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Wanted (DVD)

Starring: James McAvoy, Morgan Freeman & Angelina Jolie.

Rated: 18.

Story: A guy with a dull cubicle job and a rubbish life gets recruited by a pretty girl into a secret organisation. Before long, it turns out he has special powers enabling him to leap like an acrobat, drive like a maniac and bend the trajectory of bullets like... like... er, Elmer Fudd?

So, essentially, it's The Matrix without the computers (but with a justification for it all that's even stupider than human batteries).

Comments: You know that bit in cartoons where Daffy Duck is chased off a ledge but doesn't fall until Bugs Bunny holds up a sign saying, 'Look down, Stupid!'? Imagine those sort of principles applied to a couple of full budget car chases and a shoot out. Then throw in some madness involving weavers working as Fate's hitmen, a bit of double-crossing, an extremely high altitude train and a touch of fantasy fulfilment for bored office workers.

Yep, Wanted is daft as they come but it has excellent action sequences, decent characters and rattles along fast enough to paper over most of the cracks. It would take exceptional suspension of disbelief or a worryingly poor grasp of reality to not laugh at a few of the twists, though.

Conclusion: An astonishing spectacle that probably makes more sense after a couple of beers.

Explosions: Lots.
Totally outlandish car stunts: Several.
Assassins with no regard for the laws of physics: Plenty.
Silliness: Loads.
Effectiveness of explosive peanut butter as pest control: High... yet messy.

Rating: 4/5.


Learn to Play Chess with Fritz and Chesster (DS)

Rated: 3+.

Story: King and Queen White have gone on holiday, leaving their son Fritz in charge. King Black sees an opportunity for some mischief and challenges Fritz to a duel.

With the help of his cousin Bianca, King Kaleidoscope and a water rat, Fritz must learn to play Chess. The future of the kingdom depends on it...

Gameplay: Fritz & Chesster starts off with a handful of minigames to teach the movement patterns of the various pieces. The highlights are very basic versions of Pac-Man and Breakout.

These are followed by around fifteen tutorials on the rules of Chess, covering everything from castling to promotion. In each case, a short explanation is followed by a quiz where players must move pieces to show they've understood.

Finally, players must take on King Black in a proper Chess match.

It's possible to go back and play any of the minigames and tutorials again, and also to play one-off games of variable difficulty against the computer. Two-player games can be played using two DS consoles and a single cartridge.

Save System: Automatic save after each challenge.

Comments: Long ago, I was in the Chess club at school. I wasn't much good at it, though, and quickly progressed to games involving dice and dragons. I'm just not great at planning more than a turn ahead - in the middle of a Chess game I tend to move pieces without much purpose, simply heading in any direction which looks vaguely promising.

As a result, I hadn't played Chess in a couple of decades before trying Fritz & Chesster. The game helped me brush up on the rules and remember some of the tactics for securing a checkmate. What it didn't do was improve my strategy.

When I was ten, I had a book called something like Chess for Beginners (Part 1). Fritz & Chesster perhaps only covers half of what was in that book - there's nothing on protecting pieces, for instance, or pawn formations. How to set up the board is considered an 'intermediate' challenge. When it came to the duel with King Black, I knew the rules to Chess but I didn't have much of a clue how to go about winning a game. I got a little stuck.

Sprog1, who's eight, enjoyed the tutorials but found the minigames dull and the story too childish. As with me, he reached the duel and was slightly lost as to how to proceed in a proper game. Cunningly, he used the hint option every turn and defeated King Black on his first shot.

Now that's strategy.

When we played each other, however, it was clear that the game had taught him to play Chess, even if he was still somewhat confused on when pawns can move two spaces and what constitutes a stalemate. He gave me a decent run for my money.

Playing two-player on a couple of DSs has advantages over using a real board. Toddlers and pets are less likely to cause a catastrophe and it's possible to play a game with one child while still wandering the house dealing with others. That said, options to suggest and take back moves would have been useful additions with a beginner involved.

