July 12, 2006

Drunken Master Johnny Depp Comes To The Rescue In 'Pirates'

I don't have a clue what "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" would be like if it weren't for the inspiration of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "Pitfall." You swing on ropes over lava pits like in "Pitfall." You run along caverns and ledges where boulders roll at you, just like in "Raiders." And by the way, if hero pirate Jack Sparrow wore less eyeliner, he could pass as Christina Aguilera.

It's a real boon for "Pirates" — a good but repetitive action game — to have signed up charming Johnny Depp to speak voiceovers for Jack, the drunken adventurer he famously fills in the movies. When he stabs a killer zombie to death, he smells its rot and says, "And I thought they smelled bad on the outside." Not a great line, but Depp makes a chuckle of it.

Only occasionally does a game sign up such a serious actor. Most notably, Samuel L. Jackson did forceful work in "The Incredibles" and "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas." It doesn't take a famous actor to make a role sing. If I could induct one actor into a gaming Hall of Fame, my nominee would be James McCaffrey, who voiced deep, disaffected sadness and anger into the noir detective of "Max Payne" games.

In the case of "Pirates," Depp makes it more passable. Half the fun is moving Depp's performance-driven sway, while he swordfights and drunkenly stumbles past those "Raiders"-ish boulders and "Pitfall"-esque lava pits. Without the Depp-contorted body movements and voiceovers, it would just be a game where you press two buttons over and over to stab people in the ribs.

Acting isn't everything. To the contrary, the smaller-marquee game, "Field Commander," has no good voice acting, and it reeks of terrible dialogue, but the war action is so engrossing it keeps me awake till 5 a.m. trying to conquer battlefields. I can't even believe I like "Field Commander." It's a strategy, role-playing game, my least favorite genre. I prefer to play games where I get to do the first person shooting. But "Field Commander" makes the most of its role-playing a chess-like intrigue. You position tanks, troops and helicopters on a field. Your opponent — another player, or the computer — tries to outmaneuver you.

You move snipers and soldiers only a few steps at a time, like pawns. You drive tanks farther distances, like rooks or knights. And helicopters zoom over the landscape, like queens. You protect your headquarters, try to invade enemy headquarters and blow up rival tanks and soldiers.

The reason "Field Commander" works when many other role-playing games do not is its ease of taut action. Unlike chess, it's not very difficult to get a grasp of complex movements. It may take a few attempts before you figure out how to win. But it's very satisfying to grasp victory at the last second, just when you think you're about to get creamed by a rocket launcher.

You just have to put up with the occasional bad dialogue from some actor the game booklet doesn't even name. It's like this: "You may have won this time, but I assure you, it won't be so easy next time!" Ugh. Where is Johnny Depp when you need him?

("Field Commander" for PSP — Plays fun; a good role-playing brain game. Looks average. Challenging. Rated "T" for blood and violence. Three and one-half stars.)

("Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" for PSP — Plays mildly fun but repetitive. Looks average. Challenging. Rated "T" for violence. Two stars.)

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