Sublime fairways, menacing Orcs and a convicted murderer who may well steal your soul. A guided tour through the best -- and most appalling -- holiday video games.

Published December 20, 2003 10:08PM (EST)

"NASCAR Thunder 2004" (Electronic Arts)

Tom: As this loads up, I have to ask: Are we ashamed, at our age, of playing video games?

Jeff: Not completely. I liked video games when they looked terrible. Now it seems like we're living in some kind of golden age.

Tom: Think of the other things we could be doing. Sitting in a bar. Walking outside.

Jeff: Having meaningful relationships.

Tom: Here we go! "NASCAR Thunder 2004." My first thought: Terrible, sub-Korn, alterna-rock soundtrack.

Jeff: I was expecting, at the very least, Kid Rock.

Tom: The default state for when you create your own racer is Florida.

Jeff: Let's not create our own racer. Let's just race. Look at all the racers you can pick from!

Tom: Normally in an E.A. sports game you're selecting from an impressive pool of ethnically diverse young princes. These guys are all Ray-Ban-wearing, sideburned honkies.

Jeff: It says here you can do full races, in real time. A real-time NASCAR race would be what ... five hours? That's just how I want to spend my Sunday -- "trading paint" in a real-time NASCAR race.

Tom: That would be grounds for divorce.

Jeff: I'm taking Ricky Craven in the Tide car. Go Tide.

Tom: I'm going with Jerry Nadeau in the U.S. Army car. So ... now we're racing.

Jeff: We're racing.

Tom: How about that sound? The whine of the engines. It's ... it's terrible. This is what hell must sound like. "NASCAR Thunder"? It should be called "NASCAR Overturned Beehive."

Jeff: They've tried to sex it up with this "rivalry" option, whereby if you ding someone, their I.D. button turns red and they hate you and try to hurt you.

Tom: I've already managed to stir to anger an extraordinary number of drivers.

Jeff: I can sense there's a lot of subtlety in this game, but I suspect most people who play it are not terribly interested in the delicate art of the tarmac duel. They want to run cars off the road and see things explode.

Tom: Which is clearly implied on the back of the game's packaging. That screen shot right there is a car frozen in midflip.

Jeff: Whereas we're having a hell of a time destroying any cars at all.

Tom: This game provides all the excitement of real NASCAR. Which is a big problem, to my mind.

Jeff: This is basically 3-D "Frogger." You're just moving and occupying space.

Tom: "Frogger" with sideburns and a Skoal sponsorship.

Jeff: It doesn't even look that good. The graphics are really grainy.

Tom: Our inability to engage in drive-by shootings or drop oil slicks is a serious flaw.

Jeff: Not to mention the product placement. It's everywhere these days in sports games, but "NASCAR Thunder" takes it to new lows. The back of the car I'm blocking right now says, "See your local Dodge dealer."

Tom: Or don't.

Jeff: I bet you could get really good at this. But who cares?

Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2004" (Electronic Arts)

Jeff: I was skeptical when the elaborate intro began and showed a kilt-wearing, Roddy Piper simulacrum doing the splits to the commissioned "Tiger Woods PGA Tour" hip-hop soundtrack.

Tom: For some bizarre reason, one of the special "unlockable" players is Cedric the Entertainer.

Jeff: It's strange. But I have to say, based on the create-a-player option alone, this game is amazing. For my character's eyebrows, I can select "unibrow" as a trait. I can give him freckles, a Spanish nose, widen or slim his eyes. I can make his face wide and pasty. Look, I made Eric Stoltz from "Mask"!

Tom: Does the FBI have access to this technology?

Jeff: You can even program his "positive" and "negative" responses. My guy's going to shoot the gallery a peace sign when he performs well.

Tom: You've created a player with no teeth. And dressed him like a junkie. I played a little with my character before you got here, and I'll have you know he has already been approached by Nike to sign a sponsorship deal. You're going to be lucky to get approached by St. Ides malt liquor, looking like that.

Jeff: Golf is in his blood. It doesn't matter what he looks like.

