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Thomas and the Magic Railroad (DVD)

Starring: Peter Fonda, Mara Wilson & Alec Baldwin.

Rated: U but I'm not sure why - it's unsuitable for viewing by human beings of any age.

Story: On the Island Of Sodor, evil diesel trains are attempting to take over. Thomas, the other steam engines and Mr Conductor (Baldwin) must stop them. This involves some very unconvincing models and a hunt for magic gold dust. Meanwhile, back in the normal world, Lily (Wilson) must unravel the secret behind her grandfather's (Fonda) unhappiness. It transpires he's contractually bound to appear in a dreadful kid's movie and can't find a way out.

Comments: Admittedly, the Thomas the Tank Engine stories are pretty dull but I'm not sure spicing them up with slapstick, magic and telephones made from flowers was really the way to go. The whole thing is still extremely tedious but will probably annoy Thomas fans along with everyone else.

The acting is pretty awful. Fonda only seems half alive for much of the movie while Baldwin tries too hard. Wilson out-performs both of them. Actually, even the model trains out-perform Fonda...

Conclusion: I'm off to hide our copy so the kids can't find it.

Explosions: None.
Liberties taken with the source material: Several.
Number of times the kids have made me watch this: Plenty.
Number of times they've paid attention for more than ten minutes: Two.

Rating: 1/5.

Cloverfield (DVD)

Starring: Some highly expendable young, beautiful people and the Statue of Liberty's head.

Rated: 15.

Story: A party in Manhattan goes downhill when New York gets invaded by a giant creature and its tiny chums. A small group of the party-goers run around screaming as one of them records events using a handheld video camera. Lots of things blow up.

Yep, it's The Blair Witch Project meets Godzilla.

Comments: There really isn't much to say. If the story sounds good, then you'll probably enjoy it. Just remember to rent something else as well, since the film's only 80 minutes long. Ten minutes of that is credits and first twenty are scene-setting and character development. Fortunately, what's in between is tense and thrilling. It doesn't always make sense but it's more plausible than CSI: New York (even taking into account the twenty-storey mutant bat monster).

Conclusion: Fun while it lasts.

Explosions: Absolutely loads.
Wonky camera: Constant.
Sudden, abrupt ending?:

Rating: 4/5.

Black Sheep (DVD)

Starring: A load of psycho sheep.

Rated: 15.

Story: A genetic experiment goes wrong and the flocks of a remote New Zealand farm turn nasty.

Comments: This really shouldn't work. It should be one joke stretched to breaking point. Killer sheep! Ho, ho! ... Bored now... Happily, the script keeps up a decent stream of gags and doesn't plump for the standard slasher scenario of a large group of idiots getting picked off one by one.

There are some unnecessarily gory scenes near the end that are maybe meant as parody but come across as gross. They'd be more worthwhile if the film was in the least bit scary. Bear in mind that I found I am Legend scary. This just isn't.

Then again, I'm glad I'm not going on a camping trip in Wales any time soon.

Conclusion: It's hard to imagine a movie about killer sheep that's better than this. (You know what I'm saying...)

Explosions: One large one (full of sheep).
Fields: Lots (also full of sheep).
Deep, dark pits: One (full of bits of sheep).
Haggis: One (probably full of bits of sheep, but it's kind of hard to tell.)
Unconvincing monsters: Hundreds. (They look a bit like sheep but are really full of stuffing and cheap animatronics).

Rating: 3/5.

Etrian Odyssey (DS)

Rated: 12+ because it contains violence but, to be honest, it's not as graphic as a typical episode of Pokémon, let alone the scrum that breaks out if all my children try to get their shoes from the shoe rack at the same time.

Story: An enormous forest labyrinth has sprung up next to a fantasy town full of cute people. You must guide a group of five adventurers through the traps and monsters in search of bigger traps and monsters.

Gameplay: The top screen shows the maze in 3D but you can't move around freely - it's laid out on a grid and you can move forwards or backwards one square at a time or turn 90 degrees. The bottom screen is used to map your progress. You draw in the walls of the maze and position icons to mark places of interest.

