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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.


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.


Playhouse Disney website

Features: Games, music, stories and resources related to characters such as Winnie the Pooh and Mickey Mouse.

Amount of content: Several hours worth.

Power of computer required: Medium. Individual features work on an old laptop but switching between them can be slow going.

Target Age: Around 4 or 5.

Comments: Over the years, my children have been indoctrinated by constant advertising on CBeebies to go to the BBC website. I've printed out many, many pictures of Teletubbies to be coloured in. A lot of the online content for CBeebies/CBBC isn't that great, however - many of the games and features are lack-lustre or poorly devised. The pages are also hard to navigate, particularly for children too young to read. I have to be constantly on hand to get Sproglette (who's almost 5) to the right place, explain instructions and help her with tasks. I suppose it could be described as a bonding experience but it appears to be more down to a poor interface than a conscious plan to encourage parent-child quality time.

In comparison, the Playhouse Disney site is a revelation. After a few minutes getting Sproglette acclimatised to the layout, she was away. Everything can be controlled using the mouse, and running a pointer over menu options leads to them being read out. Instructions are also spoken and can be repeated with a click. I was only needed for occasional advice with some of the games and to work the printer.

That said, I had to work the printer a lot. Completing activities frequently leads to being rewarded with full-page pictures. Unless you have a vast supply of ink or toner you need to use up, you'll be wanting to set your printer to reduce the picture size. Even then, it would be worth implementing some kind of limit on how many sheets your child is allowed to print in a given session.

The only other issue we encountered was that because we don't get the channel itself, many of the featured characters were unfamiliar. I've never heard of Handy Manny or Jungle Junction, for instance. This didn't bother Sproglette, though, and she enjoyed all the activities. Thankfully, despite the whole thing essentially being an advert for premium-rate TV, she hasn't been clamouring for us to upgrade our cable package.

All in all, the site is robust and well-designed and has a good selection of material for older pre-schoolers. Younger children will need more help but they'll still have fun.

Conclusion: One to keep up your sleeve for when you really need a couple of hours of peace to get stuff done.

Rating: 4/5.

Underworld - Rise of the Lycans (DVD)

Starring: A grumpy Bill Nighy, a former Lara Croft and Michael Sheen's wild, staring eyes.

Rated: 18.

Story: The first two Underworld films are set in the present day and focus on a war between vampires and werewolves. This is a prequel, detailing the beginnings of the conflict in the Dark Ages. The majority of the werewolves are bestial and brutal but the vampires have enslaved those able to switch to human form. These Lycans guard the vampires during the day.

Problems arise when the chief-vampire's daughter falls for one of the Lycans. This leads to a Romeo and Juliet situation, a touch of rebellion and lots of supernatural creatures dismembering each other by moonlight.

Comments: The ending of the second Underworld film was pretty conclusive, so this third effort is rather superfluous to the story. It fills in some history but it doesn't add much of significance. Viewed in its own right, however, it's a well-paced and satisfying fantasy adventure. There's nothing truly spectacular about it but neither does it wander off into endless, self-indulgent excess. The combatants never end up doing backflips in a burning building on top of a moving dragon merely for the sake of it. The simple mix of love story and revolution is actually refreshingly restrained in the context and, although the combat is fast and bloody, it rarely feels excessive.

Rise of the Lycans isn't exactly Shakespeare but it's nice to watch an action movie which doesn't descend into total stupidity by Act III. The plot is also more intelligible than the first films, so this is definitely worth a look if you fancy some fantasy brawling to entertain you while you collapse exhausted on the sofa with a beer. I'm now in the mood to watch the other two again.

One thing to note is that the casting is very peculiar, feeling more suitable to a Richard Curtis comedy than a swords-and-incisors action flick. I kept expecting Hugh Grant to pop up at any moment... then rip someone's head off. This was disturbing. Nevertheless, the choice of actors works out in the end. Rhona Mitra's performance is surprisingly adequate and Bill Nighy finally seems to have got the hang of playing a ruthless, immortal overlord. Michael Sheen's teeth, meanwhile, are somewhat too perfect for a werewolf slave in an age before dentists but his impressive, physical performance is astonishing considering he's best known for portrayals of Tony Blair, David Frost and Brian Clough. His versatility is more frightening than the CGI monsters.

Conclusion: Oddly, if you haven't watched any of the Underworld movies yet, this is maybe the place to start.

