Can bass add an extra dimension for the deaf gamer?

Deaf gamers really can get the rough end of the stick when it comes to software titles over the last eight years or so. The advent of the sound card, and more importantly the beginning of it’s widespread use, has seen the accessibility of games for deaf gamers go from 100% down to almost 0% in some cases. Of course sound cards are not the sole reason. CD-ROM drives meant that games designers suddenly went from having 1.44MB to 650MB to store their games on and this had a catastrophic effect on games for deaf gamers.

If we look at the adventure game genre we can see what damage these technical innovations have done. Let’s take The Secret of Monkey Island. When this game first came out there was no way speech could be implemented into the game as it was released on floppy disk. All dialogue, information etc. was in text. The text was big, easy to read and placed next to the characters who were conversing. Deaf gamers enjoyed Monkey Island in exactly the same way as a hearing person could enjoy it. If you look a modern day adventure game like Schizm for example it doesn’t contain any text dialogue at all. Everything is spoken and for a deaf gamer it is just pointless and the only enjoyment you will gain from it is if you manage to obtain a refund. The problem exists in most genres but we have mentioned the adventure genre as it was one that was always thought to be suitable for deaf gamers and this is not now the case. Thankfully LucasArts, for one, have continued to use subtitles (although it was unusual that Grim Fandango had to be patched to have subtitles in the cutscenes) but over the years the use of subtitles has become the exception more than the rule.

It is somewhat clinical to say that deaf gamers simply miss out on just the verbal information. Music, ambient sound effects etc. are all there for a hearing gamer. Playing a FPS game such as Unreal Tournament, Quake III and Jedi Outcast has many disadvantages for deaf gamer. Let’s say we’re playing Jedi Outcast and we come to a door that is locked. A hearing gamer gets to listen for enemy presence behind the door. He/She might be able to hear Stormtroopers on the other side and in doing so, prepares themselves for the inevitable attack. Of course a deaf gamer will be oblivious to this and walk straight into an attack unprepared. Games shouldn’t have the same disadvantages as real life for a deaf person. There are ways and methods that could be used to make everyone equal, something that’s an uphill struggle in the real world, in games playing.

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What if a visual icon appeared to indicate nearby enemies. This is a simple solution and yet it is hardly ever used. One other such method could be using bass to give tactile feedback to the gamer in order to suggest danger for example.

We have begun to look at bass as a method of tactile feedback ever since Eponine did her review of Morrowind a couple of weeks ago now. This is what Eponine had to say about Morrowind’s suitability for deaf gamers:

There are some issues for deaf gamers though. There are three main cut scenes, one at the beginning of the game, one important one in the middle of the main quest and one at the end of the main quest that are inexplicably not subtitled. This is very disappointing. There are two other major annoyances. First, there is a music cue that you are in danger that is not represented in subtitle mode at all. Secondly if an enemy comes up behind you and takes a swing and misses there is no visual indication that you are under attack. Luckily there are workarounds for both of these: The background music and danger music are easily replaceable, I was able to swap the normal music with a silent MP3 and the danger music with an MP3 of low rumbling that I can feel through a subwoofer at my feet. To make sure I know when an enemy is attacking me from behind I always use the 3rd person view when travelling. One other small annoyance is that the subtitles give no indication of which character is speaking. Walking through a crowd can be very confusing with no clue of who said what. It would have been easy to put the character names in the subtitles or colour code each characters’ speech.

The section in blue text describes how Eponine managed to combat some of the problems through use of her own initiative. To counter the problem of attacks from behind she used the third person view but rather more interesting is her solution to the problem of being notified of an enemy presence. ‘ I was able to swap the normal music with a silent MP3 and the danger music with an MP3 of low rumbling that I can feel through a subwoofer at my feet.‘ Eponine implemented a low rumbling MP3 so that her subwoofer could give a strong tactile feedback whenever danger was present. This is a method which is used to some degree in certain console games through force feedback. Smash Court Tennis (PS2) for example, uses a pulsating beat when you get to matchpoint in order to rouse tension and it works very nicely. When it comes to PC titles though, force feedback is not an option because most gamers still don’t have force feedback devices and as most PC titles are controlled by mouse and keyboard this is still going to be a problem anyway. Feedback though bass vibrations are an option though.

Videologic ZXR-500 5.1

 

Thanks to the good people at Pure Digital (formerly known as Videologic) we have been supplied with the ZXR-500 5.1 channel speaker system for the very purpose of looking at how useful bass can be for a deaf gamer. Previously, like most gamers, we didn’t have a subwoofer and without the help of Videologic we wouldn’t have been able to look at the effect of bass in games. Now I know that some of you may think a 5.1 speaker system is a little bit of an overkill for a deaf gamer but this speaker set has one big advantage over many others. Unlike other affordable speaker sets, you can independently control the volumes for front, rear, central satellites and, what we are really concerned about, the subwoofer. It is possible to use just the subwoofer on it’s own which is very handy for our needs.

Videologic have always been well liked for the solid construction and performance of their subwoofers and the ZXR-500 subwoofer is certainly no exception to this. The beautifully designed silver unit boasts an output of 25 RMS and two tuned bass ports. Even at full volume there appears to be no distortion from the unit, which is very impressive indeed especially when you consider at this price (£79.99) most subwoofers will distort when they go above three quarters of their volume, or even less.

For this review we set the ZXR-500 up and connected them to our Sonic Fury sound card. If you look at the picture below of the control panel for the Sonic Fury you can see that we selected the 6 speaker (5.1) option and enabled the virtual 5.1 option. We found that this gave far superior bass performance to any other option. You’ll also notice that you can adjust the power of the bass. If you value your relationship with the neighbours don’t turn this up full otherwise they’ll bounce out of their seats whilst you’re playing. The manual fully explains how to setup up the ZXR-500 system.

 

The Games
Of course it would be impossible to backtrack and look at all the games we have reviewed so I’ll just mention a couple for the purpose of this article.

