Thursday, 22 March 2007

More on the future of Mac gaming...

In the last couple of days there have been two Mac game announcements that are a bit ominous for those of us who still rely on PowerPC Macs (G5, G4, G3 etc.)

Firstly there was the GameTap announcement of the Mac release of Myst Online: Uru Live, for Intel Macs only. Then Aspyr announced a demo of Star Wars: Empire At War, again for Intel Macs only.

Is this a portent of Mac gaming's future, and will many future ports of PC games to Mac be Intel Mac only? Time will tell, but it's beginning to look a little like the end of gaming on the PowerPC Mac may be in sight, at least as far as PC game ports are concerned!

If gaming is important to you, then now could be a good time to start saving for a MacIntel, or to reconsider your commitment to Macs for gaming. For less serious gamers there should still be a few years left in the casual PowerPC Mac game market, but the time will eventually come when the PowerPC Mac will no longer be viable so it might be a good time to start thinking about your future direction...

Thursday, 8 March 2007

Intel Macs and gaming

If you're considering buying an Intel Mac, I thought I'd post a few comments about the suitability of the various models for gaming. These are my personal opinions, so don't take them as gospel - do your own research as to which MacIntel would be the most suitable in your situation! But these guidelines might help you focus a little better as it can be quite confusing if you're not very familiar with computers and gaming. And I do know of people who've bought the wrong Mac because they made some false assumptions - Apple love to tell you how great their computers are, but don't emphasise the limitations...

Bear in mind that no Intel Mac can play a classic Mac game, which means any game that only runs in Mac OS 9 or earlier (or in the PPC OS X Classic Mode) - this rules out every Tomb Raider up to Last Revelation (TR4)! The only software you're able to run in OS X on an Intel Mac (apart from software designed to run on it) is PPC OS X software, which is software designed to run in the PowerPC version of OS X (Cocoa or Carbon software). But this runs in the Rosetta translator and takes a big speed hit so don't expect too much. For games, look for software and updates labelled 'Universal', which is written to run in OS X in both PPC and Intel Macs. Most Mac game companies are working on Universal updaters for some of their older games, so check them out (an American McGee's Alice Universal patch has just been released by Aspyr - see my previous post!)

A further consideration is that all Intel Macs are able to be booted into Windows XP. To do this requires you to buy a copy of Windows XP Service Pack 2 and download Apple's Boot Camp software to run the install. Boot Camp updates the Mac's BootROM to allow the Windows boot, and also updates the Windows hardware drivers to be compatible with Mac hardware. This allows you to boot into XP and run Windows games on your Mac utilising the graphics hardware and DirectX - generally you'll experience much the same compatibility and performance as you would running a standard Win XP PC with similar specifications! Note that virtualisation software such as Parallels is yet to support gaming, but they intend to include support in a future update. Parallels already supports running a virtual machine from a Boot Camp partition though, so you can install Boot Camp for PC gaming use first, then use Parallels with the same Win XP install for other Windows software!

The addition of an Elgato EyeTV Hybrid video input device would allow an Intel Mac to be used as a display for a games console instead of a TV, as well as doubling as a TV and digital video recorder. The EyeTV Hybrid contains an analogue TV receiver, as well as an SD and HD digital TV receiver (depending on your regional compatibility) so could conceivably replace your TV and digital set top box, thus turning a Mac into a digital TV and a hard drive DVD recorder as well! None of the other EyeTV models are suitable for games consoles due to input lags so be sure to choose the Hybrid for this purpose.

The following comments on individual models refer to the currently available models at March 2007!

Mac mini - A capable little Mac for general use, but suitable only for lightweight gaming use due to its Intel integrated graphics (which shares its RAM with the system). I've heard that it's just possible to play some of the more intensive games on it, but only with all the game graphics options turned off. Undemanding casual gaming only, and max out the RAM for best performance.

MacBook - Again, a capable general purpose computer but as it has Intel integrated graphics this is also only recommended for undemanding casual gaming, best with maxed out RAM.

