The two most popular movies this year — at least until "Superman Returns" brings in the masses — are "The Da Vinci Code" and "X-Men: The Last Stand." Both were accompanied by video games when they were released this spring. But both games have been disappointments; on the most recent sales chart from industry analyst The NPD Group, neither cracked the top 10.
Why? Most gamers are automatically wary of any software that's based on a film. We've seen too many cases in which movies that could have been the basis for great virtual adventures — like "The Matrix" or "The Lord of the Rings" — led instead to tedious, uninspired rush jobs.
Very rarely are we treated to a game that improves on a movie. Film critics slammed Vin Diesel's "The Chronicles of Riddick" in 2004, but the Riddick game, "Escape from Butcher Bay," drew raves. "Escape" did just about everything right, and since it had a completely original story — it was actually a prequel to the first Riddick movie, "Pitch Black" — it offered plenty of surprises of its own.
This year's movie-based games offer a few surprises too, but they're mostly unpleasant.
"The Da Vinci Code" (2K Games, for the PlayStation 2, Xbox, $19.99): Dan Brown's bestselling novel already featured some interactive elements, in the form of word puzzles that any reasonably intelligent reader could solve.
The "Da Vinci" game adds an assortment of new puzzles, although they're not varied or challenging enough for a true word-game connoisseur. To pad out the playing time, you're forced into fistfights with Louvre guards and crazed Opus Dei monks — combat that seems completely inappropriate for a brainy hero like Brown's Robert Langdon.
The action is broken up by painfully long cutscenes in which the poorly animated characters (who look and sound nothing like Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou) stand around and discuss the conspiracy. "The Da Vinci Code" could have been a great brain-teaser; instead, it's just another attempt to cash in.
"X-Men: The Official Game" (Activision, for the PlayStation 2, Xbox, Xbox 360, GameCube, $39.99): The latest in a long line of X-Men games fills in the events between the 2003 movie "X2" and "The Last Stand." Professor X's good mutants are still mourning Jean Grey even as they fight off Magneto's evil mutants and the armed forces of regular old unmutated humanity.
You control three heroes: Wolverine, with his deadly claws; Nightcrawler, who can teleport; and Iceman, who can fly on sheets of frozen water. Most of the action, alas, consists of beating up on enemy after enemy.
The game's worst offense is the nearly unwatchable cutscenes explaining the plot, which are meant to evoke comic-book still frames but instead provoke suspicion that Activision was just too cheap to animate the characters.
New X-Men fans are strongly advised to pass on "The Official Game" and seek out one of Activision's excellent "X-Men Legends" titles.
"Jaws Unleashed" (Majesco, for the PlayStation 2, Xbox, $29.99): "Jaws Unleashed" is part of a mini-trend of game developers looking to older movies ("The Godfather," "The Warriors," "Scarface") for inspiration. You might expect a "Jaws" game to put you in the shoes of grizzled sailor Quint, but "Unleashed" does something more perverse: It lets you play as the shark, chomping on swimmers up and down the East Coast.
It's an intriguing twist, but it's so badly executed that it quickly becomes frustrating. The shark is really difficult to handle, thanks to needlessly complicated controls and terrible camera angles, and his missions — yes, he's more than just a remorseless killing machine — are so poorly explained that it's hard to figure out what to do or where to go next.
And about that title: When was Jaws ever "leashed"?