GROUND CONTROL II:
This long-awaited sequel to Ground Control, the 3-D strategy war simulation that wowed gamers in 2000, sticks with its predecessor's relative simplicity. There's no micromanagement of your factories and forces here; you just need to focus on getting enough troops to the field for each mission.
This time around, though, you also have the option of reinforcements, bought with victory points given out for successes in combat. This new wrinkle adds some complexity -- if you call in your reinforcements too early, the enemy will swoop down to wipe them out. (The game's story, as told over 12 missions through movies and voiceovers: The Northern Star Alliance must stop the pending invasion of the evil Imperial Terrans while enlisting the aid of a neutral alien race, the Virons.)
Unfortunately, the artificial intelligence animating our own troops didn't match up to that on the opposing side. Some key units couldn't figure out how to get around structures to meet up with comrades in battle, and at other times formations broke down for no reason.
The high point here is the graphics, which depict far more detail than those of most strategy titles. A missile's smoke trail can be seen reflected in the water below, and such natural environments as trees, mountains and hillsides are beautiful enough to function as tourist postcards -- right up until you start ripping up the landscape with explosives. (Those look pretty cool, too.) -- Tom Ham
Win 98 or newer, $50
Worried that your life doesn't have enough paranoia in it? This is the game for you. Missing: Since January, a profoundly unsettling re-creation of the hunt for a serial killer, assigns you the task of investigating the mysterious disappearance of a journalist and his girlfriend. The assignment comes in form of a CD sent to you, containing a sequence of video clips leading up to her abduction. Someone or something calling him, her or itself the Phoenix is challenging you to unravel the clues on the disc for a chance to save the lives of the missing people. You didn't ask for this job, but can you refuse?
Missing: Since January requires an Internet connection, along with your e-mail address. Once you start playing, you will get mail from people who say they are trying to solve the case -- but some of these messages may have been sent by the killer. You can write back to these strangers and get a reply, sometimes from an actual person working for the game's developers and sometimes from a computer that does a pretty good job of impersonating a human. (Note: It's a good idea to let your spouse or significant other know how this works, lest he or she come across these messages and wonder what kind of freaks you've fallen in with.)
To solve the puzzles, you'll have to snoop around for clues in more than 300 Web sites, some fictitious and some real. (For example, the name of the model car you see on a reporter's desk in a photo is also the password you'll need to break into his personal files.) It's easy to get distracted in this game, but don't take too long; the creepy Phoenix people are out there, and they might be closing in on you. -- John Breeden II
Win 98 or newer, $20
A!K Research Labs
The concept here is the same one behind the little Stickies program Apple bundles on Macs -- replacing Post-it notes stuck to the monitor's frame with electronic versions floating on your computer's desktop.
Like Stickies, NotesHolder lets you type text into a small window that automatically saves your work. But this program, available in free "Lite" and $15 "Standard" versions, offers a few other handy features.
For example, you can minimize NotesHolder's notes to red "docking lines" at the edge of the screen; move your cursor to a line, and a note pops back up. NotesHolder also time-stamps each block of text you write, and you can add a check-box or an alarm to each note. A search feature can locate the musings you jotted down months ago, and your notes can also be exported as text files.
The $15 Standard version adds additional capabilities: You can assign categories to your notes, choose different docking-line colors and have alarms play sounds or run other applications. This payware release also eliminates a "Try NotesHolder Standard!" tagline that appears at the bottom of notes in the Lite version. But unless you're going to be taking lots and lots of notes (in which case the category feature will come in quite handy), the free version is good enough. -- Anthony Zurcher
Win 95 or newer, free at notes.aklabs.com