Expected to be the biggest-selling game of the 2002 holiday season, "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City" is a Horatio Alger story from the dark side.
By
Special to msnbc.com
updated 11/19/2002 1:08:04 PM ET 2002-11-19T18:08:04

Last year, the annual holiday gaming hubbub was all about systems, with Nintendo and Microsoft both selling new consoles. There’s no new hardware this year, unless you include cellular telephones, so this year the hype is all about the games.

ADULT GAMES LIKE “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City” and “BMX XXX” made national headlines for the way they push morality and, in the case of “Vice City,” sales.

(The other big story was online gaming. No one seems to care that the first console modem was made for the Atari 2600 or that Catapult created a perfectly viable modem for Super NES and Genesis. Sony released the PlayStation 2 Network Adaptor and Microsoft launched Xbox Live, and that made online gaming new and fascinating.)

But let’s get back to the games themselves. In the past, I have divided the gift list by age group or genre. This year’s list is divided by platform, though many of the best games can be played across several platforms.

PLAYSTATION 2At the risk of touching off my annual firestorm, this year’s console is PlayStation 2. GameCube owners may point to the release of “Metroid Prime” and “Eternal Darkness,” but there’s a huge leap between having an incredible game and having an incredible library. Square, Konami, Namco and Sega have given Sony their best offerings of 2002 and Sony itself has emerged this year as a credible publisher.

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Publisher: Take 2 Entertainment

Price: $49.99

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

Fresh out of jail and loyal to his mob employers, Tommy Vercetti travels down to Miami to spread a little vice. In this game of wrong-is-right, players help Tommy build a crime empire one misdeed at a time.

Rockstar made a lot of nice touches as it prepared “Vice City,” the follow-up to “Grand Theft Auto III,” the biggest-selling PlayStation 2 game ever. “Vice City” has interior settings, improved fighting, and aircraft. The locations look great and the missions are strung together in a more cohesive fashion.

I do have small complaints. The characters in “Vice City” still have robot hands, tubular arms and mannequin faces. Considering all of the detailed work that went into this game, however, the ugly characters do not detract too much.

Kingdom Hearts (EDITOR’S PICK)

Publisher: Square Soft

Price: $49.99

Rated: E (Suitable for players of all ages)

“Kingdom Hearts” is a blending of two brands-Square Soft and Disney. Square provided the RPG mechanics, Disney provided the worlds and characters. The results are extraordinary. With a well-known eye for quality, and Disney executives looking over their shoulders, Square designers brought Winnie the Pooh, Hercules, The Little Mermaid and many other Disney characters to 3-D life.

In “Kingdom Hearts,” Sora, the 14-year-old hero of the game, travels from one Disney world to the next in the company of Goofy and Donald Duck as they battle the countless minions of shadow creatures called “the Heartless.”

In "Kingdom Hearts," players meet up with Hook, Jafar, Hades and many other Disney fiends.

This is not a perfect game for players under nine or ten years of age. Many of the battles are quite dark, as are some of the worlds. Also, as is typical of the genre, the game involves both a lot of reading and many minor battles. RPGs are all about building skills and attacks by winning battle points. Be prepared to fight skirmish after skirmish between big battles in “Kingdom Hearts.”

The Mark of KriPublisher: Sony Computer Entertainment America

Price: $39.99

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

Imagine redoing “Metal Gear Solid” with a Polynesian warrior instead of a slick mercenary - this is “The Mark of Kri.” The game offers a blend of power-based hand-to-hand combat and stealth. Rau, the hero of the game, is psychically-linked to a raven that he sends to spy out enemy positions. This enables him to slip into enemy fortresses unseen and catch enemies unaware. Big, strong, and brutal, Rau sometimes attaches skewers his victims with his sword, other times he simply cuts off their head.

Ratchet & ClankPublisher: Sony Computer Entertainment America

Price: $39.99

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

Ratchet is a dashing cat-like creature with good mechanical skills and a mean wrench. Clank is a runty robot on a mission to save the galaxy from world-wrecking bad guys. Together, they set out on what may well be the best buddy game of 2002.