Microsoft Train Simulator (Microsoft)
Whilst this game had subtitles and captions it could still benefit from that something extra. We’re very pleased to tell you that the sensation of the train moving along the track was excellently relayed through the subwoofer. Even with the volume at a respectable level and your feet placed on the floor, at a reasonable distance away from the subwoofer, the bass feedback was amazing. The sensation increased and decreased with the speed the train was travelling at, which was very pleasing. This is one title where bass definitely improves the ambience of the game for the deaf gamer.

MotoGP (THQ)
You would have expected a motorbike game to have provided superb feedback through the subwoofer. Alas it was not so and only when the bike reached top speed, or went over a rumble strip, could you really feel anything. Definitely a missed opportunity.

Microsoft Flight Simulator 2002 (Microsoft)
Like Train Simulator the sensations that come through the subwoofer are truly amazing. The graduations in the aircraft’s speed could easily be felt through the subwoofer, even with your feet on the floor at a distance from the subwoofer. The variation in the bass vibrations were truly stunning and if you are a Flight Simulator fanatic then a good subwoofer comes very highly recommended.

F12002 (EA Sports)
Whilst the bass variation and graduation with the engine speed was not as sharp as in Flight Simulator or Train Simulator it was still worthwhile. Overall the vibrations felt a little subdued and it was disappointing to not feel anything when going over a rumble strip. However there were greater bass vibrations when other cars were near you, which is good.

Age of Wonders II (Take 2 Interactive)
OK so it’s a turn-based strategy game and a bit of an unusual choice but the music in the game had such a fantastic base line that I thought it was worth a mention as I found the bass vibrations gave an enjoyable beat. It didn’t really add any depth to the gameplay but in a game like this how could it?

Conclusion
Surprisingly bass has a lot to offer the deaf gamer. Of course it all depends on how well bass has been used for the game in question. Flight Simulator and Train Simulator are brilliant examples of what can be done with bass and when used with a quality subwoofer such as the one that comes with the very affordable ZXR-500 set, the vibration feedback is very worthwhile indeed. Bass can indeed add an extra dimension to a game for deaf gamers and games developers should look at this option when designing a game. Catering for a deaf gamer is not simply about subtitles and captions. Having an idea of the game’s plot is one thing, being able to feel the atmosphere of a game is something else and a goal that needs to be realised.

 

We would like to say a very special thanks to David Harold at Pure Digital for providing the ZXR-500 speaker set and making this article (and future comments on bass in games) possible.

Ferrari F355 Challenge

Published by Sony Computer Entertainment Europe
Developed by SEGA-AM2
Platform: Playstation 2
Price £39.99
PAL 60 option – Yes
Released: Out Now

For those of you that think Gran Turismo 3 was realistic then Ferrari F355 Challenge is here to give you a wake-up call. Of course when talking about the Playstation 2 and racing games it is always going to come down to how, on paper, does the game in question compare to Gran Turismo 3. From this point of view Ferrari F355 Challenge will at first appear a poor competition for it’s illustrious rival. However, those in the know about SEGA-AM2’s legendary arcade and Dreamcast version of this title, will not be so easily put off by mere statistics. Weighing in with a total of one car and just eleven tracks it may not appear to be one of the best driving games on the PS2, but that’s certainly what it is.

Offering four gameplay modes, Arcade, Championship, Grand Drive Challenge and a split screen two player mode, the game may not appear to have enough to keep you interested for too long. However when you realise that it is not a walk in the park like most other driving games and that making adjustments to your car is actually crucial to your success, especially at the top difficulty setting, then it becomes different altogether.

Like most driving games the Arcade mode is a standard affair, but with a couple of exceptions. You can choose either Training (which places you on the track on your own and teaches you the track with information on the curves etc.), Driving (same as Training except for the fact that there are no instructions and it’s left to you to improve your technique) and finally there is Race in which you get to race against AI competitors. Championship mode puts you through a six race series, there’s a series for each of the three difficulty settings, in which you have to accumulate more points than your competitors. My favourite though has to be the Great Drive Challenge which is reminiscent of MSR on the Dreamcast and Project Gotham Racing on the XBOX. Points are awarded for good driving techniques such as overtaking, slipstream, drift, best lap etc. and points are lost for hitting a car, hitting a wall and leaving the track. You have to gain enough points to win either a Bronze, Silver or Gold trophy in order to progress. Throughout all of these modes the AI is impressive and never simply barges you out of the way like in GT3. The AI aims for the racing line but doesn’t have to have it at the cost of realism like in GT3.

One niggle that may put some people off is the real need to use a good quality wheel to get the best out of the game. The game doesn’t utilise the Dualshock 2’s analogue button capability and as such any pressure applied to the buttons are taken as maximum pressure. You’ll find yourself dabbing the accelerator and the brakes all too often. However if you are the proud owner of a steering wheel then this isn’t going to be a problem and you’ll certainly find the car handles far more realistically than in any other driving game on the Playstation 2.

Graphically the game is good but not in the same league as GT3. What sweetens the deal though is that Ferrari F355 appears to run at a greater framerate and gives a far more realistic sensation of speed than GT3. Although you only have one model of car you can choose to change it’s colour if you so wish. There are only two camera views to choose from, a kind of in car view and a chase view which is useless if you want to do well, but this doesn’t really cause any problems. It’s a shame there are no damage models for the cars especially as everything else in the game seems geared towards realism.

There are no problems at all for deaf gamers with Ferrari F355 Challenge. There are some verbal comments in the game that are not subtitled but to be honest they are trivial. Comments such as ‘your selection’ that are made when you are about to go to the race area, to be honest, are pointless and don’t really need subtitling. During a race the announcement that it is the final lap is not subtitled but again this is not important as this information can be quickly gained from looking around the screen anyway. The training mode uses icons and words to relay the verbal information so again there is no problem here.

Ferrari F355 Challenge will appeal to all but the casual race fan who likes to pick up the gamepad and win with no effort. For the hard-core, Playstation 2 owning, racing fans though this it the title to have. Just remember it requires a steering wheel to get the most out of it.

One of a kind game for racing fans who want to zoom past their Ferrari is designed to give the most exhilarating experience, the rear view camera gives a 360 degree view of the track for the player who finds this unique feel like the GT3 and a speed unmatched, the verbal communication is limited allowing the players to read on the screen all the instructions.

