By 1998, Bullfrog Productions were one of the most successful, innovative and respected games development studios in the world. With games like Syndicate (1993), Theme Park (1994) and Dungeon Keeper (1997), the British studio had built a reputation for creative and original releases, known for their humour and novel game mechanics. However, dark times lay ahead. The company’s acquisition by Electronic Arts and the departure of co-founder Peter Molyneux to found his own studio would endanger the company. Within a few years numerous projects would be cancelled, and Bullfrog would be gone, absorbed to become just another cog in the EA machine.
Despite these ominous signs, 1998 saw the release of one of Bullfrog’s most important, and sadly underrated games: Populous: The Beginning. The game is a unique hybrid of two distinct gameplay styles: the god game, which Bullfrog had pioneered with the original Populous in 1989; and the real-time strategy, which was then enjoying its first major boom of popularity in the mid- to late-1990s. While The Beginning is primarily an RTS, it draws significantly from the Populous series, to which it serves as a loose prequel. While the earlier games put players in the role of a mighty god overseeing the advancement of a human civilisation, The Beginning has them guide a powerful shaman struggling to achieve godhood. While at the time critics were muted in their response to the game - frankly confused by its radical new gameplay style - Populous: The Beginning is an extraordinary strategy game, easily one of the most unique and engaging ever made.
The late 1990s and early 2000s were a golden era for strategy and management games of all kinds. Whether you wanted to build ancient Rome, fight your own version of World War II, or establish colonies in another star system there was at least one game to suit your purposes appearing on the shelves. One way for developers to compete in this crowded market was to combine and hybridise strategy genres - as British developer Firefly Studios did with their first game, the enduring success Stronghold.
Firefly were well-placed to advance the fusion of city-building and real-time strategy gameplay. Their founders, Simon Bradbury and Eric Ouellette, had both worked for the successful developer Impressions Games, which had been acquired by Sierra in 1995. There, they had worked on the successful Caesar series of city-builders and the medieval strategy series Lords of the Realm. These would each be a strong influence on Stronghold, which was developed in a single rented room in South London and eventually released by Take 2 Interactive in October 2001.
In 2011, Jookabox announced their fourth album and at the same time announced that the project had been wound up. As the band's PR put it at the time, they had "written their own epitaph", their "last cryptic transmission". To release an album from beyond the grave was a perfect fit, given the group's sense of humour and affinity for all things morbid and supernatural. These same aspects make their music worth returning to in the otherworldly and anxious circumstances of a global pandemic.
Formed in Indianapolis by David "Moose" Adamson, the group was originally known as Grampall Jookabox and released a first album, Scientific Cricket, in 2007. A kind of warped, lo-fi folk record, it bears little resemblance to Adamson's later work but did help secure a signing to Asthmatic Kitty Records, which maintains an office in Indianapolis.
It was on the second album released under the Grampall Jookabox name that a lasting sound would begin to take shape. Ropechain was released by Asthmatic Kitty in 2008, and showcased a more electronic, varied style taking in alt hip-hop, rock, and psychedelia. Adamson's surreal lyrics and extensive use of pitch-shifted vocals combined with a home-made, basement feel creates a distinct personality. Even an amusingly sneering Pitchfork review captured this its description of the album as "the desperate product of being alone for too long"; something easy to understand in an era of lockdown.
The sudden and unexpected announcement of a new XCOM game provoked a wave of speculation. Fans of the series, which was rebooted to tremendous success by Firaxis in 2012, pored over the trailers. Chimera Squad was variously described as a sequel, a spinoff, a testbed of ideas for a forthcoming XCOM 3, and even as a "glorified DLC".
The wait to find out was not long, however, as the game was released just days later on April 24, 2020. Chimera Squad turned out to be a very interesting prospect indeed. Just as the heroes of this new entry in the series are a mix of human, alien and hybrid members - hence the title - the game itself is a strange mix of familiar and new elements. This remixed formula is mostly successful, and should appeal to a hybrid audience of XCOM veterans and newcomers to the series.
