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The Invasion (DVD)

Starring: Nicole Kidman (& Daniel Craig but, you know, who cares? It's got Nicole Kidman in it and it's not Practical Magic. Hurrah!)

Rated: 15.

Story: A mysterious alien virus starts turning the whole world into Stepford. A psychologist (Kidman) uncovers the sinister goings on and must escape assimilation, protect her son and save the day while wearing tight sweaters. (Her doctor friend (Craig) helps but, again, who cares?)

Yep, Invasion of the Body Snatchers rides again.

Comments: This is really a zombie flick, except, rather than rip faces off, the zombies spit in everyone else's coffee. They look human, they're emotionless and they're usually placid. It's Attack of the Prozac People.

Although never very scary, this is more nail-biting than it sounds. Fortunately, the film doesn't fall into the trap of a lengthy build up. Everything moves pleasingly quickly from 'Hey? Have you noticed anything odd recently?' to 'Let's drive really fast and squish some zombies'.

Certain of the situations are a little silly but the basic idea is quite thought provoking. In passing, the film questions what it means to be human and asks what price we're willing to pay for free will. It'll have added resonance if you've ever been on anti-depressants. Yeah, they make the world a 'better' place but it's at a cost.

Conclusion: 28 Weeks Later is more tense and The Faculty is more fun but this is a fast-paced effort which contains something to think about and Nicole Kidman.

Explosions: A few.
Unlikely escapes: Several.
Nicole: Lots.
Zombies: Cuddly... until they're sick in your coffee.
Drink?: Er, not right now thanks...
Practical Magic?: A film so bad that even the presence of Kidman and Sandra Bullock couldn't save it. That's pretty bad.

Rating: 4/5.

Ultraviolet (DVD)

Starring: Milla Jovovich.

Rated: 15.

Story: It's the future. A virus has turned lots of people into vampires with superhuman powers. The totalitarian authorities are intent on hunting down and destroying the infected. The vampires aren't too thrilled. One of the vampires, Violet (Jovovich), manages to annoy both sides. Everyone tries to kill her. She chops them to bits with a big sword.

Comments: Ultraviolet is a Matrix wannabe that's totally lacking in coherence and plausibility. There's some some excellent CGI and plenty of action but even this begins to pale after the third time Violet is entirely surrounded by hapless henchmen and yet manages to turn them into sushi. That she does this without a drop of blood being spilled is somewhat disconcerting.

It's very hard to care about any of it by the end.

To add insult to tedium, there's some anti-Christian imagery in that the main bad guy has the title of Vice-Cardinal and works in a Crucifix-shaped building. This is about as deep as the critique of organised religion gets, however, so it seems included just to offend rather than contribute to any kind of debate. It's on the intellectual level of name-calling. Not really big or clever, just irritating.

On top of everything else, Jovovich's performance is less than stellar. She's not helped by dialogue that frequently doesn't stretch beyond, 'Hey!?'

Conclusion: A collection of fights and chases shoved together at random. Some of them are OK.

Explosions: Not many.
Swords: Plenty.
Guns: An entire extra dimension full of them.
Improbable events and plot twists: Another entire extra dimension full of them.
Preferred tactic of henchmen: Standing in a circle and shooting each other. (Sigh.)

Rating: 2/5.

Shooter (DVD)

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Michael Pina, Danny Glover, Kate Mara & Rhona Mitra.

Rated: 15.

Story: A disillusioned Special Ops sniper is coaxed out of retirement to help catch an assassin who's plotting to shoot the President. He ends up on the wrong end of a conspiracy. Cue the kind of day that normally only Jack Bauer can handle...

Comments: This has a bit of tension, a bit of action and a little bit of politics. It should be great.

Shame there isn't much sense to it all and it's morally confused. The film tries to make some kind of point about corruption but just seems to say that it's OK to shoot people as long as they really deserve it. (If you can blow them up afterwards, so much the better.)

Conclusion: Not smart enough to be a great thriller but not dumb enough to get away with it.

Explosions: Quite a few.
Sniping from very, very far away: Frequent.
How far exactly?: Far enough for the rotation of the Earth to become an issue on occasion.
Pardon?: You see that clock tower? No, not that one - the one behind it. Try squinting. Yep, that one. Not to worry you or anything, but you might want to keep a foot of concrete between it and your head, OK? Just in case...

