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Players add verbal jabs to their arsenal

Remember when adventure heroes were the strong, silent type? Gary Cooper or John Wayne would gun down the bad guy and nobly stroll away with scarcely a murmur, and an earlier generation of filmgoers loved them for it.

These days, our heroes can hardly shut up. From Bruce Willis to the new governor of California, these screen titans feel obligated to deliver a verbal kill shot before pulling the trigger. And again, audiences love it. So it's no surprise that some computer gamers have adopted the habit. As players link their computers over the Internet, many come armed with chat software that lets them swap actual conversation along with virtual gunfire.

"It just makes the game experience that much better," says Jamie Berger, vice president of consumer products at GameSpy Industries, which makes the popular voice chat program Roger Wilco. "We've got about 5 million users. We literally have on any given day hundreds of thousands of people using it."

Roger Wilco and other gaming chat programs have been around for years, but the rise of home broadband connections is bringing them a broad new user base. Dial-up connections barely offer enough data transmission speed to handle online gaming, much less the additional burden of carrying voices. But a broadband line, whether DSL or cable, handles both tasks with ease.

Microsoft Corp. grasped this when it made game chat a key feature of the company's Xbox gaming console. The $50 Xbox Live system, for users with home broadband service, lets gamers plug in a headset with a microphone and challenge other Xboxers to multiplayer conflicts replete with trash talk and snide repartee.

But chatting gamers don't just swap insults. Many popular online multiplayer games demand speed and teamwork. That's why Evan Touchett, a 33-year-old computer systems manager in Madison, Wis., uses speech software instead of typed messages while playing the popular war game Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory. "It allows us to communicate strategies and tactics as well as allowing us to deal with unexpected problems quicker," Touchett says. "We are able to communicate faster, thus react faster as a unit."

Then there are the simmers -- folks who enjoy realistic aircraft flight-simulation software. Simmers like to "radio" one another during their imaginary flights, and even get landing clearance from other gamers who run simulated air traffic control software. " It greatly enhances the fun and camaraderie, and makes for more successful flights when flying as a team," says John Gary, 63, a retired pharmacist in Lafayette, La., who uses speech software with IL-2 Sturmovik, a World War II combat flight-simulator program.

Speech adds a flavor of realism to gaming, but it's also a good substitute for a second pair of hands. Most online games let players type messages to one another, but when you're strafing Rommel's Afrika Corps or rolling in on runway 9 left at O'Hare Airport with one engine out, who's got time to type a Mayday to fellow players?

Some PC games, such as the popular combat game Counter-Strike, come with built-in voice chat software. But the sound is muddy and unpleasant. Many gamers prefer alternative products such as Roger Wilco, which can be downloaded for free at

rogerwilco.gamespy.com. Another popular free voice program with even better sound is Teamspeak, which is available at www.teamspeak.org. Users must connect through servers on the Internet. Some servers are public, open to anybody with the speech software, while others are run privately and sealed shut with a password. Every member of a gaming group must be on the same server to talk to one another. And they must be using the same software. A Roger Wilco user can't talk to somebody running Teamspeak.

While these programs aren't intended to serve as Internet telephone services, they can certainly be used that way. GameSpy's Berger says many people employ Roger Wilco as a cheap alternative to long-distance phone calls. But with their relatively poor sound quality and occasional annoying feedback, these programs are mainly good for short, sharp exchanges between gamers.

Not all game speech software is for talking to other players. Game Commander by Mindmaker Inc. (www.mindmaker.com) lets players talk to their computers. The software, priced at $50 to $75, lets the user issue commands to the game by speaking instead of pushing keys. In a complex game with lots of commands, a player can execute some of them by saying things like "throw grenade" or "run away." Game Commander can even be rigged to work with Roger Wilco or Teamspeak, so you can bark orders at your computer, then switch to plotting tactics with your teammates.

You can even jeer a fallen foe. It's not the sort of thing John Wayne would have done, but the Duke never won an election in his life.

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