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NARC; God of War; Heritage of Kings: The Settlers

Sunday, March 27, 2005; Page F08

NARC, Midway Games/Vis Entertainment

While games like the Grand Theft Auto franchise have treated the underworld drug scene as a backdrop, NARC is the first game to build actual drug usage into its game play. A remake of Midway's 1988 arcade title, this third-person-perspective game sends undercover cop Jack Forzenski (voiced by Michael Madsen) and DEA agent Marcus Hill (Bill Bellamy) on a mission to take down Mr. Big (Michael Wincott) and eliminate a new super-drug called "liquid soul" from the streets.

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Unlike real undercover agents, these officers do drugs themselves. In addition to using weapons and fists to take down thugs, dealers and hookers, they can employ seized drugs as "power-ups." Taking speed, for example, gives your cop the ability to run like The Flash; smoke some marijuana and the game slows to "weed time," allowing your cop more time to line up a shot during firefights. Crack, meanwhile, turns the cop into a "crack" shot who can pick off enemies with perfect aim, and liquid soul provides triple the cop's normal health and a temporary violent rage, perfect for rubbing out enemies in a hurry.

This chemically-aided performance isn't cost-free. These drugs -- surprise -- are extremely addictive, and their temporary highs are followed by crippling lows that deplete your cop's health. If your cop gets hooked, the price is getting kicked off the force and hunted down by the cops. If you so choose, your cop can blast through all of NARC's 17 levels with weapons alone (well, aside from one scene that requires the cop to sample a drug to prove the cop is not a narc), but we can't see any buyers of this game not having their cop sample the illegal substances.

The drug-use gimmick should certainly work in the market as well, earning this title plenty of attention. But cartoonish graphics (the game uses code that, while souped up, dates to the three-year-old title State of Emergency) and standard-issue game play keep NARC from gaining any heft of its own. It's stuck in the land of excessively violent make-believe, not worth much more than the $20 list price. -- John Gaudiosi

PlayStation 2, Xbox, $20

GOD OF WAR, Sony Computer Entertainment America

In this game -- epic both in its scope and its nearly three-year development cycle -- players take on the role of Kratos, a Spartan veteran who has begun carrying out tasks for the gods of Olympus in the hope of redeeming himself for his own sin from years ago. He gets his big chance when the gods order him to murder one of their own, Ares. To do that, however, Kratos has to find Pandora's Box, then wield it as his own weapon.

The quest to locate the box takes up the bulk of the game. As this journey unfolds, a sequence of stunning flashback episodes reveals what Kratos did so wrong in the past, the violent relationship between him and Ares and why the gods of Olympus want Ares dead. The game's storyline may boil down to plain old revenge, but there's plenty of complexity to be discovered before the bloody end.

Kratos's primary weapons are his Blades of Chaos permanently attached to his forearms, which can be used as normal swords or swung like whips against enemies. He can also tap into a complex magic system that allows him to use the power of the gods. For example, after tearing off Medusa's head, Kratos can use it to freeze enemies. Or he can borrow Zeus's thunderbolt to smite foes from afar. A flexible but intuitive control system lets players execute different types of attacks, grapples, blocks and spells with the right sequence of button presses.


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