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Risen (Xbox 360)

Rated: 16+.

Story: Some generic fantasy world has undergone a cataclysm thanks to the release of a whole load of titans. You're shipwrecked on a small island that's remarkably untouched by the chaos elsewhere. (Well, apart from the ancient temples full of deadly monsters which have risen out of the ground, that is.)

You
rifle the corpses of your shipmates for suppliessearch the beach for survivors and then head inland, looking for clues as to what is going on. The stern warriors of the king's Inquisition have taken control of the only town and have a plan to deal with the titans. Are they part of the problem in the first place, though? Then again, the rebels led by the former governor, Don Esteban, are a dubious bunch, too...

Gameplay: This is a serious role-playing game. The kind where you have to blat countless opponents over the head to gain enough experience to go up a level and then spend ages sifting through your character's inventory in order to trade items and equip the best loot. There are quests to go on and dungeons to explore. There are also endless monsters to be eaten by because your armour's rubbish and you haven't levelled up your sword skill enough.

You control a single character from a third-person perspective. Combat is surprisingly tricky, involving a mix of timing, footwork and strategic use of the environment. Going up a level brings learning points which can be used to improve skills, provided you can find a suitable trainer and enough gold to pay them. Skills range from sword and bow proficiency to alchemy (for making potions), lock picking, prospecting, smithying and sneaking. Later on, magical abilities can be learned as well, allowing such things as telekinesis, levitation and transformation.

Save System: Save at any time. It's a pretty slow and clunky process, though, considering how often you'll want to save. See those ostrich things just next to the start location? They'll kill you. See that wolf over there? It'll kill you. See its four friends hiding in the undergrowth? They'll kill you quickly. See that empty corridor? It will kill you quicker than that... Then the lizardmen hiding round the corner will kill you some more, just to make sure.

Comments: I'm a big fan of the sort of computer role-playing games that are descended from Dungeons & Dragons. I can't be doing with the tedious battles and melodrama of Japanese RPGs but I like exploring ruins, collecting loot, running errands for villagers and agonising over whether to spend my next upgrade on improving my lock picking or sword skills. I originally bought my 360 to play Oblivion and didn't regret it.

If you have no idea what I'm talking about, then you shouldn't play Risen. Simple as that. Risen is for fans of the genre. It doesn't pander to newcomers and is full of foibles and irritations that only veterans will put up with. If you like the sound of exploring an open world and living the life of a wandering adventurer, play Oblivion and Fallout 3 first. If you love them, Risen might be worth a look.

Since Oblivion came out, similar releases have been thin on the ground. There's been maybe one a year - Two Worlds, Mass Effect, Fallout 3 and Sacred 2. (I suppose Fable 2 counts as well but it's more an adventure with RPG elements than a full RPG.) I've had to make do with what was available. Despite all their flaws, I quite enjoyed Two Worlds and Mass Effect.

Risen should be onto a winner. It's easily better than Two Worlds and much more complex and expansive than Mass Effect. The only problem is that two similar games came out in the same month - Ego Draconis and Dragon Age Origins - and, in the New Year, there's Two Worlds 2 and Mass Effect 2. Suddenly there's competition in the world of wandering exploration and looting.

Risen doesn't really seem to have been expecting this...

The game goes out of its way to kick you in the teeth. This is probably best exemplified by the way it displays a gold value for treasure you find but only ever lets you trade stuff for one-fifth of the marked price. Handing over mountains of treasure for almost no return is demoralising. Much of the game is taken up by scraping together the gold essential for training. This involves fighting monsters but fighting monsters without being killed requires getting some training.

Gah.

All in all, Risen is rock hard. On 'Normal' difficulty, it's consistently as difficult as Fallout 3 ever gets on 'Very Hard'. This can be tiresome. That said, there are well-designed dungeons, excellent quests and some interesting moral dilemmas as you decide which faction to side with. For every flaw, there's a fantastic feature to be discovered - if you're prepared to persevere. It can easily take twenty hours to get to the point of learning basic magic, for instance. The dialogue is well-written but presented in a tedious manner. Some elements of the interface are cunningly adapted for the Xbox, others are ripped straight from the PC and are laborious without a mouse...

It's a bit of a mess.

It's not broken, though, and it's already being sold cheap. If you know your bolts from your arrows and your teleport stone from your ice crystal, it'll make you smile (when you're not gnashing your teeth in frustration).

Conclusion: The very definition of a 3/5 game. If you like complex, free-roaming RPGs that take their influence from Tolkien rather than manga, then you'll get plenty of enjoyment from Risen. If you don't, or you're not sure, you're liable to give up in disgust after half an hour.

Graphics: Dark and rough but adequate. An update from Xbox LIVE fixes the worst problems but you'll still have to be willing to put up with distant objects popping up from nowhere, combined with some stutter when the action gets hectic.

Length: Very long.

Rating: 3/5.



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Moon (DVD)

Starring: Sam Rockwell and the voice of Kevin Spacey.

Rated: 15.

Story: Sam Bell is coming to the end of a three year contract supervising an automated mining operation on the moon. He's had no company the whole time apart from a robot which sounds like it was designed by the same team as HAL. Even the satellite is out, so he can't have live conversations with Earth - he has to make do with pre-recorded messages from his wife who is beginning to seem apprehensive about his return.

Unsurprisingly, this isn't exactly turning him into a poster child for mental stability. With only weeks to go, he starts to suspect he's not quite as alone as he thought. This leads to something of an existential crisis. Sadly, he has no one to talk to but himself and a mechanical version of Keyser Soze. Things go quietly downhill in a ponderous, Space Odyssey kind of way...

Comments: Moon is difficult to categorise. It's a science fiction film of a sort which isn't often made these days. There are no lasers, space battles or sweeping alien landscapes. It's one guy on the moon going a bit mad. The space setting is as much about giving an excuse to raise questions of individuality and identity as it is to look cool. This is a pleasant change. That said, it all feels very familiar, aping the spartan whiteness of 2001 and feeling reminiscent of a dozen movies where the crew of a space station/ship/colony get hunted down and eaten. Most of these associations are purposefully invoked in order to set up surprises later in the film but it does mean Moon sometimes lacks individuality of its own, overwhelmed by references and in-jokes.

There's some brilliant cinematography but it's not actually that impressive to look at - it's only brilliant when you think about the effort they must have gone to in order to get some of the shots. Trying to remember this while simultaneously avoiding thinking about the daft plot and the questionable science is tricky.

And yet, despite its flaws, Moon is unquestionably engrossing. Sam Rockwell is fantastic throughout and the pacing of fresh revelations is excellent. It feels likes something is always going on, even though very little actually happens. The story itself might not stand up to a second viewing but I'll probably watch it again at some point anyway, just to pick up on the little details and marvel at the clever camera work.

Conclusion: Good but lacking in identity. (Which is rather ironic...)

Explosions: None.
Space battles: None.
Time-travelling killer robots: None.
Exotic, green alien women: None.
Chesney Hawkes songs: One.

Rating: 4/5.

LOVEFiLM DVD Rental

Barnyard Bingo

Barnyard Bingo box.

Cost: £10-£15.

Contents:
  • Upright 'barn' dispenser with a hole at the top and a gate at the side. The discs are loaded into the hole. Each time the gate is opened, one disc comes out.

  • 12 discs in 4 colour-coded sets of three animals.

  • One plastic bingo card for each colour. (Blue, red, yellow and green.)

  • Plastic storage case/board.
Gameplay: There are three variants to the game. In each one, players take turns to open the gate and release a disc.

  • Colour bingo - If the disc is the player's colour, they put it on their bingo card. If not, they put it back in the top of the dispenser. The winner is the first player to get all three discs of their colour.

  • Barnyard bingo - Players need to collect discs of any colour to complete a set of the three animals on their card.

  • Barnyard race - The bingo cards are ignored. Players choose a disc as a playing piece and put it on the grid on the inside surface of the storage case. Each player must choose a disc showing a different type of animal. When a disc is removed from the dispenser, the animal shown moves forward one space on the grid and the disc is returned to the dispenser. The player whose piece reaches the end of the grid first is the winner.
Object: Who cares? This is all about posting things into the top of a machine and then pulling a lever to have them come out the bottom with a 'Sproing!' noise.



Game length: Under five minutes.

Number of players: 2-4.

Age: 3+. Younger children could join in as long as someone makes sure they don't try and snack on the discs. Children over five aren't going to stay interested for long.