Fritz & Chesster achieves what it sets out to do, teaching the rules of Chess in a thorough and easily digestible fashion. Ultimately, the appeal of the game is somewhat limited, though. Anyone who's already played a few games of Chess won't learn much from it. Most children under seven will struggle to read the text while many children older than that will be put off by the kiddie presentation. If you just want to play some Chess on your DS, then 42 All-Time Classics is the way to go.

Conclusion: For absolute beginners who don't mind being taught by a cute water rat.

Graphics: Delightful, hand-drawn characters and backdrops in the story mode. Totally basic presentation in actual games.

Length: The story mode is very short. Playing Chess could last forever.

Rating: 3/5.

Heroscape Master Set - Rise of the Valkyrie

Cost: £30.

  • 30 painted plastic figures.
  • Lots and lots of interlocking board tiles of various shapes and colours.
  • 16 army cards listing the stats and abilities of the different units.
  • A stack of counters.
  • 16 order markers.
  • 12 6-sided battle dice. (3 sides have skulls, 2 shields and 1 is blank.)
  • 1 20-sided dice.
Gameplay: The three-dimensional board of hexagonal spaces is put together from layers of tiles (according to one of the included maps) and then players pit their armies against each other.

Basic game: The armies and their starting locations are predetermined. Players take it in turns to move one of their units. Some units consist of a single hero; others contain a squad of several lesser warriors. All warriors in a squad can move and attack independently when their unit is selected. The movement allowance, range, number of attack dice and number of defence dice of each unit is listed on its army card. Warriors can attack enemies that are within range and that aren't hidden behind terrain or other figures. In combat, if the attacking player rolls more skulls than the defending player rolls shields, then the defending warrior is removed from the board. If one warrior is higher than another on the board, they roll an extra dice in combat.

Master game: Players take it in turns to spend points from a set total on units to create an army. These units are then positioned on the board within predetermined deployment areas. Each round, players choose which three units they're going to use and the order they're going to use them by placing order markers (labelled 1, 2, 3 and X) on the corresponding army cards and a decoy card. The same unit can be selected more than once in a round and opposing players cannot see the numbers on the order markers. At the start of every round, players roll the 20-sided dice to see who gets to move and attack first with their '1' unit. Then play moves round the board with players taking it in turns to use their '1' units. After that, the first player uses their '2' unit, and so on.

In the master game, warriors have life points. Rather than being knocked out immediately by a successful attack, they may only be wounded. (The damage done is equal to the number of skulls rolled by the attacker minus the number of shields rolled by the defender.) All the units also have their own special skills and there are various extra rules on such things as trying to move past enemies.

Heroscape close up.
The dragon is about the size of an original DS.

Object: Each battle has its own victory conditions, such as destroying the opposing army or capturing a particular space.

Game length: Playing the game usually takes between 30 minutes and an hour. Setting up the board can take an extra twenty minutes, however, and choosing armies can easily take a quarter of an hour or more (especially when people are first learning the game and need to read the army cards carefully).

Number of players: 2-4.

Age: 8+. This seems about right, although children under ten are going to need plenty of help from an adult during the first few games. Sprog1 (nearly 9) picked things up quickly, while Sprog2 (almost 7) needed much more coaching on tactics and struggled to read the instructions for the special abilities on the army cards. After a few shots, they got the hang of it enough to play together with only the occasional rule clarification from me.

Comments: I picked this game up very cheap in a clearance sale about eighteen months ago, hoping one day to persuade the boys to play it. A couple of weeks ago, that day finally arrived and now I wish I'd bought two copies. It's a fantastic introduction to wargaming with plenty of decent figures and a well-designed board which does away with the need for faffing with tape measures.

The relatively simple main rules bring some basic strategy to proceedings, while the special abilities make things interesting. Since the instructions for these abilities are on the cards and only relevant when those units are involved in the action, they add variation without overcomplicating matters.

Once the board is set up and the armies have been chosen, battles get moving rapidly. Only being able to use three units a round isn't very realistic but it ensures that a player with any figures left on the board is still in with a chance. Results are often excitingly close.

