Activision, id Software
This game is pure evil. Fiendish by design and executed with a heaping dose of graphic violence, it sucks gamers into its macabre world by playing off the most basic desire around: the need to stay alive. As a marine for the Union Aerospace Corp. shipped off to Mars, you must clean up the mess when the UAC's scientists manage to open a portal to hell. It would be nice if you could figure out what sort of research the UAC was up to, but escaping the onslaught of grotesque enemies in one piece is more important.
The game play here is classic Doom -- you explore confined, painfully cramped, dark corridors, weapons in hand, then shoot anything that moves that isn't human. Doom 3 effectively amps up the suspense and horror of this situation. Most of the game takes place in poorly lighted areas, and some involve zero illumination, forcing you to carry a flashlight -- but you can't hold a weapon while you use the flashlight. Oops. Imagine walking into a dark room, then hearing a monster growl behind you; you spin around, flashlight in hand, then switch to your shotgun to blow it away. Or you're too slow on the draw and wind up a stain on the floor.
The evil minions you fight are much faster than in earlier Doom games, whether crawling on walls, jumping toward you or breaking through grates in the floors -- this is frightening stuff. Happily, all of the weapons from previous Doom games are here, including the chain gun, the plasma gun and fans' longtime favorite, the BFG 9000.
The real reason to play this game, however, is its graphics. No other titles out there, on computer or console, can touch the detail on display here. You can spot monsters' veins pulsating when they're angry (which is all the time); when your fire ricochets, you can see sparks bouncing off machinery. The price for these eye-popping visuals, however, is an eye-popping set of system requirements. Although the game can be run on a middle-of-the-road machine, Id recommends a 3 gigahertz Pentium 4 or an equivalent AMD chip, at least 512 megabytes of system memory and another 256 megabytes of memory in the graphics card alone (which had better be a GeForce FX 6800, ATI 9800 or newer). It's almost as if Id is in league with computer manufacturers -- but we did say this game is pure evil. -- Tom Ham
Win 2000 or newer, $55 (Mac OS X, Linux versions in progress)
After seven years in development -- at one time or another, this game was going to be released for the PC, PlayStation, Dreamcast, PlayStation 2 and GameCube -- Galleon has quietly set sail on the Xbox. One of the few pirate-adventure titles around, this third-person-perspective game puts you in the role of square-jawed swashbuckler Captain Rhama Sabrier; with two sidekicks -- a Lara Croft-lookalike named Faith and Mihoko, a legendary martial arts fighter -- you must uncover the origin of a mysterious ship and its cargo.
The game's action consists mostly of puzzles to solve and monsters and other pirates to fight. Your characters look blotchy and blocky from the neck down, as if the developers got tired of working on animations once they'd gotten facial expressions done right. The vast levels you can explore are well designed, but they look terrible, with PS One-quality graphics. Galleon's inept camera system, which sometimes makes your captain disappear from screen, adds a painful degree of difficulty to the proceedings.
Rather than using the analog sticks to control your character, you mainly employ them to shift the camera -- a perplexing thing to get used to, and one that adds nothing to the game's action. Fighting is simplistic, repetitive and boring, except for the occasional grossly uneven matchup (say, the tiger that takes 50 hits to go down, but can kill you with just three bites). Even after seven years of fine-tuning, this game feels rushed. -- John Gaudiosi
OF WORLD WAR II,
Anyone who, as a child, set up elaborate forts and towns for their army men -- only to knock them down again during play -- is probably going to like Soldiers: Heroes of World War II. This beautifully drawn, real-time strategy game concentrates on small-unit tactics, providing control of only four to six men and one to two vehicles at a time. (American, Russian, British and German forces are represented, but three of its four campaigns have you fighting on the Allies' side.)
Every bit of Soldiers' highly detailed environments is in play -- nothing is scenery alone. You can enter and destroy any building you see, commandeer any vehicle on the road, knock down any tree and loot any dead enemies for their weapons and ammunition. This aspect allows for an almost unlimited number of pathways to achieve any given objective.
Find a squad of German soldiers blocking your progress? You could capture an artillery post to rain death from above on your unsuspecting opponents; hit a passing halftrack just hard enough with a Molotov cocktail to clear it of enemy troops while still leaving it serviceable for your own use; or just sneak by the Germans, picking off any individuals who stray into your path.
Whatever option you choose, it's probably not going to be easy, and it will demand resourceful, almost McGuyver-ish thinking. In one mission, I parachuted in but lost my gun in the jump. With only a knife and a pack of matches, I soon found a German armored car chasing me. What to do? I ran into a wheat field and lit it on fire; the car tried to follow, got caught on some rocks in the quickly spreading blaze and exploded in a massive fireball. With my appetite for destruction refreshed for a moment, I picked myself up and set out to find a new weapon. -- John Breeden II
Win 98 SE or newer, $40