Comments: This was one of the surprise hits of Sproglette's third birthday and I might well have bought it for every toddler I knew if I'd been able to find it on sale anywhere. As so often seems to be the case with decent stuff, however, it was immediately ousted from shelves by all kinds of games that don't really work and toys packed with rubber aliens and slime. Looks like it's been re-released, though, or someone's found a stack of the things at the back of a warehouse. (At time of writing, Tesco direct have it in stock.)

Barnyard Bingo in action.

Small children like animals, posting things, pulling levers, funny noises, surprises and brightly-coloured pastic. In a stroke of genius, Barnyard Bingo has all these things. The game itself is almost superfluous. This is probably for the best, since it's hard to get kids to follow the rules anyway. They always want to match both colour AND animal at the same time. There's also no skill to winning and the whole thing can be over in a couple of minutes. Nope, the fun is in posting animals and then pulling a brightly-coloured plastic lever to make a funny noise and see what appears.

This can literally go on for hours.

Fortunately, unlike with games involving dice, you won't end up doing most of the work counting out movement or spending your whole time reminding children to take their turn. They'll happily get on with it themselves. Even better, they'll be more than willing to take your turn for you, allowing you to grunt gentle encouragement as you lie on the sofa, resting your eyes.

The rattling and sproing!ing can get tiresome after a while but it's nowhere near as loud as Hungry Hippos.

Conclusion: Very useful for entertaining a pre-schooler with minimal effort on a rainy afternoon.

Pros:

  • Posting, a lever, animals, a funny noise, surprises AND bright colours.

  • Simple.

  • As much a toy as a game.

  • Can keep small children fascinated for ages.

  • Seems to encourage invention and experimentation in a way that so many 'specially designed' educational toys just don't.

  • Sturdy storage case.
Cons:

  • Actual game isn't that interesting.

  • Pictures on the outside of the box are wrapped round rather than attached, so come off the first time the game is opened.

  • Lever wouldn't survive being sat on.

  • Sproing! Rattle, rattle. Sproing! Rattle. Sproing! Rattle, rattle, rattle...
Rating: 4/5.


Credit Rating Info

Last week, I got sent some PR material to tell you all how to improve your credit rating. Unfortunately, it's quite long and is somewhat lacking in the whole jokes/kids/explosions department. (It's also discretely endorsed by a 'higher interest' credit card.) If I stuck it up here, it would simply give the wrong impression. This is a place for time-travelling killer robots and slagging frustrating toys which have limited volume control.

On the other hand, all my credit cards and household bills are in my wife's name - if anything happens to her, I know I'm going to be needing some credit rating information in a bit of a hurry. This being the case, I've hurled it back through time and hidden it in among November's posts where it's out of the way but still accessible.

(If you're interested, better head there now before the killer robots get to it...)

Terminator - Salvation (DVD)

Starring: Christian Bale and Sam Worthington.

Rated: 12.

Story: It's the future... but the future of an alternate past where nuclear war has already happened. Or something like that. Anyway, everywhere is covered with dust and burnt-out cars, and the machines have taken over large chunks of the world. The human resistance is surprisingly well-equipped with submarines, fighters and helicopters, and has a plan to take the fight to Skynet, the computer leading the robots.

Meanwhile, John Connor, the prophesied leader of humanity, struggles to make anyone listen to his stories of time-travelling cyborgs and explanations of how he's older than his own dad. For some reason, no one agrees to put him in charge...

Comments: Right. Let me get this straight: in the original Terminator, a cyborg travelled back in time to stop the victorious leader of the post-Apocalyptic humans from being born. In the process it both brought about his birth and the Apocalypse. In Terminator 2, a couple more temporal tourists cancelled nuclear Armageddon. Only for it to be reinstated in Terminator 3 and bypassed again in The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Then they put the cyborg in charge of California. Or was that before? Possibly. But was it before the original now, the actual now or one of the alternate nows? I'm not sure.

Who am I again?

I dunno. I've lost track of which Terminator timeline is the official one. It doesn't really matter for this new sequel, however. All the time travelling has already finished (even though it's yet to happen), Judgment Day has come and gone, and it's down to a straight fight between humanity and the machines. Cue lots of explosions in the desert.

Paradoxes aside, Salvation has all the established hallmarks of the Terminator series - a friendly cyborg, a robot that won't die, a strong female character (who just happens to be hot), someone saying 'Come with me if you want to live', an endless fight in a factory and lots of stuff blowing up. It's a fun return to a fondly-remembered franchise. That said, the generic wasteland setting and the lack of time travel does make it a little bland in its own right. It's all action and no plot and gets a bit silly by the end, finishing with an almost comically literal take on "it's what's in someone's heart that counts." Bale's performance is totally forgettable. Thankfully, Worthington manages to display enough charisma for the both of them.

Still, if you're in the mood for explosions and killer machines, this is one of the better choices available. (After the first three movies, of course... and the TV series... and The Matrix... and, oh, never mind...)

Conclusion: Booms, guns, robots, planes, bikes and Moon Goodblood. Turn it on and break out the beer.

Explosions: Loads. If it's on the screen, then it's liable to go up in a ball of flame at any moment.
Time travel: None.
Talk about time travel: Lots.
Impossibly tough robots: Dozens.
Will it be back?: Almost certainly. Going on past form, expect more time travel, a female cyborg and a detonation every three seconds.

Rating: 4/5.

LOVEFiLM DVD Rental

Playmobil Pirates Boarding! (DS)

Rated: 3+ but there's lots of complex text. Players will need to be able to read fluently to get the most from the game.

Story: Pirate One-Eye must search out the nine pieces of Blackbeard's sea-chart in order to find the mermaid and rescue her from the 'wicked' soldiers.

There's a possibility this may not be all that historically accurate...

Gameplay: The two main elements of Pirates are sailing and platforming. The sailing involves steering your ship between islands, avoiding reefs and enemies. Once you've upgraded your vessel and acquired cannons, you can defeat opposing ships and monsters to claim loot. The platforming is some basic 2D jumping with a touch of sword-fighting thrown in.

The main way to make money for ship upgrades is by trading goods between islands. This adds a little more interest to the missions, since most of them merely involve sailing between two islands, doing a brief spot of platforming and then sailing back again.

Occasionally, One-Eye must dive for treasure or fire rubber rings using a catapult to rescue shipwreck survivors. There are also a number of mini-games. These are simplified and limited versions of Blackjack, Air Hockey, Zoo Keeper, Battleships and Boom Boom Rocket. It's only necessary to win each one once to progress in the main game but they can be played additional times to win extra gold.

The Battleships mini-game can be played 2-player using 2 DSs and a single cart.

Save System: Automatic save on landing, setting sail or completing a mission. It's worth noting, however, that if your ship sinks, you don't die and get to return to your last save - you wash up on the nearest island and have to buy a new boat. This can be a huge setback. It's worth switching off the DS and reloading the game before the auto-save kicks in.

Comments: First impressions of Pirates are favourable. The graphics are good and the intro movie is reminiscent of the style and humour of the LEGO computer games. More than that, the dialogue is tongue-in-cheek and there's an ambitious mix of gameplay styles. It appears that Pirates has the potential to be a Playmobil take on Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass and deliver an epic free-roaming adventure.

Sadly, although there's plenty of freedom to sail anywhere, there's very little point. A free-roaming adventure normally has a fairly linear main story but plenty of distractions, side-quests and hidden corners to reward experimentation and exploration. Pirates really only has a main story and it's mostly made up of what would count as side-quests and distractions in a better game. It consists almost entirely of 'go there, fetch that' missions.

None of the constituents of the game are particularly broken but they've all been done better elsewhere. The diving sections are a direct borrow from Phantom Hourglass, for instance. In terms of level design, the platforming segments are twenty years out of date. Much of the sailing feels like filler. Without puzzles, secrets or even much variation, completing the game becomes a question of perseverance. Sprog1 (aged 9) lost interest after an hour or two and went back to the complexities of Pokémon.

That said, Sprog2 (aged 7) loved Pirates. He enjoyed the trading and didn't mind the repetition and lack of challenge. He was just annoyed that once the mermaid was free, he couldn't go back and do more sailing around without starting a new saved game.

Pirates is by no means a disaster. It's certainly been given some love and care (if not much imagination). Ultimately, however, the game will only to appeal to a very narrow age range of children. Children not much younger than eight will struggle with reading all the dialogue, while children who aren't much older will get bored with the basic nature of the gameplay.

Conclusion: Diverting for eight-year-olds and Playmobil fans but quickly becomes a grind for anyone else.

