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Our Clash of the Console Titans Yields an Unexpected Winner

November 23, 2000|AARON CURTISS |

Stack Sega Dreamcast up against Sony PlayStation 2 for a head-to-head death match, and the winner is surprising. We're not talking here about polygons per second or any of the other technical specifications more often used to hawk product than to develop great games. We're interested in more esoteric considerations--such as how much fun it is to play.

So we put the two 128-bit machines to work on two classic first-person shooters that recently made the jump from the PC to set-top consoles: "Quake III Arena" for Dreamcast and "Unreal Tournament" for PlayStation 2.

Both games put players behind the trigger in sprawling arenas stocked with futuristic gladiators and a bevy of cruel and unusual weaponry. Both have very simple objectives: chase other warriors and mow them down before they do the same to you. Folks who have never played these kinds of games like to blame them for all sorts of violence perpetrated by already-messed-up people.

But those who enjoy them know that shooters provide among the most visceral gaming experiences anywhere and test the technical limits of most machines on which they are played. Plus, they generally allow more than one person to play at a time, so users can compete against human--rather than artificial--intelligence. And because both "Quake" and "Unreal" originated on the PC, those experiences can be used as a benchmark for performance on the consoles.

Right off the bat, neither console can create the sort of visual detail possible on a PC. Much of this is because television screens offer far less resolution than computer monitors. Transparent surfaces and fluids don't look as good as on the PC, and character details suffer in both games.

So while the arenas and warriors in both games look better than anything on any other console, they don't quite measure up to those on a PC equipped with a decent processor and graphics hardware. But, duh, a tricked-out gaming PC can easily set buyers back $2,000--far more than the $300 for PlayStation 2 or the $150 for Sega Dreamcast.

"Unreal Tournament" dazzles players with a staggering array of weaponry, complex mazes and computer opponents often more cunning than the humans they mimic. The deeper players get into "Unreal," the more play options reveal themselves--advancing from straightforward death matches to more sophisticated challenges.

As a single-player game, "Unreal" delivers decent, although sluggish, play. Players can control squads of virtual teammates--called "bots"--to wipe out opposing combatants. Tell a bot buddy to watch your back, and it may well take a bullet for you.

But "Unreal" is inherently a multiplayer game. Offing computer opponents is all well and good, but even the smartest artificial intelligence can get predictable and boring. On the PC, multiple players can congregate online for virtual frag-fests and compete against real human brains.

The PlayStation 2 version offers two alternatives for multiple players--neither of which is very satisfying or cheap. Because the machine has no built-in ability to connect to the Internet, online play is out of the question. That's a major bummer.

The easiest way is to split the screen either in half or into quarters so as many as four people can play at once. It ends up looking like those security videos in which feeds from four cameras are displayed on a single screen.

Option B is better, but it's pretty much out of the question, given how hard it is to find a PlayStation 2 these days. Without even a hint of sarcasm, the "Unreal" game manual tells players they can link multiple PlayStation 2s together with a special cable. That way, each player gets his or her own screen. Nice idea, but most folks can't get even one PlayStation 2 right now.

A bigger complaint, though, is how sluggish the game can be. Players use the analog thumbsticks to move and look around. But characters move as if they just got out of the dentist's chair, and doing a quick spin is easier said than done.

Speed is no problem in "Quake III Arena" on Sega Dreamcast. If anything, it's too fast and players have to keep tight tabs on the controls to avoid stupid mistakes. Everything about "Quake III Arena" is fast--from the speed with which enemies move to the instantaneous nature of death.

Battle environments are perfectly drawn, and the sadistic array of weapons offers plenty of choices for players who like variety in their carnage. There is very little not to like about this game on Dreamcast.

For players who crave multiplayer action, Dreamcast's built-in 56-kilobit-per-second modem whisks players to online fighting without a hitch. And, like "Unreal," "Quake" allows as many as four players to split the screen and play off a single box.

Designers developing for Dreamcast have a year on those struggling with the intricacies of PlayStation 2, and it certainly shows when games such as "Unreal" and "Quake" are stacked side by side. Dreamcast is a more mature machine, and its gaming capabilities right now--not a year from now--eclipse those of PlayStation 2.


Aaron Curtiss is editor of Tech Times.


The Skinny

"Quake III Arena"

Genre: First-person shooter

Price: $45

Platform: Sega Dreamcast

Publisher: Sega of America/Id Software

ESRB* rating: Mature

The good: Ruthless AI, true multiplayer action

The bad: Sometimes too fast

Bottom line: The way first-person shooters ought to be

"Unreal Tournament"

Genre: First-person shooter

Price: $45

Platform: Sony PlayStation 2

Publisher: Infogrames

ESRB rating: Mature

The good: Beautiful mazes

The bad: Very sluggish, limited multiplayer options

Bottom line: Nice, but not nice enough


*Entertainment Software Ratings Board

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