- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 7, 2008

A desperate mission to contain a military biotech experiment challenges players’ targeting and numerical problem-solving skills in Math Evolver, Virus Origin (Topics Learning and Tabula Digita, for Mac and PC, $29.99).

This three-dimensional, first-person shooter for children in sixth to ninth grades offers some of the urgency and excitement of popular sci-fi combat titles, but with greatly diminished violence and a mix of prealgebra concepts.

With more of a feel of “Andromeda Strain” than Halo or Doom, a single player selects a human scientist from eight choices. He then gets a quick tutorial on how to use keyboard commands and a mouse to maneuver around and interact with environments.

The story kicks in as he becomes the project leader of a special operations unit that embarks on five missions set on a mysterious island code-named Xeno.

The location housed the research facility of a brilliant neuroscientist who fused nanotechnology with natural organisms. His experiments created some dangerous creatures and a virus that threatens to infect mankind.

His daughter Darienne acts as an omniscient guide and frequent narrator as the player attempts to rendezvous with her and investigate the island.

As with games of this genre, the action is about exploration and discovering clues (both aurally and visually) to complete objectives and using a decent assortment of gear and weapons to survive.

Specifically in Math Evolver, players are equipped with a blaster and charger mounted on their wrists, a visor to analyze objects, radar and eventually a hovercraft and a jetpack.

All of the gear comes into play to defeat mechanical guards, open gates, disable security systems and outsmart a spider monkey while searching lush grounds, warehouses and some darkened corridors and control rooms.

The mathematical conundrums included are varied enough to feel very much part of the game and not just forced upon the player.

They usually involve choosing correct numbered pieces or sequences to unlock or turn an object or can be as detailed as selecting the right prime digit capacitors to shrink an enemy.

The graphics won’t win any awards, but combined with plenty of narration, moody techno music and sound effects, the overall package is more than adequate for the action, and, the controls are especially responsive.

My only caveat is this is only the first set of a 20-mission game that tells a much larger story of the Xenon mess. Players can buy the whole game ($69.95) at the Dimension M Web site.

Learning time: Puzzles created in Evolver use standards set by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Mission levels concentrate on different core concepts, such as fractions, prime numbers, perfect squares and the frightening equation disentangler PEMDAS (parenthesis, exponents, multiplication, division, add and subtract).

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