It's no secret that video games aren't just for kids anymore. And this month, when Halo 2 sold more than 2 million copies on its very first day--at $45 a pop--any remaining doubters were blown away. Gamemakers aren't flinching. They already invest, on average, $15 million to develop a game. But which offerings are truly worth your time and money? We dug in--and started playing. Our criteria: Is it fun? How many hours will it keep you entertained? Does it break new ground? Is it mind numbing or mind expanding? We enjoyed many titles. But only 10 were good enough to make our list. Read on for our best bets of the year.
1 THE SIMS 2 Endless generations of entertainment in your very own dysfunctional home
Millions of people fell in love with the customizable suburbanites of The Sims, which became the best-selling PC game of all time. How could veteran designer Will Wright top that? Answer: by showing just how adorably complex these creatures can be. In Sims 2 (for PC; $49.99), your characters grow older, pass on their genes to their kids, even die. They have life goals (like raising a family or raking in cash) and short-term aspirations (like making a new friend or buying a new refrigerator). You can make your characters look like just about anyone (one gamer got 15 minutes of Internet fame by creating Sim Bush and Sim Kerry housemates). With the click of a button, you can even record the important moments of their lives as a movie file. Like the original, Sims 2 also features Wright's trademark humor, such as when the Grim Reaper shows up bearing a clipboard and a cell phone. Play this game out over many Sim generations, and you get as sublime a sense of the whole human comedy as any art form can give.
IDEAL FOR: Character-focused gamers who like to laugh
2 ROME: TOTAL WAR Build the world's greatest empire, and heap glory on your family, battle by epic battle
Do you know what it's like to line up thousands of Roman troops--from the legionnaires to the attack dogs--and bring them thundering down on your enemies? If you've had the chance to play Rome: Total War (for PC; $49.99), the best real-time strategy game yet made, the answer is yes. The level of battlefield detail is amazing, going far beyond previous Total War titles, set in medieval Europe and imperial Japan. You can direct the entire bloody battle from a distance or zoom in and see the reflection in a single soldier's helmet. You will need plenty of political skill too. Playing as the head of a top Roman household--the Julii, the Bruti or the Scipii--your job is to bring barbarians to heel while solidifying your power in the Senate. Your family tree is vitally important, as all its male members are generals who rally your armies on the battlefield as well as potential Senate officeholders. Manage your provinces well, avoid the assassins, and you're on your way to being the next Caesar.
IDEAL FOR: Battle-loving history buffs
3 HALF-LIFE 2 Grab a gravity gun, and explore the year's most minutely detailed thriller