In February 2006, EA released Command & Conquer: The First Decade. Rarely, if ever, have more important and worthwhile games been put together in one boxed release. On one DVD, EA had assembled every Command & Conquer game released up to that point. From the original 1995 game which popularised the real-time strategy genre to 2003’s Generals, the set was a remarkable document of what Westwood Studios had achieved. EA had owned Westwood since 1998, and the developer was one of their most prized assets - a proven money-maker with a share of around 5% of the whole PC games market. By using the phrase “the first decade”, EA seemed confident that much more success was still to come.
It didn’t quite work out like that. Today, EA are usually vilified for their actions towards Westwood and the C&C series following the release of The First Decade. The usual line is that the Las Vegas-based developers were “destroyed” by their corporate overlords, in the years after they were absorbed into EA Los Angeles in 2003. The games released in the series’ second decade have very little of the iconic status enjoyed by the products of the early years. Eventually, the series became a shadow of its former self, with EA overseeing a mixture of catastrophic failures like Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight (2010) and a string of misbegotten, cancelled projects. A series that had spearheaded the explosion of RTS popularity in the 1990s now consisted of dumbed-down browser and mobile games, when projects were completed at all.
Looking back, though, there are things to be unearthed from the wreckage of C&C’s mostly inauspicious second decade. Chief amongst these hidden gems is what may be one of the best games in the whole series to play today - the gloriously tongue-in-cheek RTS experience with real lasting appeal that is Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3.
An Action Canon is a new series focusing on the action movies that, for me, represent the best and most important entries in the genre. Each entry will look at what makes the film special, and how it fits into the overall history of action movies. Catch up withNo. 1 here, which focuses on RoboCop (1987).
Raw Deal was made at the height of the action movie rivalry between Schwarzenegger and Stallone. In 1986, Stallone had a $160 million smash with Cobra, which has been rewarded with cult status in recent years. Raw Deal was Arnold’s effort released a month later and got, well - a raw deal, barely making any money despite costing only $12 million to make. As a result, this minor classic very capably directed by John Irvin quickly fell into relative obscurity. On April 1, the movie will get another chance to impress, when it will be added to Netflix.
At first glance, Raw Deal looks like a typical ‘80s Schwarzenegger movie. In fact, it was the middle entry out of only three action films he made during the decade which doesn’t have a sci-fi or fantasy element. It also has a story by the writers of Sergio Leone westerns, shares its editor with Lawrence of Arabia, and features the immortal line “you should not drink and bake.” In a small way, its failure even helped its star become a Hollywood power player in the 1990s.
Crucially, Raw Deal is just a fun and very solidly made action film with all the squib-filled shootouts, car chases, explosions, and questionable fashion choices that are in such short supply today. It has no high-minded intentions or a universal message, but it does feature the biggest action star in the world driving a Buick through a quarry, taking out a score of bad guys with a submachine gun, and blasting “Satisfaction” by the Stones - which must count for something.
In 2003, the New York Times published an article casting judgement on which show was “the best spy series in television history.” The writer, Terence Rafferty, wasn’t thinking of the then-current hit series 24. He was writing about an obscure British series which had barely been broadcast in the United States - The Sandbaggers.
To this day, Rafferty’s words obviously provide a perfect quote for the back of DVD box sets. Despite his effusive praise and a small cult following, though, The Sandbaggers remains barely known in the country where it was made. More than 40 years since its final episode was first broadcast, the series remains one of the best of its kind. Spy fiction is a permanent fixture in British culture - and The Sandbaggers deserves to be seen as one of the jewels in the crown.
Five books into her Hainish cycle, it is clear that one of Ursula K. Le Guin's goals with the series is to explore different ways of being, different kinds of society and how they interact. In doing so, Le Guin achieves what the best science fiction writers do - making readers consider other ways of life, and how they may compare with and improve upon their own. In her 1974 novel The Dispossessed, the sixth in the cycle, Le Guin does this more powerfully than ever before.
In this book, a number of distinct societies are compared. Its main character personally explores the two main societies, with others present in the background. He compares these systems within the narrative, judging one that is familiar to him against one to which he is new. While his society is in some senses a utopia - famously described as an “ambiguous utopia” - he is compelled to imagine a way of life that is better still, and so are we.
An Action Canon is a new series focusing on the action movies that, for me, represent the best and most important entries in the genre. Each entry will look at what makes the film special, and how it fits into the overall history of action movies.
In a dystopian near future Detroit, police officer Alex Murphy is murdered and subsequently resurrected as a sophisticated law enforcement cyborg. RoboCop is expected to clear the way for the demolition of the crime-ridden, impoverished Old Detroit so that the gleaming Delta City can be built in its place. Instead, Murphy takes on the two corrupt entities that run the city and which share a symbiotic relationship - the vicious street gang that killed him, and the ruthless corporation which remade him.
A controversial Dutch director whose only previous English-language production had been a major flop; a script by two men with no prior experience of screenplays; and a star who had appeared only in a string of obscure, mostly unsuccessful movies. These are not the expected ingredients of a major hit in Hollywood, much less a film with a lasting impact on pop culture - yet that was what RoboCop became following its release in the summer of 1987.
“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.