LEGO STAR WARS: THE VIDEO GAME, Eidos Interactive
Some time ago, in a marketing department probably not too far away, someone conceived of an ultimate alliance of three empires: "Star Wars," Lego and video games. Lego Star Wars looks like a brilliantly executed fan film acted entirely by Lego characters, a presentation that nicely compensates for game play that's a tad too easy. (You cannot die, for example -- if you are struck down, you become just as powerful as you were before.)
As Lego versions of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin Skywalker, Darth Maul and more than 30 others, you run around levels modeled after scenes from the first three episodes of the "Star Wars" series, including the forthcoming "Revenge of the Sith." The controls are simple: You'll quickly master using your lightsaber or a blaster to reduce your Lego enemies to their component parts or employing the Force to build Lego structures from stray bricks. On the downside, you cannot control the camera that follows the action and the scene cuts can be jarring. Plus, spotty artificial intelligence can be frustrating, as sometimes your allies fight and sometimes they run off ledges -- though a second player can drop in or out at any point in the game.
The game's charm derives from its presentation: Watching the little Lego figures is strangely mesmerizing in a cute, but not saccharine way. Although nobody actually speaks in the game, the characters' largely cylindrical heads show a decent range of facial expressions that convey the game's moods and ongoing humor. (Their acting is better than the humans' in the recent movies.) The game itself plays through quickly, but a free-play mode encouraging you to revisit completed levels adds to replay value. It's definitely a kid's game, but Lego Star Wars should appeal to adults with a weakness for all things "Star Wars." -- Robert Schlesinger
Win 2000 or newer, PlayStation 2, Xbox, $40
BROTHERS IN ARMS: ROAD TO HILL 30, UbiSoft/Gearbox Software
This World War II action-adventure game requires players to use their smarts as well as their thumbs; Brothers in Arms may look like a typical button-masher, but its action has much in common with plenty of strategy titles.
Players take on the role of Matt Baker, a sergeant in the 101st Airborne. The game spans 30 missions at locales across the countryside of Normandy, each of which re-creates actual events from World War II. It does take good aim with a rifle to complete each of these objectives, but it's even more important to master this game's tactical system. Each mission generally allows you, as Baker, control over two fire teams -- one for assault and one for cover fire -- and it's your job to maneuver each squad around the battlefield to suppress, outflank and defeat the enemy.
Moving squads is relatively easy; after a single button press, the selected squad members hustle over to the location you indicate. Once they're in contact with the enemy, they will engage it. At this point, the computer controls each man's actions, and it does so with a lot of smarts. Soldiers know to seek cover when they must and can follow complicated orders against dozens of enemy troops. And since you are on the battlefield too, you're part of the action and can set up a three-way crossfire with your two squads. (A multiplayer option lets other people take command of each fire team, but this turns out to be less fun than the single-player mode.)
A special Situational Awareness view lets you pause combat to get an overhead view of the objective and the locations of friends and foes. This graphic, modeled after the detailed maps soldiers are supposed to memorize before battle, shows the same attention to accuracy as the rest of the visuals, which excel at re-creating scenery, soldiers and the shooting. There's a visceral sense of the intense chaos of combat -- a needed upgrade over the squeaky-clean feel of some lesser WWII games. The same can be said for the audio, which omits a soundtrack entirely in favor of giving you an earful of bullets whizzing by and mortar rounds thumping, interspersed with yells for help from your fellow soldiers. -- Tom Ham
Win 2000 or newer, PlayStation 2, Xbox, $50
TOM CLANCY'S SPLINTER CELL: CHAOS THEORY, UbiSoft
It's another silent, secret struggle against both the doers of evil and a convoluted Tom Clancy-branded plot in this latest installment of the Splinter Cell series. As in the first two games, the big thrills here come from sneaking NSA commando Sam Fisher deep into unfriendly territory and killing, knocking out or merely sneaking past guards with a combination of high- and low-tech tricks. Very familiar stuff for fans of the previous titles, but it's still mostly fun.
As for the storyline, it has something to do with an unexplained blackout in New York City and a U.S. Navy ship that has just been sunk by a missile coming from the general direction of North Korea. It could be an act of war from the axis of evil or it could be private parties armed with powerful hacking tools and obscure motives. It's Fisher's job to help figure out whodunit by eavesdropping and rifling through hard drives on missions ranging from Manhattan to the Koreas.
This Splinter Cell game does throw in a few new tweaks, but most are just ho-hum. A few side missions have a whiff of busywork to them, as if the game designers added them mainly to keep players from finishing the game too quickly. Worse, this installment is littered with jokey dialogue and cheesy references to other video games that occasionally deflate the delicious tension that saturated previous Splinter Cell titles. -- Mike Musgrove
Win 2000 or Win XP, PlayStation 2, Xbox, GameCube, $50