FANTASTIC 4, Activision/7 Studios
This third-person action game blends the voice-acting and likenesses of actors from the Fox flick, such as Michael Chiklis (The Thing), Jessica Alba (The Invisible Woman) and Julian McMahon (Dr. Doom), with villains who have appeared only in the Marvel comic books, such as Mole Man, Blastaar and Diablo.
For those unfamiliar with the comic, which debuted in 1961, Reed Richards, Sue Storm, Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm are bombarded with cosmic rays while in space and are transformed into Mr. Fantastic, The Invisible Woman, The Human Torch and The Thing when they return to Earth. Each of these superheroes has unique powers: stretching limbs, invisibility, fireballs and Hulk-like strength. The game play incorporates their new talents seamlessly into the action.
The key to this game's success is its cooperative mode, which allows you and a friend to choose one of the four superheroes, then battle robots, minions and assorted super-villains through 10 levels. In both the single-player and two-player story mode, you can change superheroes on the fly, which opens up special tag-team attacks to unleash on your foes. When you're not pummeling opponents with punches, kicks and special moves, the game also challenges you with puzzles that can only be solved by one of the four.
Most gamers should be drawn to Fantastic 4's story mode, which expands the movie's basic plot to about 12 hours of game play, thanks to the introduction of new characters and settings. But for those who find that a little too cerebral, the game also includes a pure arcade Survival mode that allows you and a friend to chose a superhero, then fight each other to the finish. -- John Gaudiosi
PlayStation 2, Xbox, GameCube, $50
CONKER: LIVE AND RELOADED, Microsoft/Rare
When Conker's Bad Fur Day shipped almost six years ago for the Nintendo 64, this game's toilet humor, frequent onscreen drinking and bleeped-out expletives made it an exceptionally un-Nintendo-like title. Now Conker has shown up on the Xbox, and he's much less of a surprise. The game is pretty much a straightforward rewrite of the mature-rated original with a few sensible additions here and there, but it's still a hoot to play (so long as you can appreciate the jokes in "South Park").
The story line -- Conker wants to get home after a night out with the boys, but runs into a variety of rude, lewd and crude characters in his thoroughly hung-over state -- entertainingly combines multiple game genres. In one area, you'll find yourself storming a beachfront, gun in hand, like it's Normandy; in another, you race go-karts, and in another you must defeat a singing pile of dung by throwing rolls of toilet paper in its mouth.
For all the gross-out moments, Conker looks, well, pretty. The graphics spotlight such details as water dripping off leaves, and Conker's own furry self has the same lifelike look as the characters in a good Pixar animated flick. Along with superior graphics, this Xbox release also offers online and same-room multiplayer action. But the unbalanced multiplayer system is more frustrating than fun. Of six available Conker compatriots, most people play as the Demolisher, whose bazooka (unlike other characters' weapons) demands no particular skill. The heads-up display that's supposed to map out other players' locations throws up too much detail and probably will give most gamers headaches. Unlike a lot of Xbox games these days, this one is better off played solo. -- Tom Ham
JUICED, THQ/Juice Games
This racing game mixes two different schools of thought in a way that shouldn't work, but somehow does. Although it has the simple structure of an arcade game, with everybody racing on the same fixed track, it also provides a witheringly accurate recreation of real-world driving.
As a result, each of the 50 or so vehicles in this game handles and performs in its own way. You can then fine-tune each car's performance by modifying and upgrading any of 100 customizable components, from engines to transmissions to body kits. But since you're not going to have the money to soup up every part at once, you'll have to decide where to spend your limited cash.
A simulation this detailed demands equally detailed graphics, and Juiced delivers. Some of the reflective effects on cars' hoods look overdone -- no vehicle ever gets that shiny, even outside of pollen season -- but the graphics do an outstanding job of portraying all of your modifications. These visuals looked distinctly sharper, and were updated a bit faster, on the Xbox than on the PS2.
Juiced's easy-to-grasp competitions, which map your progress in a calendar and continually updated statistics, can be played solo against computer-controlled drivers, or online against other gamers. The latter option allows up to six players to race against each other at a time. You can play out the traditional ladder or racing events in this way, with the best drivers ranked on leader boards.
Or, if you're feeling either lucky or mischievous, try Pink-Slip Competitions. This type of contest, where the winner takes the loser's car, shows up in plenty of other racing games where that penalty doesn't stick -- gamers have learned to yank out their memory card in mid-race when they realize they're losing. Here, the programmers figured out how to defeat that trick; if you lose, your car is history, no matter what. -- T.H.
PlayStation 2, Xbox, $50