Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow Platform: Nintendo DS. Rating: NNNN
Dawn Of Sorrow is set one year after Castlevania: Aria Of Sorrow left off. Soma Cruz, the reincarnation of Dracula, now possessed of the ability to obtain the power of other monsters, sets off for the crazy cultists' castle to prevent them from... resurrecting the dark lord, Dracula.
While this murky plot hole gets a little glossed over, the scope of the game makes it entirely forgivable. From secret chambers and mysterious monsters to unlockable characters and modes directed at the dedicated player -- Dawn Of Sorrow allows for enjoyment at all levels.
There are several endings to the game (don't miss a corner of the map or leave a soul unclaimed), and some of the best scenes and items are obtained by persevering. Not that you won't ever feel like an automaton when you're gunning for a particular item just out of your reach, but at least you can be amused in your pursuit. Soul upgrades and humorous attacks (equip the Persephone soul and use it against her) keep the game lively. Weapon synthesis adds another layer of interest by allowing upgrades to more powerful versions of your arsenal.
At its core, this is a basic adventure game: kill enemies, gain money to buy items, stop the evil. But with multiple endings, varied replay modes and in-joke items, this is one fun adventure.
Shadow of the Colossus Platform: PlayStation 2. Rating: NNN
Part strategy, part action, part platform game, Shadow Of The Colossus attempts something new by combining elements from several genres. To bring your girlfriend back from the dead, you must kill 16 colossi. Hopping on your horse, you ride across the countryside, guided by a mystical ray from your sword. Each battle with a giant requires solving a unique puzzle, usually a matter of much trial and error. Actually killing the colossus demands climbing and jumping over its body until you arrive at its weak spot, into which you can plunge your sword to attain victory.
Unfortunately, the act of navigating the platforms on the colossi is usually the simple part of battle. While this game is a good attempt at something new, the story is weak and the objectives repetitive. After about eight colossi, the appeal starts to wear thin, and trying to figure out the next killer solution can be a colossal pain.
Some of the best art direction the PlayStation 2 has to offer has gone into the grey and dreary setting, which reflects the despairing mood of the unfolding tale. These impressive visuals and game play make Shadow Of The Colossus unique enough to try.
Age of Empires III Platform: PC. Rating: NNN
World conquerors, rejoice -- Age Of Empires III offers much to aid you in your quest to become ultimate ruler. Build cities and armies to face the challenges ahead. Among the many improvements are new 3-D graphics, better computer AI that makes working with, or against, the computer much more rewarding, and a 'home city' system that adds a long-term strategy factor. The visuals are stunning and the worlds rife with creatures and resources waiting for you to harvest. When you've completed the campaign scenarios, you can hop online and play a variety of matches against real people.
Not much has changed in terms of the game formula, but why mess with something that's already so good? Everything you knew from the previous and other real-time strategy games applies here. If you're hoping for an entirely new take on the series, then look elsewhere -- the improvements are mostly cosmetic or fine-tuned game-play changes. Note that the graphic requirements are quite heavy; only with the best video cards will you be able to see what this game has to offer.
Black & White 2 Platform: PC. Rating: NNN
Playing God isn't restricted to political and religious figures; you, too, can nurture your flock and expand your power and influence with a benevolent smile and an iron fist. The choice of whether you're good, evil or something in between is up to you, along with how you wish to fulfill your godhood.
In the beginning you choose from four animals to be your on-earth enforcer and incarnation. While the main focus of the game is to become a powerful god, I spent most of my time raising and training my avatar, just to see what it would do next. Nothing is more entertaining than a pet that, when hungry, asks if it can eat its own poo. I'm not alone in my amusement; the original Black & White had its own expansion pack called Creature Isle.
For those who have never played city-planning or real-time strategy games, the tutorial at the beginning is a nice introduction to the storyline, and the controls are very natural. Game play, which is more directed than its open-ended predecessor, gets to a point where you're either just waiting for resources to build or an event to occur -- a sort of limbo that has you wondering what trouble you can get into.
Black & White 2 is great for both casual and serious gamers, but players who aren't interested in the long haul don't have a prayer.