Hard to believe it's been just six years since id's "Wolfenstein 3-D" introduced thousands of computer owners to a castle teeming with Nazis--and to the possibilities of immersive first-person gaming.
But in the video game world, half a decade is like a geologic age, and several generations of games have pushed successive generations of hardware to new levels--making "Wolfenstein" look downright quaint by comparison.
"Wolfenstein" begat "Doom," and "Doom" begat a flock of 3-D imitators, but none have stolen the first-person throne from id. In addition to various "Doom" sequels, designers at id churned out winners like "Hexen," "Heretic" and "Quake."
And although the company's founders have split up, id's games seem no worse for it. Consider "Quake II," an engrossing blast-fest that shows off the power of the Quake engine. From play and graphics to sound and story, "Quake II" stands above the fray with movement that is graceful, scenery that is breathtaking and a cyborg army that is as nasty as they come.
Environments look smooth on a standard PC--the faster the better--but really come to life on machines rigged with a graphics card. The difference is staggering. Windows and water actually look like windows and water, and complicated perspectives blaze into view. At a minimum, players need a Pentium 90 with 16 megabytes of RAM. Performance increases with power.
In addition to the technical glitz, "Quake II" actually tells a story--albeit a fairly simple one. Seems that the Strogg, an alien race of cyborgs, want to take over Earth and turn it into a giant strip mine. Players assume the role of a marine--the sole survivor of an invasion of the Strogg planet--who, of course, becomes Earth's only hope for survival.
Levels are divided into smaller units and players must accomplish various tasks as they move deeper into the Strogg stronghold. That means repeating certain sections of the game. It's cool, but also frustrating as players try to gain access to areas that won't open until later.
And getting there takes determination. Enemies move with better-than-average intelligence. Not since "Turok the Dinosaur Hunter" on Nintendo 64 have polygon bad guys seemed so realistic. Sometimes, the Strogg seem a little too realistic as blood squirts everywhere and they writhe in agonizing death throes.
Parents of young children should shy away from "Quake II." The Mature rating from the Entertainment Software Ratings Board is there for a reason. For older players, though, the game packs a wicked punch.
"Quake II" preserves id's place in the first-person throne, but only until the next cool thing comes along. The early word is that the next cool thing may be "Unreal," a screaming-fast shooter due out this summer from Epic and GT Interactive.
MYSTERIES OF THE SITH: Although not nearly as dazzling as "Quake II," "Mysteries of the Sith" takes players on a solid first-person adventure through George Lucas' "Star Wars" universe. Sith is actually a set of companion missions for "Jedi Knight," which itself was a sequel to "Dark Forces."
Sith picks up a few years after mercenary Kyle Katarn finished off the seven Dark Jedi in "Dark Forces." This time, Katarn and Mara Jade must battle an emerging Empire to maintain the stability of the New Republic. Don't worry, the story really isn't that important. Good aim is.
Players fight their way through levels that are both beautiful and complicated. As in "Jedi Knight," they must rely on brain power as well as firepower. Certain so-called Force Powers help players find clues and distract Imperial nasties. Unlike in "Jedi," though, players must follow an established course for good. "Jedi" allowed players who killed too many civilians to slide over to the dark side. No such option in "Sith." Gone, too, are the full-motion video interludes that propelled "Jedi's" story.
For "Star Wars" fans, "Mysteries of the Sith" is a must-play. For everyone else, it's a good time but nothing revolutionary. "Sith" requires the original "Jedi Knight" to play, and although optimized for machines with hardware graphics acceleration, it plays just fine on faster Pentiums.
STEEP SLOPE SLIDERS AND COOL BOARDERS 2: Snow has never been better in Southern California's mountains, so why anyone would sit at home and pretend to snowboard on a game defies logic.
For those who absolutely must, "Steep Slope Sliders" for Sega Saturn and "Cool Boarders 2" for Sony PlayStation serve up some decent digital snow. The "Sliders" offerings are fairly slim, but its game engine allows players to blitz down some pretty hairy slopes. The adrenaline thrill wears thin after a few runs, though.
"Cool Boarders 2," by contrast, offers a range of challenges from downhill runs and trick displays to dressing disaffected boarders in some cool duds. Diehard boarders should appreciate the technical skill involved in some of the tricks, but most players will find "Cool Boarders 2" as baffling as the first one.
Times staff writer Aaron Curtiss reviews video games every Monday in The Cutting Edge. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Platform: PC CD-ROM
ESRB * rating: Mature
Bottom line: Wow!
Jedi Knight: Mysteries of the Sith Companion Missions
Platform: PC CD-ROM
ESRB rating: Teen
Price: $34.95, plus $49.95 for original Jedi Knight
Bottom line: Neat features, but not enough
Steep Slope Sliders
Platform: Sega Saturn
Publisher: Sega Sports
ESRB rating: Kids to adults
Bottom line: Sweet spots, but signifies Sega's steep slide of late
Cool Boarders 2
Platform: Sony PlayStation
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
ESRB rating: Kids to adults
Bottom line: Lots of stuff, but not much fun for non-snowboarders
Next week: Journeyman Project 3: Legacy of Time; Gex: Enter the Gecko and Aerofighters Assault.
* Entertainment Software Ratings Board