Overall Game Rating: 8.0/10 An excellent game for hard-core racing fans. The complexity and the necessity of using a wheel will put off the casual racer though.

Deaf Gamers comment: Absolutely no problem at all. There are only a few unimportant comments that are not subtitled.

Screenshots

Age of Wonders II: The Wizard’s Throne

Published by Take 2 Interactive
Designed by Triumph Studios
Platform: PC CD-ROM
Price £29.99
Released: Out Now

Age of Wonders II The Wizards Throne is the sequel to the turn based classic Age of Wonders. Age of Wonders (AoW), a turn based fantasy game, took on the Heroes of Might & Magic (HOMM)series and in many ways it was a superior game. The battles were more strategic and the general gameplay was more serious and challenging than HOMM. A lot of people point to AoW’s battle screen and remarked that the isometric view that allowed you to use terrain, trees and buildings etc. to hide behind made the HOMM III side on view look incredibly out dated. In fact in HOMM IV the battle screen is now isometric although still not as good as in AoW.

The heart of the game is the campaign mode. Here you play Merlin. In the introductory cutscene (which is not subtitled) we see Merlin on an airship. Merlin is convinced mankind is doomed when out of the sky a hoard of flying creatures comes down and attacks his airship. In the assault Merlin is knocked out of his ship and into the sea below. Merlin is saved in the depths of the ocean by Gabriel, who tells Merlin that the world is out of balance. Merlin is told that he has to become a wizard and learn all the spheres of magic for he is the one who has to restore the balance and has to restore the Age of Wonders

So what does this sequel bring to the genre then? Well it boasts a 20 scenario campaign, 12 races, well over a hundred unique units, improved diplomacy with other races, over a hundred spells, a scenario designer and unlike HOMM IV, it actually has multiplayer options right out of the box. Visually it looks very similar to the original AoW, not that this is a bad thing because it looked fine. The biggest difference that fans of AoW will find though is the challenge that this sequel offers. Never have I played a turn based strategy game that offers such an intelligent challenge. Unlike the slack AI that you usually see in games of this nature, AoW 2 gives you a real challenge, the kind you would expect from a proficient human opponent. This may sound off putting to non-veterans of the turn based genre but believe me when I say that you’ll be glad of this as you have to learn the game, appreciate it’s nuances and learn it’s intricacies to succeed. The is no AI sloppiness about any of the three difficulty settings and even when you’ve had the game 12 months you’ll still be given a thoroughly challenging game. How many pieces of software can you say that about?

Here at Deaf Gamers we have, for over a year ignored audible content within a game and rightly so too but Eponine’s review of Morrowind and her use of a subwoofer to give tactile feedback has opened our eyes. Thanks to our good friends at Videologic we now have the superb Videologic ZXR-500 5.1 speaker system (a review on the quality of the subwoofer to follow shortly). The beauty of the ZXR-500 set is that you can turn off the satellite speakers and just leave the bass on. With the subwoofer placed under the desk and with your foot or feet place on it (personally I find placing a foot either side of gives the best effect), it provides incredible tactile feedback if the game uses bass to good effect. AoW 2 uses bass to incredible effect. The soundtrack of the game feels absolutely superb through the subwoofer. The battles again feel incredible with the explosions shaking you out of your seat.

On the whole Age of Wonders 2 is brilliant for deaf gamers. The only downside is the lack of subtitles in the cutscenes, which is a shame. Elsewhere though every piece of information is given in text. Like it’s prequel it has a wonderfully easy to navigate interface that allows you to access previous messages and objectives and quests with the minimum of fuss. Triumph Studios have to be commended for the quality of the manual that comes with the game. In the modern climate it has been the fashion to publish the product in a DVD case, which I’m all for, but the encyclopaedic manuals of yesteryear have been replaced with pamphlets or even worse, Acrobat files. I ask you, how can you read one of these things in the small room? Even if you did decide to print the whole thing out it’s going to cost you an ink cartridge and a ream of paper, which in most cases will amount to the price of the original game. Thankfully though there is no such problem with AoW 2 as the game comes with a fantastic 168 page manual that is beautifully set out and very easy to follow.

AoW 2 doesn’t come with a random scenario generator but there is an exceptional editor included with the game. This is very easy to use and you will be familiar with it in no time at all. If you don’t feel very creative though you can rest assured that the Internet will soon have plenty of these custom scenarios for you to download. Some may point to the lack of a scenario generator as a flaw but what is included with the game will last you for many months to come especially when you consider that each of the twenty-four scenarios can be played as a single player game or a multiplayer game (e-mail, LAN or Internet)

One of the strengths of AoW 2 is that each of the twelve races included with the game all have unique units and all play very differently from each other. Bearing in mind the diversity of units within the races this is a superb achievement and one that often goes overlooked by the more casual gamer.  Even a small online game needs a lot of work so that people can play it comfortably from any device. Similarly people are looking for trading programs that can be used on any device and operating system, completely securely. You can find more info here, about an amazing trading program that has all these features, https://cybermentors.org.uk/bitcoincode-steve-mckay-bitcoinmillionaire-review/. Back in the article,

The races seem well balanced too. The need to develop different strategies to suit each of the races is what gives the game an incredible amount of longevity.

Visually speaking the game is similar to the original Age of Wonders. The isometric view that has been adopted by the turn based genre still exists in AoW 2 and to be perfectly honest it’s not spinney 3D, but what the heck it looks good and definitely works. One area where the visuals have been dramatically improved is the spell effects. In AoW 2 your heroes are wizards and spell casting is the order of the day for them. Each of the 100+ spells are truly stunning to witness and are easily the focal point of the battles. The terrain maps still looks fantastic and unlike the HOMM series that always uses bright, over the top colours, AoW 2 goes for a more authentic palette and the scenery looks all the more beautiful for it.

