Summer Guide: Video games—Screw the great outdoors!

Spend your summer on the couch with the newest releases for PlayStation 2

With the graphics that games like <i>Final Fantasy X </i> (shown) and <i>Gran Turismo 3 </i>offer, who needs to leave the house?

With the graphics that games like Final Fantasy X (shown) and Gran Turismo 3 offer, who needs to leave the house?

Outdoor summer activities are highly overrated. Swimming? Sand in every orifice and cancer-causing ultraviolet rays. Barbecue? I’ll pass on the charred, fly-attracting animal flesh. Softball? The RN&R softball team’s 1-9 record last year ruined the sport for me.

If you haven’t guessed already, I’m not much of an outdoor girl. Instead of sweating and burning, I’ll be spending my summer in ultra-geek mode: in the comfort of my living room, curled up on the couch, playing video games.

Besides Internet games on the iMac, I waste my free time on a PlayStation, an old Sega Genesis and an original eight-bit Nintendo Entertainment System (complete with such old-school games as Dragon Warrior and the ubiquitous Duck Hunt/Super Mario Brothers combo). But after a recent big credit line increase on the Circuit City card, I’m finally ready to purchase the next big thing in gaming consoles: the PlayStation 2, which retails for about $300.

The hardware’s the easy part; once I’ve got the coveted black box in my hands, the real challenge will be choosing the best games. At $50 a pop, buying a crappy video game can be a bummer. So I’ve been scanning gaming sites for reviews on the best titles to be released this summer, and here are my top three picks for couch-potato bliss:

1. Final Fantasy X (Squaresoft):
barely makes the list of summer debuts, with a release date of Sept. 1, but it tops my list of most-anticipated PS2 games of the season. Squaresoft hooked me several years ago with Final Fantasy VII, a role-playing game of the most epic proportions I had ever seen. It had a dark, gritty, urban wasteland feel to it, combined with the heroism of medieval times.

I eagerly shelled out cash for Final Fantasy VIII, which is just as complicated and much more graphically beautiful, even if the storyline didn’t grab me as much. Final Fantasy IX was a setback, because they dumbed the game down for the masses; as far as I’m concerned, any role-playing game that doesn’t require you to purchase a $15 strategy guide isn’t worth my time. But after beating the game, and being now in the process of a second play-through, I’ve lightened up a bit. FF IX is fun, if not as complicated, and the graphics are simply breathtaking.

Previews of FF X promise that the game will be even more colorful and ornate than its predecessors. I checked out a pre-release movie of the game-play, and wow, they’re not kidding. The characters move realistically and are highly detailed; I can almost count the hairs on their heads.

The plot sounds intriguing: The world is covered in water after a disaster 1,000 years ago, and a malevolent force called “Sin” is infecting the planet, manifesting itself in natural disasters. Not so unique are the lead characters: You’ve got the typical gregarious male hero and the typical magic-using female hero who has not yet realized the full force of her powers. But hey, if ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

2. Gran Turismo 3 (Sony Computer Entertainment America):
Sony revolutionized the racing game genre with Gran Turismo, in which the digitized cars responded more like actual cars than ever before in a video game setting. It’s so realistic, in fact, that besides the standard instruction booklet, the original Gran Turismo comes with a whole booklet just on the concepts behind driving.

You can’t just mash down on the gas, bounce off the walls and still expect to win. A high-powered front-wheel drive car is going to react differently than a high-powered rear-wheel drive car. You’ve got to learn the subtle art of the “brake skid.” You’ve got to choose soft or hard tires, depending on the track and your driving style. You’ve got to take tests and get a license just to compete on the majority of the tracks!

Previews of Gran Turismo 3, slated for a June 1 release, promise you’ll be blown away by the new graphics, and the sound has been enhanced so that every car rumbles differently, just like in real life. You may want to upgrade your home entertainment system for surround sound, because the revving engines, squealing tires and high-energy music really do add to the excitement of the game.

GT 3 also includes a disturbingly real twist in artificial intelligence: If you cut off another driver or run him off the road, he’ll be gunning for you for the rest of the game. Yes, ladies and gents, road rage has been digitized. Unfortunately, the number of cars you have to choose from has dropped from 500 in Gran Turismo 2 to only 170 in Gran Turismo 3. But that’s still 170 cars.

3. Clive Barker’s Undying (Electronic Arts):
I’m not usually down with “shooter” games. You see everything from the first-person point of view, which means you can never tell when some freakish monster is sneaking up behind you. They require way more hand-eye coordination than any human should have. They’re also usually weak in the plot department; I guess gamers figure that as long as you’ve got plenty of bad guys to blow away, the story line is secondary.

That’s why I’m looking forward to Clive Barker’s Undying, slated for release June 1. Barker is best known as the screwed-up mind behind the Hellraiser movie franchise, and if you’ve read any of his books, you know he’s got a knack for the fantasy-horror combo. Apparently, Barker was briefly consulted on story ideas for this game and was so intrigued by the possibilities that he signed on for the long haul.

Undying has already been released for the PC, so I went to check out the game’s official Web site. After the basic warning on the home page—may not be suitable for those under 18, blah, blah, blah—I was prepared for a little ickiness. Then I had to enter my birth date before I could even watch the demo. Now that’s a sign of a good, gory video game! Bring on the carnage!

I’m hoping that Undying will be as creepy as another PlayStation favorite of mine, Silent Hill, which actually provoked a few muffled screams from me while I played.

Hey, I’d like to see you keep your cool when skinless hellhounds chase you through a nightmarish dream world.