Tom: We're playing a skins game at Pebble Beach. Our computer-controlled opponent is the well-known pro Colin "Monty" Montgomery, who is nicely turned out in his Lloyd's TSB visor.

Jeff: Who is dead, so dead. For such egregious product-placement alone, he's finished.

Tom: I've just shanked my tee shot into the rough.

Jeff: You've got to keep your head down. You're leaning back when you move the controller. Take your time.

Tom: Look at this! The tees have divot marks in them! And listen. Birds, waves. I can practically smell the grass. There's a light mist creeping across the fairway. Unbelievably lovely graphics. And I don't even like golf.

Jeff: The animations are fantastic. My junkie golfer just picked up some grass and threw it to test the wind speed. And you doubted him.

Tom: I have to take issue with these commentators and their Tory accents. "That one was just frighteningly bad." Did you hear that?

Jeff: You need to get your head in this game. Notice how when you zoom in on the hole to figure out the lie, the soundtrack gets all ghostly and Matrix-y.

Tom: And on important shots, you hear a heartbeat, and the controller starts pulsing in your hand. Incredible.

Jeff: Despite the fact that Monty just walked away with the skin, the bastard. Did that commentator just say I sucked?

Tom: Monty's second shot was just ... well, it was devastating. He laid it up right next to the pin.

Jeff: In our lives we've waged battle against worthy opponents, from the fetus-shaped dragons of Atari's "Adventure" to the dumb if persistent ghosts of "Pac-Man."

Tom: We've single-handedly saved bubble-domed cities from nuclear incineration, and we've fought off Darths Vader and Maul.

Jeff: We've established drug empires in "Vice City" and taken them down in "The Getaway," shotgunned zombies in a haunted mansion in "Resident Evil," and gone head-to-head with Kobe and Shaq at Rucker Park.

Tom: I remember.

Jeff: But we have met our nemesis in Colin "Monty" Montgomery. Who just birdied, stealing yet another skin. Meanwhile I'm yards away from the hole, and you, despite your Nike sponsorship, are in the bunker. He's exploiting our shaky short game and tour inexperience. Have you ever felt so humiliated, so humbled?

Tom: Still, I would pass up sex to play this game.

"Star Wars: Rebel Strike: Rogue Squadron III" (LucasArts)

Tom: I've stuck with LucasArts and its "Star Wars" games for a long time now.

Jeff: I pretty much topped off at the Atari version of "The Empire Strikes Back."

Tom: You missed a lot of good stuff. You missed "Shadows of the Empire" on Nintendo 64, which was incredible, and "Rogue Squadron I," which was even better. You missed "Obi-Wan" on the X-Box, and "Bounty Hunter" on PlayStation 2. And of course you missed GameCube's "Rogue Squadron II," which was a real mind-blower.

Jeff: And now we've got "Rogue Squadron III."

Tom: I have been dying to play this. The previous "Rogue Squadrons" were all one-player games and mostly involved dog-fighting, but "Rogue Squadron III" gives you the chance to disembark and walk around. You can even ride Tauntauns against Imperial Walkers, ride your tow cable up to their bellies, toss in a grenade, and drop clear, just like in the movie. It's also cooperative, which is fantastic.

Jeff: Great.

Tom: Well, I'm excited.

Jeff: Let's go cooperative. How about the Death Star trench run?

Tom: I cannot believe this. The Death Star trench run is from "Rogue Squadron II." The cooperative mode is just a fucking rehash of "Rogue Squadron II"! This is deception of Greedo-like proportions.

Jeff: Let's just play.

Tom: I am not playing the Death Star trench run when I've already destroyed the Death Star in LucasArts games about 10 times. "Rashomon" had fewer permutations than this.

Jeff: Let's race speeder bikes on Endor, then.

Tom: Fine. But this isn't that fun, either. It's all just ... avoiding trees.

Jeff: The trees look pretty great.

Tom: The game is beautiful. I'm not slighting its graphics. But I've seen it before.

