Monday, January 19, 2009

Computer Games Revisited

While getting ready for the snowstorm of the century set to hit the Tar Heel state, I realized I had not updated my gaming list in a year. I wrote an unusual post about computer games that fit my feminine personality well. Note that many of my selections do not necessarily have female characters. I love Tomb Raider as much as the next person, but I do not think most buy it to admire Lara Croft's sparkling personality. I like my games to be a little deeper, a little more involved, and if it involves a pretty girl, so be it.

So here's my recent list. Note that not all of these have been released in the past year. I have at least one game on my hard drive I play regularly that is twenty years old. If a game has staying power with me, then I will keep it.

rFactor (2005, Image Space Incorporated) is not only one of the best PC racing games of all time. It might be the best direct download ever too. A road course racer at heart, rFactor was designed from the ground up with a mod friendly framework that has allowed the original game to grow well beyond the original few cars and tracks. Several dozen professional quality cars mods ranging from the open wheel rockets of the F1 world to the sports cars of the GT circuit have graced this excellent racing game. Add to that several mostly road course tracks from around the world. rFactor is decent as a single player game, but it really shines online with a few good buddies. A racing wheel is a must to get the full experience out of rFactor.

My favorite tracks:

1) Spa Francorchamps in Belgium is a lumberjack's dream in the woods, but be sure to keep to keep your eyes on one of the most difficult stretches in all of road course racing near the start/finish line: the La Source hairpin followed by the Eau Rouge curves.

2) Lime Rock Park in Connecticut is a deceptively easy looking track that clocks in at only 1.53 miles. However, the new driver will not find it so easy after running the tight curves and blind spots into the grass and hay bales.

3) The Catalunya track near Barcelona, Spain has long been a popular testing site with F1 teams with its wide variety of corners and elevation changes. It also features the longest straight in all of F1 racing. Be sure to snag the pre-2007 version of the track as the two final sweepers were changed and not for the better.

4) The Daytona Road Course is mostly on the same track as the famous NASCAR race. However, several series use an infield course along with the oval which provides a stern test for driver and mechanics alike. Look for the 24 hour Rolex Series series around the corner to get a good look at this track.

5) The Monza track in Italy is all about speed. Several chicanes have been added over the years to slow down the racing, but the fans (mostly from Ferrari) still turn out in great numbers to watch F1 and moterbike series. As an added treat, you might be able to find a version which allows racing on the now abandoned oval section made popular in Grand Prix.

Visit rFactor Central to find all of the above mods and tracks. With the death of NASCAR racing games on the PC (thank you, EA Sports!), rFactor has become the de facto standard bearer for PC racing. Other sim racing games worth checking out include Live for Speed, GTR 2, GTR Evolution, and the subscription based iRacing.

Fallout 3 (2008, Bethesda Game Studios) is technically a continuation of the Fallout series made popular by Interplay in the late 1990's. Really though, it is a brand new start with Bethesda putting its stamp on this role playing game in a fully realized 3D graphics world. Playable on the XBox 360, Playstation 3, and the PC, Fallout 3 takes place in a post apocalyptic Washington, DC 200 years after the bombs fell in a fictional future.

The strength of Fallout 3 lies in the atmosphere of the gaming world. One would think walking around in a dead world would be mostly depressing. Certainly seeing the famous D.C. landmarks in various stages of ruin is quite profound. Add to that the desperation of the survivors trying to cobble together what they can for living. You as the main character are thrust into this world after your father escapes from the only world you've ever known: the vault. The vaults are underground living areas built prior to the war. Your character was born there and thought she would die there until that fateful day. Your job: find him. Oh by the way, your friends in the vault are not exactly pleased to see you go.

While not necessary to play the first two games, it is still not a bad idea to do some back reading at the Fallout 3 Wiki site. Just be careful to avoid spoilers. The Fallout world has a fairly deep back story comparable to Star Wars. The immersion is fairly impressive and even includes radio stations with the self appointed president John Henry Adams and DJ Three Dog of the Galaxy News Network. The only weak point may be the story itself which has a fairly rushed ending. Fortunately you can pursue the main quest at your own pace.

Oh, I mentioned one game I've had for twenty years. That would be the true spiritual father to the Fallout series: Wasteland. It's a DOS based game that may take some work to run on Windows (hint: use DosBox). Even with the now dated graphics, it is worth a place on your gaming rotation.