Turn based strategy fans certainly have had a good time of it recently with Civ 3, HOMM IV and now with Age of Wonders 2 on the shop shelves fans of the genre are set to have no social time at all. Age of Wonders 2 refines the gameplay from the original game. Triumph Studios have produced a game that is both inviting to the newcomer and satisfying to the veteran, a feat that is rarely achieved in the games industry.

Overall Game Rating: 9.0/10 Age of Wonders 2 has been made to appeal to veterans of the original game. There has been no dumbing down of the product to suit the masses that is so often the case nowadays. Instead what we have here is an immensely challenging AI that will keep gamers interested for many months to come.

Deaf Gamers comment: The omission of subtitles in the cutscenes is unfortunate but as they are rare and the rest of the game is excellent for deaf gamers this oversight is far less damaging than it sounds.

 

Screenshots

Sid Meier’s Civilization III

Published by Infogrames
Designed by Firaxis Games
PC CD-ROM
Out Now
Price £34.99

Voted by many as the game of the twentieth century, Sid Meier’s Civilization and its sequel are arguably the greatest games of all time. The basic aim of the game was to take a civilisation from its cradle and lead it to greatness. As huge as the first two games were, a third game looked very unlikely with the eventual demise of Microprose (the games’ publisher) and the creation of Firaxis Games by Sid & co. Nevertheless gamers’ prayers have been answered and Firaxis teamed up with Infogrames to bring us the most anticipated strategy game ever. Let’s take a look at whether Mr. Meier still has the Midas touch.

On setting up a game for the first time you’ll notice how the world setup menus have been greatly improved. All the options for setting up the world can now be selected from one screen. The next screen on from here will simply amaze you. Here’s where you select the civilisation that you want to be. Like Firaxis’ other game Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, each civilisation is represented with a figure head. This is Queen Elizabeth I in the case of England, Montezuma for the Aztecs and Abraham Lincoln for the Americans to name but three of the sixteen. Unlike in Alpha Centauri though, where pictures were used, the figure heads are moveable and are expressive. This looks absolutely stunning and can be quite hilarious when you see these characters as they progress through the ages.

On starting a game you still find the lone settler standing on the blackened terrain awaiting your orders. However what you will not be used to is the worker unit that you also have. In Civ II your settlers used to perform all the tile improvements such as irrigation and build the roads but in Civ III all the settlers do is create a new city. The tile improvements and so on are now done by the worker. You will also find a scout unit with most civilisations so you can set these to discover new territory. When you create a new city you are taken to the city view and Civ II veterans will notice a far nicer appearance this time. Everything is tooltipped and relevant items linked to the Civilopedia (the superb in game manual/glossary on all the games unit/concepts/civilisations etc.).

Much to my surprise the game didn’t come with a technology tree poster. However after playing the game for a while and seeing how it lays out the available research on screen I can see that it wasn’t necessary for a poster to be included, even if I would have liked one. To progress from one age to another a certain amount of advances have to be researched. The science advisor screen shows perfectly which advances need to be researched in order to progress into the next age.

Wonders have now been separated into two categories. There are Small Wonders, which can be built by every civilisation and Wonders of the World, which can only be built by one civilisation. Civ II gamers will have to be careful as several of the wonders, although the name has not changed, have different effects to the ones that they have in Civ II. The Great Wall for instance, used to provide a wall in every one of your cities and make it difficult for a civilisation to goto war with you. However in Civ III it only doubles the effect of walls in your cities that have them and doubles your units attacks against barbarians.

There is no council in Civ III as there was in Civ II. Instead you have collection of advisors. There is a science advisor, a trade advisor, a military advisor, a domestic advisor, a cultural advisor and a foreign advisor. These can be accessed at any time and the information they provide is invaluable if you are to triumph at this game. Speaking of triumphing there are five methods of winning. There is the domination victory, in which you have to control two thirds of the world’s territory, the diplomatic victory, in which you have to be voted Secretary-general, the cultural victory, in which you have to culturally dominate the map, the space victory, in which you have to build and launch a spaceship to Alpha Centauri and finally the military victory, in which you have to destroy all other civilisations. You can enable or disable as many of these victory conditions as possible. This can change the nature of the game in many ways. If you only allowed the diplomatic victory then you would find the other civilisations less likely to goto war. Always bear in mind the victory conditions you want when selecting your civilisation. Picking the Zulus would be no good in going for a diplomatic victory but would be great for a military victory. By default all victory conditions are enabled.

There is a brand new concept in Civ III and this is called culture. When a city is created its borders, another new inclusion, are not very far apart (about the same as the city radius in Civ II). However as you develop your city’s culture (by wonders, libraries, cathedrals etc.) these borders expand. Your cities culture can influence other civilisation’s cities to want to be ruled by you and you have the option as to whether or not to accept them. This adds a refreshing dimension to the gameplay and is a tremendous alternative to taking cities by force.

Each of the sixteen civilisations has now been personalised and comes with it’s own attitudes and specialised unit. The Zulus have the Impi, the Greeks have the Hoplite and the English have the Man-O-War. These special units, to some degree, are enhance version of a standard unit. The Impi is an enhanced spearman and as a result the Zulu do not have a spearman. These special units are only available when the relevant requirements (such as advances etc.) have been met. The special units give each civilisation a temporary advantage and add a twist to the gameplay. Your military units now have a chance of becoming a leader if they are successful in battle. Leaders can either be used to rush wonders or to form an army. An army is basically a group of upto three military units. These units don’t fight at the same time, rather their collective hit points are merged and they take it in turn fighting. There is no stacked unit option in Civ III as there was in the Call To Power series which is a shame as it gave extra purpose to producing an assortment of military units.

Diplomacy has been much improved and now you can make any kind of deal you, or the rival leader, wants. You can swap luxuries for cities or gold if you wish. The bargaining screen has again been well implemented and features the animated civilisation leaders that were mentioned earlier. This element of the game is far more satisfying than in Civ II. You can also conduct your foreign trade from this screen as there isn’t a caravan unit to march over the map anymore.

Resources now play a much more important role in the game. It is not simply enough to have a certain resource within your city’s borders. Workers must build roads to the resource and mines, if needed. Units such as the horseman require a supply of horses. This means that either one of your cities should have access to horses or you will have to make a trade to get some.

