Virtual reality takes to pixilated tracks mid May, as the game companies race for the next killer app and dominant mobile entertainment at the 10th-annual Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3). Every spring, the Los Angeles Convention Center (known to car enthusiasts as home to the LA Auto Show) transforms into an exclusive arcade, with every hall and meeting room jammed with monitors, game systems, audio gear, and Red Bull-fueled thumbstick jockeys.

Over 400 exhibiting companies contribute to the sensory overload that reveals the bleeding-edge entertainment technology and the software the will bring the machines to life. As the industry has grown in size to rake in more cash than Hollywood, the stakes have risen and the products continue to push to new levels. More than 1300 never-before-seen products will be revealed to tens of thousand of industry insiders this week. Since credentials to enter are very difficult to acquire, weill sneak the readers inside with our exclusive coverage of the latest, must-see automotive games.

The week of activities that overtakes downtown Los Angeles is underway, kicking off on Monday with the Xbox press conference. Full of bravado, the Xbox team came across like maturing gamers who honed the fine art of talking smack, demonstrated as they introduced numerous exciting games to a theater full of captivated attendees. The highlight was a long, comedic mockumentary showing Xbox and (faux) Sony PlayStation reps competing to create the ultimate game system, with Donald Trump serving as the judge.

A more serious, business-focused Sony retaliated the next day at its conference by simply detailing its real market dominance, having sold 170 million PSOne and PS2 systems. The real highlight was the introduction of the handheld PSP, capable of playing games, music, and movies from a new CD-like disc called UMD. Though few titles were announced, press materials do show Gran Turismo 4. A true flagship Sony product, GT4 is expected to be a key title for the system when it launches.

Nintendo also grabbed pre-show attention with its own distinct handheld, currently known as Dual Screen. A significant step beyond the popular Game Boy Advance, the DS promises to keep Nintendo products in the backpacks of the worldis youth. No key driving games are known to be launching with the system, but we will monitor it.

We've had a chance to test drive some of the hot new titles rolling out, including Gran Turismo 4, RalliSport Challenge 2, Auto Assault, and Crash and Burn. We've also had a chance to get behind the wheel of every noteworthy title possible to report here on which ones belong in your collection.

With a long list of targeted titles, we have many virtual miles to log, but hope to report back soon on the following remaining games:

Destruction Derby Arenas, Driven to Destruction, Flatout, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, OutRun2, Smashing Drive, Test Drive: Eve of Destruction, and WRC 4.

Click on images to view enlarged screen caps.

Think of this massive multiplayer game as Twisted Metal meets Escape from New York, with scores of opponents gunning for their slice of post-apocalyptic life. This PC game from NCSoft allows the player to customize the appearance and weaponry of their vehicle, be it car, buggy, motorcycle, or even big rig. This Mad Max-type machine is then driven through missions or all-out combat against CPU villains and smack-talking online gamers. The cars can interact completely with environment, adding to the general destruction. While not a racing game by any stretch, Auto Assault promises to be an entertaining way to blow off steam in a hail of bullets with friends, wherever they may be.

There is only one man whose name is synonymous with rally racing, Colin McRae. Even without an official factory ride, he is the man. And as proof, the latest game to carry his name from Codemasters continues the franchise evolution with 14 more cars than last year's title, for 34 cars total. These all-terrain machines are each rendered with over 15,000 polygons for incredible realism. When selecting a car to race, the player can open all the doors, hood, and trunk revealing the true detail. Out on the track, great sophistication for 2005 shows more subtle dust collection and even paint chipping. These authentic machines are campaigned in nine countries through 300+ stages. The tracks are 50 percent all new, though all have been significantly changed and rearranged to ensure a fresh racing experience. Again, McRae's navigator Nicky Grist barks out race notes, and the team credits the game's authenticity to his deep, frequent involvement with development. Among the graphics notables, the game's tarmac rendering was the best we saw at E3. A new, versatile career mode progresses the player from amateur to skilled professional, with a wide range of classes. Sharp looks, online play, and great vehicle dynamics ensure this console game is more entertaining than its predecessors. Colin McRae Rally 2005 goes on sale fall 2004.

Essentially this is a Hot Wheels demolition derby race against a wild assortment of tricked-out vehicles piloted by the worst drivers on the planet. The rolling, parts-dropping melee takes place on courses littered with ramps and obstacles placed to further the chaos. Crash 'n' Burn is as much a survival game as a race, as you attempt to pilot your car swiftly around the urban courses, indulging in enough road rage to satisfy, yet not render your car a burnt-out hulk. Racing through Los Angeles, Miami, New York, and San Francisco circuits, the CPU-controlled cars seem to focus more on destroying one another than winning the race. On sale this fall for PS2 and Xbox, Crash 'n' Burn will bring this mayhem online, where the game will likely shine with up to 16 players per game engaged in a variety of modes, like Last Man Standing or Bomb Tag.

