Design by Collin Oguro
Summer is upon us, and along with warmer weather, school vacations, baseball, and weekend barbecues comes a flood of blockbuster summer movies from Hollywood. This season is to the movie industry as Christmas is to the game industry; all the big studios are looking to cash in, releasing their big-budget films and hoping to pull in droves of moviegoers looking to while away a few hours.
With the increasing cooperation and convergence between Hollywood and the games industry, many of these films have video game counterparts. This shouldn't be surprising. As the immortal Mel Brooks said in Spaceballs as the wise sage Yogurt, movies are all about "moichandising, moichandising, moichandising." Twenty-five years ago, fans ran out and bought Star Wars action figures and toys after seeing the original trilogy. Today's movie fans are compelled to pick up the tie-in video game instead. Over the years, however, movie tie-in games have built up a terrible reputation for being low quality--the infamous E.T. on the Atari 2600, Friday the 13th on the NES, and years of Jurassic Park-based rehashes have all been seen as sloppy, slapdash efforts to cash in on any hype surrounding the movie license.
Thankfully, the attitude surrounding the development of movie-licensed games has changed in recent years. Both Hollywood and the game industry are taking the quality of these games more seriously, and we've seen the results with games such as GoldenEye on the N64 and the EA-published Lord of the Rings beat-'em-ups, which were excellent games. We still get disappointments like Enter the Matrix and flat-out stinkers like Charlie's Angels, but by and large we're seeing an industrywide improvement with movie-licensed games.
GameSpot's 2004 Summer Movie Games Roundup focuses on the games based on the movies of this summer: Van Helsing, Shrek 2, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay, Spider-Man 2, King Arthur, Catwoman, and The Lord of the Rings, The Battle for Middle-earth. And yes, we know that no Lord of the Rings film has been released this summer, but The Return of the King DVD has, so that is close enough for us to include a reference to one of the most hotly anticipated real-time strategy games of the year. This feature includes commentary on both the games and the films on which they're based.
"In general, movie games have a bad reputation for cashing in on successful film properties, but the stigma just might go away, in time, if movie games like Van Helsing become the standard. If you can strip the movie license away from a movie game and still be left with something worthwhile, then you've got yourself a game that isn't using its movie license as a crutch. This is fortunately true of Van Helsing, which isn't a great game but can still be fun while it lasts."
Van Helsing rarely impresses, but its mechanics are solid enough that it still deserves a thumbs-up. The game has a Devil May Cry-like design to it, sending you through a dozen levels filled with random monsters and giving you the tools to eradicate your foes in a stylish, combo-driven way.
The game models Hugh Jackman in his lead role as the monster-slaying title character, and it uses his voice as well. The game's voice acting, overall, is decent, and the lead character model does a good job of looking like Jackman, though the rest of the game sports simple, blocky models.
Some sequences from the film are re-created in the game using the game's 3D engine, a welcome change from simply cramming a bunch of FMV sequences from a movie onto the disc. Van Helsing is a fairly good game all around.
The Van Helsing film
At their most stereotypical, summer movies are big-budget, flashy affairs with little to no substance. Van Helsing is a stereotypical summer movie--big and dumb, with an atrocious performance from Kate Beckinsale to boot. If you're into totally mindless action and over-the-top monster butt-kicking, you may enjoy this film. But if you didn't see it, you aren't missing anything.
"The older kids who found some chuckles in the adult-aimed nudge-and-winks found in the original Shrek movie probably aren't going to find anything too compelling here."
This is a thumbs-up that comes with a few caveats. What really makes Shrek 2 work as a "family film" is that it does, in fact, have something for the adults and the wee ones, which has proven to be a bit of a daunting task for Luxoflux, developer of Shrek 2 for the GameCube, PlayStation 2, and Xbox. The game looks quite nice, and its team-based puzzle-solving mechanics are a nice alternative to the blase platformer you might expect, but the celebrity impersonator voice work isn't always as convincing as it ought to be, and most importantly, it doesn't have the broad appeal of the film, setting its sights on the kids. For the backpack-and-lunchbox crowd, though, this is a fine fit. Note that none of this really applies to the inferior Shrek 2 for the PC, which is shorter, less visually appealing, and generally not as fun.
