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X3 and Da Vinci Code kick off the cash-in games

Summer movie season, that bastion of bloated blockbusters and brain-lite film fare, now begins its annual assault on moviegoers' tastes and sensibilities sometime around Mother's Day. Summer movie-game tie-in season, that special time in which mediocre games descend in droves to cash in on the marketing hype of their silver-screen source material, is more polite, more traditional — it prefers to wait until closer to Memorial Day.

Unfortunately, two extra weeks doesn't translate into an appreciable bump in quality.

Case in point: X3: The Official Game, an offering that, instead of following the story of Brett Ratner's big-screen stinker about the comic-book opus, serves as a sort of tangent to the third deposit in the movie trilogy. The game focuses on the blue-skinned, teleporting X-Man Nightcrawler, a character who — rather criminally, if you ask me — doesn't even appear in the film.

Unlike Raven Software's sublime X-Men Legends series, X3 offers only the chance to jump into the black leather bodysuits of three mutants — Iceman, Wolverine, and Nightcrawler, the three characters whose actors provide voice work for the game. (Coincidence? I think not.) As you head back to General Stryker's fortress on Alkali Lake to recover parts of Cerebro, you'll encounter and fight alongside other X-stalwarts like Storm and Colossus, but not play them. Severely limited character options — tell me playing Kelsey Grammer's Beast wouldn't have been a blast, fer chrissakes — pegs this as a rush job.

X3 looks and plays an awful lot like last year's Fantastic Four, another based-loosely-on the-movie superhero tie-in that largely fell flat, despite efforts to shoehorn interesting characters from the Marvel universe into the storyline. The missions in X3 are particularly un-super. As Wolvie, you're mostly (what else?) slashing and pummeling enemies. Playing Iceman means weaving around the screen on the frosty mutant's disorienting ice slide, blasting at objects and enemies with ice beams and hailstorms (it's less fun than it sounds.) Only Nightcrawler, who can teleport around the screen like a superball, offers a whiff of excitement. Ol' pointy-ears is both my favorite mutant and the best part of the second X-film, but neither he nor the game's spiffy graphics can completely save the day.

The game's healing mechanic also feels cheap — yeah, including Wolvie's mutant healing factor makes perfect sense. But since when did 'Crawler and Iceman, two of the X-Men's least physically durable mutants, gain the power to regenerate health?

If you're one of the five people in the world who've managed to avoid both Dan Brown's er, celebrated work of fiction and Ron Howard's ponderous movie treatment of same, the videogame version of The Da Vinci Code will probably prove an entertaining adjunct to the Opus Dei media circus. The legions of Code fanatics, meanwhile, may relish the chance to interact directly with the best mystery since Scooby and the gang broke up that counterfeit ring. Either way, I hope your mad anagram-solving, item-collection, and cryptology skillz are appropriately burnished, or you'll be staring at the ornately designed puzzle screens until the Apocalypse.

Unlike X3, Code faithfully recreates the book/movie plotline, tossing in some intriguing side missions for added zest. The real code-breaker here is the game's combat system, apparently tossed in as a means of appealing to folks who like a little action in their puzzle/adventure games (read: the casual gaming public). It's sorta surreal to see Audrey Tatou's cryptographer laying the beatdown on security guards with a crowbar, but hey, anything for increased audience share, right?

While Tom Hanks' embarrassing 'do is blissfully absent, his voicework is a less blissful omission. The Hanks stand-in delivers his lines with an aplomb that's only notches north of Sauniere's elaborately staged corpse.


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