It's cold outside. So why not get mesmerized by some of the new games out there? Here's how we rate some of the newest.
Jak II PlayStation, $59.99. Rating: NNNNN
Sequels - we love to hate 'em, but in rare cases they can surpass their predecessors. Jak II does so superbly by combining Grand Theft Auto mayhem with its strong platform roots. The biting storyline and an out-of-control, rage-filled Jak (who now speaks!) turns away from the candy-coloured landscape of the first game with terrific results. As well as the requisite running and jumping, look for mission-based elements of sabotage and thievery. A darker environment, plot twists and harder difficulty levels give Jak II its edge, in-game and on best-of lists.
Disgaea: Hour of Darkness PlayStation, $64.99. Rating: NNNN
The tactics genre is a small one but has produced excellent titles. Final Fantasy Tactics and Ogre Tactics top the list, and Disgaea can take its place among them. Like all tactics-style games, Disgaea is aimed at those who love carefully crafting characters and being able to tweak weapon statistics. The storyline bucks tradition: you don't fight the epic battle against evil - rather, you are the evil, a Dark Prince out to reclaim your throne. While the graphics are a generation behind, cute character designs support the devilishly addictive game play and high replay value.
Sword of Mana Game Boy Advance, $49.99. Rating: NNN
While it's not the prequel that Secret Of Mana fans were hoping for, Sword Of Mana is a solid action-RPG adventure. After starting the game by choosing one of two characters, you'll end up playing both eventually, either manually or by configuring the somewhat weak AI. Given the history of this series, the notably lacking multiplayer option is disappointing. However, there is a link-up feature that allows for Final Fantasy-esque summoning spells. Colourful graphics and detailed levels round out the game nicely, and those picking it up will enjoy it regardless of comparisons.
I-Ninja GameCube, $39.99. Rating: NNNN A small super-deformed ninja, giant robots and saving the world - these are part of what makes I-Ninja a thoroughly entertaining and caffeinated romp. While it's patterned after classic platformers, this irreverent game delivers on many fronts. You are the appropriately named Ninja, and after mistakenly beheading your sensei, you must save the world. The disjointed storyline may sound like it won't work, but the game play elements - a wide range of actions with humour liberally sprinkled throughout - will find you playing it over and over again. Also available for Xbox and PlayStation 2.
Voodoo Vince Xbox, $49.99. Rating: NNN
Vince is an annoyingly voiced little voodoo doll who romps through a magically warped version of New Orleans, out to save Madam Charmaine, your Creator. Your special power lies in your ability to inflict injury on enemies by being masochistic. Along the way, Vince throws himself into a shredder, flattens himself with an anvil and gives himself various other injuries, all in the name of offing Kosmo the Inscrutable and his gang of roustabouts. The best part of the game is its emphasis on puzzle-solving, and while it's on the short side, it's a game that's fun both to watch and play.
The Sims: Superstar PC, expansion pack, $39.99. Rating: NNNNN
The Superstar expansion pack is sure to give your Sims a shot in the arm. The Hot Date expansion pack and those that followed never really changed game play - you controlled your Sim only while it was at home but had no interaction while it was at work. Superstar changes that by introducing new entertainment-based career paths that essentially involve going to work with your Sim. You call a cab to take you to work and head off to Studio Town. Good performances - based on getting your needs taken care of and making sure you've had practice at home - result in fame points, which will help you move on to better-paying commercial work such as recording jingles and doing modelling work for print ads. None of your hard work will mean anything without the right connections. You'll have a tabloid delivered to your home and can look up who's currently hot so you're seen with the in-crowd. It's surprisingly complicated to keep track of and adds a lot of depth to the game.