MAX 2," "Mech Commander" and "Small Soldiers Squad Commander"--each aim to serve distinct segments of the gaming market.

Their success varies.

Interplay's "MAX 2" offers perhaps the most traditional play and story line. It's also the best of the bunch--hewing to a tight line between planning and action. Players assume command of various Mechanized Assault and Exploration, or MAX, units with orders to secure and colonize a range of hostile environments.

With nine clans or races from which to choose, the game offers dozens of possible combinations--none of which plays the same. So even if terrain and mission objectives are similar, the actual battle unfolds differently each time. When you are plunking down $50 for a game, the ability to play more than once is always appreciated.

Most of "MAX 2's" user interface is straightforward, with commands accessible with the mouse through visual menus or via keyboard shortcuts. As in most strategy games, players secure raw materials, build refineries, establish factories and then churn out the military units necessary to protect it all.

Among the nicest features is the ability to set up spy cameras that monitor outlying territories. It allows players to concentrate forces for one of the frequent assaults rather than spreading them too thin on patrols. It also compensates for the relative sluggishness with which the terrain scrolls across the screen.

Despite its traditional feel and look, "MAX 2" exploits emerging technology and gives players a wild ride through some heavy combat.

The game requires a Pentium 133 with 16 megabytes of RAM and 80mb of hard drive space but runs better on a Pentium 200 with 32mb of RAM. Even on a Pentium II 333, though, the terrain seemed to scroll slowly.

Microprose's "Mech Commander" expands the strategy genre into the Mechwarrior universe. For the uninitiated, it's a futuristic world where warfare is conducted by giant mechanized bipeds piloted by hotshots.

Until now, the Mechwarrior games have been fairly clunky first-person shooters. Although the series has been immensely popular, I never saw the attraction. And I didn't see much to change my mind in "Mech Commander."

Despite an instruction manual that's as long as many books--192 pages--it's possible to start up "Mech Commander" with almost no previous knowledge. The on-screen controls and menus are intuitive enough to jump right into play.

Unlike "MAX 2," "Mech Commander" focuses more directly on combat. Players mix and match their mechs and pilots and equipment before battle and then dump their squads into the field, directing them from above. Although battles can get heated, I found myself getting bored after just a few missions.

Sure, I could salvage enemy mechs and incorporate their weapons into my arsenal. Sure, I could execute enemy pilots as they tried to eject to safety. Sure, I could lay waste to civilian buildings. Fun as all that indiscriminate carnage may be initially, it gets old fast.

Die-hard Mechwarrior fans should appreciate the various intricacies of the game, but newcomers to the universe will probably scratch their heads and wonder what all the fuss is about.

The game requires a Pentium 133 with 16mb of RAM (32mb on Windows 98 machines) and 150mb of hard drive space. Microprose recommends a Pentium 166 or faster with 32mb of RAM and 230mb of hard drive space.

Hasbro Interactive's "Small Soldiers Squad Commander" is the first of two games based on the motion picture. Although the game carries an "Everyone" rating from the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, "Squad Commander" is not the kind of games parents squeamish about violence should buy for smaller kids.

Yes, "Squad Commander" is a strategy game for kids. Players don't have to manage the supply chain or keep track of anything beyond how many more soldiers are in the toy box. But the objective of "Squad Commander" is the same as any other adult-oriented strategy title: Kill whoever stands in the way.

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