In the glut of World War II shooters that followed in the wake of Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, it could be difficult for a game to be distinctive. With their first original project Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30, Gearbox Software used an increased focus on realism and small-unit tactics to help them stand out from the crowd.
Today, the tight focus of Brothers in Arms and its strong emphasis on commanding troops helps the game overcome its dated technology and some clear shortcomings in its story and setting. Thanks to the success of the game and its sequels, Gearbox gradually outgrew their status as a developer-for-hire and became a major studio in their own right. Without this game, their subsequent projects like the blockbuster Borderlands series would likely not have come to pass. Whatever your feelings about co-founder Randy Pitchford, Brothers in Arms makes a good case to be a highlight of the original wave of World War II shooters.
I’ve recently released a new mapset for Doom II. Sucker Punch 2 features nine small, single-player maps and is a sequel to the original Sucker Punch, which was released back in 2018. A second release candidate is available to download and play now.
This project has been a long time in coming - while it was made over about three months, it has been three years since I released any Doom maps. One of the factors which helped to end this hiatus was the OTEX texture pack made by Ola “ukiro” Björling. A monumental contribution to the Doom community, this pack contains thousands of new graphics for mappers to use and has really helped to fire my imagination.
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.