Net gamers can play on - and dream on

When video-game maker Sega recently confirmed 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 -- 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) with 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.

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

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.

For one thing, "Phantasy Star" has a continuous story line, an aspect that previous online games lacked. It's fairly basic: The player is summoned to the planet Ragol, the site of an explosion-like pulse. 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 wildlife and remnants of a city.

However, don't expect extensive scripting. "Phantasy Star" is engineered as online entertainment, so the story line remains simplistic -- and optional. Players form alliances, 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.

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. Phrases commonly used in battle, such as, "Follow me" or "Attack on my mark," can be displayed with a single keystroke.

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.

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 websites and check e-mail.

Sega also offers a PC dialer, allowing subscribers to connect through their computer. Gameplay is especially fast and furious with an optional broadband adapter, available only at Keep in mind, though, SegaNet's dial-up connection is still quite effective -- and also that "Phantasy Star," and other online Dreamcast games, can be played using existing ISPs.

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.

So even though the Dreamcast console won't be manufactured anymore, 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.

Play on. Or, more appropriately, online.

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