“I’d like to play more games, but I don’t have the time these days.” It’s a familiar refrain for players of my generation, who once sank whole days into management games, but now actually work in management, who once defeated bosses but now sell their every waking moment just to please them. The games that are most likely to fall by the wayside are role-playing games. Due in part to their origin in vastly overlong high fantasy novels, RPGs are some of the most time-consuming videogames that have yet been devised. Cash-rich but time-poor players are likely to have seen the beginning of many RPGs, but will have glimpsed the end of very few.
It’s one reason why Shadowrun Returns is such a refreshing game. The product of a hugely successful crowdfunder in 2012, it’s a hybrid cyberpunk-fantasy RPG which can be played to completion in something like 12 hours. After this length of time, many other games will barely have freed players from the torment of fighting hordes of rats with a wooden sword. RPGs tend to be bloated with myriad fetch-quests, wild-goose chases and shaggy-dog stories which greatly inflate their length and complexity, in a misguided attempt to replicate the capital-E “Epic” style of some long-forgotten Lord of the Rings knockoff.
RPG players tend to clamour for “depth” in games, but in practice this can mean the mass-production of identikit quests and locations which artificially bulk out or complicate the experience. To be sure, there are exceptions to this rule, but even in excellent RPGs a large proportion of the - to use a terrible term - content is rarely seen. For example: today, just 7.5% of those players who own the enhanced edition of Neverwinter Nights have the achievement for completing the game’s first act. There’s something to be said for an RPG which is actually modest in its aspirations, and which aims to be completed, not just dipped into. There is a case to be made for an RPG which is not deep, but actually shallow - an RPG like Shadowrun Returns.
While many people can reel off a list of their favourite Christmas movies, far fewer would be able to think of even one film they love set at New Year. It makes sense, because while Christmas is a time for staying in with movies, New Year is normally a time for going out and making dubious choices under the influence of alcohol. Clearly, these are not normal times and so I made the safe and eminently sensible choice to stay in and watch Strange Days, which is that rare thing - a notable New Year movie.
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow and released in October 1995, Strange Days is a science fiction thriller set at that most unique New Year - during the last two days of 1999, leading up to the dawn of the new millennium. While it received some good reviews, the film was a catastrophic flop on release and made just $8 million in the US against a $42 million budget, which probably knocked Bigelow off the studio’s Christmas card list. For this reason, combined with the difficulty in seeing the film until recently, Strange Days has languished in relative obscurity, a footnote to the director’s now much more successful career. However, a small cult following regards it as a minor classic - and they’re right.
After falling agonisingly short in 2019, this year I'm on track to finish 50 books. Of these, I've listed the ten that I enjoyed most and that I'd definitely recommend. As was the case last year, I've read a lot of classic sci-fi, but below you'll also find a chilling non-fiction book from this year, fantasy by Michael Moorcock, and historical fiction by the peerless Bernard Cornwell.
With Tomb Raider: Legend, Crystal Dynamics had brought Lara Croft into the 21st century with a smoother, more cinematic experience. With its prequel Tomb Raider: Anniversary, they had given a fresh look and feel to the traditional gameplay from the series’ 90s heyday. With Tomb Raider: Underworld - which would prove to be the last game in the series prior to another reboot - the developers sought to combine the best aspects of the two previous releases. Built on a graphics engine written specifically for it and released on the new consoles of the time, Underworld aspired to be nothing less than the ultimate Lara Croft adventure.
The fact that the Tomb Raider series went for five years without another main game, and that the next instalment was a reboot, should indicate that Underworld did not accomplish all that it set out to do. However, the game is notable for a number of reasons. It represents a final outing for a particular vision of Lara Croft, one that was followed with a disheartening and predictably “gritty” take on the character. It is also an interesting test-case on what happens when a developer tries to fuse the best aspects of two radically different past instalments in a series.
