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Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands (360)

Rated: 12+. (There's vast amounts of hack'n'slash but it's mostly against humanoid sand monsters that disappear in a puff of silica rather than collapsing in a bloody heap.)

Story: Set after the events of The Sands of Time, the Prince goes to visit his brother Malik in a desert fortress, only to arrive in the middle of an invasion. His forces overwhelmed, Malik decides to release the legendary army of sand contained beneath the fortress. Rather inevitably, this makes matters far worse.

It's up to the Prince to seal the army away again. This involves much leaping, a great deal of hacking and not quite enough witty banter.

Gameplay: Jump, wall-run, swing, jump, swing, wall-jump, swing, hack, hack, hack, hack, hack, hack, kick, hack. Repeat.

The Forgotten Sands is a very linear platform game. There's little exploration - it's mostly a case of getting the timing right to avoid falling to a spiky doom as you follow a path of leaps and handholds. Every so often, some monsters turn up. Dealing with them requires hammering away at the X button a lot.

As the game progresses, you gain abilities to freeze water, leap long distances at enemies and make crumbled bits of architecture reappear. These are all needed to get about the later levels. You can also rewind time to correct your mistakes.

Killing monsters brings experience points which can be spent on health upgrades, damage bonuses and special attacks.

Save System: Automatic save after completing every short section. This can unexpectedly prevent going back to explore, though. There's also a bug with the upgrades to watch out for.

Comments: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was one of the best games of the PS2 era. Everything about it was like a breath of fresh air - the free-flowing platforming, the exciting combat, the graphics, the frustration-avoiding time rewind, the likable characters, well-structured story and the amusing dialogue. Unfortunately, none of the games since has been as good. They've all managed to break some part of the formula while also having the disadvantage of seeming overly familiar.

The Forgotten Sands is clearly an attempt to get back to basics while cashing in on the release of the Prince of Persia movie. The complicated plots and fighting systems of the later games are ditched in favour of a near re-run of The Sands of Time. It's another leap and fight through another ruined palace to put right another lapse of judgement concerning another ancient magic. Quite simply, it's just another day at the office for the world's most acrobatic prince...

As such, however, the game is very polished. Taking on a horde of enemies at once is fun and platforming is still a breathless thrill. The problem is, if you've played all the previous games, The Forgotten Sands feels like a step back in time. This is maybe where the series should have been in 2005. The gameplay is more streamlined than The Sands of Time and there are some extra bells and whistles but it's almost the same game with HD graphics, a worse story and easier combat. There's nothing more. Trying to find the secret areas highlights how little exploration there actually is - looking around is a constant battle against the camera which is desperate to point to the next handhold and herd you inexorably onwards. Half the upgrades are worthless. Why waste experience points and magic power on other things when the shield ability makes you totally invulnerable? Niggly issues, such as trying to get levers to turn the correct way, are still present. Even better, the main way of replenishing health and magic now consists of going round smashing pots. Who thought that would be entertaining?


And yet... The Forgotten Sands is very enjoyable. The Prince of Persia magic is there. If you haven't played any POP games before, then you'll think it's fantastic. If you're a long-time fan, you'll enjoy it for the nostalgia value even while you're dreaming about the Assassin's Creed 2 team getting the next stab at revitalising the franchise.

Conclusion: The best movie tie-in ever or yet another workmanlike sequel? You decide.

Graphics: Initially great but rather monotonous after a while.

Length: Short.

Rating: 4/5 if you've never played a Prince of Persia game before but 3/5 if you've played more than one. That said, if you thought the last game was an interesting new direction for the series, you might just want to go cry in a corner...

Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands (Xbox 360)

I'm 'busy' playing this ready for a review but I felt the need to put up a warning about a game-breaking bug as soon as possible. I keep having all my upgrades vanish when I load a saved game. My extra health and powers disappear just like that.


I have discovered a way round it, however. If I quit to the Xbox dashboard BEFORE DOING ANYTHING ELSE and restart the game, sometimes the upgrades reappear. It can take more than one attempt but everything eventually returns as long as I don't gain any fresh experience after the dodgy load.

I have no idea what triggered this problem but it's probably worth keeping an eye on your upgrades every time you start up the game. I lost several hundred points of experience before I noticed the issue and discovered a solution.

Feeling a bit grumpy now...

(Game not bad so far, otherwise. Feels like an HD remake of Sands of Time, though, with easier combat and a less engaging plot.)

Zombieland (DVD)

Starring: Woody Harrelson.

Rated: 15.

Story: As ever, zombies have taken over the world. A geeky student and a seasoned zombie-slayer team up to go on a road trip in search of family and/or Twinkies.

They meet a couple of girls and educate them about Ghostbusters.

Comments: I don't normally watch horror films but there's something about a zombie apocalypse that draws me in anyway. I think it's fond memories of laughing at Dawn of the Dead with friends as a teenager, combined with post-traumatic stress from too many Resident Evil games. As such, I was both attracted by the prospect of a 'proper' comedy-zombie-action movie and left feeling a little nervous (and NOT in a good way). There was every chance that Zombieland could be rather lame...

Luckily, it's genuinely funny in a fashion that even a cameo by Bill Murray can't spoil. The gags aren't over-played, the characters are likeable despite being amusingly dysfunctional, and there's just enough low-budget mayhem to maintain interest. Zombieland also knows its audience, with a remarkably geeky hero and obvious influences from video games. The result is very entertaining.

The main mis-step is an overly long detour into rom-com territory before the final reel. This is in odd contrast to the unnecessary levels of gore in the early stages, where the makers seemed to feel the need to prove they were making a real zombie film, not simply playing for laughs.

