What: Dinosaur action-adventure. Details: Although the gameplay mechanics are almost identical to that of Capcom's megaselling Resident Evil series, Dino Crisis manages to give players a new and frightening gaming experience. Say goodbye to the slow-moving zombies from the Resident Evil franchise and say hello to quick and deadly velociraptors in the mood for lunch. Players take on the role of Regina, a member of an elite squad of military agents sent to find and rescue a missing scientist named Dr. Kirk. This somewhat routine mission turns sour when players discover they're stuck in the same place as a bunch of hungry dinosaurs. Unlike Resident Evil, where most of the puzzles had nothing to do with the plot, the puzzles in Dino Crisis tie into the story at hand: One has you hacking into computers to unlock doors, while another requires players to search for fingerprints to access protected areas. The best things here, though, are the dinosaurs themselves; the raptors move with such speed and grace, it's extraordinarily creepy. A first-rate musical score responds well to what's happening in the game and adds to the thrills here. Bottom line: Michael Crichton, eat your heart out. -- Tom Ham

PlayStation, $50



What: Virtual train game. Details: In this family-oriented title, you're the engineer navigating more than 30 Lionel model trains across a variety of animated landscapes ranging from the North Pole to the family room. A tutorial will teach you the basics about sorting train cars, picking up and delivering loads and directing train traffic. After that, you're on your way, bringing chow to a dinosaur ranch, repairing tracks after flying saucers blast holes in them, transporting a trainload of elves to Santa, and making sure you get animals and food to the circus. There are schedules to follow and blue ribbons to earn, so as you chug around the tracks completing tasks, you'll need to keep your eye both on the train's gauges and the clock. Confirm there's enough coal and water for the engine to run. Be careful of wildlife sitting on the tracks. Watch out for trains running across your path. And when you approach a drawbridge, watch out for floating rubber duckies. Each of the 72 different assignments progress in difficulty, so there are challenges for grade-schoolers to grandparents. Maps and tabs provide immediate access to what needs to be done. The game's visual detail, music, sound effects and voices are highly customizable, making it even more appealing. And yes, you can make two trains crash into each other. Bottom line: The model-train set even railroad magnates will want to own.

-- Skip Singer

Win 95-98, $20


STUDIO, Disney

What: Lackluster animation creation. Details: It sounds like a great idea for Disney to create a computer program that teaches kids to animate. The problem with Disney's Magic Artist Studio, a sequel to Disney's 1996 Magic Artist, is that there's no how-to-animate instruction. The included 19-page manual is only mildly helpful, and a trip to the Disney Web site for pointers mostly wins you ads for the program. Kids, and the adults who will undoubtedly be drafted to assist, are left trying to figure out how to make a magical slide show happen on their own; it's not unlike suffering through the first few days of figuring out Adobe Photoshop, on which the technology of this program seems loosely based. What this CD-ROM does offer is a souped-up artist's palette, complete with markers that decode invisible messages and a spray bottle that shoots a stream of animated butterflies. With all this, budding animators can then create original art with Mickey and Minnie, Donald, Daffy and Goofy, too--all of whom can be placed in the artwork, sized and colored. They even dance to bits of music--but finding the correct button to press to get them moving is a chore unto itself. Bottom line: Opt for Crayola's Make A Masterpiece, which at least offers a lesson in art history. -- Hope Katz Gibbs

Win 95-98/Mac, $30


Sirtech Canada/Talonsoft

What: Turn-based mercenary combat game. Details: Jagged Alliance 2 puts players in the role of a mercenary boss charged with liberating the small island of Arulco from an evil despot. But your workers are hired guns, not freedom fighters, so if you can't make payroll your army will be gone the second its contract expires. Your financial support comes from the island's citizens, so to be successful you'll have to pull off a few good public-relations moves, such as eliminating a den of man-eating tigers on the island. As you conquer sectors, you have to train your forces to guard them or the despot's men will swoop in while you are away, punishing the citizens and demolishing your popularity and, subsequently, your paycheck. Your men aren't simple drones; give them an obviously suicidal task, and they'll be more likely to bail out on you than carry out the orders. They also improve as the game progresses, so even low-quality, inexpensive mercs will eventually become top of the line--if they don't die first. The combat and role-playing aspects of the game are very good, but what's noticeably missing here is any kind of multiplayer option. Bottom line: JA2 should hit the mark with role-playing and strategy gamers who want to take a break from "real time" strategy games. -- John Breeden II

Win 95-98, $50