Product Guide: Game guide for the holidays

Whether you crave cruising the solar system, blasting at Nazis, or testing your wits and reflexes against digital opponents or far-flung competitors online, a wealth of PC games are available for giving (and getting) this holiday season.

Leave the PlayStation or Xbox to the kids; we've checked out a selection of shoot-'em-ups and cerebral pastimes you might enjoy this season. Some are upgrades of longtime PC favorites, and others are digital versions of TV games or even board and card games that are holiday staples for many families.

We've categorized the games into logical groups by the age and experience of players.

The first section covers action games, which are suitable for adults or older teens, but definitely fall outside the range of younger children. Following are two sections highlighting games the entire family can enjoy: simulations, online role-playing games, and even a few digital versions of card and board games to help you pass the cold winter evenings.

So break out the eggnog, pop some popcorn, and get comfortable, because these games will take you on some pretty wild rides.

Action Games: Lock and Load

Action-oriented games, such as the first person shooter games in this section, make the heftiest performance demands on your PC. To effectively play the games listed here, we recommend you play on a PC with at least a 700MHz processor, at least 256MB of system RAM plus 64MB of RAM on your graphics board, and a graphics board with one of the modern, heavy-lifting 3D graphics chips from ATI Technologies, Matrox Graphics, or Nvidia. While many systems older than two years may be able to load the games, the performance may be so poor that it renders the game unplayable (or, at best, not very fun). Any PC sold in the past six months should have no problems, though games generally run best on the newest, fastest systems.

Many of the games also feature online play. A few, like BeamBreakers, lack such options, but most are designed to be played over the Internet against other live players. Even though the games can be played over a 56-kbps dial-up connection, you'll get the best performance and responsiveness out of the game if you have broadband Internet service.

Unreal Tournament 2003

Epic Games and Digital Extremes have dressed up this action standby with new characters, stunning arenas, and some fancy new weapons--they even call it "sports combat" now.

But this still ain't exactly brain surgery: It's about blowing the other guy to smithereens, and UT2K3 does it well. Building upon the original, the game offers better graphics, simple controls, and single and multiplayer options.

Whether you're in it for an old-fashioned death match, or the new Bombing Run (where you play a game of football, with big guns), this game is sure to please fans of the genre--as long as your PC has the chops to run it.

Return to Castle Wolfenstein

When you launch Activision's Return to Castle Wolfenstein, you find yourself imprisoned in the dungeon of a German castle, about to be tortured by a Nazi scientist. Making a quick escape, and armed with anything you can find (from a sword to a flamethrower), you have to fight your way out and uncover the Nazis' foul plans.

But this is no Quake in 1943: Sometimes you'll need to exercise caution and subtlety to succeed, rather than jumping in with guns blazing. And just in case dozens of hostile Nazis aren't enough, they're helped by an army of undead zombies. Now that's an axis of evil!

Battlefield 1942

This World War II-era Electronic Arts game leaves the Nazi zombies behind in favor of conscripting you into extremely realistic combat, fighting with either the Allies or the Axis powers on all the major battlefronts of the second great war: the Pacific islands, North African desert, the Russian eastern front, or the villages and beachheads of western Europe.

The game brings an incredible sense of realism to online combat, as if you and dozens of other players are participating in the invasion of Europe over the Internet.

Players equip themselves with period weapons and can take advantage of fixed weapons emplacements, vehicles (including tanks, jeeps, and aircraft), and buildings arrayed around the maps. With all the excitement of the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan, Battlefield 1942 is a must-have for the online action gaming fan. It can be played as a single-player game on your PC, or in a multiplayer configuration online.

Mobile Forces

This one's straight-up fun, at a bargain price, for the action set: this online-only first-person shooter game from Rage places your player as a member of an elite squad of special forces soldiers who battle one another on foot or from several kinds of armored vehicles.

Equipped with modern conventional weapons, the soldiers (on either the red or blue teams) compete in standard online first-person shooter games such as capture the flag. If the crazy arcade-like physics of the vehicles seems familiar, it's because the developers hired the same guy who did vehicle physics for the wildly popular Grand Theft Auto series. Game graphics use the Unreal engine for highly realistic (though at times, graphically gory) combat.

Strategy and Simulation

The Sims: Unleashed

Oh, the joys of pet ownership! This amusing expansion pack for Electronic Arts' amazingly popular and addictive Sims series adds a furry dimension--and complications--to the basic life simulation game.

The people still have to get jobs, have relationships, shop, party, and improve themselves, but in this version they get the added fun of raising a pet. But watch out! If you don't train your little buddy well, he or she could end up a poor housemate, making "mistakes" all over the place or wrecking the house. Be prepared: Your new Sim pet will probably drink out of the toilet once in a while too.

