- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 2, 2005

Here’s a look at some discs celebrating the violent yet artistic world of combat in the Far East.

Genji: Dawn of the Samurai, from Sony Computer Entertainment for PlayStation 2, rated M: content suitable for ages 17 and older, $49.99. The magic and danger of 12th-century feudal Japan comes to life in a third-person adventure game loaded with gorgeous battlescapes and hack-and-slash action.

Within a story of revenge loosely based on the real conflicts between the Heishi and Genji Samurai clans, the player controls either the double-sword-wielding Yoshitune or pole-swinging behemoth Benkei as each attacks skilled swordsmen, mythical creatures and bosses dressed in amazing-looking period armor.

Both Genji heroes can explore the countryside, talk to villagers, take refuge in a hermitage, save citizens and collect crystals containing the magic of Amahagane from the fallen Heishi. This magic leads to one of the cooler battle options: unleashing the power of the Kamui. Paying homage to the motion-challenged “Matrix” fights, the power allows the player to slow down the battle and meticulously pick areas to attack and destroy an opponent.

The game also incorporates some role-playing elements, such as managing and upgrading an inventory of powers, weapons and armor that have been purchased, collected or gained through experience. These elements are a brow-wiping respite from the bloody conflicts.

What distinguishes Dawn of the Samurai is it never stops being a feast for the eyes. Even after routinely downing dozens of dopey enemies, I couldn’t help but gawk at the babbling brooks nestled next to climbable mountains or shadowy stone staircases highlighted by bursts of sunlight or forested areas cluttered with colorful fall leaves.

In fact, the overall presentation is so mesmerizing that I almost forgive the constant bloodletting and repetitive slaughter of the villains. Being a less-seasoned player, I actually appreciated the ease of some of the missions and enjoyed taking part in a cinematic epic rather than being bogged down in impossible-to-master gaming challenges.

Other Dawn of the Samurai nuances to completely immerse the player in the story include Japanese narration (with English subtitles), more than an hour’s worth of computer-generated scenes, seasonal changes and the nearly seamless blending of the cinema moments into the hands-on action.

Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks, from Midway for Xbox, rated M: content suitable for ages 17 and older, $49.99. The granddaddy of the blood-sport video game returns in a robust incarnation that still offers graphic 3-D fighting matches but also adds a solid third-person multiplayer adventure to dazzle its fans.

Players will find a story taking place between the first two Mortal Kombat games and the chance to control familiar legends Liu Kang or Kung Lao as they maul the demonic minions of Shang Tsung on their way to a final showdown with the Outworld master Shao Kahn.

The action combines exploration, puzzles and the unleashing of superpowered combination moves upon destructible environments and grunts while getting help or harm from classic Mortal Kombat characters such as Johnny Cage, Scorpion and Sub-Zero.

The game’s cooperative mode will especially enthrall the male demographic as the ultimate bonding experience gives a pair of gamers the chance to fight alongside one another.

Parents should be forewarned that the combat is gruesome and includes delivering those world-famous fatalities on the bad guys. Any player not allowed to see the “Kill Bill” movies has no business even watching scenes from the game.

Those looking for help in conquering the game will appreciate Prima’s aptly titled strategy guide, Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks ($16.99), which offers a walk through the adventure, locations of collectible items and a disc that when popped into the PC reveals more secrets and downloadable wallpapers.

Fans whose thumbs are blistered thanks to the above games can sit back and just watch some masters at work in a few of the latest DVD releases.

Martial-arts powerhouse Jet Li stars in Unleashed (Universal Studios Home Entertainment, $29.98, Rated R), a film that mixes mind-boggling fight scenes with a very dramatic story. The single DVD does little to reveal the magic behind the amazing fight choreography, but it is worth a rental to see the mighty Mr. Li in prime form.

Next, the Bruce Lee Ultimate Collection (Fox Home Entertainment, $59.99) offers a quintet of films on separate discs, including Mr. Lee’s early work in “The Big Boss” and “Fist of Fury,” along with classic battles against Chuck Norris (“Way of the Dragon”) and Kareem Abdul Jabbar (“Game of Death”). The set also contains “Game of Death II,” a film including previous footage of Mr. Lee (including some of his funeral) that took disgusting advantage of the star’s untimely death.

Write to Joseph Szadkowski, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002; or send e-mail (jszadkowski@washingtontimes.com).

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