Graphics: Some pleasing 3D characters on a 2D background. Captures the Playmobil look.

Length: Short - 5 or 6 hours.

Rating: 3/5.

Dubit Family Panel



Dubit have asked me to let you know that they're currently looking for parents to join their Family Panel.

Dubit is a UK youth marketing agency that started out as a Young Enterprise company 10 years ago, created by 13- to 15-year-olds who wanted to improve the way young people are marketed to. It's grown from there but the idea is still the same - people are more likely to buy something if it's recommended to them by a friend or presented to them in the right way.

Members of the Family Panel team work on promotional campaigns, raising awareness about products, brands and services. Rewards can include cheques, vouchers and free merchandise. There's also a regular newsletter with offers and exclusive competitions.

Dubit are looking to recruit parents onto the Family Panel to promote only brands they love. Campaigns can last from one week to three weeks and generally consist of offline work (for example, handing out samples to friends who are parents) or online work (sharing opinions with friends via email and social networking sites).

For more info and to register, visit Dubitfamilypanel.com. If you have any questions, you can email Rachel at Dubit.

Obviously, I haven't tried it myself yet but I'm off to sign up. I'm actually a bit miffed I missed their recent Cheestrings promotion. My kids love the things and Sprog1 can take half an hour eating one. I could have kept him quiet for weeks with the free samples and got paid for it into the bargain. Drat.

Never mind, I'll see what they hook me up with and keep you posted...

Watchmen (DVD)

Starring: A woolly mask with splodges on it and a man with a very unhealthy blue glow.

Rated: 18.

Story: In an alternate version of the 1980s, a retired superhero is murdered and his old comrades endeavour to track down the killer whilst simultaneously whining about how much they miss the old days.

Comments: I should hate this film. It contains the two things most likely to irritate me in an action movie - angst-ridden superheroes and a narrative that's told in a strange order to make it seem more interesting. Oh, and some excessive gore for the sake of it. Not to mention a plot that promises more than the ending delivers. So it has four things that... No wait, there are some gadgets that might as well be powered by magic in there as well. That makes five things that... Er, did I mention it's half an hour too long? So that's, erm...

Hang on a minute while I go get some red robes and a comfy chair...

...

Right. That's better. As I was saying, Watchmen has any number of elements that are liable to grate. Happily, however, they're all thrown together which such style and spectacle that it doesn't matter. The characters are somehow sympathetic (despite being mostly crazy) and there's nearly always something interesting happening.

The soundtrack is fantastic, the editing is superb and the mix of time-frames and locations keeps the film visually fresh throughout. It may not be the rip-roaring superhero adventure full of smashing and explosions I've been waiting for but it all makes Spider-Man's recent cinematic moping seem doubly tiresome.

Conclusion: Would you believe it? Telling the story in a jumbled order makes superhero angst bearable.

Explosions: Relatively few.
Vicious brawling: Plenty.
Silly sex scenes: Two or three.
Spectacle: Lots.
Stretched Lycra: Slightly less than is entirely seemly.

Rating: 4/5.

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Countdown (DS)

Rated: 3+.

Gameplay: This is based on the long-running quiz show on Channel 4. You play 1-on-1 against a computer opponent to gain the most points. In Letters rounds you have to make the biggest word you can from nine random letters. In Numbers rounds you must use the six numbers provided to get as close as possible to a target number using addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. In the final Conundrum round it's a race to unjumble a nine letter word.

There are 11 Letters rounds, 3 Numbers rounds and a conundrum in a match. Each round has a thirty second time limit.

Save System: You can save and quit after any round.

Comments: Countdown has been going for nearly thirty years. If you live in the UK and have ever visited an elderly relative, then you've probably been forced to watch it at some point. It's an institution.

As such, I don't need to describe what this game is like. Imagine a videogame of Countdown... There we go, you've got the basic gist. Now imagine a much more cheaply produced version... Nope. Cheaper that that... Yep, you've got the idea. This is essentially a picture of a clock bolted to a dictionary and a calculator... except less entertaining or useful.

For the first couple of goes, Countdown is OK, giving a reasonable approximation of the TV show. Unfortunately, the cracks quickly become noticeable:

Tapping on the letters and dragging the numbers is actually a lot slower than writing them down. Since you get no points if time runs out before you're finished, this can be hugely frustrating. Thirty seconds may be the authentic time limit but it's simply not long enough given the limitations of the interface.

The opponent AI is laughable. It knows a huge list of words but has no idea which are common and which are obscure, choosing between them at random. Its 'mistakes' are equally unbelievable. ('CAOLS' instead of 'COALS', for instance.) Beating it on higher difficulties feels more a matter of chance than brilliance.

When the conundrum throws up words like 'CROCOSMIA', there's nothing much to do but sigh. Then again, that's better than figuring out the conundrum but not having time to tap out the answer. One shot, I actually tapped the 'K' of 'SHIPWRECK' only for the clock to run out as the letter was sliding across the screen into position, denying me the points.

Most of these issues are moot in the single-cartridge multiplayer mode. Sadly, a big new one is introduced - you can't play a proper game. Crazily, multiplayer consists of choosing a particular type of round and then playing the best of 3, 5 or 9. There are no points or mixed events. I can only assume this is to cut loading times but, honestly, with the minimal presentation and gameplay, there shouldn't be loading times anyway.

Ho well. At least the clock countdown music is as it should be... until hearing it once a minute drives you insane and you have to switch it off.

Conclusion: Looks and plays like an undergraduate Computer Science project. It's unmistakeably Countdown, though - in an absolute emergency, it might distract an elderly relative long enough for you to escape.

Graphics: Almost non-existent.

Length: Each match only lasts fifteen minutes but winning on the hardest difficulty will take perseverance (and some luck). Sprog1 (aged 9) played it for a couple of hours until it got too hard and he gave up. Not even the promise of in-game medals to collect could entice him back.

Rating: 2/5.

LOVEFiLM DVD Rental


Bop It Extreme 2

Bop It Extreme 2 box.

Cost: £25.

Players: 1 or more.

Age: 8+. Children younger than this can play with it but they don't have much chance of getting far with an actual game.

Game length: Usually under a minute.

Gameplay: The Bop It device issues commands and the player(s) must obey them quickly or be eliminated. Available commands are twist it, pull it, spin it, flick it and bop it. These refer to specific levers and buttons on the device which have to be activated in the stated way.

Different game modes cater for different numbers of players. Solo players can compete for a high score. Two players can play simultaneously, both holding the Bop It at once and taking control of opposite levers. Two or more players can play a passing game where the Bop It demands to be handed to the next person in the circle at random intervals.

The Bop It can be set to issue sound effects rather than voice commands to add extra difficulty.

It has to be said, though, extra difficulty is unlikely to be what you need...

Bop It Extreme 2.

Object: To survive a few games without throwing the Bop It against a wall in frustration and then stamping up and down on the pieces.

Comments: This looks like some arcane torture device redesigned for an age of bright lights and colourful plastic...

...because it is.

It's noisy, frustrating and actually tells you when you're being a bit rubbish. In my case, this is pretty close to all the time because I can't seem to get a score much above 10. Often, I don't even get that. My boys (aged 7 and 9) aren't any better and my daughter (aged 5) loves the look of the thing but doesn't have a hope. Whenever she plays with it, it spends most of the time criticising her.

Multiplayer games tend to be over almost instantly.

If you really want, you can hook it up to a stereo but you're more likely to appreciate the low volume setting. If someone else is playing solo, you can insist they wear headphones.

There's a certain novelty value to the game but it doesn't last long. If the kids are really desperate for it, consider the new Bop It instead - it's supposed to be much easier. Oh, and they can shout at it...

Conclusion: Might be fun if you have coordination and fast reflexes. Like Double P.E. if you don't.

Rating: 2/5.


A Boy and his Blob (Wii)

A boy and his blob.

Rated: 7+.

Story: A blob falls to Earth, searching for help. He finds a young boy and together they set off to defeat the evil Emperor who is terrorising Blobolonia.

This task involves a surprising number of jelly beans.

Gameplay: You control the boy as he explores the 2D platform levels. On his own he can't do much other than make tiny jumps, push small objects and come to a sticky end. Progress requires feeding the blob specific types of jelly bean to transform into useful objects. The available objects include a ladder, anvil, space hopper, giant hamster ball and (improbably) a hole.

The main levels are more about puzzling than quick reflexes. The boy is extremely fragile and guiding him past environmental hazards, dead ends and evil blobs is a case of working out which beans to use, in which order and where to throw them.

