Getting air in SSX3.
By Columnist
msnbc.com

The snowboarding game “SSX 3” is beauty in motion. “Railroad Tycoon 3” will have you embracing the inner capitalist. And “Freedom Fighters” is a third-person shooter that pits you against invading Russkies.

‘SSX 3’ (Electronic Arts)
“SSX 3” defies categorization. It is a snowboarding game inspired by dance as much as sport. A game that is as much fun watching as playing. A game that will have couch potatoes driving to the mountains for the real deal and actual boarders skipping the apres ski hot tub for the console.

“SSX 3” blends movement, music, ambient sounds and visuals in a way few racing games have mastered. Stomach turning curves are accompanied by the sounds of fiberglass scraping ice. Jumps, which lurk behind every mogul, are an opportunity for the player to execute sequences of in-flight gymnastics (“Uber Tricks”). They are a joy to watch; all violet contrails and sunlight glinting off of goggles. Off trail, where the forest is thick and the snow powdery, the tempo changes again. The music softens to the point where players can hear the soft shussing of board meeting powder. Spotlights of violet and turquoise positioned overhead pick up the snow’s crystalline shimmer. And then another drop, cue the music (by the likes of the X-Ecutioners and the Chemical Brothers) and here we go again.

With “SSX 3” players can choose a character — there are 10 hipper-than-thou snowboarders available — and run it through a number of races, freestyle and big air competitions in the quest to unlock more trails, earn gear and just conquer the mountains. The interface in career mode is a nice take. Players literally snowboard their way through the menu. The trail they take determines the event.

But players may never want to unlock new trails when the “Mountain City” run is available from the start. With angular structures bordering impossibly steep trails, “Mountain City” is a neon-saturated metropolis as imagined by a 22nd century Mondrian. Unreal, yes, but attuned to the speedy gameplay and fantasy qualities that makes “SSX 3” so special.

One day “Mountain City” may appear in museums as a long overdue survey of the art of gaming. Until then, we have the game, a package that combines dance, avionics and kitchen sink fantasy.

‘RAILROAD TYCOON 3’ (Pop Top Software)
Before interstates and strip malls criss-crossed the land, railroads were king. The trusts that controlled them controlled the land, the nearby industries and the nation’s destiny.

“Railroad Tycoon 3” is all about railroads — buying, running and managing them — but it’s also about powering oneself to the top of the capitalist heap.

Players serve as chairman of the board to a fledgling railway company. Free to buy stocks, issue bonds and designate routes, the player is still subservient to the whims of the board who have a habit of issuing scathing financial reports.

In "Railroad Tycoon 3" players can built stations, hotels and restaurants.

But the real fun lies in laying the track and running the railroads. Landscapes are rendered in fine detail complete with rivers, forests, mountains and villages; that’s important because the better a player understands the land the more efficient the track layout. The zoom function adds a new dimension to playability. After getting a bird’s eye — or satellite — view of a proposed route, players can zoom and glide at treetop level. Mountains bubble up, river valleys sink and a more realistic idea of the layout of the land emerges.

Once your track is laid and the stations built, it’s time to get those trains running. “Railroad Tycoon 3” boasts 16 historical scenarios along with some of the better known engines from the Golden Age of Railroads. As your game progresses through the decades so too do the engines available.

And there is nothing like watching your miniature creation toot its tiny horn as it careens through tiny town. Click the camera lock function and follow one train as it winds its way to its destination. Wheee! But don’t enjoy the ride for too long. There are more lines to be built, more farms to buy and more importantly, competitors to put out of business.

Those 19th century robber barons were right. Capitalism can be fun.

“FREEDOM FIGHTERS” (Electronic Arts)
The cinematic preface to “Freedom Fighters” presents a parallel universe where the USSR, after using “the bomb” on Berlin in World War II, extends its domination into the New World.

After the well-produced “what if” scenario, “Freedom Fighters” settles into a third-person shooter where the player assumes the role of Christopher Stone, a plumber who drops his lug wrench for banana clips when the Soviets parade up New York City’s Broadway.

Christopher Stone takes the fight to the Theater District in "Freedom Fighters."

This is a mission-based game. The more success Stone has in rescuing hostages or blowing up the Soviet ammo dump, the more fellow rebels — who all look like New York cabbies — trust Stone. With experience players can direct Stone to issue basic commands to up to 12 freedom fighters during combat missions.

There are things to like about “Freedom Fighters.” Controls have an arcade-like feel and after all the recent action games that have placed such an emphasis on complex button manipulation, it’s rather refreshing to run straight at the enemy with guns a-blazing. The various cityscapes are detailed. And in a hilarious touch, each mission concludes with a bulletin — courtesy of New York’s Soviet news studio — describing the latest exploits of the “terrorist.”

And yet ... what’s up with the Soviet invasion premise? Why now? Nostalgia, perhaps? With today’s “Axis of Evil” — and the 75 or so client states — the “Evil Empire” almost sounds quaint.

When not babbling about computer games, Tom Loftus produces interactives for MSNBC.com

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