There's a moment halfway through Devil May Cry 3 when protagonist Dante battles a prostitute made out of bats (yes, a prostitute made out of bats). After defeating her, he's cradling her body in his arms when—poof—the bat-prostitute suddenly transforms into a purple electric guitar (yes, a purple electric guitar). What does the ever resourceful Dante do? Of course, he launches into an impromptu guitar solo. He does a painful-to-watch white-man dance across the screen, while the adoring camera circles him and geysers of sparks magically soar into the air all around him. This MTV-circa-1985 moment ends with Dante sliding across the floorboards on his knees a la Eddie Van Halen.

How did I feel watching this moment? I felt red-faced with embarrassment. No kidding. Who did I feel embarrassed for? I felt embarrassed for the character of Dante, embarrassed for the franchise, embarrassed for the developers for having such poor instincts for deciding that this would be "cool," and, most of all, I felt embarrassed for myself for playing the game. And no, this wasn't the first time, or the last time, that Devil May Cry 3 embarrassed me.

Some games inadvertently embarrass themselves. (Need For Speed: Underground 2, with all of its "hey, bro!" and "get out there, dawg!" faux street lingo comes to mind.) But Devil May Cry 3, in its sweaty, desperate bid for "coolness," seems downright determined to embarrass itself. Trust me, this is one game that's not afraid to dive headfirst into the very cheesiest end of the corny pool.

With its swords and red velvet top coats and gothic architecture, the series has always sort of been a Spinal Tap song brought to life. In the same way that Spinal Tap both celebrates and parodies heavy metal, the Devil May Cry games, never more so than in this third installment in the series, celebrate and intentionally parody action games. At least I certainly hope it's intentional….

Devil May Cry 3 is a prequel to the first game in the series. (Clearly Capcom wants me to forget the supremely awful Devil May Cry 2.) The game's storyline concerns a conflict with Vergil, Dante's older brother, and his attempts to pilfer a blood-filled amulet that Dante possesses so he can open a gateway between the demon world…oh, the hell with this. While the narrative is pap, on the plus side, it's told via a series of high-spirited cutscenes. Directed with a great deal of aplomb and energy, Devil May Cry 3 contains some of the most dynamic, over-the-top action cutscenes I've seen in a videogame. Even on my second (and third) run through the game, I still found myself compulsively watching the carefully choreographed shoot-outs and slow-motion martial arts sword battles. They're that good.

Devil May Cry 3's gameplay certainly isn't anything new; I've been chaining combos through spawning enemies for nearly a decade now. Yet, there's something about the game that I found inherently appealing and compulsively playable. That said, the game and I certainly didn't get off on the right foot. It took a few nights for it to really grow on me. Indeed, Devil May Cry 3 does not make a very good first impression.

Much of this can be attributed to the unbalanced difficulty. The game seemed, at least initially, punishingly cruel. (I remember complaining to Chi, who was asking me for the review, that I simply couldn't get beyond the third level.) And Devil May Cry 3 was hard…until I figured out how the game is intended to be played. Players can go back—and absolutely must go back—and replay previous levels multiple times to stock up on red orbs (the game's currency for upgrades), raising their experience levels before proceeding. Capcom really could have tried a little harder to make this play mechanic less obtuse. But once I managed to deduce this—as I said, it took a couple of nights—and upgraded (and armed) myself appropriately, Devil May Cry 3 isn't really any more challenging than the average action game.

But beyond obtuse play mechanics, what makes the game so initially unappealing is how utterly unlikeable Dante is as a character. He is—there's no other way to say this—a dickhead. He dresses like he's enroute to a renaissance fair. He has quite possibly the worst one-liners in videogame history. He constantly refers to the game as "one crazy party!" He behaves like a teenaged misogynist. (When he catches a female character after she's been tossed off the side of a building, he says, "Now this is my kind of rain!") If anything, I found myself growing increasingly fond of the stoic, tight lipped Vergil, and secretly wishing that he were a playable character in the game. (He's not.)

Despite Dante's ugly personality, despite bat-prostitutes turning into purple electric guitars, despite the starched camera (yes, it's still starched) and all the other inherent problems the game obviously has, Devil May Cry 3's gameplay kept me coming back for more. It's scintillating. Cartwheeling through the air, raining gun fire down on a horde of enemies, then whipping out a monstrous sword and driving it into the ground like a rocket, and then—yes, and then—finishing my opponents off with a few whacks of my purple electric guitar (yes, it's a weapon) is exhilarating, giddy fun that always made my palms sweat and my heart pound.

Indeed, Devil May Cry 3 turns violence into a kind of kinetic poetry, elevating it into a crude artform. The game gives me the freedom to express myself with weapons like no other game in the genre. I've tried other third-person action games over the years, always looking for something on par with a Devil May Cry-type experience. I tried Nano Breaker. I tried Castlevania: Lament of Innocence. I tried Bloodrayne 2, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, and Otogi 2, among others. With the exception of Sony's God Of War, nothing comes close.

In Brad's recent GunValkyrie second opinion, he writes that he "prefer(s) the kind of game that revolves around what you do, not how you do it." Unfortunately, Devil May Cry 3 is the type of game that had me performing virtually meaningless tasks in a stylish fashion. In other words, this is exactly the sort of style-over-substance endeavor that Brad would no doubt despise. That's a shame. Because there's one hell of a third-person action game to be found here—quite possibly the best in its class—for anyone willing to look beyond the game's off-putting exterior. Rating: 8.5 out of 10

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Racing games, more so than any other genre, have the power to physiologically transform me. My hands sweat. My heart rate doubles. My body temperature rises. I can actually feel adrenaline bubbling like soda water in my veins. Indeed, a well-crafted racing game can make me feel, even as I sit idly in front of my TV set, wholly alive. And no racing game made me feel more alive this year than Burnout 3: Takedown did. It's as if EA took Acclaim's competent Burnout franchise and fed it a steady diet of meat, potatoes, and steroids for the past two years. The result: one of the fastest, most gratifyingly visceral racing games I've ever experienced.

