CONSOLE CINEMATIC 


;As seasonal markers go, it's as certain as the first pitch of the baseball season and skyjacked gasoline prices: When temperatures soar, the brainless blockbusters descend on the multiplex and, in increasing numbers, on our game consoles as well. Summer 2007 is littered with a literal bumper crop of games based on mega-flicks – no less than 10 titles, including A-listers Spider-Man 3, Transformers and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

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;Having played almost all of them, I can attest that, to the surprise of almost no one who holds a PlayStation 3 controller in his or her paws more than three times a week, they're almost universally mediocre affairs, a mishmash of movie scenes, questionable design decisions and occasionally agonizing flashes of what-could-have-been.

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;This is a summer bummer, in more ways than one. Movie-based games aren't just an opportunity for gamers to experience in an interactive way the mega-licenses they've known and loved for years. They also represent the gaming industry's best chance to reach out to the same casual gaming public that Nintendo is so expertly courting with the Wii. Seriously, shouldn't movie-game publishers be putting a better foot forward?

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;The answer is yes – and no. There are a host of reasons why movie games are so often maddening affairs. Let's start punching tickets.

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Production cycles

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;A great game – such as Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, a random example – can take up to four years to develop. A summer movie blockbuster takes approximately two years less. Given that the movie and the game are developed on parallel tracks, it's easy to see how, even with a sizable budget, these games can become cash-in rush jobs riddled with sacrifices and shortcuts. The graphics may look amazing, as they do in Transformers: The Game, but the game ends up both comically short and mind-numbingly shallow. Maybe there isn't time to fix the wonky combat camera (see Spider-Man 3) or crunch all the bugs (see the Xbox 360 version of Ratatouille), but dude, who cares? There's a target audience to capture!

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;In rarecases, the timeline is almost laughable: A developer friend of mine confided that his company had recently been contacted by a film studio that was looking for a company to develop a game based on a non-blockbuster flickcoming out ... in October. Time to get moving!

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;Identity Crisis

;From the get-go, developers of movie games face a critical design question: regurgitate the plot of the movie or go off-script? Choosing the former is basically a fast track to hell. Gamers may say they want to "experience" the movie, but what they really want is the highlight reel – the chance to belt Voldemort with a bolt of lightning and lay the smackdown on Venom. The latter option offers a world of unexpected possibilities, which somehow ends up amounting to the most pedestrian gameplay imaginable. Using superpowers to pummel faceless skrulls and robots in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer doesn't feel any more fantastic than floating around city streets as a tough-to-control GM car in Transformers.

;;To the serious gamers who've suffered through everything from Raiders of the Lost Ark on the Atari 2600 to the creative nadir of last year's X3, these sorts of things are the reason why the words "movie game" rank right up there with "red circle of death" and "pony simulator" in the pantheon of gaming ghastliness. The sad truth, hard-core hordes, is that movie games aren't really being designed for you; they're being designed for your uncle – the guy who owns a PlayStation 2 but rarely plays it. And he and his peers are buying them in droves.

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;S-U-C-C-E-S-What?

;As any business guru would tell you – probably for a steep consulting fee – success depends entirely on how you define it. And if we're defining it strictly in terms of dollars, then movie-based games are far more successful than the critical pastings they routinely take from the serious gaming press might have you believe.

;;A few weeks back, MSNBC.com contributor Levi Buchanan cited a May NPD Group market research report that indicated the game based on Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At World's End moved a whopping 80,000 copies in its first week alone. Apparently, the pull of stepping into Jack Sparrow's stinky pirate boots for a few hours is enough to overcome the fact that much of the game finds you brainlessly button-mashing as you cut down pirate after pirate. Yo ho ho.

;; If a mediocre, too quickly designed game can cash in on its license and pull in more dollars than more nuanced games such as Overlord and The Darkness, can you honestly blame developers and publishers for pushing popcorn games? The answer again is yes – and no.

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;Both movie and game producers have been yakking for years about breaking down the walls between them to better capitalize on the profitable possibilities. So far, it's not happening. Let's hope they find a better way soon … or we're all in for more long summers to come.

; arts@orlandoweekly.com

More by Aaron R. Conklin

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