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Geomag, Magnetix and similar stuff

Geomag & Magnetix boxes.

Cost: Somewhere between a few pounds and the expense of replacing the most valuable gadget in your house.

  • Magnetic, plastic covered, metal rods.
  • Steel balls.
  • Some sets also include plastic panels.
Gameplay: Discover the joys of magnetism! Connect the rods and balls together to create shapes and models in which the joints rotate freely. Make geometric designs and scientific-looking structures. Build whatever you like... and then run out of bits before it's entirely recognisable. Pretend the experience is educational.

Age: 3+. Officially this is to ensure that children don't eat the pieces. You'll want to make sure they're also old enough to understand not to rub them against the TV, post them in the DVD player or put them within three feet of any memory cards... on pain of death.

Comments: These always look great fun in the TV adverts but magnets and electronics don't mix well so I've never been that keen on letting Geomag (or any of the knock-offs) into my house. Nonetheless, the kids were given a couple of sets so I had to face my fears.

There's no harm in being cautious, though:

I insisted the stuff was only played with in Sproglette's bedroom (which contains very few gadgets). Even then, it had to be kept in the middle of the carpet - just to make sure no pieces went missing, only to be discovered three weeks later wiping the hard-drive of my laptop. Sitting there, with empty carpet all around us, I thought I was safe until I realised that my bank cards and phone were in my pocket...

And I was this paranoid before I learnt that one of Sprog1's friends managed to write-off a telly with some Geomag when she was younger.

It's not even that great to play with. Making geometric objects is enjoyable for a little while but creating anything else is remarkably tricky. Having freely rotating joints is all very well but it means structures aren't rigid - a single nudge can totally skew them and they can collapse under their own weight.

Sproglette usually ends up making worms from the rods. She gets annoyed the balls don't stick together on their own but that the rods keep attaching to each other when she doesn't want them to.

When buying sets, it's also worth remembering that the simplest construction involves more pieces than you think. This takes twenty, for instance:

Geomag cube.
I was going to use an original DS for scale but then decided against it...
This is closer to fifty:

Hexagonal Magnetix structure.

Quite how many pieces are required for that scale model of the Houses of Parliament in the TV adverts is anybody's guess.

Conclusion: Not worth the stress. Stick to LEGO or K'NEX.

  • Magnets are always fun.
  • You might be able to 'accidentally' wipe any old Tweenies videos you have lying around.
  • Takes skill and a stack of pieces to produce anything other than geometric shapes.
  • Creations are not robust enough to be played with.
  • Could destroy your gadgets.
Rating: 2/5.

Nerf N-Strike (Wii)

Nerf N-strike box.

Rated: 7+.

Story: You've been enlisted to a secret organisation and must undergo a training programme which involves shooting robots with Nerf guns. Score higher than the other candidates in all the tests and you're in.

Or at least that's what the sinister robot who recruits you says...

Gameplay: Point the wiimote at the screen to aim a cursor. Press B to shoot.

There are around twenty different tests, about a third of which are shooting gallery challenges - shoot all the red robots as they appear, for instance, or hold off an onslaught of robots flying towards you in waves. There are also three standard lightgun game sections where you traipse automatically through grey corridors, firing on any robots which show up.

Some of the tests are much more imaginative, though, requiring such things as knocking balls into goals. The best bits are the block challenges which mimic BOOM BLOX - hit various blocks off a platform without dislodging the gold ones or blast a path clear to a goal block through a tower of other blocks.

Save System: Automatic save after each event.

Comments: Every so often I get sent stuff to review. Some of it is obviously brilliant, other stuff takes a while to grow on me but seldom am I presented with anything where my initial reaction is to view it as a work of genius.

Actually, my first reaction with Nerf N-strike was to wonder why the postman was giving me a funny look. After he'd gone, I realised the parcel had this sticker on it:

Reads 'Do Not Fly. This bag contains items which are not premitted to fly.'

No wonder he was worried.