Each of the 40 levels has treasure chests hidden within it. Finding all three unlocks one of another 40 bonus challenge levels. These don't have to be completed to finish the game but getting through each one unlocks rewards such as concept art. The challenge levels tend to concentrate on exploring the uses of a single type of bean or on harder platforming.

There are no pointless motion controls. In fact, the game can be played using the Classic controller.

Difficulty: Seven-year-olds should be able to take a crack at it with some help.

Save System: Automatic save at the end of the level only. This can become a bit of an issue on later levels. That said, if you do have to quit halfway for some reason and come back later, making your way through a level is much quicker second time round.

However...

The game only has one saved game slot.

Count it. One.

Whose idea was that? Only one person can play through the game at a time on any given Wii unless they're prepared to share a saved game (which takes away much of the fun of finding the treasure chests).

There's absolutely no reason for this and it's just stupid. The only way around the problem is for every player to have their own SD card and move their saved game onto it after every play session. (Copying isn't enough. The data has to be moved entirely off the Wii and onto the card.) This is a fair amount of hassle, is potentially costly, and has the clear risk of a deletion disaster.

It's insane and worth thinking about carefully if more than one person in your household is going to want to play.

Comments: Sprog2 (aged 7) took one look at the box of this game and jumped up and down in excitement. He instantly loved the blob. I think he wants one of his own...

The game is initially a bit confusing, thanks to a lack of menus and tutorials. There's a short cut-scene and then you're pretty much left to your own devices. You have to work out the controls and mechanics for yourself. This adds to the haunting atmosphere but isn't entirely helpful. Fortunately, the graphics are deeply endearing, maintaining interest until the basic concepts have established themselves and the puzzles becoming absorbing in their own right. Watching the boy hug the blob is enough to make even the toughest housedad go, 'Aaaahhhhh...'

A boy and his blob hugging.

The first few levels are pretty easy, with lots of signposts showing which beans to use. These gradually peter out, though, and the treasure chests become better hidden, causing the game to require much more thought. Despite only having access to a maximum of eight types of bean in any given level, there are still often multiple ways to negotiate obstacles. It's easy to end up trying some convoluted series transformations, only to suddenly realise there's a much simpler solution. Controlling some of the blob's forms can be a trifle fiddly but the actual puzzling is a joy.

Collecting all the treasure chests quickly becomes obsessive (particularly for children) and greatly adds to the longevity of the game. There's an excellent balance of exploration, problem-solving and platforming. The numerous checkpoints, infinite lives and endless jelly beans help avoid frustration but the clever puzzles ensure the game maintains a steadily increasing challenge. Besides, although there's no great penalty for dying, the hand-drawn animation ensures a little pang of guilt every time you carelessly guide the boy to his doom (especially whenever the blob is close at hand to mope).

With heart-warming graphics and intuitive but complex gameplay, A Boy and his Blob is fun, challenging and charming.

When it comes right down to it, I want my own blob, too...

Conclusion: Essential... as long as you have enough memory cards to go round.

Graphics: Touching and beautiful. Imagine what a game based on Laura's Star would look like.

Length: Medium (if you make sure to collect everything).

Rating: 5/5 if you don't have to share it with anyone (or you simply don't tell them about it).



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How to improve your credit rating

(Information supplied by Aquacard and checked by HBOS. Correct as of December 2009.)

If you are a homemaker with a low or irregular income, it can sometimes be difficult to obtain credit, such as a mortgage, a loan or a credit card. Even if you have been saving every penny or have always been good with money - your credit rating could still be poor. This may be because lenders don't have enough positive credit history to go on and therefore class you as high risk, making them reluctant to lend to you. Luckily, there are a number of easy steps you can take to improve your credit rating and start borrowing at favourable rates. Whether you are being turned down for credit now, think you may need it in the future or don't know what a credit rating is, read this credit-boosting guide and take your first step towards financial freedom.

How credit rating works

When you apply for credit with a company, it will (with your consent) check your credit score through a credit reference agency of which the three main ones are Experian, Equifax and Call Credit. These companies hold your credit report, which includes details of the electoral roll (a list of the names of all people registered at an address who are entitled to vote), County Court Judgments or CCJ's (a ruling for an unpaid debt issued by a County Court), bankruptcies, your current and past credit commitments and they also show if you have missed or defaulted on any payments over the last six years. As your credit report shows how you have repaid credit in the past, lenders will take it as an indication of how you will repay credit in the future.

The better your credit history, the wider the range of credit products you'll have access to and the better the rates. A poor credit history will limit your choice and usually means you'll have to borrow at higher rates, but your credit history can be improved over time.

Understanding the problem

There are two reasons why your credit rating might be poor:

1. You have little or no credit history.
If you are in this situation, you might be recently divorced or a homemaker, who is or has been, wholly or partially, financially dependent on your partner. You might also be someone who has not applied for much credit in the past, such as credit cards, mortgages, loans, etc ...

Ironically, this high-risk category also includes people who have always paid their bills on time and have been financially independent enough in the past to not need any credit.

2. You have a credit history, but it is poor.
Many lenders like to see proof of a regular income, though the importance of this differs for each lender. Therefore, if you are a homemaker, part-time worker, temporarily unemployed, self-employed or have an irregular income, you might find it hard to obtain credit.

You might also be affected by previously bad credit, due to late payments, bills in arrears, County Court Judgments (CCJ's), bankruptcy or Individual Voluntary Arrangements (IVA's - a contractual arrangement with a creditor to avoid bankruptcy).

Another reason you might find yourself in this situation is if your partner or ex-partner has a bad credit rating and is or was linked to you financially (e.g. joint accounts), which means this will affect your rating too. Therefore, if you split up with someone you have joint finances with, it may help your credit rating if you separate your accounts as soon as possible - you can also write to the credit reference agencies and ask for a notice of 'disassociation'.

Ten Easy steps you can take towards financial freedom

Step one: Register on the electoral roll
Many companies use the electoral roll for verification purposes in order to combat identity fraud. To register on the electoral roll you will generally need to complete a voter registration form and return it to your local authority. It is vital you do this every time you move house. Visit the local government website to find out more.

Step two: Stop applying for credit you won't get
You may not be aware of this, but every time you apply for credit the ensuing credit search is noted on your credit report. If you have applied and been rejected several times, your credit history may be getting worse and worse. Therefore, stop applying and check your credit rating first so you can start to improve it and avoid getting rejected again.

Step three: Check your credit report
This will show you the areas that you can improve on and also means you can check for any errors that might be on your report and get them changed. Even a simple mistake such as a wrong present or past address can lead to you being judged on someone else's credit history. If you do spot a mistake, just write to the agency you obtained your report from and request it's changed.

You may be able to obtain a copy of your credit report for free from Credit Expert, click here for more information.

Step four: Create some positive credit history
1. Open a higher interest credit card for which you are more likely to be accepted. Make sure you manage it properly to help rebuild your credit rating. This means repaying every month in full, spending a little each month for six to twelve months. For most credit cards, this method will only work if you just use your credit card for purchases. It is important to make sure you make your payments on time and stay within your credit limit or otherwise it will have a negative effect on your credit rating.

Here are some examples of higher interest credit cards that can be used to repair bad credit:

- aqua Card: Typical 35.9% APR variable
- Vanquis: Typical 39.9% APR variable
- Monument Visa Card: Typical 34.9% APR variable

2. Put bills in your name (where possible) and pay them by direct debit.

3. Open a couple of store cards as these are usually also easier to get than standard rate credit cards, but ALWAYS pay them off in full every month and you've got another way to show you can handle your finances responsibly. Don't use this method if you are bad at managing your finances as missing payments on store cards may have a negative impact on your credit rating, the opposite of what you're trying to achieve by using them.

Step five: Pay your bills by direct debit
This ensures you can't forget to make your payments on time, which is important because every missed payment will show up on your credit report and have a negative impact on your credit rating. However, make sure you always have enough funds in the account you have set up the direct debit for, as letting that account go into unarranged overdraft when your direct debit is paid out will have the opposite effect on your credit rating!

Step six: Close down old accounts and cards
Having too much credit available to you may have a negative impact on your credit rating and lenders look at the total amount available to you, not just what you owe. To avoid this, close any cards or accounts that you are no longer using and only leave open the active ones.

