The best in sports game software. (Compute's Getting Started With: Entertainment Software) (Buyers Guide)
by Scott A. May
Sports simulations offer game designers a unique challenge: accurately representing real-world competition on the computer. While other game genres allow the imagination to dictate direction, sports titles demand unerring compliance to rigid rules and regulations. Sorting statistics is the easy part - after all, computers are born number crunchers. Simulating the true nature of any sport - an almost metaphysical balance of individual and team effort - is a whole other ball game. When all elements come together, however, the results are often the most enduring entertainment of any software genre.
Few sports are as fiercely contested among designers and players as professional baseball. Debates over which title best simulates the action, statistics, or managerial options probably will rage as long as fans argue over their favorite teams. Hardball Ill (Accolade, 800-245-7744, $59.95) currently reigns as league leader in the action-oriented category. This one has a lot going for it: beautiful 256-color graphics, VCR-style instant replay (with option to save), accurately rendered stadiums, TV-style close-ups, multiple view angles, and best of all, digitized play-by-play from veteran sportscaster Al Michaels. Play options include exhibition games or user-defined full season play, with mid-season all-star games and limited statistical printouts. Add-ons, such as the MLBPA Players Disk ($24.95) and Big League Ballpark Disk ($24.95), extend the game's instant appeal.
Heating up the bullpen is Accolade's closest rival, Tony LaRussa Baseball II (Strategic Simulations, 408-737-800, $59.95). This power hitter actually boasts the league's best graphics and most realistic animation, but it falls short of the fence in terms of accurate and responsive player controls. Announcer Ron Barr is on board for digitized play-by-play - smoother, but not as expressive, as Michaels in Hardball ill. As you'd expect from the title, the game shines on the managerial side, featuring a roster of 2,000 veteran players and 54 historical teams, with stats updated and printed in 134 categories. Optional add-on disks include the MLBPA Players ($19.95), AL/NL Stadiums ($29.95), and Fantasy Draft ($19.95).
For those who see baseball as merely a numbers game, the field abounds with several excellent all-stat games. Many of the league's oldest and most respected titles recently have resurfaced with much-needed graphical facelifts. Beneath their hi-res, mouse-driven facade, however, still beats the heart of a spreadsheet. Among the best new titles are Microleague Baseball 4 (MicroLeague Sports Association, 302-368-9990, $49.95), APBA Baseball for Windows (Miller Associates, 800-654-5472, $69.95), and Strat-O-matic Computer Baseball 4.0 (Strat-O-matic, 800-645-3455, $60).
Although baseball probably will always be known as the national pastime, football has long been America's favorite sport. The computer gridiron is also currently the scene of the game industry's hottest innovations. Leading the charge, with few competitors even close, is Front Page Sports: Football Pro (Dynamix, 800-326-6654, 69.95). The game's most obvious virtues are the dazzling on-field graphics, which use much of the same 3-Space technology pioneered in the company's best-selling flight simulators, Red Baron and Aces of the Pacific. More than 8,000 frames of rotoscoped animation make up the incredibly fluid, lifelike player movements, with nine fixed camera positions capturing the bone-crunching action. Gameplay itself is fast, smooth, and responsive, with support for dual joystick controls and truly remarkable computer artificial intelligence. But wait, we've only skimmed the surface! Beneath this slick veneer are the real goodies: 2,500 plays, real NFL teams and players, more than 300 printable stat categories, team owner and general manager duties, and the best coach's playbook designer on the market. No doubt about it, FPS: Football Pro is a work of art.
Of course, true football fans can never get enough pigskin action. The best of the second string titles offer credible performances in their own right. Tom Landry Strategy Football Deluxe Edition (Merit Software, 800-238-4277, $49.95) tops the list as the most entertaining coaching simulation. Highlights include a team and league editor, full season play, expanded stat tracking, null or remote modem play, and the most user-friendly interface in the genre. Other top draft choices for both action and strategy football include Unnecessary Roughness (Accolade, $69.95), NFL Football (Gametek, 800-928-GAME, $49.95), and NFL Coaches Club Football (MicroProse, 800-879-PLAY, $49.95). Pure strategy fans should check out MicroLeague Football 2 MicroLeague Sports, ($54.95) and 3-in-1 Football (Lance Haffner Games, $39.95).