The trademark of the Burnout series has always been the sci-fi conceit of earning what the game refers to as "boost" (i.e. some vague kind of nitro) by taking risks. Weaving through oncoming traffic, drifting around corners, or veering dangerously close to other cars will "fill up" my boost meter. The more risks I take, the more boost I get. Holding down the A button engages the boost. Suddenly, the asphalt blurs beneath me, I'm streaking past cars, and the sound of crackling flames comes out of my TV speakers. My vehicle, for as long as I've still got boost in the tank, becomes a veritable land rocket (which makes controlling my car infinitely more difficult). As a result, the core challenges of the game are deciding when to earn boost and deciding when to use it. Both are risky endeavors. The farther behind I am in a race, the more risks I have to take, which poses an elegant little videogame conundrum.

Aside from the big, brassy graphics and eclectic soundtrack—yes, this game has been fully EA-ified—the newest addition to the series—and it's a doozy—is the concept of the "takedown." A properly timed, properly angled collision with an opponent's vehicle will "take him down," i.e., cause him to crash into other cars, leap guardrails, or to even T-bone into medians. (Taking down opponents, by the way, is also the quickest way to earn boost.) I cannot stress enough how absolutely exhilarating it is to take down opponents. It's visceral, violent, and outrageously gratifying. The physics in the game are superb, and recognizing when opponents are vulnerable becomes almost instinctual. Rumbling along the tracks in search of potential takedown victims is akin to playing a Quake deathmatch while going 195 mph.

The fetishized car crashes—another trademark of the Burnout series—are now more more detailed and stylized than ever. Never before have I seen crashes so lovingly articulated in a videogame. Every wobbling tire, every fractured front end, every pinwheeling bumper, every eye-searing spark—these are truly crashes of epic proportions. Crashing in Burnout has traditionally been a passive experience; whenever I crashed in previous installments in the series, I had no choice but to impatiently wait for the four-second crash animation to run its course. Burnout 3: Takedown remedies this flaw. Immediately after a crash, I can now hold down the A button which switches me into what the game calls "crash time." (Yes, this is yet another cliched Matrix-like slowing of time, but in this instance it's actually put to good use.) During crash time, I can actually steer my burning wreck—again, reality be damned—into my opponents as they attempt to circumvent me. Doing so causes them to crash, and thus prevents them from taking the lead in the race. As a result, even during the game's most chaotic moments, EA has brilliantly concocted a way to allow me the ability to participate in the chaos.

Unfortunately, Burnout 3: Takedown doesn't do everything right: the game's disaffected DJ aggravates (my advice: switch him off as soon as possible); the 170-plus single-player challenges feature far too many cause-as-much-damage-as-possible Crash Events for my taste; and the landscape of the game is still much too impersonal and sterile (making me long for the nuanced noir of Need For Speed: Underground). No matter. EA, by taking the series in a bigger and bolder direction, especially when considering the advent of "takedowns" and "crash time," has skillfully built upon what was a rock-solid foundation. As a result, Burnout 3: Takedown, whether it's making my heart pump or the hair stand up on the back of my neck, not only represents a dramatic step in the right direction for the series, but also for the racing game genre in general. Rating: 9 out of 10

Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.

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F-Zero GX is a game that only my father could love. No, the man has never played a videogame in his life (except for one extremely brief and humiliating game of Ms. Pac-man in the entrance to a K-mart many years ago), but F-Zero GX would probably appeal to him nonetheless. With his meticulously combed hair and creased blue jeans, dad was, and still is, the consummate perfectionist. "Mr. Perfect"—that's literally what he calls himself to this day, without a trace of irony—set an impossibly high standard for my brother and me to live up to. F-Zero GX, like my dad, also sets impossibly high standards and demands absolute perfection. Anything less than absolute perfection—in my father's world and in the F-Zero GX world—is severely punished, and in my opinion, often unfairly so.

Punishment. That's basically what it feels like when I barely graze a wall around the final turn of a hard-fought race only to see the other 29 racers literally blow by me. There are only so many times I can click on "Retry," only so many times I can finish dead last, and only so many times I can be punished for the smallest of errors before my videogaming spirit is broken, the controller is thrown to the floor in frustration, and my GameCube is powered down for the night. F-Zero GX is one of the most unforgiving videogames I have ever played. Don't be fooled by the game's colorful, cartoonish exterior, because I'm telling you, beneath that bright, buoyant surface beats a cold, sadistic heart.

It's a shame too, since F-Zero GX shows so much promise. The entire production, everything from the opening cinema to the final "Thanks for playing!" screen, literally sparkles with polish and Nintendo-caliber quality. The game also has a fine sense of speed and style, two essential ingredients in any futuristic racing game. The visuals are so vivid and clear that I actually felt like I was wearing newer, more powerful eyeglasses. The characters and ships are rich and varied—my favorite is Jack Levin and his speedy ship, Astro Boy—but the true stars of the game are the wildly inventive tracks. Some are suspended miles above cities, while others are half-submerged in the bluest oceans. The tracks are beautiful and terrible at once, and each one has a brief introductory cinema showcasing details like the turning fans in Big Blue and the neon Pokémon-like animals in Mute City, all details that I'd otherwise never see during the 1700 km/hr races. A few of the tracks feature the de rigueur stomach-turning pipes, but Fire Field actually had me racing on the outside of a pipe, something I've never seen before in a racing game. And those monstrous, atmospheric tracks all load up in a flash—there's nary a load screen—creating a virtually seamless gaming experience.

