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Fun, but Only for the Initiated

Xbox, GameCube lineups seem just too advanced to attract new players.

November 22, 2001|AARON CURTISS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The new generation of video game consoles was supposed to revolutionize the way people think about games.

Microsoft, in particular, bragged that its Xbox would crack open the market to folks who had never picked up a joy pad before.

But judging by the launch lineups of Xbox and Nintendo's GameCube, that's not going to happen any time soon.

"Wave Race: Blue Storm" for GameCube and "Dead or Alive 3" for Xbox illustrate the point with technically superior games that are practically incomprehensible to the uninitiated.

"Wave Race" is a traditional racing game set amid perfectly rendered digital waves. "Dead or Alive" is a fighter with sprawling, multitiered arenas. Both are excellent games. Both delight experienced gamers. And neither is going to make a non-gamer want to go out and drop $200 to $300 on a new console.

"Wave Race: Blue Storm": "Wave Race" was one of the early titles for Nintendo's last console, the N64. At the time, it wowed gamers with water that looked like water. "Wave Race: Blue Storm" updates the original and shows how much better water can look.

Water is the indisputable star of "Blue Storm," which puts players on jet-powered personal watercraft (remember, Jet Ski is a brand name) to race through fantastic coastal environments that range from a swamp to a crowded urban harbor.

Players choose from eight riders, each with his or her own watercraft and set of strengths and weaknesses. Some are fast. Some are agile. Some perform stunts better than others. The differences matter because each game mode requires different skills.

Whether players are racing against computer-controlled opponents or as many as three live friends in split-screen mode, the courses flow across the screen like melted butter--or rushing water.

No single element of play in "Blue Storm" comes close to matching the grace with which developers rendered the game's water. Whether a flat inlet or a rolling coastline, the water of "Blue Storm" is simply exquisite. Zooming along the shoreline, players can see patches of coral, dolphins and schools of fish darting along just below the surface. As players zip through the still waters of a freshwater lake, the sunset reflects off gentle ripples.

But it's not all just good looks. The waves affect play. Hit a big roller the wrong way and watch what happens. It's not pretty. Thanks to force feedback built into the GameCube controller, players can literally feel waves as they hit them.

Other game modes offer the opportunity to perform stunts. It can be huge amounts of fun to do nothing but scream around courses in free-roam mode and practice stunts such as the Bullet, the Cowboy or the Superman. In other words, all the things no rational human being would attempt in real life are suddenly possible and safe in a video game.

Technically, there is very little not to like about "Wave Race: Blue Storm." It's as close to perfect as a first-generation video game can come on a new system. But showing it to non-gamers inspires little more than unenthusiastic courtesy smiles.

"Dead or Alive 3": The same goes double for "Dead or Alive 3," the third installment of Tecmo's distinguished fighting series. For fighting fans, "DOA 3" is as essential to a complete game collection as "Moby Dick" is to a bibliophile's library. For everyone else, it's just another video game with high-kicking females in leather bikinis.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. Trust me, "DOA 3" will make die-hard gamers weep with its speed, its range of options, its huge arenas and, yes, its cast of scantily clad women.

The game has a story, but it's irrelevant. Each of the 16 combatants enters a fighting contest to reconnect with a piece of his or her past. Some want cash. Some want glory. The only hint of these back stories comes through animated cut scenes stuck between fighting rounds.

Really, though, "DOA 3" is about punching and kicking and flinging opponents across the ring.

And there's plenty of that to keep even the most repressed, aggressive, maladjusted gamer happy.

Characters move with lightning speed. Their clothes drape around them and flutter in the breeze. Attack combinations allow all manner of degradation to be inflicted upon opponents. Arenas cascade across multiple levels. Knock a combatant through a barrier and watch him or her fall to a whole new arena, where the action commences without a hitch.

Xbox's hard drive allows games to keep massive amounts of data at the ready without accessing the DVD-ROM. That means transitions between areas are fast and seamless.

These are all elements that people who play games care about. But, again, non-gamers look at the game and see the same sort of juvenile fantasies that have pervaded video games from the earliest days of the industry.

None of this suggests that "Dead or Alive 3" or "Wave Race: Blue Storm" are not wonderful games. They are.

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