Moral watchdogs are quick to criticize video games for their reckless disregard for human life. And to be fair, there is a lot of bloodshed on our Xboxes and PlayStations.
For a while, game designers dodged such criticism by making sure the victims of violence weren't human - aliens, perhaps, or zombies or robots. But with the emergence of "Grand Theft Auto" and its imitators, it became open season on the human race, even on people whose only crime was that they didn't duck.
That sort of "kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out" approach makes us a little squeamish. The shoot-'em-ups reviewed here take a step back from that kind of nihilism and at least provide their trigger-happy heroes with some motivation. And they make us feel a little less guilty for enjoying the mayhem so much.
-"Prey" (2K Games, for the Xbox 360, $49.99): The hero of "Prey" is Tommy, a Cherokee mechanic who's desperate to get off the reservation. He gets his wish when aliens invade, abducting Tommy, his girlfriend and his grandfather into their massive spaceship. Most of "Prey" is set within the enormous mothership, a biomechanical marvel straight out of H.R. Giger's nightmares. The game's distinguishing feature is that the gravity is constantly shifting - so, for example, you may be hanging from the ceiling while aliens patrol the floor. To further confuse matters, the creatures can open dimensional portals and suddenly attack en masse. And Tommy's Cherokee heritage does prove useful after all in the form of "spirit-walking," in which he can temporarily leave his body and pass through otherwise impenetrable obstacles. All three gimmicks, particularly the vertigo-inducing changes in gravity, liven up a rock-solid shooter that also boasts smooth controls and eerie graphics and audio. Three and a half stars.
-"Painkiller: Hell Wars" (Dreamcatcher, for the Xbox, $29.99): As "Painkiller" begins, a regular guy named Daniel Garner is killed in a car accident. Lucky for him, he's offered the chance to make it into heaven - if he can fight his way through the minions of Satan. Those minions come in all shapes and sizes, from medieval knights to undead Nazis to possessed babies, but they all serve the same purpose: fodder for your "painkiller," a set of spinning blades that works sort of like a souped-up hedge trimmer. Most of "Painkiller" consists of mowing down dozens of such demons, although occasionally you'll confront a giant-size boss who requires a little more ingenuity to bring down. The levels bounce all around human history, from ancient Rome to a modern military base, but they're fairly straightforward and there's not much reason to explore them. "Painkiller" is fun if you like seeing lots of monsters go "splat" and don't feel like using your brain much. Two stars out of four.
-"Hitman: Blood Money" (Eidos, for the Xbox 360, $59.99; Xbox, PlayStation 2, $39.99): Then there's Agent 47, an assassin with a bar code tattooed on his bald head. In "Blood Money," 47 discovers that his contract agency has been targeted by a rival group, which he learns more about as he completes his missions. The jobs take 47 to a number of colorful locales, including Las Vegas and New Orleans, where he has to take out his targets without getting civilians caught in the crossfire. While you can run-and-gun in "Hitman," shooting anything that gets in the way, it's much more satisfying to play stealthily, slowly getting closer to the target and then eliminating him with a quietly placed head shot. You have a lot of freedom in deciding how to get the job done, whether you want to use poison, explosives or a long-range sniper rifle. There are still some problems with the "Hitman" franchise - the game-saving mechanism stinks, and the missions start to feel the same after a while - but it's a good challenge for gamers who have nerves of steel. Two and a half stars.
On the Net:
"Painkiller: Hell Wars": http://www.painkillergame.com/
"Hitman: Blood Money": http://www.hitmanbloodmoney.com