A few of the monsters can be seen approaching (although they only appear as glowing orbs). These are very tough creatures (FOEs) that are liable to kill you without raising a sweat. They move in a set pattern so you can avoid them.

Other fights start randomly. A group of monsters suddenly appear on the top screen. Combat takes place in turns. You choose actions (attack, cast a spell, defend, etc) for all your team members for a turn and then sit back and watch what happens. The actions of your adventurers and the monsters are played out in order according to luck, their level of agility and goodness knows what. Once everyone's had a shot, the turn is over and you get to choose actions for the next turn.

Killing monsters brings experience points. Get enough of these and your adventurers become stronger and can choose new spells and abilities.

Every so often you have to return to town to heal up and buy new equipment.

Save System: Saving is only possible in the town or at incredibly widely spaced save points. It can be hours in between saves. To play Etrian Odyssey, you need to be able to leave the DS in sleep mode for days without danger of a child coming along and swapping the cartridge to Mario Party.


Worse, if your adventurers die on an expedition, all progress is lost apart from any maps you've drawn.

Comments: Some games try to pull you in with amazing graphics, impressive stunts and new ideas. With only the press of a couple of buttons, you're a ninja space-assassin cartwheeling through an earthquake while lobbing exploding monkeys at tanks, marines and giant lizards. These games are brash and gaudy and shout, 'Buy me!'

Other games are much rougher. Enthralling gameplay is hidden beneath a stupid level of difficulty or awkward controls or a colour palette which consists of nothing but different shades of brown. These games quietly beg, 'Get to know me better...'

Some games are just cheap and rubbish, pumping out explosions and promises and heavy metal music, hoping to distract you with an hour or two of mild diversion before their lack of substance shows through. 'What are you complaining about?' they scream. 'Could be worse!'

All games vie for affection somehow.

Er, almost all...

Etrian Odyssey sits on the shelf and mutters, 'Yeah, I'm a barely tarted up version of a twenty-year-old game. I'm slow, ugly, obtuse and difficult. Want to make something of it? Come on if you think you're hard enough.'

Essentially it's The Bard's Tale all over again. I don't mean the relatively recent Xbox outing; I mean the original 8-bit offering from 1985. The main difference is that it provides its own graph paper. If you don't know what I'm talking about, then you might want to move along now. This game is from before your time. Go play Phantom Hourglass or something.

Maybe that's going a little far but if you don't have some history of fairly hard-core role-playing games then Etrian Odyssey will eat you for breakfast. There's little explanation of what's going on, almost no story and a frightening difficulty curve. The game goes out of its way to make the player's life awkward. The prohibitive cost of resting and healing, for instance, frequently means trips into the dungeon don't turn a profit, so buying new equipment is impossible. This leads to a greater need for healing and so on. The first few encounters with FOEs are bound to end in disaster. Working out which skills to upgrade is highly confusing.

After a few hours, things become clearer, however. There's a sneaky way to make some cash, the need to avoid FOEs until later becomes obvious and the game develops a rhythm. Each descent into the maze reveals a little more territory before it's time to teleport out, heal up and work your way down again. Meanwhile, your characters develop and grow. Just getting that little bit further becomes addictive. Even the random battles cease to grate eventually - they're mercifully widely spaced and you have an indication of when they're imminent.

Without some nostalgia for The Bard's Tale or a similar game, it's hard to imagine anyone persevering with this, though. Games have moved on. Even a portable version of Dungeon Master would be vastly more attractive.

At least there isn't four minutes of loading from tape between each level of the maze these days, I suppose...

Conclusion: If you're a fan of random turn-based battles and cartography, you'll love this. If you have fond memories of The Bard's Tale, you might get sucked in. If you don't know your ATK from your VIT, then run away.

Graphics: Drab and almost static. If it weren't for the touchscreen use, you'd think it was a GBA game.

Length: Very long.

Rating: 3/5. (As usual, this translates as 'all right, if you like this kind of thing' but 'this kind of thing' has a much narrower definition than normal.)

UNO card game

UNO card game box.

