With curious George opening Pandora’s sandbox in the Mideast, I resent Ubisoft’s “Freedom Isn’t Free” ad push. (Though I’m sure families of our collateral damage appreciate Madison Avenue’s message.) Pandora Tomorrow, the latest-greatest Tom Clancy fancy, set in 2006, actually infiltrates America’s propaganda machine: Your aim, as Sam Fisher, is to sneak in and destroy secret documents after once-CIA-supported rebels seize the U.S. embassy in Jakarta—not save the world or even any of the dozens of hostages, the scenario suggested in ads for Rainbow Six 3. And when you end up in an exquisitely rendered Jerusalem, you’ll meet an agent for Shin Bet, Israel’s secret police, who the game’s manual credits with handling “the country’s less savory intelligence-related tasks.”
Aided by, and armed with, the cream of the military-industrial complex—yet facing entrenched, sophisticated enemies while short on good intel (hello, George Tenet!)—Fisher puts a scowling face on American might that not even Cheney can match. The world’s most elaborate series is now also the most polished, but the brand-new multiplayer option makes the game. Go online and choose your two-person team: Shadownet sponsors authorized stealth, while ARGUS organizes “private military corporation” mercenaries, who guard the viruses the U.S. is after. Spies sneak in third-person, breaking necks and crawling through air ducts as usual, but the mercs hunt in first-person, using their own range of weapons and gadgets. No multiplayer title has ever bound and balanced two wholly different games this way. If this is the dawn of military corporations, perhaps freedom isn’t free after all.
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.
FIGHT NIGHT 2004
(EA—PS2, Xbox) 8
Only this game allows you to experience both sides of Muhammad Ali’s swing. Mashing buttons is out: The right analog stick controls whether you block, jab, or uppercut, and how hard you punch; you dance with the left, and turn using the triggers. As Ali himself once said, “If they can make penicillin out of moldy bread, they can sure make something out of you.”
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!
METAL GEAR SOLID: THE TWIN SNAKES
The best this consolidation of now classic Metal Gear Solid and its sequel can do is keep up with the Bonds and Clancys. Driven by a tweaked sneak-and-snipe engine that allows you to hang off ledges and switch from third-to first-person—while hijacked-nuke-facility guards track the bodies you leave behind, and call for backup—it actually chases down this year’s models.
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.)
MVP BASEBALL 2004
(EA Sports—PS2, Xbox) 9
This series turnaround is stacked with the entire MLBPA and minor league, has a hyper-realistic bead on baseball’s fundamental mechanics, and encourages you to sim your way through a season as manager. By porting the game’s history and allowing you to lead your club many years into the future, the disc makes a poetic argument for declaring the de facto American sport—console gaming—our official pastime.
(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.
(Midway—PS2, Xbox) 7
As Torque—a musclehead jailed for, but not necessarily guilty of, killing his wife and kids—you mostly splatter classical Stan Winston monsters. If you’re in it for the copious blood (why else would you be?) there’s no reason not to shotgun monsters and innocent prisoners, confirming your guilt at game’s end. Why not encourage players to prove their innocence?