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100 Classic Book Collection (DS)

Features: This cartridge contains a virtual bookshelf of one hundred complete classic novels and plays. Featured authors include: Austin, Dickens, Carroll, Bunyan, Hardy, Wilde, Shakespeare, Bronte (x3), Wilde, Stevenson and Verne. The DS is held sideways (like in Brain Training) and the stylus is used to 'flick' to the next page, to make the experience more like leafing through a hardback. You can even play background noise to mimic sitting in locations like a forest or a coffee shop.

The cartridge has room for around another ten books which can be downloaded via a wi-fi connection. Once read, these can be deleted to make room for more but currently there are only ten to choose from anyway.

Comments: This is almost brilliant. Portable devices for reading e-books are still relatively expensive and unusual but there are millions of DSs in the UK. People of all ages have them and are used to carrying them around and taking them on holiday. Why hasn't anyone thought of combining the technologies before? Why are we only now receiving the benefits of the first DS book experiment?

The reason e-book readers haven't caught on is that they're too expensive for people to risk taking to the beach or using in the bath. There's also the suspicion that e-books will be almost as expensive as physical books and come with the joys of DRM. Suddenly, for only £20, all of us with a DS can carry around a library in our pocket containing a vast swathe of books we meant to read at some point but haven't quite got round to: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Kidnapped, Alice in Wonderland, the list goes on... Brilliant!

Well, as I said, almost...

This is still very much an experiment. The designer seemed to think the reason that e-readers haven't caught on is that we like the physical feel of books - the shape, the page turning, the ability to sit them on a shelf - and every effort has been made to duplicate the book experience. In pretty much every instance, this has made the DS experience worse.

For instance, even with the smallest font size, The Three Musketeers has 5000 pages, so turning each one with the stylus would be immensely irritating. Happily, though, this particular problem can be avoided by using buttons.

Surely having to read the titles of books sideways on a bookshelf is a matter of necessity rather than design? Why simulate it? A virtual stack of books doesn't topple over if you remove the bottom one. Once again, the problem can be overcome (by turning the DS round) but it's another bizarre experimental choice.

Also, does anyone really want to have their DS play background noises to simulate an airport lounge (complete with bing-bongs)... or a moving train... or being slowly baked alive...? The last one is supposed to be a 'hot summer day' but you could have fooled me. Thankfully, these ambient sounds don't need to be switched on, nonetheless their inclusion at all is something of a mystery.

The major issue, however, can't be avoided. By forcing users to hold the DS like a book with the two screens showing different pages of text, 100 CBC ensures that each line of text is very short. This takes a lot of getting used to. It's not so bad with some books - Around the World in 80 Days and Huckleberry Finn are fine to read - but books with long words and rambling sentences (try some Poe) are hard work when there are only two and a half words per line. It's like trying to read table tennis.

This is a shame, since there is a lot to be said for the reading experience otherwise. The contrast level with a DS Lite on its lowest brightness setting doesn't cause eye-strain. It's also possible to read in the dark. Why there isn't an option to hold the DS the normal way up and have slightly longer lines of text is yet another mystery.

The only real use of the DS's abilities to enhance the package is the option to download fresh books. It's fantastic that extra titles are available but there are no promises that the selection will increase. Also, the feature seems rather tacked on. Although the books all come with introductions and author biographies, these aren't available before download - there's just a list of titles and file sizes. Since the downloads are free, this isn't a disaster, but it's not hugely informative.

If you're thinking of buying a DS to get an e-book reader on the cheap, then you'll be disappointed. The 100 Classic Book Collection isn't brilliant. It is, nevertheless, almost brilliant. If you have a DS already, this is a great way to sneak a stack of books around with you wherever you go - a stack of books with very small pages but that take up almost none of your baggage allowance and that you can read in the dark. If you want to catch up on your classics, it's definitely worth checking out.

Conclusion: Despite the curious presentation, this is still a library in your pocket.

Rating: 4/5.

War (DVD)

Starring: Jason Statham & Jet Li.

Rated: 18.

Story: An FBI agent (Statham) hunts a rogue CIA assassin (Li) who murdered his partner. They both end up in the middle of a gang war between Triads and Yakuza in San Francisco.

Comments: Looking through some old reviews, I chanced upon my comments on Running Scared. Remember that one? Nope, I'm not surprised, I didn't really either. It's a by-the-numbers crime thriller with an ending so stupid I had to wipe it from my mind.

Then I watched War.

Woh, deja vu. (Though thankfully it wasn't Deja Vu deja vu. That would have been even worse.)

Yep, the film is OK but many of the elements feel included simply for the sake of it. In particular, there's a dull and superfluous car chase somewhere in the middle that's completely pointless. Nonetheless, War would be decent enough if the makers hadn't felt compelled to round it off with some unlikely revelations.

Imagine a world where at the end of Aliens the queen learns to tap-dance, where Love Actually culminates in a shoot out with vampires or where the final fight in The Matrix involves animated penguins.

Fortunately, War doesn't come from that world. It does come from somewhere fairly close by, however. To quote my Running Scared review, "There's a plot twist ten minutes from the end which is so sharp it dislocates the plot entirely. It essentially re-writes everything which has gone before, causing it to make much less sense. The resulting conclusion feels like it was stolen from a generic action movie." Since War is a pretty generic action movie to begin with, this isn't such a disaster but it doesn't exactly help matters.

Statham and Li make it all passable but even the added presence of Robert Downey Jr, Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock wouldn't make it great.

Conclusion: Shoot, hit, hack, drive, boom... forget.

Explosions: Two (because you can't have an action film without multiple explosions).
Car chases: One (because you can't have an action film without a car chase either, apparently).
Meetings in a strip club: One (because... well, take a guess...)
Cool, exciting plot twists you don't see coming: Two. (That's double the statutory requirement!)
Reasons you don't see them coming: One's rubbish and the other's insane.

Rating: 3/5.

Baby Life (DS)

Baby Life on Nintendo DS
Rated: 3+.

Story: You're a nursery organiser who's adopted a nine-month-old baby. You have the joy of looking after the baby, going to work to look after the baby and some other babies and then coming home to look after the baby.

Suffice to say, to play this you're going to have to like babies (and be under twelve and female, but that's another story).

Gameplay: First you must answer some multiple choice questions to create your unique baby. Then you must feed him/her, clothe her, play with her, clean her and get her to go to sleep. A couple of taps on the touchscreen calls up a map of the house, allowing access to the different areas, such as the garden for playing and the kitchen for feeding.

You can 'talk' to your baby by drawing various symbols. The baby then smiles, cries or looks blank, seemingly at random, forcing you to do everything you can possibly think of to make it happy, just to be on the safe side. Then it cries anyway. This is scarily realistic.

Every day you must head off to the nursery and spend some time keeping between two and four children happy. The nursery is depicted by a series of 2D rooms. Thought bubbles appear above the kids' heads, showing what they want or where they wish to go. You have to tap the objects or drag the children about in the most efficient manner possible in order to keep everyone content. The four rooms available each involve slightly different tasks and stylus movements but the gameplay is very similar.

Success at the nursery leads happy parents to shower you with gifts. These are mostly new kiddie clothes and toys, such as a music player to make your baby dance and a remote-control dinosaur.

Over time, your baby grows and develops. The nursery sessions get longer.

Save System: Regular auto-save.

Comments: A few weeks ago I wrote a blog post on gender stereotyping, speculating how my children might react to Baby Life. The PR people sent me a copy to test my theories.

I got my predictions dead wrong and the kids went almost totally with stereotype. The boys took one look at the pink box with a hideously cute baby on the front and said, "Did they make a mistake, Daddy, and think you were a girl?"

Sproglette, meanwhile, gazed at it in awe and longingly muttered, "It says '3+' on it. Does that mean I can play it? I want to play it. I'm four. I can play. Let's go and play it..."

She's never shown any interest in touching a DS before.

As I suspected, playing it myself was like a traumatic flashback to a time of sleep deprivation and slime. I kept glancing at the virtual clock, wondering how soon I could get away with bedtime. If you have a partner or spouse who's keen on having another child but you're not so sure about the idea yourself, you might want to get them playing this for an hour or two. Chances are, before long, they'll be swearing and yelling, "Go to sleep, you annoying baby! I've already fed you five times and changed your nappy. It's time to sleep. I don't want to play with a cuddly sheep any more! Why won't you go to sleep? I just want to go and sit down with a glass of wine... sob..." (If it backfires and your partner sits glued to the screen, sighing things like, "Look at the way she dances. Isn't she cute?" there's no harm done - you were probably stuffed anyway.)

Sproglette loves playing with her baby. Now I've got her past all the text-heavy tutorials, she takes great delight in feeding him and cleaning him and chasing him round the garden with the dinosaur. She giggles at him dancing and makes him wear a silly hat. Sprog2 (6) has even started showing an interest. Whether Sproglette will ever let go of the DS long enough for him to have a shot is another question, however.

