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'Dragoon' Plays Its Role Well, but It's Not Quite Legendary

September 07, 2000|AARON CURTISS

"The Legend of Dragoon" for Sony PlayStation is the sort of game that makes players' mouths water as soon as the opening cinematics start to roll: Vivid pre-rendered sequences, artfully done with a mesmerizing soundtrack, push the humble 32-bit console almost into the realm of its technologically dominant rivals.

Yes, "Dragoon" starts incredibly. Yet aside from a few more flashes of brilliance scattered here and there across its four discs, the game quickly and continually lapses into a role-playing adventure that is very competent and sure to please fans of the genre, but unlikely to win any new converts.

The story opens with our hero, Dart, out frolicking in the woods as his village is ransacked and his best friend, Shana, is kidnapped by marauders from the Empire of Sandora. Setting off to rescue Shana, Dart instead finds himself entangled in a sticky web of history, power and dragons.

As with any role-playing game, the story that unfolds in "Dragoon" is critical and it reveals itself piece by piece as players build their party, learn new skills and discover uncharted realms. But "Dragoon" assaults players with its story, forcing them to sit through screen after screen after screen of scrolling dialogue.

That's pretty common for an RPG (role-playing game) and one of the reasons I'm not a huge fan of the genre. I'd rather play my games than read them. And it seemed to me that "Dragoon" demanded a little more patience than I'm willing to devote to a game.

But when "Dragoon" paused for one of its many pre-rendered, full-motion video interludes, I was all eyes and ears. Designers doted on details such as naturally flowing robes, light sourcing and dialogue that's actually better than many movies. The attention to imagery pervades "Dragoon." Even in game-play backgrounds, light streams through the trees or casts an eerie glow around torches.

The combat, spell and inventory systems in "Dragoon" make sense and are generally easy for fans of the genre to manipulate quickly. It's the standard hit points, magic points and experience points routine so as players get rid of enemies in battle they gain strength and ability to face ever meaner and tougher bad guys.

Unfortunately, "Dragoon" relies on one of my least favorite RPG devices: turn-based fighting. Essentially, that means every time players come across a goblin or dark knight or demonic rodent, the game screen dissolves into a battle arena in which each combatant takes a turn inflicting pain on the others. Although better than most, the system in "Dragoon" is still tedious and, as far as I'm concerned, a major buzz kill. Games are to the point today where complex combat can be incorporated right into the action.

Folks who live and breathe for role-playing games probably think what I just wrote is heretical. I know many people who absolutely love "The Legend of Dragoon." I thought I would, too. But although I enjoyed playing it, "Dragoon" never really lived up to its potential.

"Army Men: Air Combat"

The old helicopter "Strike" series on 16-bit machines offered some of the best times a guy could have--without actually owning his own fully-armed attack chopper, that is. "Army Men: Air Combat" for Nintendo 64 attempts to revive some of that fun with a brainless blastfest that's just close enough to the original "Strike" games to make veteran players wonder if maybe it wouldn't be a gas to dust off that old Super Nintendo Entertainment System and go to town.

The "Army Men" universe is black and white--or tan and green, actually. Green guys are good guys. Tan guys are bad guys. Just like in the old plastic army men sets owned by kids who weren't raised by pacifists. It's a gag that has had mixed results. The original game on the PC was fun. Many of the subsequent installments were not.

"Air Combat" has its moments. All of the action takes place in domestic environments such as back yards that are brimming with everyday objects such as milk cartons and apples that players can use as defensive positions or offensive weapons. Players fly one of the game's four choppers--Huey, Chinook, Apache and Super Stallion--amidst all this junk and try to take out as many tan soldiers as possible.

It's good fun and the controls are as responsive as they need to be to give players a satisfying, but not overly technical, experience behind the stick. Visuals are pretty good, but nothing special. At its heart, "Air Combat" is not much more than a dolled-up "Jungle Strike." So why not just play it?

"Fur Fighters"

Parents who think that the jewel-case art for "Fur Fighters" is cute should be aware that this Sega Dreamcast game is little more than a cuddly version of "Duke Nukem." Sure, the cast of heroes includes a puppy dog, kitty cat, penguin and kangaroo. But these critters pack heat and love to use it.

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