The failings are more than made up for, however, by the strong performances and the witty dialogue.

Conclusion: Worth watching even if you've seen one too many zombie films recently. (In fact, you might actually enjoy it better if you have...)

Explosions: None.
Important survival tips: Dozens.
Zombies: Loads.
Counts of excessive violence with a piano: One.
Bill Murrays: Also one. Thankfully.

Rating: 4/5.


DodoGo! (DSi download)

DodoGo! 'box' art.

Rated: 3+.

Price: 800 DSi points. (Around £7.)

Story: A storm has swept over a tropical island, washing away the dodo eggs and infesting the place with monsters. You must guide the eggs back to safety.

Gameplay: DodoGo! is a 2D puzzle game in the style of Lemmings and Mario vs Donkey Kong: March of the Minis.

Each level requires you to get one or more eggs back to a nest as quickly as possible, using a selection of tools to circumvent obstacles and traps. Direct control over the eggs is restricted to making them go left, right or stop. You start with a few planks to break falls and span pits but gradually move on to employ an assortment of items including springs, fans, blocks, ropes and exploding robots. These combine with stuff already in the levels, such as fires and creatures, to produce some fiendish escape routes.

Getting all the eggs to the nest earns a medal for the level. Ensuring they're happy and uncracked leads to better medals, as does beating a time limit, but a restricted supply of equipment in each level means things soon become tricky.

DodoGo! screenshot.

Bonus levels work more like a Tom & Jerry style mousetrap. There's no time limit but there's also no interaction allowed once the single egg is set in motion. Everything must be arranged to guide the egg around automatically, collecting tokens as it goes.

Completing bonus levels unlocks new egg costumes and jokers which allow hard levels to be skipped.

Save System: Automatic save after every level. Sadly, however, there are only two save game slots. If you have more than two people wanting to save their progress on the same DSi, you're going to have to keep copying the game backwards and forwards between the system memory and SD cards (with all the associated hassle and risk that that entails). This is plain daft.

Comments: Starting up a level near the end of DodoGo! is like knocking over a child's LEGO creation with the hoover. You just kind of stare in horror, swearing under your breath, wondering where on Earth to begin piecing stuff back together. Then, after a little thought and experimentation, things start to click into place. A plan forms. Eventually, through a combination of perseverance, luck, skill and pure genius, everything slots home. There's satisfaction and relief, your little charges are happy again and there are maybe only a couple of bits left over. Result.

Once it gets going, DodoGo! is an excellent puzzle game. Obtaining the highest rank in each level requires plenty of head scratching and precision but never seems impossible. The balance between success and failure is judged perfectly to make playing a compulsive experience. The bonus levels also help to vary the pace nicely.

Unfortunately, the first hour isn't quite as much fun. The initial stages are full of laborious tutorials. The touch controls, meanwhile, are slightly finicky, meaning some actions can take several tries to register. After a while, however, the tutorials thin out, the selection of tools becomes more interesting and practice helps somewhat with the controls. Nonetheless, the game gets by on cute graphics and the promise of things to come for slightly too long.

The game is much more fun in the later stages. The excellent level design comes into its own and smart touches become more obvious, such as the way you're allowed to look at levels for as long as you like before the timer starts.

DodoGo! also goes out of its way to cater for those of differing abilities. Only getting a single egg through to the nest allows progress through the game and players have a stock of jokers to allow them to skip really problematic levels. Despite this, children under eight aren't going to get far without lots of help. Nine or ten is probably a more realistic lower age limit for those wanting to get the most out of the game. Adults will find plenty of challenge.

Conclusion: Fun, addictive, pretty and makes your head hurt in a good way. Better than a lot of the full-price cartridge games out there.

Graphics: Clear and charming.

Length: That depends how clever and thorough you are, although getting the top rank on all the levels is bound to take an adult several hours. That said, the game does appear to have been clumsily truncated about halfway through, actively promising much more and then abruptly throwing up a 'Thank you for playing' screen. Expect a sequel soon.

Rating: 4/5.

LEGO Minotaurus

LEGO Minotaurus box.

Cost: £18.

  • LEGO base plate.
  • 211 LEGO pieces for building the board and a small minotaur.
  • 12 tiny, single-piece heroes. (3 red, 3 yellow, 3 blue and 3 white.)
  • 1 LEGO Dice.
Gameplay: The first step is to build the game, following the instructions as with a normal LEGO model. Happily, the box is big enough to store the maze even when completed, so there's very little set-up involved after the first play - a cardboard template allows the board to be easily reset to its starting layout.

Players take it in turns to roll the special 'LEGO Dice' and move a piece as indicated. If they roll a number, they can move one of their heroes a corresponding number of spaces through the maze. If the grey side comes up, the player can move one of the grey walls within the maze or add in an extra one from the edge of the board. A roll of black means the minotaur can be moved eight spaces.

Diagonal movement, climbing over walls and passing through other pieces isn't allowed.

The minotaur begins the game in the centre of the board. If it runs into a hero, the hero is returned to its player's starting corner and the minotaur goes back to the centre.

There are options for other rules, such as replacing the 3 on the dice with a green tile that, when rolled, allows a hero to jump over a hedge.

LEGO Minotaurus contents.

Object: To be the first player to get an agreed number of their heroes to the area of their own colour in the centre of the board. (It's normally two heroes for a two-player game and one hero if there are more players.)

Game length: 20-30 minutes (plus around half an hour for initial set-up on the very first play).

Number of players: 2-4.

