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.
Another year is here, and with it the promise of hundreds of new games. The promises are a bit vague in 2022 though, as the ongoing pandemic and various other factors have knocked many release dates severely out of whack. This year, I’ve compiled a list of the ten games I’m most looking forward to. They’re presented in approximate order of expected release, but it’s an inexact science given how many of these projects have no confirmed dates attached to them. They’re a varied bunch, ranging across a few genres and taking in both blockbusters and indie dark horses. We’ll see how many of these actually manage to make it out during 2022, and how many - if any - make it onto my games of the year list come December.
2021 is being put to the sword, and we wait with baited breath to find out if 2022 will be a better year. This month I’ve written about the ten best books I read during the year, which you can find here. I’ve also put together a celebration of my favourite games of 2021, both old and new, which has been published by Entertainium. Amid the usual end-of-year rituals, I also found time to play four main games this month. I reviewed the shiny new Call of Duty entry and a surprise expansion to my 2016 favourite Shadow Tactics. The older games I took on were the 2013 Shadow Warrior remake, and the simply amazing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (2015).
It’s time for my annual round-up of the best books I read during the year. As in 2019 and 2020, I aimed to read 50 books and managed to do so. Once again I primarily read sci-fi, which is reflected in my top ten choices. However, one horror novella and a classic crime novel also crept into the list. Note that the list is in no particular order; I’d strongly recommend any of these books and a number of them have introduced new authors for me to explore further in 2022, which I fervently hope will be an actually good year for once.
As an aside, you might be interest in what the worst book I read in 2021 was. Well, this was not a close run thing. By far the worst book I read was Dragonflight (1968) by Anne McCaffrey. Now I know that the Pern series is quite popular, and no disrespect to its fans, but the first novel had me slogging through it for almost a month. Let it be put on record that for me, space fungus is an incredibly uninteresting “threat”, and that McCaffrey’s time-travelling dragons are the most lazily convenient deus ex machina I have ever encountered in a work of fiction. It’s not a series I’ll be returning to.
With that out of the way, the rundown of my top books of 2021 begins with...
For me, November has been a month of two halves - split between the time before my new PC arrived, and the time afterwards. Games I played in both phases are represented in this, my second monthly roundup. In the first half of the month I played stealth classic Metal Gear Solid 2 (2001) and the indie games SteamWorld Heist (2015) and Shadowrun: Dragonfall (2014). Equipped with a new PC, I revisited modern classic Doom (2016) and the visual treat that is Remedy’s third-person paranormal action game Control (2019).
I write about books, film, videogames, boardgames and music. I'm a contributor to Entertainium.