Price: £5.

Contents: Deck of 108 cards.

Gameplay: Each player is dealt seven cards. Play moves round the table, with players taking it in turns to put a card on the discard pile. Most of the cards have a number and a colour on them. For a card to be played it must match the top card on the discard pile in either number or colour. There are various special cards that force the next player to take extra cards, miss their go or use a particular colour. The direction of play can also be reversed. If a player can't go, they must take another card from the deck.

The round is won by the first player to get rid of all their cards. They're awarded a score based on the cards remaining in the other players' hands.

A few extra rules complicate matters. Some special cards can only be played under certain circumstances, there are penalties for mistakes and players can (very occasionally) bluff.

Team play is possible. A team wins a round if any of its members get rid of all their cards. (The score is based on opponents' cards only.)

UNO card game contents.

Object: To be the first player/team to score 500 points.

Game length: A round tends to last between five and fifteen minutes. Getting to 500 takes hours.

Number of players: 2-10. Four players is probably the optimum, though. Reverse and miss-a-go cards can be confusing with fewer players. I suspect that many more players would make the game feel slower and more random.

Age: 7+. Children a little younger may be able to cope but will struggle to begin with.

Comments: Sprog1 got this for his birthday and entirely ignored it. A dull-looking card game wasn't very enticing compared with driving Mario around a kart track at high speed. Despite this, I sneaked the game on holiday with us. Both boys complained that they hadn't packed it and it wasn't anything to do with them.


Then, one evening, they were allowed to stay up late and play it. After a little practice, they really got into it. They even entertained themselves, playing it together the next morning... and afternoon... and evening... and...

At first, it was a pleasant change from Sprog1 obsessing over computer games. After he'd refused to do anything else for three days, we weren't so sure. It turned a bit scary:

On the second morning, I got up to discover Sprog1 sitting still and quiet at the table with the cards in front of him. Sprog2 dragged himself into the lounge at 8am, groaning slightly from lack of beauty sleep, and collapsed on the sofa.

"Do you want to play UNO?" asked Sprog1.

"Urg. Not now. Uh..." answered Sprog2.

Sprog1 was not pleased. "But I've been sitting here for twenty minutes waiting for you to get up and play!"

It was time to encourage him to settle for some computer games...

Although it can be initially bewildering, UNO really isn't that complicated once you get going. There's not much strategy to it but it does require plenty of concentration thanks to the fast pace. This makes it much more interesting than other games with a large element of luck. Nonetheless, even younger children have a chance of winning.

Whatever each player does always affects the next player's options, so there's plenty of interaction and rivalry. That said, it's next to impossible to gang up on people or play vindictively. As such, UNO is an ideal family game for train journeys and summer holidays.

Conclusion: Beats the heck out of Junior Scrabble.

  • Fun.
  • Can be played in short bursts.
  • Highly portable.
  • Works with a wide spread of player ages and numbers.
  • A full game lasts a while.
  • Might take over your world.
  • If Sprog1 ever finds out there's a computer version on Xbox LIVE, he may never leave the house again...
Rating: 5/5.

Pixar's WALL-E

Starring: Pixar's usual fantastic animation and artwork... and very few words.

Rated: U.

Story: The Earth has been made uninhabitable thanks to a build up of toxic rubbish and humanity has headed to the stars. After centuries, only one of the robots left behind to clear up remains operational - WALL-E. He has a pet cockroach and longs for love (not with the cockroach, I hasten to add).

Then, one day, a probe arrives from space containing the robot of his dreams...

Comments: You have to give Pixar credit for pushing boundaries. While other studios have been playing catch-up with the quality of their animation and scripts, Pixar have moved on to making movies with feeling and depth and meaning. There are no overweight pandas falling down stairs in comic fashion here. The first half hour has almost no verbal dialogue. Pathos is created through emotive movement, sweeping vistas and archetypal imagery. Great effort is extended in making us care for an abandoned robot on a desolate world and to empathise with his faltering attempts to find companionship. It...