But just as quickly as F-Zero GX pulls me into its orbit, it pushes me right back out again with its brutal difficulty. And when I say brutal, I mean brutal. Plan on racing the latter races hundreds of times. I'm not kidding.

The ratcheted-up difficulty angered me. It's a gross violation of one of the basic laws of the unspoken, unwritten contract that exists between game and gamer. The law states that the game shall challenge me in an entirely reasonable and logical way, and that I shall derive pleasure by rising to that challenge. When I can't rise to the challenge, when I start to feel that the game is challenging me in an unreasonable way, and that the deck is stacked against me, I get frustrated. Feeling frustrated is part of being a gamer; I've felt it before, and I'll most certainly feel it again. But F-Zero GX had me feeling something beyond frustration, something I haven't felt before in a videogame: despair. I'd lose a race and restart, feeling hopeful that this time I'd do it, this time I'd win. But with each successive loss, it became harder and harder to feel hopeful. Finally, after all the hope was drained away, I began to despair. A voice at the back of my mind whispered, You can't do this. It's impossible. I invest time and effort into a game and expect the game to reward me. This isn't the case F-Zero GX; all the time and effort in the world is no guarantee that the game will ever give me anything in return.

Frankly, I don't play videogames to lose. I feel like a loser in my day to day life, squeezing into the crowded subway each morning, or getting yelled at by my boss for arriving late to the office. I turn to games to feel like a winner, to feel empowered, to feel like a hero, to feel like I transcend my own skin, my own limited existence, if only for a few short hours. F-Zero GX wouldn't do that for me; the game wouldn't give me that, at least not in the doses I'm accustomed to, and as a result, the game wound up making me feel like a loser—exactly what I was hoping not to feel.

There's something stubborn about F-Zero GX. What should have been a fast, flashy, light-hearted affair is somehow grim and joyless. There's wonderful content here, but unfortunately most gamers won't ever see most of it because it's locked away behind a series of near-impossible challenges. Even the Story mode, which should have logically been the most accessible part of the game, turns hardcore after the first two chapters. My favorite gaming moments historically have been moments when I've screwed up, when the chips are down and my back is to the wall because of some error I've made; then I somehow manage to turn things around and stage a dramatic comeback, correcting my mistakes, righting all my wrongs. The best games allow me to make a mess of things, then give me half a chance to find my way out of the mess. To make mistakes—in games and in life—seems entirely human to me, and asking me to behave perfectly only leads to bitterness and resentment. Believe me, I know—"Mr. Perfect" himself taught me this valuable lesson many years ago. Rating: 6 out of 10

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I've been known to sip a cold one or two (or three) when I do my gaming. I know it's probably not a very professional thing for me to do—imagine Ebert hitting the bar before his afternoon screening of The Manchurian Candidate. But videogames are time-consuming endeavors. If they're going to get played at all, they have to conform to my lifestyle to some degree, and my lifestyle at this point in time involves draining a six-pack on occasion. Over the years I've learned that six-packs can sometimes make games more palatable, particularly try-and-die games like Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow. When I'm sober, I'll lose my patience in a matter of minutes, but if I'm working a buzz, I can try and die countless times and not mind all that much. (If only Pandora Tomorrow had come with a complimentary case of Heineken, I might have gotten through the fussy single-player campaign, but I digress…)

Unfortunately, all the Heineken in the world can't make Driv3r more palatable. My poor television is still cowering in the corner from all the screaming I did at it. (It's not your fault, sweet Trinitron.) I lost track of the number of times I wanted to pull the Driv3r disc from my Playstation, lift the nearest window, and frisbee it into the void.

The game is that bad.

Tanner, a.k.a. "the Driver" (formerly known as "the Wheelman") is the star of the game. In a less-than-shocking turn of events, the perpetually sour-faced cop needs to infiltrate a ring of car thieves. He shepherds crooks around Miami, Nice and Istanbul, doing their dirty deeds, even sacrificing the lives of hundreds of gendarmes in France, all in the name of earning the thieves' trust. The gameplay involves the typical Driver-like missions, meaning I was always either 1: chasing someone, 2: ramming someone off the road, or 3: trying to lose the cops. In an attempt to add a little variety to the gameplay, the developers have decided to emphasize the on-foot/shooting gallery segments of the game (more on this later).

One indisputable bright spot: the game's driving physics are absolutely superb. Hurtling down the narrow backstreets of Istanbul, gunning the engine, can be great fun; indeed, it was in these moments that I got glimpses of the game Driv3r could have been. But whatever fun I was having was almost always brought to a screaming halt by a telephone pole. Or a park bench. Or a sapling. Can somebody please explain how a tiny sapling, nothing more than a twig sticking out of the ground, can crush the front end of a speeding car like a tin can and bring it to a dead stop? Beyond that, why go the trouble of creating massive, photo-realistic cities only to fill them with saplings and park benches and telephone poles (most of which are barely visible as I careened down the street) for my car to get hung up on?

When I wasn't dodging saplings, I was busy trying to make sense of the game's narrative. Driv3r features the most half-assed, nonsensical storytelling I've seen in a videogame in a long time. Michael Madsen, Ving Rhames, and Michelle Rodriguez are on hand to do the voiceover work, but they're all wasted on inane, pointless dialogue. The wildly fluctuating difficulty level, a chronic problem in previous Driver games, is unfortunately still in effect; if one mission was too easy, the following mission was always sure to be virtually impossible. And regarding those on-foot segments that I previously mentioned: if there is a hell for game developers, these on-foot segments of Driv3r are what they should be required to play for all of eternity. Chintzy, unpolished, and barely playable, the on-foot portions, even more than those cursed saplings, were the reason why I nearly screamed myself hoarse while playing the game. I cowered my way through them, inching along, seemingly always low on health, waiting for the inevitable moment when one of my enemies would magically appear next to me and unload his shotgun into my belly. I'd honestly rather have someone toss rocks at my head for an hour than have to play through another one of those god-forsaken on-foot scenarios again.

