Dream on(line)

Mar 28, 2001 at 12:00 am

When video game maker Sega recently confirmed industry rumors that it would cease manufacturing its Dreamcast hardware this March, many gamers might have been tempted to swear off the popular, critically acclaimed console. But for current and future owners of the powerhouse Dreamcast — voted “Machine of the Year” by Time in 1999 and recently crowned king by Gamers’ Republic magazine — there’s still one exceptional reason to remain loyal: Dreamcast remains the essential key that opens the door to truly inspired Internet-supported gaming.

The only game console (so far) to include an internal modem, Dreamcast has anticipated the boom in online console gaming since its release two years ago.

And now, with SegaNet, the company’s new game-dedicated online environment, up and running, Dreamcast gamers can follow hot in the pioneering footsteps of online PC gaming, where games such as “Everquest” and “Ultima Online” once led the ranks. Both games offered a new kind of interactive experience, in which players from around the globe could converse (as long as they were fluent in English) and wage war on one another, organizing miniature armies to conquer monster-stricken fantasy lands.

When Sega started offering similar online games, they too were fun (comprised of one-shot football or annoyingly addictive puzzlers), but that was about the extent of it, until the role-playing adventure “Phantasy Star Online” exploded onto the radar screen a few weeks ago.

The $49 game, exclusive to the Dreamcast console, utilizes every aspect of invention that the wired PC has embraced — but it also expands on that inventiveness with both versatility and ingenuity.

For one thing, “Phantasy Star” has a continuous story line, an aspect which previous online games lacked. It’s fairly basic: the player is summoned to the planet Ragol, the site of a mysterious, explosionlike pulse. A tragic occurrence, considering the space vessel, Pioneer 2, was just moments away from transporting civilians to join hundreds of other citizens — now presumably deceased. All that remain are vicious, relentlessly aggressive wildlife and shattered remnants of a city that once prospered.

However, don’t expect extensive scripting. “Phantasy Star” is engineered as online entertainment, so the story line remains simplistic — and optional. Players form alliances as they travel about Ragol, placing great emphasis on cooperative gameplay, each team having four members. In fact, “Phantasy Star” doesn’t even permit player-vs.-player combat, an aspect of online gaming that has incited great debate in the Ultima Online community.

As a result, teamwork is one of the game’s strongest aspects, along with the communication it fosters.

“One of the nice functions is when you’re playing with people from different countries, (the game) will translate many basic phrases into (compatible) languages,” explains Marco Petraszczuk, manager at the Funcoland in Novi and an avid gamer. Whether you speak French, Spanish, German, Japanese or English, “Phantasy Star” is still intoxicating — a global banquet of dreamlike locales, fierce combat and unfriendly beasts.

Geared toward a worldwide audience, “Phantasy Star” features colorful and completely customizable symbols to make bilingual communication quick and easy. By pressing a single key, players have a chance to say “Hi” with an eye-patched smiley face decorated with Willy Wonka swirls and other eye-candy, or any of hundreds of other customizable options.

Throughout gameplay, you can create a personal set of symbols and icons, along with shortcut keystrokes, allowing players to reiterate an entire phrase with one tap of the directional pad, making interaction radically simple. Phrases commonly used in battle, such as, “Follow me” or “Attack on my mark,” can be displayed with a single keystroke, making play less complicated and overwhelmingly convenient.

Another unique aspect: “Phantasy Star” is playable both offline and online. Whether a private session of monster slaughter or a multiplayer concert of might and magic is on your checklist, Sega’s premier role-playing experience offers plenty of options. Players can even indulge in dramatic elements of the story as part of an online party or through an individual quest.

To complement online gatherings, Sega launched the aforementioned SegaNet, its in-house Internet service provider (ISP) that allows Dreamcast users, for $21.95 a month, to not only play on less-clogged servers, but also surf Web sites and check e-mail with their console.

Sega also offers a PC dialer, allowing subscribers to connect through their computer as well. Gameplay is especially fast and furious with an optional broadband adapter, available only at sega.com. Keep in mind, though, SegaNet’s dial-up connection is still quite effective, rarely inhibiting gameplay.

In addition, membership to SegaNet provides users with exclusive monthly discounts at the sega.com store, along with special rebates and a free keyboard (the Dreamcast doesn’t include one), dependent upon varied sign-up plans.

But SegaNet service is purely discretionary. “Phantasy Star,” along with other online Dreamcast games, can be played using existing ISPs as well.

It seems the competition is far behind, too. Sony is nearly a year away from releasing a modem for its PlayStation 2, while Microsoft’s X-Box and Nintendo’s Gamecube won’t even be available for sale until this October, and details have yet to be reported about online compatibility.

So even though the Dreamcast console won’t be manufactured anymore, rest assured, it will endure, especially with its new allowance-compliant price of $99.

It’s worth taking advantage of, especially since at least 60 new games are scheduled for release in 2001. Peter Moore, president and CEO of Sega of America, insists that his company will proceed with producing games for Dreamcast as long as gamers continue to embrace them.

Play on. Or, more appropriately, online.

Now playing:
Online games currently available for Dreamcast

“Quake III: Arena”
This is massive pit-of-hell warfare, customizable with 30 different “deathmatch” mercenaries, apocalyptic artillery and a 3-D engine to die for. The best first-person, multiplayer ferocity on a console today. (Sega)

“Pod Speedzone”
A futuristic racing romp, complete with wickedly abstract environments and arcade-style frenzy on six Blade Runner-esque courses. (Ubi Soft)

“Chu Chu Rocket”
Cat vs. mouse turns into rodent madness in this addictive puzzler. (Sega)

“NBA 2K1”
Rather than dirty your Nikes with blacktop residue, switch on this basketball disc for better-than-courtside seats. (Sega)

“NFL 2K1”
Gamers bored with defeating the same football buddies over and over can indulge in stellar graphics, intricate gameplay and pure gridiron intensity. (Sega)

“Speed Devils Online”
Another racer with extreme locales and high-speed octane, but this game features a more modern stage set, like the decaying urban universe from Strange Days. (Ubi Soft)

Jon M. Gibson investigates the shark-infested waves of online gaming — and even that offline stuff, too. E-mail him at [email protected]