Partnering with Tearfund

Taken (DVD)

Starring: Liam Neeson.

Rated: 18.

Story: Bryan Mills, an ex-spy, attempts to live a normal life and get to know his seventeen-year-old daughter (much of whose childhood he missed because he was too busy explosively fixing things in far-flung countries).

When she is kidnapped on a trip to Paris, he jets after her and finds himself caught between the French police and a human-trafficking ring.

He 'fixes' things.

Comments: There's a surprising amount of scene-setting in Taken. Getting on for half the film is filled with laying out the premise and establishing Mills' backstory and his relationships with his daughter and ex-wife. Thanks to Neeson's charisma, these elements are watchable enough but you can't help thinking it's all rather excessive for such a clich├ęd scenario.

Things only really get going once the dramatic (but somewhat unlikely) kidnapping occurs. Once he's in France, Mills utilises all his cunning and training to hunt down those responsible. There are some clever moments but events become rapidly unbelievable as the action ramps up. What starts as a tense investigation turns into manic car chases, ruthless brawls and the kind of gun battles where one determined dad with a pistol takes out a horde of bad guys dual-wielding Uzis. Unfortunately, the gung-ho action doesn't sit entirely comfortably with the sordid setting. Some of the scenes of human exploitation are quite depressing - turning the situation into Die Hard is unsettling for the wrong reasons.

Ultimately, Taken is rather unbalanced. It feels like the first and last episodes of 24: Season 1 slammed together with some extra implausibility and a protagonist who's slightly too old to be throwing himself off bridges.

Oh, and remember, if your teenage kids don't appreciate and respect you even though you're a nice guy and working really hard to make them happy, nothing fixes things better than saving their lives by going and wreaking havoc in a European capital...

Conclusion: Like someone held the script the wrong way up so most of the common sense fell out and all the action settled to the bottom.

Explosions: More like a couple of small fires.
Body count: Exponential.
Profound insights into parent-teenager relationships: Not many.
Bad guys capable of hitting a stationary man using an automatic weapon in a confined space: None.
Portrayal of France: They should sue.

Rating: 3/5.

LOVEFiLM DVD Rental

VoucherCodes.co.uk

I was thinking of writing a review of the latest Harry Potter film but then decided there wasn't much point. Chances are, if you've seen the others, then you're going to get round to The Half-Blood Prince sometime anyway. If you haven't watched the previous five films or read the books, then you're not going to follow a word - go and read The Philosopher's Stone.

This all makes a review rather redundant but, in case you were wondering, as Harry Potter films go, The Half-Blood Prince is OK. It kind of feels like an extended warm up for the last two, though.

So, that's that then. I think I'll go and enjoy a couple of hours of peace and quiet before I have to go and get Sproglette from school.

Oh, while we're here, you might want to check out VoucherCodes.co.uk. They've got a Back to School special running at the moment. The site lists offers and discounts for a whole host of online stores. Unfortunately, since these offers are sorted by store rather than product, it can be rather a trial finding anything specific. You'll probably discover a saving for something else you're after along the way, however, so it's worth a look.

Right, I'm off for a lie down...

Ready Steady Cook (DS)

Rated: 3+.

Story: Just like in the TV show, you must race against time to produce a tasty dish from an odd assortment of ingredients. Defeat your opponent by doing well and winning the audience vote.

Gameplay: Each recipe is split up into a succession of mini-games controlled entirely by using the stylus. Some of these mini-games mimic the real life action, so chopping involves swiftly moving the stylus in straight lines over a picture of the item to be diced. Other games are much more stylised - opening a can requires tapping dots as they appear, while draining peas is simulated by catching them in a colander at the bottom of the screen as they fall down from on high. One or two of the games need a bit of practice to get the hang of them but there's a handy training mode where you can work on specific ones.

There are 60 recipes in total, each playable at three different difficulties. The more complicated ones need to be unlocked by completing the simpler ones but they're all available to read in cook book form from the start if you want to try making them for real. There's a selection from British, Mexican, Oriental, Indian and Mediterranean.