Step seven: Dealing with County Court Judgments (CCJ's)
This will only apply to those who have had one or more CCJ's registered against them. If this is the case and you paid the amount in full within 28 days of the claim being made, then the judgment will have been cancelled and shouldn't appear on your credit record. Alternatively, if you paid the full amount at a later date, you should obtain a letter of confirmation from whoever filed the judgment and deliver it to the County Court. Once the Court has verified the debt has been paid in full, you can ask them to issue you with a certificate of satisfaction or cancellation, which will involve a court fee. Your record will then show the debt as satisfied and this will remain there for a period of 6 calendar years after the judgment order.

Step eight: Notice of Correction
You can add a Notice of Correction to your report to highlight any mistakes you have found, but that a credit agency has refused to amend. Another application of this is to indicate a reason for getting behind on payments due to a change of circumstance in your life, such as divorce or redundancy.

Having a Notice of Correction on your report means your application for credit may take longer as the lender will be obliged under the Guide to Credit Scoring to read any Notices of Correction. Therefore, think carefully before you request to have one added to your report.

Step nine: Curb your card spending
This is the most obvious step of all, try to minimise any debt on your cards. As a rule of thumb, you should try to keep the debt on a card under 30% of your credit limit.

Step ten: Time your applications wisely
Applying for lots of credit in a short space of time and being rejected is not good for your credit rating. You can try leaving between 3 and 6 months between applications to help repair your credit rating, but it may take longer. Things such as mobile phone contracts and car insurance can also count towards this.

Hasbro Family Game Night Vol. 2 (Wii)

Rated: 3+.

Gameplay: This is a collection of virtual versions of five well-known family games: Operation, Jenga, Bop It, Pictureka and Connect 4x4. Each game can be played in a manner approximating the real world format or in a 'remixed' interpretation with aspects only possible in a computer game.
  • Operation - Extract unlikely items from a patient by quickly and carefully pointing and twisting the wiimote. The remixed version includes additional stages, such as scrubbing wounds.
  • Jenga - Use flicks of the wiimote to pull blocks out of a tower without it falling down. Extra features include bomb blocks which must be removed quickly before they explode.
  • Bop It - Press buttons and shake the wiimote as instructed without messing up.
  • Pictureka - Hunt through a jumbled mass of doodles to look for specific pictures or a set number of a certain type of item. Remix makes things harder, giving only the silhouette or the sound of what you're looking for.
  • Connect 4x4 - In Connect 4, two players take it in turns to drop discs of their own colour into a vertical grid, attempting to get four in a row in any direction. Connect 4x4 requires four players and uses three different kinds of counter: rings, discs and double-thickness blockers. The grid is two counters deep, with rings going down one side, discs the other and blockers both at once. This means that each position in the grid can have a ring of one colour and a disc of another, leading to all kinds of strategic complications.
Each game has options for varying the difficulty and winning conditions.

Solo players can play against the computer or take on the High Score Challenge in a selection of mini-games based on the five main games. With multiple players, a Family Game Show is available. In this, success in mini-games brings extra lives for a final challenge which decides the ultimate winner.

The whole package is presented by Mr or Mrs Potato Head. Doing well in specific challenges wins new accessories to dress them up.

Difficulty: Children under seven may struggle with the fine movement required to play everything other than Connect 4x4 and Bop It. Bop It will have even adults pulling out their hair in exasperation.

Save System: Progress and rewards are associated with Miis rather than actual save game slots. When a player wins a reward, it is automatically saved for use with the Mii they're playing with at the time.

Comments: At first glance, turning board games into computer games seems crazy. The main point of board games is to get families away from the TV and sitting round a table together. Also, much of the fun of board games is in being able to touch and feel. Counting the money in Monopoly might be a pain but the whole reason for playing is the prospect of being able to wave a huge wadge of notes at your opponents. Even with the waggling options presented by a wiimote, that kind of thing is hard to replicate.

On closer inspection, however, there are a few possible advantages to board game conversions:
  • An entire shelf of entertainment can be squeezed onto one disc. (Which, believe me, is becoming more of an attraction all the time as the kids get older and my house is filled with Gogo's and LEGO.)
  • The computer can make up the numbers when extra players are needed.
  • Laborious set up is avoided. (Good news if you've ever attempted Jenga with a child and spent more time stacking than playing.)
  • Cheating is much more difficult.
  • The computer can keep track of the score.
  • The game can be expanded in new ways.
  • It's impossible to lose pieces down the back of the sofa.
The version of Connect 4x4 in Family Game Night 2 is a nearly perfect example of when such a conversion goes right. With the remix adding interesting power ups, it ticks every item on the list. As long as you go for a set number of points to win, rather than a time limit, the computerised edition surpasses the real game.

Pictureka, meanwhile, gains and loses in equal measure. The Wii can shuffle the doodles around in a way impossible with a 'proper' copy of the game and it can also fairly judge who found an item first. Control is somewhat fiddly and frustrating, though.

Things start to fall apart after that. Operation, Bop It and Jenga are very tactile games. Much of their appeal is lost in translation. Using the wiimote to approximate the normal lever-pulling actions in Bop It brings a level of abstraction that takes away any fun. It's simply hard work. Without physical feedback, Jenga becomes more luck than judgement. Operation, at least, has been sensibly stylised to make it more suited to life on the Wii but unfortunately this means it doesn't actually feel that much like Operation.

Happily, these problems are less of an issue in the bite-sized mini-games, meaning the Family Game Show is still playable. Nonetheless, most players seem to opt for Connect 4x4 whenever possible. Despite being the hardest of the five games to explain, it's easiest to pick up and play. It's also much less of a lottery than the others, particularly for newbies. (Jenga and Bop It are impossible without practice.)

All in all, the selection of games isn't what it should be. That said, there's still fun to be had. Children obsess over collecting parts for Mr Potato Head and the Game Show is organised so that everyone stays in with a chance until the end.

It's just a shame about Bop It...

Conclusion: A mixed bag but worth considering for Connect 4x4 alone.

Graphics: Perfectly adequate for the task in hand.

Length: Solo play isn't going to hold anyone's attention long but the multiplayer can keep kids entertained for days. Connect 4x4 is the only game with really lasting appeal, though.

Rating: 3/5.



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Planet of the Apes (2001)

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Helena Bonham-Carter and Tim Roth.

Rated: 12.

Story: An astronaut ventures too far into a temporal storm and crash lands on a planet where the apes are in charge and humans are kept as slaves. He attempts to phone home but ends up leading a rebellion instead.

Comments: With the postal strikes disrupting my film rentals, I decided it was time to delve around at the bottom of the hard-drive recorder and rediscover whatever was lurking there...

Along with some repeats of Top Gear, fifty-seven episodes of Pokémon and an inexplicable recording of Hole in the Wall, I found the 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes. I've been meaning to watch it for years but never entirely dared. I have fond memories of staying up late to see the original when I was a teenager and being blown away by the ending. The possibility of a new version being as good seemed remote. Nonetheless, devoid of other entertainment which I hadn't seen before and which didn't involve celebrities attempting to squeeze themselves through narrow gaps, I faced my fear and settled down to watch Helena Bonham-Carter in a chimpanzee suit...

I should probably have watched Top Gear again.

Although Planet of the Apes (2001) has its moments, it's generally a clunky mess. The first half is rather slow going in places with apes frequently arguing over the treatment of humans. This is thinly-veiled commentary on civil and animal rights in our own society but the two get a little mixed and the whole thing comes across as both moralising and shallow. (It also ignores the fact that the various different species of ape live and work together quite happily without batting an eyelid.) The pace picks up in the latter stages but it all inevitably leads to a big CGI battle and a final showdown between psycho ape (Roth) and hero human (Wahlberg).

The make-up and costumes are great, at least, and the actors do a good job of mimicking simian movements. Some dubious wire-work breaks the spell, however, as does the appearance of an actual chimpanzee - the men in costumes suddenly look like just that.

Mark Wahlberg is never convincing. To be fair, the plot and script don't help him out but he fails to convey the trauma of finding himself in such an upside-down world. The rest of the cast do OK, though.

There are a few references to the original but these are amongst the low points of the movie. Charlton Heston's cameo verges on farce and the sets in the ape city look like they've been lifted from 1960s Star Trek. Special mention has to go to the ending, which is beyond stupid. Clearly the makers wanted to come up with something to bring shock and surprise in a similar manner to the earlier version. It's certainly surprising but, unfortunately, there is no way for it to convincingly make sense. You'll remember it but for all the wrong reasons. I kind of wish I'd dozed off before reaching it and dreamt of Jeremy Clarkson in a silver jumpsuit being shoved into a swimming pool by an oncoming barrier of polystyrene.

