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Astute mag readers will probably note very shortly that PC Gamer and PlayStation: The Official Magazine (and presumably OXM, too, but I haven't confirmed that yet) have yet another Cellplay "bonus insert" inside the January 2008 issues. This one's only 12 pages long (as opposed to the mammoth 30-page section that appeared in the Holiday '07 ishes of Future's mags), and it's also gotten a bit of a redesign, having a very busy look reminiscent of late-90s PC Gamer.

Seeing Cellplay two months in a row is frankly a little off-putting. Is this going to be a monthly thing now, or what? I don't mean to pick on the people behind the Cellplay section -- in fact, the editorial director of the insert is none other than Julian Rignall, a name dearly beloved by any game-mag aficionado. I also don't deny that cell-phone gaming is a big, exciting marketplace and the games on it are becoming more and more fascinating by the moment. But as a subscriber to all of Future's game mags, all I feel is that this is a bunch of unasked-for filler that could've been better occupied with more PC, PlayStation, or Xbox coverage.

I remember back when the late Computer Games debuted the "Now Playing" arts and entertainment section in 2004. Readers were up in arms about the presence of light movie/DVD/comic book coverage in an otherwise fiendishly hardcore PC game mag, but the editors countered that there was no game coverage that could've gone into those pages -- a pretty plain lie, considering how CGM had no problem refilling that real estate once Now Playing finally spun off into its own (ultimately unsuccessful) publication.

In a way, I wonder if the existence of Cellplay is just another testament to the disappointing advertising situation US game mags face these days. Unlike Now Playing, Cellplay does attract a fair number of ad pages that the publisher probably wouldn't get otherwise. But is this extra revenue so important to the continued survival of Future's mags that the higher-ups are willing to sacrifice such a hefty percentage of their flagship titles' pages to this completely off-topic content? Is the corresponding loss in reader satisfaction (and perceived loss of purchase value for newsstand buyers) worth the extra ad bucks?

I'm sure it's a touchy topic for editorialships industry-wide, so I'll leave it for now and get to breaking down all the US mags (plus Edge) released in the past fortnight. It's the last pre-Xmas rush! How are magazines coping?

Edge Christmas 2007

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Cover: Super Mario Galaxy

This cover probably doesn't seem anything special in the thumbnail, so click to view the full size, if you could. You'll find that Edge has made the cover into a sort of pseudo-Advent calendar, with some of the days already "opened" and revealing the mag's contents. The photos in the calendar boxes are printed separately from the rest of the cover, something you can feel when you actually run your hand across them -- it's a really cute and Edge-like effect, really.

Two features grab my attention this issue, one on Steve Jackson and his career in and out of games (traditional and non) and another on the science and architectural skill behind making good multiplayer game maps. Otherwise, the big news is once again in the reviews -- a 10 for SM Galaxy, and a 5 for PC RPG The Witcher that caused many hardcore computer dorks to raise up their arms in despair. (PC Gamer US gave it 90%, for sake of comparison.)

Nintendo Power Holiday 2007

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Cover: No More Heroes

This is the second Future-produced NP, and things seem to have settled down quickly over in Chris Slate's empire. Old NP folks like Steve Tomason and Chris Hoffman have joined Future names like Chris Imlay, Justin Cheng and Katrin Auch in the masthead, and preview (de-facto) EIC Scott Pelland remains on as editor-at-large.

The mag itself hasn't changed much at all, and Future's Cellplay supplement is notable in its absence. No More Heroes gets a huge push this month, complete with a Power Profile of Goichi Suda where his affable weirdness is front and center.

PlayStation: The Official Magazine January 2008

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Cover: Metal Gear Solid 4

It may be my imagination, but I think Future's using higher-qualty paper stock for PTOM than they did with PSM. I have the impression that the mag's thicker than PSM was despite having the same 100 pages, but perhaps the thinner mags of the past year or two are starting to cloud my sense of judgement.

