Guns and gore are big business for video game makers. They can be big a headache for parents.
War games and gangster-glorifiers like "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City" dominate store shelves, making child-friendly titles hard to find.
With "Toontown Online," Disney steps in to plug the shortfall. Violence in the multiplayer Internet game, set in a vibrant and persistent cartoon world, is rarely much worse than a pie in the face, though anvils sometimes fall from the sky.
In Toontown, players must keep the streets safe from Cogs, drab corporate types who want to stifle fun and remake the town's colorful buildings in their monochromatic image.
To beat the Cogs -- who have names like Head Hunter, Corporate Raider and Number Cruncher -- you'll have to pit laughter against their dreary business tactics.
Players throw pies, drop pianos and use squirt guns while Cogs retaliate with ink sprayed from fountain pens, thrown half-Windsor ties and their highly memorable "glower power."
Even when the Cogs win, players don't die -- they get sad and return to playgrounds, which are safe zones located every few city blocks.
There, players can regain good humor and earn more jelly beans, which are legal tender in Toontown. Players enter mini-games like tug-of-war or dodge-the-Cog mazes to get more jelly beans.
Disney designed Toontown's chat system with children in mind. Players who haven't designated each other as friends can only communicate with a "speed chat" system, a drop-down menu of common phrases.
In order to freely type with each other, players must exchange passwords outside of the game, giving parents a chance to screen the people who can interact with their children. Disney's staff also monitors the game's conversations and character names for obscenities.
Adults may find the chat system stifling and the round trips from Cog fights to jellybean games repetitive, but at least parents will know the game is safe. Children, on the other hand, are likely to sink hours into Toontown.
Installing it took a few minutes with a broadband connection, and the game is available now as a 3-day free trial. A CD-ROM version for dial-up modem users hit store shelves Oct. 1.
After the free trial, Toontown costs $10 a month. Subscription plans include six months for $50 and a year for $80.
On the Net:
Tiger Woods PGA Tour
First EA put Tiger's face on its best-selling golf title, and now it wants to include yours (or a reasonable approximation of it). This year's update brings the EA Sports Game Face, a way for players to build a detailed facsimile of themselves to compete in the PGA Tour. Beyond the typical create-a-player options of face, hair color, eye color and facial hair, players can edit cheek, chin and jaw structure, brow height, ear size and shape, and foot size. And whoever you play online sees the Game Face you created.
PGA Tour 2004 also deepens its career mode, allowing gamers to play through 10 years of the tour calendar, picking up more sponsorships (is this game realistic or what?) and consequent upgrades in clothing and equipment. Seven new courses join the existing 12 locations, and five new pros appear, bringing the cast of characters to more than 30. Once you've gotten the hang of playing against the computer, you can hit the links online in the personal computer and PlayStation2 editions. EA's setup allows voice chat -- a broadband connection is required -- and stat tracking, with leader boards regularly updated at the EA Sports Nation site. With detail-saturated graphics, informed play-by-play commentary and the same precise swing controls as last year, this is as close as most of us can get to the real thing.
Details: Win 98 or newer, $40; GameCube, PlayStation 2, Xbox, $50.
Clifford teaches phonics
The latest Scholastic release takes big-hearted Clifford to the Birdwell Island Carnival, where the attractions are broken and kids have to help Clifford (voiced by the late John Ritter) and his pals make repairs while they find decorations for the floats in the carnival's big parade. The hidden agenda here is coaxing 4- to 6-year-olds into working on their reading skills, but it's made fun and friendly in the dozen reading games and creative learning activities gathered here.
One, for example, teaches word recognition and sentence structure by having kids create silly stories using words and pictures. Another explores word families and blending by asking kids to match the correct letters to Ferris wheel cars. And a third works on consonants by challenging players to match letters to sounds.
Details: Win 95 or newer/Mac OS 8.6 or newer/Mac OS X, $20, ages 4 to 6.
Star Wars' Jedi Academy
This lightsaber-fest starts by handing a big chunk of the script to you: You can create your character Jaden almost from scratch, choosing a gender and one of five races, then selecting skin color and clothing. Then you can pick from 15 different models of lightsaber, including such options as blade color and design (do you prefer the traditional sword-type setup or a "saber staff" like Darth Maul's?). Then class starts -- Jaden learns the Jedi way from Kyle Katarn, the hero of the earlier Jedi Knight titles, and Luke Skywalker himself. But when a mysterious cult starts to gain power, Jaden and his fellow students from the Academy have to put their training to use.
The ensuing missions follow linear paths, but you can break up the action by returning to the Academy for more training, learning new skills and Force powers (12 in all) before going back to battle.
As in this title's predecessor, Jedi Outcast, using the Force is the best part of the game. It's a real pleasure to "Force Push" a stormtrooper off a cliff or choke an Imperial guard using "Force Grab."
In addition to the typical Deathmatch, a creative Siege mode lets players work as a team to complete objectives; if you don't have fast Internet access, you can set up matches against surprisingly challenging, computer-controlled Bots.
Details: Win 98 or newer, $50 (Xbox version due this winter).
Cabela's Deer Hunt
SEASON, Activision Value
Low prices and mass-market distribution through the likes of Wal-Mart have helped deer-hunting games become a surprising hit on PCs. Now publishers are looking to extend this success to consoles -- this is the second hunting title Activision shipped this year for the PlayStation 2. But these realistic simulations haven't been modified to mollify twitchy console gamers, which means game play remains slow and methodical; i.e., boring to this audience.
Each hunt begins with you choosing one of five hunters (two are female) and one of nine locales, including Alaska, Arizona and Florida. Based on the season and environment you've chosen, you'll have to equip your virtual hunter with clothing, guns, gadgets, water, food and camping equipment.
The forests are stocked with nine different species of deer, which do their best to avoid your bullets. So bringing one down requires a lot of time and patience. Even the gunshots take time: When you fire your rifle, the camera tracks the bullet and shows the deer going down in slow-mo. (The resulting visuals may upset fans of any of the Bambi movies.)
Deer Hunt's controls aren't intuitive compared with most console titles', which will cause some frustration as beginners make their way through the woods -- all for the reward of seeing the deer's head mounted on your hunter's living-room wall. If you don't hunt yourself, steer clear of this game.
Details: PlayStation 2, Xbox, $30.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Chaos bleeds
Vivendi Universal Games/Eurocom
Buffy the TV series is dead, but Buffy the franchise character lives on. This sequel to last year's surprisingly strong title returns Buffy and her fellow Slayers to their pastime of protecting Sunnydale from the demons, vampires and other monsters that spring from Hellmouth, located just below the town.
In the single-player mode's 12 levels, you'll control your choice of Buffy, Faith, Willow, Xander, Spike or Sid the Dummy (who specializes in attacking enemies' knees) in the battle against an evil called the First. You can punch and kick to your heart's content -- and employ such weapons as holy water, axes, swords, shovels and any furniture you care to break up -- but killing the undead requires a stake to the heart.
Compared with the first Buffy game, this one features more action and more enemies but less intelligence among them -- a change made to appeal to a more mainstream audience.
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