This latest instalment of my monthly series on the games I’ve played has four entries. It kicks off with Strange Brigade and Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair, two very different games which are united by their unmistakable Britishness, sense of humour, and love of alliteration. Next up I have a few words about the fairly obscure action RPG Of Orcs and Men, made across the Channel in France. If you’ve enjoyed the fantasy stealth games in the Styx series, then you may enjoy the game that first introduced that gregarious goblin.
Finally for July, I revisited an indie masterpiece which has just been given a free and impressive overhaul. Tactics classic Into the Breach has been picked up by Netflix, who are making it available to their subscribers. To celebrate, Subset Games have upgraded all versions of the game to the even more excellent Advanced Edition. This gratis update adds a ton of new features, and makes one of the best indie games ever somehow even more perfect.
Legendary British author Michael Moorcock has a dizzyingly massive bibliography. He has written so many fantasy, science fiction and literary novels that surely only a handful of people can possibly have read them all. In the sphere of short fiction, though, Moorcock has been a bit less prolific. Reading his collected short fiction is the kind of undertaking that could even be completed in a normal human lifespan.
Normal human lives are in short supply, though, in The Time Dweller. Originally published in 1969, this collection is one of the earliest efforts to gather together some of Moorcock’s shorter stories. Of the nine entries in this volume, seven were originally published in New Worlds, one of the leading British SF magazines. It might not have been too difficult to get them published, because at the time the editor was one Michael Moorcock.
The nine stories fit the New Wave style which the magazine was known for during Moorcock’s first tenure as editor (1964 - 1971). They are experimental, somewhat literary, and tend to involve surreal journeys or transformations of one kind or another. As with much of the author’s work, they often straddle the line between SF and fantasy. They’re also quite gloomy in tone, dealing with desperate characters striving in dying worlds. While unlike the slightly more easygoing antiheroic fantasy of Moorcock’s Elric saga, these stories are worth seeking out for fans of the author - if not so much for more casual readers.
Today, developers Bungie are known for the blockbuster Halo series and more recently, for the Destiny games. And while the studio changed first-person shooters forever, first on the Mac and then on consoles, none of their later successes would have been possible without their earlier work in a different genre altogether. It was the success of pioneering real-time tactics game Myth: The Fallen Lords which, in part, prompted Microsoft to purchase Bungie and to help propel Halo to industry-shaking success in 2001.
Myth was ahead of its time. Its 3D environments were some of the first in the genre and Bungie’s work helped to forge a new style of gameplay. They cut away the base building, resource management, and large unit counts that defined Command & Conquer (1995) and Total Annihilation (1997). Myth isn’t a strategy title at all - but part of the first wave of real-time tactics games. It does more than make players think; it makes them feel. Thanks a unique union of writing and gameplay, each of Myth’s missions inspires feelings of desperation, terror, relief and - hopefully - triumph. 25 years later, it’s the emotional impact of Myth which makes it special to this day.
There’s not much need for preamble this month - I had a busy June, but still managed to play quite a few games. They were mostly on the older side; in fact the only 2022 release I played during June was a demo, and I rarely play those.
I revisited two classics from my youth which still stand up remarkably well, in the form of gloomy tactics game Myth: The Fallen Lords (1997) and the forgotten Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb (2003). I continued my increasingly familiar ramble through the Halo series with the fairly tiresome spinoff Halo 3: ODST (2009), and that demo I mentioned was for the upcoming Agent 64: Spies Never Die. The real standout for me, though, was definitely Dragon’s Dogma. Inspired by the long-awaited announcement of a sequel, I finally picked up Hideaki Itsuno’s cult favourite action RPG and have been revelling in its idiosyncratic charms.
Frederik Pohl (1919 - 2013) had an incredibly long career in science fiction. He wrote, edited and worked as an agent for over 70 years, from the early 1940s right through to the end of his long life. Gateway is a key work in the second wave of his writing career, which began in 1969 after a long spell helping others to get their stories published. Originally serialised in Galaxy magazine, Gateway was a major success which won both the Locus and Nebula Awards for best novel, and the John W. Campbell award.
Robinette Broadhead lives on a bleak, desperately overpopulated future Earth. Working in the grim “food mines” of Wyoming, he longs for a break and finally gets one - a lottery win. With his prize, Broadhead buys himself a trip to “Gateway”, a hollowed-out asteroid found concealed within our solar system. Once used by the mysterious, vanished alien Heechee, this rocky enigma contains a thousand of their highly advanced starships. Gateway is the centre of a “star rush”, humanity’s chance to explore and exploit the galaxy. Broadhead hopes to strike it lucky, to crew a Heechee ship that might discover alien relics. Success could mean fame, fortune, and a life of luxury.
The starships, though, are as inscrutable as they are powerful. Broadhead learns that the vessels are easy to pilot, but impossible to control. Any trip out is not only long, cramped and squalid but could see its crew come back empty handed - if they make it back at all.
