Continuing last year’s trend, 2004 promises to be yet another blockbuster year for PC games. Industry juggernauts are poised to unleash a whole horde of new games aimed at keeping honest students away from their work. Even though it is still early in the year, game publishers have already begun to hype upcoming releases. With endless amounts of media coverage of new games, it’s easy to get lost. Here are the games that rise above the rest.

At the front of the pack are two familiar names: DOOM and Half-Life. Their most recent incarnations, DOOM 3 and Half-Life 2, are easily the most eagerly-awaited games of the year. Of course there are more shooters coming out in 2004, but DOOM and Half-Life are the two most important names in the history of the genre and command instant respect.

DOOM 3, first announced two and a half years ago, has had both amazing press and the admiration of id Software fan boys with its highly realistic graphics, physics, and real-time lighting effects. Lighting may not seem like a big deal to most people, but it is the crowning glory of id Software’s new game. Typically, characters and objects cast static shadows that do not change as the character or object moves past a light source. In DOOM 3, not only do the shadows change when the object moves, but an object can cast shadows on anything — including itself. This capability lends itself to a more cinematic video game experience. Of course, this new technology comes at a price: only the fastest computers will be able to run the game smoothly with all the eye candy. In a complete reversal from id Software’s last game, Quake III, the focus of DOOM 3 is on a riveting single-player experience pitting it directly against Half-Life 2.

Half-Life 2, developed by Valve Software, will be DOOM 3’s biggest competitor. Although it doesn’t quite have the same flashy graphics, Half-Life 2 has the advantage of its predecessor’s laurels. The original Half-Life is widely regarded as the best first-person shooter of all time. It had beautiful graphics (in its time), immersive game play, and better artificial intelligence than most current games have. Half-Life 2 looks to continue that tradition, with a focus on a gripping single-player game. Neither game has an official release date, but both are expected to arrive in stores later this year.

Tailgating Grand Theft Auto 3’s recent success, Reflections Studios will be releasing Driv3r, the third in the series of Driver games. The newest installation in this series will once again follow Tanner, an undercover cop working on the wrong side of the law. This time around he is immersed in a global car theft ring. Sound familiar? It should. “Gone in 60 Seconds” had the same premise. However, the first two Driver games established Reflections Studios as having some of the best physics, graphics, and game play in driving games, so it’s easy to see why this game is one to watch.

The scope has been widened in the new game. Instead of just driving around completing missions and wreaking havoc, Reflections has taken a more Grand Theft Auto-style approach, allowing the player to walk around freely in the game world and tote various weapons. In addition, Reflections has partnered with Hollywood bigwig Ridley Scott to produce a short film as a tie-in available on the game’s website. If you’re in need of a fix for your vehicular homicidal urges, Driv3r looks like it’ll do the trick.

Now, for the real nerds amongst us, comes a brief rundown of massively multiplayer online role-playing games, or MMORPGs. These are the people who not only pay for their game when they buy it from a store, but pay a subscription fee each month to maintain their addiction. They train characters online like athletes, and even buy and sell virtual items on eBay for real cash. Just go to eBay, search for Everquest, and look for the most expensive items. I’m not joking.

Speaking of Everquest, its sequel, Everquest 2, is slated for release in June of this year. It boasts improved graphics, a new race, and new game play dynamics to suck in even more souls. In keeping with the original, players can join guilds. But, as an added social feature, players can also start their own families of characters within the game. Weather and time of day will affect the potency of certain spells. Yet, Sony Online Entertainment, the developer, has taken steps to ensure that even new victi — err, players, aren’t overwhelmed by the complexity of the game. Given Everquest’s large following, it’s a safe wager that Everquest 2 will be equally successful.

Other games to keep an eye out for include World of Warcraft, The Sims 2, Rome: Total War, and Counter-Strike: Condition Zero. With all the time I’ve spent on video games over the past few years, it makes me wonder what I could’ve actually accomplished with the time I wasted in front of my computer. I’m certain there are healthier and more enjoyable addictions to have, but for now I’m content to sit in my room on a Friday night in front of my computer. Given this year’s crop of games, it doesn’t look like that’s likely to change any time soon.