Sproglette isn't so keen on the nursery sections. They're a little beyond her at the moment. To be honest, they're not great anyway. The gameplay and graphics wouldn't trouble a Commodore 64. Worse, they don't always seem to notice player inputs, leading to confusion and frustration. Quite frankly, they're dull and slightly broken. Happily, it's possible to skip them but the downside is that this unlocks fewer new items to use in the home.

Essentially, Baby Life is about pottering around a house with a baby. Boys will be instantly put off by the box art but any girl who is drawn in by the cute toddler on the cover is liable to have some fun.

Conclusion: Certain girls will love it. For everyone else, it's more of a contraceptive than a game...

Graphics: The 3D graphics in the home are impressive. The 2D graphics in the nursery are pretty good... for 1987.

Length: Theoretically, it could last a while.

Rating: 3/5 (on the basis this isn't a videogame but an interactive, virtual doll).


Facebreaker KO Party (Wii)

Rated: 12+.

Gameplay: Choose from one of a dozen comedy stereotypes (nerd, cool black guy, psycho Russian, etc) and enter boxing tournaments which are merely a succession of bouts against the other characters.

Although the fighters are depicted in 3D, the fights are essentially two-dimensional. You move left and right using the thumbstick and then waggle the wiimote and nunchuk furiously to attack, while occasionally stabbing at buttons to block and throw. You can punch high and low and mix up a selection of quick, hard and special attacks. These attacks have a scissors/paper/stone relationship.

Fully draining an opponents health bar results in a knock-out. Three knock-outs wins the bout.

Save System: Auto-save after each bout.

Comments: Considering the Wii comes bundled with a game that offers not only boxing but four other sports as well, a stand-alone boxing game needs to be pretty special to justify its existence. To this end, Facebreaker adds some flashy graphics, comedy and a deeper combat system. Unfortunately, in ditching Wii Sport's first-person perspective for a standard side-on beat-em-up view, the game loses most of the connection between the player's movement and the action on the screen.

Yep, that's right, get READY to WAGGLE!

There is some strategy to the fighting but often everything moves too quickly to clearly spot what's going on. Sadly, the single-player game provides little incentive to persevere and get to grips with the system. Multiplayer games, meanwhile, turn into a frantic display of arm-flailing as participants struggle to grasp the mechanics. Since the game is obviously intended as party entertainment, this is a problem. It seems Facebreaker's main purpose is as something to play if you've got friends round and they've had enough to drink to make Wii Tennis a danger to your light fittings.

Two people can play a wacky variant with added power-ups and minigames. Four people can take part in a tournament. Only two players can actually play at once, however, and as the bouts can become protracted, the remaining players are liable to be sitting around for a while. Bear in mind that they'll spend this spare time rifling through your DVD rack looking to see what else there is to play...

Conclusion: Mildly amusing for not very long.

Graphics: The fighters look impressive and the animation is good but there's not much else to it.

Length: Very short.

Rating: 2/5.

Bath toys

A selection of bath toys.

Cost: Somewhere from very cheap to a small fortune.

Contents:
  • Usually between 1 and 5 cute, plastic creatures with a nautical theme.
  • May include something clockwork with flippers.
  • Will almost certainly involve some means of soaking a parent with water.
Gameplay: Pouring, squirting and bobbing.

We have some large penguins that open up and stack inside each other. The kids like hiding other things inside them and making me guess what's there. 'Water' is nearly always a safe bet.

Object: To keep the children distracted while they get clean (preferably without flooding the bathroom).

Game length: Somewhere between 5 minutes and half an hour.

Number of players: 1-3. Even having three children in one bath can be fairly cramped. More than that simply isn't going to leave much room for the toys.

Age: Up to about 7.

Comments: Most bath toys come with instructions to wash them with disinfectant regularly. With small children to care for, this is unlikely to be one of your top priorities. Stuff will start to grow on the toys.

Hard plastic toys get black grot in all the nooks and crannies. There are a lot more of these nooks and crannies than you would imagine. Scrubbing them with an old toothbrush helps but is unlikely to get them entirely clean. If water gets inside, they've pretty much had it.

Soft, squeezy toys are worse. Sure, it's fun for the kids to squirt water out of the hole in the bottom, but it's next to impossible to get all the water out at the end of bathtime. After a few months, the kids will be surprised when it's no longer water that they're squirting but green slime.

Clockwork toys can go rusty and seldom seem to work well in the first place. We've had ones that barely managed to move through the water and others which capsized in even mildly choppy seas.

Add to these problems the fact that smaller children will tip all their toys into the bath and then poo in it, and you have to wonder whether bath toys are really worth it. It's maybe best to stick to a collection of plastic bottles with easily removable lids. They may not be shaped like smiley dolphins but they still pour, bob and squirt, and when they start to get grotty, you can simply recycle them and replace them with fresh ones.

Conclusion: Suitable junk works just as well as anything you can buy (unless you actually enjoy guddling about in disinfectant with a toothbrush).

Pros:
  • Bright.
  • Colourful.
  • Fun.
Cons:
  • Require lots of cleaning...
  • ...and then go grotty in a couple of months anyway.
  • Some old shampoo bottles are just as much fun.
  • The shampoo bottles are cheaper.
Rating: 2/5. (Old shampoo bottles: 5/5.)

Skate It (Wii)

Rated: 7+.

Story: The city of San Vanelona has been hit by a series of natural disasters. All is not completely lost, however, since this has handily created some excellent impromptu skate parks. Practice your skills, get filmed pulling some tricks and then join the professionals, performing acts of skateboarding derring-do around the world.

Or, if you're as uncoordinated as me, wrap yourself round a railing and then bump down some stairs on your face. Over and over again.

Gameplay: You must skateboard around large levels, completing challenges to unlock new events and locations. Challenges usually involve racking up a certain number of points by landing enough tricks within a time-limit, in an unbroken run or on a particular piece of scenery.

There are three available methods of control.

  • The wiimote can be used on its own, rotating it to steer, tipping it forwards and backwards to tip the board, and flicking it and waggling it to do tricks.
  • The nunchuk can be attached to the wiimote, allowing the thumbstick to be used for steering.
  • The wiimote and Wii Balance Board can be used together. Steering is achieved by leaning and tricks are pulled by putting weight on a particular part of the board. The wiimote's buttons are used for things like kicking off and braking.
Save System: Autosave after completing tasks. The save file takes up around 125 blocks of the Wii's internal memory, though, compared with 1 block for most games. You may need to clear some space.

Comments: When the controls for the Wii were first demonstrated, gamers the world over dreamed of myriad possibilities: sword fights and light-sabre duels, torch pointing and drum playing, billiards and basketball. All kinds of things.

Unfortunately, the wiimote isn't actually up to most of these things and plenty of games limit themselves to using the buttons with a touch of gimmicky waggling thrown in. Apart from shooting games, two years on, Wii Sports, Wii Play and Wario Ware remain the best examples of the wiimote being put to good use. As for the Balance Board, the most entertaining use for it I've heard of since Wii Fit came out is in Rayman Raving Rabbids TV Party - that apparently allows me to toboggan down a virtual mountain using only my bottom to steer.

Fun as that sounds, I suspect it's not really the zenith of intuitive and accessible gaming that people were expecting. Suffice to say, no one seems to have delivered on Nintendo's early promises for the Wii...

Woh, hold on a minute. Look at this! Skate It has three different control methods and they ALL use the Wii's various controllers in imaginative ways. Tilting the wiimote backwards and forwards and seeing the skater on screen react accordingly recaptures the magic of playing Wii Tennis for the first time. Leaning this way and that on the Balance Board to steer, then pressing hard to jump and flip, is fantastically fresh and exciting.

Well, for a bit...

The problem is, whichever way you play, Skate It is at least twice as hard as any other skateboarding game. Using the Balance Board is about four times as hard. Just skating in a straight line can be hard work and tricky. Pulling off stunts at the same time without either a real or virtual injury, is almost beyond my worn and exhausted housedad body. I can't imagine children much under twelve coping with it at all.

More than that, the controls can be imprecise. Performing specific tricks consistently (either by foot-pressing or frantic waggling) is next to impossible. Luckily, this doesn't affect gameplay much, since in most challenges, any old trick will do.

You can skate around looking for the challenges but it's much easier choosing them from the menu and jumping straight there. Handily, you can also set a marker at the beginning of a good line and teleport straight back with ease if you mess up the run. Together, these things cut down on frustration considerably but make the game feel disjointed. There's no great compulsion to master the controls and keep going.

Nonetheless, if you have a Wii, a Balance Board and a gnarly teenager in need of distraction, then Skate It is worth a look. If you don't know a manual from an ollie and you're a little lacking in coordination you might want to stick with a rental or avoid it entirely.

Conclusion: The most thoughtful use of Wii controls yet... but you'll need to like skateboarding quite a lot to persevere.

Graphics: Good enough. There's a long draw distance and the animation is fine. Unfortunately, some of the locations are bland and ugly.

Length: That depends. If you got into, you could spend a long time perfecting your tricks. It's just as likely you'll give up in despair after half an hour, though.

