Image: "Batman Begins"
Electronic Arts
"Batman Begins" stays faithful to what has become a summer tradition — the man-in-tights blockbuster.
By Columnist
msnbc.com
updated 7/31/2005 10:02:44 PM ET 2005-08-01T02:02:44

Remember when video games based on movies had the fun factor of a dog-chewed Happy Meal toy? At least you could sell your toy on eBay.

Production spending for these types of video games has since skyrocketed. Movie-based games look and sound like their cinematic inspirations. But what about playability? Are we talking about actual games here? Or just another interactive media kit?

With the heat reaching scorching temperatures, MSNBC.com stayed inside to try out the interactive versions of some of this summer's hottest films: "Batman Begins," "Fantastic Four" and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."

'Batman Begins'
"Batman Begins" stays faithful to what has become a summer tradition — the man-in-tights blockbuster.

Taking on the role of Batman, the player runs him through the film's major scenes from the Himalayas to Gotham City and into the big battles against the Scarecrow and al Ghul.

The game may be too faithful, perhaps. Batman does rescue the apple-cheeked Katie Holmes from the clutches of the Scarecrow, but wouldn't it be better if the bad guy was that toothy fireplug who's been ranting on our television screens? Hey modders, now's your chance to redeem yourselves.

But then anything caped and clad in tights belongs within the realm of the fan-boy, that faithful devotee of all things animated. Deviation in a game based on a film script crafted by 15 to 50 Hollywood screenwriters would run game makers the risk of a deluge of angry emails written in ALL CAPS.

"Batman Begins" reflects the maturity of the Hollywood-video game studio relationship. It looks and sounds great. The film's cast lends their voice with Christian Bale (Bruce Wayne nee Batman) providing a world-weary Raymond Chandleresque commentary.

Game play, however, falls into a familiar trap of the movie-based game. Forced to remain true to the movie storyline, game designers often feel the need to mix together a variety of playing ingredients sampled from other titles. It's equivalent to making a pot of stew out of the leftovers from last year's Thanksgiving. 

We see a dash of stealth play a la "Splinter Cell," a sampling of watered-down martial arts fighting and a smidgen of acrobatics. None of these styles are particularly compelling. Two buttons control hand-to-hand combat while acrobatics, one of Batman's specialties, is little beyond hitting a button and letting the game animate the rest of the move. 

"Fear is your weapon," reads the box copy of "Batman Begins." In actuality, fear plays a small role. The only real weapon is following the all-to-apparent clues to completing a mission that riddle each level. For some reason, players aren't expected to figure out how to beat a level. Each clue, from grappling hook-friendly pipes to movable boxes, is highlighted.

"Batman Begins" isn't the first to put a pretty wrapper around a paint-by-numbers game. Too many games these days have fallen in love with shadowing and lighting techniques and professional voice actors at the expense of innovation in play.

But a video game adaptation of a film like "Batman Begins" makes the trend painfully obvious.  With game experiences limited to the film's plot, play is no more than a quasi-interactive advertorial.   

And who needs that kind of experience when I can do that with my action figures.

'Fantastic Four'
When the unhip quartet debuted in Marvel Comics back in the 1960's they practically had to pay the Silver Surfer to hang out with them.

No wonder the film tanked.

Game publisher Activision wisely chose to save its adaptation of this clunker by importing the game mechanics of a critically-received button masher, "X-Men Legends."

In "X-Men Legends," a player leads a team of mutants into battle, switching control between mutants during melees to better take advantage of specific powers that are needed the most.

"X-Men Legends" featured a dozen heroes. With "Fantastic Four" one gets, well, four heroes of various superpowers to control. And all too often, game play demands that you control no more than two heroes during various chapters of the game.

But for those occasions when all four members make an appearance, as in big battles against the Moleman's subterranean gargoyles or Dr. Doom's robots, the action blossoms into a adrenalinized button masher.

For mano-a-mano combat there are Mr. Fantastic's rubbery appendages or the brute force of The Thing who can hurl objects or engage in old fashioned "clobberin' time!" stomping. The Human Torch specializes in longer-range fire attacks and the Invisible Woman throws up force fields capable of rendering an enemy motionless.

A player can jump from one hero to another with a click of a button. Setting up a battle with one hero and then switching over to the other for a devastating blow makes for effective one-two combinations.

With button mash-ups, control is everything. Otherwise the organized chaos you're unleashing on screen degenerates into just chaos. Unfortunately, the "Fantastic Four" suffers when trying to target bad guys with limited attacks from The Human Torch or the Invisible Woman, even if the intended victim is breathing fire upon your hero's wondrous locks.

For this reason, game play is unfairly skewed towards bruisers like Mr. Fantastic and the Thing.

That aside, the "Fantastic Four" is a pleasant time-killer, a B-grade game for a B-movie with all the four-color splash of its comic book predecessor. There are worse ways to spend a Saturday afternoon.

"Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"

Among the best changes director Tim Burton made to "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" was in updating loudmouth character Mike Tevee into an ardent devotee of violent video games. I'm sure that Roald Dahl, had he been alive today, would have taken a certain pleasure in eviscerating kids too wired for their own good.

It probably would be asking too much for the game adaptation to push the original wit a little farther, creating an experience that simultaneously excites children and pisses off their parents.

Take2 Interactive Software, Inc.

Instead, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" plays it so straight that I had to go back and skim the book to remind myself that the original was never intended to be an "after-school movie."

Those naughty little children, Veruca, Augustus, Mike and Violet, are all non-playable characters.  In fact, they are almost invisible and relegated to non-interactive cut-scenes, leaving "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" to consist of Charlie and a dozen or so Ooompa Loompas. It's a rather lonely gaming experience.

Players assume the role of Charlie who is tasked by Willie Wonka to free the factory of trouble wrought by his bratty guests.

The tasks only tangentially involve anything outlined in the movie and book plots, although from a gaming perspective, they are creative enough. Charlie will need to learn how to fix machinery in the candy factory and find his way out of some sticky and — sweet — problems. 

Game play is not difficult, but there is a fair amount of time involved in problem solving. "Charlie," a kid's game, is more of an experience than the more adult "Batman Begins," which practically smacks you upside the head with clues.

Unfortunately, "Charlie" suffers a bit in production. My Charlie had the bad habit of walking through walls or, worse, getting stuck in a corner with no escape. I had to re-boot several times. This is not fun and any parent with a Mike Tevee in the house should consider themselves warned.

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