In 1991, the release of Sonic the Hedghog was a watershed moment for Sega's flagship console of the time, the Megadrive (or Genesis, as it is known in North America). The lightning-fast platformer cemented the success of the console, and launched a huge series which continues to this day. By 1996, however, the Megadrive was reaching the end of its lifespan and there was time for just one more Sonic game on the platform before the series moved fully onto its successor, the Sega Saturn.
That game was Sonic 3D Blast, which had versions released for both the Megadrive and the Saturn. The game was actually developed primarily in the UK, by British developer Traveler's Tales, who were given the task by Sega in the days before they were consigned to a hell of their own, developing only countless Lego games. Over the years, 3D Blast has been one of the more divisive games of the series for its unusual isometric perspective and for gameplay which is much slower than the other Sonic games of its era. These aspects have long provoked a mixed reception, but there's a case to be made that Sonic 3D Blast is if not the best Sonic game on the Megadrive, then at least the most playable.
Due to a number of stars that exploded in its vicinity, the planet Pyrrus is rich with valuable radioactive ores. A fortune can be made by anyone willing and able to exploit this resource - unfortunately, every last living creature on the planet is fanatically dedicated to killing humans. So goes the premise of Deathworld, and by the time the novel opens the human colonists have been fighting a brutal war with the whole ecosystem of Pyrrus for 300 years.
Published in 1960, Deathworld is the first novel by Harry Harrison (1925 - 2012). After a stint in the US Army Air Corps, Harrison worked as an illustrator and comics artist - notably for the controversial and influential EC Comics in the late 1940s. This experience would prepare him for his career as a science fiction author, which he began in earnest in 1951 with his first story sale. Deathworld establishes the style Harrison would become known for, being a fast-paced adventure infused with intriguing themes.
Today, Arthur C. Clarke is best known for his 1968 novel 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Stanley Kubrick film version which was made concurrently. The project drew heavily on a short story, “The Sentinel”, which had been published in 1951. That same year, Clarke published a novella called “Earthlight” in the American pulp magazine Thrilling Wonder Stories. This, too, was expanded into a novel.
Published in 1955, the novel Earthlight is every bit as engaging as 2001 and can be seen as a significant step in Clarke’s development towards his magnum opus. The two novels are set in fairly similar futures, where spaceflight has become relatively routine and humans are increasing their mastery over the solar system. Where Earthlight differs is in its focus on interplanetary political tensions, in a situation whereby societies on other planets are altered radically by their disconnection from Earth.
Published in 2003, Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days collects two sci-fi novellas by British author Alastair Reynolds. While both are set in his Revelation Space universe, they are only distantly connected with other works by Reynolds, and can be read in isolation. Both "Diamond Dogs" and "Turquoise Days" are set in the 26th century, when humans have spread to numerous planets and in addition to encountering alien races, have also begun to radically alter their own minds and bodies. Separated by enormous distances which only "lighthugger" starships can cross, human worlds develop radically different cultures, while advanced technologies threaten to upend whole civilisations.
Launched at Essen SPIEL 2019, Aquatica is a game designed by Ivan Tuzovsky and published by Russian company Cosmodrome Games. In the game, which supports up to four people, each player possesses their own underwater kingdom and seeks to become the most prosperous monarch of all.
The game is card-driven, but Aquatica isn't a deck builder - rather, it's a hand-builder, familiar to those who have played Concordia. The goals each player is attempting to complete mostly revolve around conquering or buying access to location cards, which are found in a shared pool on the main board. To do this, they use a hand of character cards which they gradually improve over the course of the game - playing just one character per turn.
I read 49 books in 2019 - just one shy of the 50 I'd aimed to read - more than I'd got through in the previous few years combined. Read on for ten recommendations of books and series that were among the best and most interesting I read in the last 12 months.