I’m a little slow—I didn’t realize Legally Blonde played on “legally blind” until renting the sequel. Nor did I punderstand Max Payne, a cop whose entire family was killed in the original game, and who then took untold bullets (and whatever pain killers were lying around) avenging them. Justice is blind; Reese Witherspoon, fairness personified, is blond. Bloodied and murderous—and, in this sequel, falling in love with a woman carrying more emotional baggage than Witherspoon’s Elle Woods has pink Gucci suitcases—Max Payne embodies the depthlessness and injustice of human suffering. Very Mel Gibson. And Max’s love interest? A contract killer who survived being shot in the head, and who you also play: Mona Sax. Who wrote this crap, Ed Wood?
“It’s like kissing the barrel of a gun, a bullet trembling in its dark nest, about to blow your head off.” So goes, roughly, Max’s meditation on love during the graphic-novel-style opening scene. He’s obviously into some kinky shit. This is sexy violence: shot-up bodies stiffen and reel, tumbling down stairs, blood spurting. As you enter slow-motion “bullet time,” hordes of attackers twist and fall in an orgy-like spectacle. This all looks great, except on PS2 (don’t even bother with Payne 2 if that’s your system). The Xbox version plays a little easier than the PC, which only matters because the game is already so short (perhaps 12 hours total). Unlockable modes offer nothing new, and chatting with thugs and checking answering machines ain’t all that. Call it Medium Payne.
BEYOND GOOD & EVIL
(Ubi Soft—GameCube, PS2, Xbox, PC) 9
What, exactly, lies beyond good and evil? Kelis’ milk shake song? 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 paying your electric bill. 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 possess crisp, individual personalities.
DISGAEA: HOUR OF DARKNESS
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.
(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!
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 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.
NEED FOR SPEED UNDERGROUND
(Electronic Arts—GameCube, PC, PS2, Xbox) 8
The newest Need for Speed introduces 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.
OTOGI—MYTH OF DEMONS
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.
(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
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.”