There aren't that many scenarios supplied with the game but there are both official ones and fan creations available to download. Even without them, army selection means every game is different anyway.

The 3D board slots together easily and really enhances the look of the game and the gameplay itself. The paintwork on the figures doesn't stand up to close scrutiny but is more than adequate during an actual game. The only real complaint with the production values is that it's impossible to get all the pieces back into the box again for storage.

Sadly, the biggest issue with Heroscape is trying to locate it. This set it very hard to find in the UK these days. There is a second Master Set out in the States, though. There's also a Marvel superhero themed version. If you do find a Rise of the Valkyrie set mouldering away at the back of your local toy shop, however, snap it up instantly. (Or even better, persuade the kids to blow their pocket money on it...)

Conclusion: It's not exactly Warhammer 40,000 but Heroscape comes ready to play and is an attractive, entertaining and accessible introductory wargame.

  • Everything you need to try out tabletop wargaming.
  • Easy to grasp rules.
  • Good mix of strategy and luck.
  • There's seldom a lengthy period where it's obvious who's going to win.
  • Looks great.
  • Requires quite a large area to play.
  • The board takes a while to put together so you'll probably want to leave it out. (It's pretty big.)
  • Doesn't fit back in the box.
  • This set is now difficult to find.
  • If you're playing on the floor, the kids are likely to leave the figures lying around in ideal locations for siblings to trample, passing pets to eat or for themselves to sit on.
Rating: 5/5.

Mirror's Edge (Xbox 360)

Rated: 16+.

Story: In a city of the near future where Big Brother has taken control, you are Faith, a courier who carries illicit information for her clients, sprinting over rooftops to evade the authorities.

Then your sister gets framed for murder and it's up to you to discover what's going on.

This involves much jumping, somersaulting and falling great heights to your doom. Again and again and again and again...

Gameplay: Mirror's Edge is a first-person adventure/platformer. You see through Faith's eyes as you try to navigate your way between skyscrapers. Things to jump off or hurdle are shaded red as you approach to make them obvious against the stark white of much of the landscape. You can slide under obstacles, wall-run, barge through doors, shimmy up drainpipes and generally leap about in an insane kind of fashion.

Rather frequently, cops get in the way and you can disarm them, give them a kicking or take their guns and shoot at them. Well, you can on the rare occasions when they come at you one at a time. Most often, you have to run away before a group of them gun you down in a rather heavy-handed fashion.

Save System: Autosaved checkpoints at erratic intervals.

Comments: When it works, this game is great. Vaulting a crate, sprinting across a plank over a sheer drop, sliding under some pipes, hurling yourself over a chasm and then somersaulting to land running and barge through a door in one flowing series of movements is hugely exhilarating.

Sadly, this seldom actually happens, since it's all too easy to misjudge things and slam into an obstacle, losing momentum, or simply fluff it completely and plummet, screaming, into the depths. This is no fun. Frequently it's not even fair. The game punishes small errors in timing and aim with instant death and then sends you back rather further than you'd like. To encourage a fast pace, cops chase you everywhere. By Level 3, they have a helicopter gunship. This makes much of the game a panicked run through an obstacle course without clear direction markers. This usually leads to hitting a dead end and getting shot, or falling from a great height. It's not fun.

To make matters worse, much of the game takes place inside, turning it into a first-person Tomb Raider as you try to climb and shimmy your way around in buildings full of near-invisible glass partitions and non-functional doors. This isn't much fun either. Then the cops turn up and shoot you. This is less fun.

Oh, and playing the game up-close on a monitor, I got motion-sickness from a videogame for the first time since the days of Nintendo 64 blur-o-vision. Unsurprisingly, this wasn't much fun.

Annoyingly, Mirror's Edge has very high production values, innovative ideas and flashes of brilliance. It just doesn't play to its strengths. The adventuring and combat and plot all seem to detract from the basic thrill of dashing through the sky-line. Weirdly, it might have worked better as a racing game.

Conclusion: Thrills and frustration in equal measure.

