Imaginary lands rimmed with iron shuttles, sword wielding urban warriors, and homicidal drivers are just a few of the gaming treats retailers are pushing this season. In anticipation of all the holiday hype and indoor trigger finger activity I cut a swath through some of the most ballyhooed time-sinks and blasters for computer and video gamers. Here are the hits, sans moralizing. After all, they’re just games.
Riven Windows and Macintosh, $50
Hype: Four years in the making, this follow-up to the best-selling PC game of all time may break the 3.5 million in sales mark set by its predecessor Myst.
Reality: Picking up exactly where Myst left off, Riven delivers on the promise of more enthralling worlds with 4,000 gorgeous illustrations. Boasting new animations created with the same equipment used for the dinos in Jurassic Park, this game of exploration and puzzles actually has a reasonable plot this time.
Riven is a set of islands with hidden passageways, secret rooms, and rusting Jules Verne style inventions that range from underwater roller coasters to suspended gondolas. And where Myst was a dead landscape, Riven is alive with shy amphibians, cliff dwellers, birds, and bizarre beasties. The five discs contain over 3 hours of animation, and each scene is depicted in painstaking detail including reefs that are visible beneath lapping waves and clouds that move across the sky drawing shadows across the land.
Goal: There are no time limits and you don’t shoot anything or collect magic gems. So what’s the point? You have to find the protagonist’s wife, but mainly it’s a game of exploration and discovery where you turn gears, crawl down water tunnels, and wander through forests of luminous mushrooms.
Bloodsport ranking: 0. But who cares? It will draw you in immediately, and you can play it with your girlfriend (especially if she loves J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings).
Carmageddon Windows, $50
Hype: Realistic crashes for those looking to vent their road rage.
Reality: Sure, there are violent car racing games, but how many of them let you chase down pedestrians and then award you points when you run one over? Think of it as a game version of the movie Death Race 2000. It makes for a sick but rapidly addictive racing game.
The graphics and backgrounds may look blocky, but the accidents are fun. Spins, flips, dents, and oil spills are depicted in all of their destructive glory. If you like smacking into cows and running off the road to hit running, screaming shoppers, you’ll like this. It’s the "guilty pleasure" title of the season.
Goal: Run over as many bipeds and farm animals as possible, scoring points, until you reach the finish line. Funny, cathartic road rage preventative or pathological plaything? You decide.
Bloodsport Ranking: 7. The squishing sounds of hit-and-runs and the splatter animation is pretty cartoon-like, until you go for the in-car view and see your victims up close.
Postal Windows and Macintosh, $55
Hype: Yes, as in "going postal."
Reality: No, you don’t play a disgruntled postal worker. However, you do take on the role of an unemployed psychotic anti-hero who shoots anything that moves, including little children.
Postal tops the tasteless and offensive rankings for the year, and while its creators clearly think it’s funny, the game never reaches the depths black humor that, say, Carmageddon does. The characters in this dark, bloody combat game are tiny on the screen, but there’s more detail than many may want to see—or hear. Sound effects of wailing, pleading victims and cute turns such as the option of stepping on a crawling victim and shoot them at point blank range make it an obvious target for outraged parents. Never mind the expletives.
Scenes include a derelict trailer park, a small town, a military installation, and an urban landscape teaming with potential victims. At one point in the game you encounter a college marching band in a parade. If you Napalm the band, they keep on marching and screaming, setting off an even bigger conflagration along the route.
Goal: Kill or be killed. As with most psychotic episodes, there is no point. To win the game, you have to shoot yourself.
Bloodsport Ranking: 9. There’s something so creepy about playing this game that it may make you feel the need to go to confessional or sign up for a few hours of therapy.
Final Fantasy VII Sony PlayStation, $50
Hype: Best-selling immersive role-playing game from Japan.
Reality: It’s gorgeous but you won’t get hooked unless role-playing games are your thing. It boasts some slick anime-style animation, a dazzling array of scintillating urban scenes, and an imaginative welter of weapons with which to strike down dark denizens in city slums and train yards.
You’re mercenary hero Cloud Strife and it’s your job to not only defeat giant robotic scorpions and unsavory characters but also chat up friendly characters (dialogue is conveyed in pop-up balloons) and find various items littered throughout the cityscape. You can pick up magic potions, for example, to swell your arsenal. Final Fantasy VII narrowly escapes becoming just another treasure hunt disguised as role playing game by tossing in "events." So you not only have to do battle with monsters but you also have to throw barrels on top of your enemies and win races through city streets. Changing camera angles give it a vividness lacking in most games, but you’ll have to make it through some 50 hours of playing time to win.
Goal: Prevent the evil Shinra corporation from sucking away the world's energy. Fortunately, you don’t have to do it alone. You and a ragtag band of revolutionaries get to do battle against the evil corporate empire. Sound familiar?
Bloodsport Ranking: 4. Reasonably innocuous. You do get to swing a few swords and fire a few gattling guns, but in general it maintains the glitzy fantasy by favoring death by big flame-out rather than blood and guts explosions.
Golden Eye 007 Nintendo 64, $60
Hype: You’re Bond, James Bond.
Reality: Maybe you don’t have the requisite savoir faire or square jaw of the world’s top spook, but you can move like a cat in GoldenEye. With the original Bond music score, this 3-D action game will please even non-Bond fans.
Primarily a first-person shooter game, GoldenEye surpasses others of its ilk with sophisticated play that’s more cinematic and intelligent than that found in games such as Quake. In this game, you can dodge bullets, ambush Russian soldiers, and spook out snipers. It’s the closest thing to an interactive movie yet, and true to the movie series it includes stunts like driving a tank and making a bungee jump to escape. Even the characters demonstrate typical Bond bad acting when they die.
The action is also more realistic than anything offered before. You don’t get more shots than are actually in a gun clip, and if you don’t use the silencer in some scenes, the evil guards will hear you and attack. And playing up the Bond ethos, you cannot win if you shoot any innocent bystanders.
Goal: Save the free world, silly. The documents and plots—destroying enemy installations, tapping into Russian computers—are mostly superfluous, just like in the Bond movies. The only downside: You don’t get the girl in the end.
Bloodsport Ranking: 7. Violent, but in a tasteful, British sort of way. You can shoot villains at point-blank range, but thankfully there aren’t any decapitations.