In recent years, this has proved to be the single most popular genre out there. The simple reason is this - it appeals to just about every gamer out there. There isn't the careful planning and scheming of a strategy game, or the difficult puzzles of an adventure game. Nope. Action games in general are hardwired for maximum carnage and thrills - hence the reason these titles are the favorite piñatas for the media. Of course, stealth, squad-based gameplay and the occasional platformer help to mix things up. The following are guilty of wrecking havoc on busy work schedules.
From the mind of Tim Schafer, the man responsible for some of LucasArts' most memorable adventure titles, including Full Throttle and Grim Fandango, comes one of the best platformers this year. It follows the adventures of a young boy named Razputin, who dreams of joining the ranks of America's elite psychic warriors, the Psychonauts. Thus, he runs away from his family to attend the Whispering Rocks Psychic Summer Camp, which just so happens to offer advanced psychic training in addition to their campfire sing-alongs. There, Raz discovers friendship, giant psychic fish, and a plot to take over the world. Utilizing his newly learned abilities, Raz must travel into the mindscapes of other people to uncover the plot and save the rest of his new friends. Of course, this brief synopsis doesn't really convey the attention Schafer and his team has lavished on their alternate reality. Psychonauts is a case study in exactly how important good dialogue and a solid storyline is to a game.
Standard platform elements abound in Psychonauts. There are enemies to shoot, jumping puzzles to solve, secrets to be discovered, and knick-knacks to collect. As you progress, you unlock more psychic powers to deal with new puzzles and situations. What makes it special though, is that each trip is a memorable and wildly different affair, as every mind that you enter is a reflection of the real person. From the organized, black-and-white cube landscape of Agent Sasha Nein to the game board world of Napolean's disturbed descendant, every level is a visual treat. One of my personal favorites had to be the twisted landscape of the paranoid milkman. Agents in black suits dotted the place, and occasionally cameras would pop out of bushes to snap pictures. This is just an example of how much attention has been paid to the environment for each level.
In Short : Slightly short, but boasts an excellent storyline, amazing visuals and solid gameplay. Definitely not a title to miss out on.
The latest iteration of the popular Grand Theft Auto series hits the PC in a big way. Taking place in the fictional California-like state of San Andreas during the early 90's, you play Carl "CJ" Johnson, who returns after spending five years on the east coast. Upon returning, it doesn't take long for crooked cops to pick him up, and before long he finds himself back in the thick of his gangbangin' days.
The basic formula of the series is still the same - players jack cars, take missions, mug and otherwise interact with people in a positively massive map, even more so than GTAIII and Vice City. Mountains, rivers, countryside and a mulitude of smaller towns seperate the three main cities in the game, each of which mirrors a real city. The first of these is Los Santos, your 'hood and a thinly veiled image of Los Angeles. Beyond that, San Fierro beckons with its own version of the Golden Gate Bridge. Finally, the Vegas-inspired city of Las Venturas boasts its own plethora of lights and sights, with casinos such as Caligula's Palace and the memorable (snicker) Pirates in Men's Pants. In addition, parodies to real-life franchises such as Cluckin' Bell are scattered throughout the game, and are bound to get at least a chuckle or two.
To keep things fresh, a mini-RPG system has been added this time round. Players can hit gyms, shooting ranges and driving schools or even just advance their skills over the course of regular gameplay. Eventually, bonuses such as being able to wield machine pistols akimbo and so on can be earned. Clothes shops, barbers and tattoo parlors also offer tons of ways to customize CJ's appearance, and might even help increase his sex appeal when romancing girlfriends in the hopes of getting invited in for "coffee".
As in Vice City, the production values for San Andreas are top-notch, and read off like the credits of a movie rather than a video game. Relatively unknown rapper Young Maylay does a great job as CJ, and stars such as Chris Penn and Samuel L. Jackson play crooked cops Tenpenny and Pulaski. The 8 different radio stations play an incredibly long list of songs from the early 90's by Boyz II Men, Snoop Dogg, Soundgarden and Ice Cube, just to name a few. If that doesn't do it for you, you're free to copy in your own MP3s and create a custom radio station, with commercials scattered in between just to add that extra touch of realism. Unfortunately, like both its predecessors, San Andreas suffers in the graphics department, and seems to lag behind the current crop of games by a generation or two. Still, it doesn't really detract from the fun.