For most of my GameCritics brethren—go ahead and give me the told-you-so's, boys—none of this comes as heart-breaking news. But for me it is. I was a fan (note the word "was") of the Driver series, particularly of the excellent first game. I can still recall the overwhelming sense of accomplishment I felt when I finally completed that challenging driving exam, perfecting my 180-degree turns in that dingy parking garage. And I never really minded the repetitive nature of the in-game missions—something GameCritics has taken the series to task for in the past—simply because I was too busy gaping at the the huge, seamless cityscapes. The sense of freedom I felt as I rubbered from one end of Miami to the other—remember, Driver predated Grand Theft Auto III by several years—was unlike anything I'd ever experienced in a videogame before.

Driv3r was supposed to bring glory back to the series. It was supposed to make it a viable commodity again. It was supposed to out-hustle True Crime: Streets of LA and Grand Theft Auto III. It does none of these things.

I can't believe that this messy, cheap product is the result of three long years of development. It's as if Driv3r was created in a vacuum, though it's obvious that it wasn't. The developers were at least aware of Grand Theft Auto III (the game asks players to find all the "Timmy Vermicellis" hidden through the cities, a reference to Vice City's Tommy Vercetti). If only Atari, instead of making lame, grade-school level jokes, had actually looked a little more closely at what makes Grand Theft Auto III and Vice City superior games. If only they'd made an effort to build on established gameplay concepts—something True Crime did—and tried to find bold, new ways to expand upon the free roaming/car-jacking/bad-ass genre. Instead, Driv3r takes no chances whatsoever. If anything, the series has taken yet another step in the wrong direction.

Sorry to say, I did not finish Driv3r. Only a masochist would have the patience and stamina to finish it. I was on one of the game's final missions when, after what was at least my twenty-fifth re-start, I impulsively hit the OFF switch on my television. I'd had enough. I opened a beer, then sat in the darkness, enjoying the sudden silence and the fact that this game, which had been vexing me for days, was once and for all out of my life. Rating: 3 out of 10

Disclaimer: This review is based on the PS2 version of the game.

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Maybe I'm getting too old or too soft-hearted or something, but the gratuitous violence in Manhunt really got to me. I'm certainly well-versed in videogame violence, having killed zombies, ninjas, Nazis, aliens, demons, robots, and KGB agents, among other things, over my 15-plus years of gaming. I have "fragged" millions, perhaps even billions of creatures, but never once did I ever suffocate anyone with a plastic bag. Not once did I castrate anyone with a sickle, or jab a glass shard multiple times into someone's face, or knock a man's head clean off with an aluminum baseball bat.

I did all these things—and worse—in Manhunt. Never before has the act of murder been so explicit, so intimate, and so lovingly rendered in a videogame. Never before has a game reveled so gleefully in its violent content. I'm telling you, this black-hearted game makes Grand Theft Auto: Vice City look like a walk down Sesame Street.

Manhunt put me in the shoes of convicted murderer James Earl Cash. On the night of his execution, Cash is "saved" at the last minute by a mysterious man named Mr. Starkweather. Starkweather tells Cash (he hears his voice via an earpiece) that the only way out of the situation, the only way to stay alive, is to do his bidding. Cash is then turned loose in a perpetually fog-filled urban hell known as Carcer City. The town is patrolled by murderous gangs. Cash's objective: to kill them all as brutally as possible. The more brutal the executions, the more Starkweather is pleased, and the higher Cash's mission rating will be. In other words, clubbing a man to death with a crowbar is fine, but eviscerating him with it gets me bonus points.

The gameplay—best described as a cross between Tenchu and Silent Hill—is actually fairly enjoyable. Outnumbered and out-gunned, the odds were always stacked against me, but careful observation, along with a bit of cleverness on my part, earned me the upper-hand. Distracting gang members with noises, splitting them up into smaller groups, then finally luring them one by one into the shadows makes for some compelling cat-and-mouse situations. The boss fights are also worth noting, especially the surreal showdown with the chainsaw-wielding Pigsy. There are a few kill.switch-style action levels later in the game, but Manhunt for the most part encourages stealth over brute force. In other words, plastic bags are preferred to bullets.

I had a few technical issues with the game—the control isn't much better than the on-foot segments in Vice City, and the disc froze up on several occasions—but ultimately it wasn't programming problems that sullied the game for me, but the hyper-violent content. Rockstar North certainly didn't spare any details when it comes to those execution animations. It's all here: the begging for mercy, the shortness of breath, the gagging throats, the geysers of blood and the wobble of the just-snapped neck, all of it motion-captured for maximum effect. During each execution, the in-game camera instantly switches to a claustrophobic close-up, bringing me so close to the action that I could practically see the victim's final breaths fogging my TV screen.

I confess, there's a certain morbid curiosity to see exactly what a level-three crowbar execution might look like (the longer Cash waits to perform a kill, the more outrageously stylish the kill is), but an hour or two into the game, the executions became a tedious annoyance more than anything else. The 4 to 5-second kill animations are always exactly the same, and they cannot be skipped. In other words, the game forced me to watch every evisceration, every gutting, every brutal beheading—whether I wanted to or not.

But what baffles me most about Manhunt is that I'm not exactly sure how I'm supposed to feel about those executions. What do the game's producers want me to feel? Should I feel…vindicated? Exhilarated? Vengeful? Empowered? I'll tell you how I did feel: I felt evil, and queasy, and numb. Eventually, a strange kind of self-loathing set in, followed by a low-level depression. During the final stages of the game, I found myself actually turning away from the TV during the execution animations, waiting for them to be over.

