PSI-OPS: THE MINDGATE CONSPIRACY, Midway
This title puts a cool, compelling twist on the stealth-action genre. In your role as Nick, a "Psi-operative" soldier who can use his mind as a lethal weapon (a little like the way Jedi Knights in "Star Wars" can employ the Force), you spend little time with weapons and gadgets. Instead, you must master six Psi powers: telekinesis, pyrokinesis (setting things aflame by thought alone), remote viewing, mind drain (it ends with the target's head exploding), aura view (a way to find useful items you'll need to gather) and mind control.
By combining these abilities, you can make your enemies' lives unpleasant in interesting ways: You can levitate an opponent, then throw him at a wall -- or levitate an explosive canister and heave it at a group of enemies. Need to get up to a higher area? Just telekinetically stack boxes to create a makeshift ladder. And yes, your character can also wield conventional weapons in conjunction with his Psi powers, helpful to keep targets from straying from your sights.
All of these mental abilities are portrayed in dramatic style. Our favorite is pyrokinesis: Nick's arm becomes completely engulfed in flames before he lashes out at an enemy. The game's backgrounds also exhibit a rich level of detail: dripping pipes, flickering fuses and intricately textured walls. These environments and effects look terrific on both consoles, but visibly sharper on the Xbox. -- Tom Ham
PlayStation 2, Xbox, $50
The game that Bill Gates once used to show off the power of the yet-to-be-released Xbox game console has finally shipped after three years of seemingly endless delays and a change of publishers, after first Microsoft and then Sierra dropped the game. Even the hired music and voice talent gave up on the game; Gwen Stefani was originally signed up to provide the voice of teen heroine Malice, with her band No Doubt lending music for the soundtrack, but both bailed out.
Local publisher Bethesda Softworks finally stepped in to get this title into stores, but it shouldn't have bothered. Its premise is ludicrous (Malice dies trying to kill the dog god -- don't ask -- but is brought back to life by the grim reaper to find some keys). The shadowing effects that wowed audiences in demos at the start of this decade now seem dated. Gameplay is stupefyingly easy; even a beginner can whisk through the whole thing in less than six hours. At $30, Malice is a bit of a rip-off to boot, and with all the superior titles on the market even just renting the game makes no sense. -- John Gaudiosi
Xbox, PlayStation 2, $30
JAGGED ALLIANCE 2:
What do you do when a developer won't ship a sequel to your favorite game? Make one yourself. That's what Serge "Wildfire" Popov, a fan of the Jagged Alliance games, did after the old publisher of that award-winning series went under.
After obtaining permission from the companies that had picked up the publishing rights to Jagged Alliance, Popov took the basic game -- in which you and a hand-picked team of personable mercenaries fight to liberate an island from its harsh dictator -- and added such new environments as tall grass and soft cover while removing some of its sillier aspects (for instance, the MacGyver-ish way you could lengthen the range of your guns with string and a chunk of steel). He also added an arsenal's worth of new pistols, submachine and machine guns, and made all these firearms work more realistically.
The basic structure of Wildfire should be familiar to JA2 veterans, but almost every sector has been redone in a more realistic manner: Military outposts now include bunkers, minefields and bright lights along their perimeter, and snipers know to roost in tall buildings. There are also more, and smarter, bad guys to contend with.
As a bonus, this release includes a full version of the original JA2.
-- John Breeden II
Win 98 or newer, $20
Yahoo's instant-messaging program -- third in popularity behind America Online's AIM and MSN Messenger -- hasn't exactly been one of the cool kids online. Now it's trying to attract more attention by trying on trendy clothes and blasting hipper music -- in the form of this new release's customizable avatars, animated quips and built-in Web radio.
Avatars, like AOL's "SuperBuddy" icons, blink, wink and react in other amusing ways when somebody types an emoticon. But these virtual paper dolls can also be dressed and coiffed as you wish: Choose a gender, hairstyle, eye and skin shade, outfit and four facial expressions, plus one of three dog breeds to appear next to your avatar (cat people are out of luck). Yahoo Messenger 6 also offers "audibles," goofy animated taunts and flirts.
On the more practical side, new stealth settings allow you to be seen by some users but invisible to others. You can also try to grab a distracted buddy's attention with a door-buzzer feature. But the best reason to try this new Messenger is its integrated LaunchCast Web radio. Beyond preset channels, you can build your own by choosing particular artists, with the playlist filled out based on other users' recommendations. (Pop-up blocker software, however, may prevent this from working.)
Unlike AOL and MSN, Yahoo refrains from slapping ads on every available surface. But this software has its own annoyances: Unless you choose a custom install, it will load five extra Yahoo programs on your PC, change your default search engine to Yahoo and lard your browser with a toolbar and bookmarks. Trendy clothes and music may up Yahoo's cool quotient, but a truly cool kid doesn't latch onto your arm, never to let go. -- Bob Massey
Win 98 or newer, free at messenger.yahoo.com