A desperate mission to contain a military biotech experiment challenges players' targeting and numerical problem-solving skills in Math Evolver, Virus Origin (Topics Learning and Tabula Digita, for Mac and PC, $29.99).
This three-dimensional, first-person shooter for children in sixth to ninth grades offers some of the urgency and excitement of popular sci-fi combat titles, but with greatly diminished violence and a mix of prealgebra concepts.
With more of a feel of "Andromeda Strain" than Halo or Doom, a single player selects a human scientist from eight choices. He then gets a quick tutorial on how to use keyboard commands and a mouse to maneuver around and interact with environments.
The story kicks in as he becomes the project leader of a special operations unit that embarks on five missions set on a mysterious island code-named Xeno.
The location housed the research facility of a brilliant neuroscientist who fused nanotechnology with natural organisms. His experiments created some dangerous creatures and a virus that threatens to infect mankind.
His daughter Darienne acts as an omniscient guide and frequent narrator as the player attempts to rendezvous with her and investigate the island.
As with games of this genre, the action is about exploration and discovering clues (both aurally and visually) to complete objectives and using a decent assortment of gear and weapons to survive.
Specifically in Math Evolver, players are equipped with a blaster and charger mounted on their wrists, a visor to analyze objects, radar and eventually a hovercraft and a jetpack.
All of the gear comes into play to defeat mechanical guards, open gates, disable security systems and outsmart a spider monkey while searching lush grounds, warehouses and some darkened corridors and control rooms.
The mathematical conundrums included are varied enough to feel very much part of the game and not just forced upon the player.
They usually involve choosing correct numbered pieces or sequences to unlock or turn an object or can be as detailed as selecting the right prime digit capacitors to shrink an enemy.
The graphics won't win any awards, but combined with plenty of narration, moody techno music and sound effects, the overall package is more than adequate for the action, and, the controls are especially responsive.
My only caveat is this is only the first set of a 20-mission game that tells a much larger story of the Xenon mess. Players can buy the whole game ($69.95) at the Dimension M Web site.
Learning time: Puzzles created in Evolver use standards set by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
Mission levels concentrate on different core concepts, such as fractions, prime numbers, perfect squares and the frightening equation disentangler PEMDAS (parenthesis, exponents, multiplication, division, add and subtract).
Descriptions of the concepts are found during a prebriefing and at the end of each mission and, besides solving the puzzles, the player takes a test on his new knowledge (in the guise of opening a final area) to reinforce what has been learned.
A typical problem might involve finding the correct fuse to start up a transformer. Players turn on their visor to reveal numbers on the fuses, and, in the case of the Mission 2 objective, must find the largest number that can be divided into a pair of numbers shown on the equipment.
Additionally, a burgeoning online multiplayer community exists for teams of students to meet in cyberspace and solve problems and battle synthetic foes within the Dimension M universe (www.dimensionm.com).
Age range: It's recommended for ages 10 and older. Violence involves shooting mechanical bots and watching them explode into a shower of numbers. Players cannot die, but will lose the protection of their bio-suit after taking too many hits and must wait for it to recharge before continuing.
Final advice: Math Evolver is a clever and welcome way to teach often-difficult-to-grasp number theory. It will not only engage the player to learn, but also entertain through its story and action.
Here's an abbreviated look at some multimedia items for the entire family:
Madden NFL 2009 (for Xbox 360, Electronic Arts, $59.99) -The guy has been telling me what to do for the past 20 years and I still can't set up an effective screen pass or run a draw without getting creamed. Yes, the NFL's lovable maestro of color commentary, John Madden, brings his favorite football sports simulation back to the masses tweaked enough so even dummies like me can appreciate it.
This time, Mr. Madden immediately shows up as a digital, static-riddled entity and requests gamers first take a test of their skills with a controller so the computer will offer a fairer contest. Appropriately dubbed My Skill, the innovation can help quell the newbie's frustration levels and give him time and the tools (the Virtual Trainer) to gradually improve his game.
Of course, all of the visual pageantry, strategic nuances, big hits and playbooks are back this year packaged within stunning broadcast-quality action and enough impressive commentary from Cris Collinsworth, Tom Hammond and the big guy to make NFL hard-cores happy.
New features include getting a set number of do-overs during a game (most appreciated), a backtrack feature to have Mr. Collinsworth critique a bad play and the chance to relive scenarios from the 2007-08 season.
The major modes (Franchise and Superstar) and online possibilities (including a 32-player league) are also beefy enough to turn Madden NFL 2009 into a part-time career for addicted players.
Considering it's the only authorized game for the NFL, this latest version could have been just a tired rehash with updated rosters, but it is definitely an authentic and fun event for the football family that plays together.
Braid (for Xbox 360, Microsoft, 1,200 points or $15) - From the moment I moved the shadowy Hobbit-like fellow across a magnificent, three-dimensional skyline, I knew I was in for a special gaming event.
At its simplest, Braid is a 2-D, side-scrolling, platform-jumping puzzler, but its watercolor-soaked beauty, visual elegance and emotional story will draw a gamer into its wonderful world.
A fractured fairy tale of romantic woe featuring the conflicted Tim, a guy on a quest to free an abducted princess from a monster, leads a player through six worlds in search of his beloved.
Besides the princess issue, Tim's mission is to collect pieces of jigsaw puzzles and put them together to eventually help him unlock the final rescue.
Although diminutive and unable to jump very far without using the tops of bulbous creatures' heads, Tim shines through the use of time-altering powers that can reverse any mistakes (including death), stop a moment and even utilize a darkened doppelganger to repeat his movements and assist in grabbing those coveted puzzle pieces.
The $15 adventure will tax the brain, dazzle the eyes and tickle the ears as much as a piece of the finest interactive art.
Joseph Szadkowski's ROMper Room is a place for children and their parents to escape the world of ultraviolent video games and use that gaming system or computer to actually learn something while having fun. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.