COMMAND AND CONQUER:

TIBERIAN SUN, Westwood Studios

What: Sequel to the original real-time strategy game. Details: Four years ago, a game called Command and Conquer introduced a new genre, and video gamers who had been accustomed to traditional, turn-based play suddenly found themselves playing a game where they had to execute defensive and offensive strategies in real time. Westwood developed that game's sequel in anything but real time, but after about two years of delays it's finally here. Once again, you're building, assembling and destroying fighting forces in the early 21st-century clash between the Global Defense Initiative (GDI) and the Brotherhood of Nod. The evil Nod leader Kane, who supposedly died at the end of the original game, is back, and there's also been an outbreak of the deadly substance Tiberium. The game engine is essentially the same as in the original, but there are new units, 3-D terrain and dynamic lighting effects. Units and even weapons now gain experience points, which lead to improved armor, speed, power and special abilities as you progress through the game. And Internet multiplayer games are easier to start, thanks to built-in multiplayer support; you can play solo against up to seven computer opponents in "skirmish mode" or connect with up to four players over the Internet (or eight on a local-area network). Bottom line: Once again, war is swell.

-- Tom Ham

Win 95/98 $50

RIO PMP 500,

Diamond Multimedia

What: Latest-generation portable MP3 player. Details: Diamond's latest Walkman-style MP3 player has more built-in memory, a new look and some worthwhile interface improvements going for it over the company's first Rio models. With 64 megabytes of memory, this device for playing the popular digital music format comes with enough space for about an hour's worth of music, double that of the earlier Rio PMP 300. It also plugs into Macs equipped with a USB (universal serial bus) connection; there, the included SoundJam MP software lets you drag and drop entire playlists of MP3 files over to your Rio unit, an improvement over the one-song-at-a-time approach of earlier, Windows-only versions of the Rio's software. That USB port also means downloads to the Rio are not only easier than with the parallel-port link of its predecessor but a little faster as well. (But the Rio 500 doesn't works with Win 95, which can't speak USB fluently.) In addition, the new Rio comes in colors: You can get it in metallic gray or in stylishly translucent teal or purple shades. On the downside, I did experience a few mysterious crashes when I was hooking the new Rio up to my iMac, and the thing never did learn to play nice with a memory card I stuck in to try and upgrade the memory. Bottom line: There are some solid improvements here, though this line is still not cheap or perfect.

-- Mike Musgrove

Win 98/Mac, $269

WORLD BOOK MILLENNIUM 2000:

PREMIER REFERENCE LIBRARY, IBM

What: Latest electronic edition of the World Book encyclopedia. Details: It's nearly incomprehensible how comprehensive electronic encyclopedias have become. This four-CD-ROM extravaganza contains the 22-volume, 14,000-page World Book print version, plus thousands more articles, many packaged with multimedia resources--outlines, maps, illustrations, photographs, videos, sound clips and time lines. Randomly browsing this big baby has its own page-turning charm: Narrow your window-shopping of knowledge by category (recreation, history, etc.) or by media (videos, articles, special reports, etc.), or dive into it all. Or browse time frames--millennium, century, decade, year or era--to get dozens of related events presented as hot-linked thumbnails. The 1890s time frame, for instance, yielded 68 articles and multimedia items, from William McKinley to the opera "Pagliacci" (with sound clip). And a new feature, "Surf the Millennium," fabricates mock Web sites going back 1,000 years to lend a back-then perspective on historic events. "Sticky notes" and bright-yellow highlighter tools help students jot down notes and mark references, while a "homework wizard" offers step-by-step guidance in creating reports, time lines, practice quizzes and Web pages. But the built-in word processor is mainly a waste of code--few Word or WordPerfect habitues will want to use this bare-bones tool, even if it's a little more convenient to be able to stay in one program from start to finish of a paper. Bottom line: Useful back-to-school tool for school-kid research or just dawdling in facts.

-- Don Oldenburg

Win 95-98, $90 (Premier Reference Library version, includes dictionary, thesaurus, atlas and 60-day subscription to WB Online), $60 (Deluxe, includes 60-day online subscription), $40 (Standard)

SYSTEM SHOCK 2,

Looking Glass Studios

What: Sci-fi role-player/shooter. Details: The story in this very-long-delayed sequel to one of the first-ever first-person shooters begins when you, a passenger on the research spaceship Von Braun, awake from cryo-freeze to find bodies littering the hallways, a ship that's falling apart and a master computer that, in HAL 9000 fashion, sees you as a hostile intruder. Your choice of character affects how you make your way through this: Navy characters can hack into the ship's computers and turn hostile systems friendly; Marines fare better by just picking up weapons and attacking anything that gets in the way; and the final character class, a sort of psychic spy, uses psychokinetic powers to levitate objects and fry opponents. There's a good deal of puzzle solving in the game, but this title is still basically a shooter, and not a very good one at that--players used to Half-Life will find the combat scenes somewhat anemic. Part of the problem is that System Shock 2 reuses programming from Looking Glass's hit Thief--that engine's emphasis on sneaking around in the shadows doesn't work in this faster-paced game. Bottom line: The story line will draw role-playing and sci-fi fans in, but action gamers will quickly get bored.

-- John Breeden II

Win 95-98, $50

TOTALLY MAD,

Broderbund

What: Mad magazine coffee-table CD-ROM. Details: It's all here, every page of Mad magazine from the first issue in 1952, when Mad was a 10-cent comic book, to Mad mascot Alfred E. Neuman's first appearance in the magazine as its write-in candidate for president in 1956, up to last year's "South Park" jokes. The good, the bad and the unbearably corny have been painstakingly archived, with an interface that allows you to poke around from issue to issue or run a search on any topic. Even the Weird Al Yankovic-style music from those flimsy plastic records they used to sometimes include with the magazine are here, as are the animated Spy vs. Spy shorts from "MadTV." My favorite part was the behind-the-scenes tidbits, such as Sergio Aragones' explanation of how his "Marginal" comics got started (there wasn't enough room in the magazine for anything bigger) and Al Jaffee's description of Mad's "Fold-In" pages' beginnings (a jokey response to Playboy and Life magazines' centerfolds). Interviews of "the usual gang of idiots" are spliced down to tiny chunks and scattered across all seven discs, though, so if you want to check them out, get ready to play CD-ROM jukebox as you pop these seven platters in and out of your computer. Positively maddening! Bottom line: Some quirks, but it's still better than reading Cracked.

-- Mike Musgrove

Win 95-98, $70