DUNGEON SIEGE II, Microsoft/Gas Powered Games
Dungeon Siege II achieves what few sequel titles can: keeping intact the basic game play that fans love while adding new features that wow us. The game play is basically the same as the original, with a party of up to six characters rolling across a lush landscape, hacking and slashing everything in their path. The top-down graphics seem to be aging a touch, but the varied landscapes, from lush jungles to dry deserts to icy mountains, keep things interesting.
You actually start the game working for the evil side but soon learn the error of your ways and begin working for the same besieged residents you were fighting earlier. One of the best things DSII offers over the original version is an interesting plot, complete with plenty of spoken dialogue between you and your party members.
Each party member also has a unique skill that could prove useful -- the ability to fix a broken machine or tell if a character you meet is lying, for example.
The four main classes of soldier, archer, nature and combat mage remain, but now each has a skill tree that can be used to customize the character. For example, you can choose weapons for your character and even craft extra powers onto some weapons.
Pets, which were fun before, play an even greater role in DSII. The old pack mule is still around, but you can also employ wolves, scorpions and others to help defend your party.
And you can increase their powers as you go or set them free into the wild as a reward for good service.
You can play the single-player game for a long time -- killing hour after hour by tackling many of the optional side quests -- or you can go online with your characters to play competitively with others. -- John Breeden II
Win XP, $50
COMIC LIFE 1.1, Plasq
If you were never bitten by a radioactive spider and you don't come from planet Krypton, chances are good that you've also never had a comic book written about you.
Fortunately, there's a new, clever and easy Mac program that will let you make your own comics out of your digital photo collection, complete with word balloons and "pow!" sound effects.
Start with a page layout; the program comes with templates that mimic commonly seen styles from the pages of comic books.
All of the panels can be moved or resized with a flick of the mouse. Plopping a picture or a word balloon into those panels takes only a quick drag-and-drop move; a panel lets you browse for photos stored on your desktop, anywhere on the computer or in any of your iPhoto albums. Editing functions are accompanied by cartoony sound effects; stretch a word balloon out, for example, and the software generates a stretchy-balloon sound.
You can then give your photos a makeover with a filter that will make them look hand-drawn or painted, although getting crazy with these effects can serve up some cheesy results.
ComicLife's special font, meanwhile, does a perfect job of duplicating the hand-lettered style of comic books. A finished page can look surprisingly slick with just a few minutes' worth of effort -- but turning those vacation pictures into a good story line remains the hard part. -- Mike Musgrove
Mac OS X 10.3 or newer, $25 at plasq.com