Age: 7+. The freedom of movement available and the need for simple strategy mean that younger children will need a lot of help. They'll also struggle with the fiddly pieces. Teenagers won't be entertained for long but there's enough to the game to ensure that they won't complain too much if forced to play with a younger sibling.

LEGO Minotaurus.

Comments: Someone at LEGO deserves a big raise if they haven't had one already. The idea of producing sets that build into games is genius.

When I was a kid, I liked to make my own LEGO designs, creating them, playing with them and then taking them apart to build something better. My children are different. They see the instructions as a puzzle or challenge. Once they've figured out how to put the bits together and they've built the model, they're done. They put it on the shelf and go and do something else.

It drives me mad.

We have enough plastic ornaments as it is; we don't need expensive, DIY additions from Denmark. The beauty of Minotaurus is that once they've solved the puzzle, they're left with something they actually have a use for at the end.

The game requires basic tactical thought and provides opportunities for vindictive reversals of fortune but there's enough luck involved to ensure that even the youngest player has a chance. In addition, it encourages the creation of house rules and there's the option of sharing them with others on the LEGO website.

The whole package is a successful combination of the tactile construction of LEGO with the longevity of a board game, complete with opportunities for creativity and design. Genius.

That said, if you're simply wanting a board game with a mix of luck and strategy, the benefits of LEGO are less clear cut. Ultimately, the game experience is helped and hampered in equal measure. Since Minotaurus works on the small scale of individual LEGO nubs, counting spaces and moving the pieces can be fiddly. If the game wasn't built from locking bricks, however, the board would need to be four times the size and there'd be much laborious set-up at the start of every session.

Conclusion: A good implementation of a great idea.

  • LEGO!
  • Feud-producing gameplay.
  • Flexible rules.
  • Easily stored.
  • Fiddly.
  • Too much luck to keep older children interested for long.
Rating: 4/5.

Dragon Age: Origins (Xbox 360)

Rated: 18.

Story: After hundreds of years, the Darkspawn once more threaten the kingdom of Ferelden. As a Grey Warden, one of the last of a legendary order of guardians, you must unite the land and embark on a quest to slay the archdemon which leads the approaching horde.

Of course, you'll need to recruit and equip a band of fellow adventurers along the way. Happily, there are a whole load of villagers on hand offering financial rewards if you don't mind ignoring Armageddon for a while in order to go into the woods and locate/take/kill whatever they require recovered/delivered/dead this time.

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Stinky Cards

Stinky card album.

Cost: £3.20 for the album and £1 for each pack of cards.

  • The album has slots to display a complete collection of 60 Stinky Cards. There's all a tick list to keep track of which you have.
  • Each booster pack of cards contains 4 'normal' cards with details of something smelly and one of the 12 'rare' scratch'n'sniff cards.
Gameplay: It's a cross between Panini football stickers and Top Trumps. Children can simply trade with each other in order to complete their collection or pit their cards against each other.

Each card has ratings for 'Funny', 'Joker' and 'Stinky'. One player chooses a rating category and the player with highest value in that rating on their top card wins the round and the cards. They put the cards at the bottom of their deck and choose a rating from their new top card. This continues until one player has all the cards or a fight breaks out.

Object: To have all the cards and/or freak friends (and relatives) with stinkiness.

Game length: A few minutes.

Number of players: 2+.

Age: Anyone can play but there's a good chance that only seven-year-old boys will want to...

Comments: Scratch'n'sniff technology has moved on since my day. When I was a kid, a concerted scratch would result in a vague whiff of strawberries if you were lucky. (Well, strawberry flavouring anyway.)

Based on this experience, I gave the garlic Stinky Card a good going over with my fingernail, put it next to my nose and inhaled deeply.

Then I nearly passed out.

Make no mistake, these are stinky - so much so that even my two boys became wary of them pretty quickly. Sadly, I didn't learn quite so fast. Sprog2 (aged 7) shoved one under my nose and said, "Smell this, Daddy!" I inhaled instinctively. It was the garlic again.

If I'd been a vampire, I'd have crumbled on the spot but, as it was, it took me several hours to get the taste out of the back of my mouth. I avoided pasta sauce for a couple of days...

The game itself isn't as good as Top Trumps, due to the small number of ratings. There's also the issue that if two kids face-off using their own collections, one of them could lose the lot. Even if they agree not to play for keeps, the collections are going to get shuffled together, so sorting them out at the end is liable to lead to arguments.

Still, the collection element does produce a desire to catch 'em all which is as strong as ever with stuff of this sort. Seven-year-old boys can also earn some playground kudos from the grossness factor.

A word of warning, though. If your kids get a whole load all at once, don't let them sort through them on the lounge carpet unless you have some Febreze handy...

Conclusion: Panini, Top Trumps and an unpleasant odour. The perfect gift for your

  • Gross.
  • Stinky.
  • Gross.
  • Stinky.
  • Actual game isn't that great.
  • May put you off Italian food.

Movie selection

The kids have been ill, I've been ill, everyone's been ill. I've spent really rather a lot of time recently switching between playing Dragon Age: Origins and blowing my nose. The reviews have slipped a bit. Here's a quick catch up on some of the movies I've been watching:

District 9 (15) - What would happen if aliens landed in Johannesburg rather than Manhattan? Rather than getting blown up, they might get segregated from humans and shut away in a township.

It's an interesting metaphor but it doesn't get very deeply explored before one of the jailers finds himself forced to fight for alien rights with the aid of nothing but the F-word and some very big guns.

It's still comfortably more thoughtful than Avatar, though. (4/5)


Dorian Gray (15) - In Victorian London, a man stays young and innocent-looking while his portrait becomes old and corrupted by his dubious deeds, a mirror for his soul.

