What: Latest version of the Sim game that started it all. Details: Incumbent SimCity "mayors" may wonder whether SimCity 4 could offer anything new. Previous versions already let players micromanage nearly every facet of city building, from zoning to utilities to tax rates. But this time, instead of adding more levers to pull and charts to monitor -- power-grid design and road building have actually been simplified compared with 1999's SimCity 3000 -- the folks at Maxis have expanded the game's scope and detail. The graphics go deeper than ever, with greater variety in geography and clever little touches such as flocks of birds hovering around the city's trash dump and tiny sparks flying from welders' torches at construction sites. You can watch your bustling metropolis light up as night falls and cringe at the smog that hangs over your industrial district. In addition, individual city maps are now linked into larger regions, so each new city interacts with its neighbors. With an Internet connection, different players can design different cities and compete for regional dominance. Unfortunately, you can no longer have the game whip up a randomly created region for the building of your city; instead, you have to select one of six pre-made regions (including London, New York and San Francisco, but not dear old D.C.) or "terraform" a new region on your own with a built-in editor. SimCity 4 also lets you import characters created in Maxis's best-selling game The Sims and watch how they react to life and work in your municipality. You can monitor where they like to go for food, whether they're sick from the pollution, how their commute is and so on. This is interesting to see, although Sims fans probably shouldn't buy SimCity 4 just for this. All these added features and improved graphics do, however, come at the price of noticeable delays when zooming in and out of a city view, even on a relatively new computer. Bottom line: Show Anthony Williams how it's done.
-- Anthony Zurcher
Win 98 or newer/Win 2000 or newer, $50
What: Cinematic action-adventure game. Details: The Getaway looks and sounds like an interactive movie. Unfortunately, it doesn't play like a quality video game. In this poorly thought-out, Brit-accented take on Grand Theft Auto 3, players assume the role of ex-gangster Mark Hammond, who's trying to go straight but first gets framed for his wife's murder and then has his kidnapped son threatened with death by London crime boss Charlie Jolson unless Hammond will do some of Jolson's dirty work. The Getaway's 20 missions (with cinematic scenes in between to advance the story) cover such ugly tasks as blowing up a police station, starting a turf war between rival crime houses and even killing your old mates. A cleverly minimal interface directs you via the lights on your car's dashboard; a turn signal blinks rapidly for a sharp right and slower for a gentle turn, and the hazards come on when you've reached a destination and should stop. Ingenious? You bet. But since your car can only take a limited number of hits before it starts smoking and stops running, you spend half your time jumping out of your now-useless wheels to carjack a new vehicle -- if the cops don't gun you down first. Controlling Hammond is another painstaking chore; his absurdly stiff movements make it almost impossible to draw a bead on a target. As if to even things out, the computer-controlled characters here show no intelligence whatsoever. Bystanders stay parked in the line of fire, and policemen will walk right past you while you're stealing a car. The Getaway's only redeeming quality is its presentation, with accurately modeled people (watch their fingers move separately!) and Hollywood-grade soundtrack and voice work (the music varies from smooth grooves to thumping DJ tracks, and the dialogue has enough profanity to make Eminem blush). Bottom line: Get away from this. -- Tom Ham
PlayStation 2, $40
What: Presentation application. Details: Keynote may finally give Mac users a viable alternative to Microsoft's category-defining PowerPoint -- especially in the realm of aesthetics. Like its Microsoft Office counterpart, Keynote lets users create slide presentations combining text, images, music and video tied together with various animation effects. But unlike Microsoft's program, Keynote taps into Mac OS X's advanced text and graphics features to generate crisper, more professional-looking designs while requiring no more effort than PowerPoint. And its stylish built-in presentation themes put Microsoft's included templates to shame. PowerPoint, however, retains a clear advantage over Keynote in its range and depth of features. For example, Keynote's chart and graph tools create fantastic-looking results, but they don't match the flexibility and data-handling power of the equivalent components in PowerPoint. And as one might expect, Keynote isn't as adept as PowerPoint at exchanging data with Microsoft Word and Excel. Keynote's other file-translation capabilities (PowerPoint import and QuickTime, PDF or PowerPoint export) have their limits as well, usually forcing the sacrifice of either editability or some graphics details. The question is whether Keynote is worth $99 when PowerPoint comes with Microsoft Office -- which itself remains an unavoidable purchase for many Mac users, given the limited utility of AppleWorks. People willing to pay a premium for show-stopper presentations will find Keynote a sound purchase, even if they already own PowerPoint. But those who just need a basic presentation program for office or school, and who already have a copy of Office, will find that PowerPoint suffices. Bottom line: A classy, but not essential, PowerPoint replacement.
-- James C. Luh
Mac OS X 10.2 or later, $99