Mario Kart DS Platform: Nintendo DS Rating: NNNN
Mario Kart DS is one high-performance ride, distilling the essence of what has made the Mario Kart series such a success for the last 13 years. Battle mode returns with five balloons. To utilize the unique features of the DS, two of those five must be inflated by blowing into the mic. Story mode is also available to test your driving skills. Shine Runners (a star collecting game), versus mode, time trials, a whopping 32 tracks, 84 karts and 12 characters - many of which are unlockable goodies - rounds out this packed edition.
Savvy Nintendo pairs the release of Mario Kart with the launch of their free global Wi-Fi service, and the extremely basic connection option allows for easy log-on. This does, however, present some roadblocks for those trying to hook up with specific friends. Wi-Fi play 's four racers, versus eight on the local area network option, are another limitation. With nearly half of all MK:DS owners logging on within a week of launch, these minor offences are clearly not a flat tire for Nintendo.
Civilization IV Platform: PC Rating: NNNNN
Civ IV is a highly addictive and refreshing change from the endless rehashing that plagues the real-time strategy genre. This is a game that requires you to plan every move with care and consider the ramifications of each decision you make.
The requisite new 3-D engine powers all kinds of visual candy to help tell the tale of your civilization's rise through history. Game play is more or less the same as in previous versions, with the addition of religion, which is similar to politics in its effect on the happiness and productivity of your cities, but spreads between individual cities rather than through your entire empire.
Online play is no longer an afterthought. The most innovative aspect to this is the play-by-e-mail feature that allows you to make all moves and decisions for your turn and then send an e-mail to your opponent. You then wait patiently for a reply to see how much of your empire was decimated by those chariots that snuck up on you.
Sid Meier's Civilization series has been the long-running champion of turn-based strategy games, and the fourth edition sets this title in stone.
Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance Platform: GameCube Rating: NNN
You are an innocent who has lost someone dear to you in an unprovoked war. Your quest: to build troops strong enough to overcome the assault on your land.
This is really too similar to the previous hand-held versions of the game to merit the move to console. It's the same game with a larger screen in nearly every respect, but there's still much to like. Each release in the Fire Emblem series has had an excellent, if overly familiar, storyline and strong character development.
Unlike in most tactical strategy games, units permanently die on the battlefield, making it important to deploy a soldier or mage carefully. Otherwise you'll be resetting and replaying the last 30 minutes just to avoid a tragic loss. You'll also be likely to know units by character name (Titania!) rather than by character class only.
The classic triangle system of rock, paper, scissors - called, less benignly, swords, axes and javelins - returns, and newly introduced units add another layer of complexity to battles.
But the core of this game is its tactical RPG roots - those not enthralled with what is essentially advanced chess should take a pass on this. For those who enjoy the sheer pleasure of strategy, plan to seize this immediately.
Far Cry Instincts Platform: Xbox Rating: NNNN
You're into Far Cry Instincts for just a few seconds before you are literally plunged into the game, swimming for your life as your boat is blown to pieces by an unknown enemy. You are Jack Carver, a retired navy commando now helming a boat that takes wealthy people to remote locations. You'll soon be getting back into combat mode, though, as mercenaries try to prevent you from leaving a mysterious island.
The translation from PC to Xbox here is sensational, losing nothing from the vivid, lush environments that made the original game famous. To get off the island alive you'll need to employ your stealth and sniper skills as well as your ability to grab a big gun and plow through anything standing in your way. There's a wide variety of tactics available to you in every scenario, including vehicles to get you around faster.
Unfortunately, Ubisoft's hung on to the use of save points. Instead of giving you a save game menu, the game auto-saves at predetermined points. That means that if you blow it just before you finish a section, you can look forward to doing the whole thing again.
Far Cry Instincts takes equal parts brain and brawn to complete, setting it ahead of the pack in the FPS genre.
If the beautiful scenery isn't enough to keep you coming back, the deep game play as you cut and blast your way to safety certainly will be.