If "Grand Theft Auto III" is the game Martin Scorsese would make, then "Mafia" would be the game of choice for Francis Ford Coppola.
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Special to msnbc.com
updated 12/1/2002 12:58:08 PM ET 2002-12-01T17:58:08

When it came to selecting the games for this year’s PC holiday list, I had to rely on a lot of help from a few qualified friends. My favorite pick of the year, for instance, darn near passed under my radar. I was so focused on two excellent real-time strategy games that I would have missed the game completely had a friend not pestered me to play it.

AS FAR AS HOLIDAY good will goes, the games on this list will leave many parents thinking less “ho, ho, ho” and more “no, no, no.”

Most of the games on this year’s list are violent. Some are exceptionally violent. Three of the 11 games on this year’s list are first-person perspective shooters, meaning that you see these games through the eyes of a hero killing dozens and even hundreds of enemies. Two of the games are played from the third-person perspective — you watch from behind the killer’s back. And two of these games are real-time strategy games where you are the god of a society at war.

Two of the remaining games, “The Sims Online” and “Virtual Resort: Spring Break” are built around humorous, but sexual, innuendo, with a big to-do made about co-ed hot tubbing. One of the final two games is a massively multi-player game with outer space combat. It’s a great game, but it still has killing.

My token family-friendly title is a racing game. (Fortunately it’s not “Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit,” or my only family game would have been relatively lawless.)

FIRST-PERSON PERSPECTIVE SHOOTERS

No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in H.A.R.M.S. Way

Publisher: Sierra

Price: $49.99

Rated: M (Suitable for players ages 17 and up.)

Sometimes you need to give points for innovation. “No One Lives Forever 2” works fine as a first-person perspective shooter-lots of people to kill, items to find, and objectives to fulfill. But the game also has a sense of humor. Maybe it’s the exploding kitten bomb, the banana peels or the miming henchman. Maybe it’s the locales — who ever imagined an espionage game set partially in Dayton, Ohio?

A screenshot from the espionage game "No One Lives Forever 2."

This is not only a fun game to see, it is fun to hear. Whoever created the scripts for this game had a great sense of humor, and the things the thugs say to each other are downright hilarious. The people who made the game did not lose sight of the thing that matters most: gameplay.

Unreal Tournament 2003Publisher: Infogrames

Price: $44.99

Rated: M (Suitable for players ages 17 and up.)

There was a Gary Larsen’s “Far Side” cartoon in which two deer are speaking. One has a target on its chest. The other is saying, “Bummer of a birth mark.” I identify with that first deer whenever I play games like “Unreal Tournament 2003.” For whatever reason, I spend more time dying horrific deaths in these games than I do stalking enemies.

This means that that the only way I see the changes between “Unreal Tournament” and “Unreal Tournament 2003” is in single-player mode, battling dumbed-down robots. It’s hard to appreciate the new adrenaline-powered enhancements (invisibility, etc.), when you are using them to beat A.I.-starved bots.

That said, “Unreal Tournament” is largely unchanged in 2003. It has the same basic weapons and, of course, the gameplay is largely unchanged. Some people have complained about this, but other Unreal fans would not have it any other way.

THIRD-PERSON PERSPECTIVE SHOOTERS

Mafia (EDITOR’S PICK)

Publisher: Take-Two

Price: $49.99

Rated: M (Suitable for players ages 17 and up.)

If “Grand Theft Auto III” is the game Martin Scorsese would make, then “Mafia” would be the game of choice for Francis Ford Coppola.

“Mafia” traces the rise and reform of Tommy Angelo as he goes from driving a cab to all-around tough guy in a 1930s version of Chicago called Lost Heaven. Illusion Softworks, the Czech company that made “Mafia,” worked overtime to bring Lost Heaven to life. During the opening car chase, I made a wrong turn in what would normally have been a non-descript dead end. In “Mafia,” it dumped me into a stadium.

I did not come across “Mafia” until it was almost too late to fit it into my holiday list, and then glitches on my PC slowed me even further. (As far as I can tell, the problem was with my computer, not the game.) What I have seen in this game includes car chases, shoot outs, and the best in-game graphics on the market today.

Hitman 2: Silent AssassinPublisher: Eidos

Price: $49.99

Rated: M (Suitable for players ages 17 and up.)

“Hitman 2” is one of those games that will have critics up in arms. This is a game in which you are given targets such as gangsters and warlords, and you simply figure out how to kill him. Most targets can be killed in multiple methods, and you kill the people around your target as needed.

