A triple play awaits fans of sci-fi gaming

Movie fans rarely have to choose between blockbusters, because Hollywood usually staggers release dates for maximum box-office return. But in a season already filled with video game hits, three new sci-fi heavyweights are facing off in stores.

Fallout 3 is a single-player action game; first-person shooting game Resistance 2 and third-person shooter Gears of War 2 offer several ways for players to go it alone or team up with others. All three of these Mature-rated games (ages 17-up) have humanity-facing- extinction story lines, cinematic scope and cutting-edge special effects — and expect box-office-size sales of $100 million or more.

"We are finally at this place where the games are feeling like big blockbuster movies," says George Jones of GamePro magazine. "In previous years, the games have always felt like you were manufacturing some of the magnitude in your head. Now we're seeing massive-scale battles and big sweeping stories, and it feels coherent."

A look at the battle brewing:

Bigger, better stories.Resistance 2's alternate Cold War reality pits the alien Chimera against the game's hero, Nathan Hale. The story picks up right after the events in the million-selling Resistance: Fall of Man. "Players wanted more action from the start," says Ted Price, president of developer Insomniac Games. "We intentionally changed up the way we created the (single-player story) and introduced more highs and lows to ensure the player was taken on a much more emotional rollercoaster ride."

Gears of War 2 continues to follow the struggle of Marcus Fenix and his squad to defeat the hulking alien Locust race, which is sinking whole cities from an underground lair. "There is a ton of work that goes in to make it really compelling, to make the pacing interesting and to explore who the characters are a bit more, " says Cliff Bleszinski, design director for Epic Games, which sold nearly 3 million copies of the 2006 original.

The story in Fallout 3 unfolds in a way that gives players unlimited choices and challenges as the main character ventures from a protective vault into a mutant-populated, post-apocalyptic Washington, D.C. "The first part of the game is a bit of a mystery as to why your father left you," says executive producer Todd Howard of Bethesda Softworks, which created 2006 hit role-playing game The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. "The player gets to explore a lot, as opposed to, 'Go here and get this.' "

Each game, Jones says, is "intense, relentlessly moving you from action piece to action piece."

Cinematic visions. All three games have big-screen backdrops comparable to films such as Mad Max and War of the Worlds. In particular, Howard says, Children of Men influenced Fallout 3. "When we're doing art, we do these really epic shots, views that the player will be able to explore. It's not until later that we get to smaller things like weapons."

Advances in game-system processing power have given developers the ability to create "more vistas and postcard-worthy moments," Bleszinski says. "Character lighting is vastly improved and allows the characters to just pop and look better."

Says Price, "We can put over 100 enemies and characters on the screen and create a very dense situation that looks like a battle scene you might see in a movie."

Bonus features. Beyond the main story, you can discover additional plot threads by playing as a two-person team in Gears of War 2 and an eight-player squad in Resistance 2. Similarly, hours of extra action can be uncovered in Fallout 3.

These three games would stand out in the crowded marketplace anyway, says Greg Ford of Electronic Gaming Monthly, but their innovative features will help make all of them huge sellers, even in tough times. "This is what gives games legs," he says. "People will want to keep playing them."

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