Oh, goodness, I was bored. You know, like that bit halfway through Cars where the pace turns to treacle and you just want something (anything!) to happen. After twenty minutes of WALL-E I was seriously worried whether I could last another hour or so of a lonely robot wandering brown landscapes.

Fortunately, the film picks up. WALL-E and his girlfriend reach an interstellar cruise-liner full of obese people and chaos ensues. Everyone falls over a lot. Stuff happens.

It's pretty predictable stuff, though, and there's still not much dialogue. There are a couple of messages - one ecological and another about avoiding dependency on technology - but they're so incredibly broad and obvious that the lesson which actually sticks in the mind is to not become so fat that you can't roll over.

All this puts rather a lot of pressure on the slender and unlikely plot. The story centres around a small plant that WALL-E finds on Earth. It's the first sign that the planet is habitable again.

One plant.

Exactly how toxic would things have to get for every weed on Earth to die? My back yard is entirely slabbed over and gets occasionally sprayed with herbicide - nevertheless, it's got all manner of flora sprouting from it. If I leave it the entire summer, I have to cut a path through with a machete and keep an eye out for overweight pandas.

Fighting over a single plant feels very contrived.

There are several further believability issues but it would be picky to mention them. Any other animated film could get away with these things. Maybe I was put in an unreceptive mood by the unexpectedly slow start. Perhaps, though, in making a world that looks real, Pixar made me expect more realism in the events.

The rest of my family certainly enjoyed the film much more than I did. The boys couldn't decide whether they liked this or Prince Caspian best. Personally, my favourite bit was the short film which came on first called Presto which involves a magician having a slapstick altercation with his hungry rabbit. It was crammed with more action and ideas than the feature.

Conclusion: If the kids want to watch this every day for a month when it comes out on DVD, at least the lack of speech will make it easy for me to ignore.

Explosions: Occasional and small.
Dialogue: Occasional and brief.
Artistic moments: Frequent and slightly too long.
Overweight pandas falling down the stairs: None.
Overweight humans rolling down a hill: Not enough...

Rating: 3/5.

Kung Fu Panda

Starring: Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Lucy Liu, Jackie Chan, etc, etc.

(They all do fine but you won't recognise half of them until the credits. It's like the makers rounded up every famous name they could, in an effort to maximise their Google hits. Was it really necessary?)

Rated: PG.

Story: It's the classic tale of an over-weight panda overcoming adversity to learn Kung Fu in an attempt to save his village from an evil snow leopard and discover his inner butt-kicking Dragon Warrior.

Comments: Contrary to expectations, this isn't awful or full of fart gags. Admittedly, most of the laughs stem from a fat panda falling over but, in a sea of indistinguishable computer-animated movies, sometimes you have to find amusement where you can...

Kung Fu Panda is actually one of the better CGI films I've seen in a while. It's fast-paced and avoids the dull over-indulgence of efforts like Cars and Ratatouille. More than that, it takes advantage of the whole animated, cuddly animal concept. It features a host of outlandish and physically impossible feats and fights. Done with human beings (animated or otherwise) it would look stupid but because it's all snakes and tigers and, er, pandas, suspension of disbelief is much easier. It's possible to sit back and enjoy the spectacle without sniggering at the daftness.

The only real disappointment is the somewhat confused message. It appears to be, 'You don't need to be special to be special.' Except the story is all about a panda who can learn Kung Fu in an afternoon - that's pretty special whatever way you look at it. Meanwhile, the characters who've put the effort in and trained all their lives to make themselves special get smacked into the dirt. Eh?

Ho well, the plot moves along quickly enough to plaster over the cracks. For a movie you feel probably stemmed from a title brain-storming session, it's pretty entertaining.

Writer 1: Dare-devil Dinosaur?
Producer: Too generic.
Writer 2: Rodeo Ostrich?
Producer: Too niche.
Writer 1: Karate Kid?
Producer: Been done.
Writer 2: Not with goats.
Producer: Forget it.
Writer 1: Parachute Elephant?
Producer: Pardon?
Writer 2: Judo Space Monkey?
Producer: Too obvious.
Writer 1: Kung Fu Panda?
Producer: Yes! Go make it! Do you think we can get Jackie Chan involved?