Still, I opened it up to discover this:

Nerf gun

It's a plastic gun which fires foam darts. With the press of a button, the dart mechanism can be removed and replaced with a wiimote (not included!). It's both a fully-functioning Nerf gun and a computer game controller. Genius! Someone somewhere is either very clever or getting a ten-year-old boy to design products for them (or possibly both).

The gun with the firing mechanism removed and a wiimote inserted.

Surprisingly, the Wii game that comes bundled with the gun isn't the complete pile of steaming nappies you might expect. The developers were obviously given a budget of tuppence but they've applied some imagination to make up for the limited options and bland graphics. The block shooting tasks in particular are a great idea and require some thought as well as accuracy. Overall there's a good mix of things to do and the game is fun and seldom frustrating.

Sadly, having to sit around shooting endless waves of robots in a warehouse isn't so good. Also, the bits where Nerf N-Strike mimics typical lightgun games, guiding you along corridors while you target enemies, are functional rather than inspired. The main problem, however, is that the single player game is very brief. It can be completed in under three hours (although unlocking all the weapons and gaining gold medals in every event will take longer). Adding proper high-score charts and more levels to the challenges would have taken little effort, so it's a shame they weren't included.

Multiplayer is where the longevity lies. Most of the tests can be played by four people simultaneously competing for the highest score. Up to ten events can be queued up to create a tournament with points awarded for player position in each round. Some of the events are absolute mayhem and they have the advantage of being easy to explain. Anyone with even the most basic knowledge of a wiimote can be ready to play in the time it takes for an event to load. If you've got visitors (whether adults or children), this is a great way to pass half an hour.

You can buy extra guns separately (RRP £12.99) but you don't need them. Since the cursor follows the movement of the gun instead of showing exactly where it's pointing, using a wiimote on its own works just as well (like in the target range in Wii Play). Holding the gun is more fun but it's a little heavy after a while. Oh, and be warned, I had to explain at great length to Sprog2 (almost 7) why we couldn't simply fire the real darts at the telly...

Of course, if you're trying to decide between this and the technicolor zombie blasting of House of the Dead: Overkill then you're really not going to opt for Nerf N-Strike. For children, the competition is much more limited. Nerf N-Strike isn't as polished as Link's Crossbow Training but it's less frustrating and has multiplayer.

Also, it comes with a Nerf gun.

Now, if only the postman didn't think I was a terrorist...

Conclusion: Feels like some training levels looking for a proper game to be part of. It's still fun, nonetheless, and has a riotous 4-way multiplayer which sure as heck beats playing Wii Bowling again.

Graphics: Grey arenas, corridors, rooms and warehouses. A handful of robots. Lots and lots of different Nerf guns.

Length: Very short.

Rating: 3/5.

Orcs & Elves (DS)

Rated: 12+.

Story: You've taken a trip with your talking wand to visit the local mountain full of dwarves. When you arrive, however, you discover they're all gone, the tunnels are infested with monsters and some evil priestess is intent on taking over the world.

So it's a usual morning at parent and toddler, really...

Gameplay: You wander around a dungeon, whacking opponents over the head with a sword. The action is turn-based, so you move or attack and then the monsters move or attack. Defeating enemies earns experience. Get enough experience and you go up a level, becoming stronger and tougher.

As the game progresses you gain new spells and weapons.

Save System: Manual save at any time.

Comments: The DS is liable to be the best selling games console ever. Why don't Western developers want to make games for it? This is the only traditional Dungeons and Dragons inspired role-playing game on the system that I can think of.

Sadly, it's a conversion of a mobile phone game, so it's rather basic - trudge through mazes, locating keys to open up new mazes with fresh keys in them. There are a few block pushing puzzles and loads of monsters but not much depth. The main strategy comes from deciding when to drink potions and working out which weapons are most effective against particular monsters. It's barely more complicated than Doom. This being the case, the turn-based nature of events seems more a legacy from the game's mobile phone origins than a suitable choice for the DS. The role-playing elements should have been increased or it should have been made into a free-roaming shooter.

