Can it really be true? An inventive, creative, new game and not some mephitic sequel or franchise? Here’s the thing: Tim Schaefer is the somewhat twisted game maker who was responsible for the great noir-meets-Day-of-the-Dead detective classic, Grim Fandango. Now he wants to brain you, literally. In PSYCHONAUTS you’re the cheeky Raz, who finds that Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp isn’t just for food fights and mosquito bites. It’s an elite training ground for a group of superior soldiers with psychic abilities such as telekineses and levitation. In order to progress and become a true Psychonaut (and save the camp), you must play psychologist—shrinking heads, dealing with other people’s dreams (OPD)—with all that ol’ Freud drama. Early on, you’ll encounter an old piece of luggage that starts gabbing at you. It’s crying, identifying itself as . . . emotional baggage. There are also figments of imagination: monsters you find yourself brave enough to walk through. I could wax literary about the puns, the wit and the humor, but just get the damn game. It’s one of the year’s best.
I was torn by STAR WARS EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH. I didn’t want to deal with the pain of another sequel (see above) and I didn’t want the Star Wars movie-into-game series to end (if only it meant that I was getting older). This latest Star Wars game takes some inspiration from the Lord of the Rings games, mixing live-action clips from the latest Lucas flick into the game. Yeah, the graphics could be better on the Xbox version I looked at. But the play, the light saber battles and the use of the Force, are inventive. Plus, they branch off from simply following the movie. Word is that the extra levels are derived from real scenes that ended up on Lucas’ cutting room floor. Is Revenge of the Sith one of the great games of the year? No. Is it worth your $50? Hell, yeah.
Popeye: Race for Spinach
For: GameBoy Advance
They just don’t make comic strip/cartoon heroes like Popeye anymore; Popeye simply ain’t PC, punching out people to protect his seemingly anorexic gal pal, Olive Oyl. Then there’s Wimpy, the virgin gorda slob of a burger moocher, who’d never even think of enduring even a modified South Beach diet. But here in Namco’s POPEYE: RACE FOR SPINACH they’re all somewhat updated in hilarious side scrolling races, bumping and grunting to the finish line, balancing and tricking on skateboards, jumping on pogo sticks and straddling high speed rockets, all the time nudging each other out of the way like true New Yorkers. Each race gets harder and harder, although each level isn’t that refined or unique. But by the end, you’re ready for some spinach, not just the virtual in-game cans that make Popeye speed up like Roger Ramjet. Missing are hairy-ankled Alice Da Goon, Jeep, Pappy and the Sea Hag, but maybe they’ll appear in a more thoughtful console version down the line.
Pathway to Glory
Even if war games aren’t your thing (they usually aren’t mine), PATHWAY TO GLORY is enticing as a technological marvel of wireless cell phone gaming. The scene: war-ravaged Italy, circa WWII. The gritty goal? Lead a Special Forces platoon of Allies through a long hard slog of mini-screen combat action (minus any massive bloodshed) toward European freedom. The real challenge: Play wirelessly. It may take a while in the N-Gage arena to find an opponent somewhere in the world, but you can plot your strategy while waiting. You can even record a short message such as, “You’re an asshole,” and send it to your foe over the ether. And, hey, the single player game (in which the historical research is top notch) is no slouch, either.
For: Xbox, PS2
Developer: Inevitable Entertainment, Inc.
What in the name of Gillian Anderson was David Duchovny doing when he made the bomb Connie and Carla? Thankfully, AREA 51 is no such nonsense and even though it’s derivative of Halo and Doom III, it still proves the truth is out there, way out there. Here in his best role since The X-Files, Duchovny is kind of like Mulder meets James Dean, brooding but brave, at times witty. With a sometimes industrial soundtrack courtesy of former Nine Inch Nails drummer and programmer Chris Vrenna, the game rocks when you’re surrounded by your HAZMAT band of brothers, seeking to clean up an alien-infested government installation. It’s when you go on alien-finding missions alone that the dang thing becomes an ordeal: Less like The X-Files and more like “The X-Trials.” The game picks up at the end, though.
Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory
Developer: Gameloft ESRB
While the N-Gage still has its problems as a phone, there’s no better mobile for playing video games. Case in point: TOM CLANCY’S SPLINTER CELL: CHAOS THEORY. It’s a 3D wonder with enemies that seem to have their own artificial intelligence (no small feat on a system that uses an MMC-like card). Yeah, it’s sometimes old school in that you’ll get text in a box to move the story along and the controls are sometimes slow. But these levels are all brand spanking new; Stealthy ole Sam still has a bad attitude and you gotta love the way he rappels, just like in the Xbox game. If you loved Chaos Theory, you’ll relish the new stuff in the N-Gage version, too.