By Steve Weinstein
By Devon Maloney
By Tessa Stuart
By Alison Flowers
By Albert Samaha
By Jesse Jarnow
By Eric Tsetsi
By Raillan Brooks
Those who fear this companion game will spoil Hollywoods final LOTR installment, due mid December, beware. Finer points of the storys plotthe unending, overwhelming Pelennor Fields battle scene, unending, overwhelming Black Gate battle scene, and unending, overwhelming siege of Minis Tirithspecifically provide the titles thrust and parry. EA spared no expense to bring the cinema experience home, but gamers bear the cost. The unskippable cutscenes (copped from the same marathon session in which Peter Jackson shot the entire trilogy), finely detailed mega-scale combat, and opening credits fully simulate the silver screen. Those who cant stand to have Ian McKellen intoning some quotable "given away," however, neednt worrythe movie scenes dont amount to much. Its the digital spectacle of teeming hordes thats sure to seem familiar come Christmas.
Which is not to say you shouldnt stuff this in a Tolkien-Jackson fans stocking. If they liked EAs The Two Towers, theyll like this new-and-improved diversion even better. Complaints have been addressed: You and a friend can now fight cooperatively (friend not included) and, in a nod to the Fellowship, play Wiz Gandalf, would-be-king Aragorn, loverboy Legolas, bighearted Dwarf Gimli, ring monkey Frodo, or loyal dimwit Sam. Switch between the games three passagesthe Paths of the King, Wizard, and Hobbitto hack levels tailored to each characters quirks. Or better yet, stick with one and build up his abilitiescutting through the Orc-etc. legions calls for far greater strength, not to mention spice, than youre initially bestowed. Remember, the King is cominglook busy!
DDRMAX2: DANCE DANCE REVOLUTION
Unlike bukkake, this Japanese pastime makes perfect sense. We must, per Billy Idol, dance alone on a big cushy pad sometimes. This game insures that even without a partner, we score or get rejected. Only the fleet-footed will hack Heavy modenot to be confused with Workout mode, which counts the calories you burn. The series most extensive music library yet includes Kylie, Dirty Vegas, obscure J-pop, and a host of fun, anonymous techno crap.
DISGAEA: HOUR OF DARKNESS
A single-player strategy RPG thats funny in a translated-from-Japanese way, this Netherworld fantasia paints you into a series of corners with more trapdoors tucked away than youll find in a full workweeks 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.
Branding: Cows dont like it, but corporations sure do. When the gloves come off, this ESPN tie-in is really just a manicured version of last years game. The complex controls have been refined, and the team-management franchise mode now allows you to import new characters. (You pick which teeth hes missing!) Most notably, Sega tightened online play, closing easy-goal loopholes and adding a surprisingly fun single-skill competition mode. Stick handling, anyone?
(EA GamesGameCube, PS2, Xbox) 7
Enemy submarines sit in New York Harbor, tanks roll down Broadway, and femme fatale Tatiana Kempinski ha-ha delivers propaganda over the airwaves: Its up to Brooklyn plumber Christopher Stone to flush the Soviet army from NYC. 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. Dont let your freedom go down the toilet!
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 dont forget to use the bathroom!
MARIO KART: DOUBLE DASH!!
Speedier, sillier, and even more psychedelic, the first new Mario Kart in five years is reason enough to buy a GameCube. The Technicolor franchises slapstick battle aspect, best summed up by the ability to drop a banana peel on the track, evokes the cartoon violence we all know and love while continually obliterating rankings. Between opponents backseat bombers, traps, and other natural threats (breaking waves, thunderbolts), youll need much more than a good drift technique to finish first. So turn on, tune in, and drop out!
Its time again to toss around the ol pigskin, and I dont mean Anna Nicole Smith. This years model effectively tweaks 2003s brutal ballet and careful play planning and the boot-and-recruit student-turnover drama central to "Dynasty" mode. Skill cant make up for the irritating flaws in short passing, but if youve perfected your game, try re-creating classic moments like Doug Fluties 1984 Hail Mary against Miami or go against fanatics online with the PS2 version.