Even if you think of something other than layups and living large when you hear the word ballin’, this intersection of inner-city street and gated-community boulevard will make you see how sexy shooting baskets can be. Because besides the baskets, you’re shooting for the stars—or, at least, diamonds that twinkle worlds away. The inevitability of Ballers‘ rags-to–Roca Wear narrative is perfectly tailored to gaming’s try-try-try-again notion of progress: Choose your look, from which pant leg you roll up to how you cock your cap; improve your specific attributes every time you attempt a block, three-pointer, or wild street move; watch the money pile up, and likewise, your sideline clique grow; and ultimately, outfit a crib in which to play, and more importantly, show off online. Hey, can’t knock the hustle.
And hustle you’ll have to. One-on-one, or one-on-one-on-one, you’ve got to bring grimy, round-the-way Harlem Globetrotters game: Alley-oop with help from the audience, leap off chests of your fave or least favorite NBA stars—past and present, all properly tattooed and executing signature moves—or rip down the entire backboard after hitting a hot streak playing street legends like Hot Sauce. In keeping with the keeping-up-appearances theme, everything from corn rows to custom courts (based on those in players’ real pads) looks fantastic, smooth, and detailed. Like the sport itself, you can easily start a pickup game, or put all your time—and high hopes—into it. Playing D, of course, isn’t nearly as fun.
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.
SPLINTER CELL: PANDORA TOMORROW
Armed with the cream of the military-industrial complex, Tom Clancy’s Sam Fisher puts a scowling face on American might that not even Dick Cheney can match. The brand-new multiplayer option makes the game. Choose your two-person team online: Spies break necks and crawl through air ducts in third-person while mercs then hunt in first-person, using another set of sweet weapons and gadgets.
(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?