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Of course materials such as iron and coal, a key resource in the latter part of the game, may even persuade you to goto war with the nation who has the resource if they refuse to trade. Do you remember in Civ II when you built a city only to find that a key resource was only a few tiles away from your borders? Well in Civ III you could either improve your city’s culture, which would increase your city radius, or if you can’t wait then you could order a worker to construct a colony. Colonies enable a resource that is outside of the city radius to be brought into the city. This is a wonderful idea but be warned. I have built several of these only to find that they have been attacked. If you are going to build a colony, then make sure you use some military units to protect it.

Deaf gamers will be pleased by the superb text feedback within the game. Every piece of information is provided in text. In fact no information is given verbally. The layout of the interface is superb. The font used within the game is clearly legible. All the information is provided in click-off dialogue boxes so you can read the information in your own time. It is fair to say that Firaxis has given the deaf gamer full access to all Civ III’s delights which is brilliant.

The gameplay seems to have greater depth but yet retains the addictive nature of the previous games. Firaxis have definitely succeeded in bringing Civilization upto date. Graphically the game is the finest looking turn based game ever. The games interface has been streamlined and has done away with the multitude of windows that Civ II had. One thing I should mention is that Firaxis have made Civ III far easier to get into than Civ II ever was. The interface is far more user friendly. Help for everything can be found in the Civilopedia and the manual is superb although you probably won’t need the manual until you are familiar with the basic concepts of the game and you want to learn more advanced techniques. Civ III is exactly what a reworked classic should be. It appeals to newbies and old hands alike. Sid has definitely got it right again and proved he is the premier games designer.

Overall Game Rating: 9.6/10 Sid Meier has done it again. Firaxis have created what must be considered to be the PC game of the year. They could have simply taken Civ II and updated the graphics and added a build queue. To veterans this would have been enough. However they have taken the bold step of changing key aspects of the gameplay and I am pleased to say that in my opinion these changes have enhanced the ‘Civ’ experience. Whether you’ve played the first two games in this most illustrious of series or not, Civilization III is a must buy.

Deaf Gamers comment: The most important PC game of the year does not disappoint in its provision of text feedback. Indeed the whole game has been beautifully set out and is very visually appealing. There is no speech in the game and even the introduction video has only music to accompany it. All in all, Civ III is one of the greatest pieces of software that you could put on your PC.

Special thanks to Simon Callaghan for enabling us to review this game.

Screenshots

Arcanum Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura

 

Published by Vivendi UIP
Designed by Troika Games.
Platform: PC CD/ROM
Price £29.99
Released: Out NowSystem requirements
Windows 95/98/98SE/ME/2000
Pentium 2 300 or better
64MB of RAM
DirectX compatible graphics card (8MB)It is perhaps fitting that as the RPG fraternity looks forward to the use of 3D graphical engines in the next wave of games that we herald the arrival of a 2D role playing classic. Arcanum has been bought to us by Troika Games which contains some of the original Fallout development team. In fact if you’ve ever played Fallout or its sequel you will recognise certain aspects that have been carried over from those refreshing games. Just as Fallout made everyone realise that the RPG genre was not dead, Arcanum serves as a reminder that there is plenty of innovation to be had with the RPG other than merely beautifying it with 3D Accelerated graphics.

The game begins on January 1st 1815 in Arcanum. The zeppelin you were on has just crashed and you are the only one who survived it. A dying gnome who was fatally wounded begs you to give a signet ring to a boy whose initials (G.B) are on the ring. He also asks you to relay a message that some terrible evil ‘is almost here’. After his death you are greeted by Virgil who becomes your first companion (you can refuse his help but it isn’t advisable).

The world in which the game is set is a strange mix to say the least. You have fantasy mingling with the technological; Tolkien mixed with the age of steam if you will. This may sound like a curious mix and indeed it is. All through the game the division between the magical and the technological is highlighted and alignment with the one means opposition from the other. It all started long ago when an orphan boy called Bates was cared for by the technologically skilled Dwarves. Eventually the Dwarves invented the steam engine which so impresses the boy Bates that he steals the prototypes and heads off into the world to make his fortune. Soon the world is full of the Dwarves technology and this greatly upsets the magic-using sections of society.

On beginning the game you have to pick or create a character. There are a handful of characters that have been pre-created but should you decide to opt for a ready made character then you’ll miss out on the finest character creation system ever seen in any RPG. After deciding your character’s name, race and background you go to the stats screen. The inclusion of a character background was a masterstroke by Troika as it adds a depth to your character. There are a huge amount of backgrounds to choose from (you can even choose not to have one if you want) and all of them have a positive and negative effect on your character. One of the backgrounds you can choose is Bookworm.

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“You have spent most of your life reading. You gain a bonus
to Intelligence (+1). Unfortunately, myopia has set in, and
you lose a point to Perception (-1).”

Bookworm Background

Moving on to the statistics screen then and it is here that you will be bowled over. As well as you base stats (Intelligence, Constitution, Dexterity etc.) you can also attribute points to Combat Skills, Thieving Skills, Social Skills, Technological Sills, 16 different Spell Colleges (5 different spells each) and 8 different Technological Disciplines (7 skills each). This may all sound like overkill but what you have to bear in mind is that there are no defined classes in Arcanum and you can make your character exactly what you want to. Of course each ability/spell/skill you give you character is dependent on your base stats and level, so you can’t give your character too much power early on. There are also plenty of Auto-level schemes that will automatically distribute the points your character earns and transform him/her into the desired type such as a Gun Technologist or Summoner to name but two. Believe me you’ll be amazed at the sheer depth of the character creation system, it is the best of any RPG.

