HOCKEY GAMES,

Various developers

What: This season's crop of ice-hockey simulations. Details: Although the Caps are anything but swinging right now, this season's crop of video games give puckheads a chance to take matters into their own hands. (That is, as long as they have a PC or PlayStation. Nintendo 64 owners will either have to stick with last year's NHL 99 or wait for Konami's now-delayed Blades of Steel 2000, while Dreamcast owners will get Sega's NHL 2K in February--just in time for the NHL All-Star weekend.) This season's expansion team, NHL Championship 2000, comes courtesy of Fox Sports Interactive 2000; this PlayStation and PC title offers the most realistic action (players actually lay down their sticks to block a shot) and excellent artificial intelligence to compete against, but it plays horribly slowly. 989 Sports' NHL FaceOff 2000 is a stronger contender, looking sharper and more detailed than ever--when you hit the net with a puck, a water bottle flies off of it--and sporting some nicely tweaked game play, so that it's no longer impossible to score goals. But these improvements aren't enough to keep it from losing the shootout to EA Sports' NHL 2000. That game provides faster play, tons of customizable options (you can adjust the amount of fights per game and the IQ of the computer-controlled players) and a Dynasty mode that lets you build a team from the ground up and skate through 10 seasons, but its big draw is "Face in Game." This PC-only option (likely to be on all of EA's sports titles next season) lets you put yourself on the ice: Import your mug shot into the computer and the program will stick your head on an NHL player's body, complete with 30 expressions. You can scan as many faces as you want; the re-use possibilities in a high school yearbook alone are mind-bogging. Bottom line: NHL 2000 takes the Cup this year, but keep an eye out for NHL 2K on the Dreamcast.

-- John Gaudiosi

NHL Championship 2000,

Fox Sports Interactive;

Win 95-98, PlayStation, $40

NHL FaceOff 2000, 989 Studios;

PlayStation, $40

NHL 2000, EA Sports;

Win 95-98, PlayStation, $40

MAP MACHINE,

National Geographic Society

What: Online atlas. Details: Where in the world is San Marino, San Marino? A walk to the public library might get you the answer quicker than National Geographic's Map Machine. Launched as an online companion to the society's updated hardcover Atlas of the World, this machine is far from well-oiled. Pages download agonizingly slowly, even with a fast office connection. When the machine finally locates San Marino, it is not labeled on the satellite map of what appears to be Italy, nor is there any legend or scale. These maps from space are in relief, giving a gross idea of terrain, but unfortunately, zoom buttons don't bring you any closer. If you need cultural (transportation, population, etc.) or climate (rainfall, temperatures) data, you can select a new "theme" via pop-up windows, but don't expect much detail: You'll learn that temperatures in Italy range from yellow to mustard, with a band of orange along the coast. You must click for a "Map Key" pop-up window to see what degrees correspond to which colors (it uses the Celsius scale but doesn't say so). To its merit, the Flags and Facts window reported that San Marino is the oldest independent republic in the world, located on top of a mountain in north-central Italy. But cartographically speaking, this machine needs to go back to the drawing board. Bottom line: Looks sharp, but not the sharpest knife in the drawer.

-- Jill Weisberg

Free at http://www.nationalgeographic.com/mapmachine/

SPACE INVADERS,

Activision

What: Update of the arcade classic. Details: Over two decades ago, the world was introduced to the original, two-dimensional "shooter" game. The idea was simple--rows of alien ships floated from side to side, descending level by level. Players had to shoot down the aliens before they landed, and if they reached the bottom: game over, man. The new version of that arcade classic is basically more of the same, but with steeper system requirements--the player is treated to updated but rather average-looking graphics, poor sound effects and solid, but unchallenging, game-play elements (for instance, the power-ups that give you missiles capable of taking out an entire column or row of aliens). What really kills this game, though, is the difficulty level and challenge, or lack thereof. The new Space Invaders is so easy that it loses its draw and novelty in minutes; any adept button masher can finish it off in less than two hours. After that, players can unlock and play the original Space Invaders, which is hidden inside this game. Or they could pick up a used Atari 2600, complete with Space Invaders, at your average flea market for less than the cost of this remake. Bottom line: This blast from the past misfires.

-- Tom Ham

Win 95-98, PlayStation, $40;

Nintendo 64, $50

THE WAR IN HEAVEN,

ValuSoft

What: Bible-thumping shooter. Details: In a nutshell, this is the sort of video game Homer Simpson's neighbor Ned Flanders would give his kids instead of Quake 2; it's a "first-person shooter" that spends time imparting Christian ideals between levels. But there's not a lot of turn-the-other-cheek stuff here: The action is strictly Old Testament, with angels and demons battling for the world. At the beginning of the game, you choose whether you want to be fallen or chosen--the game does believe in a certain amount of free will--and then the smiting begins. If you choose to follow the path of righteousness you'll "learn" certain spiritual lessons as you progress. Chose the path of darkness, and it's time to wipe out some angels on behalf of the prince of darkness as you learn what it's like to be a miserable, damned soul. While parents will like the fact that this curious title is entirely blood- and gore-free, The War in Heaven is rather weak as a game. The levels aren't well thought out; the player creeps slowly through huge rooms with drab graphics that are sparsely populated with not-very-clever opponents. The spiritual lessons here are an admirable goal, but I remain agnostic as to whether the video-game medium can effectively be used to teach them. Bottom line: There's more activity in Sunday school than in this game.

-- Mike Musgrove

Win 95-98, $20

CAPTION: EA Sports (top) faces off against 989 Studios (middle) and Fox Sports (bottom) in the hockey-simulation arena.

CAPTION: National Geographic: cartographical clumsiness.