Graphics: Very good. The crisp, white vistas are breath-taking. Some of the interiors are a little dark in contrast, though.

Length: Short.

Rating: 3/5.


Mutual Linkage IV

It's time, once again, to return the links has received from other sites. But first, let's contemplate a few of the more unusual phrases that have led anonymous web searchers here.

Some of these people have found exactly the opposite of what they wanted, such as the person searching for "great gifts for dads that do not like gameboys". Sorry about that.

Scarily, others discovered just what they were looking for, no matter how unlikely that might have seemed. "frozen diced onion review", anyone? Or how about "your grandfather owns a stud farm and has given you a horse."?

Plenty of queries fell somewhere in between. Was someone looking to buy "evil soft toys" or attempting to escape from them? Did the desperate individual crying out for somebody to "explain to me what washing up liquid is???" glean any useful knowledge? As for the search on "dream interpretation barbecued pigeons", that's anyone's guess. Personally, I'm glad to have avoided the meeting for which part of the preparation involved Googling "how to brush teeth powerpoint". I'm also hoping no one sends me a review copy of "Play fall down stairs for Wii".

I can, however, quickly comment on the following points for the next time someone comes looking:

"What's the time called between being asleep and being awake?" Early parenthood.

"While keeping everyone happy is a full-time job you manage it by multi-tasking and looking at each situation from an impartial perspective". Yeah, and with the help of chocolate.

"how long should you wear trousers before washing"? That depends to a certain extent on where you've been sitting.

"will wd40 stop a squeak on a pushchair wheel". Worked for me.

"what to wear with black chinos". Whatever you like - that's the whole point of black chinos.

"dear dave movie not released yet". Sadly, no. Don't rub it in.

"will my Xbox be delivered to me if it departed tamworth in the morning?". Only if you live really near Tamworth.

"if I buy biscuits the kids eat them all immediately". Maybe you should hook up with whoever had "mince pies coming out my ears".

"all I can remember is memories". Yes... Yes, they is...

"how much housekeeping money should our children pay". Now that's an idea.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, there are normally a few people looking for a "virtual wedgie". This took a more disturbing turn recently with a hunt for a "virtual sensual wedgie". Various specific categories of "rainwear fiction" were also popular...

Moving swiftly on to the links:

Kingston Fathers
A Kingston based group aiming to provide support for fathers and men with a fathering role with the object of encouraging them to build relationships with their children. Organises regular events in the Kingston area.

Lots of really useful stuff... particularly if you live in Hereford. Forums, a 'find a friend' section, 'nearly new' board and info on everything from local shops to toddler groups. Excellent.

Whistling in the Dark
A mum with two young children tells it like it is... (Hi, Swiggy!)

The Mockingbird
Thoughts on publishing, food, caravans and just about everything else from Sj, my Authonomy friend.

After the dress...
Yep, this is still about sewing but Gwen sent me another award, so she gets another link. :-)

The Road Less Traveled
Jen's pregnant again and it's all just an excuse to buy a new fridge...

Did I miss anyone?

Want to get in on the act? Then put a link on your own site, click through and I'll do another one of these... when enough people link to make it worthwhile.

As always, welcome to everyone, wherever you came from. Hope you find the site fun and useful.



Submerged (DVD)

Starring: Steven Seagal and Vinnie Jones.

Rated: 15.

Story: Some convicts are offered a pardon in exchange for completing a covert operation in a South American country to eliminate a rogue army officer and the evil scientist he's got working on a mind control device.

Comments: Someone somewhere obviously thought it would be a good idea to try and pass this off as Under Siege on a submarine.

It's not even close.

For a start, the submarine section is rather short and sandwiched between an assault on an underground secret base and a terrorist hunt through a city. It doesn't even make much sense.

Then again, most of the movie doesn't make much sense. It's a messy excuse for a collection of set-piece action sequences that aren't that great. It's the kind of nonsense where the bad guys stand next to explosive barrels and one man can make a frontal assault on a tank and win. There's just no invention to any of it.

