As I worked my way through "Unreal," the last line of Norman MacLean's classic story, "A River Runs Through It," kept coming to mind: "I am haunted by waters." Like MacLean's literary Montana, the digital world "Unreal" reveals is a place where beauty and pain coexist and intersect.
There is water everywhere, it seems, in "Unreal." And it is haunting--both in its artful rendering and in the evil surprises it hides. That duality is a hallmark of "Unreal." Beauty hides evil. Darkness enshrouds knowledge. Familiarity cloaks innovation.
By now, most regular readers of this space are probably scratching their heads and wondering if the video games have finally taken their toll. How dare I compare the gentle grace of MacLean's words to a computer game in which the primary objective is to kill everything in sight?
Play "Unreal" and you'll understand. It is the kind of game that inspires rhapsody, the sort of visceral experience that engages the mind every bit as much as a good book. Except with "Unreal" you also get to blow 385-pound, flesh-eating amphibians into a million pieces.
Easy to dismiss as yet another first-person shooter, "Unreal" bumps the genre into a new realm. Yes, Tim Sweeney's "Unreal" engine gives Id's "Quake II" engine technical competition for powering the next generation of first-person games. But the technical skeleton of a game matters little unless developers can animate it with intelligence.
From the first disorienting moments of the game, players are drawn into a universe where knowledge reveals itself slowly. Players awaken in the dark belly of the prison ship Vortex Rikers, unable to understand the words they see or the sounds they hear. Over time, as the proper accouterments accumulate, the words and sounds make sense and players begin to understand where they are and why.
Play is at once familiar and new. Players familiar with the first-person template of control/space/cursor will feel instantly at ease. Although I generally resist using the mouse in first-person environments, "Unreal's" giant envelope demands it. Equipment hides and enemies lurk in the unseen corners. The only way to move fast enough is to keep one hand on the mouse and the other on the keyboard.
Once players actually start to move, however, it becomes clear that "Unreal" is new. The ground shakes. Ledges crumble as players inch their way along narrow paths. Light and shadow play tricks on the eyes, wrapping enemies in darkness until the last moment, requiring players to take a deep breath and step forward into the unknown. (Of course, the wise always save to disk first.)
Despite a handful of frame-rate problems in some of the early levels, the "Unreal" engine unfurls a seemingly endless array of stunning imagery. From tumultuous skies to the ubiquitous water, the game demonstrates how creative and colorful digital imagery can be. And a built-in world builder permits advanced players to experiment with level designs of their own and try them out on friends.
All of this comes with a price. Although the game can run on a Pentium 166 with 16 megabytes of RAM, that configuration will provide more frustration than fun. The game runs better on a Pentium 200 MMX with 32mb of RAM, but is optimized for PCs with graphics cards that use the 3Dfx or Power VR chipsets.
Risk: Forgive me if this sounds old-fashioned, but the value in board games lies in something beyond their playability. Think about it. Most are pretty lame. The attraction they hold is that a few friends or loved ones gather around the kitchen table with some snacks and use the game as an excuse to tell bad jokes and corny stories. The game is merely a vehicle. The people make it fun.
To test that theory, try "Risk" on Sony PlayStation. "Risk," of course, is the classic game of global domination. With friends, the old board game is a great way to vent aggression by marching imaginary troops across borders and leaving a path of sorrow in their wake.
On PlayStation, the game retains its strategic elements. But what's left is a sanitized, boring chore. There are much better electronic strategy games out there. Even against a human opponent, "Risk" is clunky and consumes too much time with sound effects and movies.
"Risk" is a great game, but not on PlayStation. Save a few bucks and buy the board version.
Hot Shots Golf: Unlike many men, I am not genetically programmed to think of golf and water as similarly essential to maintaining biological homeostasis. I had my fill of the links as a kid caddying for my grandparents.
But once I got past the giant-headed, doe-eyed, anime-style characters that inhabit "Hot Shots Golf," I understood a little better why so many men would rather play golf than eat. "Hot Shots Golf" demands skill and offers a great time on some original courses.
Times staff writer Aaron Curtiss reviews video games every Monday in The Cutting Edge. To comment on a column or to suggest games for review, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Platform: PC CD-ROM
Publisher: GT Interactive
ESRB* rating: Mature
Bottom line: The name says it all.
Platform: Sony PlayStation
Publisher: Hasbro Interactive
ESRB rating: Everyone
Bottom line: It's the board game without the soul.
Title: Hot Shots Golf
Platform: Sony PlayStation
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
ESRB rating: Everyone
Bottom line: A surprise
Next Week: "Auto Destruct," "Road Rash 3D," "Vigilante 8" and "Descent Freespace."
*Entertainment Software Ratings Board