If you don't already know, you can probably guess how it all ends. (Hint: Badly.) Nonetheless, Ben Barnes is magnetic in the lead role and the story is expertly told. It's a decent (if slightly unpleasant) change from movies with explosions. (3/5)


Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen (12) - Conclusive proof that giant robots and lingering shots of Megan Fox can only sustain one blockbuster movie.

The plot is even dafter than before, there are too many transformers to tell them apart and they seem to develop new and unlikely abilities whenever it's time for another 'cool' action sequence.

A mess. (2/5)

Next (12) - Nicolas Cage has the power to see two minutes into the future and the FBI attempt to recruit him to help stop a terrorist attack. Strangely, he's always just left whenever they arrive...

This film has plenty of clever moments but is rather too eager to drop the two minute constraint, changing its own rules halfway through. This feels like cheating. The final act is also unexpectedly missing. Entirely. The movie simply ends half an hour short of a conclusion. In some ways, this is one of the clever moments. Whether it's actually smart or just irritating is another question.

Slick and enjoyable, all the same. (3/5)


X-Men Origins: Wolverine (12) - Another superhero movie that I should hate. The main X-Men series is fairly incoherent, choked by dull character development and overly full of angst. Going back specially for a prequel to learn how Wolverine developed his powers seems like asking for tedium.

Happily, someone realised this and it's in fact a big excuse for lots of smashing right from the start. Things are occasionally stretched a little far in order to fit events into the timeline of the previous films but enough stuff explodes to make up for it. (4/5)


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (12) - A man is born old and gets steadily younger. This has its advantages and makes his life interesting but is mainly rather awkward. Think Forrest Gump with reverse ageing rather than stupidity (and not as good).

It's OK. It just goes all over the place but never really gets anywhere. (3/5)

The Taking of Pelham 123 (15) - John Travolta plays his stock talkative, smug, psycho bad guy and hijacks a train on the New York subway. Denzel Washington has the bad luck to be the network controller on duty. They negotiate in a tense and dramatic fashion.

It's a gripping game of cat-and-mouse let down by a stupid foray into Die-Hard territory in the last twenty minutes. It also gave me unfortunate flash-backs to Money Train. (3/5)

Right, now that's done, I need to go back to saving Ferelden from the Darkspawn. Er, but I may go buy some more tissues first...


Pentago box.

Cost: £18.

  • 36 marbles - 18 white, 18 black.
  • Game board featuring a 6x6 grid of sockets for the marbles. Each 3x3 corner of the board can be rotated independently.
Gameplay: The first player places a marble on the board and then rotates one of the four sections 90 degrees. (The rotation can be in either direction and doesn't have to be on the section where the marble was just put down.)

The other player does the same. They then continue to take turns until the board is full or one of them gets five in a row (before or after a rotation).

Object: To be the first player to get five marbles of their colour in a row. (If both players get five in a row at the same time or the board is filled without a row being formed, then the game is a draw.)

Game length: A few minutes. It depends how good the players are and how long they spend staring at the board in mental anguish before each turn.

Number of players: 2.

Age: 8+. The rules are easy to learn but being successful against an even vaguely competent opponent is another matter - young players are going to struggle. (Goodness knows, most adults are going to struggle...)

Comments: Playing Noughts and Crosses with children can be hard work. It's a simple concept which requires only a scrap of paper and a pen but the parenting questions involved are tricky. Do you let them win sometimes or beat them mercilessly until they figure out the awful truth like the supercomputer in WarGames? The second option will probably take rather a long time and involve whining. The first option will just encourage them to want to play some more until you start wishing for global thermonuclear war and go for Option 2 anyway.

The alternative is to try Pentago. It's essentially Noughts and Crosses with far more variables. The simple goal is there but it's much harder to keep track of possibilities and strategies. Even though a draw should theoretically still always result, this doesn't often happen. It's too easy to miss a cunning turn or unexpected line. This being the case, games between experienced players are head-scratching duels. Throwing a game to stop a five-year-old whining, meanwhile, doesn't feel like causing them to miss out on an important lesson on the nature of futility (and the importance of nuclear disarmament).

The only downside is that games take three or four turns to get going and then can end depressingly quickly after that if one player slips up. You'll have to get the family playing a tournament if you want to fill up more than a few minutes.

The board itself is very sturdy and the marbles are pleasantly weighty and shiny. The cardboard box is excessively large, however.

Conclusion: Fun to mess about with. Scarily harder than it looks to play well.

  • Simple concept.
  • The joy of Noughts and Crosses without the frustration.
  • Requires strategy, thought and spacial visualisation.
  • Quality components.
  • Marbles are always easy to lose.
  • Will make your head hurt.
  • Could cause Armageddon if given to a supercomputer.
Rating: 4/5.

Avatar 3D

Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Uhura from Star Trek, the conflicted Terminator from Salvation and a host of characters that even special glasses can't make three-dimensional.

Rated: 12A.

Story: 150 years in the future, a paraplegic ex-marine gets the chance to go to the planet of Pandora and try to convince the 'primitive' indigenous people to quietly move out of the way of the human mining corporation that wants to plough up their home. Instead of talking to them in person, he remotely controls a specially-grown alien body. This is supposed to help gain their trust but, unsurprisingly, just freaks them out. To compensate, he has to study their ways and customs, ride a flying lizard and learn to hug trees.

Yep, it's Dances with Wolves in space...

Comments: Hooray, I finally dragged myself out of the house and made it to the cinema to see Avatar. Was it worth getting snowed on and then having to cough up £9.10?

