Latest from Sega a feast for the eyes; Dreamcast: The much-hyped system boasts stunning graphics, but some games disappoint.


Is it live or is it Dreamcast?

That's the question video gamers will be asking themselves when they see the eye-popping, 3-D animations on Sega's new Dreamcast console. Launched Thursday, it's the most hotly anticipated and elaborately hyped home game machine in years.

If you haven't heard of Dreamcast, chances are you soon will. Sega, the No. 3 video game maker in the United States, has kicked off an aggressive $100 million advertising blitz in an in-your-face bid to win back gamers from rivals Sony and Nintendo -- pumping more than 900 commercials onto cable music channel MTV alone.

The hype, as I discovered during two weeks of playing with the machine, is at least partly justified.

Dreamcast is the first video game machine with a 200 MHz microprocessor and a 128-bit graphics engine under the hood. The result: the most fluid, realistic visuals this side of "Toy Story." Sega claims Dreamcast is 15 times more powerful than a Sony PlayStation, 10 times more powerful than a Nintendo 64, and has four times the graphics processing power of a Pentium II computer.

Or, as my co-worker's 19-year-old son babbled when he fired up Dreamcast for the first time at my house: "Wow!"

But there's more to Dreamcast than pixel power. It's the first home gaming console to come with a built-in 56K modem. For a monthly fee, Dreamcast owners will be able to grapple head-to-head with other console players over the Internet. With an add-on keyboard, they'll even be able to surf the Web and send e-mail, although that service isn't available yet.

The console is a cinch to set up -- a plug to the wall and a few cables to the TV is all it took. Games come on special, ultra-dense compact discs that hold a gigabyte of data. As a PC gamer used to tweaking my graphics accelerator card to get a new game to run, it was a dream watching Dreamcast boot right up. If I pop open the cover and swap CDs midplay, Dreamcast doesn't even blink (whereas my PC usually crashes).

The console can handle as many as four players, and the controllers packed with the system are the first for any home system I've tried that feel really comfortable. The triggers and buttons are all in the right places. Other offbeat attachments are in the works, including a light gun, a racing wheel and even a fishing rod.

Dreamcast carries a $199 price tag -- $100 less than the Sony PlayStation at its launch four years ago. To steal some thunder from Sega's opening-day festivities, Sony and Nintendo have slashed prices of their popular PlayStation and Nintendo 64 gaming consoles to $99. But it may not matter.

U.S. consumers swamped Sega with 300,000 preorders before last week's launch. When all is said and done, it could make Dreamcast's debut the biggest in entertainment business history, besting even the record-setting $28.5 million take of Star Wars: Episode One -- The Phantom Menace. Sega predicts it will sell 1 million units by the end of the year.

For Dreamcast to really catch fire, it will require hot titles. Without these, analysts say, Dreamcast is nothing more than a CD player on steroids. At launch Sega promised 16 game titles (selling for $50 or less), with 30 on store shelves by Christmas. "They need to generate buzz," said analyst Ted Pine of InfoTech. "It doesn't hurt to have two or three killer titles in the bunch."

Already there's bad news. On Friday the company acknowledged that some of the titles on store shelves are buggy and don't work.

I had mixed reactions to the four games that arrived with my evaluation Dreamcast. The title that best showed off the console's muscle was Sega's "NFL2K" -- a professional football game so realistic that many who see it will mistakenly think they're watching the real thing. (I'd almost be willing to buy Dreamcast for this game alone.)

"Sonic Adventure" was another winner, featuring Sega's marquee blue hedgehog racing through vividly rendered 3-D worlds of ice and mystic ruins.

But there were dogs in the pack. Activision's "Blue Stinger," a first-person adventure that challenges players to unravel a mystery on Dinosaur Island, taught only one lesson: No matter how pretty the graphics, if game play stinks, so does the game. Capcom's "Power Stone," a 3-D fighting game, was also a disappointment. While swinging off light posts and hurling tables at opponents is good for a few kicks, the game quickly grows repetitive and loses its punch.

Another potentially bad omen: Electronic Arts, the largest independent software developer and industry bellwether, has decided not to produce Dreamcast titles. The decision -- allegedly the result of a royalty squabble with Sega -- could chill enthusiasm among developers, analysts say.

Soon gamers will have other cutting-edge consoles to consider. Sony is scrambling to work the kinks out of its 128-bit PlayStation 2, a machine reportedly so powerful that until recently it would have been classified as a munition and barred from export to hostile counties under U.S. law. The console is expected to ship sometime around Christmas and be compatible with existing PlayStation games.

Nintendo, meanwhile, is developing a 256-bit console code-named Dolphin that's more powerful still. But it won't be ready until the Christmas 2000 season.

To buy or not to buy, that is the question. If you're a hard-core gamer, this is the machine to own. If you're not, test drive as many Dreamcast games as you can at your local electronics store before you buy. And try to avoid glancing over at the PlayStation rack and all those cheap and time-tested games calling out for your dollar.

Pub Date: 09/13/99

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