Earth and Beyond

If down-to-Earth fun with the Sims doesn't get your blood pumping, this massive multiplayer online role-playing game from Electronic Arts puts you in command of five space pilots of your creation, who complete missions that take them from one end of the galaxy to another in order to improve themselves and gain new skills.

Gameplay starts slowly with relatively simple training sessions that orient you in your spaceship's cockpit and give you the basic skills you need to navigate among solar systems. The pace rapidly ramps up to hectic battles with mean-looking space baddies (called "MOBs" by experienced players), portioned out with quieter moments as your ship glides through star systems to reach various destinations.

The beautiful graphics engine shows off in virtually every scene, as you fly through the rings of Saturn or sidle up next to a glowing asteroid ripe for mining. The online aspect of the game means that every month brings new and updated content, but we recommend it only to those with a broadband connection--the game is tough to play over a 56-kbps modem.

BeamBreakers

When the year 2000 rolled around and I didn't have the flying car I'd been promised since I was a child, I was heartbroken. Finally, nearly three years later, my flying car has arrived: Jowood's BeamBreakers puts you in control of a hover car, racing through a futuristic Neo York City to establish your air cred, or delivering pizzas for a high-flying service.

If you've ever seen the taxi chase scene in the film The Fifth Element, you know this game. Down to the smallest details, the environment of the game interacts with your character (and car): Pedestrians to avoid on high, open walkways that hit the deck if you whiz past a bit too closely, and even planter trees or hanging light fixtures take it on the chin if you "break the beam" (drive out of proscribed air traffic pathways)--which happens with alarming regularity.

Its one weakness is the absence of online gameplay, but despite that, the manic speed and utter chaos of a city full of flying cars marks BeamBreakers as one of the truly unique high-concept games of the year.

Zoo Tycoon: Dinosaur Digs

Microsoft's Zoo Tycoon puts you in charge of building and maintaining a large zoo, in settings ranging from tightly packed urban locations to a large island.

The latest add-on pack, Dinosaur Digs, can help you turn the city zoo into a virtual Jurassic Park, complete with Stegosaurus, Tyrannosaurus, and even the gentle Brontosaurus. The pack also includes dinosaur-themed cage designs, shops and restaurants, and even special dinosaur caretakers who nurture the creatures from the time they hatch from their genetically engineered eggs (or chase them down with tranquilizer-equipped helicopters if they manage to escape their electrified cages).

Word of warning: In a fight between a large pride of lions and a single Tyrannosaur, don't put your money on the lions. Be afraid, be very afraid.

The Lighter Side: Card & Board Games

Dogs Playing Poker

Slightly Subtle Technology brings C.M. Coolidge's kitschy classic posters to life in what turns out to be a great (though silly) game for idling away the time.

Forget wasting an hour playing solitaire on a PC: Play a bit of poker with a pack of dogs instead (and the occasional cat, incognito). Don't take these pooches lightly: they know how to bet, bluff, and psyche you out.

With great 3D graphics and a cool soundtrack, you'll find yourself the alpha dog in no time. A great goof-off game--it will even show you how to play, and win, five-card Stud and Draw, Omaha and Texas Hold 'Em, and seven-card Stud.

Scrabble Complete

Test your vocabulary mettle against up to three human or digital opponents with Scrabble Complete, a meticulous reproduction of the classic word game from Infogrames.

The game's charm lies in the faithful rendering of Scrabble's familiar board and wooden tiles. Scrabble fans can avail themselves of the included online dictionary, Q-without-U listings, and canny play suggestions. This latest incarnation of the game includes an online play component, but we had some difficulty running it: Our testers experienced game-killing black screens when attempting to launch Scrabble from GameSpy Arcade.

Aside from the online difficulties, however, the game played well; and the package includes several additional minigames and a CD of another classic word game, Boggle--all good stuff to add to the Scrabble fan's stocking.

Jeopardy 2003

Alex Trebek fans (or foes) will love this latest, greatest PC incarnation of the popular TV game show.

Infogrames might as well have called the game Trebek 2003: He's all over the thing, from the beginning (where he welcomes players and reveals categories for the first board), to the Final Jeopardy round (where he invites you to place your wager) and the announcement of winners. And of course, after every answer to a question (whether entered by human contestants or spoken aloud by the computer-generated ones), Alex is there--in video--to tell you whether you're right ("Pree-cisely!" "Exactly!" "That's the critter we were looking for!") or wrong ("I'm sorry, that's incorrect").

The game itself is about as close as you can get to being on the show, right down to Johnny Gilbert's voice-over during the pregame preliminaries. I found the mix of questions reasonably challenging, if perhaps not always as tough as many of the TV ones: I got most, but not all, of them right. And when I played against computer-generated opponents, they beat me to the buzzer more than a few times. All in all, an amusing diversion for aficionados of the durable TV fixture.

Please note that the games titles listed in this article have been released and reviewed in the US. Release dates for Australia have not been confirmed.

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PC World Staff

PC World

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