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Life's Greatest Mysteries

pounds 19.99, Mindscape

Windows & Macintosh

Created and developed in the United States by the educational multimedia company Adam Software, this title is pitched at children aged 10 to early teens.

It asks and answers a wide range of questions (for the queasy parent, certain sections can be locked out and password-protected) to do with mental and physical health such as: "How do we catch a cold?", "What is cancer?", "What is Aids?", "Why do we dream?"

The answers, in the form of QuickTime movie presentations, are well thought- out, reasoned and authoritative. Interaction and feedback with the program are limited to a few points where choices can be made with a mouse click (plus some less than inspiring quizzes), so in essence the experience is akin to watching a TV programme rather than immersion in a multimedia one. That aside, the use of animation to illustrate points being made does facilitate understanding of the principles discussed. A useful adjunct to multimedia encyclopaedias.

Lego Island

pounds 29.99, Mindscape

Windows 95

Just when you thought that DirectX problems had been ironed out, along comes this CD-Rom with a warning that you may have to reset your video display to 16-bit or less, and that there are known problems with popular video cards, especially the Matrox Millenium and those based on S3 ViRGE chips.

The technical help provided for the system crashes in these instances is, frankly, inadequate. If you can get it to run, you may wonder why it needs DirectX 5 in any case - the graphics and sounds are nothing special.

There's a series of games and challenges such as building and racing a car, delivering pizza via skateboard, etc. The initial buzz when children recognise a familiar toy in an unfamiliar setting is undeniable. Don't bank on it lasting long, though.

The background notes boast the psychological underpinnings of the game and how they empower the kids who play them. That claim does not mesh with what goes on onscreen - a 3D action adventure that doesn't allow your kids' imaginations to run as freely as do the simple plastic bricks on which the game is based. A shame, because it's the sort of project that feels as though it ought to be admirable.

Guitar Coach

pounds 42.50, Charanga

Windows 3.1 or higher

Learning to play a musical instrument is a skill that multimedia is well- suited for. Most titles like this concentrate on turning wannabe guitarists into competent buskers, but the focus of this one is more on classical and Spanish guitar styles.

Using tablature and video clips to teach correct fingering techniques, it runs through a series of structured lessons to bring the student up to speed. Difficult passages and techniques can be visited in greater depth, if necessary.

The built-in tuner is a cut above the average - it allows either a single tone or octaves of the tone (many people find the latter much easier when it comes to reconciling the tone in their head with the one produced by their guitar) to be used. The only downside to this software is that if you have Windows set to display large fonts you'll have to reset it to small fonts before the program will run.

Ordnance Survey Interactive Atlas Of Great Britain, 2nd Edition

pounds 39.99, Attica

Windows 3.1 or later

Map lovers will be hard pressed to find anything more authoritative and up to date than this. However, unfortunately for ramblers, this software is based on the Routeplanner (1:625 000 scale - 1 inch to 10 miles, 4cm to 25km) and Routemaster Series (1:250 000 scale - 1 inch to 4 miles, 1cm to 2.5km) which pitches it largely at the motorist, who is already well supplied with more fully featured software.

Although it doesn't have the route-planning functions of dedicated journey management packages, an uncluttered and easy to pick-up interface allows the user to select a likely route from a general overview and zoom in to examine the fine detail. There is a distance measuring facility, but it only works in a single straight line and doesn't allow you to draw lots of lines along your route and calculate the cumulative total.

The package scarcely qualifies as interactive - you can choose to hide some symbols and choose which scale to use, and there are mandatory video clips, photos and gazetteer, but not much above what you might get in a book. Fun for browsing, nevertheless. If they brought out a version of the Pathfinder Series (1:25 000 - 2.5 inches to 1 mile, 4cm to 1km), walkers would forgive the lack of interactivity.

Imperialism

pounds 44.99, Mindscape

Windows 95, Macintosh System 7 or later

Combining the idea of a civilisation building and nurturing game with a strategic war game could have the effect of alienating aficionados of both genres. Imperialism, subtitled "The Fine Art Of Conquering The World", gets away with it largely because it's so well designed and executed (although, perhaps it's just the idea of unifying the world under one dictator that appeals to the baser side of games players).

The level of detail in the resources to manipulate is impressive. Starting from a pre-industrial base, you have to mine iron ore and gather raw materials to turn into manufactured goods. These you use to drive your civilisation and create the wealth that can be used eventually to either build a democracy that wins over the world or the armies to go out and conquer it.

The war game aspect is a traditional turn-based affair that can be as easy or difficult as you like thanks to the inbuilt artificial intelligence. It should also be good value- you're unlikely to get through a game in one sitting and no two starting worlds are the same.

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