- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 27, 2009

Junior geneticists tinker with dinosaur DNA to help save Earth with Xtractaurs (Mattel, $19.99 for starter kit and $9.99 for Xtractaur creatures; requires Intel-based Mac or Windows XP/Vista PC and broadband Internet connection).

The purchase of a starter kit begins a child’s adventure into a high-tech “Jurassic Park”-style universe that combines action figure collectibility with Web-based interaction. Included in the kit is a 4-inch-tall, cartoony, articulated Tyrannosaurus rex derivative and a small-hands-friendly extraction gun complete with a translucent tube showing a fluorescent green spiral.

Built around a story involving an army of mean Megavore beasts that pop up around the planet as researchers frantically develop hybrid dinosaurs to defeat them, the player assumes the role of a scientist and uses the gun to take a sample of his plastic pet’s DNA and move it to an online world.

After downloading and installing software from an included disc (with help from a parent with the patience of Job), the player attaches the gun to the computer via a USB cord and sets up a password-protected account at the Xtractaurs official Web site (www.xtractaurs.com).

When the trigger on the extraction gun is pulled, the gun begins to glow red and green. The child inserts the gun’s needlelike connection into a hole in the dinosaur’s torso, then slowly releases the trigger, corresponding with onscreen prompts. Accompanied by sound effects from the Web site and more glowing, the DNA moves to the online facility.

Other than some slight software glitches and the tolerance needed to guide excited youngsters as they operate the extraction gun, the process of extraction looks and sounds great as it is split between the online and real world action.

Once the new DNA has been added to the genetic pool, it’s time to begin building creatures in an online Hybrid area based on the five clans: tyrannosaurs, stegosaurs, pterosaurs, raptors and ceratopsids.

The design process involves clicking on parts of the creatures, such as the tail, body, legs and head and replacing them from a list of new parts. Each replacement shifts attribute levels in strength, health, agility, speed and armor.

The parts are culled from the DNA and winning Megavore fights, with some giving a beast more powerful moves and an eventual choice of 75 unlockable secret attacks.

The player manages up to 50 hybrids for battles, tapping into the action figures with final designs and their statistics, which can be seen in the Dino Compound section of the Web site.

My tyrannosaurus had the wings of a pterodactyl and attacks such as a chomp move that also healed him and the ability to drop a boulder on an enemy.

Once a hybrid is tweaked to perfection, it’s time to do battle. Using a world map, the player picks a fight with a Megavore boasting three difficulty levels. Strategy lovers should appreciate the turn-based action and entertaining mix of animated moves in which opponents strike one another each round until one has completely emptied the other’s health bar.

The computer controls the Megavore and has a full complement of attacks while the player quickly selects strikes each round using head, tail or claw options.

Using a secret attack requires a handler take part in a minigame, such as hitting a space bar as many times as possible in a set time or targeting bars in a rotating wheel to deliver damage or defend against strikes. Once a secret attack is used, it must refresh before it is used again.

Beating a Megavore often leads to extra experience points to increase attributes and unlocking more DNA and attacks.

In addition to battles, a large selection of training and adventure games is unlocked at the Web site as each Xtractaur is purchased. The games are a mixed bag, but necessary to gain additional experience points and goodies away from battles.

Challenges include controlling a raptor as it chases down a lesothosaurus (a boring race-style video game), a round of dodgeball protecting small dinos against pterodactyls, and Stegosaur Shootout, which requires exploring hostile terrain and firing spikes at growling enemies.

Most ambitious is the Tyrannosaur Showdown. The side-scrolling platformer has the player select from five types of dinosaurs to complete a dozen courses filled with spiked traps, bombs and, of course, hungry Megavores.

Finally, a kid-friendly online community, found under Showcase, displays a player’s hybrids to the Xtractaur online world, complete with the bosses defeated and a chance to rate fellow handlers’ creatures.

Learning Time: A combination of fact and fiction runs rampant throughout the Xtractaurs experience, but one area actually teaches owners a bit about their mutated creatures.

Successfully completing levels of the adventure games unlocks 21 virtual Dino Fact cards. Found under a player’s My Profile on the Web site, they relay such educational nuggets as the Tyrannosaurus rex could open its mouth up to four feet and its teeth were the size of a man’s hand and the stegosaurus was a huge, spiked-tailed herbivore as large as a bus with a brain the size of a walnut.

Be forewarned though, it takes a considerable amount of time playing the games to unlock the cards.

Final advice: The Xtractaurs universe taps into the Pokemon-collecting mentality with a tech twist to give tween dinosaur lovers a fun, multitiered experience.

However, it can be an expensive proposition for those who require a decent selection of creatures to plug into the online component.

The $10 action figures have limited entertainment value once the DNA has been extracted. Heads and tails can be swapped to mimic some of the online action and dinosaurs such as Pindown (a triceratops) and Whiplash (a stegosaur) can take a beating.

The free and always growing Web world does make up for the expenditure and will consume a young player’s time as he builds and trains the ultimate Xtractaurs force.

Joseph Szadkowski’s ROMper Room is a place for children and their parents to escape the world of ultraviolent video games and use that gaming system or computer to actually learn something while having fun. Send e-mail to [email protected]

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