Conclusion: You could probably make a more entertaining remake with the kids' cuddly toys and an Action Man. Planet of the Teletubbies, now there's an idea...

Explosions: A couple (and a few burning tents).
Apes: Loads.
Holes in the plot: Big enough to fit a considerable number of celebrities through.
Better than the original?: Not a chance.
Better than repeats of Top Gear?: Not really.
Better than watching a comedian, a rugby player and a weather girl get knocked into a swimming pool by a perforated wall?: Probably not...

Rating: 2/5.

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Doh Nutters

Doh Nutters game box.

Cost: £18.

Contents:
  • 4 elephant masks with adjustable straps.
  • 12 plastic doughnuts in four different colours.
  • Playing board.
Gameplay: Players each wear a mask, bend over the board and then simultaneously race to pick up the doughnuts of their colour using only their trunk.

Doh Nutters game contents.

Object: The first person to get all three doughnuts on their trunk at the same time is the winner.

Game length: Potentially forever unless someone cheats. (Sober adults can win in under thirty seconds, however.)

Number of players: 2-4.

Age: 4+ officially but no one under eight will be able to win and no one over seven will want to play (unless they're a lot over seven and drunk).

Comments: I quite frequently decide to write a brilliant and witty review recommending a fantastic toy or game, only to discover the thing isn't made anymore. Did you know the Dungeons and Dragons board game is actually pretty excellent, for instance? So is Pokémon Yahtzee Jr. Better than that, Duplo did a wonderful train set about ten years ago. Oh and, believe it or not, the Cinderella Glass Slipper Game is surprisingly not awful. Good luck finding any of them outside eBay, though - thanks to changing fads and low marketing budgets, decent products fall by the wayside all the time.

Conversely, I'm occasionally stunned to discover absolute tat still going strong. Whoever is buying the Golden Coin Maker please stop. Even some of the classics, like Monopoly and Mouse Trap, aren't much fun. Still, when I saw a TV advert for Doh Nutters the other day, I couldn't quite believe it.

It's dreadful. The production moulds should have been destroyed years ago.

For a start, the masks are uncomfortable. Children are forever taking them off and then wanting help putting them back on again. Not that there's much point - it's almost impossible for an under-five to pick up one ring, let alone a second one without the first one falling off again.

Nonetheless, young children tend to imagine the game is going to be loads of fun. On seeing the box, they will cry in frustration if they don't get to play. Unfortunately, if they do get to play, they'll cry in frustration because they can't manage it. This is something of a lose-lose situation. Children old enough to have any chance of success, meanwhile, won't be too thrilled at the prospect of looking like a comedy elephant.

After five minutes, the only one left still wearing a mask will be you as you're forced to perform tricks with plastic doughnuts for the amusement/embarrassment of your assembled offspring and their friends. They probably won't even give you peanuts.

Conclusion: Avoid if humanly possible. Its continued production is astonishing.

Pros:
  • Looks like it should be fun.
  • Might actually be fun (briefly) if you're drunk and a student.
  • The masks ensure that everyone has a certain level of eye protection.
Cons:
  • Too tricky for young children.
  • Can't be played while wearing glasses.
  • Bound to eventually involve you kneeling on the floor, disguised as an elephant and quietly swearing to yourself.
  • Will all end in tears.
Rating: 1/5.


Goosebumps HorrorLand (DS)

Rated: 7+.

Story: You find a ticket to HorrorLand, a new and terrifying theme park. Once you're inside, however, you're trapped for all eternity. The only way to escape is to master the rides and, er... play crazy golf.

Gameplay: This is a mini-game collection dressed up as an adventure. You get to wander the theme park, talking to people and collecting tokens, then play the mini-games. There are bronze, silver and gold challenges in each mini-game and beating them earns 'Frights'. (Frights can only be earned once per challenge.) The more Frights you have, the more games that are available.

The mini-games are a varied bunch. Among other things, there's a deathmatch on the dodgems, an on-rails shooter, target practice, a mine cart ride, games of skill and timing, and the crazy golf. There are thirty mini-games on offer but only around twenty of them are unique, with the numbers being made up by variations and harder levels of what's gone before.

Nothing's very scary.

Save System: Regular automatic saves.

Comments: Goosebumps is a strange game. Certain parts of it, such as the cut-scenes and music, have received plenty of care and attention, while others appear to have been thrown together without any thought. Take the plot and structure as examples. A mini-game collection is perhaps the least ambitious genre choice possible and the spooky theme park justification for it all feels tired before the gates have even opened. Initially, everything points to a hastily-produced mess.

Then Goosebumps throws in a surprise - the mini-games are actually good. They're much more substantial than in most similar collections and are generally rather enjoyable. Some of them take several minutes per shot, involve plenty of skill and employ graphics at a level that I'd forgotten the DS was capable of. It's all much more shocking than anything the story ever throws up.

Given the quality of the mini-games, however, it's rather peculiar the enormous lengths which Goosebumps goes to in order to prevent you from playing them:

You have to collect Frights to unlock new areas of the theme park, only to discover you have to collect yet more Frights to unlock half the games in these areas. Even when the games are unlocked, you still need to pay tokens to play them. When the tokens run out, you either have to go and play the dullest mini-games on offer to win more or you have to wander the park searching the bins. (Really.) This just isn't much fun. Even when you have all the Frights and tokens you need, getting from one ride to the next is a tedious traipse through the park that's confusing and fiddly despite the map being permanently on the top screen. There are occasional people to talk to and there's a little exploring but it's mainly mind-numbing padding. Perhaps the original plan was for a Zelda-like adventure. Unfortunately, all that's in place is lots and lots of plodding through atmospheric scenery in a zoomed-out third-person view.

It could be worse, though - at one point, a plot twist reduces your walking speed by about half. It's like plodding through atmospheric treacle. By the time that's over, the normal traipsing feels like bliss in comparison.

The game is also hard. Getting to the end of the story requires the accumulation of well over two-thirds of the Frights. Considering that acquiring the bronze award in some of the mini-games is challenging, this means plenty of perseverance (and rifling through bins). Sprog1 (who's 9 and a hardened videogame veteran) started to struggle about halfway through.

That said, the mini-games are addictive and I kept coming back for more. It's just a shame that the rest of the game is so laborious.

Conclusion: Fun and frustrating in equal measure. Should keep children in the 8-12 age range busy for a while, though, even if they're not familiar with the books.

Graphics: Impressive despite looking rough round the edges. Many of the mini-games are in full 3D and the design is suitably spooky.

Length: Short.

Rating: 3/5.



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Ultimate I Spy (Wii)

Rated: 3+.

Story: You've found a mysterious contraption. The only way to power it up is by solving riddles.

Gameplay: The game consists of a series of scenes, such as a science display in a classroom and a fish tank in a kid's bedroom. There are ten scenes and each one has four riddles to solve. Each riddle is essentially a selection of things to find by moving the camera angle around using the d-pad (or thumbstick) and then clicking on them. Some objects instigate a mini-game which needs to be completed to cross the entry off the list. These are mostly pretty basic affairs involving a bit of wiimote waggling.

Ten of the mini-games are slightly more involved and have a high score challenge separate from the main game.

Save System: It's possible to save progress and quit at any point. There's also an auto-save after the completion of each riddle.

Comments: You're probably not going to believe me but this game is brilliant.

I know it's called I Spy and sounds about as much fun as searching your lounge for a lost piece of LEGO. I know it's a budget game on the Wii. I know it gives the impression of being vaguely educational. I know all these things mean it should be rubbish. That doesn't matter. Ultimate I Spy is great.

What's hard to get across about the game is the fantastic design of the scenes. Items are so well hidden in plain sight that it's possible to still be discovering new objects even after half an hour of peering at a collection. Despite this, the scenes are beautifully arranged and never seem unfairly jumbled. Solving the riddles is a case of learning to shift focus between different levels of depth and detail and to question assumptions about everything from size to colour. Sometimes just working out what to find calls for lateral thinking. Each scene requires more concentration and brainwork than most games do in their entire length. It all goes to show just how lame and unimaginative the 'puzzles' are in things like Tomb Raider and Resident Evil.

Every session of Ultimate I Spy is a chance to discover and explore and slap yourself on the head for not spotting the 'obvious'. It'll give you a better mental workout than Brain Training. It seldom becomes frustrating, though, and it's always possible to progress with a little perseverance.