So why would a game like this be fun? Well, figuring out how to get in range of your intended target takes strategy. Covering your tracks as you move in for the kill requires skill. And when it’s done, you have a really guilty sense of satisfaction.

REAL-TIME STRATEGY

Age of MythologyPublisher: Microsoft

Price: $44.99 ($74.99 for the Collector’s Edition)

Rated: T (Suitable for players ages 13 and up.)

In this game of build-and-destroy, players lead an Egyptian, Greek and Scandinavian civilization as it battles other civilizations. The game still involves gathering food, wood, and gold, but a new element has been added: garnering favor from the gods. Happy gods let you make mythical units like mummies, manitcores, and medusas. And then there are the various god-powers. Ranging from lightning bolts to portable gold mines, the things these gods can do are astounding.

WarCraft III: Reign of Chaos

Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment

Price: $49.99 (or collector’s edition for $64.99)

Rated: T (Suitable for players ages 13 and up.)

Since it came out last summer, “WarCraft III” will likely be overlooked as a good selection for the holidays. That is a shame. With greatly improved graphics, tightly connected scenarios, and the addition of RPG elements, the game deserves a second look.

Unlike past WarCraft games, which featured humans and orcs, this latest game includes new civilizations that round the game out beautifully.

Virtual Resort: Spring Break

Publisher: Eidos

Price: $29.99

Rated: T (Suitable for players ages 13 and up.)

Remember “SimGolf” and “RollerCoaster Tycoon”? Take those game mechanics and attach them to your favorite Club Med. It’s a silly concept, but the game is fun.

MASSIVELY MULTI-PLAYER MAYHEM

Battlefield 1942

Publisher: Electronic Arts

Price: $44.99

Rated: T (Suitable for players ages 13 and up.)

You can flatfoot it or drive a tank. You can pound enemy emplacements from a battleship or bomb them from the air. You can fight the war in Europe or the Pacific. In other words, “Battlefield 1942,” a not-entirely massively multi-player game from Electronic Arts lets you participate in a virtual version of World War II any way you want.

This game literally has it all: the weapons, the nations, the theaters and the action. About the only limitations “Battlefield 1942” has are size and connectivity: It only supports 64 players per game and it doesn’t do well with modems. Electronic Arts may claim you can play in narrowband. Don’t fall for it.

The Sims OnlinePublisher: Electronic Arts

Price: $49.99

Rated: T (Suitable for players of all ages.)

With 6 million copies sold, the original version of “The Sims” is the most popular CD-ROM PC game of all-time. Now Electronic Arts is bringing this key franchise online. It is an interesting experiment that could implode or explode, depending on the mass of players who inhabit it.

In “The Sims Online,” players interact with each other in a mundane world. You can do whatever you want within reason, but your success is largely dependent on your ability to persuade others to participate. You can throw a disco party, hold a beauty pageant or preach the gospel from outer space. Do it alone, and you fail. Attract a crowd, and you are a hit.

Should Sony decided to spice up “EverQuest,” it could add some town-eating monster or invent a harrowing event. “The Sims,” on the other hand, will rely on the good humor of the people who play it. If “EverQuest” is an online world where people meet and do things, “The Sims” is largely a vehicle for people who just want to hang out.

DRIVING

RalliSport Challenge

Publisher: Microsoft

Price: $39.99

Rated: E (Suitable for players of all ages.)

With 48 tracks, 29 cars and four different styles of competition, “RalliSport Challenge” is big. It supports online and network play. It has very good graphics and good rally-style driving mechanics. It was a good game on Xbox, but I think it is even better on PC.

The family-friendly "RalliSport Challenge" is even better on the PC than in on Xbox.

HARDWARE

Radeon 9700 Pro

Publisher: ATI

Price: $399.99

For those who do not dirty their fingers with the innards of computers, the Radeon 9700 Pro is part of the latest and greatest generation of graphics cards. You can run most games on older graphics cards, but you need the new and powerful cards if you want to run games at their highest resolution and with the most detail.

That is important. Doom III, possibly the most graphically-intense game of all time, is coming. Last I heard, the game is due out next October. The ATI Radeon 9700 Pro was the card used for demonstrating Doom III at E3 last year, and that’s enough for me.

So should you buy this card for Christmas? I do not think any game on the market today can use all of the power this massive card has to offer. What’s more, by the time Doom III and other worthy games do hit store shelves, that lofty $399.99 price tag will be cut in half, capitalism at its best.

In the meantime, there is a class of gamer who insists on having the best equipment on the market. If you are buying gifts for such a person, the 9700 Pro is a pretty safe (and expensive) bet.

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