Cinema's blockbusters become video games, and fun is lost in translation
Summer 2007 so far has seen the prettiest, most technologically innovative movie-tie-in games ever, but the novelty of three still-shiny next-gen consoles can't compensate for the lack of creativity and downright bizarre game-design choices plaguing most of these adaptations.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (EA, $59.99, Xbox 360) is a typical example. Even ignoring the bland graphics and infuriating camera angles, Order of the Phoenix aspires to suck. The story is lousy with action and wizards, but the gameplay is, for some reason, mainly centered on stacking boxes, running errands, and doing other people's homework. Anything fun (shooting off fireworks, riding thestrals) is handled in cut-scene form. "I'll take it from here," Harry seems to say whenever something exciting happens. "I'll call you when we need to clean up the trophy room." While you do occasionally use your magic powers for wizards' duels and platform puzzles, OOTP has such a weird preoccupation with moving large objects, I suspect it's really some kind of low-aiming edutainment title training Potter fans for future careers in the warehouse industry.
Ratatouille (THQ, $49.99, Xbox 360) is also fixated on tasks like cleaning gutters and kitchen duty, but the game does at least offer platform puzzle action of the old-school, LSD-inspired variety. Blow up boxes with chile peppers, fight Easter chicks, help a rat make five-star dinners. Despite its almost-confrontational degree of unoriginality, Ratatouille is one of this year's strongest summer movie games. If you squint or drink heavily enough, you can almost pretend you're controlling a little Sicilian plumber. Heavy drinking is, of course, not advised for the small children this game is marketed toward; some of the levels are going to be hard enough for them to beat sober.
While Nancy Drew: The White Wolf of Icicle Creek (Her Interactive, $19.99, PC) isn't based on the recent film, raise a glass to its creators for taking this chores-as-video-game concept to a new level by mixing in a little old-fashioned sexism. As the whiz detective, you're going undercover as a maid to solve a series of mysterious accidents at a ski resort, and more than just a convenient cover story, grilling hamburgers and making beds are the bulk of the game.
It's hard to decide what's more annoying: the time-consuming puzzles or having to break from solving them to make incredibly complex meals for guests at the ski resort, which apparently serves as a halfway house for people suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. A typical lunch order will specify exact numbers of pickles and onions on hamburgers, and God help you if you don't comply. Icicle Creek is like revisiting your worst summer job in high school, but instead of smoking pot and getting to third base, you get to spend your off-time shoveling snow and searching dirty laundry for clues. You can bet the Hardy Boys never unmasked a killer only to hear, "That's just great, boys. Did you make sure my salad has three pieces of lettuce?"
Sure, you can argue that children's stories and young-adult mystery novels aren't the greatest sources for games in the first place, but legendary comic-book franchise the Fantastic Four should be almost impossible to screw up, right? Apparently, the folks at 2K Games thought so, too, and became way overconfident, figuring they could get by with this sad dungeon crawler. Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2K Games, $59.99, Xbox 360) is a minimalist takeoff of the pretty cool Marvel Ultimate Alliance, reducing that nerd fest to only four playable characters and a seemingly equal number of ugly-ass levels repeated ad nauseam. Save the world from Galactus the Marvel way: Smash more things, ride more elevators, and watch more poorly executed cut scenes than anyone without superpowers should be asked to endure. I'd give the game credit for its party-friendliness -- its short learning curve and drop-in/drop-out ease -- but seeing as roughly 90% of the gameplay involves throwing boxes at robots, you'll probably be throwing those boxes by yourself. On the plus side, thanks to Fantastic Four, Harry Potter, and Ratatouille, our children will be well-prepared for any sort of box-placement/destruction crisis the future may bring.
And speaking of the future, or whatever the hell Transformers: The Game (Activision, $59.99, Xbox 360) is, you'd think the programmers at Activision would have an easy time making a decent game from the concept of giant robots blowing one another up. And you'd be right, mostly. Without exerting too much effort, the company has adapted the blockbuster into a game that adequately fulfills its sweet-ass promise of giant robots and even more giant blowings-up, but the game is ironically weakened by any attempts to have actual transformations. Way too much of Transformers requires your nonrobot capabilities, forcing you to race through the city -- sometimes as the giant, unwieldy big rig Optimus Prime -- in order to fight more giant robots and blow more stuff up. This withholding-the-explosions shit never would've stood with kids in the pre-Ritalin days, I'll tell you that much.
But whether it's postfeminist regression or prescription medication, the underlying theme of 2007's summer movie games is probably this: Youngsters these days are all kinds of screwed up. For whatever reason, kids and game producers, no doubt supported by all kinds of marketing research and study-group results, believe you want to spend your summer cooped up inside cleaning digitized gutters, ducking your real-life chore list to do virtual laundry. When I was a kid, a game like that would've been called Inviting Your Dad to Kick Your Ass.