THE SIMS 2, Electronic Arts
Getting a life gets a lot more complicated in this sequel to the best-selling computer game in history. Your "sims" -- on-screen avatars over which you exercise near-God-like control -- still have basic needs for food, sleep and companionship.
But it's no longer enough for you to mechanically meet those goals (which your sims are now pretty smart about achieving on their own anyway); they now have life aspirations such as getting an education, succeeding in business, becoming a neighborhood Casanova or raising a family.
Your goal in the game is to make it possible for your sims to fulfill these goals. If you succeed, they'll live long and healthy lives; if you don't, their lives will probably be nasty, brutish and short.
Those lives now start much earlier: Sims can enter the game as babies, growing through all the usual life stages -- toddlers, children, teenagers, adults and elders. Your sims can also make new sims in the traditional way if they pair up; the children will take on the genetic characteristics of their parents.
I played the game as a single mother with a young daughter. Unsurprisingly, sim-life was tough going at first: I had to spend enough time at home with the toddler to keep her from hurting herself, change her diapers, play with her to encourage her mental development and in general keep her healthy and safe. (The game starts you off with a decent nest egg, and I was able to stretch that out for a while by spending almost nothing on housing or furniture.)
The turning point didn't come until she grew from toddler to child -- quite a good little one, if I do say so myself. I could hire a nanny and leave to pursue my chosen career in the Mafia. Yes, I was a mob enforcer by day, single mom by night, and that's not even the weirdest thing possible in this game.
The Sims 2 regularly challenges players with difficult, potentially life-changing scenarios. For instance, at one point I was given a chance to get my kid into private school. I had to host a dinner party for the school's headmaster, flirt with him and convince him that my child was worthy of attendance. You have only a limited time to impress, but my sexiest outfit and a hot spaghetti dinner did the trick.
On top of all that, the game is simply beautiful to watch. Everyone looks so absurdly real, you will be addicted to your second family, or families, in no time. But please don't forget your real family outside the screen. -- John Breeden II
Win 98 or newer, $50
DEMON STONE, Atari/Stormfront Studios
Like most hack-and-slash adventure games, Demon Stone is all about button-mashing action, but in this case you control three characters instead of just one. And it has more of a plot than the average hack-and-slash title.
Its story, written by fan-favorite Dungeons and Dragons author R.A. Salvatore, provides a decent setup to the quest that ensues: Your three warriors must band together to recapture the two evil leaders who recently escaped from the magical Demon Stone in which they had been imprisoned hundreds of years ago.
A simple tap of the controller suffices to switch among the three main characters. Rannek is your basic all-around fighter, whose talent with melee weapons allows him to be relied upon in close-in battles. Zhai, a rogue, can sneak up on enemies for a surprise attack. And Illius, the sorcerer, can stun enemies from afar with his magical staff. The game regularly forces you to change characters as you play; for example, only Zhai can reach switches and levers in some key areas in the game.
Combat is visceral and vicious -- you'll face enemies from all sides and in mass numbers. Thanks to effective use of shadows, changing lighting and beautifully drawn backgrounds, this game looks more like a graphic novel set in motion. Voice acting, featuring such name-brand talent as Patrick Stewart, is another strong point.
If you survive and progress, you'll gain both experience and massive amounts of gold, and eventually the satisfaction of rescuing your land from evil.
-- Tom Ham
PlayStation 2, $50 (Windows, Xbox versions due in November)
THE NUMBER DEVIL,
Our protagonist in this mathematical adventure is Robert, a mathematically challenged student in blue striped pajamas. One night, he dreams about the Number Devil -- a teacher with horns and bright red clothing who's there to impart some pretty tough math concepts.
Indeed, he taught me a thing or two during the course of 10 lessons that went over the importance of zero, prime numbers, fractions and decimals, Pascal's triangle, infinity, irrational numbers and more.
Although my daughter Anna, 9, was a tad concerned when she thought she'd be learning math from "the devil," she was quickly reassured when the blood-colored teacher turned out merely to have a devilish sense of humor. This title was originally a best-selling book by the widely lauded German author Hans Magnus Enzensberger -- the first tome he wrote for children, in fact -- but translates beautifully into software.
It works by first providing kids with an interactive, intriguing lesson, then following up with a challenging game to test their new knowledge. As a result, they can learn at their own pace, reviewing individual equations and calculations as they acquire a grasp of the underlying concepts.
This program (developed by the same folks behind Learn to Play Chess with Fritz & Chesster, reviewed favorably here last year) is a treat for students. And it's not bad for their parents, who just might need to bone up a little on their own basic math skills. -- Hope Katz Gibbs
Win, 98 or newer, Mac OS X 10.1 or newer, $30