MacBook Pro - More powerful than the MacBook, and with a dedicated graphics chip, so capable of running more demanding games. If you're serious, choose a model with the 2.33GHz Core 2 Duo processor and Radeon X1600 256MB graphics! A top end MacBook Pro has gaming potential for most but the more demanding games today.

iMac - Varies a lot depending on the model, from very ordinary to very good. The base model 17" has integrated graphics so my comments on the Mac mini and MacBook apply here as well. All the others have dedicated graphics chips, and gaming performance improves as you go up the list. The top end 24" iMac optioned with the 2.33GHz Core 2 Duo, GeForce 7600 GT 256MB graphics, and 2-3GB of RAM, is a quite capable gaming machine for anything except the most intensive games. The 20" when optioned up to the 2.33 GHz Core 2 Duo, Radeon X1600 256MB graphics, and 2-3GB RAM is also a capable gaming machine for most purposes, the most significant difference being the screen size. The only limitation with these is the fairly slow response times of the monitors (around 14ms) so if possible take a DVD movie into an Apple Store or Apple Centre and run it in your iMac of choice to see whether motion blur may be a problem for you. But for most of us either an optioned 20" or 24" is a good choice as a general purpose Mac with decent gaming capabilities. One of these iMacs would also make a nice PC game machine for the average gamer! If you want to use it as an entertainment centre in your living area then the 24" (61cm) 16:10 screen is a quite decent size for longer distance viewing, but be sure to check it out in an Apple Store if possible before deciding.

Mac Pro - Option this up and you're in gamer's heaven, Mac or PC! At a cost... (Unless you're one of those gamers who overclocks everything, uses liquid nitrogen to cool it, and can't do with less than twin high end graphics cards, in which case build your own PC...) For the rest of us, don't bother with the insanely expensive nVidia Quadro FX 4500 graphics option, rather go for the ATI X1900 XT 512MB graphics which is almost as good for gaming but far, far cheaper. The multiple GeForce 7300 GT options are intended for general multiple screen use, not games, so don't bother. The twin 3GHz dual core Intel Xeon processor option is also expensive and 4 processor cores won't be much use in games yet, so the 2.66GHz option could be quite adequate and a lot cheaper. There's room for 2 Superdrives, up to 4x 750GB hard drives, and 16GB RAM, so if you love upgrading and have a very generous bank manager, this gives you plenty of scope ;)

LCD Monitors - if you're running a Mac Pro you'll need a good monitor. Apple monitors have good colour and contrast but a fairly slow response time of around 14ms. That is, the time for the screen elements to respond to colour changes, which very roughly equates to refresh rates in the old CRT monitors. Apple monitors would be fine for the average person (albeit a little expensive), but serious gamers will want to buy something a lot faster, down around 2ms response time or less, to reduce motion blur as much as possible (this is also relevant when playing movies). There are some good fast LCD monitors around now which deliver high performance with good colour and contrast, so check them out in a store which displays them running to see if they'd suit you!

Wednesday, 7 March 2007

What to do when there's no Mac TR?

You could always go outside and do the gardening, but what about games? If you're reading this then you're probably a fan of Tomb Raider on the Mac, but as there's been no Mac TR release for over 3 years, and no Mac TR game is readily available any more, new or used, how do you get your action-adventure fix? Apart from TRLE custom levels of course... So here are some games that I like, some on console, and some on Mac (don't forget, console games must match your video format, NTSC or PAL, so it's risky buying in from overseas!) Links are to the Wikipedia pages...

American McGee's Alice (Mac, PC) - this is a similar game to Tomb Raider, but with Alice's Adventures in Wonderland as a theme. You play as Alice, but in a future where she's comatose after a fire that claimed her family and sent her insane. She's institutionalised in an asylum and has nightmares that Wonderland has turned really evil. The object of the game is to visit the Wonderland worlds, right the wrongs, and restore Alice's sanity. Note that it's her sanity, not her life, that you're playing for - you're actually playing in a world within Alice's mind, a world in her nightmares, and restoring her sanity will also mean she will rejoin the real world. Fail and she will be consigned to the asylum for life. Alice is a very dark game, more in line with the underlying dark theme of the book, and a good game with some very atmospheric music and graphics. Alice was released on Mac and although it is now difficult to find it may be possible to pick it up at places like Interestingly, Aspyr have just released a Universal patch for Alice so it's now playable on Intel Macs - go to Aspyr Support and look for the Alice 1.1.2 patch (Universal).