Erm... Sort of.

It's certainly visually spectacular with plenty of action, explosions and impossible scenery. (Floating mountains, anyone?) The plot, however, is very predictable and the characterisation is paper thin. This would be OK if the film was a frantic ninety minute adventure but it's over an hour longer than that. A message that's blatantly 'Corporations = bad, Army = bad, Indigenous people = wise and strong and wonderful' might have been a revelation once upon a time. These days, the absence of any shades of grey feels almost dishonest.

The 3D effect is very different from the limited amount I've seen previously. Toy Story often takes place on distinct 2D planes whereas Avatar has proper depth to objects. There's also no noticeable blurring in fast-moving sequences. Bizarrely, though, there's a lot of distracting fuzziness in static scenes. The makers have gone with a depth-of-field effect so that only items at a particular distance are in focus - stuff much closer or further away is blurred. This is more relaxing on the eye than having everything in focus at once and works great in the action scenes where attention is automatically drawn to the excitement. It's not so good when people are simply standing around talking - it's easy to end up glancing elsewhere and become distracted by fuzz.

Avatar has been very successful but that's probably more down to good timing than anything else. It's the first major 3D release that isn't an animation aimed primarily at children. As such, watching it results in a certain amount of wide-eyed wonder. Having said that, I'm still not sold on 3D. Seeing it in 2D would have been different but I suspect equally enjoyable.

Is it worth rushing to catch it at the cinema while it's still on in 3D? Not desperately. DVD would be fine. Despite the flaws, 3D is unlikely to go away and, in another year or two, we'll be inundated with films that exploit the technology better and also have a decent script. Save some cash for then.

Conclusion: Not a patch on Titanic.

Explosions: Loads.
Big, blue aliens: Loads.
Monsters with sharp teeth: Loads.
Convincing lines of dialogue: Not so many.
Times I jumped 'cos I thought something was going to hit me in the head: One
Times I had to hit myself in the head at the dumbness of it all: Three or four.

Rating: 3/5.


G.I. Joe: The Rise of the Cobra (DVD)

Starring: Christopher Eccleston, Darth Maul, Dennis Quaid, the green girl from Star Trek, Sienna Miller, Marlon Wayans (remember him from Dungeons & Dragons? No? Maybe for the best...) & some generic action guy (Channing Tatum).

Rated: 12.

Story: An elite unit of super soldiers must recover some 'nanomite' warheads that have been stolen by a lunatic and his army of henchmen. In an effort to stop him destroying Paris, they, er... destroy Paris.

Comments: And I thought Outlander was daft...

The plot of G.I. Joe makes very little sense. There's all kinds of nonsense involving unlikely technology and overblown conspiracies but you can't help feeling that both sides are simply too busy travelling the globe blowing things up to think about what they're doing.

Luckily, they move very fast and the explosions are enormous.

For a movie based on a range of action figures, G.I. Joe has clearly had a large amount of money thrown at it. Things almost constantly leap and drive and fly and go boom, so there's little time to worry about why on Earth they're doing it. The chase sequence through the French capital is particularly fresh and exciting.

There's a large cast of heroes and villains, each with their own specialities. Despite a fair number of flashbacks to explain motivations, however, the pace seldom flags. Although the the set-up feels quite like X-Men, there's none of the angst. Within moments, it's time to blow stuff up again.

In many ways, G.I. Joe is great. It's a non-stop rush of dumb spectacle with a high profile cast and some intriguing ideas. Sadly, it's maybe just a bit too dumb. I can put up with an awful lot if it leads to some really big fireworks but, honestly, this is the kind of film where ice sinks. Even while watching Sienna Miller and Rachel Nichols fight each other in the middle of a pyrotechnic apocalypse, I was still thinking, 'What? But why? Eh? That'd never work? And, oh goodness, please, please, will someone tell Christopher Eccleston to stop with the Scottish accent?'

Ho well, at least it's much better than the game. It's probably not as good as a whole load of action figures and accessories, though...

Conclusion: Lots of fun but liable to make you stupid.

Explosions: Loads.
Emotional realism: Lacking.
Scientific realism: Slim.
Political realism: Sparse.
Any kind of realism whatsoever: Pretty much absent.
Does that matter if it means the chance to watch beautiful people throw each other about while France blows up around them?: Possibly not.

Rating: 3/5.


Mouse Trap! (again)

New Mouse Trap box.

Cost: £15 (plus medical expenses).

  • Game board.
  • 4 plastic mice. (Red, green, yellow and blue.)
  • 32 plastic cheese wedges. (8 of each colour.)
  • 3 ball bearings.
  • 1 6-sided dice.
  • 2 rubber bands. (Both required.)
  • An enormous assortment of cardboard and plastic pieces to assemble into traps.
Gameplay: An adult reads the assembly instructions in an increasingly bemused fashion as children jump around the room asking questions and offering advice. The adult starts putting stuff together. The children commence wrestling and knock everything over. Shouting ensues.

If it is the first time the game has been played, bedtime may arrive before play progresses any further.

Once the board is complete (with three traps and a flushing toilet in the centre to release the balls), the playing pieces are lined up in front of the sweeping broom trap. This is then set off and the player whose piece is launched furthest across the room goes first.

Players take it in turns to roll the dice and move the indicated number of spaces. Landing on a trap space is rewarded with two pieces of cheese but requires the toilet to be flushed, setting off one of the three traps at random. Mice that are caught lose a piece of cheese and then the trap is reset.

There are a few special spaces but the branching pathways on the board mean that only the 'Go to next trap' ones see much use.