Jeff: The hell with this. I'm going solo, as Wedge Antilles. My mission: "Raid at Bakura" in a B-wing.

Tom: Good luck.

Jeff: I'm impressed by these three-dimensional space battles. I like how the Tie-Fighters catch fire from within and spin wildly and explode. All of it's well done.

Tom: Next mission: "Relics of Geonosis." This is sort of interesting. You get to find the Jedi Starfighter Obi-Wan left on Geonosis in "Attack of the Clones" and fly it out of there.

Jeff: And yet you look disappointed.

Tom: I am disappointed. I feel like a Padawan learner who just lost his master. Look at the names of these missions: "Deception at Destrillion." Followed immediately by "Guns of Debrillion." What's next? "The Ransacking of Gajillion"?

Jeff: Well, it's more fun than watching "The Phantom Menace."

"The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King" (Electronic Arts)

Jeff: This game's prequel, for a brief time, changed my life. Or at least squandered a huge amount of it.

Tom: Playing as Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, massacring huge numbers of Orcs and Uruk-Hai, using a staggering assortment of special "killing moves" with names like "Isildur's Wrath" ... it was great fun.

Jeff: The really amazing thing was how seamlessly E.A. blended the game with footage from the first two movies. It looked great, and the levels were just open-ended enough to create the illusion of being in the movie.

Tom: And now, in this game, you can be Frodo, Sam and Gandalf as well. It's also cooperative. I'm taking Legolas.

Jeff: An interesting personality test, isn't it? To see who picks who.

Tom: You just picked Aragorn.

Jeff: You're damn right I did.

Tom: Apparently E.A. could only get Ian McKellen and Elijah Wood and Sean Astin to do voice-over for this one, whereas they had everyone for the first game. That was a huge deal, suspension-of-disbelief-wise.

Jeff: Though not even John Rhys-Davies could have pulled off lines like, "This magic mountain holds many surprises."

Tom: So the writing this time out isn't as nuanced. Look at this fighting! Listen to those swords! When you hit an Orc it sounds like a baseball bat whapping a side of beef.

Jeff: Great fighting. Incredible fighting. The moves have gotten even better. "Orc Hewer." "The Final Judgment." "Balrog's Gambit." I just cut that Orc's throat -- I think. I'm having a hard time, in the fray, figuring out who I am.

Tom: You're the guy I'm saving from Orcs by filling them with arrows. I also note that your time-tested inability to follow a goddamned map remains as indestructible as Mithril.

Jeff: I've told you before, your TV's too small.

Tom: It's not small. That's a ladder. You climb up it.

Jeff: We're now fighting Tolkien's oliphaunts on the Pelennor Fields.

Tom: This is spectacular. I may have an orgasm. I'm not kidding.

Jeff: Notice how much smoother the animation is. All I can think about is the poor guy with Ping-Pong balls all over his body running around a studio while they digitally mapped out his movements.

Tom: Which would explain my constant need to save you from Nazgul. Too bad you can't pick Merry and Pippin. You'd be perfect as them.

Jeff: I'm abandoning you at the Black Gate.

"True Crime: Streets of L.A." (Activision)

Tom: This is yet another of the rapidly multiplying "Grand Theft Auto" clones in which one cruises around a lavishly mapped city stealing cars and doing little missions, and for which name actors provide the voices. In "True Crime's" case, Christopher Walken and Gary Oldman. Now, I had a basic moral problem with "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City" -- until, that is, I finally played it. I realized how much goofy joy went into the game. The 1980s soundtrack was wonderful. It was hard to take drive-by shootings and assassinating cops too seriously when you're doing it to a Flock of Seagulls song.

Jeff: "True Crime" looks better than "Vice City," and the map of Los Angeles is huge and faithfully rendered. I just drove past my friend Annie's house in West Hollywood!

Tom: The plot follows one Nick Kang, lately of the LAPD's Elite Operation Division, now on indefinite suspension "due to repeated incidents of excessive force."

