BURNOUT 3: TAKEDOWN, Electronic Arts/Criterion
This aggressive-driving-required racing game makes an outstanding antidote to Beltway commuting -- as long as you don't try to apply the game's techniques on real-world asphalt. The goal is to win each race, of course, but it's not enough to finish first; you also have to take down your opponents' cars, usually by forcing them to crash into buildings, oncoming traffic and medians.
A complex Takedown System rewards all the destruction you cause with an increase to your Boost meter, which can mean an extra jolt of speed to rocket past your opponents or extra force when you shove one of them off the road. Players can also earn Boost by driving on the wrong side of the road or almost hitting other cars -- the more reckless you are, the better.
The graphics (smoother and faster on the Xbox) go over the top with each crash; a car will splinter into hundreds of pieces. Between those highlights, details such as the sparks that fly when cars sideswipe and the skid marks they leave on the highway make the game a pleasure to watch, not just play.
Among Burnout 3's nine racing modes, World Tour, which sends you to racing events around the world, will eat up the most time. But Crash Mode, in which your score reflects the carnage you can create, is the most gleefully addictive of the bunch. Up to six players can compete online as well. -- Tom Ham
PlayStation2, Xbox, $50
THE POLITICAL MACHINE,
Although no one has yet made an election-simulation game that matches the gripping drama of debates over the superscript capabilities of 30-year-old typewriters, Political Machine comes close to capturing the absurdity of the 2004 campaign. The nuts and bolts of the game echo other election sims -- candidates travel across the country, giving speeches, launching advertisements, groveling for endorsements and holding fundraisers.
Here, players can choose from a variety of real-life political figures or create their own candidate, then adjust the country's political climate (for instance, you can randomize state population and wealth, allowing Montana to wield more electoral votes than California). Political Machine brings a whimsical attitude to the proceedings, representing candidates with colorful caricatures -- some flattering (Al Gore, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack), some not so much (Kerry, Bush). During the course of a campaign, your candidate can be dogged by jaded political consultants, give inappropriate responses to media personalities or consort with celebrity groupies.
There's an online multiplayer feature plus a one-player mode that pits you against a variety of progressively tougher opponents. Winning unlocks additional personalities (all the way back to Ulysses S. Grant) and scenarios. But the programmers somehow left out candidate debates, a strange oversight in a game that's otherwise a lot of fun for election junkies. -- Anthony Zurcher
Win 98 or newer, $20
GAIM 0.82, Rob Flynn,
Sean Egan and others
Gaim looks like AIM, America Online's instant messenger, but it doesn't just run on AOL's network. It also connects to the MSN, Yahoo and ICQ services, Internet Relay Chat forums and the lesser-known Jabber, Gadu-Gadu and Zephyr networks. And this open-source release does all that in a clean, ad-free interface focused tightly on text chat.
Gaim organizes multiple chats in a single tabbed window, making it easy to see if a buddy is typing, absent, or waiting for a response. A "Buddy Pounce" option -- a souped-up version of AIM's Buddy Alerts -- allows Gaim to respond automatically whenever a buddy takes a specified action. This can be as simple as making a noise when the buddy is online or as complex as automatically sending that person a pre-defined message. A plug-in system lets Gaim users add such capabilities as partially transparent windows or time-stamping on messages.
Unfortunately, one of the best advances in instant messaging -- file transfer -- works only sporadically in Gaim. On AOL's service, we could only receive files; on Yahoo's, we could both receive and send; on MSN's, nothing worked. In a different version, Gaim's buddy list and chat windows were frequently and inexplicably accompanied by two unwanted diagnostic windows. Gaim is often pleasantly simple, but if you need to do more than chat you should wait for a future, more full-fledged release.
-- Bob Massey
Win 95 or newer, Linux, free at gaim.sourceforge.net
THE GUY GAME, The Gathering/Top Heavy Studios
This game should have been called "The Frat Boy Game." A bizarre mix of drinking game (no, really), spring break special and trivia contest, it's sure to give politicians a field day as they bash its content.
The game is set up for four people to play at once. Its 1,000 or so trivia questions, stretched across 20 episodes, cover such topics as "Friends" and "Star Trek" episodes and the work of Miles Davis. Not only do you have to answer correctly, you also get to watch video from last year's spring break and guess whether the usually inebriated women will answer correctly. The game's "mature" rating is explained by what comes next: If the women get the question wrong, they will flash you -- although the view is obscured in various ways until you win enough bonus points.
The Guy Game also features a few simple arcade-style games, plus a drinking game called "Presidents" (better known by another name that we can't print). Play this for the roughly 10 hours it takes to finish, and you're done. Much like an earlier, equally dimwitted title, Acclaim's BMX XXX, this game assumes that presenting the kind of nudity easily seen on HBO or Showtime will make up for an uninventive game. -- John Gaudiosi
PlayStation 2, Xbox, $40