By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
Two weeks ago, on Wednesday, August 13, Fidel Castro celebrated his 77th birthday. (Feliz cumpleaños, Papa!) Although he's still busy giving graduation speeches and jailing dissidents, many wonder just when the Revolution will end, I mean, when the dictator will kick the bucket. Ask Tom Clancy. He imagines in Ghost Recon: Island Thunder, that in 2010 the U.S. will be orchestrating post-Castro regime change.
In this expansion of last holiday season's superior first person shooter Ghost Recon, you can lend a rifle in eight new single-player "Campaign" missions and, warring over Xbox Live, 12 new environments. Both newbies and old-hands will find fresh, almost limitless gameplay online (or even linked to 16 chums with their own teevees and hubbed Xboxs), availing themselves of 13 cooperative, team, and solo challenges. Those with no friends, real or virtual, should dock my rating two pointseight "Campaign" missions alone equal a six. (Five downloadable missions are promised for later this yearsometime after legions have signed back up for Xbox Live.)
As with the supposedly on-going "Revolution" in Cuba, Island Thunder exhibits little change. Good thing, too. Other than the less-than-perfect graphics, there's nothing to complain about in Ghost Recon's emphasis on undercover method and leadership. Sneaking around, sniping enemies, and squiring teammateswho can be customized and now gain skill with time actually gives one an idea of the depth of our entanglements around the world. Including those to come.
APE ESCAPE 2
(Ubi SoftPS2) 9
Throughout history, humans have insisted that something separates us from animals. What creatures play on our insecurities better than those strong, smart, poo-flinging primates, the monkeys? As precocious teen Jimmy you must capture variously talented adorable apes who are staging a classical gorilla, er, guerrilla-type campaign in Monkey Park. Several diverting mini-activities add to the game's cascading series of thrills, which rely on aesthetics as much as action. That's what sets us apart: art.
The I Ching: "When the way comes to an end, then changehaving changed, you pass through." In this arcade-style shooter, you speed through a downward-scrolling gauntlet of black- or white-bullet-firing enemies and obstacles, either dodging those of the opposite color or reversing your polarity to absorb them. Try it at half-speed. As Confucius said, "It does not matter how slow you go, as long as you do not stop." Just don't forget to use the bathroom!
JET GRIND RADIO
(THQGame Boy Advance) 8
Welcome to hip-hop-saturated Tokyo-to"a city in Asia," the manual tells us, "similar to Tokyo"where you're a graf-writing skateboarder evading the keisatsu ("cops" to you, gringo-to). As in the original Dreamcast version, rendered here in simpler isometric 3-D, getting up on grindables and carefully spraying your color-coded load (including tags you design) sustain a frisson that the more advanced but less nutty Tony Hawk series leaves to mere button-mash combos.
THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: THE WIND WAKER
The shrewdest aspect of this installment in gaming's greatest series is its cartoonish graphics. Flawlessly executed, the sweetly surrealistic look evokes classic titles from earlier platforms, sugar-high Saturday-morning tube, and Japanese anime's threatened innocence. Considering the depth of gameplay, it only makes sense for The Wind Waker to take place principally under, above, and on top of a minutely detailed ocean, where innumerable nonlinear challenges and rewards await. I'll drink to that.
NCAA FOOTBALL 2004
(Electronic Arts GameCube, PS2, Xbox) 8
It's time again to toss around the ol' pigskin, and I don't mean Anna Nicole Smith. This year's model effectively tweaks 2003's brutal ballet and careful play planning and the boot-and-recruit student-turnover drama central to "Dynasty" mode. Skill can't make up for the irritating flaws in short passing, but if you've perfected your game, try re-creating classic moments like Doug Flutie's 1984 Hail Mary against Miami or go against fanatics online with the PS2 version.
RETURN TO CASTLE WOLFENSTEIN: TIDES OF WAR
As in Wolfenstein's past, you play Nazi-killer B.J. Blazkowiczprobably the first Jewish video game hero. But this time, SS-hole Heinrich Himmler's raised an army of the undead! This game is best played over Xbox Live with five friends. Teams side with the Allies or Axis, and individuals perform assigned tasks: The soldier might maintain cover for the engineer as he sets up explosives, while the medic, hanging back, plugs the injured with syringes. Nurse!
STAR WARS: KNIGHTS OF THE OLD REPUBLIC
(LucasArts Xbox) 9
One of this role-playing game's subtle but stunning shadings is the balance you must strike between being nice and naughty. Unleash, for example, plagues against foes, and your appearance, reflecting your misuse of the Force, gradually becomes sinister. The medium-paced gameplay never seems muddledeven as you switch between two individualized partnersand the exceptional voice-acting, ever changing dialogue and truly cinematic cutscenes make the single-player experience nearly as rich as the online interaction.
ULTIMATE MUSCLE: LEGENDS VS. NEW GENERATION
(Bandai GameCube) 8
This is the most homoerotic game ever. Even the male-stripper stereotypes of the WWE can't compare to Ultimate Muscle's anime-rendered Village People lineup. Anyhow, the fighter's fanciful settings, bitchy trash-talking, customizable everything, and series of attacks that culminate in nutty cut scenes bring life to a sometimes plodding genre. Plus, vibrant cel-shaded graphics perfectly complement the Fruity Pebbles sugar-buzz action. Fave character? Kevin Mask, who draws on his "latent power."