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On-Demand Video Game Services Vary

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Internet downloads are nothing new when it comes to buying music and software online. So why does video game shopping still mostly involve either shlepping to a store or waiting for the delivery truck after you order online?

Three companies _ Comcast Corp., IGN Entertainment, Inc. and Yahoo Inc. _ have apparently heard the pleas of impatient gamers who want video games on-demand.

If you have a broadband Internet connection and you can tolerate the relatively outdated selection, these services pretty much work as advertised. They deliver commercial games directly to your personal computer in a matter of minutes or hours.

For now, only computer games are available, so you can't download new games directly to the PlayStation 2, Xbox or GameCube consoles. And remember, you won't get a printed manual, the box or the CD-ROMs.

I was most impressed with IGN's new ``Direct2Drive.'' It's the only service that lets you _ gasp! _ buy and own the games.

Compared to my local software store, though, these digital aisles were sparse. There were only 31 games to choose from, including the stealthy ``Thief: Deadly Shadows'' and ``Myst III: Exile.'' Good stuff, but nothing new like ``The Sims 2.''

At least Direct2Drive provides a good overview of the game, complete with screen shots and reviews.

I went ahead and bought the WWII combat flight simulator ``IL-2 Sturmovik'' for $19.95.

Don't use this service thinking you'll save money. The price was the same as Web sites that sell physical copies, and I found it even cheaper on eBay.

After creating an account and entering my credit card info, I had to download a special program manager to securely track my 479-megabyte purchase, which was siphoned onto my PC in just over an hour.

Conveniently, it automatically resumed downloading when I had to reboot after a system crash. A few mouse clicks later, I was blasting Nazis from the sky.

Yahoo and Comcast have very similar ``Games on Demand'' offerings. Instead of buying, you rent and pay a monthly fee.

Yahoo's service has been available for several years, and it shows. With 175 games, it has by far the largest selection, with titles that should appeal to hardcore and casual gamers.

But the large library is rather dated, with the newest title being ``War Times,'' a strategy game that was released in April. At least Yahoo has a decent mix of top games from last year, including ``Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time'' and ``Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell.''

Yahoo has several subscription plans, including a $14.95-a-month option that lets you rent an unlimited number of games.

Comcast's on-demand site, launched this summer, is almost identical to Yahoo's.

You have to download a similar application which serves as a portal to browse and play a varied selection of 118 games, ranging from first-person shooters like ``Unreal Tournament'' to simple puzzlers like ``Operation.''

Games which Comcast considers new include ``Warlords Battlecry II,'' a fantasy-themed strategy game. But calling such a title new is simply misleading _ it's been out since May.

Newer, very popular PC games were missing entirely.

Comcast's main game Web page showed a list of the current top PC games, but clicking on it redirected me to a list of shopping sites where I could buy the boxed product. Sigh.

I went ahead and rented ``Warlords.'' The download process took about 10 minutes on my DSL connection, and I was up and gaming. The experience was similarly hassle-free with Yahoo.

I knew in advance which games would work because the player scanned my computer to make sure it had enough power to run the games. Yahoo does the same.

By contrast, Direct2Drive only lists the minimum system requirements you'd normally see on the side of the packaging.

I thought the scan was a nice convenience, though it might give pause to the security conscious.

With a minimal investment, Yahoo and Comcast have created an easy way to let you try out games before you buy.

Though I preferred Direct2Drive's more direct click-and-buy model, the meager selection was disappointing.

But since the inventory was also lacking with Comcast and Yahoo, shoppers looking for the latest and greatest are better off buying the old-fashioned way.
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