The game is ideally suited to the Wii since it's so easy to point at things using the wiimote. That said, it does feel like the developers' first experience of the hardware, thanks to the copious motion-sensing and rather excitable use of the wiimote speaker. For every inspired sound-effect and moment of enjoyable controller waggling, there are five pointless cranks to turn and twenty bizarre noises coming from your hand. This isn't a major problem but some of the mini-games can be quickly tiresome.

The real issue is the game's length. Play it in a determined fashion and you'll become used to the devious tricks employed by the designers, whistling through in around five hours. Theoretically, children will take much longer but they're liable to either ask for help or work together, so the time increase isn't as large as it might be. Nonetheless, the quality of what's on offer and the budget price ensure decent value for money. (There are also the high score challenges if they happen to take the kids' fancy.)

Overall, Ultimate I Spy is an excellent game. Your children may not be convinced initially but if you sit playing it in the lounge, anyone who passes by will be sucked in. Eventually, everyone in your entire household, no matter how young or old, will be staring at the screen, muttering to themselves as they look for 'four jacks, a hen, a bed; a fox on blocks and a marble that's red'.

Conclusion: Ties with House of the Dead: Overkill as the most fun I've had on Wii this year. Strange but true.

Graphics: Beautiful.

Length: Short.

Rating: 4/5.



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Knowing (DVD)

Starring: Nicolas Cage & Rose Byrne.

Rated: 15.

Story: An astrophysics professor, who is struggling with the randomness of the universe after the death of his wife, stumbles upon predictions of impending disasters. In trying to figure out what's going on and how it can all possibly be true, he finds purpose, a love interest and some big explosions...

Comments: Knowing is a strange mix of genres: one moment it's a science fiction extravaganza, the next it's a thriller and sometimes it's a ghost story. Unfortunately, although it flits between these subplots with style and ease, it's never very good at following all three at once. Each strand is tense and intriguing but the way they tie together at the end is very unsatisfying. The premise of a mysterious list of numbers warning of catastrophe is great but it ultimately turns out to be a very elaborate scheme to solve a simple problem. Like a mousetrap involving cuckoo clocks, marble runs and toy yachts, it's entertaining to watch but doesn't necessarily seem that useful.

The film feels as if it's trying to say something about the nature of belief and hope but the bizarre conclusion confuses it all. The professor's personal path to faith is providentially laid out before him, showing him exactly what he needs to see, but as with many Damascus road experiences in real life, it's perhaps not very convincing for anyone else.

Still, the acting is passable and the plot is gripping for most of the film's length. It just doesn't make much sense. The end result is both riveting and underwhelming at the same time.

Conclusion: A scenic route to a mundane destination.

Explosions: Occasional but enormous.
Weird blokes who lurk in the woods: Several.
Spooky stones: Thousands.
Scenes involving frantic paint-stripping: One.
Captured mice: None.

Rating: 3/5.

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Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games (Wii)

The Mario and Sonic family bobsleigh experience.

Rated: 3+.

Story: The eighth Harry Potter book - Harry Potter, Star Wars, McDonalds, LEGO, Rock Band and the Shameless Marketing Cash-in of Doom - fails to materialise due to various legal wranglings. Someone somewhere comes up with the next best thing...

Gameplay: Choose from one of twenty Nintendo and SEGA characters and then compete in twenty-five chilly Olympic events. These include skiing, snowboarding, ski jumping, curling, ice hockey, figure skating, the bobsleigh and speed skating. In most events, control is achieved by tilting the wiimote to change direction and flicking it to pull off jumps and tricks. Unlike the previous game based on the summer Olympics, frantic wiimote waggling is kept to a minimum, restricted to short activities like pushing off the bobsleigh and sweeping the ice in curling.

Events can be played individually or as an extended 'festival' of challenges to find the overall Olympic champion. There are also three party modes where success in events leads to an advantage in some other form of competition, such as trying to capture more squares on a board than your opponents. All these modes can be played solo or multiplayer.

When played individually in single-player, about half the events can be controlled using the Wii Balance Board.

Doing almost anything earns Star Tokens which can be spent on outfits and equipment. On top of that, dozens of emblems can be unlocked as rewards for achieving specific goals.

Save System: Achievements are automatically saved after every event. Quitting the multi-event festival on the event selection screen allows progress to be saved for the next session.

Comments: It's hard to get excited about another minigame collection for the Wii, even one where you can control a bobsleigh with your bottom. While the console's selection of first-person shooters and role-playing games is almost non-existent, there's already a 'wealth' of titles featuring a random assortment of wiimote-waggling tasks tied together in a perfunctory fashion. Unsurprisingly, most of them aren't that good, so I tend to approach a new one with more fear than anticipation...

Fortunately, Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games has a couple of things going for it, namely... Mario and Sonic. I can't imagine my boys (7 and 9) opting for a figure skating simulator under normal circumstances but with the addition of a portly plumber and a blue hedgehog, they were all over it. More than that, Mario has a reputation to maintain for only appearing in decent games and so MSOWG features a good sight more polish than the average minigame collection.

The main irritation with the game is the enormous numbers of menus, cut-scenes and loading screens which need to be navigated between each contest. Skipping through them as fast as possible can still take forever. It's particularly bad in the short events like ski jumping where it feels as if you're spending more time watching Wario do his victory dance than actually playing.

There's a reasonable variety to the games (given the source material) and the motion controls add to the fun rather than getting in the way. Much effort has also been made to increase the longevity of the experience. Winning gold in each event isn't that hard but there are plenty of modes and collectibles to reward those wanting more of a challenge.

That said, although there are officially twenty-five events, many of them are merely variations of the same thing, such as different distances of speed skating. Disappointingly, events like the bobsleigh and downhill skiing have only two courses - a real life one and an outlandish Nintendo or SEGA themed one with power-ups. If you're not fussed about breaking records or buying your Mii a Santa outfit, it's possible to try most of what the game has to offer in a few hours (much of which is reading instructions and watching victory dances).

It's initially a surprise that there's no use of Wii MotionPlus but it would appear that this is a very deliberate design choice rather than laziness. All the games can be played with only a wii remote, making them more accessible and greatly reducing the equipment required for 4-player matches. (The nunchuk can be used in a few events but it doesn't add much more than something for your other hand to hold.)

If you're looking for innovation and complexity, Mario & Sonic isn't for you. It's much more a game for kids to teach to their gran. It's got recognisable characters and objectives, plenty of content and simple controls, making it a safe bet for some family entertainment in front of the telly at Christmas. (If you can stop the children fighting over whose turn it is...)

The Mario and Sonic Wii Balance Board experience.
NOTE: This isn't me. My kids only look this pleased when I mess up the ski jump and plant my face in a snowdrift at 100 miles an hour.
Conclusion: Who knew that a curling simulator could be such fun?

Graphics: Pretty good.

Length: Obsessive collectors and multiplayer fans will be kept busy for ages.

Rating: 4/5.



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Toy Story in Digital 3D

Starring: The voices of Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, a fantastic script co-written by Joss Whedon, and some newly added depth perception.

Rated: PG.

Story: Disney decides that it's simply impossible to have too many 3D computer-animated kids' movies released in one year and sets Pixar to work adding a third dimension to its back catalogue.

Some time later, small children up and down the land scream and swallow their magic glasses in terror as Scud the dog leaps out of cinema screens at them.

Comments: If you're old enough to be able to read this, then you've probably seen Toy Story. If you haven't, then rush out to see it now. It was the first full-length computer animated movie and it's still one of the best. Pixar's output in recent years has become rather ponderous and overblown but Toy Story maintains a fast pace and has excellent dialogue with something for both adults and children. It truly is a classic.

Believe me - I've seen it dozens of times.

When my boys were small, it was their favourite film for a month or two. They watched it at lunch-time and tea-time every day. Over and over. Five years on, however, they couldn't remember anything about it but I heard every line in my head before it came out the speakers...

Without having any real need to pay attention to the words or plot, I was able to concentrate on the 3D effect:

Looking at the screen normally, there's a mild fuzziness to the picture. Putting on the polarised glasses brings everything into focus and introduces an impressive amount of depth. The effect works best on fairly stationary, close-up shots, appearing very convincing. Fast action is quite blurred, though, and landscape shots tend to be divided into distinct planes. It's a huge, full-colour improvement over the old red-and-green glasses, nonetheless.