Rating: 3/5.

Guess Who?

Guess Who? board game box.

Price: £10.

  • 2 playing boards (one red, one blue).
  • 2 sets of 24 character cards to be slotted into the plastic frames on the boards.
  • Pack of 24 cards with the characters on.
Gameplay: Each player takes one of the cards and stands it on the board in front of them where their opponent can't see it. Players then take turns asking yes/no questions in order to discover the identity of the character on the other player's card. For instance, if Player 1 asks, 'Does your person have white hair?' and Player 2 says, 'No,' then Player 1 can eliminate all the characters with white hair from their board by flipping down those characters' frames.

Guessing the other player's character counts as an entire turn. Getting it wrong loses the game.

Object: To find out your opponent's character before they guess yours.

Advanced Game: Each player has two character cards. Questions become more complicated (e.g. 'Do either of your people have white hair?') but answers are still yes/no. This adds an element of logic to proceedings (and far greater potential for mistakes, head-aches, cheating and violence).

Guess Who? contents.

Game length: 5-10 minutes.

Number of players: 2.

Age: 6+ officially. Some children a year or two younger will be able to manage but, if they can't read, they'll need help until they learn the names of all the characters.

Comments: This is another ones of those games which has been around forever. We picked up our set in a charity shop and it's quite old. If you buy Guess Who? new, the set is more compact and has less-angular boards. The new version also has a greater number of ethnic characters. The character pictures in the old version are simpler, however, making the game easier.

As I've discovered with Mouse Trap and Frustration!, just because a game has remained in production for decades, that doesn't mean it's a classic. Guess Who?, though, is more than a nostalgia trip for parents and is actually a decent game. It's fun, simple and requires a little bit of thought.

Problems occur when the answers are debatable. Children can be very pedantic about what counts as being bald or pink or young. Unfortunately, there's no saying that any two children will have the same views on a particular issue. There's also scope for misunderstandings. Kids can argue for hours that orange hair doesn't count as red, for example. It can take a few games to build up a set of agreed definitions for such things as bushy eyebrows or a pointy chin. Then, just as things settle down, everyone works out that the best strategy is to stick to asking about hair colour anyway.

After a while, games become repetitive but the advanced rules can be introduced to spice things up.

The old version is somewhat fragile and I've had to superglue the hinges of several of the frames back together after they jammed and the kids tried forcing them down. The newer version might be better but I imagine a child sitting on the board with the frames upright would still cause catastrophic damage.

Conclusion: A welcome change from mindless dice rolling.

  • Requires thought and attention but an element of luck means that the oldest player doesn't always win.
  • Quick to set up.
  • The advanced rules extend the life of the game considerably.
  • Can be played easily while lying down if you're tired.
  • Basic game can be played while nearly asleep if you're exhausted.
  • Can go badly wrong without thought and attention.
  • Fragile.
  • Players may settle on a favourite sequence of questions and switch to auto-pilot.
  • Getting children to stick to yes/no questions and answers can take some persuading:
Child: What colour is your person's hair?
Adult: That's not how it works. You need to ask a question like, 'Is your person's hair black?"
Child: But my person's hair is white...
Adult: You're supposed to be asking about my person.
Child: But I don't know what colour hair your person has.
Adult: Exactly. That's what you're trying to find out.
Child: So what colour is your person's hair then?
Adult: (Sighs and pulls out own hair.) Fancy a game of Mouse Trap?
Rating: 4/5.

The Orange Box (Xbox 360)

Rated: 15.

  • Half-Life 2.
  • Half-Life 2: Episode One.
  • Half-Life 2: Episode Two.
  • Portal.
  • Team Fortress 2.
Story: In Half-Life 2, you are Gordon Freeman, a scientist turned hero, who must lead the resistance against an alien take-over of the Earth. You do this by shooting aliens, zombies, collaborators and giant robot things. There are various factions and there's plenty of backstory but nothing is ever explained, so essentially you end up shooting lots of things because your girlfriend tells you to.

In Portal, you play an unnamed test subject and must solve puzzles using an experimental gun capable of creating a wormhole between any two suitable flat surfaces. Fire it at a wall and then a ceiling, and you can step through a portal in the wall and fall out of one up high. Much fun ensues.

