THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
For GameCube, PC, PS2 (review copy), Xbox
Developer EA Games
Publisher EA Games
Rating 7 (out of10)

Those who fear this companion game will spoil Hollywood’s final LOTR installment, due mid December, beware. Finer points of the story’s plot—the unending, overwhelming Pelennor Fields battle scene, unending, overwhelming Black Gate battle scene, and unending, overwhelming siege of Minis Tirith—specifically provide the title’s 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 can’t stand to have Ian McKellen intoning some quotable "given away," however, needn’t worry—the movie scenes don’t amount to much. It’s the digital spectacle of teeming hordes that’s sure to seem familiar come Christmas.

Which is not to say you shouldn’t stuff this in a Tolkien-Jackson fan’s stocking. If they liked EA’s The Two Towers, they’ll 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 game’s three passages—the Paths of the King, Wizard, and Hobbit—to hack levels tailored to each character’s quirks. Or better yet, stick with one and build up his abilities—cutting through the Orc-etc. legions calls for far greater strength, not to mention spice, than you’re initially bestowed. Remember, the King is coming—look busy!


DDRMAX2: DANCE DANCE REVOLUTION
(Konami—PS2) 8

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” mode—not 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
(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. (You pick which teeth he’s missing!) Most notably, Sega tightened online play, closing easy-goal loopholes and adding a surprisingly fun single-skill competition mode. Stick handling, anyone?


FREEDOM FIGHTERS
(EA Games—GameCube, 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: It’s 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. Don’t let your freedom go down the toilet!


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!


MARIO KART: DOUBLE DASH!!
(Nintendo—GameCube) 9

Speedier, sillier, and even more psychedelic, the first new Mario Kart in five years is reason enough to buy a GameCube. The Technicolor franchise’s 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), you’ll need much more than a good drift technique to finish first. So turn on, tune in, and drop out!


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.


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.


SSX 3
(EA Sports Big—GameCube, PS2, Xbox) 9

If the only snow you indulge in comes from Colombia, this franchise redesign justifies staying up all night. The winter’s best carve-and-grind title transmits texture, depth, and vertiginous launches with a combination of crisp, vista-encompassing graphics, fine response, and turbulent controller feedback. Dropped onto the slope, you follow signs to competitions or head off-trail and navigate fallen trees (doubling, of course, as rails), huge drops, and, on the third peak, avalanches and yawning chasms. I guarantee you won’t be “board”!


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 2director 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.


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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