At the Electronic Entertainment Exposition (E3) in Los Angeles May 22 - 24, Microsoft Game Studios will showcase "Age of Mythology" and other titles in its upcoming lineup of 10 new PC games, including "Rise of Nations," "Asheron’s Call 2," "Combat Flight Simulator 3," “Links 2003,” “Freelancer,” “Impossible Creatures” and “Zoo Tycoon: Dinosaur Digs.” Gaming publications have reported on the development of these titles. All capitalize on the latest technological advances, with richer graphics, greater multiplayer capabilities and non-linear story lines to give users a fuller, more intense gaming experience.
"Microsoft Game Studios has always been committed to innovative gameplay, and we work closely with developers, as well as consider the feedback of the gaming community, to create games that are not only innovative, but have mass appeal," says Stuart Moulder, general manager of Microsoft Game Studios. "We believe our new lineup of games delivers on this commitment."
Don’t Call It a Sequel
Moulder says developers took advantage of the full potential of PCs when creating Microsoft Game Studios’ new lineup. With "Age of Mythology," "Links 2003," "Zoo Tycoon: Dinosaur Digs," "Asheron’s Call 2" and "Combat Flight Simulator 3," Microsoft Game Studios built on the foundation of preexisting, popular games. Although these games have their roots in existing games, they are not mere sequels, he says. "Age of Mythology" comes from Ensemble Studios, the game developers who created the top-selling, RTS series "Age of Empires." This new game, which will hit stores in the fall, offers a 3-D graphics engine and mythology theme. In particular, the 3-D graphics add a new visual dimension and reality that, for example, allows characters to exhale frosty breath when standing in the snow or divine meteor showers, creating craters in the ground.
In "Age of Mythology," players wage war using human armies and diplomacy. They progress through civilizations and the associated mythologies–through Egyptian, Greek and Norse – and enhance their military and economic performance by improving their ability to wage war and currying favor with the gods. Players also must manage economics by gathering and trading resources. Mythology enters the mix when players call upon the gods to act on their behalf or reinforce their armies with more than 30 mythological creatures.
"Age of Mythology" builds upon the popular historical element of its predecessor while allowing gamers to toy with powers and armies unique to each civilization. For example, gamers may need to persuade the Egyptian god Ra to strike the center of an enemy’s city with a tornado or see Cyclopes and Centaurs fight side-by-side with archers.
"Links 2003" also builds on the momentum of its predecessors by adding more graphic realism. The newest version of Microsoft’s best-selling golf series, which is scheduled for release this fall, features an enhanced game engine that produces photo realistic graphics and renders landscape texture in sharp detail for six all-new championship courses, including Mexico’s “Cabo del Sol”.
"Links 2003" also features "Links Match Maker," which allows players to join matches with friends and family at any time within the game. Players can also arrange golf tournaments with other players via e-mail through the new "Email Tourney" feature. Players can join Sergio Garcia, Annika Sorenstam, Jesper Parnevik, and David Toms in “Links 2003” this fall.
“Zoo Tycoon: Dinosaur Digs,” slated to hit store shelves this weekend, is a new expansion pack to the “Zoo Tycoon” series. “Dinosaur Digs” will add new features and 20 prehistoric animals to the mix of traditional zoo animals found in "Zoo Tycoon," the family-friendly PC game, designed by Blue Fang Games, LLC, that was released last October and allows players to create and manage the ultimate zoo. In addition to having Tyrannosaurus Rex and other prehistoric creatures at their disposal, players can take advantage of prehistoric-themed buildings and attractions, prehistoric foliage, volcanoes and tar pits and a Dinosaur Recovery Team and other new staff. Six new dinosaur-specific scenarios also provide new challenges as players strive to keep beasts and guests happy.
"Asheron’s Call 2" Adds Advanced Features
If managing dinosaurs isn’t tough enough, "Asheron’s Call 2" players will have to rebuild an entire world. Scheduled for release next winter, the second installment of this popular game features a dynamic, evolving world that reacts to players’ behavior and actions, and provides a more graphically realistic world. The game’s storyline brings players back to the "Asheron’s Call" fantasy world, which has been devastated by an unknown cataclysm. Players will be instrumental in "rebuilding" the world by repairing towns and building new cities. Also, a revamped combat system and an in-depth "crafting" system allow players to pursue non-combative skills, such as that of a crafter of mundane or magical items.