Gameplay: Half-Life 2 and its Episodes are pretty old-fashioned shooters. You wander about with a selection of weapons, viewing things from Gordon's perspective, walking over health packs and shooting almost anything which moves. There are vehicle sections and you frequently have companions but that's about it, apart from a few physics-based puzzles and some creepy sections involving darkness and zombies.

Portal isn't about shooting. It's about working out how to use the portals and momentum to reach seemingly inaccessible places. It's part puzzle-game, part adventure.

Team Fortress 2 is online multiplayer only. I suspect some shooting is involved...

Save System: Manual save at any time and auto-save at check points. Excellent.

Comments: I'm not a great fan of first-person shooters but I've still managed to play Halo 3, BioShock, Condemned, the 360 version of Far Cry and this compilation in the last year, along with various demos and doubtless something else I've forgotten. (Oh, yeah, The Darkness.) Every second game on the 360 seems to be a FPS. Each has something going for it: Halo has epic cinematics, BioShock has role-playing and adventure elements, Condemned has big sticks, Far Cry has open levels and sunshine and The Darkness has, er... evil minions with chainguns. Half-Life 2, though, is perhaps the most traditional of the recent releases. It's fundamentally Doom with better graphics and AI.

The way you're able to pick up objects and throw them using a gravity gun is entertaining but it's nowhere near as exciting as it was when the game originally came out on the PC. We've had plenty of games with telekinesis and realistic physics since then. More than that, the story and graphics aren't anything to write home about anymore, either.

The story-telling, in particular, is a mess. The world has gone to Hell in the years between the original Half-Life and this sequel but the intervening events are only ever obliquely alluded to. Characters aren't properly introduced and it's never entirely made clear exactly who you're fighting. Revelations almost always raise twice as many questions as they answer. Maybe Episode Three will explain everything but, having been kept in the dark for so long, I've ceased to care.

Half-Life 2 does have many great moments, however, from creeping round a zombie-filled town in the dark, to speeding along a river while being chased by a helicopter. The problem is that it just goes on too long. Many sections feel over-extended and the extra Episodes add to the problem - they're more of the same but not quite as good. Without a compelling story or jaw-dropping graphics, it's a struggle to keep going at times.

I prefer BioShock. And Far Cry. (And maybe Halo 3 as well.)

The real fun and innovation in the collection is reserved for Portal. It's a game that involves both thought and skill, is funny and tells an affecting story. It's a game that will make you grin for any number of reasons. It's a game that you should play. The only downside is that it's over in three hours. (Sure, there's a stack of challenges and bonus bits on top of that, but they're nowhere near as much fun as the main story.)

Conclusion: Half-Life 2 is a very competent shooter with some exceptional sections and plenty of variety. Unfortunately, it's very linear and has rather a lot of padding. Unless you really like running around shooting things, this will start wearing thin before the thirty hours are up.

However, even if you don't like shooters much, The Orange Box is an unmissable rental, simply because of Portal.

Graphics: Good but not amazing. In my head, Half-Life 2 looks just the same as it did when I played it on the original Xbox. Obviously, if I was able to see the two versions running side by side, the 360 effort would look smoother and have higher detail but I've just grown to expect that. Many of the locations are quite bland, so the greater resolution doesn't reveal much. There's no slow-down this time round, though.

The Episodes up the visual stakes somewhat but this is counteracted by the familiarity of the locations and enemies.

The graphics in Portal are purposefully functional and add to the atmosphere.

Length: Half-Life 2 is medium to long. The two Episodes are both short. Portal is very short.

Rating: 4/5.

Mr & Mrs Smith (DVD)

Starring: Brad Pitt & Angelina Jolie.

Rated: 15.

Story: Two professional assassins get married to each other without letting on about their careers. (Chortle.) After much lying (Ho, ho!), they both find out the truth. (Uh-oh.) They try and kill each other. (Oh no!) Then they try to kill everybody else. (Screech, slice, thakka-thakka-thakka, argh, BOOM!)

Comments: You can see why this got made - Brad & Angelina, plenty of action and a strong central gag. After all, there has to be plenty of comedy in a marriage where both partners are secretly hitmen, especially with a team of crack Hollywood scriptwriters working eagerly to tease it out...

