First to Fight, Avent Rising and MusicBrainz
CLOSE COMBAT: FIRST TO FIGHT,
2K Games/Destineer Studios
They say only two kinds of people understand the U.S. Marine Corps: the Marines themselves, and those who meet them in battle. After playing First to Fight, I'm glad I'm not in either group.
First to Fight gets as close to street-level skirmishing as most people can stomach. Much like in other team-oriented military simulations, First to Fight has you play the leader of a four-man Marine fire team -- although here, the challenge is not in figuring out how to issue orders under fire, but to survive and succeed against fierce, inventive enemies.
In your favor, each Marine under your command knows to cover a certain part of the neighborhood as you patrol the streets of a battle-wracked Beirut, and each is smart about reacting to circumstances. When you enter an intersection, for example, two men shift positions to cover your flanks while the fourth guards the rear. To command them, you simply right-click on them and choose an order from a simple radial menu of possible options (for example, reconnoiter a suspicious area, lay down suppressing fire or hold a post while you scout ahead). You can also call upon other Marine units by requesting sniper support, medical corpsmen, or even an air strike from helicopter gunships.
Your opponents in First to Fight's simulated Lebanese civil war -- Syrian army troops, radical Muslim militiamen and even a few Iranian commandos -- are devious, well-armed fighters and always ready to lure you into traps and ambushes. There's little relief from the anxiety of trying to figure out whether the next bullet will come from the burned-out cafe down the street, the roof of that dirty apartment building next door, or the nearest open sewer manhole. -- John Breeden II
Win 98 or newer, Mac OS 10.2.8 or newer, Xbox, $40
There is life beyond Halo 2 for Xbox gamers, thanks to this innovative sci-fi action game set in the distant future. Players assume the role of Gideon Wyeth, humanity's last hope against the invading alien race of Seekers. While this may seem like a carbon copy of Halo's plot, it's not. Start-up developer GlyphX worked with sci-fi author Orson Scott Card to create a satisfyingly epic storyline that is planned to stretch out over three games.
As Advent Rising begins, Gideon acquires six superpowers (including energy shields, levitation and energy blasts) that enable him to fend off the hordes of enemies that fill the screen. He can also employ an assortment of such high-tech weapons as laser guns and rocket launchers, with ground-based and flying vehicles available for him to commandeer. A crafty targeting system takes some practice, but once you get the hang of it, you can flick the right control stick to lock onto and wipe out entire waves of invading aliens. (The ease of this technique helps compensate for the choppiness that occurs when too many enemies appear.) You can also assign superpowers and guns to assorted buttons on the controller for easier access in the rush of battle.
Players can switch from third-person to first-person perspectives on the fly, which comes in handy in some situations and can also offer some relief to people who get nauseated from too much first-person action. But beware of the Xbox Live logo on the box: Although Advent Rising taps into Microsoft's online game service, it does so only to let players download and exchange various items, part of a treasure hunt-themed marketing campaign. There's no online multi-player competition, a huge omission in an otherwise promising title. -- John Gaudiosi
Xbox, $ 50 (Windows version due June 30)
MP3 collections that predate the iTunes era of orderly digital music are usually a mess, with vague file names like "Track07" and incorrect, out-of-order or absent information about a song's artist, album and genre. This free, open-source download offers an alternative to the drudgery of typing in the right data. In minutes, it can analyze your badly named MP3s and correctly rewrite the identifying tags of many of them. (Although this program is Windows-only, a similar Mac OS X release is available at the Musicbrainz.org site.)
MusicBrainz does this by computing a music file's digital fingerprint, based on its length and acoustic properties, then seeing if it can find a match in a growing online database of songs. The program will then work its magic, even reporting its confidence in less-than-exact matches. It was right in most of our tests, even when it reported that a song's fingerprint matched only 55 percent of a title in the database.
As we expected, MusicBrainz had the most trouble identifying songs from rare CDs, those copied off vinyl records and import recordings and other obscure sources. You can help cut down on the odds of this happening to other users by typing in the right data for your own obscurities, then uploading their fingerprints to the MusicBrainz database (which will require opening a free account with the site).
This program offers many customizable features -- you can have it watch a folder for any new files and direct it to rearrange songs into album-specific folders -- but an undo option is strangely absent. That necessitates plenty of careful checking, or a lot of trust, before you let this application rename your MP3s en masse. -- Daniel Greenberg
Win 95 or newer, free at Musicbrainz.org