“Ratchet & Clank” is a very big game set in very big worlds. Bright and cleverly illustrated, the game pits Ratchet against armies of enemies. But outnumbered does not mean outgunned. With 36 weapons and gadgets to choose from, Ratchet has a tool for every situation as he pounds, pulverizes, incinerates, and blows up everything that gets in his way.

If this game were not T-rated, it would be a contender for best kids’ game of the year.

Rygar: The Legendary Adventure

Publisher: Tecmo

Price: $49.99

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

In days of yore when Atari Lynx and Nintendo NES still roamed the planet, a hero named Rygar chased beside the blood-red dawn and faced armored pill bugs and liberated his world.

After a more than 10-year hiatus, Rygar returns with his shieldarmor: a whip/shield/boomerang device that slices, dices, and throws enemies. Rygar’s Roman-Greco world is even more beautiful than before. In a nod to tradition, “Rygar: The Legendary Adventure” preserves the horizon with the setting sun along with the pill bugs and many of the other trademarks. But it also takes advantage of innovations in sight and sound technology-adding orchestral accompaniment and stunning 3D graphics to bring new life to an old game.

And something for original PlayStation owners:

Arc The Lad CollectionPublisher: Working Designs

Price: $74.99

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

You RPGers, do not open this ark unless you are serious. With their intricate stories and epic adventures, “Arc The Lad” games require significant chunks of time. This collection has four of them on five CDs-enough elemental Guardians and Romalians to keep anyone dizzy for months.

XBOX

Deals, deals, deals: Flip side of an economic downturn
With Sega’s “Panzer Dragoon Orta” delayed, Xbox’s library is a little thin this year. The future looks bright, however, with plans for an Xbox version of “Doom III” and the much-anticipated “Halo 2” on the way. And that Rare purchase should start paying off soon.

Mech AssaultPublisher: Microsoft

Price: $49.99

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

The world has too many giant robot games, but two of them have made my Christmas list-and for doing opposite things.

MechAssault is giant robots made simple. You don’t worry about loading special armaments for each mission in this game. Just choose the Mech that meshes with your tastes and skills. You can take a small, fast, and lightly-armored Mech that moves fast, hits light, and dodges damage. You can choose a slow, slugging Mech with massive cannons.

MechAssault is Xbox Live-compatible. I have not tried it online, but friends who have rave about it.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of SecretsPublisher: Electronic Arts

Price: $49.99 (Also available on GameCube, PlayStation 2, PC, and Game Boy Advance — not all versions are identical. PC and Game Boy Advance versions retail for $29.99.)

Rated: E (Suitable for players of all ages)

Harry Potter is back, and this time the boy wizard has a few new sports: wizard dueling and gnome tossing join Quidditch as Potter pastimes.

Image: Harry Potter Video Game Unveiled
You really feel like you're at Hogwarts. You wake up each morning in the sleeping quarters, with free rein of the massive tower.
Few books or movies have translated as well to games as “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.” The game’s version of the Hogwarts School of witchcraft and wizardry looks wonderful, as does the lesser location of the Weasley home. The acting is good, and the game is amazingly faithful to the book.

This is a game that parents can play with their children — just don’t get caught sneaking ahead after the kids go to sleep.

Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell (EDITOR’S PICK)

Publisher: Ubi Soft

Price: $49.99 (A PC version will be released early next year.)

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

A little more fast-action than other Tom Clancy games, Splinter Cell puts players in the combat boots of a highly trained NSA agent as he enters various terrorist nests and carries out some very tough missions. Like other Clancy-inspired games, Splinter Cell stands out for its reality-based weapons and tactics.

Steel BattalionPublisher: Capcom

Price: $199.99

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

The antithesis of MechAssault, Steel Battalion comes with an enormous panel covered with switches and levers. The robots move slowly, wading into each other with clumps of weapons. The graphic interface of this game does a good job emulating the view through a robot window, and the control console really puts you in a giant robot kind of mood.