Rating: 3/5.

The Muppet Christmas Carol (VHS)

Starring: Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Rizzo the Rat, The Great Gonzo and (a presumably extremely cash-strapped) Michael Caine.

Rated: U.

Story: It's Christmas Eve in nineteenth century London and Ebenezer Scrooge (Caine) is as mean and miserly as usual towards his bookkeeper, Bob Cratchit (Frog). When he returns home, however, Scrooge is visited by a succession of spirits who show him his past, present and future in an effort to reveal to him the error of his ways and release his inner Santa.

Comments: Yep, it's Christmas already. Our tree is up and covered in tinsel. The first cards have arrived. The plastic birds which tweet carols have fresh batteries. I even made the mistake of buying some gum-backed strips of shiny card, teaching the children how to make paper chains and then leaving them alone for half an hour. I came back to discover they'd been rather enthusiastic and the entire lounge was buried under strings of slimy, paper loops which had been licked to within an inch of completely dissolving.

Last year, our advent viewing at Sunday lunch was the BBC production of The Box of Delights. This year we dug out The Muppet Christmas Carol. We put it in the slot with some trepidation, unsure how the production would have aged and mildly concerned that the tape might have biodegraded.

Luckily, the film is still fantastic (and, somewhat to our surprise, our videoplayer still works). There's plenty of slapstick, some funny lines and a good helping of the original book. Scrooge and his family are played by real people and the spirits of Christmas are specially designed creations. The rest of the cast is made up of the regular muppet crew.

The most noticeable difference between the film and the book (apart from Tiny Tim being a cuddly frog, obviously) is that Jacob Marley has a brother, Robert, to fit the two grumpy, old muppets into the show. Gonzo also narrates as Dickens himself with Rizzo acting as comic sidekick.

The main downside is that it's a musical and a couple of the songs aren't that great. Well, actually, none of them are particularly good but most have interesting stuff going on in the background. Caine can't sing, though, and occasionally struggles to act. (Although, in his defence, he does spend most of the film surrounded by scene-stealing muppets, so he was probably more than happy just to get out with his sanity and a pay-cheque.)

All in all, The Muppet Christmas Carol has stood the test of time well but, weirdly, it also looks older than it really is. Go figure. Maybe it's the fuzzy VHS-o-vision, maybe it's cloudy memories of watching Miss Piggy as a seven-year-old or maybe it's merely the sad realisation that they don't make them like this anymore. Who knows? Search it out and remember how kid's films used to be.

Conclusion: Better than a whole host of CGI movies involving cute, furry penguins/squirrels/sharks/robots/zebras/llamas/wombats. (Delete as appropriate to whatever you've had the misfortune to watch recently.)

Explosions: None... just a flaming rat.
Roasted chestnuts: Some.
Christmas: Lots.
Snow: Heaps.
Swedish chef: Not enough.

Rating: 4/5.

Iron Man (DVD)

Starring: Robert Downey Jr & Gwyneth Paltrow.

Rated: 12.

Story: Wise-cracking playboy and electronics genius, Tony Stark, is captured by a local warlord in Afghanistan while doing a demo of his company's latest missile technology. The warlord demands Stark makes him some of the missiles. Instead, Stark escapes by making a rocket-powered exo-skeleton out of a couple of bazookas and a tin can.

Irritated that his company's weapons are falling into the wrong hands, Stark builds a better suit to become a superhero and put things right.

Meanwhile, the original suit falls into the wrong hands...

Comments: Finally someone's heard my constant moaning about angst-ridden superheroes who spend all their time complaining and/or doing their laundry. Stark is arrogant, funny and the life of the party. Being played by Robert Downey Jr, he's also charming with it and entertaining to watch (unlike Hayden Christensen in Jumper). At last, a superhero who actually quite enjoys it and gets on with smashing things.

I've still got a couple of gripes, though:

1. Why does the first superhero film in a franchise always have to deal with how the hero became super? I really don't care. It's not like it ever makes sense anyway. Is it really possible to build advanced servo-systems in a cave in Afghanistan using a hammer and anvil while recovering from a major injury? I don't think so.

It would be much better if the whole issue was dealt with in a couple of flashbacks somewhere in the middle and the plot simply went straight for explosions and smashing. That worked well enough for Batman.

2. Superheroes fighting their evil alter-ego isn't very interesting. Lately, we've had Hulk vs Abomination, Spider-Man vs Venom and Iron Man vs ... er... Other Iron Man. Unsurprisingly, these battles between combatants with similar powers tend towards stalemate until the hero gets clever or desperate. They're never as much fun as fights between characters with diverse abilities.

Not to mention that the concept of equally matched adversaries was pretty much fully exploited in Superman 2 twenty years ago.
Still, Downey Jr is great and at least this is trying something different from yet another re-run of Spider-Man.

Conclusion: Not bad but it would have been even better if they'd just skipped this one and started with a sequel.

Explosions: Big and everywhere.
Quips: Frequent.
Unlikely science: Prevalent.
Totally implausible feats of engineering: Almost constant.
Angst: Thankfully absent.

Rating: 4/5.

Need for Speed Undercover (Wii)

Rated: 12+. According to the box, this rating is due to bad language but I can't say I noticed any. One thing I did notice, however, was having to constantly take out police cars by dropping scenery on them or nudging them into on-coming civilian vehicles.

Apparently, this is legitimate behaviour if you're an undercover cop...

Story: You're working for the FBI to infiltrate an international crime syndicate via the street-racing scene. This involves breaking pretty much every vehicle-related law known to man.

Gameplay: Lots of driving at high speed through urban environments and on freeways. There are standard missions, such as races and competing against the clock, but there are also others involving such things as outrunning the police, taking down bosses and delivering stolen cars with minimal damage.

It's possible to drive around town looking for missions but, thankfully, this isn't compulsory. A couple of button presses can take you directly to the next race.

The game supports the Wii wheel but you can still use motion-sensing to steer without it. If you prefer to use a control stick, the nunchuk, GameCube controller and classic controller are all supported.

Save System: Autosave after every mission.

Comments: At first glance, it's hard to work out who this Wii version of the latest Need for Speed is aimed at. The relatively mature content means that kids will be better off with Mario Kart. The ugly graphics mean that teenagers will complain it's not a patch on Burnout Paradise on their mate's 360. Anyone who's a fan of racing games in general is liable to laugh at the way cars bounce off corners and opponents seem to slow down to let the player past.

So who's left?

After careful consideration, I've decided it's dads who want an occasional shot of driving recklessly on their kids' console once they're all safely tucked up in bed. Particularly dads who've had a beer and really can't be bothered to use the brake button.

Need for Speed Undercover is a racing game for those who are easily bored or defeated by racing games. The brief races, easy difficulty and constant variation make it addictive. The daft plot, some simple car upgrading and a few live-action movie sequences involving Maggie Q add some direction. The result is simply more entertaining for those lacking commitment than other, more serious, games like Gran Turismo and Project Gotham.

That said, it's certainly not a classic game by any stretch of the imagination. The graphics are ropey and the free-roaming is mostly pointless. The artificial intelligence of the other drivers is simply bizarre - racers seem almost unable to drive while police cars somehow manage to keep up, no matter what you do, until you drop a pylon on them. In most missions, your car is ludicrously indestructible; in a few, a handful of scrapes mean failure. (This was hugely frustrating until I realised I could change to the 'Easy' difficulty setting at any time.) The script makes The Fast and the Furious look almost competent.

Still, if you want shiny, polished racers requiring skill and perseverance, you should go buy a 360 anyway. If you just want to waggle a Wii wheel about crazily once the kids are in bed, this is quite fun.

Conclusion: A racing game for those who like the idea of driving fast but simply aren't very good at it.

Graphics: Poor. This is partly so the game can cope with moving through the open city at high speed but it's not like there are any pedestrians or there's even that much traffic. The set-piece sequences where you destroy objects to throw off a chase look particularly creaky. It all suggests that this is a quick conversion of a PS2 game. The Wii can do better.

Length: Medium.

Rating: 3/5.

Switch 16



Cost: £10.

Contents:
  • Plastic game hub with spaces for cards and a central area to roll dice.
  • 4 differently coloured sets of cards numbered from 1 to 16. (Red, blue, green & purple.)
  • 6 dice. (5 numbered, 1 'Switch'.)
  • Plastic 'Block' counter.
Gameplay: Each player has a set of cards piled in order from 1 to 16 with 1 at the top. Players take it in turns to roll the number of dice displayed on their top-most card. If one of the dice shows the number on the card, or any combination of the dice can be added together to give the number, the card is discarded. It's possible to discard more than one card with each roll.

If a player manages to discard a card in their turn they can have another turn. If they don't manage to discard any cards on an extra shot, however, they regain cards.

As an added complication, players have to roll the Switch dice whenever they roll the numbered dice. This can allow them to switch cards with another player of their choice, force them to switch with the losing player, do nothing or give them control of the Block chip. If held, the block chip protects a player from getting switched. If placed on another player's deck, it prevents them from discarding cards until it's moved.



