Christopher Lye's pack mule has just died. Lye, a Microsoft Game Studios product manager, has led his fantasy characters straight to a team of evil monsters. The pack mule, standing in a grove of trees away from the action, is last to go. "When your pack mule is killed, you know you're in trouble," Lye says. Had Lye given this round of Dungeon Siege more attention, he could have kept that pack mule marching. And thanks to an easy learning curve on the fantasy computer game, a gaming novice can too.
"The designers wanted to make this accessible to a lot of people," Lye says. "You can jump in and start playing without having to learn a long rule set."
Dungeon Siege is one of several computer games released this year that appeal to an audience beyond teenage gaming gurus. Hot releases for adults involve elaborate fantasy worlds and strategic demands rather than simple thumb play.
Kirkland-based Gas Powered Games developed Dungeon Siege, which was published by Microsoft and released this April. The game has benefited from the popularity of The Lord of the Rings. A Dungeon Siege player can create a party of eight characters to lead through a fantasy world, battling dragons and monsters and picking up treasure on the way.
Scenes go from dense forests reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings to icy mountain passes. Gamers have complete control of the camera angle and can rotate it a full 360 degrees. When a dragon rumbles toward the players, the camera shakes. "People tell me that visually, it's the most beautiful game on the market," says Gas Powered Games CEO Chris Taylor.
The pack mule was the invention of Taylor, who always felt it was a shame to leave behind treasure loot because the humans couldn't cart it all along. Designers also did away with limited ammunition, deciding that gamers didn't want to be bothered with hunting for arrows. Older game users might appreciate the automated features. A sword swings back and forth automatically, "so you don't have to wear your finger out," Taylor explains.
Dungeon Siege was initially assigned a Mature rating, but Gas Powered Games toned down a few graphics to give the game a family-friendly Teen label. "Before, blood lingered on the ground too long, and now it only sticks around for a few seconds," Taylor says. "Body parts don't fly any more."
Dungeon Siege topped the list of computer game revenue earlier this year and received awards from PC Gamer, Computer Gaming World, and Computer Games Magazine.
IF FANTASY ISN'T your thing, wanna-be pilots can grab the newest version of Microsoft's Combat Flight Simulator 3. The latest edition of the World War II fighter-pilot scenario features more detailed graphics and new tricks.
Hedges, roofs, and power lines on the ground are more defined as the plane soars overhead. The world below now reacts to the gamer's actions. If a player decides to attack offshore ships, those ships will shell the shore. Earlier editions offered a choice of seven plane models; this one offers 34.
Sound effects allow a game player to know what's happening within the plane. Creaking noises indicate that the G-force might be damaging the plane or the pilot. Whether the pilot avoids passing out is determined by an earlier decision, when the game user divides a certain number of points between the pilot's vision, health, and G tolerance.
Quick-combat mode enables players to jump on in and start shooting, while campaign mode lets a player strategize and fight a series of missions that influence the war.
Microsoft Game Studios product manager Tucker Hatfield says that Combat Flight Simulator fans will want the latest installment. Flight-simulator players tend to be an older crowd with more disposable income. "It's like watching the next episode of Band of Brothers," Hatfield says. "People want to see what the next version is like."
Hatfield doesn't recommend attempting the game without a joystick. Though difficulty levels can be adjusted, dogfights are tough with only keyboard commands.
ANOTHER NEW RELEASE that builds on an existing franchise is Age of Mythology, a hotly anticipated follow-up to Age of Empires. The game, developed by Ensemble Studios and published by Microsoft, was released on Nov. 1 and nabbed the cover of Computer Gaming World and PC Gamer. "There's been a lot of anticipation," says Rick Mehler, Microsoft Game Studios product manager. "It's been in the making for a while."
In the game's mythological fantasy world, cyclopes and centaurs roam the Earth. Game players can accumulate resources by gaining favor from the gods. For the Greeks, that means praying at a temple. Egyptians can build a statue. And the nomadic Norse gain favor from the gods by fighting.
Game players can choose a god power to use to their advantage at each stage of the game. Rain, an earthquake, a solar eclipse, or a tornado can supplement a player's strategy. "It's definitely a strategy game," Mehler says. "It's very cerebral."
Mehler says that the game will appeal to a wider audience because it can be won in as little as 45 minutes. Those who don't want to spend hours in front of a computer can appreciate the potential brevity.
FOR THOSE WHO lean less toward gods and monsters and more toward James Bond, Kirkland-based Monolith Productions released the sequel to No One Lives Forever this September. The original spy game came out in 2000 and won Action Game of the Year. The sequel once again stars spy extraordinaire Cate Archer and is set in the 1960s. As Archer, the game player travels the world and ends up in one precarious spy situation after another. "It's a nod to Bond," Monolith producer Samantha Ryan says.
Dead bodies landed the game a Mature rating, but Ryan says that it's relatively low on violence. Though shooting people is a given, Ryan says that the game requires strategy. "You don't just want to go in with guns blazing," she says.
Before buying any new games this holiday, check out the system requirements. Computers lacking an up-to-date video card won't be able to handle the advanced graphics. Expect to pay between $40 and $60 for the games.