Other open ended PC RPG games of note are all the Elder Scroll series games including Oblivion (also from Bethesda), Mount & Blade, and the Gothic series.

Civilization IV Beyond the Sword (2004, 2007, 2K Games) is also a continuation of a series that I mentioned a year ago. Beyond the Sword is the second expansion pack and an absolutely necessity to fully enjoy the CivIV experience. The Civilization series has always had the player starting with a small band of settlers in the year 4,000 BC, building their first city, and growing through the ages into the dominate empire. This can be done on a military, cultural, technological, and economic level. The ways to win (and lose) are almost limitless.

CivIV is sometimes referred to as a genre called "4X" which stands for explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate. Essentially these are the four stages for these type of turn based strategy games which start you off with your own tribe, city, or planet. The player will begin by exploring the surrounding gaming world and then expanding into it. Eventually, the human player encounters computer controlled players which must be eventually exploited and exterminated. Pretty simple, wouldn't you say?

CivIV may seem daunting at first. The number of options just to begin a game may seem mind boggling. It might help to begin on a world like we have where you know where the other players will begin. Then move on to a randomly generated world. Leonard Nimoy helps you along the way as you discover new technologies. The tutorial system is also pretty good, and the computer players will take it easy on you... at first!

For those who prefer space faring civilizations and conquests, check out Masters of Orion II or the more recent Galactic Civilizations II.

College Hoops 2K8(2007, 2K Sports) may be the last college basketball game from 2k Sports for some time as the NCAA license was not renewed for the current season. This leaves the EA Sports improving but still inferior game as the only officially updated college basketball game. Available on console only, College Hoops 2k8 can still be had for under $20 in many gaming store bargain bins.

The good news is that 2K Sports incorporated a wonderful new feature which allows users to upload files including updated rosters. So even though no new game is forthcoming, you can still play a reasonable facsimile of this season complete with all the school and names. Also included are many all time great teams from years gone by. Ever wanted to match Michael Jordan's UNC teams against UCLA with Lew Alcindor? Now you can. Of course, you'll have to decide on things like shot clock, dunking, three point line, etc. That's half the fun comparing eras.

None of the above would mean much if the on-court gameplay didn't stand up well. Fortunately the game is a joy to play with numerous options to set your offense, defense, and line-ups. My only complaint is court spacing is not always represented well. The controls can be daunting at first but are worth learning. A legacy mode even allows you to continue your program into future seasons with recruiting, early graduations, job offers, and yes even job termination all part of the game.

Combined with NBA 2k8 for the pro game, College Hoops 2K8 is in my mind the best basketball game on consoles or PC period. This got me to thinking. What are the best for other sports? Here's my list:

Basketball: College Hoops 2K8 and NBA 2K8 - explained above

Football: ESPN NFL 2K5 (Xbox) and NCAA Football 07 (Xbox) - One of the real shames in sports gaming is the exclusive licensing which eliminated some good competing products. EA Sports has the lion's share of the exclusives with the NFL leading the way. Most gamers know the Madden series simply has not improved its product which leaves the ESPN NFL 2K5 as the best onfield game. Oddly enough, EA Sports finished well with the NCAA series on the XBox (not the 360) with the 2007 edition leading the way.

Baseball: MLB Series (Playstation 2 and 3) - This series is literally the only reason I keep a PS2 hooked up and is a great example of solid improvement every year. Honorable mention should be given to EA Sports for MVP 2005 and MVP NCAA Baseball 06.

Hockey: ESPN NHL 2K5 (XBox) - Note that the NHL does not have an exclusive deal which has lead to strong competition between the 2K and the EA Sports series. I understand the 09 game from EA Sports is particularly strong this year.

Soccer: Winning Eleven 9 (XBox) - The Konami series peaked with this edition a couple of years ago. Even without many of the international license deals, Winning Eleven for many years represented soccer in a nearly perfect manner. The FIFA 09 game from EA Sports has also been getting strong reviews.

Other: Links 2004 (Xbox), Tiger Woods 2006 (PC), Rugby (XBox), Top Spin (XBox)

So while the weather is cold, be sure to enjoy some of the above games. Many can be had without breaking the bank. Meanwhile, I'll keep working on the prom queen southern belle video game release. I'm sure it will be a big hit!

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