Conclusion: If the kids decide to watch this every day for a month when it comes out on DVD, I can live with that.

Explosions: Some comic firework accidents.
Infeasible displays of acrobatics: Countless.
Wise old turtles: One.
Points made using peach metaphors: Several.
Noodles: Plenty.

Rating: 4/5.

Family Ski (Wii)

Rated: 3+

Story: You're on a skiing holiday in a resort full of slightly strange people. You must explore, compete and relax.

Not smacking into trees at high speed is also good.

Gameplay: It's possible to do one-off races and trick runs but the main part of the game involves roaming the slopes looking for challenges. These can involve anything from burger delivery to finding a particular teenager on a ski run full of foreign students.

You use the wiimote and nunchuck controller as ski poles, shoving off and then moving them side-to-side to steer. Rotating them and tucking them into your side causes your on-screen character to crouch. Pressing various buttons results in snowplough and wedeln. (Nope, I'm not really sure what they are either.) Pulling back on the control stick brakes. All manner of presses and shakes perform tricks after a jump.

Most of the events can be attempted by four players simultaneously but the structure of the game seems more geared towards single-player.

Save System: Frequent automatic saves.

Comments: In some ways Family Ski is easy to describe. (It's a skiing game!) In other ways it's very hard to pin down. It's too complex to be described as pick-up-and-play and yet too full of cute bizarreness to be a simulation. It involves wandering round talking to people like a role-playing game but it doesn't have statistics for you to build up. It wants to get the whole family involved without being a collection of mini-games while at the same time dividing itself up into a series of short challenges... which is really just another way of describing mini-games.

So, er, maybe it's best pigeon-holed as a slightly confused skiing game...

Probably the easiest thing to say about Family Ski is that it's the first game other than Wii Fit to take advantage of the balance board controller. Unfortunately, it isn't implemented as well as in the skiing game in Wii Fit itself. Shifting balance only affects left and right movement and not speed. This leaves plenty of work still to be done with button presses and wiimote movement. It was too much for my uncoordinated brain to handle and I gave up on the board pretty quickly because I kept swerving all over the place (while shrieking in an embarrassing fashion - it wasn't worth it).

The controls in general take some getting used to and the tutorial mode isn't much help. It's very dull and full of loading screens, long-winded explanations and repetitive tasks. Watching me slog through it made the whole game seem so complicated that Sprog1 was scared off entirely and has refused to play, despite the fact that initially it's a case of waggling the controllers to start off and then just pointing where you want to go.

Others tasks are less intuitive, however. Side-stepping involves holding down a button and moving the wiimote and nunchuck up and down in a stepping motion. Genius! Except it turns out that one shake of either makes your on-screen character side-step four or five times. This is irritating when you're working to a time limit and you've only over-shot a target by inches. Worse still, sometimes it's possible to begin side-stepping automatically when trying to ski up a small incline.

Control ends up feeling complicated yet imprecise.

The free-roaming structure of the events, meanwhile, leaves the game strangely paced. Many of the challenges are completely trivial, such as performing a single, specific trick during a jump. This requires skiing up to a guy, chatting for a bit, being shown how to do the trick, a loading screen, skiing down a short slope, pulling the trick, skipping the replay, skipping a victory cut-scene, a results screen, some more chat and then being plonked back away from the guy who's now wanting you to do the next trick. Considering there are getting on for a dozen tricks, doing them all becomes decidedly tedious.

The mogul runs, meanwhile, are very tough. These involve short slopes with patches of little hillocks to ski through, along with ramps to jump off and do tricks. You are graded on top speed, overall time, turning, tricks and balance. Your final mark is the lowest grade you receive in any of these categories. This is annoying when you need an overall B and get four As and a C.

Receive the required mark and you merely get to repeat the same course, shooting for a slightly higher mark. It doesn't matter if you just got that mark while aiming for a lower score, you still have to do it again. Since the marking feels quite arbitrary, this is teeth-grindingly frustrating.

