If Hollywood can do it, why not Silicon Valley?
Taking a cue from the movie industry, computer game makers are looking to cash in with a raft of sequels this holiday season. Two of the first to hit your local CompUSA are Microsoft's "Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings" and Westwood Studios' "Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun."
"The Age of Kings" picks up where its best-selling 1997 predecessor left off -- at the fall of the Roman Empire -- and sweeps through the next 1,000 years of history. Released last month, the sequel has shot to the top of the software best seller charts (yes, there are such things).
You take the helm of one of 13 medieval civilizations, including the Vikings, Mongols and Japanese. Starting with little more than a few villagers and a rickety town square, your next move is simple: build these meager stockpiles of stone, wood, food and gold into a world-dominating empire.
If the concept rings a bell, perhaps it's because the game was designed by Bruce Shelley, who once worked beside Baltimore game guru Sid Meier at Microprose. Shelley helped craft strategy classics such as Railroad Tycoon and Civilization, considered among the best computer games of all time.
Shelley's magic touch shows no signs of waning. As with the original game, each civilization in Age of Empires II has its strengths and weaknesses. Some, for insstance, have the know-how to train elephants for battle, while others know how to build deadly "murder holes" into their castles to baste the enemy in hot oil.
Designers have cleaned up many of the glitches that spoiled the fun in the first game.
No longer must you order up men and materials one by one; in Age of Kings you can queue production. In the old game, your minions often sat around sucking their thumbs after completing a task. Here, a button whisks you to idle villagers lost amid the on-screen chaos.
The game remains two-dimensional but is richer in detail. Castles and cathedrals boast intricately carved spires and stained glass. Windmills turn. When you slaughter a boar, it slowly decays before your eyes. Cool stuff or what? Proportion in the original game was out of whack, so your villagers were the same size as, say, a pyramid. Here, all is right with the world.
War is still the coin of the realm in Age of Empires II, and most closet Genghis Khans will relish pummeling their opponents into submission. But designers have beefed up options for trade routes and other money-grubbing activities, making it possible to stage an economic coup and claim victory.
In addition to normal game play, Age of Kings has the popular "death match" option from the original, in which you start resource rich and race to wipe your opponent off the map. To this designers have added a "regicide" game, in which the last king on the map wins. You can even play historical campaigns alongside Joan of Arc, Genghis Khan, Frederick Barbarossa and Saladin.
Best of all, Age of Empires II works even on silicon-challenged computers. And it's one of the few games that offers satisfying Internet play with a standard 56K dial-up connection. As many as eight players can battle one another on Microsoft's free MSN Gaming Zone (www.zone.com) Web site.
Bottom line: If you buy one real-time strategy game this Christmas, Age of Empires II is the one to get -- a game so addictive I wouldn't be surprised if the surgeon general is drafting warning labels.
Tiberian Sun, on the other hand, doesn't quite live up to its predecessors in the best-selling Command & Conquer series. Launched by Westwood Studios in 1995, the original game created the real-time strategy genre. All told, the series has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide.
Set in the 21st century, Tiberian Sun once again pits the Global Defense Initiative against the Brotherhood of NOD in a struggle to control an Earth ravaged by ... yadda, yadda, yadda. Suffice to say, it's your classic good-guy-vs.-bad-guy battle royale.
The game progresses by episodes, each of which has its own objective: rescue a GDI prisoner here, capture a NOD base there, or (my favorite) just swoop in and kick butt. Using your mouse, you build futuristic bases, dispatch troops and use all manner of cool weaponry to accomplish these tasks.
The rich 3-D terrain captures nuances such as water rippling and time of day. Explosions tear craters into the soil and shred your men with shrapnel. Soldiers scream "Medic!" before kicking the bucket.
If you're new to the C&C; series, Tiberian Sun will keep you glued to the keyboard for hours. Old hands, however, may come away a bit disappointed that Westwood designers didn't reach for a little something extra.
Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings requires a Pentium 166 MHz or higher, Win 95/98/NT, 32 MB RAM, and 200 MB of hard disk space. $50. www.microsoft.com/games.
Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun requires a Pentium 166 MHz or higher, Windows 95/98, 32 MB RAM, and 200 MB of hard drive space. $40. www.westwood.com.