Modem combat. (game playing on online services; includes directory of online services)
by Rick Broida
Screaming out of a clear blue sky in your Sop-with Camel, machine guns blazing, wind whipping your scarf into a frantic dance, you paper the enemy's fuselage with hot lead. He's hit! His plane bursts into flames and spirals toward the ground, a wake of thick black smoke trailing behind. Victory is yours.
Ho hum. Another preprogrammed, computer-controlled, artificially intelligent Red Baron bites the dust. As any self-respecting Klingon might say, "Winning a battle against a has no honor." True glory comes from the conquest of a living opponent. even one you've never met. Plus, it's a lot more fun.
So it s time to fire up the modem and get online. With the proper software and a few dollars to spare, you can dogfight with Chuck from Seattle in the skies over Europe, shoot 18 holes of golf with Bob from Ann Arbor, or double-down at the blackjack tables with Sara from Baton Rouge. Live competition awaits you in some very exciting places.
Just raise your modem's sails and dial the nearest online port. America Online, CompuServe, GEnie. the ImagiNation Network, Prodigy - all the major services feature online gaming in one form or another. In most cases, they provide everything you need: the necessary game software, the modem link, and the means to meet opponents. While it's true that many commercial and shareware games have play-by-modem features built in, to play, you must first buy the game, find someone else who owns a copy, and pay the phone bill charges for connecting to his or her computer - which can be a very expensive endeavor if your partner isn't local.
Clearly, gaming a la the online services is the way to go. Here's a look at some fun spots along the entertainment superhighway.
The country's fastest-growing online service also includes one of the smallest selections of online games. That may change as AOL gets a grip on its recent population explosion and focuses on expanding service offerings. In the meantime, role-playing gamers, avocational stock brokers, casino gamblers, and trivia buffs can find a handful of enjoyable diversions.
AOL's main attraction is Neverwinter Nights, an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game that's an offshoot of Strategic Simulations' Forgotten Realms series. As such, it looks a lot like the older Wizardry and Bard's Tale games - with EGA graphics and PC-speaker sound effects to boot. Despite these shortcomings, NWN attracts a large following. Role-playing games are quite popular, and NWN delivers realtime, interactive, multiuser play.
Except for standard connect charges, the game is free. It operates while you're connected to AOL and requires front - end software - also free - which you download from the service to your PC. When activated, the software drops you to DOS (if you're running AOL from Windows) and loads the game. From there it plays like a standard AD & D role-playing adventure, complete with monsters, hit points, treasure, and the like. The difference, of course, is that during an expedition you might bump into Fred, a magic user from Cleveland, or Joann, a dwarf fighter from Tulsa - real people sharing space in the virtual dungeon. The level of interaction is up to you: Fight them; join them; ignore them. Ask them directions to the blacksmith's.
By incorporating other humans into the familiar solitude of role-playing games, Neverwinter Nights makes for a good time. If you're willing to overlook the mediocre graphics and sound, it's well worth playing.
The same holds true for AOL's other fare. RabbitJack's Casino, which also requires you to download front-end DOS software, seats you and other gamblers at Vegas-style bingo, poker, and blackjack tables. Like NWN, RabbitJack's sound and graphics are nothing special; it's the human interaction that adds the flavor. Playing blackjack alongside Joe from Phoenix is surprisingly fun compared to playing blackjack against your own computer.
AOL's in-service offerings - which require no downloading - include Bulls and Bears, a single-player stock-market game based on the performance of actual stocks (fortunately, you play this market with virtual money), and realtime trivia games accessible through AOL's People Connection.
Although one of the most expensive online services, CompuServe offers an amazing array of game options - including an entire forum devoted to modem play. But what really puts this service on the gaming map is that users around the world can play commercial and shareware modem games using CompuServe as the link - which is no small trick.
