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Games: Busts and bargains

August 6, 1998
Web posted at: 10:30 AM EDT

by Peter Olafson

(IDG) -- The original version of "Battlecruiser 3000AD", released prematurely by Take 2, wasn't a bad game. It was an unplayable game. Anything that crashes that often should have a test dummy in it.

But you have to hand it to designer Derek Smart: he is tenacious. He patched and repatched BC3K until it was stable and the nonfunctional features functioned. He wrote a proper manual to replace the bewildering pamphlet that shipped with the game. And earlier this year, he released the final DOS version of his space-opera free of charge (and it's on this month's PC Games Magazine CD-ROM).

And, y'know, it's not bad. A little time invested in digesting the manual and in the game's recesses reveals Battlecruiser as, essentially, StarFleet 3D. We've always had to settle for being a hired hand in this sort of sim; but Battlecruiser puts you in the command chair of a giant warship with intimate control over…well, very nearly everything one could wish for: interceptors, shuttles, tractor beams, probes, crew assignments, and more.

The graphics haven't stood up particularly well, and the interface seems counterintuitive in some places. (What I wouldn't have given for online, context-sensitive help!) nevertheless, I can feel myself just beginning to get sucked in. And it hasn't crashed even once. (3000AD; ; free) Grade: B

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Core Design and Lara Croft have finally gotten around to wrapping up Unfinished Business. "Tomb Raider Gold" sends last year's virtual "it" girl through the original game plus four new levels-two from that would-be data disc (set in Atlantis and conceived as an alternate TR ending) and two in the now-waterlogged ruins of Khamoon.

It's always nice to get more of a good game, and TR Gold is even more than it first appears, as you also get a screen saver, calendar, and desktop theme. While this pack includes the full game, these add-ons-also available as a free download-don't often exhibit the exhilarating spectacles of Tomb Raider; but they're singularly clever in construction (in the rugged style of the first game) and significantly tougher to complete. (Eidos;; $30) Grade: B+

I can't think of a game as heedlessly, helplessly joyful as Rayman. This jolly side-scroller is one of a handful of games that can actually lighten my heart through the playing. (The little guy endures all sorts of abuse with a grin.) That's only a good thing, and "Rayman Gold" is more of a good thing. It adds 24 levels, with more to be found on a level-specific Web site and more still to be made with the built-in tools. And it left me feeling happy (except for the bumpy installation). (Ubi Soft;; $40) Grade: B

"Rally" road races have always seemed to be more a European phenomenon than an American one, but Virgin's recent "Race Pack" bundle should encourage converts. While the handling's a bit too slippery in the Sega Rally-like Screamer 2, the vistas are delightful (check out that stormy English sky) and the vibe oh-so-carefree.

And Rally championship is simply one of the most pleasant surprises I've ever experienced in a racing game: Apart from great graphics, speed, and handling, it's got a wonderful sense of bigness about it that put me squarely in the driver's seat. (Virgin; ; $25) Grade: A-

"Duke Caribbean: Life's a Beach" is much more in the spirit of the original game than Nuclear Winter. Created by the guys behind "Suckin' Grits", this sunny adventure finds Duke wearing sandals and carrying a squirt gun, his enemies in sunglasses and Hawaiian shirts, and pipebombs turning into pineapples. Fun, funny, and fairly challenging. (WizardWorks;; $15) Grade: B+

The first commercial add-on for "Quake II" (not id-sanctioned) profits from a sense of place and darkly glimmering textures. However, many of the levels in "Juggernaut: The New Story" -- 26 in all -- feel small, simple, and obvious in solution. They do get bigger and better as you dip into the game, but the first challenging one is also the slowest. (Head Games;; $25) Grade: C+

"The Jet Age" gives budding airline pilots five from Boeing's 7x7 line-done up in detail (you can fly under the colors of 25 airlines) and accompanied by sometimes-dramatic sound. Man, do I feel responsible! (Aeti;; $30/$39) Grade: B

"747 Jumbo Jet" allows you to fly 10 variations on that monster, and it includes a library of photos and film clips. Nicely done, I suppose, though I don't think I'll ever love a plane enough to want 10 of 'em. (Alpha Software;; $25) Grade: B-

The "wow" in "FSwow!" is World Object Wizard -- a comprehensive editor for populating FS environments with little hangars, trucks, control towers, and whatnot by assembling a simple text file. Easy to sort out, though off-line docs would be nice. (Apollo Software, distributed by Aeti;; $49) Grade: B+

Finally, there's "Terror in the Air", the follow-up to "911 Air Rescue." This flight-sim adventure for FS '95 and '98 appears designed for people who think non-shooting flight sims are dull: It gives you a job. Specifically, Terror sends you up over New York, D.C., and Paris with a mission to foil nuclear terrorists with your little prop plane and its tailhook. There's got to be a better way to round up ransom money. But, however gamey the scenario, this sedate sim does acquire a certain urgency and, aside from my artificial horizon moving around while the plane was at rest on the ground, FS '98 behaved itself. (Head Games;; $25) Grade: B-

How about a second "All-Star Sports" compilation? Action-oriented baseball games simply don't come any better than "Hardball 5." "Screamer", as mentioned in Virgin's Race Pack, is a "Sega Rally"-style racer. And even this half-a-loaf version of "Links LS" is the sort of golf game that could convert golf-haters. The only serious downside is Acclaim's "Space Jam"-cartoon basketball with subgames and muddy graphics-which barely lives up to the compilation's premise. (Encore;; $30) Grade: B

OK, the two games on "Pinball Madness" are small-table antiques, but Virgin's "Hyper 3D Pinball" is downright surrealistic, and Maxis' "Full Tilt" has the feel of pinball down nicely. Caveats: You shouldn't have to manually patch compiled games. And a pinball collection should have more than 11 tables. (Encore;; $30) Grade: B-

"Puzzle Madness!" includes in its quintet standard filler like crossword puzzles and yet another spin on "Tetris", but also "Shanghai II" (which can be hard to find outside the confines of Spycraft) and an interesting oddity called "Uncle Henry's Playhouse" - itself a compilation of 12 puzzles from Trilobyte's "7th Guest", "11th Hour", and "Clandestiny" (plus a mysterious 13th). But how does Hasbro's "Ultimate Yahtzee" qualify as a puzzle game? (Encore;; $30) Grade: C

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