Then again, maybe I'm simply rubbish at the game. Skiing down an open slope is immersive and entertaining. When Family Ski works, it works well. It's certainly worth renting to experience the unique controls and relaxed ambiance. Whether these will hold your attention through some of the more laborious moments is another question. Still, it's got to be better than another mini-game collection, hasn't it? (Or actually travelling hundreds of miles to fall face-first down a mountain in the snow...)

Conclusion: A nice try that seems to have had something of an identity crisis during development. There's fun to be had but finding it requires quite a bit of patience.

Graphics: They do their job but they're hardly spectacular. This is probably to ensure everything keeps moving at a fair pace in four-player split-screen mode, however.

Length: Medium.

Rating: 3/5.

Junior Scrabble

Junior Scrabble box.

  • Current version - £16.
  • This version (from a charity shop) - £2.50 and your sanity.
  • Double-sided board.
  • 84 letter tiles.
  • Bag of counters.
  • Scoring pad.

Side 1 (Words and Pictures): The board has a selection of words laid out in a criss-cross grid. Players take it in turns to place two letter tiles from their hand of seven tiles. The tiles must cover matching letters on the board. They can be placed on the first letter of any unstarted word or on the next available letter of a word that's already been partially covered. If a player finishes a word, they get a counter. Whoever has the most counters once all the words are complete, wins the game.

Side 2 (Rainbow Scrabble): This is essentially adult Scrabble with a different scoring system. Players take it in turns to use the tiles from their hand to create a word and join it to the grid on the board. In this version, the different coloured squares on the board are worth different numbers of points. A word scores the combined value of the square next to the beginning of the word and the square next to the end of the word. Whoever has the most points once the tiles have been used up is the winner.

Object: To survive the nightmare.

Junior Scrabble Words and Pictures.
The Words and Pictures board.

Game length: 45 minutes.

Number of players: 2-4.

Age: Officially 5-10 years but a three-year-old can manage the Words and Pictures game with help. A seven-year-old can just about handle the Rainbow Scrabble game - remember to burn the set and bury the ashes on holy ground before then.

Rainbow Scrabble.
The Rainbow Scrabble board.

Comments: This isn't so much a review as a warning. Board games change. You may think that Monopoly has been the same for thirty years but that's only because you've been playing the same set for three decades. Who knows what it's like if you buy it these days? It probably involves an electronic bank and everyone using credit cards.

Some games are obviously different. I presume that new versions of Trivial Pursuit have updated Entertainment questions. (Scarily, half the Science & Nature questions have probably changed as well. Oh, and quite a few of the Geography ones.) Other games have had their components updated. All of them have trendy new packaging. Some games, though, have been entirely re-worked while you weren't looking. Downfall appears to have been given a 'totally cool' make-over in an effort to stop it working. Even Pop-up Pirate! has different rules than it used to.

Junior Scrabble has had a few incarnations over the years. The current one looks very like normal Scrabble but with a simplified scoring system. That's probably OK. Very old versions have a blank grid with players scoring one point for each letter used. That's not very exciting but there's a good chance it works. The version we have, however, is about twenty years old. It's the version you're likely to find in a charity shop.

Be warned. It's evil. It will suck the very will to live from your body.

The side of the board with the pre-filled grid works fine with younger children who are learning their letters. It hasn't changed much over the years. The other side is a disaster. It's Scrabble but with a completely different scoring system. The lay-out of the board is such that short words score more points than long ones. Playing against a child involves them winning by a mile with words like 'TO' and 'OF' while you have to work hard to create long words in an effort to open up more of the board.

It's all just stupid and totally unnecessary. Since when is the scoring the hard part of Scrabble anyway? Sprog1 is forever telling me what great words he could make if only he had different letters or creating words that he can't join on. He could happily calculate the result of a triple-letter square combined with a double-word score but he struggles to make a word that's more than three tiles long without a whole load of hints. It doesn't help much when the game positively discourages him from doing so.

Next time he demands to play this, I'm going to suggest adult Scrabble. It's still not going to be much fun for a year or two but at least it's not broken.

Junior Scrabble contents.

