Christmas Gifts: Go computer game crackers

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The Independent Culture
In the absence of any obvious must-buy blockbuster games this Christmas, a visit to your nearest high street store in search of digital entertainment is likely to prove confusing. With a daunting number of games on the shelves, you could find it very difficult to sort out the winners from the also-rans. But you won't go far wrong with any of the following.

The ground-breaking shoot-'em-ups Half-Life, from Sierra, and Sin, from Activision, should be near the top of your list, as they have finally delivered what the games world has promised for years - a fusion of action and narrative. Eidos' Tomb Raider III, as we've come to expect, eschews narrative threads, but is, nevertheless, by far Lara's best outing yet. Activision's bizarre Grim Fandango boasts a hilarious storyline and a fantastic Art Deco-meets-Aztec look that puts most films to shame, although its adherence to the point-and-click adventure formula breeds sedate gameplay.

Some unfancied pretenders turned out more compelling than expected - particularly Infogrames' Wargasm, which pitches players into a startlingly realistic simulation of modern warfare. Budding Napoleons should find their military leadership skills satisfyingly taxed by Eidos' Commandos and Empire's 101st Airborne In Normandy, while Sierra's Caesar III, Microsoft's Age of Empires: Rise of Rome and Electronic Arts' Populous: The Beginning will delight all aficionados of strategy games. Virgin's Dune 2000 and Magic and Mayhem are also worth considering. If you like platform games, head for GT Interactive's Abe's Exoddus, an absorbing effort with an environmentally friendly bent, in which you must make extensive use of Abe's basic but delightful vocabulary. It's one of the few games around designed to appeal to women as well as men. SCi's Carmageddon II attracted a vast amount of controversy, thanks to a brush with the BBFC, and while its mix of driving with pedestrian-torture may sound repugnant, it's actually a brilliantly crafted and hilarious, if sick, game. Codemasters' TOCA 2 and Colin McRae Rally are must-haves for serious petrol-heads, and Sierra's Grand Prix Legends, which puts you behind the wheel of a selection of F1 cars from the sixties, is a sublime idea, although it's hard to play. EA Sports' FIFA 99 sets new standards for football games, although Michael Owen's World League Soccer, from Eidos, and Gremlin's Actua Soccer 3 aren't far behind.

Sony's Bust A Groove - a charming competitive dancing game, believe it or not - is probably the only game released in 1998 which can claim true originality. Microsoft, meanwhile, took the most unoriginal game ever, Flight Simulator, and turned it into Combat Flight Simulator, an epic WWII dogfighting affair which is great to play.

We'll have to wait until next year before Sega's Dreamcast - the next significant bells-and-whistles games console - reaches these shores, but one item of essential hardware has just arrived, in the form of Nintendo's Game Boy Colour which, when teamed up with the Game Boy Camera and Printer kit has become the gadget to own. If you're in doubt, any decent shop should let you try some of its games before you buy - and remember, flashy packaging doesn't necessarily mean great game-play.

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