Outside The Box

Games: With video console services, players compete on line.

October 03, 2002|By Kevin Washington | Kevin Washington,SUN STAFF

No one to play with?

Tired of whipping the tar out of the artificial "intelligence" in your video console game? Or having it beat the tar out of you?

Can't stand playing with the trash-talking munchkin across the street who drops by to wolf down your potato chips as he runs up the score in the latest football sim?

Well, now you have a whole world to play with as Sony and Microsoft unveil online gaming services for their video consoles.

Sony, maker of the PlayStation 2, has hit the ground running and gunning with a Navy SEAL third-person shooter and the famous Madden NFL Football franchise among its online offerings. Its service works with both broadband and dialup connections.

Meanwhile, Microsoft's Xbox, with a built-in Ethernet port for broadband gamers, has thousands of prerelease "beta" testers playing now as it tweaks the system for a Nov. 15 launch.

I tested both companies' online efforts over the past few weeks, and wound up with some highs and lows. In the end, I gave Microsoft's Xbox Live a slight edge with the difference being the human element: The Xbox makes communicating with opponents in games easy, which is critical to making the experience more familiar.

Playing online with the Xbox is more like playing against a friend on your couch than dueling the computer.

Microsoft wasn't offering a lot of games in its beta test - just NFL Fever 2003 when I played late last month. Microsoft's beta experience should be more diverse in the next few weeks as its Whacked!, a goofy combat game with rubber ducky grenades, and THQ's MotoGP, a motorcycle racing game, become part of the service.

When Xbox Live has its debut next month, it will offer Infogrames' Unreal Championship, Ubi Soft Entertainment's Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon and Sega Sports' NBA 2K3, among others. The company plans to offer seven games on launch.

Sony, which has been live since August, has more PS 2 games. And that's something to think about if you don't own a console and want to consider online play if you plan to buy one for Christmas.

More choices

While Xbox beta testers are playing one football game, PS 2 players can choose from three - EA Sports' Madden, 989 Sports' GameDay 2003 and Sega Sports' NFL 2K3. Sony plans to offer 13 games by the end of the year. including Sony's ATV Offroad Fury 2 and Activision's Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4.

Nintendo, the third major player in the market, will get into the act this fall with a network adapter kit for the GameCube.

Sony and Microsoft have taken different approaches to online gaming. Sony provides an adapter to connect to the Internet, but you actually play on networks managed by the game publishers. Microsoft, on the other hand, has taken a "walled garden" approach. It operates the game network itself, it says, so that it can have total control over the gaming experience.

For my first stop on the Internet, I joined a U.S. Navy SEAL team on my PS 2. Sony's own SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs is a third-person shooter that requires you to lead a team of tough guys on missions against terrorists in the jungle, across snowy hillsides and on oil platforms.

A headset that comes with the game and plugs into the PS 2's Universal Serial Bus port enables players to give voice commands to other team members (although I never got the headset to work properly when playing alone).

Online SOCOM begins when you log into a game, in which 16 players (eight terrorists and eight SEALs) compete for 11 rounds of play. Dozens of games may be going on at once, and you must navigate through several screens to find one that has room for you. Some games were "tryouts" for specific eight-person teams that will eventually fight as units against other groups in specific arenas.

The stand-alone version of SOCOM requires stealth and complex strategy. But in the wild and woolly online arenas where I played, neither mattered much. Gamers merely ran from one spot to the next, gunning down opponents. This didn't make it less challenging than the home version of the game. In fact, it was much tougher to stay alive and score hits. In three hours of play one night I was killed 30 times and shot exactly two opponents.

In the online version, the SOCOM headset lets you talk with other players, something that doesn't happen in other games. It worked too well. First, some 13-year-old kid who kept showing up in the games I joined completely hogged the airwaves. Then the really ugly side of online play became apparent when a couple of vulgar teen-agers began spewing profanity every 10 seconds.

So, while the online experience was different from the home game, SOCOM can be exciting with the right players. I had no network slowdowns, no freeze frames and no problems using cable Internet service or a dialup connection.

Less conversation

Switching to Madden Football brought on that feeling of being alone with my computer again, though.

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