For grown-up gamers, this has been one of the best holiday seasons yet. But titles like "Halo 2," "Doom 3," "Half-Life 2" and "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" deserve their adults-only...
For grown-up gamers, this has been one of the best holiday seasons yet. But titles like “Halo 2,” “Doom 3,” “Half-Life 2” and “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas” deserve their adults-only M rating, leaving parents in a muddle.
Even some seemingly safe games rated T (for teens) have hidden gotchas, like the abysmal “Street Racing Syndicate,” which lets winning drivers win and trade “racing model” girls like playing cards. (A much better bet: “Need for Speed Underground 2.”)
For younger kids, you can’t go wrong with an E-rated game, the equivalent of a G-rated movie. (Almost all sports games are rated E.) For teens, a T-rated title will include some PG-13 content, but generally not much racier than an episode of “The Bachelor” or gorier than any “CSI” show. For parents who need some last-minute kid-friendly suggestions, check out the shopping hints with each review below.
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“The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age,” Electronic Arts, GameCube, GBA, PS2, Xbox (reviewed), rated “T” for “Teen,” $49.99
For fans of “Lord of the Rings” movies, this holiday season will be the first since 2001 without that Elven fix. Stepping in to fill the void is “The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age,” in which players control a band of adventurers oh-so-similar to another familiar fellowship. There’s a Ranger, a Gondorian warrior, an elf and a dwarf. Along the way, others — including Gandalf, Legolas, Aragorn, Faramir and Gimli — join the party temporarily.
The game isn’t an action title. Like the popular “Final Fantasy” series, “Third Age” uses turn-based combat, requiring players to think both offensively and defensively for each raging battle. While it seems a little odd to line up like colonial brigades at the start of each fight, it’s no less challenging than a regular fighting game.
The game supplements sound snippets from the movies with a lavish narration by Ian McKellen. At the conclusion of each mission, players are rewarded with a two- or three-minute segment of re-edited movie clips.
But the plot for “The Third Age” is a little goofy. Is it likely that an enlightened, I’ve-lived-for-40-human-lifetimes female elf would bicker with a female Rohan warrior over a Gondorian guy? Or that the Rohan maid would wear a belly-exposing shirt, à la Lindsay Lohan, while doing it?
Yet it’s an otherwise engaging game, a good blending of role-playing elements within the “Lord of the Rings” universe. Any fan will enjoy it.
Hints for parents: If your kid could handle the movies’ violent battle scenes, “The Third Age” will be fine. If you head to the video-game store to pick up a copy, keep in mind that there’s another LOTR-themed title on the market from the same manufacturer. “The Battle for Middle-Earth” arranges wars on a big scale, similar to the game “Civilization,” where armies act like chess pieces. Be sure you know which one you’re getting — although both are rated “T” for teen.
“Nancy Drew: The Curse of Blackmoor Manor,” Her Interactive, PC, rated “E” for “Everyone,” $19.99
The Nancy Drew video games are made by a small Bellevue company, Her Interactive, which thankfully has persisted — despite a girls’ market flooded with insipid Barbie-themed titles — in producing E-rated Nancy Drew-themed mysteries.
While the graphics for this latest title can seem a bit dated, the heart of the game is good. It’s a slightly spooky story, like the best Nancy Drew books. Throughout, players scan every corner for strange noises, use Nancy’s cellphone to call boyfriend Ned to chat, and put the pieces together using a checklist of clues. And what the heck is that ghostly squeaking coming from the end of the hall?
To be honest, the game mechanics are pretty rudimentary, and they can be frustrating. Without meaning to, I accidentally set Nancy’s alarm for 3 a.m. Assuming I should go explore — is there jet-lag in the Nancy Drew universe? — I woke up the groundskeeper at an ungodly hour, and Nancy was promptly fired. But there is a helpful “do-over” option, which reduced the pain. Once I got the hang of it, I was able to chat with people and keep track of Nancy’s progress.
The Nancy Drew games are a huge cult favorite; go to a Web site like Amazon.com, and you’ll see glowing 4- and 5-star reviews. As with the books, the joy of the games lies in discovery, putting together the pieces and pointing the finger at the guilty party — or is it parties?
Hints for parents: The Nancy Drew games are priced at a reasonable $20, unlike many other PC titles (which can run up to $50). To supplement the game, you might want to also pick up the strategy guide (about $10), which contains a “walkthrough” of the whole game and extra tips to get through tough spots. There are also free message boards at www.nancydrewgames.com.
“The Urbz: Sims in the City,” Electronic Arts, GameCube, GBA, Nintendo DS, Xbox, PS2 (reviewed), rated “T” for “Teen,” $49.99
“The Urbz: Sims in the City” is an isolated red-stater’s vision of what the inner city must be like. Sometimes it’s downright funny, as when the manager of the Goth-owned “piercing station” compliments you for “no new infections this week.” But the game also delves into some serious stereotyping. The designers seem to be defaulting to the “South Park” satire rule: Insult everyone equally, and you’ll come out OK.
In Urbz-logic, every city seems to be a downscale mix of Chicago and all New York City boroughs combined. Upon moving in with strangers to a shared apartment, each Urb immediately sheds his or her bland middle-American identity and gets many body piercings, becomes an avant-guard sculptor or bartender at a hip-hop club. If they head to “Diamond Heights,” a Trump-like apartment building, they can work their way up the ladder from amateur model to catwalk superstar.
The Black Eyed Peas provide the soundtrack, and band members show up as characters, providing tips to new players. As in the original “Sims,” all characters are required to spend equal parts of the day taking care of their basic needs: showering, eating, working, sleeping and enjoying themselves with leisure activities. At the outset, entertainment options are limited, with Urbz rocking out as their transistor radios blast cleverly retooled songs that sound almost exactly like Gwen Stefani and Beyoncé.
Hint for parents: Urbz are naked but pixilated when they get ready to shower, more a silly joke than racy content. But the overriding message — lose your sense of self and blend in to a group as quickly as possible — is a little grimace-worthy. The Urbz city will never be confused with “Sesame Street.”
A final note
Keep in mind that some of the best E- or T-rated games released this year aren’t necessarily the latest. “Spider-Man 2” is a total blast to play, as the webslinger defies gravity while helping out hapless citizens. “Star Wars: Battlefront” is arguably the most fun of the Lucas titles this year and a must-have for any fan of the movies. And for Thanksgiving, I took a copy of “SSX 3” — a snowboarding game released over a year ago — to my family party and it still held up with a tough group of half a dozen gamers ages 10 to 22.
Parents, if you want advice on any particular video game as you’re shopping for the holidays, feel free to drop me a note at: email@example.com
Jennifer Buckendorff is a regular video game reviewer for The Seattle Times: firstname.lastname@example.org