Konami enters the intimidating space of driving simulators for PlayStation 2 with Enthusia, a game gunning straight for Gran Turismo. With a focus on graphic detail, physics engineering, and deep car collection numbering in the hundreds, Enthusia packs the goods to warrant a true test drive. The game features a traditional progression, with the ability for players to tune their vehicles for optimum performance. Among its trick features is the Visual Gravity System, which conveys a sense of G-forces experienced by high-speed driving and maneuvering around a race track, allowing the player to better appreciate the pressure exerted on a car during racing. Adding replay appeal is the random generation of tracks, ensuring there is always a new experience to be had. Lack of online play, at least at this time, is a limiting factor. When Enthusia goes on sale in 2005, it will face formidable competition, but if the game continues to improve upon the polished, early build we drove, then it will be a worthy contender.

Microsoft is working hard to bulk up its automotive offerings, with Forza Motorsport offering an enticing road racing experience in winter 2005 for Xbox. The concept is to allow players to own, customize, and race their favorite performance machines, from sport compact cars all the way up to LeMans prototypes. Cars from over 60 manufacturers are offered, each production car with the ability to be customized. Stock models can be outfitted with body kits, rims, spoilers, decals, side skirts, fender flares, and hood scoops, while supercars, GT racers, and exotics can be personalized with motorsport decals and team paint-schemes. Take the mods further with alternative engines, suspension kits, bolt-on superchargers, and brakes. Fine-tune gear ratios, fuel-mapping, forced induction pressure, tire temperature and pressure, and ignition timing for the ultimate setup. With the perfected car, competition comes alive online, with Microsoft promising Forza will offer the most technically advanced driving simulation for Xbox.

Car gamers around the globe are counting down the days until Gran Turismo 4 for PS2 goes on sale this fall, promising a bigger, more sophisticated, and more realistic game than has ever existed. Really. Team leaders explained continued advances in the game, including impressive three-dimensional modeling for spectators, rather than the more common two-dimensional figures seen in most games, including earlier builds of GT4. This was pushed by the human factors initiative to make the drivers' facial expressions more dynamic, reacting continuously to the driving scenario. A more significant new feature is "GT Photo Mode," which allows the player to take a snapshot of a hero moment, awesome crash, or even a staged photo. More info regarding online play was revealed, with the player count being six and full chat functionality. It is the team's hope that small communities develop around racing, with discussions extending beyond the game to enthusiasm and appreciation for real cars. Official numbers have GT4 at over 500 cars, but insiders hint that the real number could be significantly higher.

Officially licensed, IndyCar Series 2005 improves upon its predecessor, bringing open-wheel racing to new levels with smarter artificial intelligence, increased detail, and online play for up to 12 players on Xbox. IndyCar Series offers full-season play with 33 cars ready to run from Pole Day through the final race. A Masterclass training mode hosted by Dan Wheldon, former Rookie of the Year, helps get the player up to speed. The game features 15 authentic tracks, including the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway, Chicagoland Speedway, Pikes Peak International Raceway, and the newly featured Twin Ring Motegi SuperSpeedway in Japan. With a TV-style presentation voiced by ABC commentators, IndyCar Series should thrill the loyal, IndyCar fans.

A franchise that continues to impress, the latest in the line of NASCAR titles from EA goes well beyond last year's NASCAR Thunder game to bundle in a full career mode that brings the player from modified to Cup, with series including NASCAR Nextel Cup, Craftsman Truck Series, Featherlite Modified Series, and NASCAR National Series. Managing a growing career through these series has become easier, with the ability to take offers to try racing in the next step-up series offering rapid ways to prove your skills and advance. Our best-loved new series is street-based racing between pro drivers, either as a way to start a career (impress a team owner) or settle a grudge. Yes, the innovative Grudges and Alliances feature continues, now with more driver interaction off the track. Get into a heated exchange while racing, and the other driver may get out of the car after the race to exchange a few words. Like last year's drift button, there is now an "Intimidator" feature to encourage drivers to let you by through bumper-hugging aggression. This ties in with a hero/villain dichotomy, that sees the most dynamic drivers drawing fan attention and selling more merchandise in career mode. With 39 tracks, 60 drivers, and 37 challenges, NASCAR 2005 promises a full-season's worth of driving excitement on each next-gen console system when it goes on sale this fall, just in time for the final races for the Nextel Cup.