While it has a number of frustrating issues, Underworld is a compelling finale to the second era of Tomb Raider games. It has the best visuals of any game seen in the series up to that point, and when its gameplay truly comes together it provides some genuinely gripping and memorable moments. While hardly the first Tomb Raider game to spring to the mind of fans today, Underworld is an intriguing experience and an effort by Crystal Dynamics to bring their first take on Lara Croft full circle.
With Tomb Raider: Legend (2006), developer Crystal Dynamics and publisher Eidos had achieved their objectives. The reboot of the venerable series had secured strong sales coupled with good reviews, and had gone a long way to reviving the reputation of Lara Croft. As they had been in the 1990s, Eidos were eager to see a follow-up. They tasked Crystal Dynamics with two parallel projects - one, a direct sequel to Legend which would see release in 2008.
At the same time, they resuscitated a concept from the Core Design era - a remake of the original Tomb Raider game from 1996. Eidos instructed Crystal Dynamics to begin work on bringing the project to completion. The next Tomb Raider game then became a product with two purposes: to act as a loose prequel to Legend on the one hand, and on the other to serve as a belated marking of ten years since the series began. For this reason the game was titled Tomb Raider: Anniversary and saw release in June 2007, only 14 months after Legend.
Anniversary represents a unique fusion of two eras of the Tomb Raider series. While preserving some of the smoothness and new mechanics of Legend, it also brings back the solitary, atmospheric adventuring and strong emphasis on puzzles from the 1996 original. The result is a game which is strikingly different to the one that preceded it and which has more of a niche audience - but which also shows just far the Tomb Raider series had come in its first decade.
The original Tomb Raider was released in 1996. A pioneering game, it did for the third-person action genre what Quake did for the FPS - showing what could be achieved with fully-3D engines and setting the stage for numerous imitators. The Derby-based developer Core Design would rise to become a British success story and the game’s protagonist Lara Croft would go on to become a gaming icon, and one of the industry’s few household names.
Inevitably, publisher Eidos were hungry for more. Over Core Design’s protests, they demanded a new Tomb Raider game each year. The studio wanted to pause, to develop a new engine and prepare Lara for more genuinely fluid and engaging adventures. Instead, they were forced by Eidos to push their engine and increasingly aged gameplay further and further each year, in pursuit of more profit. Core Design went as far as to kill Lara off in the fourth game The Last Revelation, only to be forced by Eidos to revive her. The situation came to a head with the disastrous Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness in 2003. The sixth in the series, the game attempted a flawed new direction and was pushed out by Eidos in an unfinished state.
While the resulting damage to the Tomb Raider name was largely the fault of Eidos, it fell to them to try to find a way to rejuvenate the series. In 2004, they made their fateful decision and pulled Core Design from the franchise - a move which ultimately led to the studio’s demise under new ownership in 2010. Instead, another studio owned by Eidos was given the task of developing a bold reboot for the series. Crystal Dynamics, based in California and known mainly for the Legacy of Kain series, became the first American studio to handle the British icon that is Lara Croft.
Japan, 1974. It’s early spring, and the cherry blossom explodes with colour. At the golden hour, the evening sun bathes the tarmac of a road in golden light. Halfway up majestic Mount Akagi, a Lancia Stratos rally car powers up the mountain road. At the critical moment of entering a hairpin, the driver applies the brakes with perfect timing and the car - a wedge-shaped masterpiece of Italian engineering - drifts around the corner with angelic grace. As the route straightens out, the precise application of power sends the Stratos further down the ancient mountain, while a torii gate at the roadside marks the transition from the mundane to the sacred. It is poetry in motion; a momentary religious experience; an automotive encounter with God.
There is a grand tradition of rally video games, stretching back into the 1980s. Released for a host of platforms, they have varied in their approach to realism and their relationship to official championships. Art of Rally is a genuinely unique take on this venerable sub-genre of racing games. Developed by Canadian outfit Funselektor Labs, it recognises the things that make rally unique and special - the mastery of its delicate technical skills, the sense of being alone against the elements and the clock, and the euphoric experience of getting a corner just right.
