ESPN NFL 2K5,
This year, Sega was the only company to suit up against powerhouse Electronic Arts after Acclaim, Sony's 989 Sports and Microsoft decided against shipping football titles. Smart move: Sega's game surpasses EA's with some creative features that make the game more involving and engrossing. Take its Virtual Identity Profile (VIP) system, which tracks your game to an exacting level of detail. If you resort to hand-offs more often than normal, routinely go for it on fourth and short or pass on the first play of the game unusually often, VIP will know -- and so will the opposing team.
This can lead to a lot of one-sided losses until you realize that the computer is simply reacting against your own profile. Beat it at its own game by practicing against its own VIP history, and you can even the score. You can even play against yourself to see what you're doing wrong or right. It's a sound addition to the game, one that Sega plans to extend by letting NFL 2K5 players trade their profiles online.
Aside from this new feature, 2K5 effectively builds on the strengths of previous years' titles. Its excellent Crib mode, which rewards success on the gridiron with toys in your home, is back. And First Person Football -- which last year made basic play mechanics too difficult -- now works more smoothly and predictably.
Graphics, especially player and tackle animations, rival Madden's. And the price, just $20, makes this a steal -- especially compared with a ticket to an NFL game. -- Tom Ham
PlayStation 2 and Xbox, $20
MADDEN NFL 2005,
Going into its 15th year, Madden NFL once again adds a twist -- this time, something called the Hit Stick. A new control option, it lets gamers uncork defensive plays by flicking the right analog stick in the right direction at the right time. Emphasize "the right time"; if you miss the receiver, that ball carrier will probably sprint the rest of the way down the field to score. If, on the other hand, you manage to time a hit perfectly, you just might force a turnover on a fumble.
Other changes fine-tune last year's occasional offensive imbalance. A new Defensive Playmaker Control lets players set individual hot routes for the line, linebackers and defensive backs. With the right sequence of button presses, you can fake a blitz before seamlessly rolling back into coverage.
Madden 2005's Create-a-Fan feature adds nothing to defense or offense, but it's fun. It allows players to create their own crazed fan from thousands of possible combinations of face, hair, shirt (or lack thereof), belly size, face paint, hats, wigs, jerseys and more. (Yes, you can pack the stadium with Hogettes this way.) After you save this over-hyped individual, you'll see him or her rejoicing or reeling in the stands during your home games. -- T.H.
GameCube, PlayStation 2, Xbox, $50
JOHN DEERE: AMERICAN FARMER, Bold Games/
A game that simulates farming might sound about as exciting as watching corn grow. But there's something sneakily engaging about this title, which puts the player in charge of a small farm somewhere in the heartland.
Start a game, choose a crop, buy farming equipment -- John Deere brand, of course -- plant some seeds and watch your land grow bountiful. If livestock is more to your liking, start a dairy farm or raise cattle or hogs for the stockyards. When you're not plowing, harvesting or tending to the cows, try your hand at a craft and sell your wares at a roadside stand.
Of course, there are obstacles to overcome -- animals get sick, crops have insect infestations and weeds, machinery breaks down and market prices plummet. (As far as we can tell, government subsidies aren't part of the game.) But if you handle your farm right, you'll see profits roll in, allowing you to buy more land, get more expensive John Deere machinery, upgrade your house from a trailer to a mansion, and finance such kitschy displays of wealth as a golden tractor or a giant Paul Bunyan statue.
In addition to a free-play mode that starts you off with little more than 40 acres and a mule, the game offers 10 other scenarios with three levels of difficulty. In one particularly amusing setup, you have to earn enough money to buy progressively more expensive gifts for your spoiled daughter.
Although American Farmer will probably be a bigger draw for the 4-H crowd, even a city slicker can harvest some fun here. -- Anthony Zurcher
Win Me or newer, $20, www.boldgames.com
DRAGON TALES: LEARN & FLY WITH DRAGONS,
A lot of preschoolers know the story, characters and voices of the affable dragons in the enchanted Dragon Land, so the odds are good this new math and logic CD-ROM will get a friendly reception. Things start when a young dragon, Cassie, and his siblings want to learn to fly. To get them aloft, kids must master a series of 11 activities that include rounding up Royal Horseflies (by recognizing numbers), finding toys for lovable twin dragons Zak and Wheezie (by identifying colors and patterns), and helping Mr. Dustfree sort his peanut butter sandwiches (by working on patterns and sequencing).
Success wins Dragon Badges, which in turn mean our dragon friends learn fancier flying skills. Collect enough badges, and eventually they glow -- giving players access to a relay challenge game. My 5-year-old son, Dylan, made it his mission to score at this level; he already felt confident counting, adding, sorting and following directions in the earlier stages of Dragon Tales.
Children age 4 and 5 should get the most benefit from this software, as its games reinforce the math they've learned in preschool while familiar characters and voices from the PBS show guide entertain them. -- Hope Katz Gibbs
Win 95 or newer/Mac OS X, $20, ages 4 to 6