May’s instalment of “what I played” is a relatively brief one, simply because - well, I didn’t play that many games during the month. What I did unexpectedly get the chance to do is to review the excellent Sniper Elite 5, which is easily one of my favourite games of 2022 so far. I can admit to a surge of local pride, as developers Rebellion are based just down the road from me in Oxford. My full thoughts on the game are available for your reading pleasure at Entertainium.
I of course also found a bit of time to tackle some older games. Thanks to the generous folks at Epic, I was able to play hyper-fast futuristic racer Redout (2016). I took a bloody trip into the distant past with Raven’s badly dated shooter Soldier of Fortune (2000). Finally, I have a few thoughts on the remaster of the end-of-the-world action-adventure Darksiders (2010).
Arthur C. Clarke was very much interested in the moon. In his most famous book and its film version, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the moon is the setting for a brief but crucial sequence - the discovery of the first monolith. The moon is also a setting in Clarke’s early novels Prelude to Space (1951), Earthlight (1955) and today’s subject, A Fall of Moondust (1961). This particular book is a good example of Clarke’s approach to so-called “hard science fiction”, which strongly emphasises scientific accuracy and plausibility. Clarke crafts a story, set entirely on the moon, which uses the contemporary scientific knowledge of the time.
As it turned out, the central premise of A Fall of Moondust was invalidated just a few years after the book was published. The plot is predicated on the idea that there are areas of the moon where dust is so fine, that it flows like a liquid. This concept is used as the springboard for a tense rescue story - but when the crew of the Apollo 11 mission walked on the moon in July 1969, the theory was disproved. As Clarke points out in his introduction to the 1987 edition of his book, “the Apollo astronauts found it difficult and exhausting work to drive their core-sampler tubes into [the moon] for more than a few centimetres.” Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were certainly in no danger of sinking into the dust of the moon.
The premise of A Fall of Moondust may not have survived the tide of scientific discovery, but the book has stood the test of time.
Duncan Kyle was the pseudonym used by British author John Franklin Broxholme (1930 - 2000). A journalist and editor, Broxholme took up thriller writing as he approached middle age. Between 1970 and 1993, Kyle published fifteen standalone novels, mostly in the high adventure genre and with a mix of contemporary and historical settings. These books are often compared with the works of the hugely successful Alastair MacLean; it has even been suggested that Broxholme chose a Scottish-sounding pen name to play up that similarity. While Kyle was successful in his time, over the years the books have fallen into obscurity.
Fortunately, the enterprising London-based publisher Canelo has recently republished three of Kyle’s thrillers, specifically Flight into Fear (1972), Whiteout (1976), and Stalking Point (1981), as part of their Canelo Action list. This short review covers the first of these, Flight into Fear, which was Kyle’s second novel. Focusing on a pilot whose seemingly benign trip to San Francisco sees him caught in a web of international subterfuge, it’s exactly the kind of fast-moving thriller that I’m happy to see made available to a new, wider audience.
In a previous article and podcast episode, we looked at Midworld (1975), the first standalone novel in Alan Dean Foster’s Humanx Commonwealth fictional setting. His next books within that setting were two entries in his Pip and Flinx series, but Foster went on to spend much of his time working on novelisations. In particular, he wrote book versions of three hugely important SF films - Star Wars (1977), Alien (1979) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). It was a full five years before Foster wrote another standalone Humanx Commonwealth novel, but Cachalot eventually saw release in April 1980.
As with Midworld before it, Cachalot is set within Commonwealth space. Of all the standalone novels in the series, it is also the one set latest in the chronology. It’s an intriguing SF mystery, set on a planet covered almost entirely by a vast and barely-explored ocean. This novel is another showcase for Foster’s love of travel and knowledge of biology and ecology. Another key theme is the relationship between humans and other intelligent life. In this case, that means a thriving population of cetaceans - whales, dolphins and porpoises - which have been transplanted from distant Earth.
In 1974, James Herbert (1943 - 2013) was working as an art director at an ad agency. His copywriter colleagues were all frustrated would-be novelists. They were no doubt a little envious when one day, Herbert walked in with a copy of a novel he had quietly written and got published. They must have felt worse still when The Rats went on to become a huge success, selling tens of millions of copies. It was obvious that Herbert wouldn’t be an ad man for long.
Herbert went on to become one of the most important writers of British horror fiction, producing 23 novels before he died in 2013. Almost all of his books are standalones; The Rats is the only book of his to receive sequels, which reflects its popularity and enduring power. Herbert was insecure about his status, memorably stating “I don’t understand why I am so successful.” Looking back at The Rats, it’s not difficult to see why it cut through in 1974 and set the stage for his career.
I write about books, film, videogames, boardgames and music. I'm a contributor to Entertainium.