- The Washington Times - Friday, February 13, 2004

Superheroes and cartoon characters have become integral parts of the electronic entertainment industry. Around the world, youngsters and guys who can’t get dates spend countless hours in front of their computers and video-game systems.

With this in mind, I salute the melding of pop-culture character and Silicon Valley with a look at some …

Comics plugged in:

A 1980s Belgian sequential-art masterpiece gets transformed into a first-person shooting adventure in the video game XIII ($49.99). Ubi-Soft offers GameCube, PlayStation 2 and Xbox owners the chance to be part of the comic-book universe via more than 37 missions of intrigue and stealth action within Jean Van Hamme’s story, inspired by Robert Ludlum’s 1980 book “The Bourne Identity.”

What’s the story? The president of the United States has been assassinated. A dazed man wakes up on a desolate strip of New England beach. The near-fatal impact of a bullet has left his head pounding and memory erased. What’s more, the number “XIII” has been tattooed mysteriously on his chest, while his pocket holds a key to a New York City bank box.

Head swimming in amnesia, he struggles to his feet, only to encounter more assailants intent on finishing the job. To his shock, he handles the hit men with the killing skills of a professional — before heading to the bank in search of any shred of information about his lost identity and involvement in the president’s murder.

Characters’ character: Ubi-Soft developers worked with Mr. Van Hamme and his artist in crime, William Vance, in developing a story around the first five volumes of the XIII series, incorporating the Unreal 2 game engine with a cel-shaded animation technique to create the most faithful-looking comic-book-based video game to date.

As the hero, the player must slowly piece together his identity and prevent his death by meeting such characters from the books as General Carrington and Major Jones, exploring environments — including a submarine and military base — and quickly eliminating enemies using weapons such as harpoons, crossbows and a bazooka.

Tactics used in his quest are not all violent, as he often can use a chair, bottle or shovel to conk an armed obstacle in his way, rather than killing opponents and taking hostages to extricate himself from particularly futile situations, which can lead to living another day.

I can’t gush enough about how the flow of the game feels like a graphic novel as words flutter across the screen to warn the hero of approaching enemies and multiple panels pop up to further the plot or highlight a harrowing moment; characters and backgrounds look ripped from the pages of Mr. Vance’s sketchbook.

How would Lt. Frank Drebin fare? Thanks to a lenient targeting system, plenty of healing medical kits and Brady Games’ well-organized Strategy Guide ($14.99), the lieutenant spent more time unloading weapons than falling to the floor in humiliating defeat.

Parental blood-pressure meter: 190/150, deadly high because of illustrated depictions of murder. Because the title is rated M, only those in the 17-and-older demographic need be exposed to blood-spattered walls and pools of plasma — along with graphic panels of violence executed by a hero who needs to save the United States from a well-connected threat.

What if I feel like reading a book? In the early 1990s, the now-defunct Comcat Comics published a few of the translated volumes of the XIII books (priced at $6.95 each), but finding them may take more work than determining the true identity of the series’ protagonist.

What’s it worth? XIII heartily succeeds in melding comic with gaming. Hopefully, the title is just the beginning of harnessing the cel-shaded look in bringing the world of sequential art to the video-game screen.

Pop bytes

A brief review of game titles that didn’t have time to get fully plugged in:

American Splendor, by HBO Video (for DVD-enabled computer and home entertainment centers, rated R, $29.99). Harvey Pekar’s comic-book chronicle of his strangely normal life pays off in the form of a 101-minute film celebrating this quirky curmudgeon. Now on DVD, the disc perfectly combines his sequential artwork and day-to-day depressions by first offering the award-winning effort that mixes actors replaying critical scenes of his existence. Actor Paul Giamatti transforms into the grouchy Veterans Administration hospital file clerk, with scenes of the real Mr. Pekar and friends, along with animation based on his comic-book series.

Fun extras include a mini color comic book drawn by Gary Dumm, encapsulating Mr. Pekar’s life in 12 pages, and PC downloads such as wallpapers and screen savers, accessed after clicking through a side-splitting sequential-art vignette of Mr. Pekar and best pal Toby Radloff contemplating what fast-food joint makes the best french fries.

Fairly Odd Parents: Superhero Spectacle, by Paramount Home Entertainment (for DVD-enabled computer and home entertainment centers, rated G, $19.99). This very odd digital video disc compiles 10 episodes of Nickelodeon’s hilarious cartoon series revealing the world of Timmy Tumer, a 10-year-old with two godparents who are wish-granting fairies. As the title implies, the DVD concentrates on some heroically themed stories, five of which star the spandex-clad, faux comic-book stars the Crimson Chin (voiced by Jay Leno) and Cleft, the Boy Chin Wonder. The bellyaching episodes use sequential-art displays bandied about with visualizations combining splash page panels, onomatopoeia text balloons and the normal “Fairly Odd” animation styles.

Fans of the 1960s “Batman” television show will also appreciate the guest vocals of Adam West, whose Catman character takes part in the episode titled “Miss Dimsdale.” Additionally, nine Nick.com ads encompass the DVD’s extras and string together a story of the Crimson Chin battling the Bronze Kneecap, the Iron Lung and Copper Cranium.

Zadzooks! wants to know you exist. Call 202/636-3016, fax 202/269-1853, e-mail [email protected]washingtontimes.com or write to Joseph Szadkowski at The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002.

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