Few sports are as well adapted to computer simulation as golf, with its understated strategies and graceful motion. The undisputed king of the fairways is Links 386 Pro (Access, 800-800-4880, $39.95), best known for its digitized full-motion video and scanned Super-VGA graphics. Most people don't believe their eyes upon first seeing the silky swings of the onscreen golfers. One of the game's most fascinating features is the ability to play a round and give the results (on disk) to a friend, who can then compete against your saved game. Other highlights include a user-defined windowed interface, multiple camera views, printable stats, and crisp digitized sounds. Like most other established golf games, this one boasts a batch of scenic course disks ($29.95 each). A Windows version is sold under the title Microsoft Golf (Micro-soft, 800-426-9400, $64.95).
The runners up for best golf game are equally good, in their own way. Accolade has enjoyed tremendous success with Jack Nicklaus' Golf and Course Design: Signature Edition ($69.95), noted for its outstanding 256-color VGA course designer. Beyond the wide assortment of supplement course disks offered through the company, dozens of user-created courses can be downloaded off services such as CompuServe, Genie, and America Online. Other worthy golf titles include PGA Tour Golf for Windows (Electronic Arts, 800..245-4525, $59.95) and David Leadbetter's Greens (MicroProse, 800-879-PLAY, $59.95), the latter noted for its unusual multiplayer modem option.
The mechanics of computer auto racing force most games in this category to straddle the line between sport and simulation. The best in a new breed of high performance models is World Circuit (MicroProse, $59.95). The game features exquisite reproductions of 16 world class Grand Prix circuits, from Monaco's twisting urban sprawl to the gut-wrenching figure eight of Japan's Suzuka raceway, Fabulous first-person perspective, rendered with a speedy combination of bit-mapped and textured polygon graphics, puts you right on the tarmac. The game also feels right, whether you're tearing down the straight-aways or slipping into a tight curve. A unique alternating play mode allows two drivers to compete on a single computer. Or you can play two simultaneously via null or remote modem link. Other worthy contenders for the checkered flag are IndyCar Racing (Papyrus Software, 617-868-5440, $74.99), Car and Driver (Electronic Arts, $59.95), and Mario Andretti's Racing Challenge (Electronic Arts, $24.95).
The best of the so-called minor sports include 4-D Boxing (Electronic Arts, $24.95), an amazing new approach that borders on virtual reality. Boxers are rendered with large polygon shapes, affecting an odd, abstract look, but facilitating remarkably fluid, lifelike motion. Multiple camera angles, including a wild first-person view, puts you right in wing. Hockeyfans will be delighted with Electronic Arts' excellent NHL Hockey ($69.95), a potent combination of fast action and in-depth coaching skills. Converted to the PC from the best-selling Sega Genesis original, the game features full rosters of real NHLPA teams and players, with your choice of exhibition or full 84-game season play, including the Stanley Cup finals. Other highlights include Ron Barr's digitized voice, skate or coach play options, detail stat reports, and two-play competitive mode.
Other outstanding sports titles, in a variety of categories, include Summer Challenge (Accolade, $54.95), Test Drive III: The Passion (Accolade, $59.95), Wayne Gretzky Hockey 3 (Bethesda Softworks, 301-926-8300, $59.95), and Cactus League College and Professional Bask t all (Cactus Development, 800-336-9444, $49.95).
TOP 10 SPORTS
Front Page Sports: Football Pro. Unbeatable combination of 3-D graphics, managerial decisions, and playbook design.
World Circuit. Great looks and smooth play combine for full-throttle action.
Hardball III. Well-balanced design of action, graphics, and strategy, with play-by-play by sensational Al Michaels.'
Links 386 Pro. Soars to top of golfing leader board with digitized Super-VGA graphics.
4-D Boxing. Polygon graphics deliver ultrasmooth, lifelike animation.
APBA Baseball for Windows. Polished Windows interface brings new life to this venerable stat classic.
Jack Nicklaus Golf, Signature Edition. Lush graphics and built-in course designer highlight this all-time favorite.
Summer Challenge. Up to 10 players compete in 8 expertly designed Olympic-style events.
Tom Landry Strategy Football Deluxe Edition. Solid coaching sim with excellent stats, play calling, modem option, and the best mouse interface in its league.
NHL Hockey. Excellent conversion of the best-selling console classic.