Play Ball With the Beasties or Go Smarty-Pants With a Stripper-Agent
When the pseudo-hip narrator in this latest version of street roundball compared the game to poets reading literature to refine their chops, it hooked me immediately. In the play of NBA STREET V3 itself, you pull off these sci-fi Mr. Incredible moves that feel like Kevin Garnett meets Gumby meets Alien vs. Predator (a good thing). And even though the unlockable Beastie Boys are unbelievably pumped up from their pencil-necked geek reality (virtual steroids?), playing with them on your side in the Cage is almost more fun than watching the wondrous Fred Jones win the slam dunk at the All-Star game last year. A true feat.
It's always a plus when you can play as a female since so few games let you. It's always a negative when the woman moves like a stripper when she's supposed to be a smarty-pants agent for the CIA and MI6, as is the case in DEATH BY DEGREES. In this Tekken fighting-game spinoff starring Nina Williams, a/k/a the Ultimate Assassin, you're in one massive chop-socky movie where, as in Tekken, combo fighting moves rule the roost. There's a slew of weapons (wild swords slash and draw spraying blood). But the gameplay, despite the fact that you can burst organs with Nina's Critical Strike move, isn't that compelling. Finally, the middling graphics don't make you want to stay for the whole game. It's a fair bit of fun for a while, though, and the package includes an extra disc, a demo of Tekken 5, which looks pretty enticing.
PLAYBOY: THE MANSION
For: PC, PlayStation 2, Xbox
You may be disappointed to learn that the most elating thing about this Hef-meets-The-Sims offering is the fact that you can create and run the magazine yourself, which is often engaging for a nerd journalist such as myself. With regard to the sex, well, it doesn't go far enoughit's just topless. (Even Jayne Mansfield took off her underpants for Playboy and that was the '50s.) Remember Virtual Vixens, the X-rated sci-fi PC game of about a decade ago in which you had to try really hard to make the women have an orgasm before you did? If you didn't, you'd get chided. Now, that was Clinton-era cool. Of course, this is Playboy in the time of Bush, not bush, and there is no such attempt at Vixens' orgasmic equality in this game. Almost makes you think that nudity is bad. Don't believe it.
WARIO WARE TOUCHED!
For: Nintendo DS
Break out the Adderall! There isn't much in video game history that's more fast-paced than Wario for the DS. These 180 five-second games test your reflexes and your memory with ever-maddening difficulty on the touch screen, which is kinda cruel because you're laughing some of the time as you follow the commands of the comic, mustachioed baddie. You even get to use the DS microphone; just blow into it mic to play 'em. The micro-games and animations are more manically intricate than the previous Warios, so you won't feel any sort of ennui.
THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: THE MINISH CAP
For: GameBoy Advance
Even though it's a GameBoy Advance release, The Minish Cap offers what all the Zelda games are best at: a role-playing experience with jubilant optimism and Frank Capra-era heart. Unabashedly old school, the fight to save the Princess Zelda (who is turned to stone; no, not by Medusa) is rife with twists and turns in which Link shrinks down into the miniature world of the Minish and dons a cap that's also a cheeky bird who helps you out during the game. There's the requisite sword-fighting bravery, monster-filled adventures, and the ability to save the girl at the end. The sun sets, and you feel chest-puffingly heroicat least until you look up to see what's real, wishing you could banish it all to one of the game's massive dungeons.
ODDWORLD STRANGER'S WRATH
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Oddword Inhabitants
If you think Patti Smith is utterly pretty with gray hair and age on her, and that Sphinx cats and naked mole rats are beautiful, you'll appreciate Oddworld Stranger's Wrath. You're a bounty hunter in need of an operation (is he really a girl?) and outlaws by the dozen block your progress. As its Clint Eastwood-inspired Stranger and spaghetti western locales combine with space cowboy sci-fi suspense, the game's silliness catches you off guard. OSW is the most happily offbeat game of the year thus far. For instance, while PETA wouldn't appreciate it, you use sci-fi animals like the wise-ass Chippunks as crossbow ammo. By the looks on their faces, the animated animals hate it. You'll love it.
THE GETAWAY: BLACK MONDAY
For: PlayStation 2
Developer: Angel Studios
Black Monday is the British version of the shooting and driving genre, and while the gritty script to this sequel is full of "fucks" to make the game feel realistic, it seems like the developers wanted to "fuck" the eager gamer by putting this onto the market before it was completely debugged. Aiming to shoot is a pain, and camera angles induce a kind of David Foster Wallace-feeling of overly self-aware paranoia because the walls and corners seem to want to defeat you more than the thugs do. The potential here was great; you really want to live on the streets of London and feel immersed in its underbelly and the interesting characters herein. But the game's flaws are like strong gusts of wind blowing you off track.
For: PC, PlayStation 2, Xbox
The Punisher sure got the brooding, ambivalent, violent nature of its comic book anti-hero down, right down to the cheerless words he spews about New York City still being a violent hellhole underneath its theme park/Times Square exterior. And the game adds a nice twist or two to the shooter genre with violent interrogations à la Popeye Doyle. Punch the cowering weasel just enough and he'll cough up usuable info. Punch too hard and he dies at your hands. Threaten him with death by woodchipper if you like. But the Manhattan environment doesn't quite feel as gritty as the real McCoy. Ultimately, the game needs to be more like Night of the Huntermore psychopathic, and more soulful in its violence. The script's stirring, but there's no line like Robert Mitchum's "Don't touch my knife. That makes me mad. Very, very mad."
RESIDENT EVIL 4
Developer: Capcom Production Studio 4
Script lovers beware: Resident Evil 4's dialogue is stilted and not exciting, B-movie bad. Still, after five hours of continuous play, I found I had to pull myself away physically from this zombie horror offering about a cult that has captured the president's daughter. It's one of the most graphically complex and utterly beautiful games ever coded for the GameCube: lush when vivid, chiaroscuro when scary (which it is often). There's a Clive Barker-S&M essence to the atmospheric horror, which is bloody and full of sloppy marrow too. As one of Barker's characters uttered in Abarat, "Every dark unthinkable thing that has happened at the dead of night has happened right here." Especially when you meet that thing in the lake. If only the script were better.
MERCENARIES: PLAYGROUND OF DESTRUCTION
For: PlayStation 2, Xbox
Essentially, Mercenaries is about blowing things up in communist Korea, blowing things up in mammoth pyrotechnic extravaganzas à la various incandescent Hollywood blockbusters. This is more compelling than blowing things up in, say, Ratchet and Clank: Up Your Arsenal because you're rewarded for doing well. For the mercenary character you control, it's about the money. Really for the average game player, it's about getting a pat on the back from your crew and the gangsters with whom you deal. In that sense, it's about community, and it's not that different from Jack Bauer in 24, or Charlotte in I Am Charlotte Simmons, for that matter. And that's what keeps you coming back (to get all the Koreans in a 52-card, Iraq-like deck): The fires down below, and that pat on the back, which goes to your head.
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