- The Washington Times - Friday, July 22, 2005

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

Marvel Comics’ famous superhero family gets ported from the silver screen to home entertainment consoles in Fantastic Four ($49.99). Activision gives Xbox, PlayStation 2 and Game Cube owners control of Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Woman, the Human Torch and the Thing as they explore and seek out villains in more than 20 environments in this third-person, puzzle-solving, action-packed simulation.

What’s the story? A bold experiment in space goes wrong, immediately and literally transforming the lives of four intrepid explorers and their ruthless, rich boss. When Reed Richards, Ben Grimm, Sue and her brother Johnny Storm wake up from these shocking events, they find that their DNA has been altered at the most basic level and that they have gained some remarkable special powers.

Characters’ character: This authentic gaming experience melds the mythologies of the Fantastic Four comic book and the current movie story: It includes likenesses and the voices of all of the principal actors (Michael Chiklis, Jessica Alba, Chris Evans, Ioan Gruffudd and Julian McMahon) while adding side confrontations with classic villains.

Each character arrives on-screen with signature and breathtakingly executed moves: Mr. Fantastic can stretch his hands into hammers and perform spinning roundhouses; the Thing performs powerful drops onto floors to wipe out any villains in concussive waves; and the Human Torch fires streams of fireballs.

During missions taking place in such famous locations as the Brooklyn Bridge, the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, the Baxter Building and Latveria (the home of Dr. Doom can be unlocked by those who complete the entire game on at least the medium-difficulty setting), a single player can quickly change to control different team members or enter a co-op mode, which enables a pair of humans to work together.

Supervillains encountered include Diablo, Blastaar, the Puppetmaster, Annihilus and, of course, Dr. Doom, who appears later in the game for the final epic conflict.

Clever nuances to the action include Reed Richards solving lock puzzles to open doors (the player moves a pattern around cylinders), the Invisible Woman using her powers to envelop teammates with a force field and all team members being able to deliver sequenced finishing moves with a single button.

Points are awarded constantly for achieving mission objectives. As they accumulate, they can be used to upgrade the attack intensity of each hero’s powers or to purchase multimedia content to digest during breaks in the action.

Some of these extras include multiple pages from issues of the comic-book series Ultimate Fantastic Four, covers to the first 100 issues of the Fantastic Four regular series, video interviews with all of the stars of the film and biographies of all the heroes and villains.

Players even can hunt down F4 icons hidden among the environments and unlock interviews with Marvel Comics patriarch Stan Lee.

Gamers also may wish to enhance the experience with Mad Catz’s Fantastic Four Control Pads (Xbox version, $24.99, and PS2 versions, $19.99). Just like the concept of the company’s Batman Begins controller, each FF unit features licensed art from the movie and rubber grips. The rocky-patterned orange Thing pad is easily the standout.

Unforgettable moment: The team takes on the Mole Man’s famed enforcer, highlighted in the first issue of the Fantastic Four. Sue Storm does much of the work in the game as she unleashes power shackles on the beast’s arms, and one of the other characters comes in to pummel it until its health has been diminished.

Parental blood-pressure meter: 120/90, slightly elevated. A constant stream and variety of bad guys attack the Fantastic Four and dissolve into nothingness as they are defeated. Troublemakers include mummies, web-spewing spiders, hostile stone villagers, raptors and Doombots. The Human Torch routinely starts thugs on fire, and that looks a bit graphic at times, but teenagers should be more than able to handle this type of cartoony violence.

What if I feel like reading a book? For a well-rounded look at the quartet bathed in cosmic rays, I suggest Marvel Comics’ hardcover edition trade paperback “Best of the Fantastic Four, Vol. No. 1” (360 pages, $29.99), which compiles 14 issues of the team in action — including its very first appearance in Fantastic Four No. 1, from 1961.

What’s it worth? I can deal with some terrible camera angles that can cause a player to quit a mission because he gets stuck. However, not allowing four characters to be controlled by four human players makes no sense in the spirit of the team concept. The Fantastic Four looks great, and is often fun, but it does not quite live up to its potential.

Pop bytes

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

Plug It In And Play TV Games: Fantastic Four

(JAKKS Pacific, stand-alone product requiring 4 AA batteries and monitor, $19.99)

A joystick controller loaded with video-game action gives children the chance to control members of Marvel Comics’ world-saving superhero team. The unit connects to a television’s audio/video jacks, then challenges the player to punch, kick, climb and jump through a quartet of primarily side-scrolling missions featuring Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Woman, the Human Torch and the Thing.

Each character battles a supervillain. The Invisible Woman, for example, takes on Lady Dorma in the undersea world of Atlantis, while the Thing pounds the Mole Man and his minions in a wrestling arena. Each character can deliver some signature moves, such as the Human Torch’s flaming and flying.

Unfortunately, the graphics are of the original Nintendo variety, and the midi music makes a strong case for most grating soundtrack of the year.

Additionally, even though the controller looks great with its rocky orange-and-blue surface, rubber Thing head and a joystick sporting a bubble top with an embedded Fantastic Four logo, it still suffers from major instability: The player must hold down its base (to the dismay of his cramping hands), maneuver the stick and select from a trio of buttons on the unit’s left corner to survive the levels.

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