Spidey and Deep Throat's love child unspins a tangled web

BEYOND GOOD & EVIL
For:GameCube, PS2, Xbox, PC
Developer:Ubi Soft
Publisher:Ubi Soft
Rating:9 (out of 10)

What, exactly, lies beyond good and evil? Kelis's milk shake song? The humiliation of Paris Hilton? That '70s Show? Nicking from Knights of the Old Republic, the unprecedented Star Wars game in which you choose to pursue the Force or slowly give in to the dark side, Beyond Good & Evilsteers you through a morally ambiguous universe. As Jade, a photographer exposing a government conspiracy on war-wracked planet Hilly, you must care for sniveling orphans, consort with shady characters, kill soldiers invading and defending Hilly, and wear green lipstick—all while earning money to pay your electric bill. Even our heroine's name insinuates impurity. You may hear jaded, or think of green, as in immature or unschooled. Webster's even provides the archaic definition "loose or disreputable woman."

Let us think of Jade as the love child of Spiderman and Deep Throat. (Lara Croft just has big tits.) Like Legend of Zelda, the action here moves fluidly between small, engaging tasks, and brief cutscenes smooth every transition. You fight with your dai-jo stick; snap pics of exotic fauna for money, maps for guidance, and conspiratorial goings-on for truth; race hovercrafts and fire cannons; solve smartly conceived puzzles; and order your sidekicks around. The cartoonish environment, though small, abounds with hidden desirables and fine detail—blaring propaganda, rich reflections and shadows, site-specific music, assorted visual gags—and even minor characters, unlike Paris and Ashton, possess crisp, individual personalities. Assuming you can discern between the naughty and nice, put this under the tree for someone special.


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.


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."


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!


NEED FOR SPEED UNDERGROUND
(Electronic Arts—GameCube, PC, PS2, Xbox) 8

The newest Need for Speedintroduces the novel ability to exoticize your crappy base-model with conspicuously sporty aftermarket parts, like spoilers. (And I don't mean car safety guru Ralph Nader.) Engine ups and nitrous tanks unlock automatically, but hustling style points by drifting around corners and landing jumps opens almost infinite combinations of superficial customizations. No spinners, though—race designers have yet to reinvent the wheel.


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"!


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.

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