It's 44 B.C. and Caesar's been offed. So let the Roman bloodletting commence. This history-influenced action game, SHADOW OF ROME, centers around the relationship between solider-warrior Agrippa and the murdered Caesar's retribution-minded nephew, Octavianus. Of Octavianus, old-ass historian Suetonius wrote that he "felt that there was nothing more important for him than to avenge his uncle's death." So, Agrippa is the head-chopping violence-monger, and revenge-seeking Octavianus is the furtive one, slyly listening in the shadows to gain information and assume the lofty position of ruling heir. I love Agrippa's slashing ways but I've grown tired of stealth characters like Octavianus since there've been so many in games the past two years. Admirably, Capcom's got the history pretty much right; the graphics are good; and the chariot races kick butt in a classic Ben Hur-meets-Gladiator way. But playing as Octavianus slows things down. You feel that he's the guy who fiddled when Rome burned.
WINNING ELEVEN 8 INTERNATIONAL is pretty much the most unwaveringly realistic soccer simulation series available, and even the numbers are simply amazing: 57 national teams, 80 Euro club teams, 4,500 players. You can even play the game in Spanish if you like. The nail-biting tension, as in the best hockey games, is palpable, especially when you're able to keep the score low. This year, in addition to more photo-realistic soccer heroes, you'll find you can more accurately control your player as he tries to fake-out the nearest opposition. From the absorbing training modes to the addicting career modes, this is soccergritty, exciting and sometimes frustrating. Now, if they would add those nasty melees in the stands, it'd really feel real.
NBA STREET V3
For: GameCube, PlayStation 2, Xbox
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: EA Canada
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 the game 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.
DEATH BY DEGREES
For: Playstation 2
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.
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