Jack Needles, a long time gamer and member of the "Asheron’s Call" Web site "Crossroads of Dereth," says he anticipates the new crafting system, which allows gamers to become any one of a myriad assortment of entrepreneurs, including miner, armorsmith or weaponsmith. The crafting system adds a new dimension of gameplay for those players who want something different than the traditional hack-and-slash game style and will be instrumental in "rebuilding" the world of "Asheron’s Call 2." "More dynamic crafting systems will not only make this type of [trade] character viable, but ultimately useful inside the game," Needles says.
As with "AC," gamers will be able to play"Asheron’s Call 2" by themselves or online with other cyber gamers. During peak times, more than 16,000 cyber adventurers simultaneously seek treasure, forge alliances and battle foreboding creatures. Also like its predecessor, "Asheron’s Call 2" takes place in the fantasy world of Dereth. However, the sequel begins several hundred years after the original "Asheron’s Call." In their quest to rebuild the world, players also must deal with ongoing events, such as blizzards, volcanoes and hordes of invading forces. Players can align with one of three kingdoms and battle both monsters and opposing players to capture and control precious resources — and ultimately, survive.
The game’s new Turbine G2 graphics engine adds an additional layer of reality. There will be real-time, three-dimensional shadows and lighting and environments that change based on the actions of characters. Gamers will see densely layered grass and foliage that sways in the wind, water that shimmers with reflections and monsters that are up to 100 times larger than players. In addition, the monsters and other characters will look more realistic. Each will be rendered with up to 5,000 on-screen polygons versus the industry-standard of 400, which was used for "Asheron’s Call" and other games.
Brent Schmidt, who operates the "Crossroads of Dereth" site , considers "Asheron’s Call" one of the most engrossing PC games he has ever played. "The aspect that initially attracted me to ‘Asheron’s Call’ was that I could fight a few creatures and immediately begin applying my experience and improving my character," he says.
Thanks to endless hours on his PC, Schmidt mastered the combat system in "Asheron’s Call" and is looking forward to the revised system of the new game, which has been redesigned to be both user-friendly for new players while allowing for more complex styles of combat for the more experienced gamer. "This will require me to take advantage of special combat moves as well as weaknesses in order to really excel," Schmidt says.
In addition, gamers will no longer need on-screen messages to track their combat damage. The new graphics capabilities in "AC2" will give players visual feedback, so if a player’s character gets hurt, representative wounds will appear on the character’s body. This eliminates the need for on-screen messages, allowing players to become even more immersed in the game.
"Turn-based" Strategy Meets "Real-time" Strategy
The game that Moulder and others at Microsoft Game Studios expect will get many old-fashioned strategy gamers excited is "Rise of Nations." Scheduled to hit stores next spring, "Rise of Nations" couples the scope of computer strategy games such as "Civilization," which requires players to take turns and move sequentially, with the immediacy of real-time strategy games such as "Age of Empires" and "Age of Mythology," where opponents are constantly moving and simultaneously making decisions that impact events.
"The minute ‘Rise of Nations’ comes out, I’ll be playing it," says Alexander Blalock, who has been playing role-playing and real-time strategy games for 15 of his 25 years. "I loved the depth necessary for ‘Civilization,’ but I also like the real-time strategy aspect of building my army and sending it out to conquer the world through trickery, deceit and force of arms."
"Rise of Nations" allows players to create new cities, improve their city infrastructure and expand national borders. Players can win through military might -- using everything from slingshots to cannons to stealth bombers -- or they can gain power and wealth by cornering the market on key commodities and wheeling and dealing with a wide variety of civilizations. Unlike other historical real-time strategy games, "Rise of Nations" allows the gamer to quickly advance through levels from the Stone Age to the modern age.
Influential game designer Brian Reynolds is driving the development of "Rise of Nations." He helped create "Civilization," which many consider the best traditional strategy game of all time. (Although actually designed by Reynolds, the games "Civilization II" and "Alpha Centauri" were originally marketed under the "Sid Meier" brand, e.g., as "Sid Meier's Civilization II" and "Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri.")
Reynolds and his team at Big Huge Games use an iterative development process. This allows the development team to play, revise and continue building a game before it is finished. The team has been playing, tearing down, and rebuilding "Rise of Nations" for more than a year.
