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Far Cry Instincts Predator (Xbox 360)

Rated: 16+

Story: Jack Carver gets too close to some tropical islands in his boat and finds himself caught up in the experiments of a mad scientist. (Stop me if you've heard this one before...) He gets some superpowers, a couple of big guns and a little help from the CIA, and sets off to shoot himself a stack of mercenaries and mutants.

Gameplay: First-person shooter (FPS). It starts out with plenty of sneaking round and setting traps and then moves on to more fast-paced gung-ho action as Jack gradually gains powers such as regenerating health, night vision, claw attacks and super speed.

Save System: Regular checkpoints where progress is saved automatically.

Comments: First-person shooters are stuck in a rut. In the fifteen years since Doom came out, level design has got better and graphics have improved enormously but we're still running around looking for gate switches while shooting armies of moronic cannon fodder who have a tendency to stand next to explosive barrels.

OK, OK, there have been other advances. Let's see: vehicle sections, stealth sections, sniper rifles and, er... Did I mention that graphics have improved enormously?

We've had attempts to do something differently, most notably Thief, System Shock and Deus Ex. It's possible to argue, however, that none of these really count. Thief is more a stealth game than a shooter and the other two are role-playing games with guns - they share more in common with Vampire: Bloodlines and Oblivion than Half-Life. Maybe Boiling Point, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and Dark Messiah of Might and Magic have struck more of a balance but I don't know. My PC would cough blood and die trying to get them to run at a decent framerate.

Why haven't first-person shooters evolved into proper first-person adventures? Surely there must be something between shooting everything in sight and complex character building. I guess Metroid Prime shows some of the potential of the genre but it's littered with 'interesting' design choices: re-spawning enemies, widely spaced save points, awkward controls, clumsy platforming and frustrating difficulty spikes. These are mostly throw-backs to the 2D origins of the Metroid series, though, and hopefully Metroid Prime 3 will fix things. Personally, I'm hoping when it's finally released, Bioshock really will be Shooter 2.0 as claimed and the FPS can at last move on.

In the meantime...

The original Far Cry on PC was supposed to be a change of direction for the FPS. Out with linear levels of dark identikit corridors, in with large open outdoor environments in the tropical sunshine. Far Cry: Instincts was the game re-imagined for consoles i.e. with areas hemmed in by rocky outcrops to make the whole thing linear again. Far Cry: Instincts Predator is the hi-res Xbox 360 version of Instincts with the addition of the Evolution expansion. The expansion brings back more open environments again.

Still with me? Still care? Good.

So what have we got? Plenty of running around looking for gate switches while shooting armies of moronic cannon fodder who have a tendency to stand next to explosive barrels. To spice things up there are vehicle sections, stealth sections, sniper rifles and, er... graphics that are an enormous improvement on Doom. Hmm... This all sounds strangely familiar...

Far Cry is at its best in the sunny jungle. The environments often allow different routes and sneaking about. Later on, Jack can run super fast, allowing for screen-blurring Burnout style mayhem. Levels set inside are pretty generic and a chore but there aren't too many of them. The levels in darkness are just too dark. There are plenty of exciting moments, though, for those who persevere. (And, of course, a final boss who's irritatingly hard to kill even when you've read a walk-through and you're playing on easy. But what were you expecting?)

The Evolution expansion is better than the main game. It's much shorter but that's because there's less padding. On some of the levels objectives can be accomplished in any order and it just feels that there is more than one way to go about things more of the time. This is helped by the fact that adrenaline supplies (which fuel Jack's powers) are much more plentiful, allowing for a faster pace. The vehicle sections and other changes in gameplay are more evenly spread as well. Only an ill-advised platforming section in the final level gives cause for teeth-grinding.

So, Far Cry Instincts Predator has everything you'd expect from a modern FPS apart from a snappy name. On top of this, it has a lengthy single-player campaign and is set somewhere sunny for a change. It's always competent, frequently pretty and often exhilarating but seldom ground-breaking. Then again, it's not the game's fault it's stuck in a genre that's been going nowhere for fifteen years.

Conclusion: About as good as single-player first-person shooting gets. (You know what I'm saying...)

