Hot Holiday Sequels: Metroid Prime 2, Halo 2, and GTA: San Andreas

METROID PRIME 2: ECHOES By DANIEL LONGINO For Nintendo GameCube $49.99 B+

Nintendo's premiere first-person shooter is back as players join the hero, Samus Aran, a super-suited bounty hunter exploring a doomed planet and being hunted by a mysterious race of aliens called the Ing.

"Echoes" brings an element of intricate problem-solving rarely found in most numbskull first-person shooters. Also, the excellent graphics enhance the sci-fi storyline as well as add to the overall gameplay. The "Metroid" series in its GameCube form remains intriguing because of its ability to be extremely complex and overwhelmingly simple at the same time.

While some of the puzzles may drive players off the wall to the point of contemplating dialing some 900 number, sitting back and shooting aliens is not a complex process by any stretch of the imagination.

A big plus with this installment of "Metroid" is that this sequel marks the first time that up to four players can participate in the multiplayer mode, which essentially doubles the fun from the previous "Metroid" game.

The downsides of "Metroid Prime 2: Echoes" are few, but existent. The single-player game can only really be enjoyed by the person playing it. The puzzles and cinematics are incredibly engaging, but lack a communal gameplay atmosphere found in other flashier titles. It is also too similar to the previous "Metroid" game for GameCube and doesn't bring enough new to the table. But the graphics are too sweet to really complain. Ultimately, if you don't mind playing the story mode by yourself, "Echoes" is a perfect way to spend hours on end blasting aliens.

HALO 2 By JORGE DEL PINAL For Xbox $49.99 A-

The original "Halo" was the flagship of the Microsoft Xbox when it first came out in 2001. The game incorporated fantastic shoot-'em-up game play, vehicle based combat and great graphics.

The story was a sci-fi "Starcraft" meets "Half-Life" tale that put the player in the shoes of Master Chief, a genetically enhanced super soldier in cool green armor who must fight against a coalition of battle-hardened aliens known as the Covenant. The Covenant tried to prevent the human forces from discovering the secrets of Halo, namely a terrible virus that turns all living things into monsters.

The Flood was unleashed, of course, and the ancient supercomputer that controlled the ringworld known as "Halo" sought Chief's help in destroying the Flood. Whoops, it turned out that destroying the Flood would also wipe out every living thing in the galaxy. Despite the odds, Chief destroyed Halo, kept the Flood contained and hitched a ride back to Earth.

In "Halo 2," you once again play as Master Chief, but this time you also play as an elite Covenant warrior known as the Arbiter. The story of "Halo 2" is very convoluted and a bit hard to follow at times. It attempts to throw in lots of backstory that explains the religious themes that drive the Covenant, and feels a little too ambitious for it's own good.

Despite the complex story, "Halo 2" has what really matters: excellent gameplay and great graphics. The game designers smartly kept things that worked from the first game and added a few new features that are a lot of fun. As in the previous game, you are only able to hold two different types of guns and have the ability to throw grenades. This seems like a limitation, but it adds the need to watch and conserve ammo and to always keep an eye out for a new weapons to switch to if you run out of ammo. New to "Halo 2" is the ability to hold duel weapons. This is a great new feature that lets players tear into enemies that they need to dispense quickly. The only catch is that you can't throw grenades while holding duel weapons.

The levels on "Halo 2" are big, beautiful and well-designed. You fight in the rubble of a war-torn, earth city, an ancient Aztec-like temple, a lush jungle, tight corridors of large spaceships and alien cities, among many other settings. One thing the "Halo" series lacks is a good directional system. Players can sometimes get lost or backtrack accidentally because there is not usually a clear indication of where they have to go. But this isn't too severe of a problem.

One fantastic part of the "Halo" games is the vehicles. "Halo 2" offers seven drivable vehicles. Each one offers different sets of weapons and one even flies. "Halo 2" offers the usual weapons found in most shooters, including machine guns, sniper rifles and bazookas. The most notable new weapon to "Halo 2" is the energy sword, a powerful but energy-limited blade.

Overall, "Halo 2" has some narrative problems, but that doesn't take much away from the most important aspect of the game: the sheer fun. The game plays so smoothly and looks so good that the story can slack a bit and still get away with it. By the end of the story mode, players are left craving more. Luckily, gamers can enjoy playing the fantastic multiplayer games or replay some of the great levels in the story mode until "Halo 3" comes out.

GRAND THEFT AUTO: SAN ANDREAS By RYAN GRANNAN-DOLL For PlayStation 2 $49.99 A

Don't play "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" until you are done with your finals, because otherwise you will fail them. The third installment of the "GTA" series is downright amazing and a massive upgrade from "Vice City."

The wait for "San Andreas" has paid off, with new game aspects such as new characters, new types of missions, a highly interactive environment, upgraded graphics and stunningly easy controls. In "San Andreas," players inherit the role of Carl Johnson, a gang member who returns home after his mother is killed. They enter an engaging and realistic environment that talks to Carl based on his customizable clothes, facial hair and musculature.

Also, enhancing the game are upgraded graphics similar to the two previous PlayStation 2 installments, and a new statistics system that gives Carl clout throughout "San Andreas." Carl has a large and dynamic city to travel in and an enormous map to play with, which is divided into three smaller parts with different missions.

Throughout the game, you interact with an eclectic mix of characters from pimps to hippies. The mix features voice talents of a few Hollywood stars, including Samuel L. Jackson. The characters skillfully weave themselves into the story by employing players on various missions and sometimes accompanying players on the missions. An example of this comes when you begin working for "Jizzy the Pimp" by killing his enemies who intimidate his prostitutes.

Besides the missions, there are various sub-plots for Carl to participate in, such as dance contests and pimping his ride in order to gain respect against other gangs. The best sub-plot, though, are the gang wars. Early in the game, various gangs claim their turf, and Carl and his Grove Street boys can invade and take over their rivals' turf. Players lead a multiple-man team into rival turf and fend off attacking gang members until Carl's gang can claim it.

Rockstar Games, the publisher, has once again come through with PS2's staple game. But this game is not for the weak-hearted or those who can't digest the game's brutal violence.

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