The not-so-subtle subtext of Manhunt is snuff, i.e., the filming of someone being murdered. It's without a doubt among the most taboo subjects in our culture. Why Rockstar North felt entitled to build a game around snuff—a subject books, film and television rarely ever touch, and whenever they do touch it, it's usually with the proverbial 10-foot pole—is truly beyond me. What worries me more is the fact that if snuff is apparently an appropriate subject for a videogame, what's next for Rockstar—serial-killers, rapists, and child-molestors?

Some gamers have mentioned Richard Connell's short story "A Most Dangerous Game" when discussing Manhunt, but I'd argue that the game is actually closer in spirit and pedigree to the one-note nihilism of Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho. Reading American Psycho left me hollow and cold, much like playing Manhunt did. In my opinion, dramatizations of sociopathic behavior don't make for good drama, in videogames or in literature. But the larger problem that a game like this causes is that no doubt at least one GameCritics.com reader, after reading my description of the game, is already on his way to the game store to pick up his copy, if only to see if the game is as brutal as I've described it. Indeed, Manhunt is the videogame equivalent of a traffic accident; gamers can't help but slow down to see just how violent it is. My advice: Move along, people, because there's really nothing to see here. Rating: 3.5 out of 10

Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.

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It is with a heavy heart and more than a little reluctance that I publicly admit that, yes, I actually liked RoadKill. I enjoyed the game far more than I thought I would; enjoyed it far more than I probably should have. Instead of playing Viewtiful Joe, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, SSX 3, or Mario Kart: Double Dash!!, I chose to spend every spare moment I could find last weekend with RoadKill. Why, exactly? Hard to say. After all, I'm a sophisticated game reviewer, an educated man, a New Yorker. I should know better than to be seduced by such low-brow, derivative pap like RoadKill. I should know better than to play a game that features gratuitous expletives and violence, hookers and strippers, a crime-boss named "Uncle Woody," and an amusement park that has a pirate-ship ride called—drum roll, please—"The Poop Deck."

I really should know better.

Believe me, I tried to turn away, tried to focus on those previously mentioned titles, but after only a few minutes with Viewtiful Joe or SSX 3, I found myself craving—actually craving—more RoadKill. It's like being offered the option of either eating dinner in a four-star restaurant or from the dumpster out back.

Me, I chose the dumpster.

I'm uncomfortable endorsing RoadKill. Doing so feels like a potentially incendiary act, because this is exactly the sort of "xxxtreme" game that brings the wrong kind of attention to the videogame industry, the sort of game that makes Katie Couric and Joe Lieberman jump-start their finger-pointing campaigns. (No doubt Midway, in anticipation of the lawsuits, assembled a team of lawyers before the game even went gold.) I'm concerned that such a game, if it sells well, if it generates the kind of controversy it seems intent on creating, could potentially stunt the artistic growth of an industry that already seems to have a hard enough time coming up with fresh ideas. Imagine RoadKill 2, or worse, a parade of RoadKill-like knock-offs, with names like Mowed Down! and Hyundai Renegade. In theory, I should be railing against RoadKill, not celebrating it, but to do so would be dishonest.

Set in a clichéd dystopian future—bleak desert vistas, jawless skulls (think Mad Max)—RoadKill centers on a car-driving loner named Mason who's trying to survive in the flourishing post-apocalyptic criminal culture. Mason destroys liquor trucks, collects lost cargo, makes deliveries, and uses his sniper rifle to thin out opposing gangs-all in the name of keeping the local crime-bosses happy. RoadKill makes no attempt to hide the fact that it borrows quite liberally from Grand Theft Auto III; this fact is stated in big, bold letters on the back of the box cover. Instead of picking up gold stars to keep my wanted-meter down, RoadKill had me picking up peace symbols to reduce my "Riot-meter." Instead of driving a bomb-rigged, radio-controlled car…wait a second, RoadKill actually did have me driving a bomb-rigged radio-controlled car. Indeed, the structure, aesthetic, gameplay, and even the distinctive type-font from Grand Theft Auto III can all be found in RoadKill.

But RoadKill isn't really interested in being original. What it wants to do is shock, offend, and titillate. It's a game that's designed to be controversial, nothing more. After the first expletives were uttered during the opening cinema, after I inadvertently hit my first pedestrian and watched as he stuck to the grill-work on my car and cried out in pain, I was fully prepared to scrap the game. Still, I kept playing, working through missions, exploring the map. Once I was able to get beyond Roadkill's gleefully odious exterior—and it's not easy to do—I found a solid, well-made car-combat game, that's actually quite compelling to play.

RoadKill's 35 missions are mildly interesting and relatively easy to complete, but the main attraction for me was the game's fairly large cityscapes. I explored the main streets, the back alleys, the short cuts. I enjoyed discovering hidden ramps that could send me, if I hit the nitrous at the right moment, sailing clear across town. I raced through secret tunnels, deserted airports, and power plants. It's incredibly gratifying to figure out the fastest, most efficient way to get from one part of the city to another. By the time I reached the game's final missions, I knew every square mile of the RoadKill landscape like the back of my hand. Having mastered the maps (there are three separate cities in all), knowing that a left turn at the donut shop will get me to the drive-in, was satisfying to me, and stood in stark contrast to the blind weaving through the streets that I did when I first began the game. Familiarizing myself with the landscape was a unique and somehow comforting process, and it's one that I hadn't experienced since Vice City.

The ESRB tagged the game with a Mature rating, which is somewhat ironic considering the content of the game feels like it wasn't created by anyone with a mature sensibility, but was instead dreamed up by a 14-year-old boy raised on a steady diet of Cinemax. While I certainly didn't appreciate the content of RoadKill, I did however enjoy the fast, visceral gameplay.