Object: To be the first player to discard all their cards.

Game length: 10 minutes.

Number of players: 2-4.

Age: 7+ officially. The main activity involves rolling dice, so young children can take part as long as someone playing is able to do basic mental arithmetic quickly. One player will need to be at least eight, though - working out whether it's possible to make 13 or 14 from some combination of 1, 3, 3, 4, 5 requires a surprising amount of thought.

Comments: The instruction sheet makes Switch 16 seem complicated but it's actually pretty simple once you've seen it in action. Essentially, it's a game of dice, counting and sudden reversals of fortune. It moves fairly fast and players are involved even when it's not their go, since everyone can see the dice and join in with trying to find suitable combinations of numbers.

Of course, older children (10+) might not want to help each other out but Switch 16 won't distract them for long anyway - they'll quickly slope off to their room to play online Poker and to hunt out strangers in chatrooms to befriend and then blackmail.

It's debatable whether all the switching adds much to the game. It's a faff swapping the cards around and requires some co-operation between the players involved to do efficiently. My kids tend to stare at the piles and expect them to magically move by themselves. Then they all reach for the same pile, bicker a little and forget whose go it is. If this happens for several turns in a row, it can become exasperating. The player who takes the most risks usually ends up winning anyway.

Conclusion: Once you get to grips with it, it's an entertaining game with a touch of maths.

Pros:
  • Requires mental arithmetic.
  • Quick.
  • Has a little strategy but anyone can win.
  • The dice tray is sensibly lined with rubber to stop everyone getting a headache.
Cons:
  • Swapping the piles over can be tedious.
  • A game can take a while to get going if no one rolls a 1.
  • You could play a similar game without any switching using only five dice, some paper and a pen. (That would be cheaper and almost as much fun.)
Rating: 4/5.

Mini Micro T-bar Scooter

Pink mini micro t-bar scooter.

Price: £40

Age: 3-5

Max Load: 20kg

Concept: A scooter specifically designed for small children to learn on. It's light-weight and has three wheels - two at the front, one at the back. The T-bar is fixed so steering is performed by leaning when at speed or kicking off the pavement when going more slowly.

Original Comments (3/5/07): Sproglette loves this. If she had to choose between me and the scooter then I wouldn't fancy my chances... I wasn't so keen on it to start with because it made us incredibly slow. It took us ten minutes to get to the end of the street because she could only go in straight lines. She'd scoot about a metre and veer slightly off path, then have to get off, line the scooter up with the pavement again and then get back on for another minimal amount of time. After about a month, though, she's suddenly got the hang of the steering and I have to walk fast to keep up with her.

It's small enough to be used inside but it's more than a toy. Sproglette managed over a mile along pavements the other day. If she hits a pot-hole or a raised edge of pavement, it's game over, however. The scooter pivots over the front wheels and she lands on her knuckles. Now she's going faster, a helmet is required. Free-wheeling down a hill is also pretty scary to watch - she's only two-and-a-half and it's going to be a while before she gets the hang of the back brake (which looks flimsy anyway). I try to stay in grabbing distance.

It's less cumbersome than other three-wheel scooters but doesn't require as much balance as a two-wheeler. It also stays upright when parked, allowing for a quick and easy getaway. (I can just see her and her pals holding up the cornershop and making off at speed with pockets full of Smarties).

Girl on a scooter.

Available in blue or pink.

Conclusion: An excellent progression from the buggy if you're not going far and you're not in much of a hurry.

Rating: 4/5.

UPDATE: Sproglette is now four and she still uses her scooter all the time. The buggy has been folded up and put away for weeks because she can scoot just as far as I'm willing to jog after her and we get places much faster than with her on foot. She's even learnt to hit bumps without tipping over.

The back brake is sturdy enough and she does use it fairly frequently, although she'd rather put her foot down on the pavement to slow up. When it's wet, this is probably a wise move, since the wheels have no tread whatsoever. We've had to drum into her the importance of stopping a long way before she reaches a kerb. Luckily, she has good road-sense so I'm not nervous about her getting a little ahead. If she was prone to carelessness or I wasn't able to run after her, a downhill journey might be more hair-raising, however. As it is, I always insist she wears her helmet.

All in all, the scooter is one of the best kiddie purchases we've made. The micro scooter has been in almost daily use for over eighteen months and other children are enthralled when they see Sproglette zipping past. There were two kids with little pink scooters in her gymnastics class at the beginning of term. Now there are five.

Updated Rating: 5/5.


A Cheese and Tomato Spider

By Nick Sharratt

A Cheese and Tomato Spider cover.

Story: Eleven pictures of everyday people and objects are transformed into some very unusual items thanks to each page being split in half. An exploding volcano and a grey-haired granny can become an exploding granny (or, indeed, a grey-haired volcano). Watch out for the birthday lemon, the wriggly pizza and the haunted fish!

Age: This book made my 4-year-old, 6-year-old and 8-year old all fall about laughing. Eight is probably about the upper age limit but at the lower end of the scale even very young children should appreciate it.

Length: This depends on the exact amount of laughing which takes place but there are 121 picture combinations so it can easily take fifteen minutes to get through them all - not bad for a twenty-four page book with only fifty words.

An exploding granny!

Comments: This is a simple idea which is astonishingly effective. Some of the pictures are amusing enough to make an adult smile, and kids love the absurdity of it all.

The repetitive nature and lack of story mean reading it to a small child could drive you quickly mad if they wanted it over and over again, however. Older children have a tendency to start bickering over which combination to do next. Still, there's plenty of fun to be had.

Oh, and take it home rather than reading it in the library - it'll be easier to contain your children as they roll around giggling.

Conclusion: Gets children in a wide age-range laughing together without you having to put You've Been Framed on the telly. Can't be bad...

Rating: 4/5.


Dragonlance: Dragons of Autumn Twilight (DVD)

Starring: The voices of Kiefer Sutherland, Michael Rosenbaum, Lucy Lawless and Michelle Trachtenberg.

Rated: 12.

Story: The evil dragon goddess is intent upon conquering the world of Krynn and a motley band of adventurers must hunt out the necessary magical gizmos required to defeat her.

It's like The Lord of the Rings with dwarves.

Er, no, hang on... It's like The Lord of the Rings with a mysterious old wizard who falls down a deep pit.

Erm...

With a very short thief? Nope. A forest full of arrogant elves? That won't do either...

I know! Dragons! It's like The Lord of the Rings with dragons...

...and, er, the worst animation this side of 1990.

Comments: I have fond memories of reading the original Dragonlance trilogy as a teenager. They're a fantasy epic involving plenty of battles, numerous imaginative locations and a set up based on Dungeons & Dragons. Discovering they'd made an animated movie of the first book promised a nostalgic return to my youth without the effort of actually having to read hundreds of pages of text.

Sadly, things didn't quite turn out that way...

Dragons of Autumn Twilight simply doesn't work as a film. Cramming the whole book into 100 minutes leads to a frantic scramble from one battle to the next. Having about a dozen main characters doesn't help either. Most of them barely get a line or two per scene and seem defined by a brief checklist of idiosyncrasies picked up from a quick flick through the novels. Flint the dwarf: Allergic to horses and gets teased about being old. Check. Tasslehoff the diminutive thief: Short and steals things. Check. Raistlin the magic user: Suspicious, sickly (cough, cough!) and stained yellow. Check. Etc.

Sutherland and Trachtenberg do a great job with voice acting but this merely emphasises how little their characters get to say. Lawless is stuck with some ropey dialogue. Rosenbaum gets a bigger role than the others (Tanis) but is unconvincing.

All this might be forgivable, or at least tolerable, if the film was a visual spectacle. Unfortunately, on a technical level, Dragonlance is an abomination. The animation is jerky and there's a blurriness to the visuals that would have made me take out the tape and shake it if I'd been watching on VHS. Meanwhile, the points where computer-generated 3D monsters turn up and interact with the (very flat looking) 2D of the rest of the film are laughably awful. It all gives the impression it was made in 1989 and then underwent a shoddy conversion from the North American NTSC TV format to PAL. That it was released in 2008 is unbelievable.

Rather than scratch the nostalgia itch, the movie just made me want to read the books again. I'd have been better off skimming through the synopses on Wikipedia...

Conclusion: If you loved the books, you'll want to watch this to the end. You'll wish you hadn't bothered starting in the first place, though.

Explosions: Quite a few but you could have something more spectacular up on YouTube in half an hour with only the aid of three matches, a webcam and a potato.
Dragons: Loads. These look slightly better than the explosions. (You'd need an entire box of matches and two potatoes.)
Redeeming features: Er... After this, they're unlikely to inflict the sequels on us.

Rating: 2/5 if you enjoyed the books, else 1/5.

Uno Stacko

Uno Stacko box.

Cost: £10.

Contents:
  • 45 plastic blocks in various colours, each with a number or symbol on its ends.
  • Loading tray made of flimsy cardboard.
Gameplay: Yes, you've guessed it - it's a deranged game-splicing experiment fusing together the DNA of Uno and Jenga...

