Boy, Can This Box Play Games

Sega's Dreamcast combines great graphics and speed--but it's not Networthy

I have to begin this column with a confession. The last computer game I was any good at was something called Arknoids, which mostly involved hitting a ball with a paddle, on the Apple IIgs. So I'm probably not the best person to be reviewing the games on the new Dreamcast console from Sega Enterprises. But I do look at a lot of hardware and software and can say with some confidence that the Dreamcast is an impressive demonstration of the performance that can be gotten from inexpensive hardware that tries to do one thing really well.

The $199 Dreamcast is Sega's bid to recapture a place at the top of the TV-based game-console market now dominated by the Sony PlayStation and the Nintendo 64. The first thing you notice upon putting in a CD-ROM game and firing up the console is the amazing 3-D graphics. The Dreamcast display is easily the equal of arcade consoles and superior to even a fast PC. Key indications of the graphics quality: Characters and other objects move smoothly, both across the screen and forward and backward. Even as objects rotate, it's difficult to tell that, like all 3-D computer graphics, they are actually made up of a large number of triangles, not smooth curved surfaces. And backgrounds almost never break down into blocky pixels the way they do in lesser displays.

LIMITS. This is all accomplished using what is modest hardware by computer standards. Dreamcast runs on a 200 MHz Hitachi S4 processor that would probably be dreadful at running Microsoft Corp.'s Word or Excel but is optimized for 3-D graphics. And it gets a big boost from a specialized NEC graphics-processing chip and 8 megabytes of video memory.

It takes more than great graphics to make a realistic game. For example, the $49.99 NFL 2K football game from Sega is based on extensive motion studies. The team members look like well-drawn 3-D cartoon figures, but they run, pass, and block like real football players. Some clever programming creates a TV-style play-by-play commentary that is closely tied to the action on the field--and is even more annoying than the real thing.

The Dreamcast has the potential to be more than a game console, but it's not clear where Sega plans to take the product. It includes a 56K modem, a Web browser, and a version of Microsoft's Windows CE operating system.

Right now, these provide limited utility. The modem and browser exist mainly to let players get the information on available games and play tips on Sega's Dreamcast Network site. Owners can connect either with an existing Internet service account or use bundled software to set up a new account with AT&T World Net starting at $9.95 for 10 hours per month. The Web browser can also be used to visit any site, but the quality of the television display is poor, and navigation using a game controller is difficult. (An optional $25 keyboard is a big help.) Next year, Sega will add online gaming.

The role of Windows CE in the Dreamcast is a mystery. None of the games from Sega or others runs under CE, and even the Web browser comes from Planetweb, not Microsoft. Sega says it included CE to make it easier for developers to write games for both Windows 98 and the Dreamcast. But there's no evidence that game makers see that as much of an advantage--or that Sega has any plans to use the operating system's ability to eventually make Dreamcast into more of a general-purpose computer.

When the Dreamcast sticks to playing games, it is impressive. That it doesn't do other things particularly well should neither surprise nor disappoint. The lesson of a product like Dreamcast is that a specialized device trying to do one thing well can run rings around a general-purpose computer costing 10 times as much.

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