by Marty Demarest

Ah, computers. How they've changed the world wonderful aids to work, when they work. When it comes to play, technology has advanced so much that it's hard not to be impressed by the opportunities it provides. Since almost everyone knows someone who either owns, works, or plays on a computer, we've assembled a guide to some of the better recent pieces of entertainment software available right now. With most games priced around $50, they may not be the most inexpensive gift, but a good choice can provide a gamer with an entire year of fun.

For quite a while, the computer games industry was driven by one major type of game - the first-person shooting game. Stepping into the virtual shoes, boots, or stilettos of some action hero/heroine, players blasted their ways through three-dimensional worlds filled with various enemies, telling something of a story in the process. This year, one of the games that launched the whole genre is back, with Return to Castle Wolfenstein. The first Wolfenstein pitted players against Hitler's secret occult forces, in an attempt to save humanity. The current game features more of the same, with much better graphics, and the option to play with or against your friends. It's intense, it's fast, and it's everything a fan of action/shooter games could want.

On a deeper level is Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon, which replaces the shooting and running found in most action games with tactics and stealth. Basing its physics and storyline in a future that could happen, the game is realistic enough that it's being used by the U.S. military for training purposes. Players can go through the 15 tense special-ops missions alone, or play the game online cooperating with friends, or opposing a squad of other players.

Another original twist to the action game can be found in Aliens Versus Predator 2, which takes its inspiration from the Alien and Predator film series. Gamers can choose to play as either the human space-marines, who are fragile but armed to the teeth; the trophy-hunting predators with their cloaking devices and futuristic weapons; or one of the famous aliens, who are fast and scary but only equipped for close combat. With atmospheric levels and an interesting story that loops back on itself as players play along, the single-player mode is enjoyable enough, but the multiplayer mode makes this game a winning title for any action fan.

The type of game that has come to dominate computer gaming lately however is the strategy game, which generally puts players in charge of a group of forces as they attempt to build, expand, and conquer the opposing forces. This year brings one of the most ambitious and beautiful strategy games to market - Empire Earth. Giving players the chance to control a civilization for half a million years of human history, the game is truly epic in scope. Not for the faint of heart, the game plays long, and at time frantically. However, it delivers a grander experience than most computer games ever attempt, and offers almost unlimited possibilities to replay a different way, time and again. In a similar vein is Civilization III, which is the latest installment in the massively popular series. Better than the two that came before it, Civilization III is a turn-based strategy game of human history that gives players the option to play for peace, prosperity, or all-out conquest. In fact, trade, technology, and diplomacy can be as mighty as any weapon here, making this a title for the more thoughtful gamer.

On a lighter note, there's Star Wars Galactic Battlegrounds, which offers gamers the chance to control the forces of one of six races from the Star Wars universe. It may not be complex, or particularly deep, but it's fast, fun, and is the only PC title this holiday season that offers Jedi knights and battalions of Wookies. Etherlords is a turn-based strategy game that brings the addictive and deep gameplay of card games like Magic to three-dimensional life. Surprisingly complex, Etherlords is the type of game that can take gamers months to master.

Of course, games like Monopoly have been around for decades primarily because they can be learned in moments, but mastered only with a lot of time and plenty of luck. The old game has finally been given a new and worthwhile twist in

Monopoly Tycoon, which can best be described as being the game you might imagine Monopoly to represent. Not only do you play Monopoly, but you simulate managing your growing city as you go, operating shops and satisfying your citizens. Spokane residents may even find themselves building a shopping mall, only to draw a bad publicity card.

Resting on the line somewhere between strategy and simulation is the ultra-popular title The Sims. Since building homes for families, to then watch them as they go about mundane tasks such as sleeping and going to the bathroom may not interest everyone, the new expansion pack Hot Date offers a new downtown area for players' sims to go hang out. Now they can shop, eat dinner, dance - even carry on an affair - along with a whole new range of actions.

Gamers who want the opportunity to role-play as another individual entirely have more options that ever - and most of the best of them are online, offering players the chance to interact with other players, all without actually socializing in person. This holiday, two of the most popular online role-playing games - Asheron's Call and Everquest - receive updates. Dark Majesty, the update for Asheron's Call adds an entirely new continent to the games' already enormous world along with the option for players to own houses for their characters, and Shadows of Luclin updates Everquest with access to the moon and a new race of creatures to role-play. Both games have their strengths - Everquest is better looking and offers players faster, more intense action. Asheron's Call is vaster, with more complex quests, adventures, and magic. Each of the games requires the payment of a monthly fee, in addition to the cost of the game itself, and while Dark Majesty includes the main game in addition to the expansion, Shadows of Luclin requires players to own the full game already.

And the newest entrants into the online role playing genre are Dark Age of Camelot and Anarchy Online. In Dark Age of Camelot players are aligned with a specific fantasy-themed nation, where they form friendships, adventure to gain experience, and ultimately go into battle with characters from other realms controlled by other players. Anarchy Online differs from the other online role playing games by being set in a science-fiction future, where players choose sides in a conflict between a mega-corporation and rebel insurgents. The game looks incredible, and unlike some of the other titles, rewards solo play almost as much as cooperative efforts.

American Inheritance: Unpacking World War II @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

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