Appropriately enough given the state of the world, I start this month's games roundup with the post-apocalyptic tactics game Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden (2018). Later in March I tapped into the cultural zeitgeist - as I always do! - by going full goblin mode in the excellent stealth game Styx: Master of Shadows (2014).
Strap in, because this month's roundup is, happily, a particularly long one. There are a total of seven games to cover, even if one is technically "just" a DLC. On Entertainium duties, I also got the chance to cover a new game I'd been looking forward to. Sadly, Weird West didn't live up to my personal expectations, but I'm aware that I'm in the minority on that front.
Fiction is full of a whole variety of apocalyptic scenarios - like the dead rising from the grave, a full-blown nuclear exchange, or a takeover by hostile machines. There is one scenario that has what you might call an “advantage” over these ones, though. The catastrophic collision of an asteroid into the Earth is all the more unsettling because it has actually happened before, and - looked at over a sufficiently long timescale - will inevitably happen again. It’s perhaps the ultimate disaster that we can imagine, and yet it is also very real.
According to the dominant Alvarez hypothesis, the dinosaurs and most of the planet’s species were wiped out 66 million years ago by the impact of an asteroid estimated to be between 10 and 15 kilometres across. That’s roughly the same size as Phobos, one of the moons of Mars. The strike would have had an explosive force equivalent to 100 million megatonnes of TNT; that’s the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, multipied by a billion. There are many other large craters around the world, each of which is the legacy of a devastating impact in the distant past. These include the Karakul crater in Tajikistan, the Popigai crater in Russia and the Vredefort crater in South Africa, the world’s biggest at over 160km across.
The asteroid impact scenario has inspired many works of fiction including last year’s film Don’t Look Up, the duelling 1998 blockbusters Deep Impact and Armageddon, and numerous sci-fi stories and novels. Of these, one of the most notable is the book The Hammer of God, written by Arthur C. Clarke and published in 1993. Taking into account the latest science of the time, the book was the second-to-last novel that Clarke wrote alone and the last one he wrote alone outside of the Odyssey series. Incorporating elements and styles from his better known earlier books, The Hammer of God partly inspired Deep Impact and could be a good entry point for newcomers to Clarke’s body of work.
Way back in September 2020, I began reading and writing about the Hainish “cycle” of SF novels by Ursula K. Le Guin (1929 - 2018). It has taken a year and a half, but the time has now come for my reflections on the eighth and final Hainish book, The Telling, which was published in 2000.
The Hainish books began with Le Guin’s very first novel Rocannon's World in 1966. The various books and short stories share a loose continuity and are set over a large span of time. They are predicated on the idea that humans evolved not on Earth, but rather on the fictional planet Hain. In the stories, an interstellar association called the “League of Worlds” or later the “Ekumen”, gradually reunites various human-like peoples who live on a number of planets including Earth. This concept is central to some of the stories, and barely mentioned in others.
The Telling is a fairly short novel which revisits several of the themes which Le Guin had previously explored in the earlier Hainish books. In this sense, it makes for a fitting conclusion to the loose series. Opinions are divided on where to start with the Hainish stories, but I would certainly caution against starting with The Telling; while its setting and characters are entirely new, it leans heavily on previous depictions of the Hainish people and of the Ekumen. While this is generally felt to be one of the more minor entries in the series, The Telling has all the deep engagement with ideas that Le Guin fans will expect by this point.
Another month, and another step in the world seemingly disintegrating in front of our eyes. February was another tough four weeks of 2022, as our stupid, cruel and cowardly leaders continued to throw ordinary people under the bus. At least, as ever, there were games to play. In recent weeks I tackled two huge older games which I hadn’t previously played. One was the $6 billion juggernaut of Grand Theft Auto V (2013), and one was the triumphant return of the Slayer, Doom Eternal (2020).
Excitingly, I also got the chance to play two brand new games in the form of martial arts brawler Sifu and the shooter sequel Shadow Warrior 3. These two Asian-themed action games were both on my list of the games I’ve been most looking forward to this year, and they both lived up to my expectations - albeit in somewhat surprising ways. A quick overview of all of these games will follow, but for my in-depth thoughts on the newcomers check out my full-length reviews published on Entertainium.
Right now, Taylor Sheridan is riding high. The Texan writer-director has no less than three current, successful TV series in the States - neo-Western Yellowstone which stars Kevin Costner, its historical prequel 1883, and the crime drama Mayor of Kingstown. These have all been critical and ratings hits, particularly Yellowstone which is now five seasons in. Sadly, few people have heard of these shows in the UK, let alone seen them, due to Paramount’s absurd but apparently lucrative licensing strategy which has kept them off British screens.