The Shrek 2 film
Shrek 2 may be a sequel made mostly for the money, but the parts still work: skewered versions of Grimm-esque storybook characters and a surplus of pop culture references, all wrapped around a simple, sentimental love story. Some of the celebrity voice acting is a little conspicuous, but Joan Rivers and Larry King both make great cameo appearances. Pixar may still own the CG feature-film racket, but Shrek 2 is fine summer family-film fare.
Developer: EA Games
Publisher: EA Games
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban Review »
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"Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a by-the-numbers movie-licensed game that makes pretty good use of its source material without really doing anything too surprising. It's perfect for kids, since the puzzles and combat are both easy enough that youngsters won't have a hard time getting through them. Older gamers won't find it very challenging at all, but that doesn't mean it won't be entertaining while it lasts."
Like the previous Harry Potter games, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a simple adventure game that will have you exploring the hallowed halls of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, as well as the surrounding grounds. The game's plot more or less follows the plot from the book, with the overarching storyline involving Harry trying to evade a convicted murderer named Sirius Black, who has escaped from the wizard prison, Azkaban. Black was purportedly involved in the murder of several innocent people and had a hand in the deaths of Harry's parents.
The newest version of the game allows you to switch control between Harry and his two pals, Hermione Granger and Ronald Weasley. Each of the characters has certain ability and spell specializations that make him or her better suited for certain tasks than the others. Harry can jump far and climb, while Hermione is lithe enough to crawl through tight spaces. On the spell side, Ron can take advantage of the lumos spell to light dark areas, and Hermione can cast glacius to freeze fire-based foes. Overall the game should be fun for any fan of the Harry Potter books, although it might be a bit easy for experienced game players.
It's also worth noting that the PC version is entirely different from the console versions of the game. Meant for young children, the PC version offers similar platforming adventures, but with a simplified, context-sensitive spell system. Depending on what you aim at, the game automatically picks the appropriate spell for you to use, so some of the strategy is taken out of the game. Still, the PC version offers enough charm to entertain Potter fans.
The Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban film
The film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the first in the series to make significant departures from the book it is based on. Part of this has to do with the fact that the author, J.K. Rowling, began making the Harry Potter story more complex in Prisoner of Azkaban, introducing new characters and a bevy of subplots. Condensing all of that into two hours was no mean feat, and while the film may seem a little bit disjointed to those who aren't familiar with the book, it still does an admirable job of hitting all the important points. The presentation hasn't suffered either. Prisoner of Azkaban still offers magical special effects, giving the audience the same childlike sense of wonderment they had in the first two movies. Hardcore Potter purists may turn up their noses at Prisoner of Azkaban, but on its own merits, it's still a very entertaining film.
"You could call The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay a first-person shooter, but that would be selling it short. This ambitious game is played mostly from a first-person perspective and effectively and innovatively combines excellent shooting, hand-to-hand combat, stealth, and adventure elements with a solid story and truly outstanding, highly atmospheric graphics and sound. It's easily one of the most-impressive games on the Xbox and seems destined to be remembered as the most inspiring collaboration between Hollywood and the gaming industry yet."
Forget about the movie, forget about Vin Diesel--forget about all of that. All you really need to know about The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay is that it's one of the best games so far this year. Oh, and that it's not for kids.
If you need more evidence than that, you could always just take a look at some of our gameplay movies, since this is one of those games whose quality is immediately apparent. You could also take a look at some of the rave reviews the game has received from gamers who've rented it or picked it up. Games don't often earn such high scores from GameSpot or its audience, but then again, they aren't often anywhere near as good as The Chronicles of Riddick.
