Originally created 01/18/98

Software can make your PC an entertaiment mecca



So you bought a PC over the holidays, and you're bored already. The software that came loaded on the hard drive looks tired and stale. You're looking for something more exciting than a new personal information manager or the latest Netscape plug-in.

Don't worry. The computer on your desk is a world class entertainment machine -- all you need is the right software. Deposit a few bucks at your local computer store and you can be mindlessly entertained for hours. And if you're worried about parting with hard-earned cash for a game you've never played, point your Web browser to home pages of the major game publishers. Most of them post demonstration versions that you can download and try before you buy. Meanwhile, here are some titles that we've enjoyed over the last month or two.

If you have younger children who can't wait for Little League season to start, keep them happily amused with "Backyard Baseball" from Humongous Entertainment.

This delightful title is an easy-to-play, cartoon takeoff on the technically overloaded baseball simulations that adults enjoy. But if you've ever coached a bunch of 8-year-olds, you'll appreciate the reality of the craziness on the field as players drop balls, run into each other and generally have fun being kids.

To start, you pick teams from a culturally diverse neighborhood gang of 30 kids who are terminally cute and occasionally seem to be paying attention. They even have their own baseball cards with ratings for batting, running, throwing and catching, plus other important information, such as Lulu's insistence on having her teddy bear around as a lucky charm.

Choose your "stadium" from a variety of back yards, empty lots, playgrounds and parking lots, then play ball. The action is definitely cartoonish, but it's fun to watch. Mouse-driven hitting and pitching are easy enough for 6- or 7-year-olds to master, although adults may take a bit longer. For the youngest children, there's a T-ball mode that doesn't require the kids to swing at a moving target.

If you're one of those compulsives who requires more organization, you can set up a league and play through an entire season, including national and world championships.

Unlike many "simulations," this one doesn't require a lot of computing horsepower and the CD includes Windows 95, Windows 3.1 and Power Macintosh versions of the program. For information, point your Web browser to www.humongous.com.

If your idea of recreation is a night at the local billiard academy (OK, pool hall), "Virtual Pool 2" is as close as you can get to the real thing without a felt-topped table in the basement.

I tried out the first release of this program from VR sports a couple of years ago and was impressed by its realism. The new Windows 95 version is absolutely spectacular, with detailed graphics, sound, photorealistic animation and ball physics that approach perfection. The new features include full 3-D ball movement, which means that if you hit a ball too hard, it will jump off the table. It also means you can do some pretty fancy trick shots.

Basic play is darn close to reality. The game allows you to move around the table laterally and vertically, adjusting the view smoothly and naturally. You can also adjust the vertical angle of the cue as well as its horizontal position, which means it's easy to put backspin on the ball. And if you want to "cheat" a bit, Virtual Pool 2 will show you every angle you can use to make every shot on the table -- which is actually a good way to learn the game.

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You can play with friends or choose from 128 computerized opponents. In addition to the classic 8-Ball, 9-Ball, Straight Pool and Rotation games of the original version, this release includes 3-ball, 6-ball, 10-ball, Bank Pool and One Pocket. If you have a modem, you can dial up an opponent on the phone or play over the internet. There's also a CD-based instructional video featuring professional Mike Sigel.

My elder son swears that Virtual Pool has improved his real pool game (an endorsement that would thrill any parent). But I can see his point. This is one of the best simulations I've ever tried. For information, surf to www.vrsports.com.

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Ever since Atari first mesmerized video arcade addicts with "Pole Position," racing simulations have been a staple of the PC game market. If you're looking for high-speed thrills, "Need for Speed II SE" from Electronic Arts will keep your pulse racing and stomach churning.

Now don't expect too much innovation here -- the genre is pretty well limited by the nature of racing. What you will find are superb 3-D graphics, incredibly quick action and a collection of hot cars that include the Ferrari F355F1, McLaren F1, Lotus Esprit V8 and Jaguar XJ220.

You'll race them through a series of seven international courses that incorporate breathtaking scenery -- if you want to stop to enjoy it. The programmers have gone the extra mile with this one -- you can even hear the waves crashing along the shore line as you rocket around a Mediterranean island.

[bf]Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service[nf]