Some months ago, I received a press release touting gaming publications. Using some kind of convoluted statistical barometer (e.g., subscribers per metric litre), it claimed that the gaming-mag category boasts more readers and more desirable demographics than any other. I remember thinking at the time that these claims begged further scrutiny, but then a floppy-eared puppy-wuppy ran by my window and I was hopelessly distracted for the remainder of the month.

An exhaustive three-minute Google session failed to locate the release, meaning that I likely hallucinated it. Nonetheless, the misremembered memory prompted me to mosey on down to the local magazine emporium and pluck Play off the rack. It got the nod over the other 397 gaming mags owing to its concise title (as opposed to PS2 Cheat Codes Super Spectacular) and snazzy cover, which features some kind of anime-ish robot-shooting-dude/breastplated-killer-chick leitmotiv.

As it turns out, that cover should have tipped me off: Play is no more a pure gaming title than Rolling Stone is a pure music one. While console and computer games are the mag's primary focus, they get rudely shunted aside for half-assed DVD and anime reviews as well as the occasional puffy entertainment featurette (in the February issue, an interview with new INXS singer J.D. Fortune).

Nobody's denying that some convergence of interests exists here; those who devote a sizable percentage of their waking hours to gaming are more likely to dork out over anime and related entertainment content than, say, me. But if a title does one thing quite well and everything else pretty poorly, doesn't it make sense to ditch the trimmings, especially in this age of media super-specialization?

I'll confine my critique, then, to Play's bread-and-butter gaming coverage. Tonally, the magazine hits its mark. Clearly the writers and editors are fans first, as witnessed by a pithy "I better stop" at the end of one 2006 wish list and reviews that include phrases like "I'm sufficiently blown away." But they avoid fanboy babble and mostly refrain from fawning over the games that float their boats (that uptick their joysticks? Oh, never mind).

The February cover story, on shoot-em-up console game TimeShift, lets the CEO of the firm that developed it talk candidly about the technological challenges it posed. The too-brief "Ink" section at the front of the book stirs the pot by flagging a possible problem with the high-profile King Kong title and reporting on the Hillary Clinton-led push for a Family Entertainment Protection Act. The magazine even conducts a semi-investigation of its own, taking a look at Xbox 360's relative underperformance in the gaming-crazed Japanese market.

Play overplays its hand, however, with the unnecessarily protracted "2005 Year in Review." The piece affords three editors/writers the opportunity to rhapsodize about their top ten console games of the year--which would be much less of a problem if the three didn't agree on four of their choices, resulting in substantial editorial and graphic overlap. Worse, the top-ten lists are followed by individual category awards that re-flog many of those same games. By the time you reach the end of the exhaustive feature, you're willing to consider the possibility that the Nobel nominating committee did society a grave disservice by ignoring Resident Evil 4.

Still, I'd have no problem pointing any serious gamer on the mature end of the intellectual spectrum in Play's general direction. When the mag gets around to streamlining its offering--again, leave the anime to the cartoon twerps--it should merit another look.

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