Half Life 2 Platform: PC, $59.99. Rating: NNNNN
Six years ago Half Life was unleashed on an unsuspecting gaming public, changing forever the way gamers thought about first-person shooters, bringing story and suspense to a genre that had previously focused on the body count.
Half Life 2 has finally arrived, and it's been worth the wait. Taking full advantage of the latest PC hardware, the game's stunning to look at. Though not quite as technically sophisticated as the recent Doom 3, it does things on much grander scale, using huge, varied indoor and outdoor environments and highly detailed characters who lip-synch dialogue and can actually act.
A killer new physics engine allows you to interact with the world in interesting new ways. Thankfully, it's tightly integrated with game play and not just for show. Many of the best moments involve puzzle-solving that requires the realistic physics.
The best news: despite massive cosmetic surgery, the developers at Valve have somehow managed to transplant the heart and soul of the original into the fancy new body. The atmosphere and feel of Half Life remain vital.
Half Life 2 is a new classic in the FPS genre. Highly recommended.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas Platform: PS2, $59.99. Rating: NNNN
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas starts with everything that made GTA III and Vice City classics and then piles on new features. Ditching the past two titles' 80s setting and mafia types, it takes place in a fictionalized early-90s L.A. where you play a street thug on an unholy quest to be the baddest gangster in town.
The massive game world - by far the biggest yet in the series - contains tons of new vehicles, loads of mini games and the ability to customize your ride. You'd expect all this from a typical sequel, but developer Rockstar is just getting started.
First, you have stats that update according to your behaviour. Fat, muscle, sex appeal and luck all contribute not only to how you play, but how you look. It's pretty much a gangster RPG without the micromanaging.
Next, try some gang warfare. As your respect level rises, you're able to recruit gang members. Then it's open season on rival gangs as you grab all the turf you can. Oh, did I mention you can swim? Sweet.
GTA: San Andreas is everything you'd want in a sequel and more. Endless hours of nasty, vulgar GTA goodness. Pick it up.
Need for Speed Underground 2 Platform: PS2, Gamecube, Xbox and PC, $59.99. Rating: NNN
Last year's Need For Speed Underground was a welcome addition to the NFS lineup. Fresh and fun as hell, it focused on import tuning and street racing. The inevitable sequel has arrived, but its attempts to improve on the original are hit and miss.
The major new twist, the open-city concept, has you driving freely around a huge metropolis, joining races as you find them, instead of just choosing races from a list. As you roll through town, you find shops where you can customize your ride in staggering ways.
The open city is fun and adds to the underground racing feel of the game, but you can't avoid the time-consuming drives from race to race, which become annoying as the game progresses.
There are new racing modes, new cars and endless upgrades for your ride. Despite the fact that you're stuck in one city, the scenery is much more varied than in the previous game.
NFS Underground 2 crosses the finish line as a pretty good update to a solid arcade racer.
Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne Platform: PlayStation 2, $59.99. Rating: NNNN
Released in Japan as Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne Maniacs, this series technically isn't new. However, it's the first time that a MegaTen game has been introduced to North American shores - in a special director's cut to boot.
It starts off with the typical element of a high school boy on his way to visit his hospitalized sick teacher. Between there and where the game truly begins, Tokyo becomes a post-apocalyptical playground for demons and demigods. Oh, you've somehow turned into a demonic version of yourself, too.
With powers nascent, you set off in this strange world to talk to and battle demons, and in some cases you get your demon enemy to become your ally. In a somewhat unique turn in standard RPGs, the party system will eventually see you combining demon allies to create more highly evolved and powerful versions of their predecessors. You'll need them, because this game is hard.
Besides the challenging game play, you'll be posed questions that will test your in-game ideals. More than simple right and wrong answers, your party's choices and other decisions will ultimately drive the story's outcome. This dark world is the opposite of traditional fantasy RPG settings, and those seeking more than the habitual serving of save-the-world epics will enjoy this excellent offering from Altus.