Oh, apparently not.

The film only really gets going when the secret is revealed. It's then that the verbal sniping and the, er, actual sniping take off. Before that, there's just some sneaking about, lots of lying and a few limp jokes involving guns hidden in odd places. After the halfway point, however, sitcom starts to be usurped by action until the whole thing is enveloped in a hail of bullets of Shoot 'Em Up proportions. It's like some kind of ultimate date movie compromise - romantic comedy and Brad for her; guns and Angelina for him.

The action sequences are entertaining enough but they're slightly undone by the seeming invulnerability of the main characters. This is exacerbated by an unwise homage to the last scene of Butch Cassidy which misses the point. Even the massive final gunfight is slightly messed up by the deletion of a long segment that leaves a glaring continuity error. Ho hum.

Pitt and Jolie turn in their usual performances but to less effect than normal, since their characters aren't very sympathetic - they spend much of the movie being mean to each other and, whichever way you look at it, they're hitmen. Hitmen just aren't nice people.

Someone should probably have thought of that before giving this the go ahead.

Conclusion: Start watching it halfway through.

Explosions: Occasional.
Body count: Astronomical.
Angelina's legs: Long.
Brad Pitt: Slightly irritating.
Jokes: One (stretched to within an inch of its life and then given a good flogging to push it that last two and a half centimetres).

Rating: 3/5 if you're a fan of Brad and Angelina (else 2/5).

Brick (DVD)

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt (3rd Rock from the Sun), Nora Zehetner (Heroes) & Lukas Haas (Witness - he's grown somewhat, though).

Rated: 15.

Story: Brendan (Gordon-Levitt), a loner at a Californian high school, discovers the body of his ex-girlfriend lying in a ditch and sets out to discover who is responsible. During his investigation, he has to gain respect with the factions within the school, ingratiate himself with the local drug kingpin and placate the assistant vice-principal. He does so using a mixture of charm, cleverness and violence.

Comments: Sometimes I think LOVEFiLM sneak extra movies onto my rental list when I'm not looking. Every so often, a film turns up in the post that I know nothing about and I can't remember choosing. Then again, I still can't recall 2003, so my memory's probably not be trusted. Maybe I just went down the Top 50 rental list in a hurry one day, clicking on any old thing that sounded half decent from its single sentence description. I should really stop doing that. (Highlander - The Source, anyone?) Thankfully, this time, it's thrown up something interesting.

Brick is film noir - think Humphrey Bogart in a trenchcoat, Marlene Dietrich smoking and lots of prodding the dark underbelly of society at night. Rather than aping the visual style of these movies, however, Brick takes the plot and characters and transplants them to a modern high school. There's a hard-nosed investigator, a femme fatale, tough guys, schemers and a ruthless, intellectual criminal boss. There's also a mystery to be solved and no one is quite who they seem.

As such, a certain level of suspension of disbelief is required. The dubious and bizarre goings-on in a seemingly normal town make it feel like Twin Peaks at times, and there are a few unlikely moments that are down to the difficulty of shoe-horning the genre into the high school setting. For instance, Brendan has to hide the body in order to ensure he gets to investigate without interference from the cops. Has he never seen an episode of CSI? Also, the minuscule budget leads to some fairly barren locations. The school, in particular, is permanently deserted. This adds to the atmosphere but detracts from the realism.

The acting is excellent, though, and the editing is slick and assured. The plot requires some concentration to follow but remains intriguing throughout.

Conclusion: A brooding thriller that will suck you in if you give it a chance.

Explosions: None.
Fast talking: Lots.
Teenage angst: Plenty.
People pretending to be teenagers: Several.
Actual teenagers: Almost certainly none.
Scenes stolen by a table lamp: One.

Rating: 4/5.


Frustration box.

Price: £8

  • Moulded plastic board with dice popper.
  • 16 coloured pegs: 4 red, 4 yellow, 4 green and 4 blue.
Gameplay: Players take turns to press down the popper in the middle of the board and roll the dice inside. They then get to move one of their four pieces the indicated number of spaces around the outside edge of the board. Rolling a six means an extra go and is required to get a piece started. Landing on an opposing piece sends it back to the start.