Jeff: What I like about "True Crime" is the expansiveness of the story line. Your actions drive the story. If you behave like a "bad" cop and beat up innocent people and shoot criminals rather than arrest them, the story changes. If you manage to do your missions without hurting innocent people, the story changes again. This "good cop"-"bad cop" status is monitored by a clever yin-yang meter.

Tom: You're a lot more into this game than I am.

Jeff: I am, but I have one big problem: You can't change the radio stations, like you could in "GTA," and it doesn't have any of the well-written and often really funny radio bits. But the gameplay is fantastic, and the cinematic cut-scenes look much better than those of most of these games. I also like how the action alternates between a fairly intense one-on-one fighting mode -- far better than "GTA's" -- and the more basic drive-around-solving-crimes mode. Los Angeles seems suspiciously light on traffic, however.

Tom: It still takes forever to drive anywhere. There are almost too many places to visit. The sheer number of missions is extraordinary.

Jeff: The little touches are nice. You can frisk random civilians looking for drugs, and an inordinate number of putatively law-abiding Los Angelenos seem to be packing heat. Frisk the wrong person, and you're in a gun battle. And when you gun down a criminal, "Crime Fully Resolved" appears on the screen. I seem to be having a difficult time maintaining my "good cop" status, which raises the question: Has Activision really addressed the basic moral problem of "GTA" by allowing you to be a crooked cop instead of an honest thug?

Tom: Where's Peter Singer when you need him?

"Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne" (Rockstar)

Jeff: I love Max Payne.

Tom: He of the stiff leather trench coat and Raymond Chandler-esque delivery.

Jeff: It's hilariously bad writing, but it's brilliant: "They were all dead. Love kills. Did I love her? Was there a choice? The past is a gaping hole."

Tom: Max Payne is your basic renegade cop with a slaughtered family, a price on his head, and an alarming painkiller-addiction problem.

Jeff: That was the best thing about Max Payne. The way you got your health back was by finding painkillers. This made scenes of Max rummaging through criminals' medicine cabinets especially poignant.

Tom: I actually attributed all of the first Max Payne to an extended, painkiller-induced hallucination. I don't even believe he's a cop. He's just some mook from Great Neck.

Jeff: As I keep saying, the cut-scenes of these highly narrative-based games always have problems. The voice acting may be excellent, but they're often clumsily animated and way, way too elaborate. Witness "The Getaway." The creators of Max Payne have stepped around all this by making its intersticial sequences comic-book-panel-style art. Max, I am here to say, has a lot of style.

Tom: And this new "bullet-cam" gives it more head shots than a 17-year-old model.

Jeff: And, weirdly enough, dream sequences. Do you remember the nightmare from the first game where you had to follow a bloody trail to the scene of your family's murder while your baby frantically screamed?

Tom: You had to talk me through that one, if I recall. The thing to point out is that Max Payne is so thoroughly grounded in story -- even if it is an irreversibly dorky story -- that its violence feels a lot less objectionable than that of, say, "True Crime."

Jeff: I just love Max Payne. He's not just a rogue cop like Nick Kang. He's a massively tormented man plausibly dealing with real problems.

Tom: Plausibly?

Jeff: Don't try to understand Max Payne. You'll only embarrass yourself. Now, Part 2 is similar to the first game: creepy, interactive environments; tons of fun gunplay and excellent slo-mo; a clean, uncluttered screen; and a well-paced plot.

Tom: This game, which does look and play terrifically well, is called "The Fall of Max Payne." Let's see, the first game ended with Max's family dead, his career in ruins, his painkiller addiction ruinously untreated, and his tendency to throw Molotov cocktails at unarmed junkies unchecked. How much further can this guy fall?

Jeff: I'm playing until I find out.

"NBA Live 2004" (Electronic Arts)

Tom: Best sports video-game commentary I've ever heard -- and I've had a lot of well-known sports commentators judge my video-game performance.

