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Action games saw a lot of… er, action this month.

The only thing to hit the gaming community harder than the recent Seattle earthquake this month was the unveiling of nVidia’s latest evolution of the video card, the GeForce 3. As if this weren’t enough to get gamers around the globe salivating, the MacWorld 2001 expo in Tokyo featured id Software’s John Carmack, who took over the stage during Steve Job’s keynote speech and showed us exactly what we can expect from the new technology in the next id Software title.

The demo of the engine driving id’s “next game” (which will be a Doom title, although Carmack never used the word “Doom” during the demonstration) took full advantage of the new GeForce’s capabilities in rendering lighting and its effects. The MacWorld audience was treated to scenes so detailed as to appear cinematic rather than like in-game, realtime rendered shots. Carmack explained that with the help of the GeForce 3’s technology, he was able to streamline the engine’s lighting abilities so that the results were consistent when the lighting was calculated.

If you’re not sure how that’s different from any other engine, compare it to how the lighting is calculated in Quake III Arena. In the Q3 engine, moving lights over static surfaces are calculated differently than static lights over moving surfaces, and shadows are deliberately darkened areas rather than areas where there is an absence of light, which is what a shadow really is. While these effects all appear natural to some extent in the end result, Carmack himself has called it merely a hack to get things to look right. But no longer — Carmack has streamlined this process somewhat in the next engine, and from the looks of it, id is leagues ahead of the competition.

But while the Doom tech demo was the highlight of the action genre this month, significantly more useful to the hardcore game community were a few other developments — namely, Valve’s sneak peek of some new models for Team Fortress Classic and a few map packs to grace some recent titles. During a trip in early February to Seattle to hang with the Valve guys, the crew from PlanetFortress and I were able to beta test some new models for Team Fortress Classic that Valve plans to include in an upcoming patch.

“Not another patch!” I hear you cry. But hold off on the protests for now. Valve has been working on a patch to address a few cheating issues, and decided that throwing in some new content for the game would offset the need to download yet another patch. In fact, Valve told us that it looks at Team Fortress Classic as similar to MMORPGs, in which the developers are continually updating the game with new content. Valve wants gamers to feel that the product is constantly changing, and so the developers have been working on some new models to redecorate the game with. The models — which you can take a look at over at PlanetFortress — sport some nice new animations and skins that set them off much better, making it a little easier to tell them apart from the other classes. Expect the models to appear in Valve’s next update, which should come within the next few weeks.

While the folks at Valve are busy tweaking their models, id Software was quietly putting together a map pack for Team Arena, which was released a couple of weeks ago. What’s so special about this one? It contains maps done by the Q3A mapping community, guided by the hands of id’s level designers to make them fit into Team Arena. Epic has gotten kudos from the community for helping to put together and release bonus map packs for Unreal Tournament (the Innox Map Pack is a good example). Many have felt that id Software has lagged behind in this area, but even after the release of this first map pack the company is already at work on a second, which will likely also contain community-made maps.

The Team Arena map pack contains four maps, all of which were carefully selected by id level designers. One of the lucky mappers to see his work in the pack is Mike “g1zm0” Burbidge, well-known for his beautiful Japanese CTF and deathmatch maps for Q3A and also a member of Team 3, one of the oldest community development groups on the scene.

Big titles like Unreal Tournament and Quake III Arena aren’t the only ones that have mapper communities providing new levels to play on. Monolith also released a second map pack earlier this month for No One Lives Forever, included in an update that addressed some other issues. Unlike id’s or Epic’s, this map pack wasn’t done by the community, but does contain eight new levels to play on — three deathmatch and five for assault.

While NOLF hasn’t seen the thriving map community that the bigger games have, its small family of community level designers is slowly growing; downloads of NOLF user-made maps can be found at both NOLFWorld and NOLFnews. Games like Half-Life, Unreal Tournament and Quake III Arena, on the other hand, have hundreds of community mappers, some of them with a following of hardcore fans. ztn, for instance, got his start in the Quake 1 scene and has been most well-known for his Quake 1 map “Blood Run,” of which he eventually made a Q3A version. Neil Manke is practically a household name in the Half-Life community with his exceptional series, “They Hunger.”

Sometimes community maps can be many times more fun to play than the maps that came with the game. Sites such as ..::LvL or Nali City are excellent places to find these maps. The difficulty will be in finding servers that run them if you don’t plan to play them on a LAN with your friends. Such is the dilemma of the community mapper, and we hope that the trend for some companies to gather up the community’s best and give them the official blessing will continue on a regular basis.

So while you’re waiting that long, agonizing wait for id’s next Doom game, why not grab the new map packs and some other user-made maps while you’re at it? You’ll be recognizing the hard work that some of our community level designers put into their work, and you might even find something more fun to play on than what your $50 originally gave you.