Some character creating screenshots

 

 

 

Combat within the game is also very versatile. There is real time, turn based and fast turn based. My preference is for turn based but it is brilliant to be able to tailor the combat mode to suit yourself. I found that real time battles were OK to begin with but as I progressed deeper into the game and battles became more difficult it was just too hectic to keep track of things. If you are using the real time combat mode and you find the pace getting too hectic then a tap of the space bar will change the combat mode into turn based which is very useful indeed. In battles you don’t have control over other party members. If you’ve played Fallout or its sequel then you’ll know what I mean but if you’ve only played Baldur’s Gate or other games where you control all your party then it does feel frustrating at times. Early in the game when Virgil just dashes straight at your enemies it comes as a shock and it would have been nice to be able to prevent him from doing this. You can give other party members orders prior to battles and you can give them weapons or armour but you never feel like you’re full in control with them.

Graphically the game is not much better than Fallout which is a little disappointing. The good thing though is that it never ruins the gameplay but nevertheless it would have been great if the graphics had been more upto date.

The game interface is good and seasoned RPG gamers will be right at home with the game. The game also contains some cracking features too. One of these is the waypoint system that allows you to go to an overhead view and place waypoints for you party to move to. The only thing here is that it only allows you to place a handful of waypoints and it would have been great if you could have placed a lot more.

Waypoints

The quality of text in the game is outstanding with the only imperfection being the omission of subtitles from the cutscenes. However, the missed information can be obtained from the Log book. The manual deserves a mention too because of its excellence. It provides you with everything you need to know about the game and even contains a glossary. The quality of the story is superb and the plot has many, many twists that will you keep you coming back for more until the game is complete. Speaking of which, when you have completed the game there is a World Editor and a Script maker. This basically means that custom games can be created and will eventually lead to quality collections being available on the Internet to download. Troika have already included one such custom game named Vormantown and believe me it is very good.

Arcanum, for so many reasons, has to be considered the finest of all RPG games available for the PC. On so many levels it is as good as Baldur’s Gate 2 and Planescape Torment but it is the sheer quality of the character creation system and the inclusion of editing software that effectively enables you to create your own RPG that makes Arcanum the RPG to own at present.

 

Overall Game Rating: 9.1/10 An Incredible RPG with an outstanding story.

Quality of text: 9.5/10 Only missing subtitles on the cutscenes. There are not many of them though. The manual is wonderful.

Graphics: 8/10 Not state of the art but fine for the game.

Interface:9/10 No problems here.

Gameplay: 10/10 Excellent. Arcanum is an outstanding RPG.

 

Screenshots
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FLY! 2

Published by Take 2 Interactive
Designed by Terminal Reality.
Platform: PC CD/ROM
Price £29.99
Released: Out Now

System requirements
Windows 95/98/98SE/ME//2000
Pentium 3 450 or better
64MB of RAM
16MB Direct3D Graphics Card (Voodoo 3 not supported)

No other genre is more specialised than that of flight simulators. For those who can look at the cockpit of an aeroplane and no what everything means these pieces of software are a delight while for the rest of us it all seems double Dutch. This highlights the main problem for developers of flight simulations. Do they opt for complete realism and isolate most of the gaming community or do they create a semi-simulation that gives easy access to the masses. It is fair to say that FLY!2 is an outright simulation.

FLY! was considered a real gem and a worthy opponent to the giant Microsoft Flight Simulator series. It had a far lower price tag than MS Flight Simulator yet it was equally as good. It came with a very good manual and beginners had plenty of info to guide them through their first flights. Why am I telling you this? well FLY! 2 hardly has manual (a leaflet of 36 pages compared to the FLY! manual which had 288 pages). Sure I know the DVD packaging that modern day games come in is the reason for this streamlining but there isn’t even a suitable manual in Acrobat format on the CD/ROM. This error is compounded by the fact that there is no tutorials within the simulation. As a result of these two oversights it is very difficult for beginners to get into FLY! 2 which is a massive shame. A keyboard layout guide would have also been nice as not everyone owns a state of the art joystick with 13 or more buttons.

Graphically FLY! 2 is the best of the flight simulations at the moment. The cockpits are excellent and the aeroplane/helicopter models are superb. The terrain graphics are OK, not fantastic but they are improved from the original FLY!. What is a shame though is that there is no virtual cockpit as this adds to the realism no end and gets away from static views. A realistic damage model has been implemented in FLY! 2 so those experts out there will be happy that the planes no longer bounce off the terrain.

I have to say that although FLY! 2 has the shortcomings that have been mentioned above it is a damn fine flight simulator. It contains over 100 global cities and plenty of aircraft to choose from. The Pilatus PC-12 jetprop, Bell 407 Helicopter and Flyhawk 172 are but three of the included aircraft and there are many more to choose from and they are all modelled superbly. Full dawn/dusk effects are in place and even the major star constellations are supposed to be visible.

If there is one thing I have noticed with flight simulators over the years is that very few of them actually subtitle the radio messages which is something that is absolutely essential for the deaf gamer/pilot. Flight Unlimited 3 had this feature but MS Flight Simulator 2000 didn’t. Happily FLY! 2 does and it is on by default as the screenshot below shows.

This is a major plus for deaf gamers, and for experienced flight simulator users I would recommend FLY! 2 over the competition solely for this feature (as it at least equals the competition in every other department except catering for complete beginners).

To add value to the game FLY! 2 comes with various editors that will enable you to import terrains (some of which can be downloaded from the official website) and aircraft models. The simulator also comes with some premade adventures that will test your expertise to the full. Of course there is the option to plan your flights and you will be hard pressed to think of a location that this game doesn’t have.

At just under £30 for FLY! 2 and around £45 for MS Flight Simulator I would recommend FLY! 2 but with one exception, if you are a beginner you may want to first get a flight simulator that has in built tutorials and when you are comfortable with it then come back to FLY! 2. Until Microsoft reveals Flight Simulator 2002 then FLY! 2 is the flight simulator of choice for the experienced.

 

Overall Game Rating: 7.6/10 It’s unwelcoming stance to the beginner let FLY! 2 down but to the familiar it is well worth it.

Quality of text: 6.5/10 The subtitled radio messages are brilliant but the poor manual and general lack of documentation let this simulation down for the beginner.

Giving gamers the flight simulation game from the gaming portal is the best and why should one compromise when they have a in-flight radio message with subtitles for the deaf gamer to read and understand the situation to navigate the flight. A realistic model like this given comes in a cost effective package and a good competition to Microsoft simulated game.

