A screen shot from Sierra's chronologically challenging 'TimeShift.'
Save the universe, meet hot alien babes: A screen shot from 'Mass Effect.'
Hey, where's the interesting part of the game? Two aliens hit an all-night gas station in 'BlackSite: Area 51.'
For most people, the phrase "science fiction" conjures up images of outer-space dogfights, light-saber duels and encounters with bug-eyed aliens.
For moviegoers, that usually translates into special-effects spectacles that may blow your mind without actually engaging it — silliness like "Transformers" or "I, Robot."
Science fiction video games are usually just as shallow. They may lean on reliable SF themes like space exploration, time travel or alien invasion, but most of them boil down to killing everything that moves.
But there have been a few more thoughtful SF games over the years, from classics like "Chrono Trigger" and "Deus Ex" to this year's "BioShock." They give your brain something to chew on while you're not mowing down hordes of mutants.
"Mass Effect" reaches for that goal; the other games reviewed here don't.
—"Mass Effect" (Microsoft, for the Xbox 360, $59.99): The BioWare studio's resume includes "Knights of the Old Republic," the most expansive "Star Wars" game ever — and "Mass Effect" is even more ambitious, building a vast intergalactic culture from scratch.
The adventure spans a huge assortment of planets, and along the way you'll meet hundreds of characters from about a dozen races.
You are Shepard, commander of a top-of-the-line spaceship called the SS Normandy.
You can customize Shepard's gender, physique, skills and history, but you'll inevitably be called upon to join the Spectres, a group of elite agents dedicated to wiping out the universe's most ominous threats.
Top of the list is Saren, a rogue Spectre who's building an android army.
"Mass Effect" gives you all kinds of freedom.
In pursuit of Saren, you can take on plenty of side missions. You can build up your weapon skills or focus on "biotic" talents like telekinesis and healing. And you can try to act nobly and become a "Paragon," or behave like a jerk (er, "Renegade").
"Mass Effect" may be too dialogue-heavy for some adrenaline junkies, and its menu system is awfully unwieldy.
But it's one of the best-written and best-looking games in a long time, and I can't wait for the next game in the planned trilogy.
Three-and-a-half stars out of four.
—"TimeShift" (Sierra, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $59.99): In a season filled with fantastic games like "Call of Duty 4" and "The Orange Box," a first-person shooter needs a unique twist to make it stand out.
In "TimeShift," the gimmick is that you can stop, slow down or even reverse time — a useful talent when a grenade is flying toward your head.
A physicist named Aiden Krone has stolen the "Alpha Suit," which he's used to travel back in time and create all sorts of havoc. Your job is to go to his alternate past, with the help of the "Beta Suit," and help the resistance bring down the dystopia Krone has created.
It's all very heady (and a bit incoherent) but the plot is really just an excuse for a series of chaotic gunfights in a blasted landscape.
The time-bending abilities add a nice touch in the heat of battle, but the puzzles requiring use of the Beta Suit are all too obvious.
"TimeShift" feels like a missed opportunity to create something fresh in the first-person shooter genre.
—"BlackSite: Area 51" (Midway, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $59.99): Shortly after the release of "BlackSite," lead designer Harvey Smith went public with complaints about the game's development.
Then Midway told him to take a hike.
As you might expect, "BlackSite" isn't very good.
It begins, weirdly enough, in Iraq, where some cynical U.S. soldiers stumble across some mutated enemies. Then it fast-forwards two years to the Nevada desert, where militants have reportedly taken over a small town.
Of course, the real threat is the aliens who have escaped from the legendary Area 51, and the game quickly degenerates into a violent bug hunt.
There's some pointed political satire, but it isn't witty enough to make "BlackSite" more than a run-of-the-mill shooter.