Originally created 07/20/98

Video games: 'Dominion'



The look was something between pity and contempt.

There was I, standing amid the deafening noise of the annual Electronics Entertainment Expo blathering loudly about how "Dominion" was just another "Starcraft" knockoff. It moves like "Starcraft," seems to play like "Starcraft" and even kind of looks like "Starcraft," I said then.

Duh, how much more of a knockoff could it be?

That's when I got the look.

I caught it out of the corner of my eye as I watched the game being played by "Dominion" producer Todd Porter. Now, after actually sitting down and playing the game myself, I know that I deserved every bit of contempt and pity conveyed by that sideways glance.

Yes, Eidos Interactive's "Dominion" looks like Blizzard Entertainment's "Starcraft" and plays like the real-time strategy game. But "Dominion" is no "Starcraft." In some respects, it's much better. The game delivers all combat, all the time. In some ways, "Starcraft" remains stronger -- its ever-changing "fog of war" feature, for instance.

Put simply, "Dominion" is really a different kind of strategy game -- one that ought to appeal more to bloodthirsty players bored with the administrative details that characterized play in "Starcraft." Although it shares many surface features with "Starcraft," it's unfair to dismiss "Dominion" as a knockoff.

As in "Starcraft," "Dominion" players choose among races in an intergalactic war. Each race has its own strengths and weaknesses, and each employs different combat tactics. So it's possible to play "Dominion" through to the end four times and have the game look fresh each time.

The biggest difference between the two games is the amount of time players spend doodling with details. "Starcraft," for instance, demands that players build mining vehicles to supply power plants and then tell the newly built vehicles where to mine. Touches like that added to the realism of the game, but few people buy battle simulators to manage the supply chain.

That's where "Dominion" excels. From the first simple mission, it's clear where "Dominion" focuses its energy. Simple interfaces allow surprisingly refined battlefield control. With a few clicks of the mouse, it's possible to send units on patrol or to have them hold a position.

Artificial intelligence makes each skirmish unique as enemy units respond in real time to even the most clever tactics. "Dominion" requires a Pentium 166 with 32 megabytes of RAM, but runs best on a Pentium 200 with 64 megabytes. Multiplayer games require access to the Internet or a local-area network.

BURNING RANGERS: Three years ago, as the 32-bit era of gaming was just starting to take off, "Burning Rangers" might have been impressive. Instead, one of the last titles expected for Sega Saturn seems like too little too late.

The game follows the adventures of the Burning Rangers, a futuristic team of crazy kids who dare to enter toxic factories and burning warehouses to save the innocent. As the game manual points out, "Their task is not only to rescue people; it is to rescue hope from the dark path the world has taken."

Whatever. Players spend a lot of time shooting at flames and collecting crystals that provide power. A fairly instructive walk-through at the beginning of new games gives players tips on controlling their jet packs and rescuing victims.

Although it's refreshing to play a game in which the goal is to protect -- not mutilate -- the innocent, the victims spend far too much time on the screen for my taste. For instance, rescues are accompanied by monotonous cinematics, displayed in Saturn's notoriously clunky graphics. For an action game, it's decidedly short on action.

QUEST 64: Lack of action is not a problem in "Quest 64." In fact, there's almost too much action. Somewhere between a true role-playing game and an adventure, it fills a nice gap below the space Nintendo's "Legend of Zelda" is expected to dominate.

Unlike "Zelda," which demands fairly sophisticated gaming skills, "Quest 64" plays to a younger crowd. The hero, Brian, is the son of a magician lost in the hinterlands. Unlike traditional role-playing games, "Quest 64" doesn't require players to rest every few minutes or to manage finances. Most of the things players need are provided free along the way.

Perhaps the only element that might give smaller players trouble is the magic system Brian uses in lieu of weaponry. It can sometimes get a little tricky deciding whether to use earth, wind, fire or water magic on a foe.

And there are plenty of foes. Too many, sometimes. Battles unfold every few steps. Players can always opt to run away, but then they won't get any of the experience points or other goodies vanquished foes might hold. The violence is mild -- defeated enemies disappear in a flash, not in an explosion of blood -- so parents seeking a challenging and thoughtful game for younger kids ought to give it a serious look.

X-MEN VS. STREET FIGHTER: As video games become more like movies in everything from production to distribution, it's no wonder that marketing is playing a greater role. The results are not always happy.

For instance, it's easy to imagine the thinking of Capcom executives as they came up with the rationale for yet another two-dimensional PlayStation fighter.

It might have gone something like this: Kids like X-Men, a Marvel Comics franchise that has starred in video games. Kids also like "Street Fighter," a video game franchise that has starred in movies. Why not put them together in a game and call it, say, "X-Men vs. Street Fighter"?

With plenty of nice graphics, tight control and some nasty opponents, "X-Men vs. Street Fighter" is everything players should expect from a fighter this late in PlayStation's development cycle.

As a game, it's just fine. But "X-Men" is so much like every other "just fine" game out there that the question executives and developers ought to be asking is not "Why not?" The question, really, is "Why?"

E-mail the writer: Aaron.Curtiss@latimes.com