While Sheridan is currently building a TV empire at a breakneck pace, his success is rooted in his writing for film. He made his name as the writer of Sicario (2015), the superbly tense Mexican drug war thriller directed by Denis Villeneuve. For David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water (2016), he received a slew of award nominations, including for the Academy, BAFTA, and Golden Globe Awards for Best Original Screenplay. His subsequent films Wind River (2017), Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018) and Those Who Wish Me Dead (2021) have all reinforced his personal slate of tough, terse movies about life or death situations on “the modern American frontier”.
In a few short years, Sheridan has been transformed from a bit-part actor on Sons of Anarchy into a major power player. Today’s screenwriters are almost anonymous, but Sheridan has some of the same name recognition and kudos once reserved for guys like Shane Black. He’s achieved all of this while bucking trends - in a far cry from the ceaseless deluge of superhero sequels we’ve been in for fifteen years, his movies are unambiguously written for grown-ups. Each of his five best films have been a key step in that transformation, which is why it’s worth recommending them each in turn.
Next month marks the second anniversary of Doom Eternal, which arrived just as the COVID-19 pandemic struck. The two have in some ways have followed a similar course since then, regularly introducing new variants to keep us on our toes. Late last year I revisited Doom (2016) in anticipation, and this month I finally caught up with id Software’s frenetic shooter sequel.
It’s one of those games which obviously cost a vast sum to develop, and every cent is seen on screen and felt in the slickness and addictiveness of the gameplay. It’s also exhausting, with combat so intense and fast-paced that I only ever tackled one level per day. It’s too late for anything so grandiose as a review, and arguably too early for a retrospective so what follows is merely some scattered, personal reflections on my experience with the game. The short version is that I loved Doom Eternal, albeit with some significant caveats.
Vast stretches of radioactive desert; rampaging biker gangs; vehicles and towns built out of scavenged parts; crumbling ruins populated by cannibals or mutants. The post-nuclear wasteland is one of the standard settings for genre fiction today, popularised by films like Mad Max (1979), video games like Fallout (1997), and their various sequels and derivatives. Written by major science fiction and fantasy author Roger Zelazny, Damnation Alley is a classic novel which not only helped to define that setting, but also features a perfect example of the modern antihero.
2022 has arrived, and with it the promise of lots of new games and the first update of what I've been playing in the new year. I recently wrote about my most anticipated games coming up in 2022, but release dates are vague right now and as I write this none of those have been released yet.
Instead, in January I continued to catch up on or revisit some games from the last several years. I played Ensemble Studios strategy games Age of Empires III and Halo Wars for the first time, I revisited the shooters Wolfenstein: The New Order and Shadow Warrior 2, and replayed the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot for the first time since it was new. In February I'll have something to say about new games, but in the meantime here are my thoughts on the older ones I've played so far in 2022.
With their fourth Tomb Raider game, Crystal Dynamics took the chance to re-think the series a second time. In the process, they ensured more years of success and relevance for Lara Croft.
After being made the custodians of the Lara Croft and Tomb Raider phenomena in the early 2000s, California-based studio Crystal Dynamics released a successful trilogy of games. Legend (2006), Anniversary (2007) and Underworld (2008) restored the reputation of a series which had fallen on hard times. The name Lara Croft was once again associated with profitable games which earned good reviews. The developers had accomplished the mission set for them by publishers Eidos. What the Legend trilogy did not do, though, was to make any radical changes to the Tomb Raider formula. The games had steadied the ship; they had not plotted a whole new course.
The years after 2008 brought major changes to the context in which the Tomb Raider games were made. Eidos were bought out by Square Enix, and were transformed into the Japanese publisher’s European subsidiary. Clearly, the prospect of profiting from further Lara Croft adventures was a primary reason for the decision. Crystal Dynamics had begun working on a direct sequel to Underworld, but these plans were terminated. Instead, under new ownership the studio would again reboot the Tomb Raider series, just as they had done in 2006. This time would be different, though - they would plot a whole new course for Lara Croft.
Mars. The “red planet” has had a powerful presence in the human imagination for thousands of years. Because it is visible with the naked eye, and because of its striking colour, Mars has been directly observed by countless people. It has worked its way into mythology, religion, scientific inquiry, and of course into science fiction. From the lurid alien world of the Victorian and pulp eras, to the more grounded portrayals that followed the visit by Mariner 4 in the 1960s, to the contemporary realistic approach, Mars has been a staple of SF.
In particular, the idea of colonising Mars has fascinated writers for generations. Because of the planet’s relative closeness to Earth, the presence of its atmosphere, and the existence of water ice on the surface, colonisation by humans has long been a tantalisingly plausible prospect. Since the findings about the red planet provided by the Mariner and Viking spacecraft, depictions of human colonies in SF took on a more realistic and scientifically-grounded approach. Of these works, the epic Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson is arguably the best known and most acclaimed.
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