New Mouse Trap.

Object: To be the first to collect eight pieces of cheese.

Game length: 10-30 minutes, depending on the number of players and how lucky they are. (Don't forget to add set-up time.)

Number of players: 2-4.

Age: 6+ but a four-year-old can easily play with adult supervision. Even ten-year-olds may need adult help with setting-up.

Comments: We had to give the kids extra coaching on being grateful this Christmas. Sproglette kept stamping her foot and throwing a tantrum if she opened a parcel and found something she didn't like. Even if she did like what she got, she kept demanding more. Sprog1 did much better - he was polite and enthusiastic about whatever he got... before discussing at length whether it was identical to the version he already had. Sprog2 opened stuff, shrugged and wandered off.

We really had to work on their thank-yous, fixed grins and innocent enquiries about receipts.

Of course, when Sprog2 unwrapped Mouse Trap!, they were all genuinely pleased. It was me who had to maintain a forced expression of delight.

You see, they already have an older version of Mouse Trap!. It's dull, fiddly, infuriating, tedious and one of Sproglette's favourite games. As such, it will be amongst the first things I take to Oxfam as soon as the kids leave home. Honestly, I'd much rather do the washing-up than play it.

I wasn't exactly thrilled to get a new set that's so different from the original we've ended up keeping both of them. I haven't had to play them one after the other yet but I'm sure it's only a matter of time...

The new version is at least a lot more fun to play than the original. The traps are functional right from the start and each player gets a few shots of setting them off. This is a major improvement. There's also a little bit of strategy involved in choosing which way to go when the path round the board splits.

Unfortunately, a whole new load of problems have been introduced:

Setting the game up for the first time takes forever and is definitely a night-before job. Even on subsequent assemblies, it's still a significant task. Allow a minimum of five minutes and make it ten if you've got 'help'.

New Mouse Trap disassembled.
How does this go back together again?

The rules are fairly long and unnecessarily complicated for something that's in reality little more sophisticated than Snakes and Ladders. (Allow another five minutes for looking over them.) Various spaces send mice backwards or forwards, with or without setting off the traps or gaining cheese. It's also possible to obtain a spanner to briefly clog up one trap but it's usually not worth taking a detour to collect. The most effective tactic is nearly always to avoid the additions and head straight for the traps.

New Mouse Trap instructions.
One side of the instruction sheet.

On a more basic level, the playing pieces fall over all the time, the broom isn't wide enough to launch all four of them at the start and the cage trap is (amazingly) more fiddly to set than in the original.

The biggest issue, however, is that it's very hard to see where you're going. The traps are so large and solid, choosing a path requires constant peering and bending and bobbing about in an effort to see the path. Since a lack of spaces means a roll of six can lead to a trip halfway around the board, almost every shot is a spine-twisting contortion. Mouse Trap! is the first board game to give me a bad back.

Conclusion: More fun to play than the old version but the overall experience isn't much better.

  • Everyone gets a shot at setting off the traps.
  • Fast-paced (once you get started).
  • Looks great.
  • Lengthy, complicated set-up.
  • Involves regular, fiddly resetting of traps.
  • Rules need stream-lined.
  • Actually painful to play.
Rating: 2/5.

Outlander (DVD)

Starring: James Caviezel, Sophia Myles, Jack Huston, Ron Perlman and John Hurt.

Rated: 15.

Story: An astronaut from another world crash-lands his spaceship in eighth century Scandinavia. Unfortunately, he brings a fire-breathing lizard monster with big teeth along for the ride.

He's forced to earn the trust of the local Vikings and then they all go dragon hunting...

Comments: Daft. The whole set-up of Outlander is just plain daft. If you can get past that, though, it's a passable action flick which is more fantasy than science fiction. Plenty of care and attention has been applied to the sets and costumes, and the combat is authentically swift and bloody. The 'dragon' itself gives the impression that the computer graphics guys got a little carried away but at least it's an excuse for some fire and explosions.

The cast generally seem as if they'd rather be elsewhere. Caviezel spends most of the time looking like he's just bitten into a lemon, John Hurt is John Hurt, Jack Huston weirdly gives the impression of playing Russell Brand playing a Viking (or maybe that's just me) and Perlman, for some inexplicable reason, appears to think he's in Braveheart 2. Myles' character is lumbered with every cliché going - she's the pretty (but tough and headstrong) princess who is promised to an arrogant prince but is strangely drawn to the mysterious stranger... and winds up needing saved from a dragon. Sigh.

Despite everything, however, Outlander is a likeable adventure tale. Sure it's stupid and predictable but it's also slick, full of action and looks good. You could do worse.

Conclusion: The Lord of the Rings meets Alien on a weekend break to Norway. Lots of guys with swords fight heroically, then get eaten.

If that sounds mildly entertaining, then you'll be mildly entertained...

Explosions: Occasional.
Unlikely plot developments: Several.
Spirited shield maidens: One.
Crazy guys with swords: Tasty.
Things not to do when hunting dragons: Split up and look for clues...

Rating: 3/5


Delfinware 3-Tier Plate Rack

Three-tier plate rack.

Cost: £36 for the version coated in white plastic. £60 for stainless steel.


  • A three-tier plate rack. (Size: 525 x 412 x 250mm.) The top tier takes side plates and bowls, the middle tier takes plates, and bottom shelf takes mugs, etc.

  • Slide-out tray for catching drips.