One final note: one Christmas my brother and I got a tape recorder as a gift. At a loss for what to do with our tape recorder, this wonderful new piece of technology, our first impulse was to make farting sounds into the microphone. We played the farting sounds back and laughed so hard that tears rolled down our faces. The medium of the videogame is clearly still in its infancy. When faced with this relatively new piece of technology, developers, designers, and publishers more often than not don't know quite what to do with it yet. RoadKill is evidence of this. Bawdy, tasteless, unsophisticated, bereft of any real creativity but genuinely spirited, RoadKill is the videogame equivalent of farting sounds being made into a tape recorder. Rating: 7 out of 10

Disclaimer: This review is based on the PS2 version of the game.

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Games can usually be broken down into two distinct categories: experiences and diversions. Experiences tend to be ambitious games, large in scope and innovative in design. They can surprise me, knock me off balance, make me think and wonder and use my imagination. They make me feel genuine emotion, and absorb me for weeks, or even months on end (The Legend Of Zelda series consistently does this). Experiences create vivid, detailed worlds that I'm often reluctant to leave. Diversions, on the other hand, are something for me to do while I wait for my frozen pizza to unthaw.

Aria Of Sorrow is certainly gorgeous: the moon constantly lurks in the background, chalk-yellow and ominous; the gray clouds ripple nicely. This particular incarnation of Castlevania features an ingeniously designed castle. Rarely did I find myself doing any aimless wandering, as I did in Circle Of The Moon and Harmony Of Dissonance. Aria Of Sorrow also represents a return to aural glory for the series. I'm amazed that the tiny speaker on the Game Boy Advance is capable of producing such rich, complex tunes. And the gameplay? Vintage Castlevania. Being a 10-year veteran of Castlevania games, I know the drill at this point: Storm the castle, explore every cranny and nook, find weapons, level-up my character (in this case it's the sexually ambiguous Soma Cruz), dispatch monsters and battle bosses. In other words, this is basically the exact same gameplay formula that's been in place since Symphony of the Night. The only true innovation this time around is the new Soul System—kill enemies, absorb their souls, gain their powers—which replaces the Holy Water/Rotating Bibles/Arcing Axes sub-weapon system of old.

Aria Of Sorrow is easily the best, most cohesive Castlevania on the Game Boy Advance—the gameplay has been tweaked to absolute perfection—yet the cart never quite managed to become an "experience" for me. Why? Perhaps it has to do with the fact that the game once again features monsters that aren't even remotely frightening. In fact, most of the monsters, like the man holding the trident while he rides around in a walking oyster shell, are downright silly. As I raced through the castle halls, vanquishing roomfuls of these so-called hellspawn, I began to feel less like an all-powerful vampire hunter and more like a glorified exterminator, albeit one dressed in a long, flowing jacket adorned with a feather boa. And these "monsters" can't be killed. No matter how many times I killed the man riding in the oyster shell, he always came back—always—which only served to make me feel even more like an exterminator. Of course, respawning enemies is a trademark of the series, but it's one that I've never been especially crazy about. I understand why it's a necessary ingredient in the Castlevania formula—without respawning enemies, not only would it be impossible to level-up my character, but the castle would quickly become a hollow, lonely place. That said, not once in over a decade of playing Castlevania games have I thought, How exciting and fun it will be to kill these monsters again!

As usual, the Medusa Heads put in an appearance. I prayed that they'd sit this adventure out, but about halfway through the game, there they are, floating across the screen, on their way to knock me from a just-reached perch or turn me to stone (or worse, knock me from a just-reached perch and turn me to stone). Medusa Heads have been the bane of my Castlevania existence since my old NES days. Note to the development team working on the next installment in the series: Kindly leave the Medusa Heads out. Thank you.

Over the course of the seven or so hours it took me to complete the game, I felt a few brief twinges of excitement, as well as moments of curiosity (what could be beyond that sealed door?) and empowerment (some of the Soul Attacks are truly awesome). Yet, overall, what I mostly felt while playing the game was vaguely restless. And sometimes I felt just plain irritated.

Maybe what irritates me is the fact that I've basically been playing the same game for 10 long years now. I'm getting tired of whipping candles to make them cough up hearts and bags of money. I'm tired of Mermen, tired of bats, and tired of those cursed Medusa Heads. But what tires me out the most is the fact that the Castlevania franchise remains a lowly diversion when it clearly has the potential to become a dramatically rich and emotionally complex experience. Look at the resurrection of Metroid last year, or the Zelda series, or Grand Theft Auto. In the lifecycle of any franchise, the gameplay must evolve in order for the franchise to remain commercially and critically viable. I've grown up, and I'm waiting for the Castlevania series to grow up, too.

Since Aria Of Sorrow is the third Castlevania in as many years, I'm also concerned that Konami is growing increasingly content to simply rest on their laurels. As Chi wrote in his recent story exploring the notion of videogames as art, "Until developers and gamers expect more of themselves and of videogames, the financiers and publishers of videogames will continue to clone the latest proven bestseller rather than innovate new ways to challenge gamers intellectually and emotionally." Here I am, a gamer expecting more of the Castlevania franchise, wanting more. Unfortunately, the hard truth is that lousy sales figures are often what makes developers take artistic risks. As long as the Castlevania carts keep moving off store shelves, it's unlikely that Konami will feel the need to fool with their proven formula anytime soon.

For now, I'll continue to keep a candle burning for a Castlevania that surprises me, knocks me off balance, makes me think and wonder and use my imagination; a Castlevania that creates a detailed, vivid world that I'm reluctant to leave. Let's hope the PlayStation 2 Castlevania, due later this year, will be the bona fide experience I've been hoping for and not just the latest in a long line of diversions. Rating: 7 out of 10

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The original Advance Wars distinguished itself as one of the most complex and sophisticated titles on the Game Boy Advance (GBA) by bravely doing something few other carts have dared to do: it rewarded gamers for their intelligence and careful observation instead of their digital dexterity. The turn-based strategy game was indeed my first bonafide GBA addiction, not because I have an affinity for war or strategy games (I love neither), but because it was the first GBA game to convince me that a handheld game could provide an experience just as deep and rich as most console games.