Jeff: You really can't improve on Marv Albert and Mike Fratello. They've set the standard here, constantly leavening the action with trivia. If you want to know where Steve Nash grew up in Canada, or by how much Mike Bibby's three-point shooting has improved since 2002 -- and who doesn't? -- "NBA Live 2004" is your game.

Tom: Great, sneaky little bonuses here. For instance, old uniforms, like the Mavs' classic green jerseys from the late 1980s or Washington's pre-Wizards Bullets jerseys, and an all-star team from the 1950s. Bob Cousy, for two!

Jeff: The shot-block sound effect is something E.A. has been trying to get right for several generations now. It's gone from a thud to an explosion to hardly any sound at all. But listen to that thock as I stuff you. Perfect, beautiful and utterly humiliating.

Tom: The free-throw interface is much improved, play calling is better, there's a lot more controllable, off-the-ball movement, you can knock away lazy passes, and you don't have to squint as hard to make it look like an actual NBA basketball game.

Jeff: I would feel remiss and dishonest if we didn't mention another little game here, called "Street Ball," which may be my favorite sports game of all time.

Tom: Alas, we should. And this is no "Street Ball," which is also an E.A. game.

Jeff: It's really hard to get excited about these expert renderings of hoop realism when, in "Street Ball," you can go off the forehead of Dominique Wilkins, cross over, jump, bounce a pass off the backboard to street legend Stretch Monroe, and watch him do a Honey Dip dunk.

Tom: "Street Ball" has basically devastated my ability to enjoy this game. Once you've gone off the heezay of Isaiah Thomas and dunked on James Worthy, you can never go back.

Jeff: Yes indeed. Strangely, having the actual abilities of Stephon Marbury and Rick Fox pales.

Tom: And it's a little sad, because I can see a lot of love and effort went into this.

Jeff: In the ongoing battle between video-game realism and cartoonish fun, realism is once again routed.

Manhunt (Rockstar)

Jeff: I've just played the first board of "Manhunt." I feel about how I did when I walked out of Harmony Korine's film "Gummo."

Tom: From the makers of "Grand Theft Auto" comes what is quite possibly the biggest fuck-you to the protective parents and concerned educators of America ever. Here's what the intro screen says: "To best experience Manhunt you should ... Turn off the lights ... Close the drapes ... Lock the door ... Then get ready to kill!" I'll say this: "Manhunt," at the absolute least, is honest.

Jeff: Delightfully, the difficulty levels are called "Fetish" and "Hardcore." Let me give everyone a little Manhunt gameplay clue: Pick up a shard of glass, a sickle, a plastic bag, or any number of blunt and/or hideous instruments, find some shadows, hide in them, wait for someone to happen by, and press the X button.

Tom: Whereupon, if you're really lucky, you'll see an execution cut-scene.

Jeff: Which as often as not will involve the game's "camera" being sprayed with arterial blood.

Tom: All of it somehow narrated by the great actor Brian Cox, who is, unsurprisingly, the best thing about this game.

Jeff: Would I feel better about "Manhunt" if its hero were not a convicted murderer? If its milieu were not the undiscovered country of the snuff film? If the slickness of presentation were not equaled only by the pointlessness of its provocation? It manages to be both shocking and boring. It's the video-game equivalent of a Bret Easton Ellis novel.

Tom: As the old critic said, there is much in "Manhunt" that is good and new, but the stuff that's good is not new and the stuff that's new is not good. And I finally fear that playing too much "Manhunt" could well cost someone his or her eternal soul.

By Tom Bissell

Tom Bissell spent five months living in Vietnam in 2004. "The Father of All Things," an account of his first journey to Vietnam with his father, a veteran of the Vietnam War, will be published by Pantheon early next year. A portion of the book recently appeared in "Best American Travel Writing 2005."

MORE FROM Tom Bissell

By Jeff Alexander

Tom Bissell is the author of "Chasing the Sea." Jeff Alexander is a writer living in Brooklyn. Their book, "Speak, Commentary," a collection of fake DVD commentaries, was published by McSweeney's last fall.

MORE FROM Jeff Alexander

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