The Chronicles of Riddick film
You know the old saying about how movies are never as good as the books they're based on. It's possible that The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay may be ushering in a similar trend, with respect to games instead of movies. While the Riddick game is a tightly knit, finely paced, and often inspired action adventure experience, its movie counterpart is widely considered overblown and shallow. It feels like an attempt to meld Dune with Conan the Barbarian, but the movie never really generates critical mass and just transitions from set piece to set piece. The movie has style, but strangely, little soul. Maybe all this speaks to a difference in critical standards between Hollywood and the gaming industry. Or maybe Riddick is just flat-out better in game form. If you're a fan of the game, though, be sure to at least see Pitch Black, which is the sci-fi horror movie in which Riddick's character originated.
"Based on what we've played so far, Spider-Man 2 is shaping up to be a worthy sequel to its predecessor and a fine game in its own right. The expanded gameplay, new graphics engine, and movie-cast voice acting all add up to make for an impressive experience. The addition of characters from the comics helps the game ably walk the fine line between appealing to movie and comic fans alike, which is always tricky. If you're a fan of Spidey, you will most certainly want to keep an eye out for the game when it ships later this month."
The life of a superhero rarely follows a straight-and-narrow path, so it makes perfect sense that for the follow-up to 2002's Spider-Man: The Movie, developer Treyarch has given Spidey's world a far more open-ended feel. Spider-Man can websling his way all over New York City, taking part in story-based missions to further the plot, and he can stop to help innocents in trouble along the way. Spidey's got plenty of new moves to go along with his new game, including more acrobatic moves and an all-new combo system that lets you incorporate your webs into combo attacks. Pile on top of all that a brand-new graphical engine and the voice talents of Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, and Alfred Molina, and you've got yourself the makings of a quality sequel. The original Spider-Man: The Movie was a fine game in its own right, but Spider-Man 2 could easily surpass everything that game brought to the table, and then some.
The Spider-Man 2 film
Though the original Spider-Man movie was not necessarily loved by everybody, fans of the comic book almost universally agreed that Sam Raimi's vision of Peter Parker's troubled superhero life was a fantastically authentic film translation of the comic's style and story. Spider-Man 2, which hits theaters in just a few short weeks, is once again helmed by Raimi and should maintain the same style of vision found in the first film. Spider-Man 2 will follow the continuing trials and tribulations of an increasingly disillusioned Peter Parker, who is still struggling to come to terms with the balance between his superhero lifestyle and his "normal," regular life. Add to the mix a new villain in Dr. Otto Octavius/Dr. Octopus--a brilliant scientist who, after a lab accident, was left with multiple new mechanical appendages and a damaged psyche--and your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man is going to have plenty in store for him.
"The crux of King Arthur's gameplay is pure hack-and-slash action. You'll be able to fight enemies by stringing light and heavy melee attacks together, and as you fight without taking damage, your character will begin to glow, denoting that your power has increased. Some enemies can be dispatched with just a few chops, but others we saw that wielded shields required heavy attacks before we could break through their defenses and do some damage. You'll also be able to switch to a ranged weapon at any time--Arthur used a bow, for instance--and you can lock onto faraway enemies to make aiming a much easier affair."
Granted, we haven't seen a lot of it yet, but King Arthur looks to embody that quintessential movie-game attitude: "Take the movie story, in order, and make it playable." You'll control several of the film's heroes, such as Arthur himself, Lancelot, Galahad, and even Guinevere, as you fight lots of enemies in one- or two-player modes. This one seems to be right up the alley of anyone who enjoyed the recent EA action games based on The Lord of the Rings.
One of the coolest things we noticed when we played King Arthur briefly was the mounted combat. You'll be able to play some levels on horseback, laying waste to the puny enemies attacking you from the ground. In addition, you've got a good solid assortment of melee and ranged attacks, courtesy of your sword and bow, which you can use against the hordes. King Arthur looks to be a hack-and-slash game with some decent depth, and if the movie turns out to be good, then all the better.
The King Arthur film
King Arthur bills itself as "the true story behind the legend," and while that may or may not be true, its stars do seem to defy the popular conception of the myth of Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. You've got Arthur, Lancelot, and the crew looking less like supermen and more like regular old guys with swords, and then there's a scantily clad Keira Knightly with war paint on her face and a bow in her hand. Maybe this one's still riding the crest of historically themed action movies that Gladiator established. Maybe it'll be good. Who can say? You can check out the trailer, for now.