The game can be played two-player with two DSs and only one cartridge. Players attempt the same recipe simultaneously. The one who makes the fewest mistakes is the winner.

Save System: Automatic save after every recipe attempt.

Comments: If you play plenty of computer games, you're probably suspecting that this is a cheap and cheerful Cooking Mama clone aimed at your mum. It may surprise you to learn that it is, in fact, an open world adventure featuring acrobatic exploration through seedy gang territory in search of mythical ingredients while being chased by aliens and bald space marines with big guns...

Actually, no, that's a lie. You were right all along.

Ready Steady Cook is a competent collection of twenty short, culinary mini-games. These are put together in different combinations to simulate recipes. Each recipe takes around four minutes to play and has a good mix of memorisation, precision, timing and frantic stylus waggling. Played for a quarter of an hour, it's quite entertaining. Play it for longer than that in one sitting, though, and it becomes incredibly repetitive. Most of the mini-games only last a few seconds, so you'll have played them all before you know it.

The game is a passable diversion for short bus journeys and coffee breaks, nonetheless. As a bonus, once you've spent a while staring at the pictures of food, the proper recipes are presented in a clear and well-organised fashion so you can prepare them yourself if you're feeling industrious.

Alternatively, you could buy it for your mum, let her play it for a bit and then stand around looking hungry...

Conclusion: It's not going to set the world alight but anyone who finds the idea of a Ready Steady Cook game appealing will be happy enough with this. (Those wishing to be chased by aliens and space marines should look elsewhere.)

Graphics: Limited but adequate.

Length: Short. Beating all the recipes on 'Hard' will take a while but this is really a game to play for a few minutes every so often.

Rating: 3/5.

Waybuloo magazine

Waybuloo magazine.

Cost: £2.35 per issue.

Contents:

  • 28 page magazine designed to 'help your child learn about feelings and understand emotions'.

  • Pull-out reward chart.

  • Over 100 stickers - some to use in the magazine, some for the reward chart and plenty of spares.

  • A 'free' gift. Past gifts include finger puppets and stampers.

  • Good vibes and positive energy.
Age: 2-5 years. Activities don't get much more taxing than sticking stickers and/or colouring in.

Waybuloo magazine and gifts.

Comments: Then Nok Tok had a thinkapow. He asked Yojojo to play his music, Lau Lau to give the plant a bongleberry, and then everybody danced. The happy plant grew and flowered. "Nok Tok's happy plant likes music, bongleberries and Cheebies!" said Nok Tok, happily. The happy plant was very happy too... Waybuloo!

Someone at the BBC has clearly tapped directly into my daughter's brain. I haven't had a look in there myself but I'm fairly sure I would find flowers and butterflies and cute, pink, floating, Yoga-loving cats inside if I took a peek. Personally, I think I'd have preferred it if they'd stayed there. But no. They've been sucked right out and turned into a show with a heavy emphasis on wind chimes and the breathless admiration of brightly-coloured gardening equipment.

Oh, goodness...

The magazine is very true to the TV programme, just with added stickers. Many of the stickers say stuff like 'You make me happy' and 'You're lovely'. Each issue has a topic such as sharing or learning to listen to others. I suppose this is a good idea but it's a shock to the system after all the books and games which have tried to teach my kids to read and count. In fact, I feel a little unwell. I think I may be allergic to this magazine.

Vomit-inducing picture of a pink cat-creature and a butterfly thing.
Warning: May cause nausea.

In the story quoted above, Nok Tok's plant fails to grow because he refuses to listen to his friends' advice. He foolishly persists in giving it food, water and sunshine rather than playing it music and getting children to talk to it. Things almost go very badly until he learns the error of his ways... This is so many different kinds of wrong, I'm not sure where to begin. Even Sproglette (who wants to be a mermaid fairy princess when she grows up) found some of the details hard to swallow. No harm done, though - when I suggested she share her finger puppets with Sprog2, it took me three attempts to get her to listen and then she refused. She can't be taking it too much to heart.