Say you want to play Falcon 3.0 with someone who lives on the other side of the country. You could go bankrupt from the long-distance bills before you get your landing gear up! CompuServe Serve, however, charges just $6 per hour for connect time in its Modem-to-Modem Game Lobby - not bad for realtime play against another person. What's more, you can play the games you want, not just what the service offers. (Of course, you and your opponent must already own the software.) ,
There are a couple of drawbacks: Access to the Game Lobby is limited to 2400 bps, thereby excluding games that require 9600 or above (like the already classic Doom). Moreover,. the MTM Challenge Board - a database of user profiles you can use to search for game-specific opponents - is badly out of date. (Is anyone still playing Vette or Command HQ?) So, while you can play almost any modem-supporting game in the Lobby, the Challenge Board provides little help finding partners for newer games.
CompuServe does have a handful of respectable in-service games. As with America Online, CompuServe requires you to download front-end software (and charges a few bucks for the privilege). Titles include Star-Sprint, a space combat game, and there are also checkers, backgammon, and chess.
GEnie (General Electric Network for Information Exchange) is poised to become the next big thing in online services. In fact, where games are concerned, only the ImagiNation Network rivals it. GEnie offers more than a dozen multiuser games, many of which utilize digital sound and gorgeous high-resolution graphics. Gameplay is free as part of GEnie's standard service plan; as with other services, you're required to download front-end software for some of the games.
The most exciting of GEnie's offerings, and probably the best multiplayer game to date on any online service, is CyberStrike - a virtual-reality combat game that casts you as pilot of a heavily armored two-legged tank, or CyberPod. As part of a color-designated team of CyberPods, you try to wrest control of the CyberCity from other teams out to do the same.
Action packed and easy to play, CyberStrike eschews complicated rules and controls. The premise is simple: Your CyberPod's main need is power, which comes from relay towers that correspond with your team's color. The farther you go from your towers, the weaker your pod gets. Fortunately, you can request additional towers and build a network of them around the city. Of course, the other teams will be building their own networks and, at the same time, fire-bombing yours.
The game never really begins or ends; you simply become a part of ongoing events when you join in. Your view is from inside your pod's cockpit, and one of the silly joys of CyberStrike is when you stand toe to toe with another pod. You can't help but think, "There's a human in there." It's multiplayer virtual reality at its best.
Other notable multiplayer games on GEnie include Air Warrior - a Super VGA air combat simulator - and MechWarrior, which is based on the popular commercial game of the same name.
Online gaming is the ImagiNation Network's bailiwick. Formerly the Sierra Network, INN has the distinction of being the most entertainment-oriented service in the roundup. As such, its stunning graphical interface looks like something out of King's Quest V - and it's remarkably easy to use. The main screen depicts a town map; just point and click with the mouse to visit CasinoLand, Sierra-Land, MedievaLand, or the Club-House, among other places. Each area includes appropriate types of games, most of which are played against or alongside other users.
For each area you visit, you must first create an onscreen representation of yourself using INN's clever face-builder utility. It's a surprisingly fun one-time activity, and seeing cartoonish caricatures of opponents certainly adds to INN's intimacy compared with other online services.
The most exciting action here is found in SierraLand, which contains a terrific collection of multi- and dual-player games. The most prominent - and popular - of these is Red Baron, a graphical marvel that's also an exact relpica of the best-selling Dynamix game. Red Baron lets you challenge others in one-on-one or join a squadron for multiplayer combat. If you thought the computer-controlled pilots were too easy, here's your chance to fly against the real thing
SierraLand also features the impressive 3-D Golf, one of surprisingly few online sports games, and the classic boards game Stratego, Budding artists and hooligans will enjoy Graffiti, a very clever drawing program that lets you join together in painting (defacing?) the same canvas. Trivia buffs should check out NTN Trivia, a nationwide nightly trivia contest.