Conclusion: If Dracula calls round with a copy of this and offers you a quick game, don't invite either of them into your home.

  • Two games in one.
  • Buying second-hand is cheap and environmentally friendly.
  • Words and Pictures is an OK game for children learning their letters.
  • Sometimes there's a reason stuff is in charity shops.
  • One game is limited and the other is ill-conceived.
  • Lots of bits to lose.
  • You probably have a copy of Scrabble lying around somewhere - use that. (If scoring is an issue, you could always ignore the bonus squares.)
  • Harder work than fending off the living dead and much more likely to leave you with a headache.
Rating: 2/5.

Monster Jam (Xbox 360)

Rated: U.

Gameplay: Drive a monster truck over and through obstacles in a series of events. These include:
  • Normal races around such places as a shipyard and an airplane graveyard.
  • Eliminator races where the last placed racer is knocked out after every lap.
  • Stadium races round obstacle courses.
  • Stadium freestyle stunt performances. (Crush, smash and jump for points.)
There's a small element of strategy from the use of boost. Boost lets you go faster but heats your engine. Smashing scenery items and pulling stunts allows the use of boost for longer without danger of overheating your truck's engine and disabling boost.

Save System: Automatic save after every event.

Comments: The three main selling points on the back of the box do not inspire confidence: CATCH MASSIVE AIR! DESTROY EVERYTHING! and, er... RACE OUTDOORS!

Race outdoors? I can't think of a racing game I've ever played where I didn't get to race outdoors. It's like a first-person shooter promising to let you 'RUN AROUND WITH A BIG GUN!' or a platformer advertising the ability to 'JUMP ABOUT COLLECTING THINGS!'. I mean, what's next? 'TURN LEFT AND RIGHT!'?

I suppose real monster trucks are confined to stadia and so being able to RACE OUTDOORS! might be novel to actual fans but still... it does suggest that someone somewhere wasn't trying too hard. This is backed up by the opening video of monster truck action which appears to have been shot on a mobile phone. It made me wonder what horror would result when I actually began the game proper. I braced myself and pressed START.

And then something surprising happened.

Monster Jam turned out to be quite good fun.

It's not a serious racing game like Project Gotham or Forza. Sprog1 wanted me to explain how to play the game and I said, "Hang on a minute, I'm concentrating on not crashing into things." Then I realised that that wasn't entirely true. I was mainly concentrating on crashing into as many things as possible.

There's no engine tuning or sticking to the racing line or even much use of the brake most of the time. Monster Jam is about destroying things by driving into them very fast in a stupidly large 4x4. It's a racing game for people who like to hold down accelerate, have a tendency to smack into the opposition at any given opportunity, need a very, very wide track and enjoy leaving a trail of devastation in their wake.

Yep, that'll be me and most children.

Monster Jam is uncomplicated and grin-inducing. The need to constantly crash into stuff takes a little getting used to, though. So does the physics - the trucks and obstacles bounce all over the place like gravity doesn't apply. It's also hard to tell at first what can be driven through and what can't. An eighteen-wheeler or a space shuttle are apparently no match for a truck with a name like Grave Digger but a small pile of ordinary cars won't budge. Luckily (and somewhat unbelievably), the trucks turn virtually on the spot like radio-controlled vehicles, allowing quick reverses out of trouble.

Once you're adjusted to the lack of realism, however, the game becomes a decent romp, even if the low budget feel remains. There aren't many tracks, the AI is ropey and the commentary is dire. That said, there is a 4-player split-screen mode which is pretty unusual these days.

All things considered, Monster Jam isn't big or clever but Sprog1 (age 8) has been playing it and reckons it's almost as fun as the new Mario Kart. I have to disagree. I think it's actually a little more fun.

Conclusion: Launching several tonnes of thundering truck off a ramp and through a luxury yacht is more enjoyable than lobbing shells at Princess Peach.

Graphics: Adequate. They're not going to win any awards for detail but this is only an issue in the stadium events where you're moving more slowly. In races, there's too much going on to notice.

Length: Short.

Rating: 3/5.