Nevertheless, Orcs and Elves is OK and a pleasant piece of nostalgia for those who have fond memories of Stonekeep and Dungeon Master.

Briefly, anyway.

Ultimately, however, it's a somewhat disappointing, stripped-down version of a twenty-year-old game.

Conclusion: Better than all the competition... Oh, hang on...

Graphics: Good enough. They'd look great on a mobile phone but the DS can cope with so much more. Can we have a proper Dungeon Master clone, please, someone...? Anyone...?

Length: Short.

Rating: 3/5.

Tears of the Sun (DVD)

Starring: Bruce Willis and Monica Bellucci.

Rated: 15.

Story: As civil war breaks out in Nigeria, a team of US Navy SEALS enters the country to extract an American aid worker (Bellucci). She won't leave without a bunch of refugees she's been helping, though. The soldiers choose to ignore orders and do what they can to help the locals.

This mainly involves shooting other locals.

Comments: In many ways, Tears of the Sun is remarkably similar to the recent Rambo sequel - different continent but the same tale of a cute foreign aid worker being extracted from a jungle swarming with sadistic enemies. In this one, however, it's an entire squad of soldiers led by Bruce Willis saving the day rather than just Stallone with a very big gun.

On a moral level, it's all very cut and dried. The Americans blunder into a conflict that has inhuman psychopaths on one side and innocent walking-wounded on the other. Failing to help the refugees out, despite orders not to interfere, is clearly presented as unacceptable behaviour for decent people, no matter how many brutalised conscripts get blown up in the process.

As an action film Tears of the Sun is quite uneven. There's very little action at all in the first half, giving the impression the whole thing is going to be a tense reflection on the horrors of war. Skirmishes become more frequent after that but the humungous, explosion-filled battle at the end seems incongruous and unbelievable, nevertheless. Cameroon springs up from nowhere and suddenly it's a sprint to the border with airstrikes and bazookas everywhere. Unfortunately, following on from the scenes of cruelty and torture earlier in the film, a standard Hollywood blast-fest just doesn't seem appropriate.

The movie is more palatable than Rambo but the message still appears to be 'War is terrible; let's send in some Americans with guns to sort it out'.

I'm not entirely convinced...

Conclusion: A film confused enough to cast Monica Bellucci as an American...

Explosions: Lots but they're saved for the end.
Pretty views of jungle: Plenty.
Not so pretty views of torture: Almost as many.
Indistinguishable SEALs wearing camouflage and facepaint: Six... No, eight... Er... Or were there ten?
The answer to all the world's problems: Bruce Willis.

Rating: 2/5.


Resident Evil - Degeneration (DVD)

Starring: Some voice actors who no doubt wish to remain nameless... and an umbrella.

Rated: 15.

Story: Terrorists have released the T-virus in an airport and there's a danger the G-virus may be let loose as well. Leon S Kennedy and Claire Redfield must renew their Raccoon City partnership, shoot some zombies in the head and then have a never-ending boss battle with a mutated monster that just won't die.

So, yeah, imagine a new Resident Evil game with no actual game, only the cutscenes.

Scary, eh?

(And not in a good way...)

Comments: Capcom have milked the Resident Evil franchise hard since the release of the first game in 1996. After almost twenty different games, three live-action films and a stack of merchandising, here's a computer-animated movie picking up the plot a while after Resident Evil 4. That's the game, not the film, by the way, since the storylines in the two media have diverged. But, then again, if you didn't know that already you should probably move along now because Degeneration is hard enough to follow even with a hazy memory of having played half a dozen of the games.

In particular, if Resident Evil 2 passed you by, you're not going to get much out of this.

Sadly, however, knowing your Umbrella from your T-virus still doesn't make Degeneration much fun. The first twenty minutes show some promise: decent visuals, a vaguely intriguing setup, familiar characters and zombies. There's a possibility it might all rumble along nicely. Then Leon turns up and everything goes pear shaped. Nothing makes sense, the middle section is dull and the final third is an excess of daft mayhem allowed to run wild without the budget restraints of live-action.