Boasting only one new vehicle—the spider—like Neo Tank-and a few new Commanding Officers, the follow-up is closer to a revision—call it Advance Wars 2.0—than a full-blown sequel. The developers decided against giving the game an overhaul and instead chose to subtly tweak and refine what they already had. Considering how solid and polished the original was, it was probably a wise decision. The most obvious tweaks and refinements come in the form of new gameplay elements like missile silos, death-ray lasers, massive cannons, and even lava-spewing volcanos. The missions in Advance Wars 2: Black Hole Rising are more varied and dramatic, and it has everything to do with these new elements. In the case of the missile silos, for example, only infantry units can set them off, so a mission featuring missile silos becomes a frantic footrace to see who can reach the silos first. With each successive map in Advance Wars 2, I felt like I was doing things I hadn't done before, and encountering challenges I hadn't encountered before. It seems strange that a handful of minor elements can make an already great game significantly better, but they somehow do. Aside from the sometimes frustrating artificial intelligence (A.I.)—the enemy armies can be just as ruthless as they were in the original—I'm hard-pressed to find fault with the first-rate Advance Wars 2.

The aspect of the Advance Wars games that I've always appreciated most—and I realize this sounds odd, so bear with me—is the sheer amount of learning that the game asks me to do. Most games, especially GBA games, take a dumbed-down, simpler-is-better approach. But Advance Wars has never been shy about asking gamers to learn; the tutorial alone in the original was longer than some GBA games are in their entirety. Though I've been playing Advance Wars games for more than a year now, I'm always discovering new uses for the vehicles, ships and aircraft, always figuring out fresh ways to use the terrain to my advantage, always devising more effective strategies for dismantling my foe. I'm still gathering information, still appreciating the game's many nuances, and still marveling at how ridiculously deep this game is. The reason why the games have such depth is because they present me with a simple problem (capture the enemy headquarters), along with a set of tools to solve the problem (tanks, helicopters, infantry, etc.). Then I'm turned loose on the battlefield and encouraged to experiment my way towards a solution. That experimentation is the heart of the Advance Wars experience, and it's exactly what makes the game so absorbing and addictive.

Thom, in his review of the original game, traces the Advance Wars lineage back to the old Mac game, Strategic Conquest. I'll go further—all the way back to the grandfather of all turn-based strategy games: Chess. Like Chess, the Advance Wars games feature pawns (infantry), rooks (the bullish tanks), bishops (the long-range rockets and aircraft), and knights (the APCs). The most basic lesson in Chess—that the game isn't about eliminating my opponent's pieces, but gaining a spatial advantage—absolutely applies to Advance Wars. The more territory I control, the more likely I am to win the battle. I also found myself pressuring opponents the same way I pressure opponents in chess. During a recent battle, I was confronted by a blockade of enemy tanks. I didn't try to rush the blockade, but instead I pressured my opponent by discretely using a transport helicopter to move infantry units across the mountains to the north. Once the enemy realized this, a few tanks were dispatched northward to confront my advancing infantry units. My infantry units were destroyed—I knew they'd never stand up to the powerful tanks, so their mission was one of sacrifice—but once those tanks headed north to deal with them, the blockade was weakened enough to allow me to break through.

About those sacrificed infantry units…Thom questioned the ethical implications of taking such a light-hearted approach to war. War is hell, but you certainly wouldn't know it from playing the Advance Wars games. Without a drop of blood or any trace of guts—the Advance Wars games are probably the most antiseptic war games ever made. When I first started playing the game, I was surprised by how blithe the Commanding Officers were about the loss of their troops. Personally, I was loathe to lose any of my "men." Like any good soldier, I didn't want to leave anyone behind, and I actually spent my early missions escorting wounded units to safe places so they could heal or be repaired. Whenever they "died," I actually felt a small sense of remorse, certain that I'd failed them.

My bleeding-heart sentiments naturally didn't get me far and I was mercilessly crushed by the enemy A.I. I quickly realized that in order to play and play well, sacrifices were inevitable. My ethics and values had to be put aside. Now, as a veteran of Advance Wars and Advance Wars 2, I've become rather heartless—"salty," as they say in the military. I no longer have any quandries about putting a puny infantry unit in the path of a rolling tank either to buy myself time or gain an advantage elsewhere on the map. The anime graphics and bouncy tunes create a chipper, up-beat tone which can seem completely incongruous to the inherently violent gameplay underneath. Light on the outside, dark on the inside… maybe that's a better way to describe the Advance Wars games. And maybe that's what makes the games so compelling—they're ultimately contradictions; they're mature, complex games masquerading as kiddie fare.

I'm giving Advance Wars 2 an 8.5 because of the game's lack of any significant innovation (the missile silos and volcanos are nice, but one new tank doesn't cut it for me). The developers decided not to take any risks, which I can't really fault them for, since the first game was so damn close to perfection to begin with. The 8.5 doesn't mean the game is flawed, only that it hasn't been improved in any dramatic way. Rest assured, I'll absolutely still be playing Advance Wars 2 whenever the third game in the series is released a couple years from now—no game makes dull bus and train trips fly by faster. Let's hope that the next installment will boldly take a risk or two with its well-proven formula. As it stands, Advance Wars 2 is best thought of as an excellent extension of the excellent original. Rating: 8.5 out of 10

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Seeing Raiders Of The Lost Ark in a theater in 1981 was a seminal moment for me. I was 12 at the time, still two years away from kissing a girl, three years away from learning how to drive, and desperately trying to figure out How To Be A Man. My father, with his tendency to focus on my inadequacies, wasn't much help, but Indiana Jones—this swashbuckler, this cad, this charming rogue—was.

