“Smile pretty, you vain prick.” So begins this horror shooting game based on a predictable movie starring a snarling Keanu Reaves (which is based on a comic book from DC/Vertigo). The wonderfully gross part about CONSTANTINE is getting to go to hell, which is chock-full of odd demons like the Bastados, two ugly, dying former humans fused into one who can pump you full of green hellfire. And, hey, I’m Keanu Reaves, who my girlfriends always wanted me to be, trying to protect the world from chaos. Yet it’s the gameplay that bogs down Constantine. There’s not much that’s new here to challenge the senses—not the puzzles, not the way you kill the demons. Devilish fun it’s not.
Why would a Manhattanite care about a racing simulation game? New Yorkers don’t race. Sure, you’ve seen intoxicated idiots go at 100 mph on the FDR, but generally we don’t really speed that much. For me, playing racing-sim games is tougher than any such drunken pedal-to-the-metal antics, like threading a microscopic needle with the naked eye. That’s the challenge, the allure. GRAN TURISMO 4 may be the best sports game ever coded for the PS2, full of staggering detail right down to the folks who stand by the side of the road to cheer you on. Here, you have to get a racing license before you start your B Spec car racing career, and even that’s a maddening venture. There’s also the most eclectic soundtrack ever to hit a game — Bach to Van Halen to Jet. Even though I don’t usually like racing games, this is 700 cars of fun and worth buying just to take a test drive in the latest Prius before you buy the real thing, or to drive the Ford Model T. The people who made this game are true craftsmen, like master diamond cutters; they got almost everything right. If only the cars would take damage when they got hit, it’d be perfect.
SHADOW OF ROME
For: PlayStation 2
Developer: Capcom Production Studio 2
It’s 44 B.C. and Caesar’s been offed. So let the Roman bloodletting commence. This history-influenced action game 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
For: PlayStation 2, Xbox
Developer: Konami TYO
This 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 soccer—gritty, 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.