The Lame Game

It's a so-so year for video-game releases.

It's a not-so-exciting, in-between time for video games. Online gaming has turned out to be more long, hard slog than shock and awe. Despite Microsoft's excellent subscription service for the Xbox, it just hasn't taken off with the masses. The three-way war between video-game consoles is stuck in a holding pattern: Sony's PlayStation 2 is hanging on to first place through inertia more than great titles; Xbox is tooling along in second, with clearly superior hardware but a dearth of killer games; and GameCube is so far behind (despite dramatic price slashing) that there are rumors Nintendo might get out of home consoles in the U.S. altogether. While nothing this year is really all that exciting or innovative, here's a handful of games that deliver familiar thrills, only a little faster and more intense. (Each is $49.99.)

True Crime (Activision; for GameCube, PS2, Xbox): It was the cop-killing action in the 2001 PlayStation 2 release Grand Theft Auto 3 that got all the attention (and inspired our state legislators to pass a highly unconstitutional law banning the sale of certain games to minors), but it was the wide-open environments and nonlinear action that made it a hit. Game development cycles being what they are, it has taken until now for the GTA3 copycat True Crime to hit the shelves. True Crime casts you as a renegade cop on the trail ofwell, who cares, really? The plot is so stale and generic, it makes Tango and Cash look like a breath of fresh air. The point is that you can run around an enormous and meticulously re-created Los Angeles doing whatever you want as either good cop (yeah, right) or bad cop. And I shouldn't have to mention this, but no, you should not get this for your kids, or even let them see the box.

Top Spin (Microsoft; for Xbox): Virtua Tennis for the old Dreamcast console, with its amazingly intuitive and responsive controls, was long considered the final word on tennis simsno advances in flashy graphics could replace its stunningly intuitive and responsive controls. But Top Spin, while sacrificing none of the pick-it-up-and-play accessibility of Virtua Tennis, rewards an even wider range of strokes and strategies that reward your precise, sustained attention. And if you have about a decade of free time, you can compete in Career Mode online for cash (of the virtual kind) and gear.

XIII (Ubi Soft; for PS2, Xbox, PC): Based on a Belgian comic-book series set in a surreal, alternative 1980s, XIII offers some nice variations on the first-person shooter genre (in which you generally run around in a maze killing stuff), with novel elements of strategy (can you keep control of your hostage while working the buttons on an elevator?) and a highly interactive environment (breakable bits like glass and brick can be picked up and used as weapons). But what really sets XIII apart are its bold stylistic departures. While three-dimensionality in video games is supposed to be the highest value, XIII dares to have a flat, boldly graphic look that eerily captures the feeling of a comic book in motion.

Mario Party 5 (Nintendo; for GameCube): Behind the walls of Kremlin-like secrecy out there in Redmond, does Nintendo have a plan to recapture its once-unbreakable grip on the American market? It looks like that plan, if it exists, is to continue to revel in its glorious past and all things Mario. But even in its slow-motion decline, Nintendo can still deliver the most basic arcade-style pleasure of video gamespushing buttons and making stuff movelike no one else. Mario Party 5 is a series of uproarious mini-games set in a scrumptious, rainbowy, Care Bear universe and is best played in groups of two to four. Fast moving, tight as hell, and without the nagging, unwholesome feeling of all the other games on this list.

Call of Duty (Activision; for PC): I have pretty much ignored computer-only games in this survey because playing games on a computer for me is too much like being back in my cubicle. If you can't play it drunk and sitting on your couch, it's not worth playingthat's my motto. But if there must be a token PC games entry, Call of Duty is it. It has all the authentic period weapons and uniforms demanded by the obsessive types who go for this kind of game, while streamlining the realism so you can get to the actual fun part without delay (no fumbling at every door for the one that will actually open). The game's anti-asshole features are sure to make this a hit with online gamers: The Kill Cam, for example, allows you to relive the last five seconds of your life from the perspective of your killer, so you can root out those who aren't playing fair in multiplayer battles.

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