Object: To be the first player to move all their pieces round the board and land them safely home. (And you've guessed it - exact dice rolls are required. You know, just for a little extra frustration...)

Game length: At least five minutes longer than the youngest player can be bothered to keep going. You should probably allow half an hour.

Number of players: 2-4.

Age: 4+ but, if you're helping out, younger children can join in. All they really need to be able to do is press the popper a lot. Getting them to do it only on their own go is the trick.

Frustration board game.

Comments: I guess the clue is in the title. Sprog1 got this game when he was three and enjoyed the popping dice and all the counting. He couldn't actually move his pieces himself, however, because of the design of the board. The moulded plastic surface has a circular slot on each space. Small children insist on placing their pieces firmly in the slot for each space they pass. This is slow and fiddly. In fact, it takes so long, they tend to get confused how many spaces they've counted already, which way they're going and whose turn it is. I ended up doing most of the moving myself.

Sprog2 quickly joined in, even though he could barely walk. Obviously, he couldn't move his pieces either but at least the slots reduced the risk of the pieces flying everywhere every time he bumped the board.

The boys then decided mummy should play too, despite the fact she was at work. They took it in turns to pop the dice for her. They also insisted that we all change to different coloured pieces every game and swap seats round the table on a regular basis. I had to move the pieces for all four of us and somehow manage it in the right order.

This was quite tricky.

It wouldn't have been so bad but the game is quite... frustrating. There are frequent periods where no one can do anything until they roll a six which means lots of, 'It's your go... my go... his go... mummy's go,' muttering, with more time spent persuading children to roll the dice than actually playing the game. Then, when someone is finally getting somewhere, another player lands on them and they're back to the start and needing to roll a six again.

Frustration is essentially a fancy version of Ludo with an earthquake-proof board and a dice you can't lose. It's OK but there are plenty of other alternatives. For instance, we've recently been playing Pokemon Sorry!. It's similar but less irritating because there's a little more strategy and there are ways of jumping ahead not just of being sent back. I also have fond memories of Coppit from childhood. Failing those, you probably have a copy of Ludo already. If not, you could make one in minutes.

Conclusion: Frustrating.

  • Involves counting.
  • Kids love the popper.
  • The way the board holds the pieces means you can play it on your lap without everything spilling.
  • Pop. Pop. Pop.
  • It's really just Ludo.
  • Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop.
  • Slow and frustrating at times.
  • Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop.
  • The counters are easy to lose and a choking hazard.
  • Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop.
  • You know all this popping? This is often how much there is before anyone gets to move. Enjoy.
Rating: 3/5.

Two Worlds (Xbox 360)

Rated: 12.

Story: Forsooth! Thou art a mercenary in a fantasy land where orcs and humans are at war. Malevolent, yet mysterious, forces have kidnapped your beloved sister who verily doest wear too much make-up and not enough clothing. Prithee, knave, go track down the rogues and rescue her before it is too late, lest the god Aziraal be freed from his tomb and the world turned to darkness! Ye gads!

Gameplay: Yep, it's a role-playing game. Wander towns and countryside, talking to people and getting sent on quests, in an effort to increase your character's level, improve skills and get your hands on really big swords. You can go pretty much wherever you like from the start, choosing to stick to the main story or to merely explore.

There are various political factions in the game and completing quests for each of them raises your reputation with that faction, opening up new quests and possibly putting you at odds with one of the other factions.

Fighting is a mix of archery, spell-casting and hand-to-hand, and takes place from a third-person viewpoint.

Save System: Manual save at any time. There's no auto-save but this usually isn't a problem since, when you die, you immediately come back to life at the nearest shrine without any other penalty. Shrines are seldom far away. You'll want to save often, though, in case the game crashes. (It does that quite a lot.)

Comments: As with Mass Effect, it would be easy to fill a review of Two Worlds with a list of all the elements of it that are broken. Once again, I will try to resist, however. Two Worlds should be applauded for it's ambition and the freedom of choice which it gives players. The game provides an open world waiting to be explored and leaves you to get on with it. There's very little telling you where to go. Pick a direction and see who you meet and where you end up. Even the main story missions leave you to your own devices most of the time. For once, you really do feel like an adventurer heading off into the unknown, trying to make a name for yourself in an unfamiliar land.

