For gamers, a cornucopia of new titles, add-ons

Tuesday, November 25th 2003, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

Unless they've dropped some clear hints, choosing a gift for the die-hard video gamers in the family could be overwhelming this holiday season.

An estimated 250 new games are expected in this pivotal season for game companies _ it accounts for about half of the industry's $10 billion annual sales.

Whether you prefer adaptations of Hollywood blockbusters, realistic war epics or kid-friendly go-cart racing, there's something for just about every gamer.

The most popular platforms have not changed: Nintendo's GameCube and Game Boy Advance, Sony's PlayStation2 and Microsoft's Xbox dominate, with personal computers accounting for a relatively niche audience.

With the next round of consoles still a few years away, Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony have been dropping prices to woo new customers.

At $99, the GameCube is the cheapest. Sony and Microsoft have slashed prices to a lesser degree, instead offering bundles that include the console, several games and accessories such as an Internet adapter for less than $200.

Action movies are often fertile ground for video games. This year is no exception.

``Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines'' coincided with the film's release on DVD. You get to play Arnold Schwarzenegger's terminator.

Not to be outdone by the upcoming film ``The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,'' game makers are offering three titles based on the saga of an almighty ring, frightful orcs and cute little hobbits.

``The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King'' by Electronic Arts mirrors events in the movie, including Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee's harrowing journey to Mount Doom.

There's also ``The Lord of the Rings: War of the Ring,'' a strategy game for personal computers set in Middle Earth, and ``The Hobbit,'' based on J.R.R. Tolkien's prequel about Frodo's uncle, Bilbo Baggins, and his encounter with Smaug the dragon.

War games are making a mark this year, with three titles in particular sure to make you stand at attention.

``Call of Duty'' for the PC is an impressive work of digital cinema, in which you play as Allied troops during World War II in a series of missions across Europe. Another battle game, ``Medal of Honor: Rising Sun,'' picks up the action in the Pacific, beginning with a harrowing escape from a battleship crippled during the attack on Pearl Harbor.

``Counter-Strike'' debuts for Xbox and brings all the terrorists vs. counter-terrorists team play found in the free version that PC gamers have been battling with for years. For endless fun against human opponents, a $50-a-year Xbox Live account is a must-have.

For wannabe rock stars, there are several offerings to get your air guitars rocking and lungs wailing.

Entertain your friends with Microsoft's ``Xbox Music Mixer,'' a karaoke program that lets you swap music and pictures with your personal computer.

Konami's ``Karaoke Revolution'' for PlayStation 2 adds a new twist to digital sing-alongs, testing your ability to sing in key. Earplugs are optional.

If you'd rather swing than sing, consider ``DDRMAX2 Dance Dance Revolution,'' where you jump, whirl and tap your feet to the beat. Opt for the $60 bundle that includes the PS2 game and a rollout dance mat. Better yet, buy two mats for head-to-head competition with a friend. It's great for fitness junkies looking for a new exercise regimen, too.

Now that we've killed robots, orcs and Nazis and strained our vocal cords, what's left? Plenty.

There's a slew of sporting games, from snowboarding (``Tricky SSX3'' and ``Amped 2'') to the skateboard adventure ``Tony Hawk's Underground.'' There are lots of traditional games, such as ``NCAA March Madness 2004'' and the tennis game ``Top Spin.''

Meanwhile, ``Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time'' will have you sidestepping walls and even controlling time itself as you cavort through a medieval Persian palace in search of treasure.

From the makers of the puzzle-solving slideshow ``Myst'' comes ``Uru: Ages Beyond Myst,'' a three-dimensional world of photorealism where gamers can interact with others online and uncover the mysteries of the ancient D'ni civilization.

``Deus Ex: Invisible War,'' the follow-up to the critically acclaimed ``Deus Ex,'' promises more of the sci-fi wonder world of augmented body enhancements and shadowy government figures.

There are two new editions of the Final Fantasy saga, a Japanese favorite replete with magic, warriors and ferocious monster battles. ``Final Fantasy XI'' is a massively multiplayer online role playing game for the PC, while the story-driven ``Final Fantasy XI-2'' debuts for the PS2.

Everyone's favorite plumbing brothers, Mario and Luigi, are back again exclusively for Nintendo.

``Mario Party 5'' for GameCube offers 60 mini-games you must win in a quest to restore peace to Dream World. And a game geared toward racing fans of all ages, ``Mario Kart: Double Dash'' is especially fun with two people, with one doing the driving and the other in the back seat, tossing obstacles to block opponents.

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