With his granny eyeglasses and perpetual five o'clock shadow, he somehow managed to be bookish and physical at once. He was remarkably smarter than the equally charming yet more self-centered Han Solo. He was among the first male ideals I could genuinely identify with. And, having "met" Indiana Jones during a very formative period in my life, he forever became woven into the fabric of my psyche, and he helped to shape and define, for better or worse, my masculine identity.

Which is perhaps why Indiana Jones And The Emperor's Tomb felt instantly familiar to me. No, the gameplay isn't especially innovative—I've been swinging across crocodile-infested waters since Pitfall—but as soon as I slid the disc into my Xbox, I felt nostalgic and comforted, the same way I feel when I run into an old friend in an airport or a restaurant. Playing the game, "controlling" Indy, guiding him through a series of challenging tasks, helping him, was an opportunity, 20 long years later, for me to finally do him a favor. I was more than happy to do it.

LucasArts does a great job of capturing the playful essence of the character thanks mostly to the excellent fighting engine. Indy has several choices when threatened: he can use his whip (one of the most under-used weapons in videogames, in my opinion), a gun, a sword, or he can simply roll up his sleeves and go the bare-knuckle route. The hand-to-hand combat is really the meat-and-potatoes of the game. Indy throws right hooks and haymakers; he collars Nazis into headlocks; he knees them in the ribs; he shoves them off cliffs. It's cinematic and over-the-top and yet credible all at the same time—exactly like the fist fights in the films.

The videogame version of Indy also proves to be just as resourceful as the filmic Indy. Wine bottles, chairs, table legs, shovels—basically anything that's not nailed down—can be used as a weapon. Guns and swords can even be jarred out of enemy hands and used against them. One of the great thrills of the films is watching Indy, always overmatched, improvise his way out of trouble, and the ability to improvise in the game feels inherently Indiana Jones-ish to me.

The fights, though violent, are unfortunately completely bloodless—not a drop of claret is spilled—and the bodies of his enemies, once beaten, magically vanish. This makes the game feel as tidy and antiseptic as a Disney ride. I've always resented the vanishing-bodies concept in videogames for two reasons. One, the bodies of the vanquished help mark my territory; I see bodies, I know I've already explored an area. Two, as perverse as this might sound, I sometimes enjoy backtracking to survey "my work." I stand with the bodies at my feet and think things like, "These guys never even knew what hit them," and, "They obviously had no idea who they're dealing with." When the bodies vanish, I'm denied the opportunity to bask in the glory of my hard-fought victories.

The developers—The Collective, the team behind the excellent Buffy The Vampire Slayer—also did a decent job of creating a sense of discovery, an essential element in a game starring an archaeologist. Trying to find my way out of crumbling ruins required observation. I needed to constantly survey my surroundings, searching for places to jump or swing to, or ropes or vines to climb. In truth, the levels are stictly linear, gently guiding me from point A to B to C, but they're designed so ingeniously that I hardly noticed. Discovering—or rather "discovering"—my way out of a tomb always felt like a series of small victories to me.

While making leaps across bottomless chasms—and I made many throughout the 10 levels of the game—I realized that I was actually holding my breath during the jumps, then exhaling once Indy, dangling by his fingernails, reached the other side. This tells me that I was emotionally invested in what was happening on screen. I cared. I felt genuine empathy, and it has everything to do with the fact that the Indiana Jones and I have a history. I simply wouldn't have cared as much if the game had been titled, say, Carl The Cave King and featured banjo music plunking in the background instead of the wonderful Raiders Of The Lost Ark theme, a riff of music so familiar to me that just the thought of it—and I can hear it clearly in my head even as I type this—always makes my heart pound.

The game isn't perfect. The camera is uncooperative at times, mostly when I needed it most. The plot is tissue-paper thin. The controls are decent, if a little twitchy. And the animations are sometimes as jerky as a Charlie Chaplin film. Despite the flaws, the game still manages to be a wonderful piece of theater. Case in point: During the final third of the game, I found myself standing at the mouth of a massive tomb. The walls were lined with menacing stone statues. I'd already survived giant buzzsaws, crumbling floors, bottomless pits, oversized crocodiles, so at that point I was prepared for anything. I proceeded down the hall cautiously, moving the control stick gingerly, inching forward. I pulled out my whip and held it at my side, in case I needed it to defend myself or to latch onto an overhead beam should the floor go out from under me. A deep rumbling started somewhere up ahead, then stopped. A couple of rocks dropped from the ceiling. Hair stood on the back of my neck, and that familiar music began to swell. The tension was thick, almost palpable. I felt threatened, yet curious. I had no idea what was going to happen to me, and I was half afraid and half eager to find out.

This is the moment when the game hits its stride, when image, sound and gameplay coalesce to transcend the medium. In fact, for the duration of that moment, the game is no longer a game but an experience, as authentic to me, as real to me, as riding the F train or taking out the trash. I was, very briefly, about as close as I'm ever going to get to actually being Indiana Jones, something I've desperately wanted since I was that 12-year-old boy sitting in a dark theater. I'm much older now, and quite capable of growing my own Indiana Jones-style five o'clock shadow, but my masculine identity still feels as if it's under construction and constantly being revised. I haven't quite got it figured out yet, and I'm starting to understand that I may never completely figure it out. Perhaps that's why spending 15 to 20 hours in a less complicated world, a world where Being A Man is as simple as socking a Nazi in the jaw, or swimming across a crocodile-filled lagoon, or flirting shamelessly with a beautiful Chinese woman, was such a bona fide pleasure for me. Rating: 8 out of 10 

Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.

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I played the PC and the PS2 and loved it. Emperor’s Tomb Rules!