BATTLEFIELD 2, EA Games/Digital Illusions
This multiplayer war game dispenses with the usual attempt at a storyline: All you need to know is that there's a war going on, and you'd better win it. This combat takes the form of a three-way conflict among the United States, China and a fictional faction called the Middle Eastern Coalition, with clashes taking place across a dozen highly detailed maps covering various hot spots around the world.
Unlike in earlier titles in the Battlefield series, these maps grow larger as more players sign on to a game. With only 16 people online, for example, you'll get a relatively compact area to reduce the time spent just finding enemy soldiers; as the number of players increases past 32 and then 64, the map opens up, allowing for such extra features as air bases and vehicle depots.
Battlefield 2's structure encourages team play. A key part is its "kits" -- seven different bundles of hardware that cover such specialties as anti-tank warfare, combat engineering and medical care and must be combined effectively in the field for a victory. Another important component, "persistent character growth," rewards success in game after game (as tracked in the player profile created when you first start the game); as you earn medals and ribbons, you move up in rank and gain access to more specialized weapons.
Normally, combat is played out from a first-person perspective, in which you control individual soldiers. But you can also opt for a "Commander" mode, in which you lead other players into combat, issuing orders and calling for artillery strikes, satellite surveillance and supply deliveries from a top-down view. The trick here is getting fellow gamers to agree to take orders from you -- they can ignore you or even vote you out of your post. -- Tom Ham
Win XP, $50
IMPERIAL GLORY, Eidos
Napoleon had his Waterloo -- and, in Imperial Glory, so can you. This enjoyable yet exhausting simulation of early 19th-century politics, economics and warfare allows you to control one of five empires -- England, France, Austria-Hungary, Prussia and Russia -- vying for dominance across Europe and northern Africa.
The game starts you off small, with only a couple of territories, no international trade and only a small force of club-wielding rabble. You must build from that, forming armies, developing infrastructure and directing technological research. Not exactly exciting stuff, but you'll want to be well prepared when hostilities erupt.
Combat in Imperial Glory can take place on land or at sea, and both venues provide breathtaking graphics. Your galleons rise and sink with ocean swells as you position yourself for a full broadside on the enemy, while soldiers face off on snow-covered hills, desert plains and lush landscapes. Every territory has its own map with key geographic or man-made features that can come into play in creative ways -- for instance, the frozen lake you can shatter with cannon fire to drown whatever troops were on it.
The actual mechanics of combat, however, don't improve on those in such earlier real-time strategy games as the Total War series. And controlling large armies can be difficult here, since even the most carefully constructed battle plan breaks down into something resembling an 19th-century mosh pit. There's no way to adjust the speed of combat, either: You tediously position armies, then watch the subsequent engagement whirl out of control. (Then again, that is a fairly accurate simulation of real war.)
Imperial Glory offers enough to keep amateur historians and armchair strategists whiling away the hours. If that doesn't describe you, the game's slow pace will probably try your patience. -- Anthony Zurcher
Win 2000 or newer, $40
GTR, 10tacle/Viva Media
This is a racing game for people who don't like most racing games but don't mind a challenge. It couldn't get much more realistic without including the smell of burning rubber.
GTR simulates the FIA GT series, which you can think of as a European version of NASCAR where the tracks don't run in circles. The cars include Ferraris, Porsches, Lamborghinis, BMWs, Corvettes and other covet-worthy vehicles, all of which both look and sound right. With a little practice, you can tell if that car approaching on your left is a Saleen SR-7 or a Lotus Elise.
Competing cars don't succumb to the pack-driving problem of other racing games; here, each car has its own computer-controlled personality. But they'll all battle for a win, trying to block your path at times. Be careful if you try to return the favor, because banging into other cars at high speeds will put a dent in yours. And the realistic damage model means you'll also dent your own car's performance. On the plus side, if you get into a tangle, you'll be treated to some of the most spectacular crash scenes yet rendered on a computer screen.
The courses look breathtaking, portraying such famous courses as Monza, Donington Park and Barcelona. The weather will change as you drive, which will in turn change your driving as the drops hit the pavement and loosen your tires' grip.
If you can't handle that much realism, a semi-pro mode has the other drivers ease up on you, while an arcade mode plays more like most other games. Or you can opt for a 24-hour endurance race -- played out in real time. (You can use an autopilot option to have the computer drive for you, based on your driving style thus far, but wouldn't that be cheating?)
-- John Breeden II
Win ME or newer, $40