The blocks are stacked in rows of three to form a tower with the help of the loading tray. The first player removes a block from the tower and places it on the top, using only one hand. The next player must then remove and stack a block of the same colour or number. And so on with the next player.

There are a number of special blocks:
  • Reverse - reverses direction of play.
  • Skip - skips the next player.
  • Take two - the next player has to take two non-special blocks of the same colour as the 'take two' block.
  • Joker - the current player chooses the colour which the next player must take.
In a two-player game, reverse and skip blocks are treated like 'take two' blocks.

Uno Stacko.

Object: To not be the one who makes the tower fall over.

Game length: Takes a couple of minutes to set up each time and then lasts somewhere between thirty seconds and five minutes.

Number of players: 2-10 allegedly but it only really works with three or four players. More than that and not everyone will get a go; a two-player game, meanwhile, is heavily weighted in favour of the person going first.

Age: 7+. Anyone younger is really going to struggle. Even children older than seven will probably need to cheat and use two hands.

Comments: You can kind of see what they were thinking when they created this. (Jenga and Uno are both great games, after all.) Unfortunately, Uno Stacko just doesn't work. There simply aren't enough blocks of each number and colour and it's easy for someone to be stuck in a hopeless position after very few turns at all.

Worse, the plastic blocks can stick to each other a little, making them difficult to slide out of position. (They also clatter horribly.) To add to the frustration, the loading tray is nowhere near sturdy enough, increasing the set up time between games.

To be fair, the game isn't a complete disaster. The genetic material fused together to create it is very strong, so Uno Stacko has its moments. It's really not worth the effort, though. Play Jenga or play Uno; don't play this.

Conclusion: Coming to a charity shop near you soon.

Pros:
  • Some of the matching fun of Uno.
  • Some of the tower collapsing fun of Jenga.
  • Can be used as a small set of building blocks.
Cons:
  • Frustrating to set up.
  • Difficult to play.
  • Cheaply made.
  • Expensive to buy.
  • Can be over in seconds.
  • Easily disrupted by a passing toddler.
  • Takes up space in a cupboard that could be filled by something better. You know, like Jenga.
Rating: 2/5.

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed (Xbox 360)

Rated: 12

Story: The Force Unleashed is set between the prequels and the proper Star Wars movies and you play Darth Vader's secret apprentice, hunting down the few remaining Jedi in the galaxy to 'retire' them.

The plot takes in the origins of the Rebel Alliance and features the occasional familiar character. Ultimately, the George-Lucas-approved revelations aren't that startling but it certainly all beats Attack of the Clones.

Gameplay: Run through linear levels, fighting anything that gets in your way, in an effort to reach the boss and whack him/her/it with a big, glowing stick.

Besides carrying a light-sabre, you also gain various Force abilities as the game goes on. You can pick up objects and enemies with the power of your mind and fling them around, shoot lightning from your fingertips and blast enemies away from you, among other things.

There are hidden bonuses to discover and there's some leaping around platforms but it's hardly Tomb Raider.

Save System: Loading a saved game returns you to the last checkpoint reached. This isn't usually a problem since the checkpoints are mostly close together.

Comments: No matter how many sub-standard films, games and plastic figurines the Lucas empire churns out, there is a part of many males my age that will forever go misty-eyed at the mention of Death Stars and Princess Leia...

Thus it was with a certain amount of nostalgic hope (but not much expectation), that I put The Force Unleashed into the disc tray and booted it up. It speaks volumes about the quality of recent Star Wars output that I was pleasantly surprised to be greeted by a game of almost complete mediocrity.

Charging around with a light-sabre while throwing enemies about with psychic powers is always entertaining but the experience is constantly bogged down by linear levels, uninspiring design, dumb AI, repetitive combat and slightly awkward controls. Taking on an AT-ST or rancor beast is exhilarating the first time; by the fifth time it's somewhat tiresome. After a while, the game becomes something of a trudge as you return to locations that have already been visited in order to beat up yet more goons.

Thankfully there are only ten levels, so seeing the story play out doesn't take long. Plenty of areas can even be sprinted through without fighting, helping to get things over with.

That said, The Force Unleashed isn't awful. There are plenty of nice touches, including interactive scenery, great facial animation and an exhaustive database, but, in general, the game is rather sloppy. Fortunately, the warm glow of Star Wars saves it. If you're still struggling to focus thanks to my previous reference to giant space weapons and gold-bikini'd royalty, you'll probably be prepared to overlook some of the short-comings and simply enjoy indulging your inner Jedi.

Just bear in mind that there are plenty of better games to play first...

Conclusion: Don't expect genius but it's worth a rental if flinging Imperial storm troopers around with the Force sounds like fun.

Graphics: Pretty enough, although the locations are seldom striking and a couple of the levels are simply dull. The game judders a bit sometimes. (Try going misty-eyed again and you won't notice so much. Think of Ewoks or something.)

Length: Short, verging on the Very Short.

Rating: 3/5 if you're a fan of Star Wars, else 2/5.

Battery converters



Price: Somewhere between 50p and £1 each depending on brand and pack size.

Comments: I'm forever re-charging batteries. Between the remotes for the Wii, a bunch of toy telephones, a couple of Leapsters, some torches, a handful of electronic cars, a talking Iggle Piggle and the flipping glow-in-the-dark baby which plays a tune every time Sproglette turns over in the night, I'm constantly tripping over little gizmos that are in need of portable electricity. There's always at least one that's running low on juice and announcing its imminent death with a long, low rendition of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star which is painfully out of key.

This isn't a problem for the vast majority of items, since they run on AA batteries. With today's technology, I can have four more AAs super-charged in under an hour and the toy will be good to go for weeks.

The difficulty is with the stuff that needs bigger batteries. We only have four rechargeable C batteries in total and they take an entire day to charge. When Elefun runs out of steam, it's really rather a while before he's ready to play again. As for the things which runs on D batteries, we don't have any suitable rechargeables at all nor anything with which to recharge them even if we had.

I've been pondering buying some more big rechargeables and a suitable recharger for a while but could never face coughing up the cash. Then I discovered battery converters.

They're fantastic.

The converters are simply casings to house AA batteries to make them the right size to fit into slots for C and D batteries. Since AA batteries are the same voltage as C and D batteries, they work just as well. (My new AA rechargeables are higher capacity than my old C rechargeables, so they actually last longer.) The C converters are plastic tubes with an internal collar to hold an AA battery in place. The D converters have an extra metal cap on the end to make the converted battery long enough.

Now, whenever Elefun goes floppy or Sproglette accidentally leaves her lantern on overnight, she doesn't have to pull a sad face and wait until the weekend for me to have got round to sorting the situation. I can go straight to my stash of ready-charged AAs and have her toys working again in minutes. Hooray!

And no more D batteries for the landfill either. Double hooray!


Battery converters = elephant Viagra

Conclusion: Why didn't someone tell me about these before?

Pros:
  • Cheap.
  • Simple.
  • No more lengthy recharging.
  • Means you're much more likely to have the right battery to hand.
Cons:
  • Worryingly short of cons.
Rating: 5/5.

Stardust (DVD)

Starring: Claire Danes (the vet from Terminator 3), Charlie Cox, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert De Niro, Sienna Miller & Ricky Gervais.

Rated: PG.

Story: In a small Victorian-esque town, Tristran (Cox) attempts to win the heart of the love of his life (Miller) by tracking down a fallen star and bringing back a piece. This leads him into the magical kingdom of Stormhold which is hiding through a gap in a dry-stone wall.

Before long, he's competing with evil witches, murderous princes and gender-confused pirates to claim the prize.

Comments: This is a great fairy tale for the whole family. There are some lessons on identity, ambition and dreams but the film never takes itself too seriously. Whimsical humour mixes with beautiful scenery, restrained special effects, decent action and a whole load of imagination.

Apart from a handful of minor imperfections, the film is superb from beginning to end. Claire Danes over-emotes on occasion in an annoying, head-bobbing kind of way. Also Tristran turns from zero to hero rather unconvincingly - it's too fast to be believable but not over-played enough to quite work as parody. Oh, and Ricky Gervais is in it. (Fortunately, he only turns up for a couple of scenes before coming to a sticky end but you'll still want to slap him.)

These niggles are only really apparent because the rest of the film is so fantastic, however. Go watch Stardust now.

Conclusion: Almost as good as a sequel to The Princess Bride.

Explosions: Only one but a host of other effects compensate.
Michelle Pfeiffer's make-up: Thick.
Suitable for the wife?: Definitely.
Suitable for the kids?: Probably. (Slapstick and magic will keep them entertained but under-fives will need a cuddle in the scary bits.)
Suitable for inhabitants of Ipswich?: Maybe... although they might take one bit a little personally...

Rating: 5/5.

Carcassonne

Carcassonne box.

Cost: £15.

Contents:
  • 60 cardboard tiles (roughly 4cm square) featuring combinations of sections of road, city and field.