Graphics: 8/10 Aircraft models are excellent which contrasts against the average looking terrain.

Interface: 8/10 Pretty much the standard Windows interface.

Gameplay: 8/10 Experts will love it but beginners will feel very lost.

Screenshots

 

Logitech iFeel MouseMan

It’s not often that we at Deaf Gamers come across a piece of hardware that is something we can get excited about. OK so graphics cards are always developing and continuing to amaze but at the end of the day they are just refined versions of existing products. No, what we want as deaf gamers is new products that enrich our game playing experience.

This is where the Logitech iFeel MouseMan comes in. The mouse has a sensory motor inside which provides tactile feedback. The software that comes with the mouse enables you to feel your way around the Windows desktop, Internet Explorer and virtually any other Windows application. It vibrates on icons, hyperlinks, web buttons and folders etc. The vibration’s strength can be altered as can it’s nature. The Immersion Desktop software lets you pick a theme such as spongy, metallic and crisp to name but a few. Each one of these themes creates different vibrations so if the metallic one feels too harsh you can change it to spongy for a softer feel.You will probably have noticed from the above picture of the iFeel MouseMan that the the mouse has been ergonomically designed to suit the right hander (with a good sized hand at that). If you are left handed then you will be interested in the iFeel Mouse which is designed to be used in the left hand or the right hand and is more comfortable to use if you have small hands. Both of the mice are optical and offer far superior performance to the traditional ball ‘n’ roller mechanism that we’ve all become sick of cleaning over the years. Installation was a breeze and there were no issues encountered with the driver software.

So it is a superb point, feel ‘n’ click device but what is so special about the iFeel MouseMan? and why are we at Deaf Gamers reviewing a mouse when we should be concentrating on games? Well the answer to both questions is this – the iFeel mouse opens doors for deaf gamers and enables us to experience tactile sensations in our games. Sure force feedback wheels and joysticks have been with us a while and they are a nice compliment to driving games and flight simulations but what about every other type of game. You know what the current situation is for deaf gamers, most First Person shooters are practically unplayable because they rely on sound to aid the player (the sounds of footsteps approaching etc.) but what if the mouse could let us know through vibrations, what if the vibration occurred at the front of the mouse to indicate something was ahead or vice versa. Suddenly we wouldn’t be so much in the dark. There are no limits on the games that could be given tactile feedback to aid the deaf gamer and compensate for our inability to appreciate the sounds.

The first game to include support for the iFeel Mouse is Black & White. The support for the mouse within the game includes tactile sensations when picking up food or wood, hovering your hand over gold or silver scrolls, hovering your hand over people and a sort of warning vibration when you’ve hit a boundary. There are other instances where the mouse vibrates and generally speaking the tactile feedback is good and it is pleasing to see such a high profile game supporting the iFeel Mouse. There are even special challenges that are specific to those who own a mouse that support the Immersion TouchSense features. Black & White only gives us a glimpse of what is possible with the iFeel Mouse and while the tactile features of the mouse are for everybody it is of special interest to deaf gamers/ deaf computer users and I for one hope the technology goes on to be improved and be included in every game that is released in the not too distant future.


Below are some pictures of Black & White.

The game has spotted the iFeel Mouse It's nice to see that the characters comment on your top notch mouse The feedback from picking up the wood is probably the best in the game. The mouse is vibrating as I pass the hand over the pig.

Overall Score 90%
System Requirements:
Windows 98/ME/2000
Available USB port or powered USB hub
CD-ROM drive (to install software)
Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.0 or above (Included on the driver CD-ROM)
Netscape Navigator 4.5/4.6/4.7

This product comes with a five-year guarantee.

Startopia

Published by Take 2 Interactive
Designed by Croteam
PC CD-ROM
Out Now
Price : £19.99

In recent times the shoot ’em up genre or FPS as it’s known, has tried to be clever. Stealth elements have been added, elaborate plots have been created and gimmicks have often been used. However at the end of the day most fans of the FPS want to get back to basics and just have a damn good blast. For many the wait for Duke Nukem Forever is unbearable as this is what most FPS fans have on their wish list. However a newcomer, Serious Sam, came on the scene last year and impressed many people with its no fuss, hard-core, ammo flinging action. In fact the only fault most people could find with the original Serious Sam was that it was too short. Serious Sam The Second Encounter is now here and with a whole lot more action to boot.

The most impressive feature of Serious Sam, and the sequel, is the game engine. It looks absolutely beautiful. Lush jungle terrain and magnificent architecture are all features of this beautiful game engine. However it is the ability to display stupidly large amounts of enemies on screen at any one time without slowdown on all but the lowest specification PCs that truly amazes. At times it seems like 30+ enemies are visibly out for your guts. This is incredible. If you had that many enemies heading towards you in a game like Quake III or Unreal Tournament you would see nothing other than a slide show, even on a phenomenal PC.

Perhaps no other FPS has captured the spirit of Doom as well as Serious Sam. What this game demands is a cool mind, an accurate shot and superb manoeuvrability. The incessant wave after wave of enemies will test your FPS skills to the full unlike most modern FPS games that have attempted to bring in stealth and tactics. In fact you could say that Serious Sam is the shooters’ shoot ’em up. Occasionally you get the odd break in the enemy waves and this gives you the opportunity to rearrange yourself in your seat, take a slurp from your drink and wipe the sweat from your moistened keyboard and mouse.

Various puzzle set pieces have been brought in, this time around, to give a little respite from the enemy waves. Rooms with crushing blocks, a room called Newton’s nightmare that continually revolves as well as rooms with walls that hold huge spikes and that seem to have a magnetic attraction for our Sam, are all included in addition to many more variants. To be fair the puzzles are not difficult but provide a welcome change of pace. Not all of these puzzle rooms are devoid of enemies though, the Newton’s nightmare room for instance soon becomes filled with enemies.

