FULL SPECTRUM WARRIOR, THQ/Pandemic Studios
This game began life as a combat simulation developed for the U.S. Army, but some changes to the mechanics resulted in an unusual sort of war game. Part real-time strategy game, part simulation, part third-person shooter and part first-person shooter, Full Spectrum Warrior is all intensity.
The game is set in the fictitious Middle Eastern country of Zekistan, where players control two primary teams, Alpha and Bravo (some missions feature a third, Charlie) in a series of missions to combat a terrorist threat. The simpler orders require you to extract a single injured soldier or stranded unit; the harder ones demand that you take down multiple, well-armed enemies.
Each team includes four members: a leader, a rifleman, a grenadier and an automatic rifleman. They all know their basic jobs -- how to keep formation and watch out for each other -- but it's up to you to find the best cover, direct their way to a target and use each man effectively.
This means you don't get to pop off a few rounds yourself; you basically play the game as a commanding officer, issuing orders and then watching the results. This might seem like a dry depiction of warfare, except that your men exhibit their own personalities. They chat with each other, they curse at enemies firing at them and sometimes they'll yell at you for placing them in a bad situation: "Sir, get us out of here! We're pinned down!" When one of your guys gets killed in action, you feel horrible.
The enemy soldiers, when controlled by the computer, are as smart as your own, with the advantage of knowing the terrain (rendered in photo-realistic detail) better than you can. After exhausting the 11 single-player modes, an online multiplayer option awaits on Microsoft's Xbox Live service. Contrary to what you might expect, it doesn't let you play on the terrorists' side; instead, you and another gamer play through a mission cooperatively, splitting control of the Alpha and Bravo teams and relying on voice chat to get through tight situations. This is a must-buy for any Xbox owner with a broadband Internet connection.
-- Tom Ham
THE CHRONICLES OF
RIDDICK: ESCAPE FROM BUTCHER BAY, Vivendi
It's been a while since this happened, but somebody has managed to crank out a movie-based game that's playable for more than 10 minutes. Although Escape From Butcher Bay was produced by actor Vin Diesel, the star and producer of this summer's "The Chronicles of Riddick" movie, the tie-in here is less direct than usual; Escape takes place before "Pitch Black," the 2000 flick that itself served as a prequel to this summer's release. In other words, the game's developers didn't have to follow or re-create the plot of any of these movies.
Perhaps as a result, Escape turns out to be one of the best-looking first-person shooters yet on the Xbox and one of the most enjoyable Hollywood-developed games since Spider-Man 2 or The Lord of the Rings. Its challenge -- get Riddick out of Butcher Bay prison, a place that makes Alcatraz look like Sesame Street -- is made trickier by the requirement that you battle through the first part of the game without using any weapons.
During this period of hand-to-hand combat, the game's plot moves along through inmate interactions that make Escape feel a bit like a role-playing title. Once weapons enter the picture, however, the game transforms itself into an outstanding first-person shooter. And as an entertaining finish, the latter part of this title puts you behind the controls of a Mechanized Assault Vehicle, which inflicts monstrous damage on everybody and everything in its path. The lack of any multiplayer support here is puzzling, but it doesn't dent this game's appeal. -- John Gaudiosi
Most people would never hand over the reins to their credit card or PayPal accounts to an e-mail scammer, but when they fall prey to "phishing" or "spoofing" -- attempts to get users to log on to fake Web sites that look like the real thing -- they do just that. SpoofStick, a free browser toolbar add-on for Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox, offers a last line of defense against this.
It untangles whatever technical trickery a scammer has used to mask the address of the phony site to display its real domain name. So if you think you're on PayPal.com but SpoofStick reports "You're on 220.127.116.11" -- a temporary address clearly unrelated to the popular funds-transfer site -- you might want to just close that browser window instead of continuing.
SpoofStick installs quickly and easily in both IE and Firefox, and -- unlike most toolbars -- doesn't have to take up much room. You can change the type of that message to small, medium or large and omit the words "You're on"; you can even change the color used to list the current site's address from the default green to some other hue.
SpoofStick is reassuring to have around, but it can't replace common-sense skepticism. The bottom line remains this: Never click a link in an e-mail instructing you to go to a site to type in your account information; instead, type in that site's address in your browser yourself.
-- Rebecca Rohan
Win 2000 or newer (with Internet Explorer); Win 98 or newer, Mac OS X, Linux (with Firefox), free at www.corestreet.com/spoofstick