Explosions: A few remarkably flammable barrels of oil.
Computer-generated werewolves: Hundreds.
Bits you won't follow if you haven't seen/can't remember the other movies: Occasional lines here and there.
Great dental work: Twinkly.
Will I ever be able to see Tony Blair the same way again?: Probably not...

Rating: 4/5.


Pathfinder (DVD)

Starring: Karl Urban.

Rated: 15.

Story: A Viking invasion of North America goes pear-shaped and a traumatised Norse boy gets stranded. He's taken in by a tribe of Native Americans and grows up to be a bead-wearing, sword-wielding, white-skinned brave with identity issues.

When some more Vikings show up, he methodically goes about
slaughtering themsaving his adoptive people.

Comments: Vikings have had some pretty good PR in recent years, portrayed as traders, craftsmen, seafarers and explorers. The rise of the caricature of beardy blokes with horned helmets having a drink and a singsong has seen the more dubious elements of their culture reduced to some light pillaging and a minor charge of real estate fraud over the naming of Greenland. Vikings aren't so bad after all and are suitable material for topic work in Primary 3. (Sprog 2 is learning about runes and legends at the moment. Next week he gets to build a model long boat out of lollipop sticks.)

It's a shock to be presented with the savage Vikings of Medieval propaganda, lopping chunks out of foreigners for the sake of it. They wear scary outfits, destroy mindlessly and laugh evilly. They act more like orcs than people. In contrast, the Native Americans are all fluffy, peace-loving and wise.

As you can guess from this set up, Pathfinder isn't exactly bursting with narrative or complex motivations. It's an excuse for Die Hard meets The Lord of the Rings. There's plenty of action and everything moves along quickly. This is something of a mixed blessing, though. There's no clear sense of time or geography to events. The Vikings and the protagonist all run round the landscape and meet up whenever and wherever is most dramatic, however unlikely the relative journey lengths and sudden cliff drops seem. The next set-piece fight is never far away.

The film also goes off the boil near the end with the final showdown being somewhat ludicrous. The Vikings might be savage but they'd need to be dumb as anvils to walk into the trap that's laid for them.

Pathfinder is nowhere near as good as Apocalypto. Nonetheless, it's still an entertaining action film if you don't take it seriously and aren't overly squeamish.

Conclusion: The sort of Viking movie that features a chase involving sledges and spiked flails. If that thought makes you grin, you'll probably enjoy it.

Explosions: None.
The sort of gory melee combat where eyes go rolling across the floor: Rather a lot.
Stupid Vikings: Plenty.
Historical accuracy: As if.
Suitable as study material for seven-year-olds?: Not really.

Rating: 3/5.


EA SPORTS Active (Wii)

Rated: 3+.

  • Game disc and manual.
  • Leg strap to hold the Wii nunchuk to your thigh during some exercises.
  • Resistance band. This is a long stretchy length of material with handles. You stand on the middle and then pull on the handles to work your arm muscles.
Resistance band and leg strap.

Story: Your kids are getting older so that you don't have to spend your entire time running round after them anymore. You're getting more sleep and you don't have to push a buggy everywhere you go. There is no more wrestling over nappies.

Nonetheless, you're still eating just as many chocolate biscuits as when you were chasing toddlers 24/7. Your trousers no longer fit. Something has to be done before you're forced to go and buy new clothes!

Gameplay: This isn't a game really - it's an interactive workout video. There are dozens of exercises arranged to form numerous half-hour routines aimed at increasing your fitness and building muscle-tone in different areas of your body.

The exercises include basic things like squats, running on the spot and bicep curls but there are also some sport and dance minigames. A few of these can be enhanced using the Wii Balance Board but it's by no means essential.

The Wii tracks your movements as you perform the exercises to make sure you're doing them right and a trainer offers constant feedback.

There's a '30-Day Challenge' involving a prescribed series of 20 workouts to be done over a month. There are also various one-off workouts and options to customise your own. Three levels of exertion can be selected.

Save System: Your achievements are automatically saved after each workout.

Comments: I think it's finally time to admit that I need to do a bit more exercise. I can no longer say with complete honesty that looking after the kids is enough in itself to keep me in shape. There just isn't as much physical activity as there used to be. My years of toddler hefting and buggy racing are gone. Any day now, I'm going to wake up fat and bald.

Active can't do much for my imminent hair loss but it has got me burning calories regularly. Switching on the Wii is much less time-consuming than a trek to the gym and has the added bonus that I don't have to leave the house in the rain. It's simply much more likely to happen.

