France's UbiSoft is on a high at the moment, coming fresh from a year-long spending spree which has seen it take over Blue Byte, Red Storm and the publisher-formerly-known-as-Mattel-Interactive amongst others. And it is partly thanks to this string of recent acquisitions that the company has assembled a vast line-up of games for the next year, spread across almost every major platform from PC and PlayStation 2 to the new GameBoy Advance and the now defunct Dreamcast.
With so many titles to choose from, today we'll be restricting ourselves to some of the company's new PC games...
First stop is Red Storm, with a number of new games set to emerge from Tom Clancy's company, as well as both PlayStation 2 and GameBoy Advance versions of their last big hit, Rogue Spear. Winner of the longest game title of the year award though is likely to be Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six™ : Rogue Spear™ : BLACK THORN, a new stand-alone mission pack for Rogue Spear. We'll call it Bob for short.
Bob promises to bring you "one of the greatest challenges the Rainbow team has had to face", in the form of a group of copycats intent on recreating some of terrorism's greatest hits. Cue a series of historically-inspired missions as you try to thwart their attempts and discover whether the attacks are the work of a single group. It's a cunning plot device which should give you a chilling sense of deja vu as you face situations based on some of the most infamous terrorist acts in recent history. It also means that success will depend on learning from the mistakes that the real counter-terrorist forces, armed police and SWAT teams made the first time round, and making sure that you do better.
Rogue Spear was hardly the best looking game in the world when it was first released back in 1999, and two years on it's starting to look a little dated. Still, Red Storm seem to be pushing the engine about as far as it can go, and if Bob's gameplay can live up to the standards of the original it should be well worth a look for tactical combat fans everywhere, chunky polygons and low resolution textures notwithstanding.
Ghost Recon on the other hand is a brand new game for Red Storm, featuring an impressive looking new graphics engine, a new interface, heads-up display and team control system, and an entirely new task force for you to serve in - the eponymous Ghosts.
This time round the focus is on military rather than counter-terrorist ops, as you lead a group of elite special forces types on daring missions behind enemy lines to carry out covert strikes, rescue downed American pilots, blow up bridges and hostile air-bases, and bail out bungled peacekeeping missions. As a result the kind of weaponry which you will be using has also changed, with the army giving you its latest equipment to field-test, from an M-16 assault rifle with integral grenade launcher to the M-136 anti-tank rocket system. Expect less flash and more bangs.
You will also sometimes have support from the mainstream military, with helicopters, tanks and close air support being provided in some missions as you fight alongside NATO or other allied troops to take out heavily armed rebel groups and renegade dictators. Red Storm assure us that "even the most battle-hardened Rainbow Six veteran is going to be excited by where Ghost Recon is taking the tactical shooter genre", and from what we've seen so far we're inclined to agree. Expect to see the results some time towards the end of this year on PC, with an Xbox version rumoured to be in the works as well.
One of the more unusual flight sims under development at the moment, IL-2 Sturmovik ignores the traditional Battle of Britain, island hopping in the Pacific and air war over Nazi Germany seen in so many previous World War II flight combat sims in favour of recreating the Eastern Front.
Not only this, but the developers at Maddox Games have chosen to name their sim after one of the least glamorous planes of the war, a Russian ground-attack plane which was described as a flying tank by Soviet troops. Chunky, slow moving and built like the proverbial brick shit-house, the IL-2 was however lethally effective, earning the nickname of Black Death from the German troops on the receiving end of its guns. And now it's your chance to hop into the plane as either pilot or gunner and take on the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe in a range of single missions and campaigns which will take you from the siege of Stalingrad to the fall of Berlin.
It's not all about the IL-2 though, and a total of 65 ground vehicles and 38 planes will be included in the game, around twenty of which you will be able to fly for yourself. Campaigns are included for both German and Soviet pilots, while a multiplayer mode will allow up to 32 players to dogfight in the snow, or 16 people to group together and fly as a wing in a series of historical missions over the internet or a LAN. Throw in some rather impressive looking graphics and the promise of a range of realism levels to keep everyone happy, from hardcore fanatics to newbies, and this is rapidly shaping up to be the most eagerly anticipated flight sim of the year.
Over And Under
Meanwhile, somewhere in the mid-Atlantic, German U-boats and battleships will be taking on the might of the British and American navies in Silent Hunter II and Destroyer Command. Uniquely these two games will both use the same basic engine and are fully intercompatible, allowing people to fight together over the internet with both submarines and surface ships.