An early title on Xbox, RalliSport Challenge set a high benchmark for car-game graphic quality and ease of play. RSC2 hits the market this month, pushing those standards further. Its core game modes include Career, Single Race, Time Attack, and Multiplayer, with Xbox Live support. Tracks have doubled in number to 90, set in Argentina, Australia, Canada, Great Britain, and Sweden. The game features more than 40 cars, including Audi Quattro S2, Ford GT70, Lancia 037 Rallye, Saab 9-3 Viggen, Subaru Impreza, Toyota Tacoma, Volvo Amazon, and Volkswagen Beetle RSi. Having played RSC2, we can report is still sets the benchmark for playability and appearance, though other titles like Colin McRae Rally 2005 and WRC are also better than ever. But, RSC2 is on sale now.

This sample image demonstrates what a snapshot taken in "GT Photo Mode" would look like.... Stunning. Click on image to enlarge and see the detail in the buildings. These pictures are saved at 1280x960 to hard drive or memory card, and they can be printed on a traditional USB color printer with stunning results. These self-made screen captures reveal the exceptional resolution that the game is rendered in, despite the PS2's display limitations. Consider these images as a taste of PS3's ability.

Electronic convergence continues to bring together the essential 21st-century devices that adorn many belts. Smart phones are among the latest revelation, with full-function PDA and e-mail ability integrated. We're also seeing more entertaining convergence around PDAs, with two politically opposed devices tempting us at E3. On the Windows side, we found Gizmondo, a Pocket PC for gamers. This British device has a sizzling 400mhz processor and taps into the full Windows CE software offerings, with MP3 and video playback. A built-in GPS device promises intriguing applications, with an initial focus on finding friends to game with via WiFi. Basic connectivity uses Bluetooth and USB, with file transfer available via SD flash cards. A built-in camera adds to the fun. The screen measures 240x320 pixels, and it is capable of 64-bit gaming. The controls are well configured for gaming, making it more ergonomic than Game Boy Advance and arguably Tapwave. While it will be a few months before we see Gizmondo Stateside, it's clear that the age of boring PDA will soon end.

Codenamed "DS," Nintendo's next-generation, dual-screen handheld game device made a splash at E3, as evidenced by a perpetual 200-ft line of industry insiders queued to get a close look at the innovative new system. Stakes are high in this arena, with the Game Boy Advance SP celebrating its one-year anniversary and 6.5 million unit sales in North America, not to mention a serious, top-tier competitor for the Game Boy franchise hailing from multimedia giant Sony. The distinguishing twin LCD screens open up a new world of development possibilities. For example, an automotive application could have the driver's view on one screen, and either a detailed track map or full dash display on the other. The three-inch screens are powered by twin chips with enough processing power to offer advanced graphics with sophisticated lighting effects, more in line with today's console systems. The lower display will be a touch screen, like a PDA, offering new control possibilities and opportunity for an on-screen keyboard. Other cool features include a microphone input, wireless networking for up to 16 systems (including game sharing), and 16-channel sound. Beyond the technology, the key to the success of DS may be its backwards compatibility, ensuring the millions of Nintendo handheld owners can continue to use their software with the new system. More than 100 developers are building games for DS. In the automotive realm, only Need for Speed from EA has been promised.

Through the product presentation for the long-anticipated PlayStation Portable (PSP), it was clear Sony is prepared to dominate the handheld marketplace. The war plan is simple: Offer a leading-edge game system with a large, 4.3-inch screen (480x272 pixel,16:9 aspect), total 36 megs of RAM, and a powerful 333 mhz processor. Connectivity will be Wi-Fi, USB 2.0, infrared, and proprietory Memory Stick. Games will be stored on a Universal Media Disc (UMD), a new Sony format that can store 1.8 gigs of data on a relatively tiny disc. The same UMD will be able to store movies and music from Sony's exhaustive catalog, ensuring much more than gaming entertainment on the go. Initial peripherals will include a USB camera, GPS, and keyboard. Already 99 developers have signed on, ensuring a deep game catalog to follow the PSP's first-quarter 2005 release. Among the initial titles will be Need for Speed: Underground, with a PSP version of Gran Turismo 4 to follow. While all the companies are stepping up their mobile game, the PSP will be the device to watch.

