Last spring, government-funded Australians created Escape From Woomera, in which a detained refugee must tunnel or otherwise break out of his camp. Meanwhile, in our winter of discontent (brrr!), American ingenuity provides The Suffering, a tour of the justice system’s deepest circles of hell. We imprison more citizens than every industrial democracy combined (2 million plus, not to mention a few hundred Taliban and suspicious foreigners). This makes us world leaders in gang war and sodomy, but Amnesty International pooh-poohs it as a human rights issue. As Torque—a generously mustachioed musclehead jailed for killing his wife and kids—you mostly splatter smart, classical monsters designed by Stan Winston, like the blade-armed and -legged Spider. Call ’em enemy combatants.
But there are other goals than killing ghouls. Plagued by flashbacks and voices, unsure of your own guilt, and prone to Hulk-style transformations when your “insanity meter” maxes, you must decide whether to help or shank fellow inmates. Your actions lead to one of three endings, but this is a much simpler affair than Knights of the Old Republic, in which you choose the Force or Dark Side by degrees, and must resist the power evil affords. If you’re in it for the copious blood—and why else would you be?—there’s no reason not to shotgun everyone in The Suffering and accept your fate as a murderer. Classical monsters are one thing, but why encourage players to think of themselves as killers of women and children, brought to justice, but justified by their “insanity”?
007: EVERYTHING OR NOTHING
(EA Games—GameCube, PS2, Xbox) 8
The cinema’s about as gripping as any recent Bond, which is to say not at all. But the seamless action—now presented in third person—is spit-shined and ever shifting. You’ll pass through Egypt, Peru, New Orleans, and Moscow, crouching, sniping, rappelling, remote-controlling cars and bombs, and driving weaponized motorcycles and Porsche SUVs. And you have “Bond Sense.” And you can become invisible. But that’s it.
FATAL FRAME 2: CRIMSON BUTTERFLY
The delicate underage twins who drift through this high-minded survival update imperil themselves all too pornographically but pop flashbulbs instead of the typical FPS plasma phallus. As Mio, you follow Mayu into a post-massacre phantasmagoria—a black, fast-cut creepfest equal to most Hollywood horror—capturing lost souls on your camera obscura while picking up clues like newspaper clippings. There are no bosses to pelt, and the puzzles and plot kinks keep you looking over your shoulder rather than shooting from the hip.
FINAL FANTASY: CRYSTAL CHRONICLES
This Final Fantasy experiment, dreamed up by market-hungry Nintendo, introduces a multiplayer mode requiring Game Boys. Loyalists will be disappointed if they attempt this threadbare adventure alone. But up to four chums, substituting GBs for controllers, will cooperate and compete—and be forced to communicate—in a way that redefines the term role-play. Fulfill individual bonus objectives to progress ahead of your partners—those bastards!
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!!
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!
MAXIMO VS ARMY OF ZIN
Really just an improvement on 2002’s overly difficult Ghosts to Glory, Army of Zin boasts action as crisp and effervescent as Crystal Pepsi. Only boyish gladiator Maximo, armor-clad and bearing sword, shield, and hammer, can save the kingdom from blade-armed ghosts in machines. For geeks who warp to Middle-earth via IMAX, such retrofuturist technophobia charges fantasy’s frisson. It’s Bronze Age romanticism, reforged in silicon.
METROID: ZERO MISSION
(Nintendo—GameBoy Advance) 8
Twenty years ago, fans of Metroid for NES suited up on Planet Zebes, blasted Skeeters, chipped away at Ridley and Kraid, and finally outsmarted Mother Brain. Today, America’s 20 million GBA owners can suit up on Planet Zebes, blast Skeeters, chip away at Ridley and Kraid, and finally outsmart Mother Brain—on the subway! (I once saw a hobo do this without a GameBoy.)
(THQ—PS2, Xbox) 8
There’s a thousand and one ways to make an ass of yourself in what is the funnest race-trick-crash blowout since last holiday season’s SSX 3. The game thrills like few other white-trash sports titles, mostly because you can launch off jumps into the propellers of passing helicopters. I’d like to see Al Qaeda do that with a donkey.
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.
The world’s best hack-and-slash epic: Basic combos multiply into wall-run back flips and blood-spurt beheadings, the smoothest acrobatics and most graceful gore this side of the Pacific. Counter meatier and meatier varieties of enemies with swords, nunchakus and bow-and-arrow, all while grabbing technique-teaching scrolls and running across walls and—WWJD?—on water. You just won’t be able to turn it into wine.