- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Here’s a look at some hardware and software that’s available:

Wrath Unleashed, by LucasArts for Xbox and PlayStation 2, rated T: content suitable for ages 13 and older, $49.99. Mortals visit magical realms to take control of gods and their minions in a fantastical adventure combining the strategy of board games with button-mashing battles.

The Collective — the developer known for bringing Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Indiana Jones to entertainment consoles — has gone out of its way to create an intense mythology with a sweeping soundtrack in which more than 30 creatures move through 15 maps to seek enemy forces and secure sacred temples.

Two male overlords (Epothos and Durlock) and two scantily clad female overlords (Aenna and Helamis) supervise a bestiary of frost dragons, iron golems, Cyclopes and fire giants as up to four players manipulate encounters reminiscent of a holographic version of chess or virtual Risk.

As players move in a turn-based fashion over the hexagonal spaces in the floating environments, they can secure areas to complete mission objectives more quickly and compile magic points to be used for slick maneuvers, including resurrecting fallen comrades, obliterating a pesky creature, teleporting around the playing field and attacking an enemy by moving to a space he has occupied.

Each confrontation takes place on a gorgeous interactive terrain where two creatures can slug it out or cast spells on each other through a simplistic control scheme — no finger-knotting combination moves allowed here. They also gain advantages depending on where the fight takes place — earth, water, fire or ice — their strength before the fight and use of the likes of spikes popping out of the ground or quicksand to cleverly maneuver an opponent to his doom.

Modes include Campaign, in which a solo player works through four missions,including destroying a hidden chaos demon and capturing specific locales; Battle, in which up to four players attempt to control a territory; and Versus, which takes away the board-game element to become a simple 3-D brawler.

This old-timer found the pacing of the action perfect, but I wish the arena-style fighting had a bit more depth. The computer-graphics scenes and the characters look awesome, and the Campaign mode offers enough challenge to keep the average gamer caught in this fantasy for days.

EMedia Learn to Play Keyboard, by EMedia Music, CD-ROM and MIDI instrument bundle, $169.95. The hours of sweating over an upright piano as Miss Crabtree waits to unload a ruler on the knuckle of a misguided finger could be avoided with a keyboard-training simulation run through a budding musician’s computer.

I would love to say that this product, which combines software with a keyboard, is revolutionary and offers great results, but the double-edged sword of installation and boredom actually makes me pine for the days of Miss Crabtree.

This on-screen method sounds great out of the box, as it boasts video and audio instruction from Irma Irene Justicia, who holds a master’s degree from Mannes College of Music in New York. She works students through 300 lessons to learn sight reading and proper playing techniques while also including more than 100 songs, a way to record performances, accompaniments and even an on-screen metronome.

Getting the packaged keyboard to work fluidly with the program was quite an experience, however. I learned how to cuss in three keys as I tried to configure the enclosed USB MIDI cable and joystick cable to work with software on Macintosh, Windows ME and Windows 98 computer systems.

Even after successfully getting the keyboard to work on the Windows 98 system, as I tried to play along with the educational software, the instruments suffered from latency issues as keystrokes lagged behind on timed lessons.

Furthermore, the software’s presentation was painfully dry, with too much text and not enough flash to keep me entertained. I doubt a youngster or teenager would have the attention span to complete even 25 percent of the lessons.

I would suggest spending a couple of bucks more to check out the latest Yamaha light-up keyboards, which boast song tutorials and games presented through an on-board LCD screen. Then pay for a couple of pickup sessions with Miss Crabtree.

Write to Joseph Szadkowski, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002; or send e-mail (jszadkowski@washingtontimes.com).

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