989 Studios

What: Drive-around-and-blow-things-up game. Details: The Twisted Metal franchise appears to be on its way down. Let's count the ways this sequel disappoints: The cars here go so fast that it's impossible to get any of your opponents in your sights for more than a split second. Most of the ammo you end up wasting in this way comes from weapons that are too similar to each other. There doesn't appear to be a way to drive in reverse, so sometimes you'll get jammed in a corner. And the physics of this game are a little buggy as well: Once or twice, the car I was driving ended up dangling from a ledge by its bumper. Not cool, man! As a result of uninspired levels and weird little problems like this, you end up spending more time chasing your enemy in tight little circles than any attention-span-impaired gamer is bound to enjoy. One cool thing here is that you can customize your own car, but, other than that, just about everything here is done better in Activision's recent Vigilante 8: Second Offense, a title of the same genre that shows heaps more creativity than this batch of microwaved leftovers. Bottom line: Poor metal health.

-- Mike Musgrove

PlayStation, $40



What: Online role-playing game. Details: This game has come a long way since its prolonged, painful beta test. It takes place in a dynamic world populated by thousands of fellow adventurers--at the equivalent of 500 square miles, a landscape so huge that in the deepest of woods you can wander for days without seeing another soul, other than monsters. The scenery makes the reigning champion Ultima Online look like a 16-color wasteland, flames dance around torches, rain pelts your back, lightning sparks in the distance, and day slowly dissolves into night. But it's people, not scenery, that make this game. One, it features an excellent guild loyalty system that encourages players to work together. Two, you don't have to worry about "player killers" looking to chop your head off--unless you start offing your fellow players, in which case you willl become a target yourself. (Yes, Microsoft is now discouraging brutal, win-at-all-costs competition.) The game also features monthly events, which help give players stuff to do other than fight monsters and explore dungeons. This month, the world is freezing over: My guild is holed up in our castle, ready to defend it against ravaging snow beasts or march onward to save the world from this evil magic. Bottom line: Answer this call.

-- John Breeden II

Win 95-98, $55, plus $10/month for online play


Mattel Media

What: Art and animation program for the "Sesame Street" set. Details: This title--one of three new CD-ROMs from the Children's Television Workshop--ranks super high on the cutsie-pie scale, but it does things that other art programs only promise. It teaches kids to draw by providing the outlines of a pre-drawn train, bird, fish and so on; they trace, color them in and--here's the cool part--then click on "OK" and, poof, the artwork moves along a train track that travels from zoo to sea to rain forest to Savannah. Elsewhere, on a picture-poem page, Elmo recites one of 16 poems about the animals he likes, then provides whiskers, ears and feet for your child to finish up. Elmo also helps kids illustrate songs and for the pure giggle of it will morph into the shape of a chicken, snake or a handful of other critters. Although the tickle-me monster's high-pitched voice can get a tad irritating for grown-ups, the game is a delight. The two other CDs in the set, Elmo in Grouchland and Music Maker, are also worthwhile; Grouchland offers 10 mildly challenging, help-Elmo-find-his-blue-blanket games, while Music Maker is an entertaining sing-along even babies can enjoy. Bottom line: Come and play. Toying around in Elmo's world is worth the price of admission.

-- Hope Katz Gibbs

Windows 95/98, $30, ages 3 and up


Simon & Schuster

What: Animated picture book. Details: This program, based on the work of award-winning Czech illustrator Kveta Pacovska, is like nothing most kids have encountered before--and they are almost certain to be entranced. The animated illustrations are vibrant and somewhat abstract, with a distinctly theatrical flair; circus-like, slightly discordant music and crafty sound effects, ranging from chalk moving on a board to crumpling paper, mesh perfectly with the art. There are no words, no directions, only images and music and an opportunity to explore. The moon, which guides us through the program, prods the actors out of sleep and starts the midnight play, in both senses of the word. What follows are more than 15 interconnected activity screens; in one, for example, players help a horse feed newspaper to a frog, who grow and grows until his huge stomach becomes a multicolored screen--then children can use the cursor to paint designs. Part of the fun is finding out how to play within the illustrations, but the program is more than a sophisticated bunch of clickables. Children who pay attention will notice repeating images and the connections between the illustrations: how the orchestra marches on a green stripe that is part of one clown's pants, the lion's red hair becomes a bunch of reeds to play a tune on and a jester's jingly collar of triangles turns into the design of a drum. Some younger players might be slightly frightened by the music and by the fantastical images, which are by no means cute or cartoony. Other children might be frustrated by the lack of direction; It takes time and patience to uncover the program's many layers. Two disappointments: the images don't change (for example, you'll always find the same pictures hiding in the same places) and you can't print anything out! Bottom line: Encore!

-- Elizabeth Chang

Win 95-98/Mac, $20, ages 6 and up;