  • 40 little wooden followers (8 blue, 8 yellow, 8 green, 8 red and 8 black).

  • A scoring chart.

  • 4-page rule booklet + summary sheet.

  • 12 optional river tiles.
Gameplay: On their turn, each player takes a randomly selected tile and places it next to a tile that has already been played. They must do this in such a way that roads, city sections and fields join up. They then have the option of placing one of their followers on a feature. Players gain points on completion of a road or city that their followers control. Followers on completed features get returned to their owners to use again.

Once all the tiles are placed, followers left on the board score points for the uncompleted features they control. Each completed city is also worth points to the player who has the most followers in fields ('farmers') with access to it.

There are a few extra complications such as the cloister tiles which score one point for every tile surrounding them but, in general, the rules aren't too complicated once you've seen the game in action. The only mildly difficult bit is scoring the farmers at the end of the game. There's plenty of strategy involved in deciding where to play tiles, however.

If the river tiles are used, they are all played at the start of the game, helping spread the game out a little.

Carcassonne contents.

Object: To finish the game with the most points.

Game length: Forty-five minutes to an hour.

Number of players: 2-4.

Age: Officially 8+. Children this age should be able to play unsupervised after they've had a couple of games to familiarise them with the rules. Younger children can join in but are unlikely to win without a little help and advice.

Close up of Carcassonne in play.

Comments: This is an excellent introduction to strategy games. It only requires moments to set up, isn't too complicated and takes a fairly predictable amount of time.

Although Carcassonne is competitive, it's not confrontational, so no one feels they're getting picked on and no one gets knocked out early. More than that, because a large proportion of the points aren't tallied until the game is finished, it always feels as if everyone is in with a chance right up until the end. Unlike games such as Risk, there isn't a lengthy period where the winner is pretty obvious but victory hasn't quite been achieved.

The relatively small number of rules makes the game suitable for children but the random selection of tiles means every game is different, keeping the game fresh for adults. Since there's no reading, the game is accessible even to six-year-olds with a decent level of concentration and enough maths skill to add double-digit numbers together.

Conclusion: If you want to get the kids playing strategy games, this is a great place to start.

Pros:
  • Plenty of strategy but involves enough luck to give younger players a chance.

  • Good length.

  • Not too complicated.

  • No two games are quite the same.

  • Easy to pick up.

  • Beats the heck out of playing Scrabble with an eight-year-old.
Cons:
  • The scoring chart only goes up to fifty but scores of over a hundred are easily attainable in a two-player game.

  • Not actually much in the box.

  • There are about a dozen expansion sets available to soak up your cash.

  • Difficult to move out of the way. It there's a half-finished game on the lounge carpet when you're doing the cleaning, you'll have to hoover round it.
Rating: 5/5.


A summer of games

There are at least nine potentially great games coming out on Xbox 360 in the next three weeks. That's more than in the entire year so far put together. No one has time and money for them all. Games publishers are crazy.

Before this deluge hits, here are some thoughts on the games I've played over the last few months but haven't had the chance to review. If I don't share them now, it's just not going to happen.

In fairness, some of the games I didn't play that much but, you know, that was because they weren't very good. If a game hasn't got interesting after a couple of hours then something is seriously wrong...

Warhammer: Battle March (15) - Xbox 360 - Hurrah a real-time strategy game set in the Warhammer universe created by Games Workshop! There's no faffing with gathering resources or building bases, it's merely a simple case of arranging your army and leading it tactically into battle...

Er, so was that hold down the right-trigger, press left on the d-pad and then tap A or was it click the left-stick, tap the right-bumper and then hold X? No, no, that's not right... Maybe it was the right-trigger, left on the d-pad and then Y... Oh, never mind, I'll just select everything I can see and charge those goblins... If I can untangle my fingers, that is...

Seriously, the controls have been made too complicated in order to fit in a host of complex commands, meaning even simple commands are impossible to pull off in the heat of conflict. Worse, there's no way to save during battles, so a single screw-up results in going all the way back to the start of the level.

Broken. Even the script is dreadful. 3/5 if you're a desperate Warhammer fan, else 1/5.

Pure (3+) - Xbox 360 - Drive a quad bike around at crazy speeds, doing crazy jumps and pulling crazy tricks in order to go at even crazier speeds. Looks great but upgrading your bike is fiddly and having to pull tricks all the time to earn boost can get wearying. Personally I prefer Burnout Revenge but this is definitely worth a rental. 4/5.

Condemned 2 (18) - Xbox 360 - The original Condemned was a decent launch title for the 360 with a scary journey through crumbling buildings on the trail of a serial killer. The hand-to-hand combat was excellent but the story was rather vague and the gameplay and environments were rather repetitive.

Oddly, the demo makes the sequel look like more of the same and I was somewhat nervous about even bothering to rent it. I'm glad I did. The developers have worked hard to improve almost every aspect of the original. The combat is even better and there's much more to see and do. Puzzles break up the action well. The forensic investigation is still hardly CSI but it does require some thought this time round.

The atmosphere is fantastic. 4/5.

Conan (18) - Xbox 360 - Hack, hack, hack, jump, hack, stupendous limb-severing hack, hack, jump, hack, cataclysmic whirling hack of death, hack, repeat.

If you've played the demo you've pretty much seen it all apart from the occasional topless slave girl.

Travel back in time and give the game to your teenage self. 2/5.

Metroid Prime 3 (12+) - Wii - Step into the shoes of a futuristic bounty hunter, shoot things and hunt out new equipment.

Exactly like Metroid Prime but with different controls. Being able to aim with the wiimote is great but having to frequently use awkward-to-reach buttons is a pain. The motion-sensing is pretty irritating too. Combine this with the reappearing opponents, lack of checkpointing, constant traipsing about, first-person platforming and the need to search out savepoints, and it all feels rather like hard work.

Some people love the exploration and atmosphere, though. 3/5.

House of the Dead 2 and 3 (15) - Wii - Shoot zombies using the wiimote as you're moved around automatically. Sadly, using the wiimote isn't as much fun as using a proper lightgun and running out of lives sends you all the way back to the beginning of the entire game to suffer the ugly graphics and awful voice-acting all over again. 2/5.

Assassin's Creed (16+) - Xbox 360 - Leap across rooftops as a Medieval assassin, do it again, possibly ride a horse for miles, suffer a hugely tedious cutscene and then leap across some more rooftops. Scarily, this is actually less interesting than it sounds and that's not even taking into account the modern-day subplot set in an office.

Assassin's Creed's huge world looks great but it's empty of gameplay. A sandbox game without any sand. 2/5.

Grand Theft Auto IV (18) - Xbox 360 - Travel round a vast city, undertake violent missions and build your own criminal empire. Again.

You can go bowling, play darts and surf an entire fake internet but the city's a maze, getting places is often dull, the difficulty is all over the shop and there's still no checkpointing or proper mission restart option. Oh, and the distance-blurring effect made me squint the whole time and gave me a headache when I played on an HD display, but some of the text was barely readable on a normal telly. Despite enjoying previous GTA games I really didn't have much fun.

There's plenty of sand in this sandbox... but it's all a little dry. Disappointing. Play Saints Row instead. 3/5.

Zack and Wiki - Quest for Barbaros' Treasure (7+) - Wii - A point-and-click adventure. Wander around collecting objects and use them to solve puzzles. Use a saw to cut down a pole and then hold the pole in a fire to make a torch to see in dark tunnels, that sort of thing.

This would be great if it didn't have a tendency to frequently and unexpectedly kill you and send you right back to the start of the level. The game uses the wiimote well but it quickly becomes too frustrating to be fun.

May make you want to cut it up with a saw and then set fire to it. 3/5.

So there we have it. Summary: Rent Pure or Condemned 2 to tide you over the last few days until Fallout 3 comes out...

The Regional Accounts Director of Firetop Mountain

By Alex Jenkins & Stephen Morrison



Age: Adult (contains a little swearing, plenty of violence, some ritual sacrifice, a touch of sexual harassment, a fair amount of discrimination against mythical creatures and a highly illicit relationship with a water cooler).

Story: You are an office temp who has fallen on hard times. Desperate for any work you can get, you take a data entry job at Firetop Mountain Plc. You must navigate the dank corridors, placate your co-workers and do as little work as possible while still getting paid...

...until you discover you're being bled dry to power a mystic portal to a fantasy realm. Lost in the basement with an IT troll and the tea lady, you must fight your way through the building in an epic quest for survival, revenge and someone to sign your timesheet.

Comments: There's obviously something in the air. On almost the same day I posted my Choose your own housedad adventure, this book was released - another tribute to interactive gamebooks which young geeks the world over were thrilled by in the eighties.

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain was the first of the Fighting Fantasy series of books - easily the best series in the genre. I remember it being fantastic. I spent many hours flicking between numbered paragraphs and rolling dice in an effort to reach the warlock's treasure. It was months before I realised there were in fact TWO keys labelled '111' and I was able to finally get to Paragraph 400 and the good ending.

Ah, happy days...