Seagal is looking rather well-fed and ready to doze off. As a bonus he talks slowly and with a weird accent. He probably thought he was introducing individuality to the character but it comes across more as if someone was messing with his medication.

Conclusion: Substandard.

Explosions: Mostly for the sake of it.
Plot holes: Several.
Gory moments: A few.
Direction and dialogue: Woeful.
Who ate all the pies?: Steven Seagal.

Rating: 2/5.


The Kingdom (DVD)

Starring: Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner & Jason Bateman.

Rated: 15.

Story: A small team of FBI agents goes to Saudi Arabia to investigate a terrorist attack on US citizens. They have to deal with unfamiliar customs and politics. After a while, they befriend a local police official and get a couple of leads. Suddenly, every other person they meet has a rocket launcher.

Comments: This is actually a lot more intelligent than it sounds. The film starts with a whistle-stop history lesson of Saudi Arabia and goes out of its way to paint all the major characters not as Arabs or Westerners but as people.

Then again, the movie's not quite as clever as it likes to think. Near the beginning, lots of peripheral characters are introduced in quick succession, their names and important-sounding job titles flashing up at the bottom of the screen. The captions vanish almost immediately, giving the impression it's all fast-moving and complicated. Really, it's a case of lots of high up people not wanting any boats rocked. As events proceed, the whole thing moves into 24 mode and then full-blown action film territory.

Still, no one's motivation is entirely pure and the movie never descends into a simplistic tale of good versus evil. It's compulsive viewing throughout.

Conclusion: Slick and tense.

Explosions: Some.
Angry, vengeful people: Assorted.
Killer marbles: Buckets.
Violations of the Prime Directive: Several.
Unlikely car chases though the streets of Riyadh: One.

Rating: 4/5.


Starship Troopers 3 - Marauder (DVD)

Starring: Casper Van Dien.

Rated: 15.

Story: Humanity is under threat from alien bugs and war rages across the galaxy. Back home, the totalitarian regime manipulates the situation for its own ends.

Johnny Rico returns from the first film to shoot giant bugs and flirt with cute, girlie troopers... again.

Comments: Space ships, big guns, beautiful people and large bugs exploding in a splatter of slime - the Starship Troopers films are dumb fun. As an unexpected extra, there's also a little lesson on the dangers of Fascism and media manipulation.

The first film deals with demonisation of enemies, the second with the idolisation of heroes and this third one covers the appropriation of religion for political purposes. It's not deep but considering we're talking about an action flick with explosions, gratuitous nudity and giant bugs, it's impressive. Although it's unclear whether the conclusions are ambiguous by design or through fuzzy reasoning, there's more to think about than in many projects with vastly higher budgets.

Conclusion: Cheap, silly and surprisingly entertaining.

Explosions: Plenty.
Big bugs: Hordes.
Huge bugs: A few.
Absolutely astoundingly enormous bugs and slimy, psychic, pop-singing, human military commanders: One of each.

Rating: 3/5.


Saints Row 2 (Xbox 360)

Rated: 18.

Story: You are the leader of the 3rd Street Saints, a gang which has wiped out the competition to control the city of Stilwater.

Well, you were...

You wake up from a lengthy coma to discover that there are new gangs in town, your old neighbourhood has been redeveloped and the Saints have disbanded. You're back to stealing loose change and dreaming of the big time.

Luckily, it doesn't take long to get hold of a bazooka and start causing some mayhem...

Gameplay: Think Grand Theft Auto with more explosions and even less realism.

Drive around town, taking on missions to gain the turf of rival gangs. These mostly involve some combination of driving, shooting and blowing stuff up. Occasionally you have to fly somewhere or guard something.

To unlock missions you have to earn respect by doing whatever activities you can find. There are dozens of options, from entering a demolition derby to throwing yourself in front of traffic to commit insurance fraud. Even driving dangerously earns respect, adding spice to every journey.

Save System: Autosave after each mission.

