GAME REVIEW: 'Pirates' titles have passable 'wow' factor

Movie-instigated video games have a terrible reputation, and the ones based on the latest "Pirates of the Caribbean" flick won't change that.

But based on the three I've been playing -- the Xbox 360, Wii and Nintendo DS versions -- there's some fun to be had with this batch of tie-ins from Disney Interactive Studios. Not enough to dispel the notion that movie games are mostly an uninspired formality, but enough to reward "Pirates" fans with some diverting hours if they take the plunge.

I had high hopes for the Wii version of "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End," based on the prospect of waving the main controller like a sword. Unfortunately, the experience is undermined by the need to use two-hand controls, plus the game's penchant for the silly.

In one hand, your "sword" is the main Wii remote. In the other, the "nunchuk" controller, connected to the main remote by a cable, is used for character maneuvering and some combat functions (such as blocking enemy attacks). Among other problems, some sword movements require a big motion, and the cable gets in the way.

Despite still more glaring negatives -- the graphics are putridly ugly, for instance -- the motion controls are zesty enough to make the game attractive for younger players. And those younger gamers will be more likely to forgive the silliness, such as having to execute a boring loop of "Ole`" sidestep moves to make some progress.

Older and more serious gamers will discover a radically different "World's End" for the Xbox 360. It might be the prettiest 360 game I've seen, and it definitely holds up better graphically on a standard-definition TV display than any other 360 title I've played.

The character visuals -- most notably Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow and Orlando Bloom's Will Turner -- are excellent. The big stars didn't record game dialogue, but the sound-alike voice actors are superb. The result, as it should be by now on high-powered game consoles, is an animated ambience that convincingly evokes the film. Well, in looks, anyway. Forget about a sense of realism. The citizens of the era are meaningless scenery props and can be observed strolling around the aftermath of a mass bloodletting with complete obliviousness.

As for game play, put it this way: The action is as ordinary and familiar as the graphics are cutting-edge. There's a tedious emphasis on sword fighting, and, worse, it's largely an exercise in thumb-blistering button-mashing. There are times, particularly while moving Sparrow and Turner around in fights with multiple enemies, that you can relish a sense of skillfulness by employing a smooth combination of dodging (rather than blocking) and counterattacking. But it's a secondary aspect of the game.

There's also a dueling format that's supposed to be about reacting to cued warnings of different kinds of sword thrusts by your opponent. But I found the controls unreliable.

On balance, it's a better game to stare at than play, but that may leave a slightly harsher impression than I intend. I'd never play this kind of game all the way through, but I'd be content with it in bursts.

The DS version left me completely flat, simply because I hated the dueling mechanism of using the touch screen and stylus to draw lines that represented sword slashes. It made me feel so outside the game, so far removed from the illusion of actually crossing blades, that I momentarily wondered why Disney had bothered with a DS version.

Of course, I immediately remembered that Nintendo sold another 471,000 DS units in April alone, so making high-profile software for that rapidly expanding market is almost the definition of good business logic.

And in another example of domino Disney tie-ins, it was announced recently that visitors to California's Disneyland and Florida's Walt Disney World can bring a DS with the "Pirates" game to "X-marks-the-spot" download areas near the Pirates of the Caribbean attractions. DS users can obtain game content, including unlimited health and additional costumes, that's available only at those Disney park locations.



The Xbox 360 and PlayStation3 versions are comparable in graphics and story.

The Wii, PS2, PlayStation Portable and PC versions also are comparable in graphics and story, but can vary sharply in their controls.

The Nintendo DS version is distinct in story, graphics and controls.

All the versions are rated Teen except the DS, which is Everyone 10+.