The 3D is certainly cool but I'm yet to be convinced it's the future. I found it hard work figuring out where to focus at times and wearing the polarised glasses over my normal specs was initially uncomfortable and remained slightly niggly throughout. It will be interesting to see what film-makers achieve with the technology once they've really got to grips with it. Then we'll discover whether it can add some depth to their vision, not just the picture.

As for Toy Story itself, the boys (aged 7 and 9) loved it but Sproglette (aged 5) was less impressed. She could probably have done with some stronger female characters (not to mention some fairies and a mermaid). It didn't help that she refused to keep her glasses on and that she's scared of dogs. Ho well. Even with her sitting whining next to me, it was still great.

Conclusion: Toy Story in all its glory and in your face.

Explosions: A couple.
Quotable lines: Scores. ('We need more monkeys!' is a solution worth suggesting in the face of almost any problem.)
Dodgy 3D moments: A few.
Flying toys?: Two or three (but they're really just falling with style...)
What does 'To infinity and beyond!' actually mean?: Er...

Rating: 5/5.

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Fantasy Hobby Horse

A hobby unicorn.

Cost: £5.

Description: What every little princess needs - a unicorn on a stick! Yes, it's a hobby horse with a pink, sparkly head and a small horn. As an added bonus, squeezing its ear produces a lengthy galloping noise and some neighing. The entire monstrosity is approximately 85cm from the tip of the horn to the end of the pole.

Comments: They had a whole tub of these at our local Instore and Sproglette fell in love instantly. She had one picked out and named before I'd even realised what they were. There was no choice but to buy it in preparation for her birthday and then walk home with a fixed grin on my face and a decapitated unicorn sticking out of the top of my backpack. I had to pretend I was off to put the frighteners on Fairytale Barbie...

There's a slight wonkiness to the way the head is attached to the pole but the general quality of the construction is surprisingly good. The short reins are sturdily attached and the stitching is decent. The battery compartment can be reached via a Velcro-sealed opening, allowing the two AA batteries to be easily replaced. (The compartment itself requires a screwdriver to open.) The pole is strong but is covered with material and has enough flexibility to ensure it can't be used as a serious weapon. As a test, I bashed myself over the head with it a couple of times and barely felt a thing. (That said, the neighbours now think I'm a bit crazy.)

A hobby unicorn.
DS for scale.

All in all, the 'horse' is frightening to behold unless you're female and under seven. Sproglette is immensely pleased with it, though.

Conclusion: A little girl's dream (that may give others strangely fuchsia nightmares).

Pros:
  • The perfect steed for a small girl with princess delusions.

  • Replaceable batteries.

  • Not dangerously long and solid.
Cons:
  • Loud.

  • Pink.

  • Surface wash only.

  • Can be used for martial arts.

  • Everyone you describe it to will ask if it has a wheel and seem disappointed when they find out it doesn't.
Rating: 4/5.

Halo Wars (Xbox 360)

Rated: 16+.

Story: Twenty years before the events of Halo, a human military expedition sent to clean up remnants of a Covenant invasion on the colony world of Harvest discovers the aliens unearthing an ancient installation left by the mysterious Forerunners. What is found inside leads to a chase across uncharted space, a battle for survival, a first encounter with the Flood and plenty of clicking on lots of little green tanks to send them off to pummel lots of little purple ones.

Gameplay: Halo Wars is a real-time strategy game. In the single-player story, you get to control the human forces over fifteen missions as they battle various aliens. Most missions begin with establishing a base and choosing what buildings it should contain (e.g. barracks for producing infantry, a vehicle factory for tanks, multiple reactors to allow more advanced units, etc). Once the base is up and running, it's a case of manufacturing military units, moving a pointer where you want them to go and then sending them off to explore and fight. The quantity of resources available to build units is mainly determined by the number of supply depots in your base.

Mission objectives vary. Examples include: destroying all the opposing forces, holding out for a set amount of time, protecting civilian vehicles and escaping to an extraction point.

Save System: Save at any time. (Hurray!)

Comments: There's something about ordering tiny soldiers into battle that's quite compelling. There's a thrill from looking down on the battlefield, taking command of the situation and carving out new territory. I like to take my time over my planning, though, and way up the odds of every skirmish. As such, I tend to find real-time strategy games somewhat unsatisfying. The speed of events makes me panic and simply charge as many units as I can produce in the direction of the enemy, hoping to eventually wear them down. That this approach usually works is both a relief and a disappointment. I prefer turn-based gameplay which relies more on thoughtful tactics than lightning fast use of a controller.

The last real-time strategy (RTS) game I played at any length was Warcraft 2. That was over ten years ago. I suspect there have been plenty of advances in the genre since, most noticeably in terms of depth and complexity. Halo Wars takes a different approach, however. It's real-time strategy for beginners. Everything has been simplified and streamlined. There's no need to mine resources, pore over complicated technology trees or co-ordinate multi-pronged attacks with ninja levels of dexterity. Halo Wars cuts quickly to the fun bit of amassing a big army and sending it out to cause explosions. Strategic input is mainly limited to constructing a suitable mix of units for any given situation and making sure bases are upgraded quickly and efficiently. Far from being a letdown, though, this makes the game fun and accessible.

Halo Wars knows its own limitations and moves forward at a swift pace. The high production values, involving story and short, varied missions distract attention from the shallow nature of gameplay. Combined with a perfectly adequate control scheme and a brief but eventful campaign, these features provide a great introduction to the joys of being an armchair general without the frustration or head-scratching that other games can bring.

Conclusion: RTS for Halo fans with two left thumbs and a short attention span.

Graphics: Excellent. Units are detailed and clear and easy to tell apart. The movie sequences are amongst the best in any game.

Length: Short. Most single-player missions are around thirty minutes long on normal difficulty. There are extra maps which don't form part of the story, though.

Rating: 4/5.

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Doomsday (DVD)

Starring: Rhona Mitra. Bob Hoskins and Malcolm McDowell show up on occasion. Everyone else is cannon fodder.

Rated: 18. (Expect blood, squishiness, graphic cannibalism and exploding rabbits.)

Story: An outbreak of a lethal (and messy) virus in Glasgow causes the whole of Scotland to be quarantined. The English throw up a great big wall and leave everyone north of it to their fate.

Thirty years later, the virus reappears in London. Desperate to obtain a cure, the Prime Minister sends a military team over the border to investigate reports of survivors.

Unfortunately, it transpires that half these survivors have had nothing to do for decades but watch DVDs of Mad Max and Escape from New York. The other half have been making armour and working on their jousting skills.

The expedition runs into trouble pretty much instantly...

Comments: The world will end in New York. Fact. I've seen it on screen so many times, it must be true. Whether it involves zombies, plague, meteor showers, giant lizards, nuclear weapons, talking chimps, unexplained giant bat monsters or thirty feet of snow, New York is going to get it first. This being the case, I'm expecting to have a certain amount of warning before the apocalypse arrives. With a B&Q round the corner, I should have plenty of time to nip out and stock up on batteries, torches and chainsaws (not to mention some soothing magnolia paint to decorate my panic room).

Or that's what I thought. After seeing Doomsday, I'm not so sure. If civilisation ends in Glasgow, I might not even have opportunity to sprinkle the driveway with bear traps before the lizard and zombies arrive and start fighting on it...

Ho well. Apart from raising the disconcerting possibility of disaster striking just down the motorway, Doomsday is rather good. It's essentially a homage to any number of stunt-heavy adventure flicks from the Eighties, combined with an extra touch of polish and quite a lot more gore than I remember. As such, its plot is wafer thin but it never takes itself seriously enough for that to matter. It's all a slick excuse for a rollercoaster of shoot-outs, car combat and sword fighting. Despite these sequences being over the top, they're not reliant on wires or copious CGI, resulting in a pleasingly solid feel.

Characterisation is limited but the cast does an excellent job with what they're given. It really is refreshing to see a fully-fledged action film full of Brits and with a British setting. Watching a chase through Glasgow Queen St station, complete with signs in Gaelic, makes a welcome change from the New York subway. (Although the layout is all wrong. The real Queen St is tiny - they'd have run out of platform halfway through.)

Don't expect genius, mind you - merely dumb spectacle and plenty of fond memories of other films. I was beginning to wonder whether they made them like this anymore...

Conclusion: It's like a greatest hits compilation of action movies from the Thatcher era (with added Glaswegians). All that's missing are some aliens and a Terminator.

Vehicles that explode on impact: Several.
Cows: Hundreds.
Nefarious politicians: Two.
Kilt-wearing Can-Can dancers: Too many.
Violent uses of a pheasant: One.

Rating: 4/5.

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