- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Here’s a look at some hardware and software that’s available:

Van Helsing, from Vivendi Universal Games for Xbox, rated T: content suitable for ages 13 and older, $49.99. Offering a rarity in the world of console entertainment, here’s a video game that presents more action, a deeper story and better acting than the movie on which it is based. In this third-person thriller, a single player takes control of the Vatican-sanctioned monster hunter Gabriel Van Helsing to rid 19th-century Transylvania of a wide variety of unholy entities.

Starring the voices and expressive computer-generated faces of most of Universal Pictures’ “Van Helsing” cast, including Hugh Jackman in the starring role, Richard Roxburgh as Dracula, Shuler Hensley as Frankenstein’s monster and Will Kemp as the Wolfman, the game becomes what the movie should be — a rousing tribute to classic monster cinema.

The only one missing in the game is Van Helsing’s comical sidekick, Carl, who is not needed, thanks to nonstop battles between the hunter and minions or the clever bosses relishing his destruction.

After an initial confrontation with Mr. Hyde in London, which features the perfect meld between controller-induced battle and computer-generated film images, the player moves to the famed lands of vampires, and the real dizzying action begins. Van Helsing confronts hordes of gargoyles, ethereal banshees, emaciated zombies with bad breath, Germanic trolls and those gorgeous brides of the Prince of Darkness.

A full arsenal of weapons becomes available, ranging from his trusty pair of pistols, which can be upgraded with silver bullets dipped in holy water, to a gas-powered crossbow for handling numerous flying apparitions, to Tojo blades that act as hand-held buzz saws.

With exploration set to a linear fashion, meaning a limited amount of roaming as the computer coaxes the player toward set paths, Van Helsing eventually will work through 13 missions while visiting the frozen countryside, underground labyrinths, churches and castles.

Nice little extras, including gorgeous environments, black-and-white still images showing a player’s saved progress, points awarded for the hero not losing his hat, passionate dialogue, villagers mumbling behind their locked doors and Van Helsing’s multifunctional grapnel hook (which can be used to pull an opponent to him or to help him climb quickly to rooftops and across chasms), make up for the title’s lack of overall length.

The developers did use an odd “camera” system to relay the action, and it takes a while to get used to it. When the main character moves away from the screen, he often shrinks almost into the scenery, making some of the more enemy-infested areas and the puzzle solving a visual challenge.

However, the game maintains a reckless spirit of adventure throughout, which will give the monster fan a howling good time.

• • •

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, from New Line Home Entertainment for DVD-enabled computers and home entertainment centers, rated PG-13, $29.99. The armchair film historian who wants to get the best entertainment for his money has a decision to make with the New Line release of the first DVD set devoted to the final film of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

Without a doubt, the 200-minute epic delivers a rousing climax as just the right amount of special effects dazzle while passionate actors, thanks to meticulous direction from Peter Jackson, offer an incredible performance of J.R.R. Tolkien’s ode to Middle-earth.

However, the paltry extras tossed together on the second disc make it useless for the cinema deconstructionist and relegate it to a Blockbuster rental at best.

Basically, disc two contains a pair of regurgitated making-of documentaries and some quick featurettes that were available on the films’ official Web site (www.lordoftherings.net). Only the National Geographic special shines, with its discussion of parallels between “Lord of the Rings” characters and historical figures.

Computer users may fare only slightly better with an interface that supposedly will take them to exclusive online content that still was not available at Tuesday’s official release date.

So who should buy the two-disc set?

Only the unenlightened fool who did not bother to venture into a theater to see the spectacular movie. All others should stash their cash and wait for the extended-edition four-disc package arriving in November. It, like the extended DVD tributes to the first two films, will provide a rich, immersive experience.

Write to Joseph Szadkowski, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002; or send e-mail ([email protected] times.com).

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