Multiplayer action. (computer-network games) (Column)
by Paul C. Schuytema
Looking for a gaming experience beyond the normal and the predictable? You're looking for the experience of network games.
Network games are multiplayer games, once only text-based but now as advanced as the play-at-home VGA software you're used to. You have real live opponents--real people out to compete against you, disarming you with their skill, their speed, their unexpected lunacy. In short, opponents who are too random and exciting to be the product of any algorithm.
Using your computer as the medium and your modem and phone line as the means, you have at your disposal a virtually unlimited world of unique opponents of nearly every skill level.
Network games reside in the giant network systems such as CompuServe and GEnie, but new hybrids are popping up on services such as The Sierra Network and the Digital Dreams Network. The options are as diverse as your gaming interests, from text-based fantasy quests to stellar trading to cribbage.
GEnie, working with the software producers at Kesmai, has developed a multiplayer environment called MultiPlayer BattleTech. In this environment the tanks and infantry of past wars have been replaced by gigantic, anthropomorphic robotic bipeds armed with lasers and missiles.
The richly detailed universe of the game (the thirty-first century) sprang from the board games and support material of FASA Corporation. You've probably seen the BattleTech novelizations in your local Waldenbooks store. The BattleTech world is a feudal system of the future, complete with kin or house rivalries. The game consists of two front-end programs that you download from GEnie. One program controls the logistics of all of the players, adds a touch of roleplaying, and provides a rudimentary communication program with a forum for game-related correspondence. Behind that is the actual battle simulator: an EGA inside-the-cockpit simulator of your own giant robot.
The Sierra Network is a network set up specifically for modem gaming. The front-end software, available free of charge from Sierra On-Line (though that may change), is a slick 256-color VGA package that allows you to create your own personality (either true-to-life or wildly imaginative): You choose a customized facial icon, hobbies, age, and location. You also indicate your skill levels in the various games. This personality is what the others will see when they play against you.
You can choose from chess, checkers, bridge, cribbage, hearts, and backgammon. The graphics are fresh and rich. Playing these games against real opponents from across the country is as much of a pleasure as it is a challenge (for those who need a high-tech blastfest, The Sierra Network also boasts a multiplayer dogfight game based on Dynamix's excellent World War I flight simulator, Red Baron).
CompuServe offers SNIPER!, a European-theater, squad-level, World War II war game. The game can be played in ASCII, but the text characters are far too cryptic for my tastes. What makes this game shine is the graphical shell which you can down-load (there's no connect-time fee but there is a $2 flat fee for the software).
The software gives the player a skewed 3-D view of the battlefields (including building interiors), as well as several information windows displaying the status of the game.
While the game's control logistics seem a little obtuse at first, you can enter a modified boot camp where you explore all of the various commands. Battles are arranged in the game's meeting area, called the saloon. The games are actually missions with set goals for each side.
As I mentioned earlier, these options are only a small sampling of the multitude of multiplayer network games out there. One thing is common to all: They're addictive. There really is nothing like playing against another human opponent. Once you try it, you'll be hooked (nothing fuels a desire for revenge like losing to a real opponent--trust me, you have to get even).
Next month we'll explore some games that allow head-to-head play via a modem without a network intervening. And we'll look at strategies for finding worthy opponents.