Some of the dialogue is so bad it's almost good but most of it is just plain bad. The voice acting is frequently wooden and occasionally the pauses between lines are too long, as if the recordings haven't been edited together properly. It speaks volumes about the quality of the script that Leon has to spend a couple of minutes at the end of the film explaining what was going on and the motivations of the other characters.

We've grown used to this level of ineptness in games because the cutscenes are dictated by the confines of the unlikely gameplay (which in Resident Evil consists of searching spooky mansions for weird keys while shooting zombies and solving obscure logic puzzles). As long as the games are fun to play, it doesn't matter if the story is ropey - the clunky dialogue adds to the B-movie atmosphere. Take out the game, however, and all that's left is a B-movie.

Conclusion: Plan Zombie from Outer Space.

Explosions: Plenty.
Brooding loners, cute little girls who need rescued, dodgy senators, unstoppable monsters, underground facilities and scientists who talk too slowly: One of each.
Ridiculous feats of acrobatics: Several.
Impressive CGI: Lots.
Good writing: None.

Rating: 2/5 if you've enjoyed the games, else 1/5.


In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale (DVD)

Starring: Jason Statham, Ray Liotta, Burt Reynolds, Shaggy, Gimli, Hellboy, Terminator 3 and that Lara-a-like who was in CSI: New York for a bit.

Rated: 15.

Story: A farmer in a generic fantasy kingdom battles his way through a horde of generic green men in rubber masks to defeat a generic evil wizard on a generic quest to rescue his generic pretty wife.

And the farmer's name?


I mean, honestly...

Comments: You're going to have to like sword fights for this one.

Sometimes these are the kind of sword fight where a hero can leap up and run across the heads of a gaggle of opposing soldiers to reach his goal, where 'elves' swing on vines that move as if the end off-screen is attached to a zip line and where a boomerang can hit two 'orcs' hard enough to knock them out but still return to the thrower's hand. Mostly they're the kind of sword fight where the hero laboriously cuts a swathe through a massed brawl of extras. It's probably the same extras in each scene, only the scenery changes - a village, a forest, a forest at night, a cave, a forest in the rain, a barn, a forest at night in the rain, a different forest...

Seriously, this film must have the about the highest SFPM (Sword Fights per Minute) rate of any movie ever, making it rather dull and repetitive after not very long. This isn't helped by poor dialogue, hammy acting and a plot that's less sophisticated than those featured in a majority of the old Dungeons & Dragons cartoons.

The combined result is something that appears more of a montage of deleted scenes from the Lord of the Rings than anything else.

Conclusion: Plenty of swords but you'll soon tire of them and spend most of the film wondering what form of sorcery was used to convince so many recognisable faces to take part.

Explosions: None.
Swords: Countless.
Cute females: Three.
Boomerangs that defy the laws of physics: One.
Ways the film could be improved: Plenty. (Almost anything would work. For instance, how about some Scooby-Doo? Matthew Lillard doesn't look right without a computer-animated dog next to him.)

Rating: 2/5.


Relate for Parents - Text and web chat services

Not so much a review today, more a public service announcement:

The forums at Homedad are the best UK web resource for finding other housedads and getting practical advice on fatherhood. Sometimes, though, you might not want to share your problems with the entire internet. Handily, Relate for Parents has recently launched a couple of new services offering support and information - Live Talk and SMS Text messaging.

Live Talk enables parents to pose questions and explore parenting difficulties in a live web chat. Consultants offer empathy and understanding, along with suggestions and other sources of support. Parents using SMS Text send their parenting issue or query, such as how to defuse a row or where to find local counselling, to 60616 and get an answer straight to their mobile. Both services are free and offer personally tailored responses.

The operating hours are 9-5 weekdays and 7-9 Monday, Wednesday and Sunday evenings, so this is an avenue for considered questions rather than late night emergencies. Nonetheless, the services are certainly a good first port of call if you want some help on relationship issues. In particular, it's hard to think where else there is to go when dealing with teenagers or grown-up kids.