Comments: The original Saints Row was disparaged for being nothing more than a blatant copy of Grand Theft Auto III with better graphics, improved combat and mid-mission checkpoints. Quite why people would want to complain about a version of GTA with most of the major irritations removed is a mystery, however. I thought it was rather fun (in a Daily Mail-baiting kind of way).

Saints Row 2 is pretty similar, except it's Grand Theft Auto IV with worse graphics, improved combat and mid-mission checkpoints. If it's a while since you played the first game, you're going to struggle to spot the differences. The most noticeable are helicopters, planes and some extra types of side mission, such as protecting celebs from harassment and pretending to be a cop for reality TV. The 'Stronghold' missions to capture enemy territory have also been made more interesting. The story is remarkably familiar, only this time the main character has plenty of dialogue but the plot is slightly weaker.

The main gripe is that the whole thing is a little rough around the edges with slightly substandard graphics and a number of bugs. The final few missions are a little underwhelming as well. Less of a problem (but still annoying) are numerous references to the first game without giving a proper recap.

Saints Row 2 is nowhere near as clever or impressive as GTA IV. It is more fun, though. The simple street layouts keep it accessible and there's always something fun to do. Dull journeys are avoided and messing up normally results in a little setback rather than teeth-grinding punishment.

Obviously, this isn't a game for children - it's full of swearing, drugs, violence and sexual references - but it's not going to bring an end to civilisation. The over-the-top nature of it all firmly separates it from reality. Impressively, however, the script somehow manages to portray the homicidal psychopaths in your gang as likable people you'd want to go for a beer with. Then, every so often, they do something that's just plain nasty, bringing you up short and putting all their other actions back into scary perspective. Ultimately, this gives a better insight into the nature of evil than any number of World War II games where you get to heroically slaughter Nazis.

Or maybe I'm reading too much into it and it is all about driving dangerously and shooting things...

Conclusion: Saints Row 1.5.

Graphics: The options menu lets you choose between slow-down or screen-tear, so it's safe to say there are plenty of minor issues. Nothing interferes with the fun, though, and good art design frequently makes Saints Row 2 more interesting to look at than many more technically competent games. Only some barren interior locations let things down.

Rating: 4/5.

Babylon A.D. (DVD)

Starring: Vin Diesel & Michelle Yeoh.

Rated: 12.

Story: In the not-so-distant future, a gruff mercenary (Diesel) must escort a mysterious young woman and her mentor (Yeoh) from a Mongolian convent to America. Along the way, they get involved in plenty of random violence, some dubious genetic manipulation and the cynical machinations of a New Age cult.

Just to make sure we know it's the future, showers talk to them.

Comments: Sometimes, despite being bad, a film can display something of its original potential. It's possible to see what the makers might have achieved if only they hadn't messed up. Perhaps with more money or stronger performances, a tighter script, better pacing or a touch of divine intervention, the project might have worked out.

Then there are movies like Babylon A.D. which are such a mess you wonder if you're unwittingly watching a reel of deleted scenes rather than the film itself.

What was everyone involved thinking? The script is incoherent and the dialogue ranges from uninteresting to nonsensical. Bizarre locations and dull action sequences are inserted for the sake of it. The plot and characters take so long to develop, it's hard to care about them. In fact, after an hour and a quarter, I was desperate to fast-forward the film to the end. On checking, however, I discovered I was only ten minutes from the credits anyway. I was relieved but also hugely confused since the movie seemed barely half way through...

Babylon A.D. feels like science fiction put together by people whose only experience of the genre is Escape from New York, Highlander: The Source and a few snatches of Blade Runner. ('Look! Talking showers, lots of guns, neon advertising and really, really big TVs - it's the future! Let's add some thugs on motorbikes...') There's no depth or point to it, merely some cool gadgets. It's a shambles.

Conclusion: Not quite as engaging as the episode of Basil Brush my kids are currently watching as they eat their tea.

Explosions: Some.
Unexpected location changes: Several.
The accidental cage match: Implausible.
Kung Fu nuns: One.
The best bit?: The end arriving an hour ahead of schedule.

Rating: 1/5.