"Catwoman, the game, will follow the storyline of Catwoman, the movie, almost entirely. The game's 23 levels will cover (and expand upon) every major location from the film. Catwoman has two basic methods of attack. She has a whip that she can use to snare enemies, knock radios or guns out of foes' hands, and even grab and fling objects in the environment. You can also hold down a shoulder button to make Catwoman crouch in a catlike pose, and in this position, she'll attack with a bevy of capoeira moves. (Capoeira is a Brazilian dancelike fighting style. Think Eddy Gordo from Tekken 3.) The combat controls are pretty unique in that you attack with the right analog stick rather than with buttons. This gives you the benefit of being able to attack in a full 360 degrees, which gives the combat a fluid feeling."
This really must be the year that movie games finally lose their bad reputation. In addition to the incredible The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay, along with pretty solid showings from Van Helsing, Shrek 2, and the upcoming Spider-Man 2, we're off to a good start already. And here we've got a new Catwoman game, releasing day-and-date with the film, courtesy of EA, which just furthers the trend. We haven't seen a whole lot of it just yet, but the game is looking pretty darn sharp based on the demonstration we saw not too long ago.
Catwoman is certainly one of the best-looking movie games this year--we were frankly amazed that the demo we saw was running on the PS2, what with its extremely impressive soft-focus lighting effects and visual filters at work. The combat is also a lot of fun, with its innovative 360-degree use of the right analog stick. We were pretty well surprised by the apparent quality of Catwoman, and we're interested to see how this game turns out, to say the least.
The Catwoman film
Like most movie games, Catwoman ties straight in to the plot of the film, although it expands on many sequences from the movie by adding new events or other kinds of texture. Of course, whether or not the game will be any good is partially contingent on how well the movie turns out, and we have to say that costume isn't really doing much to encourage us. But regardless, the best movie games are the ones that are fun in spite of their license rather than because of it, so this one's pretty much a big wait-and-see.
Release Date Q4 2004
Developer: EA LA
Publisher: EA Games
The Lord of the Rings, The Battle for Middle-earth
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"The Lord of the Rings, The Battle for Middle-earth seems to be coming along extremely well, and its highly streamlined interface may very well prove to be easier to use for real-time strategy beginners."
The Battle for Middle-earth is one strategy game that we simply can't wait to get our hands on. In seeking to capture the epic scale of the battles from the movies, the developers at Electronic Arts have created one of the most stunningly cinematic games that we've ever seen. For example, during the climactic battle at Minis Tirith, waves of orcs crash against the walls of the city, while huge lumbering oliphants carve a wide swath through the massed cavalry of Rohan. But there's more to The Battle for Middle-earth than just gorgeous graphics. The game will model emotional reactions, so when a gaggle of swordsmen come across a mighty troll, they'll brace themselves for the onslaught. Or if an ent catches fire, it will panic and bolt for the nearest water. At E3, we got to see some of the game' strategic gameplay in action, including a beautiful 3D-rendered map of Middle-earth. You can maneuver your armies around on the map, and when hostile armies come into contact with them, you'll zoom down to initiate a battle. If EA can deliver on the game's promise, The Battle for Middle-earth could very well be one of the best movie games ever made.
The Lord of the Rings films
At this point, what more can be said of Peter Jackson's stunning three-movie adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's defining work? We all know that it was nominated for three Best Motion Picture Oscars before winning for The Return of the King. The voters at Internet Movie Database have placed the movies among the Top 10 Movies of All Time. Odds are that you've seen each movie at least twice and that you own the special-edition DVD sets of the first two movies (and are salivating for the third to be released). Oh, we could nitpick about some of the liberties taken with the novels, and then there's the entire issue with Return dragging on for far too long at the end, but if we mentioned those, odds are our e-mail boxes would be slammed with angry letters from fans from all over the world.