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The Thrill Of Video Victory Hot new NASCAR, football and hockey games should warm the winter nights

So you didn't get everything on your holiday wish list, and now
you're wondering what you can get in exchange for that
battery-operated musical gravy boat from Uncle Chester. All is
not lost. If you look, you can still find the season's best
video games, maybe even on sale. These include outstanding new
entries, as well as updates of old favorites, providing better
performance and some innovative features for the avid sports

Leading the field is NASCAR '98 (Electronic Arts, for Sony
PlayStation and Sega Saturn, $49.95). This game has a gritty
feel that brings the sensation of speed to the fore--especially
when the player chooses the in-car camera angle, whose
perspective is from right behind the wheel. The player has a
choice of 24 NASCAR drivers and cars, which show up in vivid and
accurate colors. After selecting, for example, the
rainbow-colored ride of this year's NASCAR champion, Jeff
Gordon, the player can race on any one of 17 tracks. Before the
green starting flag he must adjust the setup of the car, which
affects the top speed and handling and adds a level of depth and
strategy to the game. While the game threatens to crash at some
points, it earns a place in Victory Lane.

Since its introduction two years ago, Nintendo 64 has been
hampered by a lack of sports software. Now, however, two quality
football games are available: Madden 64 (Electronic Arts,
$59.95) and NFL Quarterback Club 98 (Acclaim Entertainment,
$59.99). Quarterback Club may be the most beautiful sports game
ever produced, with amazingly clear and lifelike players and
fields, but it suffers from poor artificial intelligence. There
are too many plays that always beat the game's defense, but if
you're playing against a friend, it's less of a problem. Madden
also has terrific graphics, although not as good as Quarterback
Club's, but has a much stronger artificial intelligence system.
However, Madden doesn't have a license from the NFL to use team
names or logos. That means the players have the names of real
NFL players, but they perform in generic settings rather than
for authentic NFL teams, and that takes away something from the
ambience of the game. For solo players, the superior artificial
intelligence makes Madden a better buy, while the groundbreaking
graphics of Quarterback Club will make it very popular.

Often the updates of sports games are a waste of money, offering
little more than revised team rosters. But NFL GameDay '98
(Sony, for Sony PlayStation, $40.00) is a major step forward.
The key is its fully three-dimensional look, in which the
players have a real depth that comes through on the screen
thanks to a polygonal-based graphics system. This is most
noticeable in the running game, where now, instead of a jumbled
mess of players on the screen, you can see holes in the line,
allowing you to sneak a running back through a crack in the line
and slide in between a linebacker and a safety. The movement of
the players is smooth and fluid (fixing what is often a problem
with polygon graphics). The game plays beautifully, with a tough
computer opponent that gives even a veteran video-football gamer
a battle. GameDay '98 is an MVP--simply the best overall
football game available on any platform.

The other top buy among returning games is NHL '98 (Electronic
Arts, CD-ROM for PC, Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn, $49.95).
The game play is outstanding--players respond instantly to your
controls--and it pays off in the best hockey action in a market
that includes nearly a dozen other games. NHL '98 scores a hat
trick: Not only does it offer high-impact action, but it also
has new features such as on-the-fly strategic adjustments, using
plays designed by Colorado Avalanche coach Marc Crawford, and a
clever presentation that feels like a television broadcast,
complete with shots of the players skating to the bench.

Also in a wintry, but offbeat, vein is Cool Boarders 2 (Sony,
for Sony PlayStation, $45.00), a sequel to last year's popular
snowboarding game. With a choice of courses, including a
half-pipe and a trick course, the game lets you fly down the
slopes while doing huge jumps, twists and flips without risking
any injuries more serious than a thumb blister--an injury that
the sports-video gamer could see a lot of with this season's
crop of games.

COLOR PHOTO: NFL GAMEDAY '98 Top-notch graphics and high artificial intelligence give Sony's NFL Gameday '98 a major boost. [Image from video game NFL Gameday '98]