HALO 2, Microsoft
The first Halo game sold quite a few Xboxes (we know a few Xbox owners who don't appear to play any other titles on their consoles), and Halo 2 has already clocked $125 million in sales -- on its first day in stores. After actually playing this game, that seems money well spent.
In this sequel, players once again take on the role of Master Chief, a space marine thrust into battle against an alien force called the Covenant. But the battle no longer takes place on a distant ring world; it's moved to the good old Earth. A series of eye-catching cinematic interludes tells the story of the Covenant, describing how it came about and acquired such a toxic disdain for humanity -- knowledge that comes into play later n in a surprise ending.
The same Hollywood production values show up in Halo 2's graphics. There isn't a better-looking Xbox game out there: You can see tracers flying away from gunfire, then spy a wide variety of new Covenant troops shooting back. The game's physics seem just as detailed, to judge from our in-depth destruction of a vehicle: First we flattened the tires, then we shot the hood, then we ventilated the rear, then blew up the engine.
Halo 2's environments appear far more varied and detailed than the repetitive settings of the original. Combat sprawls across massive cityscapes on a battle-torn Earth but also is waged in cramped, intricately detailed spaceships above it. Somebody at Microsoft's Bungie Studios listened to fans' requests and took good notes.
Halo 2's single-player campaign might feel a little short, but it certainly won't be boring. A viciously fast pace, combined with new moves (the ability to wield two weapons at once) and new vehicles (including hovercrafts and tanks) should keep gamers' hearts sloshing in adrenaline during and between firefights.
But the real reason to buy Halo 2 is its online multiplayer mode, a feature sorely missed in the original. If you have a broadband connection and an Xbox Live account, you can fight with and against up to 15 other players from all over the world (and at all hours) in seven different modes. The standard death match and capture-the-flag schemes are joined by such cool options as Territories (in which two teams battle for control over strategic points) and Oddball (a game of keep-away, but with a body count). This is backed up with voice chat, allowing players to coordinate attacks and trash-talk one another. -- Tom Ham
DONKEY KONGA, Nintendo
This rhythm game dances to the beat of a different drummer -- you. Instead of strutting your stuff on a dance pad, the way most of these titles have worked, Donkey Konga has you play by pounding away on a miniature set of bongo drums.
You're supposed to hit the bongos in time to the beats displayed on screen as colored circles. A red half circle indicates the right bongo, a yellow half circle indicates the left, a full pink circle instructs you to slap both simultaneously, and so on. Your score reflects how accurately you keep up -- a task that seems easy at first, but not after the rhythms grow more complex and you recruit other people to play along. (One set of bongos comes in the box, while others cost $35 each.)
Donkey Konga's Street Performance is the simpler way to get into the game; you just pick one of 30 songs and drum along, with your success measured in the coins passersby throw your way. (These earnings also unlock mini-games and additional songs.) Battle mode has you competing against other players in real time to see who can lay down the best beat. Both of these modes are accessible to all but the rhythmically handicapped; if you can tap the steering wheel in time to the song blasting on your car's radio, you can pick this game up.
But what stations did Nintendo's developers have their car stereos tuned to when they put together this game's amazingly uneven song list? Some of their picks, such as Santana's "Oye Como Va," make sense. But how did the B-52s' "Rock Lobster" or Kylie Minogue's "The Loco-Motion" get in? Not the wisest of choices. We also would have preferred to hear the original songs instead of a cheesy cover band's takes on them. -- T.H.