GAMECUBEIn years past, Nintendo waited until the holidays to release its biggest hits. This year, however, Nintendo released “Eternal Darkness” and “Super Mario Sunshine” over the summer — with disappointing results. Fortunately for Nintendo, it still has its best guns trained for the holidays.

Mario Party 4

Publisher: Nintendo of America

Price: $49.99

Rated: E (Suitable for players of all ages)

Mario Party 4 is largely a collection of interactive mini-games, ranging from comic forms of combat to a race to see who cuts the cleanest line with virtual scissors. This may sound childish or inane, but when four players sit down and compete in Mario Party 4, everybody ends up laughing. This is a great game for parents to play with their kids.

Metroid Prime (EDITOR’S PICK)

Publisher: Nintendo of America

Price: $49.99

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

Having only had the chance to play “Metroid Prime” for a total of two hours before compiling this list, I can claim no deep knowledge of the game. I was able to skip pretty far ahead in the game (one of the people who showed it to me let me use her saved progress). But the Team Nintendo rep who brought me the game estimates that it takes a full 60 hours to finish “Metroid Prime”, so my two hours is miniscule.

That said, here is what I saw:

“Metroid Prime” is absolutely about exploration, not shooting alien vermin. The game is seen from the first-person perspective of Samus, a female astronaut who possesses intelligence, nerve and firepower.

Samus also has a few special abilities. A special window in her visor identifies enemies and shows their weak spots. It also catalogs and analyzes hidden messages. If there is a problem with this game (a big “if”), it is that the scanning becomes a bit redundant.

Samus, the solitary hero of Metroid Prime
Samus also has the ability to curl up into a ball and roll through tight squeezes. She can even place small explosive charges around herself to bounce over bumps.

Like past games, “Metroid Prime” is a game that dangles out-of-reach carrots in front of the player. You will see doors and ledges that you just cannot reach until you discover some new tool or ability. There are, for example, these halfpipe platforms. Find the right explosives, and Samus can launch herself off these halfpipes to reach high ledges.

From what I have seen, “Metroid Prime” is a prime contender for best game of 2002. It has intensely brilliant graphics, good action, and lots of puzzles.

Resident Evil ZeroPublisher: Capcom

Price: $49.99

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

The prequel to all other “Resident Evil” games, “Zero” follows a female member of an elite squad as she partners with an escaped naval prisoner and battles zombies and monsters.

This game has an unnerving ambiance. With nearly photographic settings and a slow and unsettling storyline, “Resident Evil Zero” slowly grinds down the player’s resistance. I raved about this game in my Halloween roundup of games, and for good reason.

GAME BOY ADVANCEThey are not really competitors, but it is worth noting that of all the game systems on the market, only Nintendo’s handheld Game Boy Advance has kept pace with PlayStation 2.

Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance

Publisher: Konami

Price: $29.99

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

Konami may have dressed “Harmony of Dissonance” with spells and quick saves, but it is still the same basic “Castlevania” that been around since the 1980s.

An old-school game, “Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance” is a side-scrolling game in which players lead a whip-toting vampire hunter through a huge castle in search of Dracula. There are other elements to the story, of course, but they are pure cosmetics.

Side-scrolling, whip-toting, and vampire hunting may sound tired and old, but they are not. Konami has risen to the test. This game throws so many kinds of monsters at you that the hunt stays interesting. And kudos to Konami for the graphics. The highly detailed, multi-layered backgrounds in “Harmony of Dissonance” are quite beautiful by Game Boy standards.

Metroid Fusion (EDITOR’S PICK)

Publisher: Nintendo of America

Price: $29.99

Rated: E (Suitable for players of all ages)

Metroid Fusion is an all-new Metroid game that puts Samus back in her familiar two-dimensional environment. It is just as vivid and convoluted as Metroid Prime, though the game mechanics are a bit more simplistic.

In this action adventure, female astronaut Samus Aran runs, jumps, rolls, climbs, swings, and shoots her way though a monster-infested space station.

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