image: pirates
Our hero battles local ruffians in "Pirates of the Caribbean."
By
msnbc.com

Gamers waited this spring with eager anticipation for “Enter the Matrix,” the game expected to marry Hollywood content and interactivity in ways never imagined. But the film met with mediocre reviews and the game itself proved to be a disappointment.

THREE MONTHS LATER, most summer movies appear to be sucking wind and the expensive licenses paid to create the video games based on them are starting to look like giant albatrosses. After shelling out $10 for a dud at the theatre, why pay an additional $40 to $50 for the game?

Very few movie-related games prove to be as good or better than their Hollywood inspirations. Alas, this summer offers few exceptions to the rule. Let’s start with the few bright spots.

‘THE HULK’ (GameCube, PlayStation 2, Xbox, PC)

image: hulk

Besides the questionable CGI, the problem with Ang Lee’s film was the plodding speed of the script. Fortunately, the game adaptation skips the film’s psychology 101 exploration of the Hulk’s emotional pathos for more comic book violence. And it’s the better for it. From the get go, players act out the fantasy of being an angry green giant in purple stretch pants. “Hulk smash!” Steve Kent, MSNBC contributor, gave the game four stars of five, calling the gameplay “... a mixture of testosterone, adrenaline and caffeine. The combination of styles results in a game that never gets dull.” And because the game used cell-shaded animation, there’s no worries of the protagonist looking like a lump of green play-doh a la the movie version.

Play drags when the player realizes that pursuing soldiers appear to re-spawn seconds after crushing them. Compare that to the movie, where boredom struck moments after the opening credits.

“PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN” (Xbox, PC)

Despite its origins as a Disney ride, the film “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,” has turned out to be a bawdy romp. The game, meanwhile, ditches most of the pirate theme for a humorless but involving adventure.

The lack of “shiver me timbers” pirate-y camp is not the fault of the game makers. Until game developer Bethesda and film producer Disney agreed to a synergistic promotional campaign, “Pirates of the Caribbean” was set to be released as “Sea Dogs 2,” the sequel to a buccaneer-inspired role playing game.

True to the genre, much of the game play revolves around asset management. A player begins as a rakish young captain who uses his skills at commerce, flattery and warfare to acquire more ships, transport more goods and inspire a passel of scurvy-crazed sailors willing to battle for booty (of the 17th century variety).

“Pirates” promises swordplay, but don’t count on executing Errol Flynn-type moves. Sea battles, likewise, are lacking. Some players may find themselves absorbed with monitoring wind directions and ruminating on the tactical differences between cannonballs and grapeshot. But those looking for smooth, intuitive combat should go elsewhere.

Instead the appeal lies in the open-ended experience. Players may want to terrorize the Caribbean like “Grand Theft Auto’s” Tommy Vercetti or opt to work for the British crown and accumulate power through trade and picking on the French.

Graphics, rendered in both first and third-person views, look great. Jungles are appropriately lush, the sea is several shades of blue and the ships look realistic enough to this land lubber’s eye.

This is the one movie-based game that could have benefited by hewing closer to the movie. A little bit of pirate camp would have made those never-ending rambles through villages more enjoyable. There is not one sea shanty. Whoever crafted the soundtrack deserves to walk the plank. Speaking of which, there isn’t any plank-walking either. The scurvy dogs!

“CHARLIE’S ANGELS” (Gamecube)

image: Chaarlie's Angels

The promotional copy for “Charlie’s Angels” promises that players can ”Battle Countless Criminals.” There is truth in advertising. After about the 15th criminal laid low by a Lucy Liu kick, the number of criminals starts to feel “countless.” “Endless” and “monotonous,” are other words that may cross a player’s mind. “Charlie’s Angels” is nothing more than a fighting game and a rather shallow one at that.

True, the three Angels — Cameron Diaz, Lucy Liu and Drew Barrymore — attack each level in a variety of outfits and when at rest they strike a playful catwalk pose. Power-ups come in the form of muffins - fat free presumably. And the three stars do provide the voicing. But gameplay lacks originality. There is a plot concerning a thief who has stolen the world’s greatest monuments, but the game — like the film — tries not to let plot stand in the way of a good time. Unfortunately there’s not much of a good time to be had here. Completing each level involves controlling each of the Angels for a round of punch-kick-punch. This is a button-masher in its purest form where you can inflict any number of button combinations and execute the same move.

I was compelled to play to the finish not because I enjoyed it, but because I believed, stubbornly, that the game had to get better. It didn’t and I ended with an unhealthy craving for fat-free cranberry muffins.

“THE ITALIAN JOB” (GameCube, PlayStation 2, Xbox, PC)

image: Itallian Job

The makers of “The Italian Job” likewise abandoned movie plot for action. The video game hook is not controlling the tiny — thus life-size — digital doppelganger of star Mark Wahlberg, but the film’s memorable MINI Coopers. MINI’s for those not familiar with the film, are those tiny cars that look cute until you see the price tag.

Players follow a mission-based storyline that has them scurrying around Los Angeles while avoiding the cops. The problem with this setting is that the missions are both short and not interesting. Players can hone stunt skills like jumps, quick turns and driving on two wheels in several obstacle courses. Numerous times during play, my MINI dangled off the edge of a jump unable to move forward or back. A game re-start was the only way out.

Essentially, “The Italian Job” is nothing more than a racing game. And when measured using this yardstick, “The Italian Job” fails to match up against the recent releases.

THE FUTURE

For better or worse, more games tied to movies are in the making. Atari is set to release a console and multiplayer PC game tied to “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” in time for the Holidays. And later this summer, gamers will get a chance to free Steve McQueen from Stalag Luft III in “The Great Escape.”

But the opportunity to adapt one of the better films to gaming may have passed. This film has everything a good game requires: Intrigue; power; corruption; a potential wide audience; sex appeal; and small toy dogs. I’m talking about “Legally Blond 2: Red, White and Blond.”

When not babbling about computer games, Tom Loftus produces interactives for MSNBC.com

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