It comes as no huge surprise that the latest iteration in the long-running Chessmaster series once again seizes the title of computer chess champion - in the past several years, the Chessmaster line has had no serious challengers to its supremacy. However, if you're not new to the series, you might find that there are precious few reasons for you to upgrade to this version from Chessmaster 7000 or even Chessmaster 6000. In fact, while it does have some new features and still plays well, Chessmaster 8000 actually falls short of its two predecessors in the important area of multiplayer support.
The cornerstone of the Chessmaster series has always been its emphasis on teaching beginners how to play and on showing intermediate and advanced players how they can improve their games - and this tradition continues in the 8000 edition. In the classroom mode, beginners will find that Chessmaster 7000's three broad tutorials have been enhanced with new timed drills such as "move to safety" and "pin the piece," and endgame excercises for both beginners and advanced players. Intermediate players will appreciate the inclusion of solutions to the "rating exam" questions, which help give a pretty good idea of where they'd rank in real-life play. Advanced players also have an option to try to predict the moves of famous players in historic games. The massive game database has been updated and expanded, and, of course, the opening book is as robust as ever.
International Master Josh Waitzkin, who was the host in Chessmaster 7000, is back once again, and he narrates a series of his most memorable games (which were also featured in the 7000 version). The major improvement in the "Josh" section of the classroom mode is a thorough endgame course, in which you can learn strategies for finishing off opponents when both sides have bishops of the same (or opposite) color, rook and pawn endings, bishops against knights, and so on. This can be extremely educational, and Waitzkin's smooth and engaging delivery makes it a real pleasure to use. However, it would have been nice if the "playback" interface for the voice-annotated games were a bit more flexible. Sometimes, Waitzkin talks quite a bit about the strategic possibilities that a given move can yield - but as it stands, you can "rewind" the commentary only back an entire move, rather than to a specific point in the commentary.
Otherwise, the biggest enhancement in Chessmaster 8000 is the switch to a new chess engine, which is touted to play at the Grandmaster level (its rating is allegedly 2825, compared to Garry Kasparov's FIDE rating of 2849). This is great news for expert players, but nothing to get excited about if you don't play at the National Master level. Fans of the series will also be pleased to find that the game is now fully compatible with any publicly available XBoard chess engine, which you can readily import into the game to customize the engine as you see fit. Chessmaster 8000 now also offers support for Swiss tournaments. Furthermore, there are now more opponents to choose from than before, but since the 7000 version already had so many computer personalities, this enhancement isn't particularly noteworthy. And though the 16-bit graphics are supposed to be more crisp and detailed, they're certainly not so different that you'll notice any changes right away - and there's still no option for a full-screen view of the board.
In years past, it was easy to recommend the latest Chessmaster game to those chess fans who didn't own earlier versions, but the extremely weak multiplayer support in Chessmaster 8000 makes it less appealing for those in search of online competition. While other aspects of Chessmaster have generally gotten bigger and better, the series' multiplayer support has actually gotten worse over the last several years. First was the switch from the excellent Chessmaster Online system - which seamlessly integrated Chessmaster with an online player-matching server - to the MPlayer service. Unfortunately, some players complained that MPlayer offered poor performance, and in general, not many chess fans gravitated to the site.
But at least MPlayer provided some type of matchmaking service - which is more than can be said for the Chessmaster Live section of Chessmaster 8000. Both modem and LAN play are supported, but if you want to compete over the Internet, you need to type in the host's IP address - and you won't find any sort of bulletin board or chat room in which you can exchange that information at the Chessmaster Web site. Perhaps Mattel Interactive realized just how many ways you can play chess online for free and decided instead to focus as intently as possible on the tutorial aspects of the game. Whatever the reason, the result is that players who are looking for head-to-head online play will be disappointed at this backward step.
If you're looking to improve your chess game, Chessmaster 8000 is hands-down the best choice out there. But once you sharpen your skills, you'll probably wind up turning to some other outlet for competing with human players.
Editor's note 12/08/00: This review has been amended with additional factual information regarding some of the game's new features, in order to give a more accurate evaluation of the product. GameSpot regrets the error.