Microsoft/Big Blue Box
Fable comes with a big reputation behind it -- it was developed by Peter Molyneux, creator of such involved, engrossing games as Populous and Black and White. Fable's story is simple (players take on the role of a young boy who must avenge his father's murder and rescue his mother and sister), but its gameplay is not. Unlike typical role-playing titles, Fable has no linear course towards victory; instead, you can wander almost at will between the story points that move the game along.
You're given almost as much freedom in character development. While Fable starts you off as the same young boy each time, the way you play the game determines almost everything about the man this kid grows up to be. Interactions with other characters, quests and combat all combine to send you on a path towards good or evil, which in turn affects how you look and how others see you -- sometimes in comical ways.
For example, if you choose evil (for example, by killing innocent victims or stealing items from weaker characters), you'll start to develop horns on your head, your eyes will emit a red glow and strangers will quickly learn to run away. Should you opt for the path of good, you'll soon sport a halo floating over your head and everyone you meet just won't be able to get enough of you.
Fortunately, the changes go deeper than that. If you habitually engage in melee combat, your muscles develop and bulk up over time. But if you rely on magic, you'll stay on the scrawnier side -- considering how cool your spells look in action, that's not a bad trade. If you're injured in battle, the scars take a while to heal and some will never disappear. You'll even get a tan if you're in the sun enough. (The game's retirement age is 65.)
All that and the hundreds of different articles of clothing, hairstyles and tattoos available let you take ownership of your character in a way other role-playing titles can't begin to allow. -- Tom Ham
NASCAR 2005: CHASE FOR THE CUP, Electronic Arts
Given the popularity of the fast-growing sport, it's odd to see only one NASCAR game -- but Electronic Arts did a thorough job on this one. NASCAR 2005, which features the sport's new playoff format and new sponsor (Nextel instead of Winston), packs in just about everything a fan might want in this game. It has 25 NASCAR tracks, 12 fantasy tracks, 130 drivers and hundreds of events.
Various gameplay options offer a wide spread of challenges. You can set up at the track and get racing in a hurry in the new 10-driver Race for the Cup mode. Or begin on country back roads in the all-encompassing Career mode before progressing through such intermediate events as the Featherlite Modified races to the Craftsman Truck Series and the Busch Series (called NASCAR National Series in the game). Earn enough money and you can take on the role of a team owner, signing sponsorship deals and setting merchandise prices.
As in other EA Sports titles, there's plenty of bonus material to unlock if you win enough races, including new vehicles, paint schemes, drivers and tracks. You can even earn access to street cars such as Corvettes and Mustang GTs, which you can race against NASCAR drivers on city streets, Need for Speed style.
Anything unlocked can be used in any game mode, offline or online (both Xbox and PS2 support online races for up to four humans and as many as 40 computer-controlled cars). The game reflects both the gearhead and marketing aspects of NASCAR: Fine-tuning your vehicle's tire pressure, downforce, suspension and gear ratio can win races, but keeping fans happy at autograph sessions will help your career. The open gameplay allows you to choose whether to turn your driver into a hero (by not bumping other drivers in races and being a good sport in general) or a villain (crashing cars is a great way to keep those bad-boy fans happy). There's enough replay value to last at least until the release of NASCAR 2006.
-- John Gaudiosi
GameCube, PlayStation 2, Xbox, $50