The best in role-playing games. (Compute's Getting Started With: Entertainment Software) (Buyers Guide)
by Scott A. May
Role-playing games, by nature, are unquestionably the most personal of all entertainment genres. After all, the basic premise of any role-playing game is to delve as deeply as possible into the psyche of its main characters. Most games let you carefully craft a party of characters, then pamper, polish, and protect them through outrageous adventures. Some fictional characters are programmed to develop such distinctive personalities that if they fall to harm's way, their human caretakers often react with intense emotions.
Computer role-playing games (CRPG) are natural extensions of their traditional pen-and-paper games or table-top miniatures. Instead of simply imagining monsters and moss-covered labyrinths, computer games burst with ethereal life, thanks to ever-evolving graphics and sound effects. Hard-liners may complain that the real magic has been lost; for the rest of us, however, CRPGs are the realization of our dreams - or more often, our nightmares. Almost without exception, role-playing games are dark, otherworldly affairs. Most CRPGs take place in the distant past or in strange fantasy realms populated by wizards, dragons, and elves and topped with an over-abundance of evil.
The fantasy realm is stocked with so many quality efforts, it would be impossible - and downright confusing - to mention them all. An excellent place to hone your skills is the third installment of Jon Van Caneghem's popular series, Might and Magic III: Isles of Terra (New World Computing, 800-325-8898, $39.95). Unlike many single-minded adventures, this game consists of a series of mini-quests, each taking you a step closer to your final confrontation. Foremost among the game's many innovations is its icon-driven player interface and its use of large scale, brightly colored graphics. The game also introduces new techniques for unrestricted wilderness travel; this allows players to explore virtually every nook and cranny of this massive gaming universe. Van Caneghem has followed this landmark game with two equally impressive Might and Magic titles: Clouds of Xeen ($39.95) and Darkside of Xeen ($49.95).
One of the genre's most successful pairings has been Strategic Simulations' computer recreations of TSR's legendary Advanced Dungeons & Dragons series. The result has been a steady stream of high-quality products, known to fans as the Gold and Black Box games. The cream of this prolific crop is without doubt the Eye of the Beholder series, volumes 1-3 (408-737-6800; $19,95, $59.95, and $69,95, respectively). Trademark features of the games include superb character generation and combat controls, intelligent nonplayer characters, cinematic-style story transitions, and chilling real-time action in the 3-D graphics window.
The final installment, Assault on Myth Drannor, is particularly challenging and recommended for experienced players only. Those who have mastered every castle and dungeon in the series can now create their own with Strategic Simulation's Unlimited Adventures ($59.95), a full-featured AD&D fantasy construction set.
Another long-running favorite in the genre is the Ultima series by Origin's Richard Garriott, a.k.a. Lord British. Like many of its contemporaries, the series recently replaced its flat graphics and stilted interface with exquisite 256-color VGA, mouse-driven controls, and digitized speech. The latest editions of the award-winning saga are Ultima VII: The Black Gate (800-245-4525, $79.95) and its add-on disk, Forge of Virtue ($24.95). This game continues the series' familiar three quarter, top-down view of the action but fills the full screen with improved graphic detail and peripheral animation. The storyline is huge and delightfully complex - not surprisingly, it takes nearly 20 megabytes of hard drive space. Garriott a!so jumps on the first-person bandwagon with Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss ($79.95). Unlike similar efforts, where characters must walk a path with limited view angles, this game allows unrestricted 360-degree movement. Combined with beautifully drawn 3-D modeled terrain and a remarkable illusion of depth, the experience is extraordinary. Origin recently followed with Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds ($79.95), which features a slightly revamped interface and the return of some old enemies.