At least the activities are well judged for young children. There's no writing or word searches or anything like that. The production quality of the magazine and stickers is also very high. If I can persuade Sproglette to go for Numberjacks again next time, however, I might be able to cope better. Still, I suspect those parents with a more artistic nature will love Waybuloo. And I should simply be thankful it's not Pink.

Conclusion: Want to set your little darling on course for an English Literature degree? Then this is the magazine for you.

Pros:

  • Good mix of activities and stories.

  • Lots of material on every page.

  • Deals sensibly with emotional and social issues at a level pre-schoolers can understand.

  • Ideal if you live in Stepford.

  • Not as twee as Disney's Princess magazine...
Cons:

  • ...but contains far fewer pictures of Belle and Ariel.

  • Slightly too much colouring in.

  • So fluffy it needs to be held down with a brick to stop it floating away.
Rating: 4/5.

G.I. Joe (Wii)

Rated: 16+. This is somewhat ludicrous, however. It's a game involving lots of shooting but there's no blood, and defeated enemies discretely fade away. If the faceless, body-armoured adversaries were given a silver coat of paint and called robots, the game would most likely be a 7+. It's about as realistic as two eight-year-olds playing war with their action figures.

Story: Some secret military squad of good guys is after an equally secret organisation of bad guys. The bad guys have an army of goons; the good guys have a selection of big guns.

Put them together and...

Gameplay: G.I. Joe essentially involves running round shooting things (from a third-person point of view). Two players can work together cooperatively or one player can take on the horde with the help of a computer-controlled assistant.

Each character has their own standard weapon and can unleash special attacks every so often. More rarely, it's possible to power up for a brief burst of invincibility. Characters can hide behind cover and there are occasional vehicle sections.

Save System: Automatic save at the end of a level.

Comments: Even by the standards of movie tie-ins this is dreadful. The cover system is fiddly and ineffective, the vehicles are a pain to control and the levels are forgettable and linear. Those are only the minor issues, though.

On the easiest difficulty, it's essentially impossible to die - take too much damage and you disappear for a few seconds and lose some points. This works in the LEGO games because the puzzling and exploring is as important as the fighting. In G.I. Joe it simply means that pressing up on the control stick and holding down fire is enough to progress through most situations. Watching the screen is frequently unnecessary. If anything, the longer I spent with my eyes shut during a level, the better my score got...

On the next difficulty setting up, if your character dies, the other player has to progress on their own to the next checkpoint. In a single-player game, you switch control to the character formerly controlled by the computer. If the surviving character reaches the checkpoint, the other character is reinstated. If they don't make it, it's right back to the start of the level. Even if they die while fighting the end-of-level boss.

This is obviously hugely frustrating. There's nothing for it but a tedious trudge back along the same route using pretty much the same tactics. The game isn't hard but even one such defeat is liable to test your will to continue, particularly as it probably won't be your fault. The automatic targeting system almost invariably selects the explosive barrel you're standing next to rather than the enormous gun emplacement a bit further away which is filling you full of bullets. This is not good. It's possible to switch targets manually but the system often switches back if you move around or chuck a grenade. In the heat of battle, this sometimes isn't clear until you're dead. Grrr...

Then there's the awkward fixed camera angles to mention and the hopelessly uninteresting story and characters. Oh, and almost no use is made of the Wii's special controls as well. Shaking the wiimote launches a hand-to-hand attack and shaking the nunchuk causes a roll. That's it. Nonetheless, in a final touch of disaster, this is enough to mean the game doesn't even work with jOG - try running on the spot and your character somersaults around like a loony.

Sigh.

About the only thing G.I. Joe has going for it is that there aren't many similar games on the Wii. Anyone swayed by that argument, though, should head down to their local second-hand store and pick up an original Xbox and a couple of better games for a similar amount of money...

Conclusion: I suspect few people have sufficient fondness for the subject matter to bother slogging through this.

Graphics: Bland.

Length: Longer than your patience.

Rating: 1/5.

LOVEFiLM DVD Rental