For role-playing gamers, the place to go is MediavaLand, home to two commercial-quality RPGs: The Shadow of Yserbius and its sequel, Fates of Twinion. If you enjoy commercial titles like Betrayal at Krondor and Eye of the Beholder, you owe it to yourself to try MedievaLand's fare.
CasinoLand is an adults-only den of blackjack, roulette, poker, and slots. Chat content is virtually unrestricted in CasinoLand, and things can get wonderfully raunchy in Lefty's Bar - an online hangout that's also home to games like Liar's Poker and Truth or Dare.
And finally, the ClubHouse features classic card games like bridge, cribbage, checkers, and chess, as well as board games like Go and backgammon. Like all of INN's games, these are graphically superb and easy to play.
Though Prodigy boasts the largest membership of all the online services, it includes no head-to-head multiplayer games. What Prodigy does have is a portal to INN: For 3.60 an hour, you can play most INN games - including Red Baron most popular. If you're already a Prodigy subscriber, this will definitely work to your advantage. Instead of paying for a second online service, you simply pay an extra hourly rate on your existing service. Better still, because Prodigy has such a large base of local-access numbers, chances are good that you'll avoid toll charge. (INN has a comparatively limited selection of numbers; you could wind up paying toll charges on top of service charges.)
Prodigy also has a large selection of respectable one-player games. GUTS, which Prodigy claims has the most players of any online game in the country, gives you seven minutes to answer seven trivia questions once a week for seven weeks. Winners get a free sweatshirt and have their names posted of online. There's also an online version of the best-selling Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? series, featuring a new mystery each week.
Prodigy features a popular pay-per-season fantasy baseball game called Baseball Manager as well as a pay-per-game empire-building advanture called Rebel Space. Both are played against other Prodigy members, but not in realtime.
Playing at a Computer Near You
If the prospect of tackling nationwide competition seems a bit overwhelmingly, you might want to start locally on one of the thousands of privately run, local bulletin board systems (BBSs) available across the country, most of which offer at least a few online games. Granted, they'll probably have limited graphics (if any), no sound, and one-turn-per-day access, but that doesn't mean they can't be fun. Two of the most popular BBS games are Global Wars, which is like Risk, and Trade Wars. Ask a local computer guru to help you find some BBS phone number; then check them out. BBSs are a good place to start if you want to get your online gaming feet wet, and best of all, they're free.
Entertainment to Go
All things considered, gamers looking for new challenges (and opponents) really can't go wrong with any of the online services listed here. Each has merits and drawback, and each offers competitive access charges. One thing is certain; The human element in computer gaming is vastly underrated - so get yourself online and find out why. Rick from Northville is waiting for you.!
What You Need
to Get Online
Ready for the good news? Your current computer equipment will probably serve you just fine for getting online. You won't need to replace this or upgrade that; all the online services reviewed here work flawlessly with a minimum of hardware.
You will, of course, need a modem - and, ideally, a 386 or better processor, at least a couple of megabytes of RAM and hard disk space, and a VGA monitor. All five of the major services can be accessed with minimalist DOS software, although four of them, INN being the exception, also have Windows interface available.
As for the modem itself, choose one capable of 2400 bits per second (bps) or better - preferably a 9600 or 14,400 model. None of the services currently support access speeds greater than 9600, but they will in the future. If you're shopping, a modem capable of 14,400 bps is the smart buy. Prices have plummeted in recent months, and many of the models include faxing capabilities.
America Online 8619 Westwood Center Dr. Vienna, VA 22182-2285 (703) 448-8700
CompuServe P.O. Box 20212 5000 Arlington Centre Blvd. Columbus, OH 43220 (614) 457-0802
GEnie P.O. Box 6403 Rockville, MD 20849-6403 (301) 251-6415
The ImagiNation Network P.O. Box 1550 Oakhurst, CA 93644 (800) 523-7050 or (209) 642-0700
Prodigy 445 Hamilton Ave. White Plains, NY 10601 (800) 776-3449 or (914) 448-8000