- The Washington Times - Friday, December 22, 2006

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 meld of pop-culture character and Silicon Valley with a look at some …

Comics plugged in

Marvel Ultimate Alliance for Xbox 360

(Activision — rated Teen, $59.99)

Earth’s mightiest comic-book heroes assemble to take on an army of comics’ most dangerous villains in this third-person action game. Through more than 60 levels of action, up to four players control a team of legends as they battle enemies in spectacular three-dimensional environments while the fate of the Marvel universe hangs in the balance.

What’s the story? With the sinister Dr. Doom and the Masters of Evil on the verge of unimaginable power, power that could destroy the fabric of the known universe, Colonel Nick Fury brings together an unprecedented force of the greatest superheroes in the world to stop them.

Character’s character: Anyone who has ever read a Marvel comic book will be overwhelmed with joy the moment he turns on this game: Beautifully computer-animated scenes take players into a world where they can control more than 20 playable characters and interact with more than 100 others.

Through a story line co-written by famed Marvel editor C.B. Cebulski, heroes gather in such famed locales as Stark Towers, Dr. Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum and the Inhuman’s city of Attilan. A team of four is selected, and they embark on missions that take them to such exotic locales as Asgard, Mephisto’s Realm, Atlantis, Murderworld and Castle Doom.

Most of the time, players just duke it out with armies of minions, but to succeed, they also will have to solve puzzles, play minigames and find an archenemy’s weakness.

Just a sampling of the playable heroes includes Captain America, Ghost Rider, Spider-Man, Luke Cage, Wolverine and even Silver Surfer. Eventually they face off against such worthy opponents as Winter Soldier, Scorpion, Grey Gargoyle, Rhino, Loki, Tiger Shark, Galactus and Dr. Doom.

Along the way, characters can collect S.H.I.E.L.D. credits to upgrade abilities, find gear to add to their powers, change costumes, discover mini action figures (to unlock Daredevil and Black Panther), take trivia tests and unlock and take part in an additional 34 side missions created to offer more back story to the sequential-art world.

They also will talk to Vision and other eggheads from the Marvel family, who are more than happy to offer an encyclopedia’s worth of knowledge about their world, friends and enemies.

Just to offer an example of the flexibility, upgradeability and myriad challenges presented a player, within 30 minutes into the game, I had switched Thor’s costume to his classic 1970 version, fought Fin Fang Foom with a mounted gun and fists, answered multiple-choice science questions from M.O.D.O.K. (Mental Organism Designed Only for Killing) and fought off legions of Doom Bots.

A wonderful cooperative mode as well as multiplayer challenges also are available on- and off-line to guarantee a nearly unlimited replay value for the title.

What if I want to read a book? I suggest a look back to 1984 to the first character-crossover mega-event Marvel Comics ever attempted. Although this video game has a much better story, Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars is loaded with heroes and villains and worth a nostalgic look. Its trade paperback of the same name ($29.99) compiles the entire 12 issues of the series.

How would Lt. Frank Drebin fare? A beautifully designed control scheme gave the lieutenant quick access to powers from some legendary superheroes. He need only let a hero get some experience in the game and hold down a shoulder trigger combined with a button to allow Iron Man to shoot plasma discs, Thor to throw his hammer, Storm to unleash a lightning strike and Dr. Strange to turn low-level opponents into wooden crates.

Parental blood-pressure meter: 140/90, high. The game encourages an enormous amount of devastation: Players work through highly destructible environments to gather power orbs and S.H.I.E.L.D. credits. However, the villains die without bloodshed (they just spill out health and energy orbs to replenish a player’s meters) and fallen heroes can be revived after five minutes of rest.

What’s it worth? Marvel Ultimate Alliance is such a vibrant, all-encompassing visual and playable experience that the gamer will find himself fanatically obsessed with the action as he takes part in a beloved comic-book universe.

Pop bytes

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

Chicken Little: Ace in Action

(Buena Vista Games for Nintendo DS — rated “Everyone,” $39.99)

The star of Disney’s mediocre computer-generated cartoon from last year comes to a smaller, hand-held screen as his superhero alter ego in a struggle to save Earth.

Through a mixture of vehicular and third-person interplanetary action, the player uses Ace and his team in five campaigns to stop Foxy Loxy, her evil sidekick Goosey Loosey and their robotic minions.

Ace takes part in three-dimensional, over-the-top acrobatic combat while his teammates offer levels either in a spaceship (as Abby) or tank (as Runt) to round out the varied experience.

The player can collect minialiens along the way to upgrade powers and can use the DS’ touch screen to view target maps and switch weapons.

Unfortunately, the game, unlike the movie, does not feature the voice of Adam West as Ace but still has enough cool animation, humor and Ace levels to makes it worthy of any younger space cadet ready for a fight.

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