It seems rather ironic when Sierra decided to reshuffle its Front Page Sports label, originally pioneered by Dynamix, that its sports line- up (now called Sierra Sports) has become less and less sporty. Game Room is another title more focused on docile passive sports that Sierra is now known for (Trophy Bass and various hunting games come to mind). It includes a smattering of six products: pool, pinball, darts, shuffleboard, air hockey and table tennis. These are all separate games and correctly so, as the developers merely create an interactive shell so that you can launch these separate games. Out of all of them, the most professional ones appear to be the pool and pinball components. This title is clearly geared towards a more relaxed audience and its layout denotes these intentions. The title is very undemanding in system requirements and a full installation takes only less than one hundred megabytes; a miracle by today's standards.
But at $19.95, it is a rather polished title. Menus are clearly labelled in large letters and there are options abound. Each game type has several variants and some of them, like pool, even have instructions on how to play the game. On every opportunity, there is an attempt to animate and enhance the game with vibrant colors. I appreciated this a lot, as it is much better than other similar value bundles that opt to present itself like a Windows application. Sierra is no stranger to this arena. One may fondly recall the string of Hoyle games published since the infancy of graphic-driven games back in the DOS era. This is merely a modernization of that concept. Indeed, the component exhibiting the most modernity appears to be the pool module. It features sleek graphics and 360-degree mobility to move around the table. Through the various game modes, one can opt to play eight ball, nine ball or snooker. The AI is competent and there are ample aids to get beginners started. Although it makes no claims to beat titles like Interplay's Virtual Pool, it is certainly one of the better components of this package.
The other professional module is the pinball one. Sierra borrows another title, the 3D Ultra Pinball Thrill Ride Edition, for the purposes of this compilation. Though it bears the earmark of all the 3D Ultra Pinball games, fast gameplay, configurable keys (something that cannot be said for the other titles in this group) and pleasant visuals, it is merely a stripped down version of that franchise, for the advanced options that accompany the original pinball game has been peeled away. That said, it is still fairly entertaining. Rather than focus on emulating a real pinball machine with the dot matrix LED displays, the developers here have taken full advantage of a PC environment by incorporating the bonus games into mini-pinball boards onscreen. And they are implemented quite cleverly. For example, if someone is hungry or thirsty, sending the ball into the snack shop will get you a bonus. There are copious amounts of sound cues to help you determine where you want to send your ball and, as I mentioned before, animation is abundant wherever it can be done to add liveliness to the title.
The other games appear to be designed solely for this compilation. Darts, shuffleboard, air hockey and table tennis are rudimentary titles in comparison. There aren't as many options in these and the control is rather quirky for games like table tennis or air hockey. Both operate with the mouse cursor serving as the paddle and one must move it onscreen to connect with the ball or puck in action. If one has seen any real table tennis action, you will note how absolutely mundane this type of approach is. In darts and shuffleboard, you can select between singles or doubles play. Hot seat play is also available while AI can substitute for those in absentia. Each of these smaller modules also possesses variants. For example, darts can be played in cricket style or baseball style, on an electric board (complete with electronic monotone commentary) or an old fashioned board. On the other hand, shuffleboards can come in straight, angled or u-turned flavours. Of these, I believe the darts component is most enjoyable and then the shuffleboard. The others appear to be a little too simplistic. The inability to really control paddles or dart throwing, as one does in real life, detracts from the value of these games. But, obviously, these are meant to be games played in a short period of time, like on a coffee break.
Of all these titles, the main feature I see it having over previous compilations is the multiplayer component. There are indeed in-game personas you can compete with. In keeping with the Hoyle tradition, each of these personae exhibits different playing styles, although they are not tied to any playing difficulty. For example, one character could be beginner, pro, or champion in a single game. In keeping with the Game Room theme, these characters offer some conversation at the end of every point. However, their repartee, shown through video clips, become rather repetitive and I honestly do not believe it is necessary for them to offer a sarcastic comment at every goal in Air Hockey; for or against them. It is no wonder, I conjecture, that these are turned off by default. And, it is especially annoying with the dog, Buddy, as his only insight is his barking. However, these are overcome by the ability to play with friends, at least in the darts, pool and shuffleboard sections. Online play requires one to sign up to Won.net, now owned by flipside.com. And online play works seamlessly from Game Room itself. For titles like pool, there seem to be many games being played and available. Plus, there is enough online following for a ladder system to be built around it. The other titles, have less of a following though but all the titles work flawlessly even over a 56k modem, as the games are literally turn-based (if you think about it) and adapt extremely well to high latency settings.
There is one fault I find with Game Room as a whole. This game is clearly intended for value-oriented computers or even notebooks. However, I do not see the point in keeping most of the files on the CD. True, there is a manual way to copy files over to minimize CD reads but this seems to be challenging, if you consider the lay audience this title is intended for. This title is both for Mac and PC in a single hybrid CD format so for those who have access to cross-platforms it makes the pricing on this title even more attractive. The bells and whistles help highlight the quality and polish we expect from a publisher like Sierra. Yet, it does not seem comprehensive or phenomenal enough to place it alongside the previous Hoyle titles. Certainly, it offers games with multiplayer features that are not usually provided for on sites like pogo.com or Microsoft's zone.com. The first time I started this title, I thought it was quite reminiscent of the Activision's old title based on bar games. With the current trends of miniaturization and digitizing everything in life, you would think that Game Room, by miniaturizing the need to buy recreation room items and digitizing these activities would be a logical hit. Like the e-book vs. print book dilemma though, I believe there will always be a place for the traditional, analog, real-life experiences.