Graphics: There are plenty of beautiful views but everything's a bit ropey up close. The framerate sometimes judders in Evolution.

Length: Medium.

Rating: 4/5.

Red Eye (DVD)

Starring: Cillian Murphy (28 Days Later) and his scary eyes, Rachel McAdams (Yeah, I don't know either. She's cute, though).

Rated: 12

Story: Lisa (McAdams) finds herself terrorised by Jack (Murphy) as he tries to coerce her into using her connections to help him in an assassination plot. Unfortunately, she can't get away easily because they're sitting next to each other on a plane and, wouldn't you just know it, he's got the aisle seat.

Comments: This is OK but pretty forgettable. Probably the most fun to be had is in working out all the ways Lisa could handle the situation better - ways that don't involve craziness and setting up an unlikely slasher-movie ending.

More could have been made of the moral dilemma which Lisa faces. Jack places her in a situation requiring her to sacrifice a stranger in order to save a loved one. There's plenty of mileage there for soul-searching and some thought-provoking dialogue. But, hey, that might have required some thought from both the writers and the audience. Fat chance. It's just a handy plot device.

The film takes a while to get going and the ending is drawn out but, despite that, the whole thing is only an hour and a quarter. Essentially, the bit on the plane which is quite good is too short. Everything before they get on the plane is filler and everything afterwards is ludicrous. It's watchable enough, though, providing you have some beer and the surround-sound rumble of the plane taking off doesn't make your house fall down.

McAdams is excellent throughout. Murphy is good up until the point near the end where the script goes berserk on him. He does menacing much better than psychopathic.

Conclusion: Like a double-bill of 24. Tense, entertaining, occasionally silly and not entirely satisfying. You'll want to watch another one when it's over.

Explosions: One (but it's a big one).
Ending: Long and silly.
Start: Slow.
Length of film: Short.
Descent into mediocrity: Rapid.

Rating: 3/5.

Cranium Bumparena

Cranium bumparena box.

Price: Around £20 but it's becoming harder to find.

  • Bumparena bagatelle-style board.
  • 8 bouncy balls.
  • 10 big bumpers.
  • 10 small bumpers.
  • 40 cards.
  • Annoying card dispenser thing.
Gameplay: The board is a slope with holes in it. At the top of the board are seven gates which are all lowered at once by pulling a lever, thus releasing balls to roll down the slope into the goals at the bottom. Players take it in turns to draw a card and then play one from their hand. Cards can allow the addition of an extra bumper or ball to the board, the movement of a ball to a different gate or the rotation of a bumper that has already been placed. The balls are released as soon as a 'Release Now' card is drawn. Players score one point for every ball which ends up in their goal.

Object: The first player to score six or more points is the winner.

Game length: Around 15 minutes (including set-up) but varies according to chance and indecisiveness.

Number of players: 2 or 3. There are three goals, colour-coded red, green and blue. The middle (green) one is blocked off if there are only two players. If one of those two players is a small child who really, really likes green you will be stuffed.

Age: 7 and up. Younger children can play it but they're liable to put bumpers in totally nonsensical places unless given plenty of advice. Even seven-years-olds are likely to have a much weaker grasp of the laws of physics than you'd imagine. Personally, I blame cartoons...

Comments: This is almost a great game. There's a good mixture of luck and strategy. It's also tactile and interactive like the best kind of hands-on exhibit at a science museum. Unfortunately, a few niggling problems separate it from true excellence. Setting up and dismantling the board feels like a chore. The card dispenser is awkward for children to fill and to use but doing without it isn't an option because the 'Release Now' cards are marked on both sides for no good reason. The balls are quite rubbery and roll too slowly, giving them a tendency to get stuck on the bumpers which is a recipe for arguments.

Despite this clumsy application, however, the underlying idea of the game is genius. There's vindictiveness, suspense and simple mechanics. What more could you want? (Apart from Keira Knightley, obviously).

  • Teaches strategy.
  • Involves rolling balls through an obstacle course which is always fun.
  • Encourages budding engineers and physicists.
  • Adults enjoy it.
  • It's a bit like a pinball machine.
  • Fiddly to set up and to put away and store.
  • Slightly fiddly to play.
  • Relatively fragile.
  • Not as much fun as an actual pinball machine.
Conclusion: Worth borrowing an older child in order to have an excuse to play it.
Rating: 4/5.