The oldest of the genre's esteemed originals, by many accounts, is perhaps the best of the bunch: Wizardry VII: Crusaders of the DarkSavant (Sir-Tech, 800-447-1230, $69.95). D.W. Bradley's epic series was the first CRPG to feature phased combat and 3-D perspective - in 1981's Proving Ground of the Mad Overlord. Although Sir-Tech subsequently fell behind in the audio/visual department, the company makes a bold comeback with this dazzling work. Atop the game's traditionally styled role-playing engine - widely considered the strongest in the genre - Bradley integrates a marvelous mouse-driven graphic interface. Of special note is the spinetingling sensation of creatures rustling just beyond your field of vision, accompanied by distant growls, growing louder as you approach. Other new features include wilderness travel, automapping, day/night cycles, and vastly improved magic and combat. For players continuing on from the previous bestseller, Bane of the Cosmic Forge ($59.95), the game boasts multiple starting points.
Among the best in a new breed of role-playing games is Betrayal at Krondor (Dynamix, 800-326-6654, $59.45), based on the best-selling Riftwar Saga by Raymond E. Feist. In this totally unique blend of CRPG and graphic adventure, the story's characters aren't created by the player; instead, you function as a kind of interactive narrator, guiding the otherwise fiercely independent characters through a series of adventures. Likewise, the game's structure can be tight or loose, closely following the main plot line, or branching off to explore a 3-D virtual fantasy world - 224 million square feet of trails, rivers, mountains, lakes, islands, towns, twisting sewers, and abandoned mines. Because characters learn behavior based on decisions made at a particular time or place, no two games are exactly alike. Also worth noting is the extensive use of scanned artwork and digitized actors, as well as the 3-D tactical combat system.
Other worthy titles in the fantasy realm include Lands of Lore: Throne of Chaos (Virgin Games, 800-874-4607, $49.95) from Westwood Studios, creators of the original Eye of the Beholder; Magic Candle III (Mindcraft, 800-525-4933, $59.95); Challenge of the Five Realms (MicroProse, 800-879-PLAY, $49.95); Realms of Arkania (Sir-Tech, $59.95); Elvira Accolade, 800-245-7744, $24.95); and Darklands (MicroProse, $59.95).
Tired of trolls and arcane magic? Blast off to the future with science fiction role-playing games. Although the selection isn't nearly as large, this category recently has sparked renewed interest among game designers. Two of the oldest, yet still highly regarded, are Starflight and Starflight 2 (Electronic Arts, 800-245-4525, $24.95 each). Although the graphics and sound are primitive by today's standards, these intergalactic quests are unparalleled for their deep space atmosphere and player involvement. Much of this spirit also can be found in Star Control 11 (Accolade, $59.95), an epic-flavored star quest boasting excellent sound and graphics, involved alien interaction, and the best arcade-style space combat in the genre. Other titles of this caliber include Planet's Edge (New World Computing, $29.95), Hard Nova (Electronic Arts, $24.95), and Tegel's Mercenaries (Mindcraft, $59.95).
Another title of exceptional quality is Rules of Engagement 2 (Impressions, 203-676-9002, $69.95), Omnitrend's mammoth space saga that combines starship role-playing with strategy and real-time tactical combat. The game's most remarkable feature, however, is called the Inter-locking Game System., which offers internal links to Impressions' classic Breach 2 ($14.95) and upcoming Breach 3.
TOP 10 ROLE-PLAYING
Might and Magic: Clouds of Xeen. Big and colorful, this one's an excellent choice for rookie role-players.
Betrayal at Krondor. With a unique open-ended style, this is the vanguard of a new breed in role-playing adventure.
Wizardry 7: Crusaders of the Dark Savant. The grand elder of the genre, graphically updated and wicked as ever.
Ultima Underworld. Lord British goes underground with this stylish, 3-D virtual fantasy environment.
Eye of the Beholder III. The final installment of this trend-setting series offers tough challenges for advanced players.
Unlimited Adventures. Design your own diabolical quests with this full-featured role-playing construction kit.
Starflight 2. The first true science fiction roleplaying classic makes up in gameplay what it lacks in graphics.
Star Control II. Interstellar epic combines exceptional graphics with role-playing, adventure, and arcade-style space combat.
Ultima VII. Latest in long-running Lord British series features vastly improved control scheme, sound effects, and character intelligence.
Lands of Lore: Throne of Chaos. A graphic knockout, with a storyline to match, enriched by an intuitive, streamlined interface.