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Holiday Buyer's Guide 2004
November 24, 2004 | Mark Sabbatini

The arrival of the holidays means another annual pilgrimage to a place only vaguely familiar for many people beyond a small group of loyalists - the Mac section of the computer store.

Shoppers don’t need to be hardcore gamers to know titles like “Sims 2” and “Doom 3” are big, but many may not realize Mac users are coal-out-of-luck since those versions don’t arrive until sometime early next year. Plenty of quality best-sellers from “Myst 4” to the latest Tom Clancy’s shooter are available, but even the Mac-savvy may feel they’re not exactly personal gifts.

This year’s Inside Mac Games holiday shopping guide, in addition to recommending some high-quality hardware and software hits, also focuses on obscure and unusual possibilities available in stores and online. They range from free “handmade” gifts such as games featuring the recipient in a starring role to seemingly absurd items such as $900 in-ear headphones the size of a bottle cap. For those reading this Christmas Eve instead of Thanksgiving Eve, some last-minute suggestions to salvage relationships with kids/spouses/fragging nemeses are included.

A tip for those shopping “outside the box:” Since material gifts usually involve unwrapping, a good first purchase for those planning to download or create items are some blank CD-Rs and/or DVDs, a labeling kit, and high-quality paper for printing jewel box inserts and gift certificates.

Finally, it’s shameless self-promotion suggesting an Inside Mac Games subscription, so there will be no mention of how $49 buys eight kick-butt DVDs packed with demos, shareware, freeware, updates and other stuff PLUS a free first-rate software title like Jedi Knight II or Dungeon Siege the recipient can actually open Christmas morning.


Stuff in boxes
The industry’s tendency to keep issuing sequels of well-known hits can be a pain for shoppers (“what is that one version of ‘Neverwinter Nights’ my kid doesn’t have?”), but some of this year’s releases are legit jaw-droppers worthy of the hype. There’s also some notable disappointments, particularly some high-profile movie tie-ins.

A quick look at some (not necessarily all) of the best titles: Battlefield 1942: Deluxe Edition, a WWII-era first-person shooter likely to please action junkies who don’t need to blast aliens (the latest add-on packs are OK, but not spectacular); Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic, a D&D-type game rising above a number of mediocre titles based on the movie; World of Warcraft, a massive online virtual world based on one of the most popular strategy/role-playing games of all time; Homeworld 2, a cutting-edge space exploration/trading/battle game for fans of sci-fi and in-depth simulations; Railroad Tycoon 3, a strategy game that might lure model train fanatics into the 21st century; and Myst 4, a near-surefire hit for fans of previous versions of this legendary adventure as long as they have DVD players (it may be less interesting for more general and/or younger gamers, but because it’s a hybrid Windows/Mac title it’s virtually guaranteed to be at any store selling software).

Some lesser-known, but worthwhile choices are Airburst Extreme, a unique ball-and-paddle game in an arena combat setting; Worms 3D, a bizarre-but-cute 3D battle with lots of humor, quirky weapons and online possibilities; Strange Adventures in Infinite Space, an offbeat galaxy exploration/trade/combat game for those who’d rather engage in a variety of short campaigns than one lasting weeks; and Enemy Engaged: RAH-66 Comanche vs. KA-52 Hokum, a slightly older, but first-rate helicopter simulation that might be appreciated by flight buffs.

Shareware/freeware downloads
Finding the best among all the Tetris and puzzle clones isn’t easy, but they can easily rival or surpass retail store offerings. It’s also a great place to find specialized titles for, say, drug counselors (who have to control addicts by knocking them around with Breakout-style paddles in Detox) or penguin fanatics (who can conquer a Mario-style world in SuperTux).

Package one or more on a CD, add a nice custom label and pay the shareware fees, and the result is something even last-minute shoppers can present as a gift selected with the recipient specifically in mind. Among some of the more notable recent Mac titles:

Gish ($20): Know a fan of platform games, but want something different than another Super Mario World knock-off? This ingenious title stars a 12-pound ball of tar that needs to ooze, gush and steamroll its way through an inevitably harsh world.

America’s Army. Another familiar theme in a unique package, this first-person shooter is a freebie courtesy of the U.S. government. This commercial-quality title is an unabashed propaganda recruiting tool, the interface is a bit clunky at times and being forced to go through bureaucratic rigamarole such as training missions is a drag, but both the single-player and online games are exceptionally realistic and engaging. At the very least the existence of this game, the concepts presented and the Web page featuring its online community can spark some lively discussions as the war in Iraq rages on - just don’t let it ruin the family gathering.

• Sports management sims: These are essentially high-glass text games requiring lots of thought and planning, but for some sports fans these are infinitely more fun and realistic than the action-centered EA and ESPN titles of the world. Among the best: Football Manager 2005 ($50), a soccer game hailed by fans worldwide as one of the best of this genre; Universal Boxing Manager ($25), where players do everything but throw punches in the ring - arguably irrelevant these days anyhow - with up to six fighters; and NHL Eastside Hockey Manager ($40), a potential last-second lifesaver since it is sold on a hybrid Windows/Mac disc and therefore might be found in retail stores.


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