"The iterative development process ensures a game that flows beautifully because it has been played throughout its development, not just at the end," Moulder says.
Blalock’s high expectations for "Rise of Nations" are due in part to Reynolds’ development style: "These guys are gamers and not marketers, and the way they’ve developed it shows it."
When Mutant Animals Attack
Microsoft Game Studios’ creativity and freshness doesn’t end with rising nations and mythological beasts. "Impossible Creatures" adds a new twist by allowing players to morph animals together to design their own combat units.
Using a feature called the "animal combiner," players select any two animals from a list of more than 50 included with the game. The resulting creature embodies the skills of both component animals. For example, melding a spitting cobra with a silverback gorilla would create a lumbering mutant "cobrilla" with the muscular body of a primate and a poisonous spitting attack. Players can even create the proverbial flying pig.
"Impossible Creatures" is being developed by Relic Entertainment Inc., the developer studio who debuted in 1999 with "Homeworld," an RTS game that won PC Gamer magazine’s "Game of the Year" award." With "Homeworld," Relic Entertainment Inc. introduced the industry to the first true 3-D RTS experience. With "Impossible Creatures," Relic is trying to take another giant leap by creating quicker-paced battles that focus more on action and combat versus the more time-consuming "resource gathering" that is generally associated with RTS games.
A Step Back Into History with Technology’s Latest Advancements
"Combat Flight Simulator 3," scheduled to hit shelves this fall, is another example of Microsoft Game Studios taking advantage of the most current technologies. Previous versions of the title employed the flight-simulation technology -- including air resistance, turbulence and other real-world physics -- of the award-winning "Microsoft Flight Simulator." "Combat Flight Simulator 3" combines this technology with a completely new graphics engine that enhances the bombing-combat focus. "Combat Flight Simulator 3" will allow players to experience high speed, low-to-the-ground, air combat over the European countryside.
"Combat Flight Simulator 3" will introduce enhanced multiplayer options to coincide with the trend of online gaming. Users will be able to create "campaign servers," allowing players from all over the world to play in an ongoing war theatre over the Internet. Players will form squadrons and battle in a myriad of missions against other users. They also will be able to coordinate roles on a medium bomber, playing the role of either bombardier or gunner.
From Zero to Infinity
Captain James T. Kirk of "Star Trek" fame wouldn’t venture into space with anything but the most powerful starship, so it stands to reason that players need the power of the PC to play an epic space adventure. Until the release of "Freelancer," an epic adventure set in the outer reaches of the planetary system, Moulder says PC games based in space have lacked compelling storylines, limiting players and their characters. "Freelancer" plunges players into a 3-D universe filled with political intrigue, space combat and an unknown menace. With its dynamic reputation and random missions, the game allows players to choose the life of a bounty hunter, trader, pirate or explorer -- earning the spoils and enemies that come with each experience.
"‘Freelancer’ has an open-ended nature not seen in other space games," Moulder says. For instance, a player’s character can accept certain key missions with no particular compulsion, and still advance the main plot of the game. Similarly, players can also spend time taking on randomly generated mercenary, pirate or trade missions.
The random missions offer a different experience from the story missions. Random missions are more personal, more open-ended, and have many surprises that are not specifically designed. For example, a player can discover "triangle trade" routes between three planets to earn cash they can spend on a faster ship. Players aren’t required to take on these random missions, but they provide an unlimited amount of gameplay.
"Freelancer" features a fully populated universe where many things happen without player input. For example, if a player were to take on a role of a pirate and begin stealing, the game’s artificial intelligence takes notice and sends police after the player.
"I found the narrow path I had to follow in other space games annoying," says Schmidt of the "Crossroads of Dereth" site. "With ‘Freelancer,’ the ability to truly choose how I want to play the game and how the story unfolds is extremely exciting."
Escape from Reality
It’s more than just technical advances that bring gamers such as Schmidt back to his home PC nearly every day. He wants the kind of escape that he finds in PC games.
"I think everyone wants to step outside their daily lives and get a taste of what it might be like to command an army, rule the world or maybe even what it is like to be a god," says Schmidt. "That’s the whole point of games like these and what makes them exciting. With a few keystrokes, we are transported to another world, where something like the power of the gods is well within our reach."