FREEDOM FIGHTERS
For: GameCube, PC, PS2 (review copy), Xbox
Developer:IO Interactive
Publisher:EA Games
Rating:7 (out of 10)

What if—dun dun dun!—America didn't win the Cold War after all? What if the U.S.S.R. developed the atom bomb first, ended WW II, and eventually—no!—installed Communism in Mexico? (That Taco Bell dog would make much more sense, for one.) Freedom Fighters proposes such an alternate history. Following the tradition of that bad Patrick Swayze movie Red Dawn and sweet Neil Young song "Powderfinger," Freedom Fighters' young, male blue-collar/red-hating protagonist takes a stand against pinko soldiers invading our homeland. Like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the guerrillas gather in the sewer.

It's up to Christopher Stone, a plumber from Brooklyn, to drive the Soviet army from NYC. (No truer American has been contrived. Stone's Irish pops selflessly saved lives as a rescue worker, very 9-11, but would "just as calmly put a handbag thief in the hospital," the manual tells us; Mom, a Native American, passed on "the old Indian ways," probably by cooking Thanksgiving dinner. Enemy submarines sit in New York Harbor, tanks roll down Broadway, and femme fatale Tatiana Kempinksi ha-ha-delivers propaganda over the airwaves. By passing medic kits to wounded rebels, bombing the enemy, or raising the Stars 'n' Stripes, you win the loyalty of up to 12 citizen soldiers, who accompany you through large, nonlinear levels implementing simple orders with highly reliable AI. But beware hovering helicopters and skilled, red-playing online opponents. As even Neil Young sang, "Red means run, son—numbers add up to nothin'."


DISGAEA: HOUR OF DARKNESS
(Atlus—PS2) 8

A single-player strategy RPG that's funny in a translated-from-Japanese way, this Netherworld fantasia paints you into a series of corners with more trapdoors tucked away than you'll find in a full workweek's worth of play. In a world gone wrong yada yada yada, Hour of Darkness offers a not-so-alternate reality as far-ranging as The Sims or any war game fought over Xbox Live.


ESPN NHL HOCKEY
(Sega—PS2, Xbox) 8

Branding: Cows don't like it, but corporations sure do. When the gloves come off, this ESPN tie-in is really just a manicured version of last year's game. The complex controls have been refined, and the team-management franchise mode now allows you to import new characters. Most notably, Sega tightened online play, closing easy-goal loopholes and adding a surprisingly fun single-skill competition mode.


IKARUGA
(Atari—GameCube) 8

The I Ching: "When the way comes to an end, then change—having 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!


OTOGI—MYTH OF DEMONS
(Sega—Xbox) 7

The Japanese aesthetes behind this quasi-role-playing action title have created a hermetic universe fired by neuroses and governed by the twitchy laws of OCD. A cloaked princess assigns your character, former executioner Raikoh, quests so that he may "cleanse" his death-doling clan of "impurity." Set a millennium ago, during Japan's Heian era, the single-player Otogi bombards you with creepy spirits, Rorschach demons, and trickster bosses.


THE SIMPSONS: HIT & RUN
(Vivendi Universal Games—GameCube, PS2, Xbox) 9

Who better than our anagrammatic brat-boy to lead the hee-larious tutorial for the best Simpsons license yet? "Violence," Bart deadpans as you crash your pink convertible to earn coins, "is always an appropriate response in the face of the unknown." With each level—manned by chatty Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Apu—a corporate-conspiracy-addled Springfield grows. Cruise into the sticks, where nuke-green sewage runs freely and the slack-jawed yokel Cletus falls under your pricey wheels. It's funny 'cause it's true.


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. 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."


VIEWTIFUL JOE
(Capcom—GameCube) 9

Helmed almost as a hobby by money-makin' Resident Evil 2 director Hideki Kamiya, this remarkably well-thunk-out 2-D side scroller celebrates purely physical gaming-qua-gaming. Speeding or slowing time, Joe deflects the fists and bullets of comic characters and bosses, scarfs burgers, and completes small but tricky tasks while turning corners and leaping for coins. Smooth, engrossing, tough, and pretty, Viewtiful Joe exceeds every GameCube title except The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.


VIRTUA FIGHTER 4: EVOLUTION
(Sega—PS2) 10

Marketed as a "Greatest Hits" title because it updates 2002's Virtua Fighter 4, the just released Evolution is the greatest fighting game ever: deep, almost infinitely replayable, lovely to look at—and only 20 bucks. Improvements include a more complex "Quest" mode, in which you now earn stylish accessories by fulfilling certain objectives (slamming someone into a wall 10 times, say), spiffed-up graphics, and two new characters. But Drunken Kung Fu master Shun-Di still rules the roost.


VOODOO VINCE
(Microsoft—Xbox) 9

A lighthearted traipse through New Orleans's fancifully imagined heart of darkness, Xbox's solidest platformer yet warps the fundamental premise of the action genre—hoodoo doll Vince's special powers cause him harm in order to defeat his enemies. At one point, you must alter time to win a contest to buy a trumpet to take lessons to jam with a skeletal museum-guarding jazzman. It's voodoo, not doodoo!

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