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What do you mean, it's only a game?; The Birmingham Post's most playful staff review some games you might want to put under the tree.

Byline: Steve Pain, et al

WWF Smackdown 2 - Playstation

Stage managed it might be but US-style wrestling is now major TV entertainment.

It successfully made the jump to cyberspace some little while ago, with the launch of the original WWF Smackdown - a game light years ahead of most of its rivals.

With such a brilliant predecessor, it makes it all the more difficult for the newly-released Smackdown 2 to make much of an improvement on the original. But it does.

For a start, gamers can now choose from no fewer than 50 different wrestlers. Yes, that's 50, which makes other fight games seem woefully inadequate.

All the TV favourites are there - Mankind, the Rock, Undertaker. So are the girls, including Hardcore Holly.

Gamers can even entice their managers or match commentators into the ring for a well-rehearsed drubbing.

Before you make it into the ring there are backstage bust-ups aplenty.

And considering the diversity of the combatants - who each have their own signature moves - Smackdown 2 is astonishing.

The gameplay is considerably faster compared with the original, making it even more exciting.

Perhaps the one area where Smackdown 2 fails to outdo its predecessor is in its graphics.

The cyber wrestlers themselves are highly realistic - but the quality of the visuals is not a great deal better than the original. All in all though, a smashing addition to any gamer's collection and a future fight classic. Steve Pain

The World is Not Enough - Playstation

Bond, the old smoothie, is back on Playstation - shaken but still not stirred!

The World is Not Enough kicks off with an all-action sequence. And the action never stops, with some hairy action moments full of genuine tension.

Equipped with an arsenal or weapons; Bond's trusty P2K, infra-red glasses, call phone stunner (real cool according to my nine-year-old) you embark on a number of secret missions, blasting the baddies if they so much as dare to get in the way.

Sounds simple enough but to move from level to level players need to be resourceful under pressure - a bit like the real James - before reaching the surprise climax.

The gamer sees all the action through Bond's eyes. Armed to the teeth with guns and gadgets you can blast away all day.

The plots are a bit on the thin side but classy gameplay, excitement and the trick finish combine to make this new release a Christmas cracker. - Steve Pain

Sim City 3000 - PC

How Ken Livingstone would love to be mayor of Sim City. Birmingham's Albert Bore might fancy it, too. There are no planning committees to worry about in Sim City. No budget difficulties either. The mayor is the boss and he's all-powerful.

You want metro systems? You've got it. Skyscrapers? No problem. There are roads, motorways, airports, harbours, forests, lakes - nothing is impossible.

Sim fans can rest assured, Sim City 3000 is the best Sim game to hit the shops to date.

The idea is simple. You design a city, the size you want.

If it's safe, pleasant and clean people will want to live and work there.

If it's dirty and crime-ridden, they won't. In that case, you lose all your money and get run out of town.

The mayor sets the taxes and is responsible for designing the city. Fans will love new gimmicks which allow users to customise buildings, offering a choice of content from wallpaper to roof tiles.

There's also a range of world landmarks to import. Should you fancy placing the Houses of Parliament in Red Square or the Empire State Building next to the Taj Mahal, then you can.

You can also programme your own disaster. Pit your wits against plagues of flying locusts or fanatical terrorists. The only limit is your imagination. - Paul Dale

FIFA 2001: Playstation, PC

The now annual release of this game comes with new and ever more advanced options.

FIFA 2001 brings you :

More strategic football with new default camera angle

Players show different urgency around the pitch

Authentic kits and team logos for licensed teams

15 domestic leagues including the FA Premier League and Spanish Primera Division

Consecutive seasons offer the joy of promotion and the threat of relegation

New improved through passes let you tear defences apart

Over 50 international teams, including England, France, Germany, Holland and Spain

Improved goalkeepers - more effective and more challenging.

You can play your way through a selection of of the world's toughest cup competitions in the World Cup, EEC or EFA trophy.

Pick your favourite club team from 15 available leagues. Play through a full season and try to win the league, the Cup or the European Cup. Or see if you can win the treble.

Or match up your team against any other in a friendly game.

Hone your skills in training mode before taking on the big teams. Practice penalties, corners, free kicks and throw-ins. Alternatively, set up and play a training match.

The whole package is fast, frenzied and far too good for kids. - Adam Bird

Creatures Playground

This is the second offering from Creature Labs in their BAFTA-nominated Creature Villages series and looks a surefire Christmas winner for four to eight-year-olds - if the stars of the show, the Norns, don't scare the life out of them.

They are 'virtual life beings' - and bizarre-looking things. Still, youngsters will no doubt warm to Norns, especially as they're encouraged to take a caring role towards them.

Players start with the nestery, where they can hatch their own Norn, give it a name and launch into the fun of the fair.

In a wide variety of locations (the 15 sites have five activities in each), they can do everything from building themselves a rollercoaster to tackling a scary swamp and playing on the Big Wheel, Haunted House and space station.

The graphics are bold and appealing and it encourages players to think for themselves. It also claims to encourage responsible pet care.

There's a password-controlled menu to control sound, access and bedtimes but the nicest touches are the little things - the Norns will remember a child's birthday, for instance, and there are Mad Labs where players can create new hairstyles and colour schemes for their charges.

Playground can be linked up with the first game to provide extra areas, including a village square and costume shop. - Alison Davison

Educational titles - PC & Mac

The younger you are, the quicker you learn and the growth of interactive media targeted at the pre-primary school age group may mean a generation being computer literate before they've gone to nursery or even picked up a book.