Transporter 2 (DVD)

Starring: Jason Statham, some fast cars and a series of increasingly outrageous stunts.

Rated: 15

Comments: There is a moment about half an hour into True Lies where the film reaches a juncture point. The unlikely scenario has been set up, there's been some promising action sequences and a fantastic chase has reached a climax. Arnie is in pursuit of a bad guy. The bad guy is on a motorbike and Arnie is on a horse. They've just decimated a shopping arcade and made their way to the roof. The motorbike leaps across a vast chasm to land in the swimming pool of a nearby building, Arnie backs up his horse, gallops towards the precipice and there's a split second where the scriptwriters seem to have left reality behind.

Except it doesn't happen. The horse tells Arnie where to go, the bad guy gets away and the film slips into a lengthy period of clumsy romantic comedy from which it never truly recovers.

There is a similar moment in Transporter 2. The unlikely scenario has been set up, there's been some promising action sequences and a fantastic chase has reached a climax. Frank (Statham) is trying to evade the police. They've just decimated a freeway and made their way to the roof of a multi-storey carpark. There's only one place to go and there's a split second where the scriptwriters seem to have left reality behind.

And they have.

The film never looks back. The car ploughs through a wall, leaps a vast chasm and dives neatly into a half-constructed high-rise across the road. What has been an all right action flick suddenly becomes an hilarious succession of ridiculous stunts. Statham jumps around so much, he practically learns to fly. Fights are played for laughs. Everything is over the top.

It would be possible to be annoyed by the lack of realism but realism isn't what this film's about. It's just putting on a show. There's obvious influence from Eastern action films, with plenty of outlandish martial arts and wirework, but unlike say, The Matrix or The Tuxedo, there's no desire to explain it all - Frank is just that hard.

It's like 24 gone mad...

Conclusion: An entertaining action film which doesn't take itself seriously. Think Under Siege rather than Mission: Impossible.

Explosions: Yes.
Crashes: Yes.
Death by firehose: Yes.
Villainess who fights in her underwear: Yes.
Reality: Er...

Rating: 4/5.

Pan's Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno)

Starring: Some people who speak Spanish.

Rated: 15

Story: In 1944, in Franco's Spain, a girl named Ofelia and her family move to the country to be near her psychopathic stepfather. He is an army officer and is conducting a ruthless campaign against Communist rebels. Surrounded by human evil, she finds herself drawn into a dark, fantastical world where a sinister faun sets her three tasks in order to reclaim her throne as a princess of an underworld kingdom.

Comments: At this point, you're probably thinking this is one of those kerrr-azeee foreign arts films. Don't worry, though - it doesn't feature psychedelic giraffe-people, moody black-and-white shots of Death, Gerard Depardieu or a heartfelt conversation with an orange. The effects and cinematography are fantastic and the production values are as high as any Hollywood movie. The only real problem is that it's a bit in Spanish. Actually, it's a lot in Spanish. Oh, all right, it's all in Spanish.

Don't be put off, though.

I have to say that when I put this on my LOVEFiLM rental list, I didn't read the synopsis too closely. I looked at the picture, read the title and had a flashback to David Bowie surrounded by muppets. Truth be told, though, this isn't a fantasy film book-ended by a couple of real-life segments; it's a war-time drama occasionally interspersed with a dark faerie tale. It's more Captain Corelli than The Lord of the Rings but with an oppressive atmosphere and graphic, bloody violence.

Personally I would have preferred a greater emphasis on the fantasy side of things but the film is absorbing nonetheless and the pacing is superb. The cast all do an excellent job (as far as I can tell). The English translation for the subtitles is decent and certainly better than the misleading title suggests. Fortunately, most of the more visually impressive moments don't have much dialogue, allowing concentration on the action.

Conclusion: Excellent and much less of an effort to watch than it sounds.

Explosions: A couple.
Amputations: One.
Self-sutured stitches: I couldn't watch.
People shot in the head: Rather more than you'd imagine.
Spanish: Lots.
Muppets: None.

Rating: 4/5.