Whether you like your mascots original-recipe or your aliens extra crispy, these hot new titles are finger-twitchin' good

Devil May Cry

Measured on our quasi-scientific scale of brain activity, playing videogames rates somewhere between Neo’s perception of the Matrix and Woody Allen’s experience inside the Orgasmatron. It’s a mindless blast into the future. But what’s looming in that future depends on which of the three gaming consoles you put your money on this season. Sony’s PlayStation 2, far from merely being last year’s model, is entering the peak of its development cycle with a lineup of titles, spearheaded by Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, that have been tweaked to perfection. But there’s no denying the technological supremacy of Microsoft’s black Xbox (on sale Nov. 15), which is rushing onto PlayStation’s turf with up to 20 games — no small feat for a newcomer. And while the purple GameCube from Nintendo (on sale Nov. 18) appears to be targeted toward a younger crowd, even fans are itching to play Pikmin and Luigi’s Mansion — new games from the revered game designer Shigeru Miyamoto. And since it’s the must-have games that sell consoles, each platform’s fate is tied to the breakout titles from this latest crop. We’ve taken a look at some new games and offered our take on those most likely to move the hardware — and lift you to that higher state of consciousness.

— CONSOLE Microsoft Xbox ($299) TYPICAL PLAYER Someone looking for a gi-normous hard drive with a built-in DVD player and the ability to custom-mix soundtracks to go with each game. In other words, the guy who already owns a PS2, and every other console made since the Atari VCS came out way back in 1977. FIRST GAME BUY Halo ($49.99), an alien-splattering sci-fi adventure that showcases Xbox’s graphics-generating potential. You’ve crash-landed on a vast ”ring” world inhabited by vicious creatures who dwell in labyrinthine underground cities. A squad of Marines accompanying you on your mission and a neural-net communication link move the story along without getting in the way. Jumping in and out of vehicles or picking up weaponry — whether alien or human — is a cinch. And a cooperative multiplayer mode puts one fighter in the cockpit of a Warthog while the other mans a cannon in the back. The only thing missing is an IV tube to let you play without ever leaving your chair. SECOND CHOICES Shrek ($49.99), because flaming farts are the hero’s deadliest weapon and every fairy-tale-skewering level — who knew Little Bo Peep was such a pain in the keister? — is as demented as the movie’s plot. And NFL Fever 2002 (also $49.99), which is play-by-play proof of how the Xbox crushes the PS2 (the pigskin in this version uses graphics power greater than the total video memory of the PS2 ). — Noah Robischon

— CONSOLE Nintendo GameCube TYPICAL PLAYER The kiddie set, retro-freaks, and fans of franchise characters like Mario, Luigi, and Zelda. Oh, and the budget-conscious: The cube is ”only” $199.95 — though you’ll likely want to buy a memory card and an extra controller. FIRST GAME BUY Star Wars: Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader ($49.95) Ready the drool pans and prepare the bibs, because the first killer app for the Cube is here. The latest LucasArts entry stands to provide myriad advantages over its N64 predecessor — from incorporating footage from the films into gameplay to eye-popping graphics that take full advantage of the new processing power. Fans of the original will find the sequel at once familiar and brand-spanking-new. Sure, you’ve got to waste the Death Star and trip up an entire army of clunky Imperial Walkers, but the improved Nintendo controllers (which, as usual, are the class of the field), 3-D radar, and stunning new look make the trip to Tatooine worth it. In short, Rogue Squadron II will not only likely, ahem, lead the pack, it’s bound to be a must-have even for folks who hear ”Star Wars” and think ”Comic Book Guy on The Simpsons.” second choices Luigi’s Mansion ($49.95) He’s always been Tito to Mario’s Michael, but the first title to showcase a stock Nintendo crew member could change that faster than you can say ”Itsa me! Luigi!” The little green guy inherits a haunted mansion after his more famous bro is kidnapped. You don’t suppose Bowser could be behind it, do you? Super Monkey Ball ($49.95) They’re monkeys. Rolling around in plastic balls. On platforms suspended miles in the air. Collecting bananas and fighting with each other. Hmmm. Where do we sign up? — Daniel Fierman

— CONSOLE PlayStation 2 ($299) TYPICAL PLAYER The veteran gamer who likes the idea of having a huge catalog of titles to choose from (including old PS1 favorites) and not having to learn how to wield a new controller. FIRST GAME BUY Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty ($49.99) It’s the one every PS2 owner has been waiting for, and with good reason. Most games specialize in either in-depth story lines, cutting-edge cinematics, or seamless gameplay. MGS2 excels in all three areas. Plus, you get to shoot lots of bad guys. Once again, you control master operative Solid Snake, infiltrating enemy lines in search of another weapon of mass destruction, the Metal Gear Ray. Game developer Konami has improved almost every aspect of the original title, including its first-person mode (great for any sniper work you may want to perform). The attention to detail in every aspect of the military thriller is what makes it the must-have game of the season, even if hero Snake for some reason has taken to sporting a really cheesy mullet. SECOND CHOICES Why waste time racing around a silly track when you can cruise the streets of Liberty City in a stolen car while pulling jobs for the Mob? The very mature Grand Theft Auto III ($49.99) is every bad boy’s dream (and every parent’s nightmare), but for over-the-top excess it’s impossible to beat. If you’ve got a hankering to kick some demon butt, give Devil May Cry ($49.99) a spin; it plays like an angry, disaffected, pistol-packing cousin of Onimusha: Warlords and Resident Evil. In other words, world-exploring-quest fun at its hell-spawn-infested finest.

Devil May Cry
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