While Wii Fit is about balance and well-being, Active is about heart-pumping sweatiness. All pretence of being a game is dropped in favour of increasing the amount of exercise involved. As such, it's not gripping entertainment but the real-time estimate of calories burned and the constant changes of activity are enough to maintain attention. After a while, it's a case of focusing on keeping breathing anyway. The very enthusiastic woman offering constant praise and encouragement is embarrassing if anyone else can hear but it's actually rather pleasant and motivating getting such positive feedback. You'll want to turn the music off and switch on your own MP3 player before long, though.

Each exercise routine takes around half an hour once you've got the hang of things but the first few take much longer thanks to the need to watch the instruction videos for each activity. It also takes time to get to grips with the equipment. The strap works best with leggings and has a tendency to slip down unless done up very tight. The giant elastic band is a little limp and needs to be folded over for some exercises. Swapping between activities while changing accessories and juggling the wiimote and nunchuk requires practice to do efficiently. Fortunately, the Wii waits until you're ready and then monitors your movements, so the routines stick to your pace. I'm looking into getting a wireless nunchuk, however, because the wire can be restrictive in a few of the activities and I keep whipping myself in others.

The main issue with Active (apart from getting sweaty) is that you'll need somewhere suitable to play it. Some of the exercises require plenty of space and/or a ceiling high enough to reach straight up without destroying a light fitting. Worse, such things as running on the spot and side-to-side jumping make the floor shake. Exercises can be easily removed from the supplied routines but, even then, if you live in a flat, you're going to have to make sure the downstairs neighbours are out.

The use of the Wii Balance Board is fairly cursory. That said, it's still nice to get a little more service out of the thing.

All in all, Active is surprisingly good. As with any exercise regime, it requires perseverance to get results but it's a great way to work your whole body without having to go outside in the cold and rain and without filling your house with expensive equipment.

Conclusion: Brings the gym to your living room (minus the monthly fees and scary blokes called Sven).

Graphics: It's all pleasantly bright and sunny.

Length: Depends on your willpower.

Rating: 5/5.

Madden NFL 10 (Wii)

Rated: 3+.

Story: Two lines of men wearing helmets and Dynasty-size shoulder pads charge at each other, a ball flies through the air, some of the men fall over and then everyone has a little rest.


Gameplay: Pick a play, put the ball in motion and then flail the wiimote around, hoping it does something.

Save System: Automatic save after each game.

Comments: I'm probably quite unusual in that I'm from the UK and yet I've played some form of American football. It's like finding an American who's played cricket - it doesn't happen much. Admittedly, it's only a low-violence 'touch' variant I've tried but I had to play it a lot when I was an exchange student in Illinois. I was unexpectedly good at it, too. My normal habit in team games of running away from the ball and keeping clear of trouble at the far end of the pitch turned out to be a winning tactic. The play would start, I'd leg it to safety, everyone else would charge at each other in an apparent desire to form a large heap in the middle of the gym, the ball would sail over the top of them and I'd clumsily catch it. Touchdown! I never entirely followed what was going on but, to this day, I still find American football strangely soothing to watch if I'm up late at night feeling unwell.

Basically, I have more clue about American football than many Brits. Even so, it's a while since I've been so befuddled by a game as with Madden NFL 10. Over the years, I've got bored by inaccessible games featuring micromanagement of the ecosystem in a small puddle, I've been laughed at by music games that have shown up my rhythm deficiencies, I've had my fingers tied in knots by action games with overly-gnarly bosses and I've risked RSI from any number of incompetently implemented Wii party games. I've very rarely, however, experienced a game where I've simply stared at the screen in bafflement and had no clue what was going on or what I was supposed to be doing. Honestly, I spent half my first game attempting to control the wrong team. The really weird thing was that my actual team's performance got worse after I realised my mistake...

There are plenty of options and modes in Madden NFL 10 but there's no proper tutorial. Since American football takes place in a series of short bursts where everything moves at once, it's hard to experiment with the controls and grasp what's happening. If you don't have a good idea what the real game involves, you'll be totally lost.

Beyond that, I can't make much comment. If you're an NFL fan, there's a lot here, including licensed teams, advanced controls and a host of multiplayer variants. If you're just wondering what American football is all about, though, you might be better off hunting out a previous version on the cheap or just staying up late and watching Channel 5.

Conclusion: A polished game of American football. (If that's what you want...)

Graphics: Not hugely detailed but very fast.

Length: More than enough American football to keep you going for ages.

Rating: x/5 where x is how much you like (and understand) American football on a scale of 1 to 5.