The Sims 2 (Maxis, PC, 2004)
Legendary designer Will Wright had an all-time best seller on his hands the first time he introduced us to those virtual human pets known as the Sims. Betting that we wanted to make them mingle with others and would pay a monthly fee for the privilege Wright then released The Sims Online, which flopped badly. Turns out we'd rather play on our own, thank you very much. Wright got the message, and The Sims 2 looks set to be his most exciting game yet. Now your Sims age from childhood, give birth to new Sims with the genetic traits of their parents and eventually die. Whether they do so in style or suffering is up to you. The homes, hearths and hot tubs you can build for them look better than ever. But perhaps the most fascinating part of the game is lining up potential parents in the family screen and repeatedly hitting the stork button to see what kind of kids they would produce.
The Movies (Lionhead, PC, 2004)
Here's your chance to become a Hollywood mogul. Starting in the golden age of silent pictures, you get to build your very own studio and star system. Construct every set, outfit your actors, decide on how much romance or action should be in each scene, then sit back and watch the trailer for the movie you just created. (For the full effect, add your own voice-over.) If the result pleases the critics, you've got a hit and the money rolling into your coffers will help expand the studio. If not, you may be stuck making grainy art-house flicks for the rest of your days. Success comes with a hefty emotional price tag: watch that your stars don't get too much adulation or they may develop a drinking problem.
Half Life 2 (Valve, PC, September 2003)
When it came to realistic graphics, many games tried to push the envelope this year. Only one took the envelope and tore it into tiny and perfectly paper-like shreds. The makers of this follow-up to 1998's hugely popular sci-fi horror Half Life border on the obsessive-compulsive with their attention to detail: human faces with more than 40 working muscles; characters that lip-synch their lines no matter what language they are speaking; objects like mattresses and wooden frames that, when shot, explode and shatter in the precise directions you'd expect. The plot involves a hostile alien takeover of the strangely named human habitation City 17, but that, like all the clever physics, is merely a means to the end of scaring the bejesus out of players. Easily the most terrifying creature is the Stalker, a War of the Worlds style giant with 50-ft. legs and the ability to suck in reality itself and exhale it in an earsplitting sonic boom. You would be well advised to start running in the opposite direction.
Rome: Total War (Creative Assembly)
So you think modern warfare is tough? The Total War series, previously set in medieval Europe and Japan, has an unnerving ability to remind you just how bloody historical conflict could be. This time, you're at the head of entire Roman, Greek or Carthaginian legionsand get lay siege to entire cities. You've never been able to zoom in this close before, close enough to literally see the whites of the centurions' eyes. And you've never seen anything like the charge of those Carthaginian elephants.
Quidditch World Cup (Electronic Arts, all platforms, Winter 2003)
The latest game for Harry Potter fans, Quidditch World Cup pits national teams of broom-bound wizards against each other in arena-sized aerial pursuit of the ball and the game-ending golden snitch. One problem posed by the booksif the team that caught the snitch always wins, what was the point in scoring goals?is answered here by a slight tweaking of the rules: each goal scores 10 pts, and the snitch is worth 150. And yes, you get to play as the lightning-scarred Hogwarts hero himself.
Playboy: the Mansion (Cyberlore, all platforms, 2004)
Proving beyond a doubt that games are for grown-ups too, this is a no-nudity-barred simulation of Hugh Hefner's life. Clad in the trademark silk robe, your aim is to build a mansion cool enough to attract pin-ups and celebrity interviews for your magazine. The better the sales, the better your mansion gets, and the more celebs clamor to get in. Unlike Hef, you get to snap the shutter at the photo shoots. The game was unveiled at the Playboy Mansion itself which, alas, only served to point out how far videogames have to go to truly catch up with reality.
Questions? You can e-mail Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org