Beyond Good & Evil (PS2, Xbox, GC, PC) - this game was never released on Mac, but should have been! Dating from 2003 it's a bit of a 'sleeper', and is now considered to be one of the most under-rated games of its type and one of the games most worthy of a sequel. Like Tomb Raider, it's a 3rd person action adventure with a female lead, but the setting is an alien world - Hillys - inhabited by humans, human hybrids, and weird and wonderful creatures. Lots of them! You play as Jade, a freelance photo-journalist, and your goal is to use your camera to expose a conspiracy and save your world! Of course ;) The game isn't totally serious, and there are MANY other characters you're able to interact with if you wish, with sometimes quite funny results. Jade also has a couple of helpers at various points in the game. In fact the whole BG&E world is busy, something we've not seen in any TR, and moving around the city can be an eye-opening experience. It does include some fighting but Jade's only weapons are a staff which has 'powers' to increase its effectiveness, a disk projector which can damage some items or trigger switches at a distance, and a cannon on her hovercraft. Controlling Jade is somewhat easier than Lara as some of her moves (like jumps and vaults) are automatic and only require the player to move Jade in the desired direction. It has an unusual save function - Jade carries a savegame memory disk and you save by inserting it into one of the many readers scattered around Hillys. This game, although possibly difficult to find now, sometimes turns up in the used game bins in game stores. It is also plentiful at Amazon. I picked up a cheap used PS2 copy in near new condition from my local EB Games recently and it was so much fun that I'll be keeping it for future replays!

Dreamfall: The Longest Journey (Xbox, PC) - I've not played this game, but it has been getting some good press and when I get an Xbox 360 it's on my 'wanted' list. It's the second in the series, the first was The Longest Journey on PC only. It's an adventure game with, yet again, a female lead (Zoƫ Castillo), and was released on PC and Xbox (Aspyr published the Xbox version last year). It's played in a sci-fi setting, and has an engrossing story and wonderful graphics. It does contain some action but the action doesn't take over the game which remains primarily an adventure, and an adventure with one of the best stories ever in a video game. The Xbox version of the game is apparently compatible with the Xbox 360, but do your own checking on this. Dreamfall: The Longest Journey Xbox version should be easy to find at the usual places, but the Xbox game may be less available in some PAL countries.

MediEvil/MediEvil2 (PS, PSP) - these are old PlayStation games (yes, PlayStation, not PS2). There were two episodes on PS, with a third release (MediEvil Resurrection, a remake of the original) on PSP only. MediEvil is a 3rd person action adventure game where you play as a skeleton. You read me right, a skeleton! Always VERY tongue in cheek, this is a game that definitely doesn't take itself too seriously. You play as Sir Daniel Fortesque, or at least his remains, in the fantasy country of Gallowmere. Sir Daniel wasn't a very successful knight but hopefully under your control he'll be a little more successful at ridding his world of evil this time. One of the more under-rated PlayStation games, MediEvil is a lot of fun and even the starting video is hilarious! Probably very difficult to find now outside Amazon, but worth looking for if you have a PS or PS2 and should be very cheap so what do you have to lose!

