- The Washington Times - Friday, January 19, 2007

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

Superman Returns

(Electronic Arts, for Xbox 360, rated Teen, $59.99)

The Man of Steel makes a comeback to video-game realms through a third-person adventure loosely based on last year’s movie. Within the action, a single player gets the chance to control DC Comics’ iconic hero as he protects more than 80 miles of Metropolis and battles familiar foes through more than 100 missions.

What’s the story? After a five-year absence, which took Superman on a journey to find his home planet of Krypton, the Man of Steel returns to Metropolis to find a city that no longer needs his heroics. That is, until one bald, evil genius named Lex Luthor devises a diabolical plan to build his own Superman-proof island with the help of Fortress of Solitude crystals — and destroy some prime real estate along the way.

Characters’ character: The player gets to control, arguably, the most powerful hero in any comic-book universe, whose powers are truly impressive. Flight, multiple types of punches, the ability to run faster than a speeding bullet, heat vision and super and freeze breath are all part of the powers package and are initiated quickly with a couple of controller buttons.

Unfortunately, the player is stuck in a series of disjointed exercises rather than a cohesive adventure. A convoluted plot, partly concocted by legendary comics scribe Marv Wolfman, tries to meld the movie’s themes with archenemy battles.

It does not work. Superman, who never even gets to save Lois, spends countless hours battling minions with little payoff. Additionally, cut scenes used to reveal Lex Luthor’s plan have almost nothing to do with the on-screen continuity of what the player needs to accomplish.

The action goes downhill after the spectacular opening challenges, which find the hero in gladiator-style battle and then protecting Metropolis from a meteor storm.

He then zooms around the city to locate mission/minigame icons to put out fires, rescue cats (I am not kidding) battle a multisized Metallo, Mongul and Bizarro (the player even can become Bizarro for a while) and pummel, ad nauseam, an assortment of robots, dragons and gargoyles.

Of course, Superman is unstoppable, but what he protects is not. So, in a clever development twist, the player must monitor a Metropolis health meter as he battles the bad guys who wish to turn his city into rubble. An empty meter means failure and “Game over.”

Now let’s get to the unforgivable.

The lack of John Williams’ wonderful musical anthem, heard in the films, and the terrible re-creation and performance of actor Brandon Routh (the current movie Superman) in the lead role top the list. Not only does Mr. Routh’s computer-generated head look not quite right on his bulky body, but his dialogue delivery is about as monotonous as Tommy Newsom talking to Johnny Carson.

How would Lt. Frank Drebin fare? Although the lieutenant can easily turn Superman into a lethal weapon as well as a supersonic missile (the speedy flight is gorgeous to watch), the controls are often unpredictable. Trying to target enemies, and even landing, will often cause major damage to buildings and the streets. Also, the button used for flight is the same one used to deliver combination punches, a big problem in the heat of battle against many opponents.

Parental blood-pressure meter: 120/80, normal. No blood is spilled, the feline population is contained, and destruction is limited to structures and vehicles. Residents appear impervious to Superman’s powers and can easily take a blast of heat vision; go figure.

What if I want to read a book? DC Comics offers a super selection of books based on Clark Kent’s alter ego. I suggest the trade paperback “Superman versus Lex Luthor” ($19.99) to get 192 colorful pages packed with battles fought between these adversaries over the past 67 years. Also, BradyGames Official Strategy Guide ($17.99) contains 20 pages of Superman-specific art and entries pulled from DK Publishing’s DC Comics Encyclopedia.

What’s it worth? Superman Returns is a repetitive and mediocre game that delivers a great lesson in superhuman flight mechanics rather than a cool cinematic adventure.

Pop bytes

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

Star Trek: Legacy

(Bethesda Softworks for Xbox 360, rated E+10, $59.99)

To bring together the five captains of the legendary “Star Trek” television series to spearhead a space-battle video game must have been a herculean task for this local software developer.

Try to incorporate 40 years’ worth of mythology while making the action as spectacular as the voice cast to please the Trekkie and average game player. For sure, that is a Kobayashi Maru scenario (the starship featured in Captain Kirk’s “no-win” test taken in his officer-training days).

Bethesda Softworks sort of succeeds, as players can authentically control 60 spacecraft from the history of the Gene Roddenberry universe in a real-time strategy-and-tactics simulation that needs more action and less attention to details.

The player encounters Romulan, Klingon and Borg threats in a three-dimensional chess game that has him tweak the lumbering fleet’s weapons, energy consumption and shields, attack opponents and handle exploratory and rescue missions.

It feels very true to the Trek universe, especially when skirmishes are punctuated by the barking out of commands by actors such as William Shatner, Patrick Stewart and Kate Mulgrew.

The most fun for the rabid Trekkie can be found in the online multiplayer mode, where four species can command ships and methodically duke it out on the final frontier. Hey, who would not want to control a massive Cube from the Borg Collective?

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