At its best, there’s something almost mystical about rally videogames and Art of Rally reflects and augments this with its distinctive aesthetic. The game doesn’t aspire to the mud-drenched hyper-realism of the big, triple-A rally sims. Instead it has a low-poly, highly-stylised, and beautifully colourful look. The many and various stages in Japan, Italy, Norway, Germany and Finland don’t precisely replicate real places but have an almost dreamlike quality, allied to an excellent electronic soundtrack. The near-spiritual euphoria that can come from mastering a challenging corner is not lost on Funselektor - one of the first things seen upon starting the game is a car encountering a monolithic statue of the Buddha.
My overview of Michael Moorcock’s epic Elric saga continues, and concludes, with this second part. The guide covers the eight main novels in the sequence in their internal chronological order; to catch up with the first four novels, be sure to read or listen to part I.
Following those first four books, Elric has made enemies in what remains of his Melnibonéan people, and in the powerful sorcerer Theleb Ka’arna. More positively, he has made a stout ally in the form of Moonglum of Elwher. He has won great victories, and done terrible things, all with the demonic sword Stormbringer at his side.
All of these events are factors in the stories which follow in books 5 to 8. Here, the chronology and provenance of the series becomes a bit more complicated. The four books were published out of sequence, during three decades. Confusingly, the book published first is actually the last in the main sequence. Hopefully, this concluding part of the guide will clear up the probable misunderstandings - rest assured that these are fine books, and a wild ride in the Multiverse.
By 1972, Ursula K. Le Guin was increasingly being seen as one of the most important writers of science fiction and fantasy. Following three fascinating but mostly ignored novels, the Oregon-based author and her Hainish series were brought to wide attention by The Left Hand of Darkness (1969). She had also published A Wizard of Earthsea (1968) and The Tombs of Atuan (1971), the first two entries in her Earthsea fantasy series, to some acclaim.
While Le Guin’s career was taking off, she was profoundly troubled by outside events - specifically the horror of the Vietnam War. This would profoundly influence the fifth entry in her Hainish series, The Word for World is Forest. As Ken MacLeod put it in his introduction, the book is a “reflection on invasion, exploitation and oppression, and on the necessity and cost of resistance.”
While this description is accurate, it is also an understatement. While certainly a “reflection”, the novel is also a forceful howl of anger. Le Guin later wrote of science fiction not as a means of predicting the future, but of explaining and commenting on the present. While this process is evident in other examples of her work, The Word for World is Forest is particularly strongly suffused with the author’s feelings about contemporary events. Many of the elements of the book are analogues for aspects of the war then raging in Vietnam, and consequently the novella - only 126 pages long in the Gollancz SF Masterworks edition - feels direct and pointed. While Le Guin later regretted this bluntness, it is arguably crucial to its significance today. After all, its calls for tolerance, respect for the natural world, and fierce condemnation of colonialism are sadly as important now as ever.
Nothing looks quite like Amid Evil. Released from the murky ambiguity of Early Access into the sunlit uplands of actual completion in 2019, the fantasy shooter by developer Indefatigable has a genuinely unique aesthetic. Even moreso than its eminently solid gameplay, it is the visuals and level design of Amid Evil which elevate the game into being one of the best examples in the recent retro shooter boom.
Fantasy shooters have always been few and far between, and this means that Amid Evil is condemned to lazy comparisons with Raven Software’s games Heretic (1994) and Hexen (1996). Indefatigable’s game deserves better than to be categorised with these shooters, which have dated poorly and which did little more than port Doom into a hackneyed high fantasy setting.
That’s not to say that Amid Evil has particularly groundbreaking gameplay itself. Its movement and weapons in particular will be familiar to anyone with a cursory experience of ‘90s shooters. The game is broken up into seven episodes, playable in any order as was standard for a number of games from that era. The story, too, is barely there - the player takes on the role of the nameless “Champion”, and is tasked with cleansing seven realms of the evil that has corrupted and subverted them. It's the way the developers built these worlds that gives Amid Evil the touch of greatness.