Myst IV Revelation (Mac/PC hybrid, Xbox) - a pure adventure game, as are all the Myst games, and as for all the Myst games (except Uru) it's available for Mac. Myst is a puzzle game where you don't fight and can't die (it's fun to be in a world where it's completely safe) and Myst IV has the best environment and gameplay of all the Mysts! This has been achieved with a combination of pre-rendered backgrounds, realtime 3D foreground objects, and 360 degree node-based play. Which means that you 'point and click' to move from node to node, and have full 360 degree vision at every node, with a 'living' world around you, including, where appropriate, insects, birds, animals, breezes, water, trees, and even leaves falling. You are also able to interact with many items in the environment, with the appropriate reactions and audio feedback. For example there are some places where you can stick a finger in a tub of water, which results in ripples and a splashing sound. Or tap a saucepan hanging in the kitchen, which gives an appropriate hollow metal sound and starts the pan swinging. And many more, so don't be afraid to touch the environment! These are not gameplay elements, just diversions, but give the player a sense of really being there! You'll often come across creatures in the environment, many in realtime 3D. One of the creatures you come across (the Mangree in Haven) is one of the cutest I've ever seen in a video game, resembling a large Lemur but with bigger ears, and which sometimes comes up to you to have a look. Myst IV draws you into its world like no other Myst game, and few games at all for that matter, and is one of my all time favourites, but as with all the Myst games the puzzles can sometimes be almost incomprehensible so it's good to keep a walkthrough handy! If you play this be prepared to spend more time just looking around than you would have thought possible, it can be that immersive :)

Myst 10th Anniversary DVD Edition (Mac/PC hybrid) - if you like Myst IV Revelation then you may want to try the earlier games. If so then try to get hold of the Myst 10th Anniversary Edition with the first 3 games (Myst, Riven, Myst III Exile) on a single DVD each, as opposed to the original multiple CD sets for Riven and Myst III. None of them run in OS X (even Myst III, which is supposedly compatible, doesn't run properly in Panther due to audio problems), but in my experience they all ran fine in Panther Classic mode. This release includes the Myst Masterpiece Edition, which is the original Myst with upgraded graphics. Of course the puzzles you come across in the first 3 Mysts aren't easy, especially in Riven, so play with a walkthrough at hand (there are plenty of good walkthroughs on the web still). Myst Masterpiece and Riven don't have full 360 degree views, but you will occasionally see life in the environment around you. Myst III does have 360 degree views, with only a little more activity in the environment, but nothing like Revelation. Myst 10th Anniversary is probably still available at Amazon.

Tomb Raider Legend (PS2 etc. etc. but not Mac, yet...) - not really what I was intending to include. Check my Legend page for more information, but this game is perfectly suited to the PlayStation 2 controller, and looks remarkably good for a PS2 game, even on an old CRT TV that supports 60Hz mode (PAL only?) I've not tried it on Xbox 360, but it looks even better and should play just as well. Considering that a new PS2 can be picked up now for less than half the cost of a Wii, less even than an iPod Nano, and that the next TR, Anniversary, will also be released for PS2, then this is something to seriously consider if the Mac version doesn't appear soon!

Tuesday, 6 March 2007

Tomb Raider & the future of Mac gaming

Back in 1998 Aspyr was a small game company with aspirations. They made their first move into the mainstream game market by publishing a conversion of the PC game Tomb Raider II, a decision based on the topicality of the second TR game at that time (it had been released on PC in 1997 and was a major hit). Released in the last quarter of 1998, the Mac Tomb Raider II was a hit and started Aspyr on the road to success.

During 1999 this was followed by Tomb Raider Gold, which contained the original Tomb Raider I and the Unfinished Business TR I expansion, or 'Gold' game. In the next few years they released Mac conversions of Tomb Raider II Gold, Tomb Raider III and III Gold, Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation (TR 4) and Tomb Raider Chronicles (TR 5) and the TR Level Editor. On 18 December 2003 Tomb Raider: the Angel of Darkness (TR 6) shipped. In this time there was only one official TR game that was not ported to Mac - The Times Exclusive Level, which was a single level game produced by Core Design on commission from The Times newspaper to commemorate their sponsorship of the finding of Tutankhamun's tomb in the 1920's.

Since December 2003 there has been one new PC Tomb Raider release, Tomb Raider Legend (TR 7) in April 2006, which has been a big hit and is a major improvement on Angel of Darkness and a return to the original Tomb Raider concept. There is also the upcoming release of Tomb Raider Anniversary - a 10th anniversary tribute to the original Tomb Raider that started it all off - to be released in May 2007. However, there has been no mention from Aspyr as to whether they intend to undertake a conversion of Tomb Raider Legend, let alone TR Anniversary - the only TR activity from Aspyr that I'm aware of since December 2003 was an update to Angel of Darkness.