A natural extension of the modern PDA, Tapwave has adapted a rather traditional unit into an expanded use device with a penchant for gaming. Powered by a 200mhz processor, the Zodiac system is built around an enhanced version of the Palm 5.2 OS, adding an appealing interface to address the Tapwave-exclusive functionality. The Zodiac features dual expansion slots for MultiMedia Cards, Secure Digital (SD) cards, and SDIO cards, allowing for the addition of special functions, transfer of large files, and storage for games. In photos, the Tapwave appears to be constructed of a light plastic, but it has a solid, metallic case with enough heft to feel durable. The Zodiac features essential navigation buttons, but also a wee thumbstick for gaming. The screen measures 480x320, supporting 65,536 colors. Yamaha provides the stereo speakers and audio microplug output. The Tapwave devices can synch via USB cradle or Bluetooth. Bundled software includes traditional Palm suite, along with an MP3 player, jpg viewer, Kinoma video player, and Stuntcar Extreme game. Licensed games are available for purchase online, including Spy Hunter, though there are many shareware programs available. Tapwave supports PC natively, though requires third-party software (Missing Synch) to work with Mac. As Tapwave rolls out to the retail market at CompUSA in June, more developers are expected to produce brand-name games. Tapwave is a tempting solution for a PDA shopper with a weakness for games and gizmos.

If you're one of those who enjoys crashing the cars as much as you love racing them, then Burnout 3 from Electronic Arts is the game for you. EA promises adrenaline junkies unprecedented speed and breakneck action racing more than 70 cars through 100 events spanning 40 tracks, while throttling for bronze, silver, or gold medals attained by eliminating opponents from the race. Risky driving, near-misses, full-on car crashes, and opponent "takedowns" reward the player with extra performance boosts and unlocking rewards and additional features. A variety of race modes include Risk & Reward, Crash Mode, and Race Mode, with single and up to eight (six in PS2 online play) racers. Spectacular crash technology allows the player to use their car as a weapon and take out rivals, controlling the car even after crashing. Burnout 3's aggressive racing will be available for PlayStation2 and Xbox in the fall.

In an over-the-top example of the darker side of driving games, Ubisoft has developed "Notorious: Die to Drive," a gangsta-style driving game that takes combat racing to the urban streets and makes "Vice City" look like "Disney City." Strap on your selection of firepower, and make a mad dash for power racing in more than 30 unique non-licensed vehicles against ruthless street crews, taking out opponents, and building an empire of money, all while being rewarded with high-priced honeys, the finest bling, and millionaire cribs. Aimed at the 16+ audience, "Notorious" is not shy about its violence, offering 45 stages and seven game modes of urban car combat, from Deathmatch, Duel, Elimination, and Zulu King gameplay, in single and multiplayer modes including PS2 and Xbox Live online modes. Truly not meant for an educated, mature audience, this offensive racing game pushes the boundaries for soundtrack language, dialogue vulgarity, and wanton in-game violence. Protect your family starting early 2005 when this title shames stores nationwide.

Fans of camp and nostalgia may enjoy this homage to the 1970's television show, the Dukes of Hazzard, as long as they don't expect much beyond unsophisticated graphics and mission-based gameplay. The entire cast of the original series is represented in this game from Ubisoft with voiceovers and likenesses, from Bo and Luke Duke (John Schneider and Tom Wopat), to Daisy Duke and Roscoe P. Coltraine (Catherine Bach and James Best); however, the star of the game is, of course, the General Lee and other show cars, the Black Charger, Daisy's Road Runner, Boss Hogg's Limousine, and many more. Set in Hazzard Country, players step into the roles of Bo and Luke as they race to win prize money needed to save the local orphanage from another of evil Boss Hogg's crooked schemes; mission-based play takes gamers through a variety of hair-raising chases and stunts in both single-player and head-to-head competition and cooperative play. Available for both Xbox and PlayStation2 in September 2004.

Fans of the Tokyo Extreme Racer Series will be pleased to discover they will soon be able to bring their favorite racing game along with them wherever they go via their Game Boy Advance handheld system. Promising all the fun and thrills of the full-size game series, Tokyo Extreme Racer now extends beyond the open roads of Japan and onto the roadways of both London and Los Angeles. Players can choose to race from 16 cars on six real tracks around the world against more than 60 rivals, while various levels of tuning allow players to upgrade and customize their cars with performance and style modifications. Don't discount this game because of its diminutive screen size; instead, give it kudos for packing more fun into a smaller and less-expensive package. Available in time for holiday gift giving.