The Regional Accounts Director of Firetop Mountain (RADFM) does an excellent job of capturing the style and format of the old Fighting Fantasy books. Once again it's time to decide whether to turn left and go to Paragraph 179 or turn right and go to Paragraph 213. You have Aptitude, Endurance and Luck scores which, combined with some dice rolling, determine the outcome of fights and tricky situations. It's all very nostalgic and the line drawings are spot on.

There are plenty of amusing jokes about temping, fantasy and gamebooks. Some of them are laugh-out-loud funny. References encompass everything from The Lord of the Rings to Twin Peaks. It's an essential gift for every World of Warcraft-loving corporate slave you know.

By laying into both Fighting Fantasy and office culture, however, the book loses focus slightly. Fewer mythical creatures might have made the digs at cubicle life sharper. There's also a possibility the adventure itself might have been bettered structured. As it stands, RADFM is a rather linear progression of encounters with invisible co-workers and photocopier repair gorgons and similar beings. Many of the decisions are only a choice between continuing onwards or suffering instant death; most of the rest are of no consequence as both options bring about the same result within a paragraph or two. There are only about three occasions where a player decision takes the quest on a significantly different path for any length of time.

Although the book has simple rules for creating a character and rolling dice to decide fights, it quickly becomes clear that the adventure is nigh on impossible to complete without cheating. At one point early on, it's quite easy to die three times in half a dozen paragraphs thanks to a poor decision, an unlucky dice roll and an uneven (and entirely unavoidable) fight. After that, keeping a finger in the last paragraph just in case becomes essential and keeping a tally of scores seems pointless - the book isn't playing fair.

True, RADFM is meant to be a parody, but there's no reason it couldn't be a proper gamebook into the bargain. The people who are going to get the most from this are those who played plenty of Fighting Fantasy books when they were younger. I can't be the only one who wants at least the possibility of taking the dice rolling seriously.

Some of the humour will be lost on those who didn't play the originals much or who are unaware of them. You'll be able to identify these people merely by telling them the title of RADFM. If they look at you blankly, you're likely to have some explaining to do. Anyone who so much as smiles, however, will enjoy this book.

It's just that a week later you may well find them guiltily scouring eBay for the original. Or Forest of Doom... or possibly Citadel of Chaos... or...

Conclusion: Amusing rather than genius but worth getting if The Housedad Adventure leaves you wanting more.

Rating: 4/5.



Tesco party mini bubbles

A bottle of Tesco party bubbles.

Cost: £1 for a pack of 4.

Contents:
  • 30 ml/1 fl.oz bubble mixture.
  • Plastic wand.
Age: 3+.

Comments: Where does it all come from? I don't remember ever buying any bubble mixture but we have a dozen bottles of the stuff filling a drawer. We've got big ones, small ones, ones with wands, ones without, Disney themed ones, ones so rubbish that creating any bubbles at all is a triumph, leaky ones, ones with a puzzle in the lid and even one which makes bouncy bubbles. I haven't dared try the last lot - I suspect the mixture must contain at least a small amount of evil. Bouncy bubbles? What next? Glow-in-the-dark bubbles?

Hang on... That's not a bad idea. Imagine glow-in-the-dark bubbles cascading down from the ceiling, creating a sparkling display, bursting in a shower of fireflies on the heads of mesmerised toddlers and then leaving behind a crowd of glow-in-the-dark children. I feel a patent application coming on...

Oh... Call off the chemistry set - it exists already.

Scary.

Anyway, I think the bubble mixture mainly turns up in party bags. I've been trying to get the kids to use it up but every time the stock starts going down, half a dozen of their friends thoughtlessly have birthdays. I'm going to need grandchildren to get through this lot.

Lots and lots of different bottles of bubble mixture.

Still, it's given me plenty of opportunity to run some tests and of all the different bottles of bubble mixture we've had, my preference is for the Tesco ones:

The bottles are small, meaning a child tipping the entire contents over their shoes isn't too much of a disaster. The wand is easy to hold because it's attached to the inside of the lid. This reduces the chance of getting sticky fingers if the kids insist you take over blowing duties. The lid goes on tightly and it's safe to keep the bottle in a pocket.

Having the wand attached to the lid does make it next to impossible to use the mixture in the bottom of the bottle but there's enough within easy reach to keep blowing bubbles long after most children have got bored. The top of the bottle is wide, allowing refills from lesser bubble mixture containers.

Of course, it's still only bubble mixture. Even fairly old children will drip it and spill it everywhere. Smaller children will hold the wand a foot from their mouth or try to kiss it. (Neither of these techniques produces many bubbles.) Take the bottle outside and blow the bubbles yourself, however, and you can easily keep a dozen children chasing around popping them for twenty minutes.

Conclusion: Great for padding out party bags, entertaining small children as you hang around waiting for their siblings to come out of school and for enlivening parties anywhere with a moppable floor.

Pros:
  • Small.
  • The wand is easy to hold without getting sticky fingers.
  • Very tight screw-top lid.
  • Mixture produces decent bubbles.
Cons:
  • Not much mixture in each bottle.
  • It's bubble mixture - someone or something is bound to get sticky, whatever you do.
  • Doesn't make your children glow in the dark.
Rating: 4/5.

Sonic Chronicles - The Dark Brotherhood (DS)

Rated: 7+. Since players will probably need to be at least seven to read all the text anyway, this isn't much of an issue.

Story: Some mysterious assailants dressed in black have kidnapped Knuckles, stolen the chaos emeralds and put in action a plan to take over the world. Sonic the Hedgehog and his friends must search them out and defeat them. Along the way, they must also confront Eggman once again, collect plenty of gold rings and help Cream the Rabbit find her lost chao, Cheese.

Yeah, exactly... If you don't even know that Knuckles is an echidna, then you're going to be struggling a little here.

Gameplay: This isn't like any other Sonic game. It's not about running at warp speed or jumping on monsters' heads. Instead, it mixes sedate exploring with turn-based battles.

You can have up to four characters in your team but only the currently selected character is visible on screen. You get to guide them around with the stylus. Interesting people and objects can be interacted with by tapping on an icon. Characters can employ abilities such as flying, smashing crates or dashing to get past obstacles in the environment. Again, this is achieved by tapping on an icon rather than utilising arcade skills.

Bump into any enemies wandering the landscape and the game cuts to a battle screen where your team stand in a line, facing the enemy who also stand in a line. Each team member can be ordered to attack, defend, use an item or to attempt to use a special power, such as a healing spell or an armour-piercing blow. Once everyone has orders, the results play automatically (with the DS essentially rolling dice to see who hits and how much damage is done). It's worth staying awake, however, because pulling off powers and defending against them requires success at short, rhythm-based minigames. These involve keeping the stylus in a moving circle or tapping areas of the screen with the correct timing. (If you've played Elite Beat Agents, then the concept will seem very familiar.)

Winning battles and completing quests brings experience points and items. Accumulate enough of these and characters go up in level, making them stronger and unlocking new skills. Items and equipment can be bought in shops using rings. Eggs can be found lying around and hatched into little creatures called chao that give characters additional abilities.

Yep, Sonic Chronicles is a lot like Final Fantasy with hedgehogs...

Save System: It's possible to save at any time while not in a conversation or battle. Happily, loading the saved game returns you to exactly where you left off. There's no being sent back to base simply for having the temerity to stop for lunch and there's no need to play for an extra twenty minutes in order to reach the next save point.

The only problem is that it's slightly too easy to save over someone else's saved game...

Comments: This game is initially a little strange. Sonic the Hedgehog is renowned for speed, so making him plod around the countryside, solving switch puzzles and chatting to old woodcutters, is something of a change of pace. (Worse, in my case, Tails' annoying perkiness gave me flashbacks to the overdose of Sonic cartoons I was forced to endure in the Spring.)

As with many role-playing games, you start with a single, first-level character who has no equipment and few skills. This considerably limits options for fighting and exploring, and means Sonic Chronicles takes a while to get going. Persevere through the first hour of instructions, back story and restricted choices, though, and things pick up. Extra characters introduce more tactics and open up new paths.

Winning later fights is heavily dependent on using special powers at the correct moment and succeeding in the rhythm minigames. This brings a good mix of tactics and skill to the battles. Defeating opponents isn't necessarily hard but it's never a foregone conclusion, either. That said, the battles can get repetitive during extended play. There are only three or four possible sets of opponents in each area and fighting the same formation of helicopter robots for the twelfth time in half an hour can become irritating. Thankfully, unlike Final Fantasy, there are no random battles. Enemies can be seen approaching and evaded by running round them. This doesn't earn any experience points but it avoids exploring becoming too frustrating, particularly in locations where monsters reappear within a minute of being defeated.

Hunting out all the rings, chao eggs and hidden items in the levels breaks up the battling and is the most entertaining part of the game. The small areas and handy map on the top screen encourage obsessive collecting of loot.