  • Three-compartment cutlery holder.
Comments: I've never really been sold on the idea of having an automatic dishwasher. When I was growing up, my mum always seemed to be loading or unloading hers. Stuff needed rinsed before it went in, there was usually some sort of Tetris-style challenge to make everything fit and she still had to do a load of washing-up herself to deal with large or delicate items or things which she needed in a hurry. Putting the machine on after tea left a fun load for her (or me!) to put away before bed. Even when I helped fill it, she quite often seemed to have to entirely re-arrange the contents afterwards. The machine simply didn't seem to save much time overall and occasionally broke down in spectacular fashion. (Although the same could possibly be said of my dad now she's finally taught him to help but at least he's company...)

I just haven't had much desire to own one myself. Then again, that's maybe because for the last ten years I've been using one of these dish racks. It can hold a day's worth of crockery from a family five, so I seldom have to do much drying. This halves the time it takes to do the washing-up by hand. The rack is so strong and accessible, I don't even have to bother unloading half the stuff - I remove things as I need them and only put away what's left when it's time to wash-up again. It's tempting to buy a second one and use them in rotation so when it comes to washing-up time, one's empty and the other's full of dry stuff to use.

(Actually... Our local ironmongers is closing so I've already panic-bought a spare one and put it in the loft, just in case anything happens to the first. Perhaps I should go get it...)

The manufacturer's photo above is all very well at showing the sort of thing the rack will hold but it doesn't give much idea of quantity. They clearly weren't trying:

Three-tier drainer loaded with stuff.

Honestly, it's great. The only downside is that if anyone offers to help with the washing-up there won't be much for them to do except stand around getting in the way. Get them to go clean the shower or something.

Conclusion: The best dish drainer ever.


  • Almost eliminates the need for dish cloths.

  • Holds twice as much as other dish racks while taking up half the space.

  • Sturdy.

  • Durable.

  • Suitable for using to store crockery as well as as a dish drainer.

  • If you have cupboards above your worktop, the rack won't fit underneath.

  • Stuff on the bottom can take a while to dry.

  • You'll have to find a stockist.

  • Doesn't cope with every type of bowl (notably including those brightly-coloured ones from Ikea everyone has).

  • So good that you may find yourself buying an extra one for emergencies...
Rating: 5/5.

Army of Two: The 40th Day (Xbox 360)

Rated: 18.

Story: You are a mercenary hired to do a simple piece of infiltration work in Shanghai. As soon as you pull it off, however, the whole city goes up in flames. You and your partner are left to fight your way to safety through a lawless disaster zone overrun by the private army of a lunatic.

That said, you still find time for witty banter about pandas...

Gameplay: The 40th Day is a shooter where you view the action from over the shoulder of one of a pair of mercenaries. It's essentially a case of working forwards through each level, moving from cover to cover and taking out the enemy soldiers with a selection of sniper rifles, machine guns, grenades and pistols.

In the single-player game, you can order your partner with a tap of a button to advance, stay close or defend their position. A second tap makes them more aggressive, dealing out greater punishment but drawing heavier fire on themselves. While they're busy distracting the enemy, you can flank armoured positions or snipe from hiding.

On occasion, the pace is broken up by opportunities to rescue hostages or steal supplies. This requires a little more stealth and subtlety. You're also given a few situations where you must choose whether to help others or simply look out for yourself.

The game can be played cooperatively by two players (either on the same console or over Xbox LIVE).

Save System: Automatic saving on a regular basis. Checkpoints are only a few minutes apart.

Comments: I wasn't sure what to expect from The 40th Day. I didn't play the original Army of Two but I don't recall the reviews being particularly flattering. It also promised to be a similar ordeal to Gears of War 2 which I got bored with long before the end. I imagined an endless slog through a succession of brown corridors, interrupted only by an occasional irritating boss battle...

I was amazed to discover a colourful and well-paced game involving plenty of blasting and explosions combined with just enough strategy to keep it interesting but not overly taxing.

The game is obviously going to be most fun played with a friend but it's still very enjoyable played solo. The artificial intelligence of your partner is good enough to pull off satisfying pincer movements and gives a genuine illusion of working as a team. An 'Aggro' meter, showing which of you is attracting the most attention, makes enemy behaviour easily understandable. The result is a single-player campaign which is effortlessly more entertaining than either Gears 2 or Resident Evil 5.

The experience is helped by the fact that someone appears to have finally realised that there are a few simple things to avoid when creating a computer game. Joyously, The 40th Day has a lack of pointless padding, irritating alarms and superfluous story. The save system is friendly, you can see what's going on and it's possible to select the difficulty level each time you play. Even better, there are no frustrating, tedious boss battles - only some extra-tough grunts who turn up every so often to force a change in tactics.

From the level design to stage content, there just seems to have been more thought than usual applied to The 40th Day. The hostage rescues and some gung-ho shoot-out sections make a refreshing change from the vehicle and turret interludes that are almost obligatory in the genre. Even the cover system works differently from most other games. Instead of pressing a button to 'stick' to cover, you simply stand or crouch behind it. You then control which way you peer out from behind it by switching your view from one shoulder to another. This takes getting used to but it quickly becomes a very natural way of doing things.

All the care which has gone into the game does make the few minor niggles all the more baffling, though. Why aren't there options for balancing the sound volume between speech, effects and music, for instance? What about subtitles? These are oddly basic omissions. I also encountered a bug in the controls menu. Inverting the y-axis (i.e. making it so that pushing the thumbstick up made me look down) failed to work first time. I was unable to shoot straight until I'd restarted the game and briefly tried the left-handed control setting. After that, inverting worked fine but I'd almost given up on being able to play the game by then.