In Short : Looks a little dated in the graphics department, but roaming about the streets of San Andreas is incredibly fun.
The conclusion in the Sands of Time trilogy, The Two Thrones sees the Prince returning to his home city of Babylon from the Island of Time, his new love Kaileena in tow. With his usual streak of bad luck though, the city is under vicious attack - courtesy of the vizier. And as always, things go horribly wrong, Kaileena is murdered, and the sands of time are unleashed upon Babylon. The Prince himself doesn't escape unscathed - his personality is split into two, and his arrogant, darker side takes form as the Dark Prince - a charred, glowing husk of the Prince. More than a simple story element, the Dark Prince wields an extendible sword called a daggertail, has different combos, and is brutally powerful in combat - sequences involving the Dark Prince often have you battling through hordes of sand creatures. And for good reason. The price paid for his overwhelming power is that he loses health over time, which he needs to replenish by drawing sand from fallen enemies.
As usual, the production values for The Two Thrones are top-notch. Throughout the game, the prince and the sneering, sarcastic dark prince, voiced by Yuri Lowenthal and Rick Miller respectively, struggle with each other in well-written internal dialogues. The return to Babylon also means a return to the beautiful Middle Eastern art and design from the first game, with players roaming the streets and rooftops of Babylon and even visiting the famous Hanging Gardens. Heavy use of light bloom creates the golden, dreamlike aura from the first game in every area.
In Short : Combine the superior puzzle-solving of Sands of Time with the improved combat system of The Warrior Within, along with the usual fantastic storyline and production values. 'Nuff said.
From Monolith, the creators of the acclaimed Tron 2.0 and No One Lives Forever series, comes the seriously disturbing sci-fi horror shooter F.E.A.R. As the anonymous rookie point man of an elite military squad specializing in the paranormal, it's your job to track down Paxton Fettel, the subject of a classified research experiment by the Armacham Technology Corporation. Problem is, he has an entire army of cloned soldiers. And said experiment gives him the ability to control each and every one of them. So like any good research experiment gone bad, he goes AWOL in the most bloody fashion possible, with security cameras showing his clone army mowing down ATC security officers. Throughout the games' 11 intervals, you must find out why Fettel snapped, and why visions of both him and a small, strange girl who leaves behind bloody corpses keep appearing to you.
F.E.A.R. features some of the most intense firefights you'll find in a FPS. To begin with, each area usually has multiple routes, allowing players to flank enemies or get creative on how to take enemies out. Unfortunately, so will they. The AI found here are some of the most crafty opponents to be found in any shooter to date. They'll push over crates for cover, duck behind columns, run from grenades, lay down covering fire while their buddies flank you, and generally make life very miserable for you. Making things more intense is the fact that you can only carry up to three weapons. Will you go with the railgun-like Type 7 Particle Weapon? Or that totally sweet rocket launcher? It's not all bad though. Early on, it's revealed to you that the reason you were chosen as point man was because your reflexes were off the charts. This translates into being able to enter brief bursts of SlowMo - a Bullet Time like period where everyone around you is slowed to a crawl. Mastering it is practically necessary to survive some firefights, such as being ambushed right out of the lift.
Thanks to Monolith's new graphics engine, every firefight is a visual treat. With dynamic lighting effects, dark areas light up and sparks fly everywhere during combat. And just about everything in the environment is destructible - splinters fly in every direction as you fill a box with holes, dust clouds erupt as chunks of the wall are blown up - in all, it adds to the feel of a frantic, no holds barred firefight. Of course, this graphical splendor comes at the cost of a really powerful system.
Multiplayer is also a blast. Deathmatch is a frantic affair - since player speed changes depending on what weapon you're carrying, you'll oftentimes see players with their guns holstered and racing towards you for an instant melee kill by executing a flying jump kick. There's also Capture the Flag, which has a more deliberate pace to it, but is still loads of fun.
In Short : Superb storyline, brilliant firefights, really creepy atmosphere, fast-paced multiplayer. High-end system required. A definite must on any Christmas list.