THIEF: DEADLY SHADOWS, Eidos/Ion Storm
The title here evokes an old favorite of gamers, Thief: The Dark Project; although this sequel, six years later, was developed by a different cast of characters, it retains its ancestor's challenging emphasis on stealth instead of brute force. Players can once again take on the role of master thief Garret, this time in a mission to save the world instead of just stealing from the rich for his own glory.
Part of the game involves learning what's going on through patient investigation -- eavesdropping on conversations and reading stolen journals. (Garret's own narration helps as well.) Most of it requires learning the finer points of sneaking in and around where you don't belong.
You won't win by running your sword through the guard who blocks your path, but if you can tiptoe past him, then pickpocket a key off his belt, you might make it. As in earlier Thief titles, players get a small arsenal of tools and weapons to aid Garret's infiltration attempts, such as water arrows to douse torches, lock picks and climbing gloves to wear while scaling walls.
The computer intelligence controlling the guards and soldiers in your way is brutally clever. These opponents don't just hear noises; they're aware enough to notice when you simply forgot to close a door after sneaking in. It will take time to learn how to outwit these foes, and still longer to master the entire game -- there's easily 25 hours of gameplay in store.
Deadly Shadows now uses a third-person perspective, but this addition doesn't capture the suspense of breaking and entering as well as the older first-person view, still available as an option. The graphics here also rank as a bit of a disappointment, thanks to slightly crude player models and animations. -- Tom Ham
Win 2000 or newer, $40; Xbox, $50
VAN HELSING, Vivendi Universal Games/Saffire
Van Helsing the video game, much like "Van Helsing" the movie, provides plenty of eye candy but no substance. While the game provides plenty of different monsters to kill -- many more than those presented in the flick -- plus an assortment of weapons and moves to master, it doesn't give you anything you haven't likely seen before in such superior titles as Devil May Cry.
Van Helsing's graphics are merely adequate, but its version of Hugh Jackman's character just doesn't look right. Gameplay is also ho-hum, thanks to the way the action is viewed from fixed camera angles that focus on Van Helsing himself.
This kind of game design went out of fashion about a half a decade ago for the simple reason that fighting off monstrous opponents becomes too much of a chore when you can't see them clearly. Were the developers trying to keep the star of the movie front and center at all times, or did they just do a lousy job of programming? It's not clear.
Those attached to the film or its underlying story might play through the game for a bit, but the game's shoddy design is sure to repel the mainstream audience at which it's targeted. -- John Gaudiosi
PlayStation 2, Xbox, $50
Hitman: Contracts measures success one kill at a time. And it makes you work for each one -- if the job were easy, your clients wouldn't need to hire the best assassin in the world: you.
Most of your marks are either fabulously wealthy or deep into one organized-crime underworld or another, so much of the game's challenge involves defeating some elaborate security mechanisms. If you can make your way inside, Hitman affords you the unusual ability to choose your weapon. Do you want to disguise yourself as a butler and make sure the target's last drink is a strong one? Would you rather drop a can of gasoline down the chimney for a roaring fire? Or do you creep into his bedroom late at night and hold a pillow over his face to make sure he sleeps soundly?
Mission locations include a military base in snowy Siberia, an English manor home and a Bulgarian slaughterhouse. Some of these destinations don't permit you to bring firearms, which means you'll need to borrow weapons from the occupants or improvise your own.
Hitman: Contracts also employs one of the odder setups we've seen: The game begins with your character, Agent 47, seriously injured, drifting in and out of consciousness and thinking back on his best missions. As each one surfaces in his reverie, you get to play it -- sort of a greatest-hits design, pardon the pun. -- John Breeden II
Win 98 SE or newer, PlayStation 2, Xbox, $50
XPLAY 2, Mediafour
Apple's excellent iTunes capably syncs iPods with Windows 2000 and XP computers, but XPlay -- once one of the only ways to use an iPod in Windows -- can fill in some blanks in Apple's software. For starters, it lets users of Windows 98 Second Edition or Millennium Edition (still unsupported by iTunes) share in the iPod's MP3 goodness.
XPlay also allows people who own Mac-formatted iPods to use them in Windows as well. With XPlay, those iPods show up on a Windows desktop as a removable hard drive, allowing easy transfers of contacts, calendar items and notes (all of which can be browsed on the iPod) and any files you're moving between Mac and Windows computers.
If you don't care for iTunes -- or use Win 98 or ME and can't install it -- XPlay adds its own music management controls to the Windows desktop. Beyond the usual music file controls, XPlay adds two features absent in iTunes: It lets you copy music from an iPod to your hard drive and share a connected iPod's songs over your home network. A free, 15-day trial download lets you test these features.
-- Daniel Greenberg
Win 98 SE or newer, $30 at www.media4.com