WORLD SERIES OF POKER, Activision Value/Left Field Productions
There's been no letdown in America's fascination with watching poker on the boob tube, despite how boring that can be for spectators. Now game publishers are trying to capitalize on the craze by rushing out titles that borrow the brand names of popular poker shows.
To make World Series of Poker, Activision took the character-creation features from, of all things, Tony Hawk's Underground and wove it into a recreation of the popular ESPN-aired event. So you can put your own face in the game, give your poker ace a custom wardrobe, then try your luck at the $10,000 buy-in Texas Hold 'Em Championship. This title also features Hold 'Em (limit, no limit and pot limit at various levels and buy-ins), Omaha, 7 Card Stud and Razz games.
All of these can be played online against other people on the Xbox and PS2, which is as it should be -- offline play includes a decent career mode, but gambling with other people is always more challenging, and more fun, than going against the computer.
The graphics here are good enough to let you read opponents' faces as you try to bluff your way through a round; PS2 owners with Sony's EyeToy camera add-on can even see each others' faces live onscreen.
World Series of Poker provides plenty of ways to customize the game, from a choice of opponents (including poker pros like Chris Ferguson) to different sets of rules. But for all the engaging game play and quality graphics, there's just something missing about playing poker online for fake money, unless you treat this game just as an interactive tutorial. The whole purpose is to win something of value -- or at least hang out with friends while losing your ante. -- John Gaudiosi
PlayStation 2, Xbox, $30 (GameCube, Windows versions due later this month)
187: RIDE OR DIE, Ubisoft
This hip-hop-themed racing game lets suburbanites everywhere (and other gamers) live out their cherished fantasy of gang warfare in South Central Los Angeles. A mature-rated title, 187 combines a pounding soundtrack, gritty dialogue, pimped-out vehicles and some serious artillery. And like a lot of new releases, it does this with the help of a number of Hollywood names -- "Straight Out of Brooklyn" director Matty Rich oversaw its creation, and Larenz Tate ("Menace II Society"), Noel Guglielmi ("Training Day") and rapper Guerilla Black all contributed voice work.
The game's single-player mode puts you in the middle of a gang war between two factions, with most of the action taking place in a series of night missions that involve racing and weapons. You can control both the driver and the guy riding shotgun -- or, in this case, machine gun. The game's racing system has some depth to it: Speed is not its own reward, since successful power slides build up your car's nitrous-oxide boost, a must to navigate the neighborhood streets.
As you roll through the 'hood, you can take advantage of shortcuts (for instance, blow up an oil tanker to sneak through that hole in the wall created by its explosion) and power-ups (20 weapons, including AK-47s and Molotov cocktails) to help you finish in first place. For those who don't, the game offers a slick, slow-motion view of the inevitable fiery crashes.
As you progress, 187's missions expand to include a variety of other objectives, settings and vehicles. None of these 30 available rides, however, is modeled after a real-world car. The best replay value here lies in 187's multiplayer modes, which includes a co-op system in which one player can drive while the other shoots. -- J.G.
PlayStation 2, Xbox, $50
PRISON TYCOON, ValuSoft
Now that game developers have cranked out "Tycoon" titles that make you the chief executive of theme parks, zoos, subway systems, tabloid newspapers, underwater cities and a great deal more, the only place left for them to go is directly to jail.
Yes, Prison Tycoon invites you to become the warden of your own private prison, turning correctional facilities into cash. You start small, operating a little country jail, but problems find you soon enough: Within five minutes of your putting on the warden hat, a fight breaks out in the exercise yard.
As in other management-simulation titles, much of the action (such as it is) consists of inspecting your domain's occupants, then making changes as needed. As you click on individual jailbirds to get an idea of issues brewing in the big house, you must watch out for gang activity on the rise, as well as such trouble signs as excessive boredom or poor health care. You can't be either too strict or too soft; if you err in either direction, prisoners generally vote with their fists and shivs.
You can hire guards and other personnel, then build facilities like repair shops where your inmates can learn trades. Over time, you can reform them to the point where they earn parole. (Somehow, we don't see this game getting a thumbs-up from most politicians.) Successfully redeeming offenders earns you control of more prisons and a tougher crew of inmates serving longer sentences.
Much of the time, however, Prison Tycoon doesn't provide enough to do. Too much of your interaction consists only of adding buildings to each prison. It's interesting to try to promote harmony in a place where it's so rarely found, but the tycoon genre feels played-out in this game. -- John Breeden II
Win 98 or newer, $20