Still, this isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea. Much depends on being able to put up with Sonic and his pals. The dialogue is actually pretty good but having to play as a rabbit called Cream is just... well... unsettling... The save anywhere feature and the lack of random battles make Sonic Chronicles more accessible than many other examples of the genre, however. It uses the stylus well, can be played in short bursts and causes quiet moments to fly by. It's the kind of game that the DS was made for.

Sprog1 (age 8) is halfway through and really enjoying it.

I don't think even he knows what an echidna is, though...

Conclusion: This is a very competent role-playing game for children. It's reasonably forgiving, not too complex and packed full of Sonic the Hedgehog and friends.

Unfortunately, the same features may well put off adults. Nonetheless, if you can see beyond the anthropomorphic bunnies, Sonic Chronicles is an addictive alternative to the 'serious' role-playing games out there.

Graphics: The battles can be bland but everything else looks good.

Length: Medium.

Rating: 4/5.


10,000 BC (DVD)

Starring: Some mammoths.

Rated: 12.

Story: A village of mammoth hunters is attacked by a more advanced civilisation who cart off half the tribe to slavery. A small group of warriors set out to free their friends.

On the way, they discover navigation, farming and enormous birds with very sharp beaks.

Comments: There are almost no films set in prehistoric times. Since humans and dinosaurs never co-existed, what's the point? A good action story requires guns, cars or giant lizards. Fact.

At least, you have to imagine that's the thought which runs through the heads of Hollywood producers most of the time.

Sadly, they may not be entirely wrong. Despite a lack of competition, 10,000 BC doesn't have two original ideas to rub together in the pursuit of fire. Almost every scene is reminiscent of other (superior) films: Dances with Wolves, Apocalypto, Jurassic Park, 300, Lord of the Rings, The Scorpion King and, oddly, Waterworld.

10,000 BC is reasonably entertaining while it lasts but lacking in memorable moments that haven't been done better elsewhere.

Conclusion: In a few weeks, I'll have convinced myself that Kevin Costner is in it.

Explosions: None.
Historical accuracy: Little.
Mammoths: Woolly.
Giant lizards: Not enough.
Top tip: Go watch Apocalypto instead.

Rating: 3/5.

Vantage Point (DVD)

Starring: Dennis Quaid, Forest Whitaker, William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver and an escapee from Lost.

Rated: 12.

Story: It turns out that there's someone less lucky than Jack Bauer. On his first day back at work after taking a bullet for the President, a Secret Service agent (Quaid) finds himself slap bang in the middle of another assassination attempt.

Comments: Vantage Point endeavours to show different perspectives in a terrorist attack by playing the main event over and over from the point of view of various characters. Unfortunately, all this really means is that the action rewinds twenty minutes every time things start to get interesting.

The terrorists' motivations are never explored and nothing much seems to be gained from all the different angles. On top of that, the ending involves too much coincidence and the whole thing winds up feeling as plausible and enlightening as a couple of episodes of 24.

Conclusion: A simple story told in a very complicated way. Slick but nowhere near as clever as it wants to be.

Explosions: Two every fifteen minutes (but that's mostly the same two).
Dubious motivations: Several.
Implausible moments: Plenty.
Obvious but unlikely plot twists: One.
Life lesson: Don't 'rescue' lost children by taking them away from where their mum last saw them and then leave them next to a busy road. You may mean well, but it's just not helpful...

Rating: 3/5.

Alien vs Predator 2 - Requiem (DVD)

Starring: A Predator, a whole stack of Aliens and various beautiful people waiting around to be lunch.

Rated: 15.

Story: A Predator spaceship crashes on Earth and some Alien specimens escape near a small American town. Another Predator arrives to clean up the mess and keep it all secret. Lots of people get minced.

Comments: Aliens and Predators fighting each other should be the best thing ever.

It's not. It's mainly dark and confusing and not very involving.

The antics of the humans trying to get out the way are more interesting but are relatively indistinguishable from the antics of the humans trying to get out of the way of vampires, zombies and giant lizards in a score of other films... apart from the bit in the maternity ward - that's probably worth skipping if you've got a new arrival due any time soon...

Conclusion: A film you've seen a dozen times before but with the addition of everyone's two favourite psychotic extra-terrestrial species. Could be worse. (Have you seen Alien Resurrection, for instance?)

Explosions: Lots.
Pregnant women: Several.
Housedads: One.
Scenes in which the housedad doesn't get eaten: Two.
Life lesson: If you're going to stand next to a window and say to a child, "Look! See! No monsters," remember to at least glance out the window first.

Rating: 3/5.

Mercenaries 2: World in Flames (PS2)

Rated: 16+.

Story: You're a mercenary who has been double-crossed by Venezuela's new and devious president. Various factions are fighting for control of the country's oil reserves and you must sell your skills to whoever is paying in order to gain the information and resources you need to exact some payback.

These skills are shooting things, blowing things up, stealing things and being able to take three tank shells to the head before dying.

Gameplay: Imagine Grand Theft Auto in the jungle with tanks (well, more tanks than normal) and you're pretty much there.

You get to guide your mercenary round a large area of Venezuela using whatever cars, trucks, jeeps, tanks or helicopters you can lay your hands on. Contacts are dotted about the place, offering missions. Some of these missions are optional, rewarding you with cash and different kinds of supply drop, from health packs, guns and vehicles to air strikes and gunship support. Other missions advance the story.

Jobs mostly involve reaching a target of some kind through a mass of enemies, destroying/rescuing/stealing it and making a quick get away. On a good day, this involves blowing up something really big.

There are also plenty of bonus items hidden around the map, along with thirty rogue military officers to capture.

The one major difference between this and most open-world games is that your actions affect your reputation with the different factions competing for control of Venezuela's oil. Send some capitalists a message from the rebel guerrillas and the freedom fighters will offer you support but the oil company won't be happy; help the American 'peace-keepers' and they'll be grateful but the Chinese 'observers' will be upset. Annoy anyone too much and they won't work with you without a hefty bribe. On the plus side, it's possible to disguise yourself as a member of a particular faction by stealing an appropriate vehicle and keeping a low profile. Then you can travel through their territory without getting into trouble.

Save System: You can choose to save at any time while not on a mission but loading the save transports you back to home base. Since it can take a while to get to places and some missions are half an hour long, there's no point switching the game on if you don't have a decent chunk of time available.

Comments: The opening mission of Mercenaries 2 really doesn't paint the game in a good light. The linear trek through a horde of daft soldiers seems to highlight almost all the game's faults in one go: poor enemy AI, short draw-distance, repetitive dialogue snippets, your character's miraculous inability to be killed by normal gunfire and some occasionally drab graphics.

Then, just at the end of it, there's the option to blow up a huge building with a tank. Things pick up after that.

Generally, the missions provide plenty of opportunity for experimentation and there's lots of fun to be had working out a sneaky way of pulling off a precision strike without upsetting any potential allies. Sometimes flying in low below the radar pays off, other times taking a jet ski to the back entrance is the way and then, of course, if nothing else works, there's always blasting through the front door with a rocket launcher and air support.

Unfortunately, mixed with the fun, there's plenty of frustration thanks to some horrible difficulty spikes and a complete lack of checkpointing in the missions. For instance, one contact requires you to steal three different vehicles and buy some tires. This is easy but time-consuming. Bring them all to her, however, and she requires you to transport a monster truck to a distant destination past lots of angry people with guns. If anything happens to the truck, it means ten minutes of rounding up vehicles again before getting another crack at finding a way through the roadblocks.

There's no reason for this, other than to pad the game out to make it a bit longer. (There are only around fifteen story missions.) As with so many parts of Mercenaries 2, it feels like someone eventually went, 'Oh, this'll do...' It's the same with the almost superfluous story which is merely an excuse to cause explosions and with the artificial intelligence which makes enemy soldiers run out from behind cover. Even the final mission gives the impression of ending halfway through.

Mercenaries 2 just doesn't have the same level of polish as the Grand Theft Auto games. That said, it does have lots of blowing stuff up and an easy to traverse world. The open, uncomplicated towns make a welcome change from the confusing bridges and overpasses of Los Santos and Liberty City. Mercenaries 2 is more accessible than either San Andreas or GTA IV. The simple map and varied vehicles make travelling around more fun. Since each hidden item is instantly useful and there's no need to find dozens of them to gain any benefit, there's also greater incentive to explore.

The Xbox 360 and PS3 versions of the game have more features and better graphics but they also have more competition. There are any number of good games coming out in the next few weeks for those consoles. Choice is more limited on the PS2. As such, Mercenaries 2 is worth a look. It's flawed but has greater substance than Just Cause and is no more frustrating than GTA.

Besides, any game which asks you to steal a bus and go pick up some pirates, deserves to be given a chance...

Conclusion: Wanting an accessible open-world PS2 action game with plenty of explosions?

This'll do.

Graphics: The towns feel a little empty but the graphics are generally competent and atmospheric. The short draw-distance is an issue, though, since it can be hard seeing targets and going up to any height at all in a helicopter makes the entire world disappear. Using binoculars doesn't help - they merely bring the fog closer.

Length: Medium.

Rating: 3/5.