Claiming to be the Ultimate Racing Simulator takes some courage, especially in light of the recent progress we've seen with Gran Turismo. Nevertheless, Codemasters stuffs TOCA Race Driver 2 with 31 licensed and fictional global race locations offering 48 tracks covering 15 different racing styles (from Open Wheel Grand Prix and Rally, to Stock Car, Formula Fords, and Super Trucks, with many others in between), and 35 cars (including Ford GT, Aston Martin Vanquish, Jaguar XKR, Nissan Skyline, and AMG-Mercedes CLK). Simply put, that's a lot of racing, all boasting super-smooth 60-frame-per-second graphics, and a damage engine so realistic that a head-on collision can leave the player's car a complete wreck and out of the race. Codemasters also promises highly sophisticated physics and handling for an incredibly realistic experience. While many games in our E3 coverage are not yet available, TOCA Race Driver 2 is on sale now for PC DVD and Xbox live.

Acclaim offers race fans this "Need for Speed Underground" lookalike, saying its game is all about the car, with style a close second to speed. More than 50 licensed domestic and import cars with authentic physics can be modified using hundreds of legitimate aftermarket parts to become a unique combination of high-octane simulation and arcade-style racing. Players test their cars on fictional courses in the United States, Japan, and United Kingdom, earning enough money and respect to race and continue to modify their ride. Damage modeling affects both the drivers' respect level, as well as their ability to steer the car, and the entire game is accentuated by a licensed soundtrack. The stakes are high in Juiced; beyond play money, players can race for pinks, but the loser's car is removed from his harddrive, and no backups will be allowed. Available for Xbox, PlayStation2, and PC, online play will be available for all systems when the game is released in the fall.

If this game sounds familiar, it's because we've been waiting for it since last year's E3. Namco has resurrected Street Racing Syndicate, filling it with underground-style high-risk night racing on open city streets and closed tracks. Racers take their cars to the streets of Los Angles, Philadelphia, and Miami to earn money and respect -- as well as the affection of beautiful models picked from today's top import magazines -- while avoiding the attention of cops lurking behind many sharp turns. Extensive customization options include licensed aftermarket parts and hundreds of graphics upgrades, while realistic racing physics affect handling and, ultimately, the racer's pocketbook because damage costs money to repair. Namco promises SRS will arrive by the end of the year, for PlayStation2, Xbox, and GameCube.

Knowing it would take a lot to keep players' attention beyond the five seconds it takes to drag race their cars, Bethesda has built extra features into "IHRA Professional Drag Racing 2005" to attempt to keep the game interesting. Pick your car, paint it pretty, bring it to the bleach box to soften the tires, then watch the Christmas tree count down for race action; after the race, you can hang out in your trophy room, complete with arcade and Hooters girl cutout for company. Racing action can be played in either arcade mode for quick races for single event, elimination, or two-player split-screen racing; or in simulation mode, which offers more in-depth play, allowing gamers to lead a team through the competitive season, earning money, and improving their car while competing in the 12-event national IHRA Professional Drag Racing championship. The game contains more than 50 accurate and detailed vehicles, all customizable, from Top Fuel, Pro Mod, Pro Stock, and Alcohol Funny Car categories. Did we love its unsophisticted graphics and simplistic play? No, but someone will. Available for PlayStation2, Xbox, PC, and some cellphones by the holidays; online play will not be available until next year.

The Wheelman returns in his most dangerous adventure yet -- an interactive driving epic meant to match the most intense Hollywood action blockbusters! Driv3r combines the most powerful aspects of action/adventure games, including boundary-free driving, shooting, and fighting, to create an expansive crime-thriller role-playing gaming experience. Available for PlayStation2, Xbox, and PC CD-ROM, Driv3r takes gamers through a wide variety of high-speed vehicle-based missions to go deeper undercover than other versions before it. Driver 3 promises gamers all-new seat-of-your pants possibilities including intruiguing replayability, and an intense experience in a world of fast cars, elusive gangsters, and constant danger. Available June 2004.

We were amazed by this multimedia/cinematic gaming experience when it first arrived at E3 two years ago. Now the sequel is nearing, promising even more of what made the first PlayStation 2 game so successful: in-game cut scenes created by motion-capturing real-life actors to deliver a true movie-like experience, and an innovative multi-path storyline allows players to make critical decisions during gameplay that significantly impact the story's progression and development. Run here, steal a car and drive there, or do both; choose who lives and who dies; all choices result in multiple endings for increased replayability. Choose to play one of three main characters, each with their own distinct personality; roam through 17 all-new London city areas including the Underground tube system, the River Thames, and back alley streets. Drive a stockyard of licensed cars and motorcycles that promise realistic handling, while bonus modes allow free roaming, street racing, as well as tourist and taxi driver modes. Release date is still undecided, though gamers are waiting anxiously.