The website itself features articles on such issues as divorce, self harm, stress and eating disorders. There are also links to various parental support groups.

Worth checking out.

(Back to films with explosions next week...)

Battleground: Crossbows and Catapults War Chest Starter Set

Crossbows and Catapults box.

Cost: £25

Contents: The set contains two armies (orcs vs knights), each consisting of:
  • 8 warrior figures.
  • 1 catapult.
  • 1 crossbow.
  • 1 cannon.
  • 1 castle with crossbow on top.
  • 5 flags.
  • 2 extra life discs.
  • 1 hero.
  • 12 wall bricks.
  • 8 firing disks.
  • Several spare elastic bands.
Gameplay: Players set up their armies about 50cm apart. Warriors and flags can be hidden behind walls but not behind weapons or the castle. For a weapon to be active, a warrior or hero must be in front of it and within 5cm. To use the castle catapult, a figure must be standing on the balcony. Each turn, a player is allowed two actions. An action consists of firing a weapon, moving a warrior/weapon 15 cm or moving a hero 30cm. Knocking over a flag, warrior or brick with weapon fire takes it out of play. If a player's hero is knocked over before all their other warriors are defeated, the hero is stood up again and the player misses an action on their next go. If all a player's flags are knocked over, they miss their next go, their flags are stood up again and the attacker gets a warrior back. Hitting the castle gate causes it to spring up. Any warrior on the balcony is removed from play and the catapult cannot be used for the rest of the game.

Crossbows and Catapults in action.
Original DS for scale.

Object: To knock down all the opponents warriors and then their hero.

Game length: 45 minutes, although shorter games are possible by reducing the number of pieces.

Number of players: 2-4. It's really a two-player games but, since each side has two shots per turn, playing in teams of two works reasonably well.

Crossbows and Catapults contents.

Age: 6+. Children younger than this will struggle to hit anything and are more likely to break the weapons. That said, with help, they can still take part. When Sproglette (4) insists on joining in, I aim a catapult and hold it steady while she fires. She hits things about as often as I do.

Comments: Lots of little plastic figures, model catapults that actually fire and some dinky battlefield scenery to go with them - I've wanted Crossbows & Catapults since I was about eight. As my boys have shown a disappointing lack of interest in Action Man and Playmobile over the years, however, I wasn't too sure how enthusiastic they'd be at the prospect of the game. Luckily, Nintendo's release schedule was pretty slim this Christmas so I seized my opportunity and bought it for them anyway.

It's ace.

Even the boys took to it once I'd got it set up and started firing missiles across the room. There's a small amount of strategy involved but the rules are simple and it's more a fairground test of skill than a Warhammer-style tactical battle. Hitting the opposing forces is surprisingly difficult, resulting in a great deal of satisfaction when a shot connects.

It certainly makes a change to play an indoor game which involves neither computers nor dice. One issue, though, is that the game requires a minimum of around 2m x 1.5m of floor space to allow enough room for the pieces and players. (Playing on a kitchen table would be possible but would almost certainly lead to discs disappearing under the fridge, so isn't really worth it.) Also, the cannons didn't seem to work very well until I put an extra elastic band on each of them.

All in all, my three children and I have had a great deal of fun with this. Admittedly, when left to play on their own, the boys spent the entire time bickering over everything from who's shot it was to exactly how far 15 cm is, but that's the way it goes I suppose. At least it's been a break from listening to them bicker over which way to head in LEGO Star Wars...

Conclusion: Being a dad finally pays off.

  • A complete battlefield in a box.

  • Fun test of skill and luck.

  • Simple to pick up; tough to master.

  • Lots of decent-quality pieces.

  • So much more fun than Monopoly, you won't believe it.
  • Takes up an entire room.

  • Cannons and crossbows require practice to get the most from them.

  • Hard to find in the shops.

  • Liable to break if accidentally trodden on.

  • Will look like a pile of tasty treats to passing toddlers and Labradors.
Rating: 5/5.