With all the fuss about the “evildoers” these days, it’s nice to be able to join the fray in your very own living room, with so many video games set as Manichaean parables waiting for a champion to press start. This year, the best bet for virtual valor is to save Middle Earth in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Electronic Arts, $30 to $50, depending on platform). Return of the King lets you play as most members of the fellowship, from sexy Aragorn to sexy Legolas to sexy Gandalf, chopping through interactive set pieces to the showdown with Sauron. Beyond that, we won’t give much away, except that the game can be addictive, as you can’t wait to take Gimli “to the next level” and collect the special powers of Balrog’s Gambit. Recall Frodo’s warning: Beware the lure of the Ring.
Back in our realm, Medal of Honor: Rising Sun (EA, Xbox, PS2, GameCube, $50) is the latest installment of the wildly successful WWII franchise, this one set in the Pacific theater. Despite the continuing cultural genuflection before the Greatest Generation altar, Rising Sun is a good game, if only for being the first to take you treading through Guadalcanal by night with a sniper rifle. Released just in time for December 7, Rising Sun starts you off in the chaos of the Pearl Harbor attack as Marine Corporal Joseph Griffin, after which you battle your way across the Pacific, taking the fight eventually to the shores of Japan.
Rising Sun feels a little rushed; the missions are short and the settings kind of lazy. But still: Guadalcanal. And, as with the earlier Medal of Honor games, there’s something cinematically satisfying about the attention to detail and authenticity in the sounds, equipment and action of the weaponry. We went to the boot camp (really, we did) that trains the Medal of Honor development team on how to represent the guns and clothes and true grit of the GIs of old. And the way the M-1 Garand fires and discharges its magazine in the game, we can confirm, is just the same as when you’re crawling through sagebrush on a hill in the Santa Susana mountains.
The one problem with Rising Sun and Return of the King is that when you kill a foe, they disappear — just like in an episode of Buffy. Their battles are bloodless, which, from a game-play perspective, significantly undermines the engagement through realism, but perhaps more importantly also papers over the actuality of war for the impressionable teen audiences. Then again, that makes them perfect for our embedded era, and Dubya’s virtual battlefields.
Racing games are as old as the joystick, and what keeps them coming is the sheer delight of going super-fast in a car you could never afford, wrecking it at 200 mph, and not getting hurt, except for a sore and/or callused thumb. Nowadays, the graphics have caught up with the dream, and the only thing that would make games like Project Gotham Racing 2 (Microsoft, Xbox, $50) and Need for Speed Underground (EA, all platforms, $50) better is the wind in your hair and the scent of oil and gas filling your living room.
Both games are expert simulations of street-racing, with quick, high-performance cars, urban tracks and, in Need for Speed, the ability to customize your ride with pink neon undercarriage lighting and goofy Japanese stickers. Project Gotham 2 is the classy one, with incredibly detailed re-creations of 10 cities across the continents and real local DJs, so you can view, say, the Capitol rotunda while listening to Eliot from DC 101 spinning Black Heart Procession.
Need for Speed takes the low road, putting you Underground. As in The Fast and the Furious, the more you race and win, the more props you get as your reputation grows. This is a title for specialists: to be especially badass in Need for Speed is to master gear-shifting in a straight-line drag race or hit the perfect drift on a curved track with your handbrake.
Then there’s NASCAR Thunder 2004 (EA, all platforms, $50). This game is critically acclaimed and very popular, but do note that in NASCAR races, you only turn left — forever. Still, it’s strangely appealing: With a copy of the game, a steering-wheel controller, and some chaw, you will understand, if you don’t already, how NASCAR conquered the Earth. The learning curve is a little steep, but that’s because the 2004 version is more realistic than ever, with detailed handling adjustments and smart opponents who share each other’s draft. You can even simulate famous NASCAR races of the recent past, and match your wheel wits against those of Ryan Newman. The only thing missing is Sterling Marlin yammering in his inscrutable drawl.
Before the new crop of basketball games started appearing last month, they didn’t reflect the ’02-’03 roster, meaning there was no Yao, a shortcoming that led to an impromptu culture of resourceful gamers making their own Yaos with the Create Player functions. Kids would meet and compare their Yaos — how much they looked like Yao (not much), and how much they played like Yao (somewhat) — trying to get the jump on how to best calibrate their own Ming dynasties. Now, NBA Live 2004 (EA, all platforms, $50), ESPN NBA 2K4 (Sega, all platforms, $50) and Inside Drive 2004 (Microsoft, Xbox, $50) have shipped, each with fully formed Yaos in the Rockets’ starting lineup.
In basic features, all these games are the same: You can play ball (with all the teams, in all the stadiums), simulate seasons, manage, and so on. Inside Drive 2004 is the weakest, while ESPN 2K4 is the favorite among purists — its goal is verisimilitude, and it also allows online play in teams, which is a real asset, but only if you can master the more difficult controls. But EA’s NBA Live 2004 is the game that, in the right hands, is the most fun to play. It’s easy for anyone to get started and sink some baskets, while also having enough complexity so one can excel as a master if that is the flow state they seek.
The one problem is, now that there is a Yao, it’s hard to stop playing him. Almost all our matches wound up being Rockets vs. Rockets, or one-on-one practices of Yao vs. Yao. A brief flash of lunacy led us to try to create extra Yaos for every position, so as to have five Yaos on five Yaos, which didn’t work at all. More successful was an experimental Ultra-Yao, fashioned from his existing profile but with swifter legs, uncanny dexterity and surgical three-point accuracy, which made the dude unstoppable. Thanks to the accessorizing capabilities of NBA Live 2004, you can have your Ultra-Yao, like ours, hit the hardwood wearing a striped headband, a green fingerstrap, matching taupe sleeve and kneepad, and a tattoo of an old English capital “J” on his left thigh. Put your juiced-up Rockets against the Lakers, and the computer Shaq is impotent against Ultra-Yao’s onslaught. Perhaps this intimates the future of the real Yao, as he spreads his 7-foot-4-and-a-half-inch wings into a second pro season and beyond.
We also recommend: XIII (UbiSoft, PS2, PC, GameCube, $50), a super-stylish action story created to look like you’re playing a graphic novel, to remarkable effect; True Crime, Streets of L.A. (Activision, PS2, Xbox, GameCube, $50), a Vice City set in our very own burg, where, as we know, it’s sometimes hard to be a good cop; Top Spin (Microsoft, Xbox, $50), really great tennis, and the only sports game of the year that makes you want to play the real game yourself; and Karaoke Music Mixer (Microsoft, Xbox, $40), a hoot, especially “rave mode,” where you can create an audio-visual show with slides of rainbows, a tulip and a tiger.