Er, apart from when you're feeling totally lost or simply annoyed because you're looking for something in particular and you've no idea where to find it. The trade-off for all the freedom is that it's very easy to walk right past vital people and information. For instance, most of the faction members in the game won't give you missions until they trust you, but the only way to gain their trust is to complete missions for their faction. The few members who will trust you early on are often standing behind a rock in the middle of nowhere. If you're really unlucky, when you do stumble across them, they tell you to go infiltrate another faction, whose trust you'll also need. This can be irritating.

There are other issues. I should probably just write that list:
  • Eye-wincingly awful graphics. It's not so much how they look; it's the constant, headache-inducing juddering.
  • Questionable design choices. You can't use lots of skills until you find someone hiding behind a rock who's willing to train you. This limits your combat options for ages for no good reason. On top of that, lots of the skills are useless. (On the plus side, for a relatively small amount of gold, you can regress your character and spend all your experience from scratch, allowing you to change tactics halfway through the game once you know what works and what doesn't.)
  • Fiddly interface. The game was designed with a keyboard and mouse in mind. Navigating the inventory can be a chore, the map screen's a mess and selecting spells is far too much hassle.
  • Dreadful dialogue and voice acting. Forsooth! Mine ears are bleeding! Me thinks I shouldst turn on the subtitles.
  • The reputation/trust system is broken. Deliver three packages for one faction and they consider you a living legend. Obliterate the rivals of a different faction and they still barely acknowledge your existence. Eh?
  • Buggy. Crashes, glitches and odd events.
  • Uneven difficulty. In some sense, the game is pretty easy - death is only a minor inconvenience. Unfortunately, it's a very frequent inconvenience. Early on, even the lowly wolves wandering the landscape will eat you for breakfast by attacking in packs. Run away to pick them off from a distance and you'll just bump into another pack and maybe some bandits and possibly a bear. Before you know it, you've got a Benny Hill chase scene on your hands. Later in the game, when you're big and tough and have excellent weapons and armour, many enemies can still kill you with a single hit. What's the point? Quests descend to running in, grabbing the required item and running out again pursued by a line of angry monsters. (Added amusement can be obtained by humming the Benny Hill theme tune, however.)
  • Annoying mounts. Horses are infuriating to control and won't go through teleports, so they're often more trouble than they're worth.
  • Unremarkable Collector's Edition. The bonus disc is lousy and isn't designed for the 360 e.g. it contains PC desktop wallpapers rather than Xbox dashboard themes. The pen-and-paper role-playing game is merely a D&D clone and the rulebook contains almost no background information on the world. It's unplayable in itself and doesn't give any insight into the computer game.
  • The list goes on...
Overall, the list of Two Worlds' faults is longer and more instantly damning than the one for Mass Effect. I came much closer to giving up in disgust with Two Worlds. It really shouldn't have been released in this state. The truth is, though, I actually enjoyed Two Worlds more than Mass Effect. It's better paced and has far more to it.

I suspect that both development teams ran out of time. The Mass Effect guys plugged up the gaps and polished and tested what they had. The Two Worlds devs continued putting in all the interesting stuff they'd planned, sent it to the DVD factory at the last minute and crossed their fingers. Two Worlds is always intriguing and always has something new for you to find but it just feels like a beta version. It's buggy and barely works at all. That said, if you can put up with the horrendously jagged edges, there's a decent game underneath.

Conclusion: If you absolutely loved Oblivion, you might tolerate this long enough to appreciate its charms... a bit.

Graphics: Quite nice on occasion if you squint and don't try and move your character at all. Actually start to walk around, however, and it's a disaster. Stuff materialises out of thin air on a regular basis and the whole thing judders along like it's just going to give up and die at any moment. The frame-rate dips into low single figures every time you attempt to turn the camera around.

Length: That depends. It's possible to whizz through the main quest and reach the end of the game relatively quickly but, then again, it's also possible to spend countless hours exploring. So, anywhere between medium and very long, really. Somewhere in the middle is probably best - explore a fair amount to get the most out of the game and then hurry along to the end before the graphics make you go blind.

Rating: Very nearly 3/5.