The year's unsung hero

In any other holiday season, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater would be the best game of the year. People would line up for miles to get a copy. But with two 300-pound gorillas dominating the hype (or haven't you heard?), a game as superior as this one gets left in the cold. What a shame.

Game producer Hideo Kojima is treated like a rock star in Japan for good reason: His Metal Gear Solid games have consistently been some of the most engrossing games created.

This time, he's reimagined the causes and aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis of the early '60s and inserted his elite operative Snake into the dense jungles of Russia in a mission to prevent the Soviets and the U.S. from starting a nuclear war.

While in the jungles, Snake slithers through the tall grasses, trying to remain out of sight. Kojima and the boys went to the trouble of making each blade of grass fully interactive. Move too much, shake the weeds, alert the guard, blow your cover. Amazing.

And even though a lot of the game play consists of watching John Woo-style cut screens, the story definitely keeps you engaged.

Details: PlayStation 2 platform; $49.99; rated mature (blood and gore, intense violence, language, sexual themes).


Calling all Jedis

Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic: The Sith Lords is more like an elaborately engrossing mystery novel than a game, and just as hard to put down.

Playing as the last living Jedi after a destructive civil war, gamers make choices that directly affect the characters around them as well as the course of the story. Remember those great "Choose Your Own Adventure" books? Same thing, just waaaay more complex and intricate (and featuring some great John Williams-sounding music too).

A bonus: An amazing playable level of Star Wars Republic Commando comes included.

Details: Xbox platform; $49.99; rated teen (blood and violence).


Fast but not so furious

We like racing games as much as — if not more than — the next guy. And we generally like Need for Speed Underground 2 because the cars are so beautiful and the race choices so open-ended. But we're bummed that we could drive our cyber Mazda Miata into a head-on crash and emerge without a scratch. The reason: The game makers didn't purchase the ability to damage the real-life licensed cars. It makes no sense, considering the endless in-game sponsorship and advertising (Cingular Wireless, Best Buy, Campbell's Soup, Old Spice) presumably netted some nice coin.

Details: All platforms; $49.99; rated everyone (mild lyrics and suggestive themes).


A ring that just rules

Smackdown vs. Raw is probably the best chair-bashing, eye-raking, chin-slapping wrestling game to date.

The graphics shine, the controls are logical and easy to pick up and the story lines are better than what you'll see on the broadcasts. Famous grapplers from days past (the Rock, Mankind, Andre the Giant and Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka) are available for "purchase" in the career mode.

It seems as if the game's makers actually tried this time (unlike on previous titles). For instance: In create-a-wrestler mode, even teeth are customizable!

Details: PlayStation 2 platform; $49.99; rated: teen (blood, language, sexual themes and violence).


Back to the arcade

Long before game makers figured out how to color in the lines, arcades were packed full of games like Asteroids, Battlezone and Tempest. Now those classics, along with 15 others, are available for home systems in the incredible Atari Anthology. Also included: 67 delightfully dated games from the mother of all systems, the Atari 2600.

Childhood, here we come (again!)

Details: PlayStation 2 and Xbox platforms; $19.99; rated everyone (simulated gambling).

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