The main feature this month is the same "Top Games of '08" one you'll see in PC Gamer down below, but a couple of the previews are at least original -- Killzone 2 is written in the form of a soldier in the war writing home to his parents, for example. More interesting is the review section this month, which reveals a fair bit about how PTOM rates games compared to PSM. It seems like the editors are taking a GamePro-type approach here -- really great games often get five stars even if they aren't anything truly groundbreaking, and one-star ratings are rare by comparison. (Assassin's Creed and Rock Band both get perfect scores this month; the Aqua Teen game gets the, er, opposite score.)

PC Gamer January 2008 (Podcast)

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Cover: Spore

The "Spore cover" gets cuter-looking every time a US magazine tackles it. The preview inside (along with the rest of the Top 8) is simply large screenshots, exhaustively annotated and captioned, which is a neat change of pace and a fair bit more readable than the typical wall of text. (That, or my attention span is simply faltering.)

This issue's also interesting because it represents the final hurrah for ex-EIC Gary Whitta, who writes his last back-page column for the mag. Whitta was a charter member of PC Gamer's UK staff and was easily its longest-tenured writer. Not all is lost, however, for the new back-page writer is announced as Ben Croshaw, better known as Yahtzee, or "the Zero Punctuation guy," or "the man who writes the bit of The Escapist I actually read". (Not a slam on The Escapist -- I pretty much treat all online game sites as databases more than something to sit down and physically read. I hardly even read my own writing online...which is why most of it is unreadable, of course.)

Play December 2007

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Cover: Uncharted: Drake's Fortune

A pretty uninspiring cover by Play standards -- a review cover is rare for them, and the fact that the lead preview feature is for Turok doesn't reassure, either -- but the contents are up to the usual Play standard. The mag's Japan coverage remains the most readable in print, with sane reviews of Crisis Core and ASH and a long interview with Konami music composer Norihiki Hibino, second in a promised regular series.

(Uncharted, SM Galaxy, and Ratchet & Clank all receive a 10, and yet I can't remember the last time Play awarded that score. Anyone know offhand?)

GamePro January 2008

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Cover: 2008 preview guide

The preview feature this month runs through 48 games and culminates with four pages on MGS4. GamePro has an odd history of giving long previews to MGS games when there isn't a heck of a lot new to talk about, but this one's still fun to read through.

I noticed this month that I received the "regular" edition of GamePro in the mail this month instead of the usual Best Buy Level-2 edition. Is the deal with best Buy over? I'm not sure since I haven't seen any official announcement, but given that any contract IDG had with Best Buy would likely end with a December issue, it's not out of the realm of impossibility. I'll ask around.

Beckett Massive Online Gamer December/January 2008

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Cover: Everquest II: Rise of Kunark

Dragons in Armor Sells Magazines. That's the first thing they tell you in journalism school, and Beckett knows the rule all too well.

This issue (as well as this month's Newtype USA, for sake of disclosure) contains a card for the MapleStory trading card game...er, sorry, "iTrading Card Game", that allows you to unlock a virtual quest in the real MapleStory MMO.

Beckett MOG seems to get a pretty healthy amount of advertising these days, enough to make me wonder what woulda happened if only MASSIVE could've lasted a couple more issues... but enough whining about the past, I suppose. This mag seems to concentrate mainly on two types of articles -- strategy and longform interview -- and the Richard Garriott piece is the highlight, I'd say.

Tips & Tricks Codebook January/February 2008

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Cover: Halo 3

Hey, if you haven't finished the fight yet...

PS3 Ultimate Strategy Guide / Halo 3: The Ultimate Guide

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Future's winter specials are trickling into newsstands right now, both featuring quite a lot of original content. The PS3 strategy guide is what you'd expect, but the Halo 3 book is a kind of "commemorative collector's edition" packed with all kinds of content -- Bungie studio tour, reprints of OXM's reviews of all three games, excerpts from all the novels, art assets, strategies, and so forth. Worth it for fans, I'd reckon.

[Kevin Gifford breeds ferrets and runs Magweasel, a site for collectors and fans of old video-game and computer magazines. He's also an editor at Newtype USA magazine.]