It seems that at least part of the reason for this is Apple's switch to Intel processors, along with the high cost of game conversions. The Intel switch was first announced in mid 2005, and the first MacIntel hit stores in early 2006. This fundamental switch in Apple hardware threw a big spanner in the works for PC-Mac conversions, and as a result 2006 was a lean year for Mac games while the developers kept their eyes on the marketplace to see how things transpired. Boot Camp (Windoze dual booting) didn't help either... Mac games from Aspyr are starting to pick up again this year and although their confidence doesn't seem to have fully recovered there is a definite improvement. But Aspyr have now widened their market by publishing PC and console games, so Mac games are no longer their staple fare.

Just whether this will translate to a Mac conversion of Tomb Raider Legend and the new TRs to come is as yet unknown, and my approaches to Aspyr for clarification of the future of TR on the Mac have met with no response at all, just a deafening silence. I suppose that could be a case of 'no news is good news', but I won't see it that way until I hear something definite.

There's also a potential for any future Mac TR to be Intel only, partly due to the complexity of the graphics in TR Legend - Legend requires a lot of grunt to run and outside top end G5 Power Macs only the Intel Macs are likely to have enough power to run it (and any future TRs for that matter). If this is the case then only recent Macs will be able to handle it, thus sidelining all of us who still use older Macs, and can't afford to upgrade. Like me...

On the other hand, the next gen console wars are now well under way, which muddies the water even more. For the cost of a top end 24" iMac optioned up to run games (fastest CPU, best graphics, extra RAM etc.) I could buy all three new consoles and a top quality 32"/81cm HD TV! That's an Xbox 360, Wii, PlayStation 3, and Panasonic HD TV, the combination of which should be able to play virtually every game in the marketplace today, and for years to come, the vast majority of which will never see the light of day on the Mac under any circumstances. With the exception of the Wii the consoles would be far more powerful game machines than any Mac (bar maybe the top end Mac Pro booted in Windoze XP), and certainly much better value for money than a top end optioned iMac, even if the iMac was dual booting Windoze XP and OS X, thus opening it up to a slew of PC games. And the Wii has one of the best titles in gaming history - Zelda: Twilight Princess - which is by itself almost justification for the cost of the console, and is exclusive to Wii!

So what does this mean for Mac games? Well I have to be honest here and say that I don't see much of a future for Mac games outside the casual market. There is way too much competition out there for gaming hardware, which leaves the Mac with its small market share out in the cold, especially without Apple taking gaming seriously. Tomb Raider Legend, for example, is now available on almost every platform you can name - there's even a mobile version for phones - with the only two significant exceptions being Linux and Mac OS (well, and Wii, but it is available for GameCube).

As for myself, if no Mac Legend appears, or if it does but needs me to buy a new Mac to run it, then I can see myself switching to console gaming. I already have a PlayStation 2 which actually runs Legend well and looks good, and should also handle Anniversary with no problems. I should be able, in the not too distant future, to afford an Xbox 360, maybe even a Wii (and maybe even a second PlayStation 2 as a fallback, mine's an early model), to use with my old 60cm CRT TV, but no way could I afford a game ready MacIntel which at the very least means an optioned 20" iMac or better.

If this happens then MacRaider will continue, although much in the form of my TR Legend coverage, written from the PlayStation 2 game but mostly applicable to the other versions. Despite its possible reduction in relevance I get too much enjoyment from running MacRaider to seriously contemplate terminating it in the foreseeable future, so at least my inimitable walkthroughs ;) will continue to be available, as will whatever online help I can give. So I'm here to stay for some time yet!

Monday, 5 March 2007

The MacRaider blog is here!

I thought it was about time to start a blog for those things that may be Tomb Raider or games related but don't merit a news entry on MacRaider. Stay tuned for a trickle of (probably) marginally interesting stuff. Or don't.