As you might have guessed, Silent Hunter II focuses on the naval war in the Atlantic Ocean, putting you in control of a Nazi submarine as you try to sink allied convoys and evade escorting corvettes and destroyers with their lethal depth charges and eerily pinging ASDIC sonar systems. UbiSoft are promising a series of "riveting historical campaigns", with adjustable difficulty and realism settings hopefully making it suitable for both veteran sim fans and more casual gamers.
Meanwhile Destroyer Command places you in a US Navy destroyer in either the Pacific or the Atlantic, taking on everything from submarines to cruisers and kamikaze pilots as you escort convoys, support landing operations and take part in naval battles with Axis battleships. With all of your ship's systems and weapons at your disposal - from main cannons to torpedoes, depth-charges and anti-aircraft batteries - and a wide range of historical missions and campaigns to take part in, UbiSoft are hoping that this will prove to be "the ultimate naval combat experience".
With both games due for release around the end of the summer, we should know soon whether they can live up to their promise. But certainly at this stage things are looking fairly promising, and with the ability to hook up online and use the two games in tandem, UbiSoft could be on to a winner.
Pool of Radiance
Amongst the many brands which UbiSoft has acquired in the last year is SSI, and many of our older readers no doubt have fond memories of their classic "Gold Box" role-playing games, which pretty much defined the genre from 1988 through to the mid 1990s. Now the company is hoping to recapture that magic with a new title based on the latest Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rule set and inspired by one of the best loved Gold Box games. We are of course talking about Pool of Radiance : Ruins of Myth Drannor.
Featuring an isometric viewpoint with lavish pre-rendered backdrops along the lines of the Baldur's Gate series along with impressive real-time 3D animated monsters, characters and spell effects, it certainly looks the part. Some of the larger monsters will apparently take up almost the entire screen, making for truly epic encounters as your party of up to six characters battles its way through the ever-popular Forgotten Realms campaign setting.
Picking up where the original game left off, the Pool of Radiance has been revived, unleashing a "wave of pure evil". Naturally, it's up to you to put an end to this magical malarkey and find out who or what was responsible for this disaster. And as the game takes full advantage of the new Third Edition AD&D rules, you will have access to a wide range of new spells, character classes and races to aid you in your quest. Gamers will be able to play as barbarians, monks and even half-orcs, and characters can reach a relatively lofty level 16, giving some of them access to spectacular 8th level spells.
Given the recent revival in fortunes of the role-playing genre, we expect this one to sell like hot-cakes when it appears on shelves in the autumn.
One company which has certainly done its bit to revive the RPG genre is Verant, the developer behind massively popular massively multiplayer title EverQuest. For the last year UbiSoft has been distributing their games here in Europe, and that relationship looks set to continue over the next year.
First past the post will be Everquest : Shadows of Luclin, the third mission pack for the addictive role-playing game, due out in Europe towards the end of the year. Luclin gives Everquest a much-needed graphical overhaul, with far more detailed player models and skins and new animations to replace the existing content, and of course higher poly counts for the new areas on the moon of Luclin itself. This all helps to bring Everquest much closer to the standards of the new generation of massively multiplayer role-playing games, and it looks a treat. Throw in more than 25 new zones to explore, a new race and a new character class, and new ways for players to keep advancing their characters when they reach the limit at level 60, and this should prove a hit with existing users as well as enticing more players to enter its addictive embrace.
Meanwhile Verant are expected to bring two entirely new games into the world next year, in the form of Planetside and Sovereign. While we do actually have new screenshots of Sovereign, a PR foul-up means that we're not allowed to show you any of them, but we should have a new batch and updated information soon. What we can tell you now though is that Sovereign is a persistent real-time strategy game which will allow as many as 500 players to battle it out simultaneously, with elements of classic board games like Diplomacy and Civilization being co-opted into the usual blend of real-time strategy and resource management.
No such problems with Planetside, Verant's impressive looking first person shooter which promises to let literally hundreds of players battle it out in persistent worlds measuring up to eight kilometers on each side. Working as a mercenary for one of three warring empires, depending on your tastes you will find yourself taking part in solo missions or full-scale invasions and team-based missions to disrupt the enemy and capture his bases. And because you are part of a vast on-going war, as you play the game your character will gradually rise through the ranks and gain experience. We expect Planetside to appear in Europe some time next summer, and judging from what we have seen so far it is likely to prove every bit as addictive as Everquest. Better stock up on canned soup, instant noodles and Mountain Dew then...