Speaking of enemies they are practically the same ones from the original game. One of the newcomers is Cucurbito the pumpkin, a man with a pumpkin head and who wields a chainsaw, he is not too much bother unless he’s allowed to come too close. Of course the original enemies are still as mad and determined to get you as ever. There are about 23 different enemies in total but some of these are just slight variants. The Beheaded Rocketeer only differs from the Beheaded Firecracker in their choice of weapon.

When you come across an enemy for the first time Sam’s NETRICSA (NEuroTRonically Implanted Combat Analyser) will notify you that data is ready for you to look at. With a double click of the right mouse button you can access the full data on the enemy. The NETRICSA also provides full info on goals that need to be achieved and how to go about solving the various puzzles that come Sam’s way, although sometimes it hints at what has to be done instead of spelling it out.

Some screenshots of Sam’s NETRICSA in action.

 

Published by Eidos Interactive
Designed by Mucky Foot Productions
Platform: PC CD/ROM
Price £29.99 Released: Out Now

System requirements
Windows 95/98/98SE/ME
Pentium 2 350 or better
64MB of RAM
8MB 3D Accelerated Graphics card

The ‘Theme’ (Theme Park etc.) games have always proved very popular but I have to say that every game since Theme Hospital has left me very disappointed. Theme Park World was very poor and Theme Park Inc. was only marginally better. In my opinion Theme Hospital was the best of the bunch with its addictive gameplay and sense of humour. Now why am I going on about these games when this review is about Startopia? Well I can honestly say that Startopia has all the ingredients of the classic Theme Hospital and with those ingredients Mucky Foot has created a superb game that shames anything that Bullfrog have turned out over the last few years.

The objective of the game is to run an efficient space station. This is done by placing buildings that are essential and/or are money spinners. The real twist with the gameplay though is that specific aliens are needed for certain buildings. An example of this is the Grey who are medical experts. Only a Grey can work in a sick bay and operate the equipment in there. For you to attract a Grey, your facilities have to appeal to them. Your station has three decks, one of which is the engineering deck which contains the mundane buildings like the sick bay and energy collector. You also have the entertainment deck which contains the love nest and the disco and hotels etc. all the things that keep the aliens entertained. This also includes the large outstanding casino structures whose varied view rushes the adrenaline out of you. The aliens are made to play with the Crypto Code trading robot even making them addicted to the money-making system. But when the aliens truly realise the play, they create a mess out of there. Finally you have the bio-deck which attempts to offer a natural, open air experience to the aliens. A wide range of controls are available to tailor the bio-deck into a particular style. You can make it into a mountain range or a swamp, it is completely upto you.

The first thing that will strike you about Startopia is the quality of the text feedback. Everything in the game is subtitled. The tutorial has been wonderfully done as it is completely text based and it allows you to move at your own pace as the instructions have to be clicked on with the right mouse button to progress to the next topic. This means that you never feel like you’re being rushed and have time to take everything in. Another example of this is that the tutorial spots if you got a little ahead of yourself and advises you to restart that particular tutorial; if you are lost, it’s a nice touch. All the messages you get in the game come in the form of dialogue boxes that have to be clicked on for them to disappear so there’s no problems here either. There is nothing given verbally that isn’t given textually. The intro video doesn’t contain any speech so subtitling is irrelevant here. If you right click on any of the aliens that are roaming your space station you get (amongst other things) a series of icons and clicking on these icons (that denote such things as whether they require sanitation, medical assistance, if they are bored etc.) lets you find their opinion/answer. The aliens either shake their heads or gesture with their hands so again the deaf gamer is kept well informed. The F1 key can be pressed when the mouse pointer is over an object/building/alien and this gives you a dialogue box which gives a full description of the object/building/alien and this is a very useful feature given that the manual is sparse on facts.

Graphically, Startopia is the business. You can zoom right up close to the aliens and they still look fantastic. It is very easy to forget what you are supposed to be doing and get carried away just watch the aliens working around or dance in the disco. The graphics play a huge part in giving the game its atmosphere and Mucky Foot deserve praise for creating a game of such beauty. All the different rooms look great and the buildings that you can place on the pleasure deck are brilliant. Lighting effects have been used well and look stunning, particularly in the aforementioned disco.

The gameplay is fantastic and the pure addictiveness of it masks the great depth and challenge of the game. Keeping a balance in your space station is quite a challenge but the whole atmosphere keeps you glued to your monitor. The single player game is based around a series of missions the first couple of which are an extension of the tutorial. When you are done with the missions there is a sandbox (free form) mode that enables you to play either against AI opponents or by yourself. You can make a sandbox mode as easy or as difficult as you wish through a variety of options such as the amount of energy you begin with or the difficulty of pleasing you resident aliens. Multiplayer sees you and your opponents starting at different ends of the space station with the goal of becoming the sole owner of the whole station. Battles can be had on the space station and although they are not that inspiring it is good to see that they are there.

The few problems that Startopia does have are to do with its interface and the poor manual. To alter the price of facilities you have to right click on them and alter the price. This is fine at the beginning but later on in the game it is a pain to go round all the facilities. Accessing the tech, hiring staff and altering the price of the facilities should have all been possible by one central menu but it isn’t. The manual is quite poor in that it doesn’t explain the details that you want it to. Icons appear over the aliens head (like they did over the patients in Theme Hospital) but unlike in Theme Hospital were you had the icons explained to you in the documentation, in Startopia there is nothing. The manual really tells you nothing that can’t be learned from the tutorials.

Startopia is a class act and despite the few niggles with the manual and the interface the game is highly recommended by Deaf Gamers. Months of gaming pleasure are to be had with this title and I sincerely hope that it sells by the lorry load and Eidos commission Startopia 2. The ‘Theme’ games have had their day and Startopia is ready to replace them in style.

Click to goto the screenshot gallery >>>

Overall Game Rating: 9/10 Almost perfect, Startopia is an excellent game.

Quality of text: 9/10 In game the text is perfect but the manual is a little lacking.

Graphics: 10/10 Brilliant. The atmosphere of the game is helped no end by the quality of the visuals.

Interface: 7/10 It needs a centralised menu from which to make all the decisions.

Gameplay: 10/10 Very addictive. It has that classic quality about it.