The film Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, with its tomb-raiding, treasure-hunting action, seems ripe for adaptation into a video game. Unfortunately, the Nintendo DS game based on the latest in the series of adventure films starring Brendan Fraser fails to capture any of the movie's spirit. You are cast as Rick and Alex O'Connell, father and son adventurers who must stop the evil Emperor Han from raising his Terracotta Army and conquering the world. That sounds like potentially thrilling stuff, but the storytelling is so thin that the tale it tells is barely even coherent, much less interesting. The game seems to assume that anyone playing it has seen the movie and therefore can fill in the gaps in the narrative. But even if you've seen the movie a dozen times, you're better off staying away from this game.
The action is presented from a three-quarter view and has you navigate your way through ancient tombs and across hillsides, fighting terra-cotta soldiers and avoiding shots from idiotic snipers. The first level maintains a decent balance between light puzzle-solving, trap-evading, and combat. The puzzle-solving is all very easy, consisting of simple block-pushing and using the touch screen to write ancient runes, but despite its basic nature, it does lend a modicum of variety to the action. Unfortunately, after the first level, the traps and puzzles fall by the wayside and the focus shifts largely toward combat, which is much less enjoyable.
The combat consists of fisticuffs and firearms. Brawling is done by tapping the Y button to make your character pull off simple combos and hitting B to dodge your enemies' attacks. More often than not, though, shooting is going to be your best option. That's because the game has a tendency to surround you with enemies. The action sometimes forces you into these situations by making your character stand still while the bad guys make their entrance and circle you, which feels downright cheap. And once surrounded, if you stop to punch one dude in the face, another is likely to shoot you in the back.
So the best tactic then becomes to run around in circles like a crazy person, cutting down enemies with your weapon while trying to avoid enemy attacks. Gun combat is handled in an unusual way that doesn't always work well. There's a crosshair on the touch screen, and by touching the screen in relation to the crosshair, you control the direction in which your character shoots. Rick's pistols lend themselves to this control scheme. They fire and reload quickly, and they have a nice, long range, conveniently leaving trace lines in the air so that you can easily determine if you need to adjust your aim to hit your target. Mowing down onslaughts of terra-cotta soldiers with Rick's pistols can actually be fun for a little while. Alex's shotgun is a different story. The gun fires slowly, and you'll spend about as much time reloading it as you will firing it. Your aim needs to be as precise with the shotgun as it does with the pistols, and considering that all you get when you fire the shotgun is a burst of smoke, it can be more difficult to determine if you need to adjust a little to the left or a little to the right to hit your mark. It's frustrating to seemingly unload a shotgun blast right in an enemy's face and see it stand there unaffected.
Tomb of the Dragon Emperor also can't make up its mind about difficulty. For the overwhelming majority of the time, it's very generous with checkpoints. However, a few timed levels need to be completed in one go, without the benefit of any checkpoints, and these can be maddening. A lengthy level near the end is particularly obnoxious, given that the first few sections are quite easy. It's not until a ways into the level that it really starts to throw the bad guys at you en masse, and having to play the easy sections over again each time you fail, just to get back to the part that's giving you trouble, feels overly punishing.
Visually speaking, the game is plain. Your characters animate well, but all of your enemies are featureless, and the environments, with a few minor exceptions, are drab and monotonous. The music and sound effects are somewhat better. The occasionally rousing score sounds like the stuff of cinematic adventure, and the over-the-top sounds that accompany the flying of fisticuffs sell the action pretty well. Nevertheless, the verbal cues are annoying. The voice actors don't sound like their movie counterparts, and hearing Alex's petulant voice whine "No" or "I can't do that here" each time you hit the climb button but aren't standing in precisely the right spot is enough to make you want to reach into the game and throttle him.
The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor will take most players about five hours or so to complete. There's a harder difficulty level, but no built-in incentives to play through again. Certainly the gameplay isn't strong enough to make it worthwhile to play even once. If the game had continued to follow the more varied design formula demonstrated in the first level, the result might have been mildly engaging, but the poorly implemented gun combat quickly gets tiresome. Ultimately, its inconsistency and the plainness of its visuals make Tomb of the Dragon Emperor feel like a poorly thought-out, hastily thrown-together attempt to capitalize on a movie license, and that's probably exactly what it is.