I'm glad I persevered, though. As a spectacle, Army of Two: The 40th Day has more explosions than most action films and yet still contains more to think about. As a game, it's a linear third-person shooter without many new ideas. Nonetheless, some clever tweaks to the formula make it vibrant and engaging. How often do you get to ponder the failings of modern society while sneakily shooting bad guys in the head from behind a dead hippo?

Conclusion: Explosive, cathartic and really rather good.

Graphics: Technically competent and frequently artistically striking. It may not have the detail of some other similar games but it's a lot more interesting to look at. I kept having to stop to gaze at the scenery.

Length: Short (although the 6 or 7 hours it takes to play through the single-player campaign has become pretty much standard for this kind of thing). Getting to see the outcome of different moral choices encourages a replay.

Rating: 4/5.



Buckaroo! box.

Cost: £13.

  • One bucking mule with base and blanket.
  • 12 assorted plastic items of cowboy equipment/baggage.
Gameplay: The first player puts the saddle on the mule and then the next player attempts to hang or place an item of baggage on the saddle. Play continues round in a circle with players taking turns to load further items onto the mule. Anyone dropping an item, knocking one off or causing the mule to buck is out of the game.

Object: To place the final object on the mule without making him buck or to be the last player still in the game.

Game length: Often under a minute.

Number of players: 2-4.

Age: 4+.

Comments: When I was a kid, I had a Jaws game which involved fishing pieces of junk out of the spring-loaded mouth of a model shark using a crochet hook. The weight of the junk was the only thing which kept the mouth open and so the shark was bound to bite eventually. The trick was in knowing when to take a large item and leave everyone else in the lurch, and when to play it safe and take the smallest object going. The game was tense, fun and always ended with someone getting their fingers snapped at.

And yet...

Jaws was clearly inspired by Buckaroo!. Buckaroo! was the game everyone knew about, that had the TV ads and that flung stuff across the room. In short, it was the game the cool kids had. As a result, I felt somewhat short-changed.

That said, I never played Buckaroo! as a kid and I had no idea what it was really like. As it turns out, I had the better game all along...

This new version of Buckaroo! has three sensitivity settings for the mule but it's pretty hard to make the thing buck even on the twitchiest option. In contrast, hanging multiple items off the saddle is pretty awkward. Players are vastly more likely to be out through having something slip off as they put it on than through the mule bucking. This is something of an anti-climax.

After a little practice, older children will have little difficulty piling on all the items, making the winner dependent on when the objects are depleted. In a two-player game, if no one is knocked out, the person who goes second will always win. Bearing this in mind, it's crazy that the rules specifically state that the youngest player is supposed to go first - it puts them at a huge disadvantage. (And that's before taking into account that placing the saddle correctly is the hardest part of the game.)

Things can be improved slightly by changing the rules so that each player starts with a share of the objects to load and gets to add anything they drop to their pile. The winner is the first person to get rid of all their stuff. The lack of bucking means the game still isn't that fun, though.

You'd be much better off with the very similar Bounce Bounce Tigger Game. Personally, I'm off to search my parents' loft for Jaws.

Conclusion: Unsatisfying and very short.

  • Bright and colourful.
  • Simple.
  • Short set-up time.
  • It's probably still what all the cool kids have.
  • Doesn't really work.
  • The rules haven't been thought through.
  • Won't keep anyone occupied for more than ten minutes.
  • Might make playing Mouse Trap seem like a fun alternative.
Rating: 2/5.

Crank 2 - High Voltage (DVD)

Starring: Jason Statham, Amy Smart and a granny in a cardigan made of synthetic fibres.

Rated: 18.

Story: Chev Chelios wakes up from a coma to discover his heart has been stolen and replaced by an artificial one. He sets out on a rampage of destruction to get the original back before his batteries run out. Along the way, he finds every daft method possible to give himself a quick recharge.

Mmmmmmm... Friction.

Comments: Despite all its gore and violence, the original Crank was actually quite a thoughtful metaphor on hedonism and the transitory nature of life. Coupled with non-stop action, this made it rather good. At the end, however, I was disappointed to discover that it left absolutely no room for a sequel. Then again, upon thinking about it, I realised a sequel would entirely undermine the very nature of Crank. It's simply a headlong thrill ride towards death without time to pause or think, poking fun at the ultimate emptiness of a life of self-gratification.

Of course, it's also possible that the whole thing was just an excuse for a frantic sequence of fights and chases...

It doesn't matter, though. Either way, the ending of Crash is as emphatic as Titanic or Hamlet - pretty much everyone is dead. Any sequel was always going to be something of a stretch.

Enter High Voltage.

Oh dear. After Chev gets better from being dead in the first five minutes, the writers simply know no shame. The rest really is merely an excuse for a frantic sequence of fights and chases, tied together by coincidence and attempts to shock (sometimes in the eletrical sense, sometimes in the 'Eugh!' sense). It's like they put together a focus group of sixteen-year-old boys and asked them what they wanted. It probably says something that easily the funniest joke involves a guy with Full Body Tourettes.

The action isn't even that great. The pace helps keep it all relatively diverting but there's nothing very spectacular.

The only conceivable reason anyone thought creating Crank 2 was a good idea was to make a fast buck off the success of the original. The one consolation is that the movie is mercifully short, stopping pretty much randomly at the point the makers got bored.

Conclusion: Like a reel of scenes deleted from the original for being too daft and puerile.

Explosions: Occasional.
Strippers and hookers: Everywhere.
Mutilation: Unpleasant.
Violence: Extreme.
Foul-mouthed old lady: One.
Happy sixteen-year-olds: Probably many.

Rating: 2/5.