Fable II (Xbox 360) Rating: NNNN
Fable II is a role-playing game that doesn't take itself seriously, full of smart and crass humour that often pokes fun at the genre's standards.
A major improvement in this second game of this franchise is the minimalist interface. The controls are simplified, easily putting powerful spells, blazing guns and giant blades at your fingertips. All it takes are a few simple taps to let out a ripping fart, bash your mace against a baddie or blow a kiss to someone you're interested in. Relationships have been expanded upon. Now your hero can have offspring or catch a disease if you don't practise safe sex.
The essential innovation in Fable II is the addition of a co-op mode allowing a friend or someone on Xbox Live to join in as your henchman - particularly useful if you're evil and have to fight every guard you encounter. The greatest achievement of Fable II is that it's an RPG for everyone. It ditches the complexity of games like Oblivion in favour of an accessible, fun and flexible experience. Go forth on your journey to greatness, young hero!
Spore (PC/Mac) Rating: NNN
No game since the infamous Duke Nukem sequel, which has yet to see the light of day, has been hyped as much as Will Wright's Spore. Spore promises to simulate all stages of the development of intelligent life. As the follow-up to his incredibly successful The Sims series, that's a big promise to fill.
You start Spore as a single-cell organism swimming in the primordial ooze. As you evolve, you walk onto dry land, gain intelligence and build tribes. Tribes become cities, cities go to war, and ultimately you take on galactic conquest.
Where Wright has succeeded is in the "creature creator," a brilliant piece of software design offering endless possibilities for all kinds of beings.
But you get the feeling that Spore's developers spread themselves so thin working on all the modes of game play that they never got to add any real depth. The cell stage is simplistic. The civilization stage feels like a sad attempt at a real-time strategy, and the space stage is clumsy and awkward.
In the end, Spore is the Sim Everything we were promised - it's just too thin for the typical 18-to-35 gamer market. Instead, pick this one up for your 8-to-12-year-old.
Rock Band 2 (Xbox 360, Playstation3, Wii) Rating: NNN
Given the unprecedented success of Rock Band in 2007, it's not surprising to see Rock Band 2 on shelves this early in the holiday season. Harmonix decided not to mess with an established formula. Drums, mic and guitars make up your band as you rock your way through increasingly difficult songs. The game disc comes with 84 tracks and a code you can register to eventually download another 20 for free.
Menus and gameplay have been tweaked, and band management is simpler. Party play is made more accessible by the addition of a No-Fail mode. Now, no matter how much you suck, your band won't get booed off the stage.
Alongside the improved game is a collection of new instruments. The Fender guitar feels solider, although it still lacks the click in the pick that Guitar Hero players prefer. Drummers get the most love, with quieter, velocity-sensitive drum heads and a stronger pedal, but truly hardcore drummers should save their pennies for the pro kit by Ion Audio.
Pure (Xbox 360, Playstation3, PC) Rating: NNNN
Every racing game must decide where it sits on the balance between arcade and simulation. Most go to one extreme or the other, but Pure opts for the middle. When you're on the ground, you really feel the ATV sliding around in the mud, and careful feathering of the throttle is required to avoid bailing on sharp turns. Launching off a jump, though, leaves reality dropping away beneath you.
Combinations of buttons and analog stick directions are used to perform a long list of tricks and special moves in the air. Strings of successful tricks open the door to even bigger ones or give your ATV a speed boost. The biggest jumps trigger a slow-motion effect that gives you time to pull special moves, many of which involve your rider hanging off the ATV in some impossible position.
Tweakers will appreciate the multitude of ATV-building options available. There's no cash in the game, so there are no limits on modifying your many ATVs. Create rides that will excel at racing or freestyle events. Then go online to show your friends who's got the fastest machine in town.