Aimed fair and square at the three year-olds-and-growing market is the triple titles release from the TDK mediactive stable - Curious George Early Learning ABCs, Curious George Learning Games and Miss Spider's Tea Party.

Guided by mischievous monkey Curious George, young computer users are encouraged to familiarise themselves with sounds, words, colours and shapes.

The Early Learning ABCs CD Rom features five activities concentrating on the fundamentals of letters and sounds while Learning Games is primarily designed to help children distinguish shapes, colours, patterns and rhymes. And learning how to master a mouse.

The concepts are simple - a series of fun games (ranging from fishing letters out of a lake to jigsaws and a rocket blasting meteors with the right-colour shapes) to educate and entertain and they largely achieve their objectives. There is also the bonus of a printed story to remind high-tech young minds that there is something called paper which is still an invaluable learning aid.

But even the best-intentioned of projects can irritate. The accents are irritatingly English Standard and for pounds 19.95 the animation and graphics are hardly awe-inspiring.

Two-dimensional, simple comic-book styles quickly lose their appeal when others offer 3-D glorious colour. Or perhaps we've been spoilt and expect too much.

If so, then the third TDK title, Miss Spider's Tea Party, keeps spoiling us as it oozes lushness and vibrancy from every pixel. Like Curious George, it aims to enhance primary learning skills through fun and games as eight types of insects and bugs are put through a variety of challenges to earn their invitation to the tea party.

Miss Spider lives up to its billing, having the stamp of quality and VFM (also pounds 19.95).

The three levels of difficulty - easy, medium and hard - also give it the advantage over Curious George that the older ages, namely the seven-year-olds, in its target range are kept amused and engaged.

However, the lushness of colour is overwhelming at times and camouflages the hidden butterflies in the 'difficult' garden so well that even the forty-somethings had trouble detecting them.

All three titles are PC/Mac compatible.

Why did it take so long for someone to decide Hanna-Barbera's classic cartoon creation Wacky Races would be a naturally anarchic alternative for all us youngsters who grew up with Dick Dastardly, Muttley and their Mean Machine to those other F1 and Rally racing game?

And why did I get the Infrogames Wacky Races CD that just repeatedly refuses to install. The solution? To ring the Infogrames technical helpline? A premium number at 75p per minute? Looks like rescuing Penelope Pitstop will just have to wait. - Mohamed Ilyas

Sporting selection

I have seen into the future at Aston Villa and had a glimpse of Doug Ellis's new pounds 15 million stand - and it is full. The stuff of dreams maybe but virtual reality when playing on the latest football game to hit the PC market.

Electronic Arts's FA Premier League Stars 2001 depicted a 21st Century Villa Park, complete with Trinity Road stand and a capacity crowd.

Sadly though, Villa's teeming faithful were silenced - a 5-0 drubbing by the mighty Manchester United. Will nothing change? Dwight Yorke came back to haunt us with a brace, Andy Cole scored a hat-trick and Fraser Thomson - manager, striker, midfielder, defender and hapless goalkeeper - could do very little to stop them.

Sometimes it pays to be a teenager. They understand these computer games. Instead I could merely marvel at the genius of those who create the game.

Premier League Stars 2001 has it all and there is nothing one can't do. Apart from score perhaps!

The latest graphics - vastly improved if you possess a 3D accelerator - are astounding as the teams take to the field in their latest kits.

From the outset Clive Tillesley and Andy Gray offer us commentary of their usual high standard but that is nothing to the sound effects of the crowd and the action.

The controls - a Gravis Stinger gamepad did the trick for me - are a dream to operate and the players are very responsive. Simple operation of the gamepad buttons allow a variety of passes, shots, headers, goalkicks, tackles - even dives and fouls.

It takes time to pick up the basics but more adept game-players will soon be masters of the art.

From then, it becomes a joy to play and you can start to customise your teams, the league and even dip into the transfer market.

More than just another football game for the screen Premier League Stars allows you to be the manager of a club.

John Gregory might disagree, particularly after seeing his side's result under my control. As Andy Gray says following my dismal performance in front of our own fans 'the manager will be absolutely furious.'

I had more success with Rugby 2001, yet another action-packed game from the same Electronic Arts stable.

This time I was on familiar ground - Murrayfield, with 70,000 Scots behind me as the Calcutta Cup unfolded with the dulcet tones of the great Bill McLaren to guide us through the game.

Scotland beat England 12-0 and it was only my hands on the controls that ensured the fantasy endured.

I was able to hand-pick my teams.

Rugby 2001 offers the player unlimited options of competition (The Six Nations, Tri-Nations, World Cup, Blesloe Cup to name but a few). The usual game settings can also be tailored to your needs, for example, weather, fatigue settings and injuries.

Again the sound effects and graphics are superb while the action keys include every move ever made on a rugby field from a Barry John sidestep, to a bullish Fran Cotton charge or a pinpoint Rob Andrew punt.

The tackling can be bruising and you have to be quick-witted to ensure a sustained level of passing. - Fraser Thomson

CAPTION(S):

They're all here - James Bond, Manchester United and The Rock Tony Rudell, managing director of Wolverhampton jewellers Rudell, surfs the net with this year's 'must have' gift for well heeled computer buffs - a silver computer mouse. The Darlington Street jewellers says the gleaming PC accessory is

encased in hallmarked sterling silver - and costs pounds 235. However, it can be engraved
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Dec 19, 2000
Words:2127
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