The early 2000s were a unique and special era for videogames. For the first time, 3D graphics hardware enabled developers to set games in relatively realistic environments; there were greater opportunities to experiment with lighting, higher resolution textures, and more detailed models. At the same time, games generally stuck with relatively simple, accessible gameplay - unencumbered by the layers of complex systems that typify many of today's "AAA" projects.
This period saw the release of several favourite games of mine; not only Return to Castle Wolfenstein (2001) but a number of third-person action titles like Urban Chaos (1999), Oni (2000) and Rune (2000). Of these, the one I've returned to most often is Remedy Entertainment's peerless classic Max Payne, released in 2001 - the original, and frankly best, playable action movie.
For Christopher McQuarrie, even an Oscar for Best Screenplay cut little ice with Hollywood studios. Denied creative control on new projects, he wrote a crime movie at the urging of Benecio del Toro, a veteran of The Usual Suspects. This script would not be designed to attract major studios, but almost to repel them. Remarkably, McQuarrie was able to make it, his first film as director.
As a starting point for what would become The Way of the Gun, McQuarrie made a list of "every taboo, everything [...] a cowardly executive would refuse to accept". Instead of traditional leading men, he created "Parker" (Ryan Philippe) and "Longbaugh" (del Toro) a pair of cruel and desperate outlaws living off the grid. McQuarrie's interest was in building characters who are not "traditionally sympathic", but this proved to be an understatement.
A recent Rockstar bundle provided the perfect means to revisit some of the older Grand Theft Auto games, beginning with the first 3D entry, GTA III. After the huge success of that game, the developers chose to produce a prequel, moving the action to the sunny streets of Vice City in 1986.
Ready your hairspray and mirror shades for a revisit of the middle entry of the "3D trilogy", which truly established Grand Theft Auto as a powerhouse series.
Thanks to a recent Rockstar bundle, Grand Theft Auto III has at the time of writing sold an extra 180,000 copies in recent days - not bad going for a game released in 2001 and has been superceded by a boatload of million-selling sequels and spinoffs.
GTA III stands up remarkaby well after all these years. While it can be thought of as a kind of prototype for (and poor relation to) Vice City (2002) and San Andreas (2004), GTA III is still an enthralling crime sandbox in its own right - more than worthy of a few notes and screenshots, below.
Tabletopia is a simulated boardgame system, playable solo or multiplayer through a browser or via Steam. With over 500 games currently playable, it's a great way to try out games which aren't yet released, aren't readily available, or are costly. There are occasional glitches but's well worth checking out not least because most of the games are free.
So far, the best game I've tried is the innovative Roll Player, designed by Keith Matejka and published by Wisconsin-based Thunderworks Games. It's a dice puzzle game for 1 to 5 players which is closely based on the character creation process in RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons - and while that might not sound fun, Matejka has done an incredible job.
John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 is an archetypal cult film. All but shunned by US critics on its release in 1976, it won a rapturous reception at the London Film Festival a year later. It was remade in 2005, is now seen as one of the best action films of the '70s, and yet is still arguably underrated.
Assault was shot in November 1975 on a budget of just $100,000. Carpenter could not afford to make a western, as planned: to cut costs, Carpenter refashioned the film as a contemporary thriller which transplanted the siege scenario of Rio Bravo (1959) to an isolated Los Angeles police station.
A master of Wing Chun has soundly defeated ten Japanese karatekas, who lie broken and groaning around him. General Miura, the organiser of this bout, demands to know the victorious fighter's name. After a pause, he answers: "I am only a Chinese".
At this point in Wilson Yip's film, Ip Man truly becomes a new folk hero. Once privileged and aloof, Ip has been transformed by the Japanese occupation of his country into a selfless protector of his people. Donnie Yen's performance as Ip reflects this change even in the way that he fights: a newfound sense of political commitment and righteous anger seems to pervade every strike.
When Walter Hill made The Driver, he felt that the time was right for its spare, minimalist approach - for something "more than, or perhaps less than, an action film." In fact, it arrived too soon. It was savaged by critics and proved a financial failure. Had Hill's next project not already entered production, The Driver might have prematurely ended his career.
Like that next project - The Warriors (1979) - The Driver has become a cult favourite. What critic Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times saw as a "bad imitation" of European and American noir is now recognised as an inspired extension of those movies. Far from being "ultraviolent trash", its superb car chases are electrifying even for the '70s, the golden era of the form.
The '90s heyday of the real-time strategy game is long over, but Westwood Studios' classic Command & Conquer games are being kept very much alive.
CnCNet is a hugely impressive community project providing a network of servers for the C&C games, several of which were released as freeware some years ago. The website provides downloads of the games which are optimised for modern systems and ready for online play on CnCNet servers.
John Woo's first Hollywood film was only a modest success. In 1993 Hong Kong's master of ballistic action was little-known in the west, and Hard Target didn't take off in the way it deserved to. To really make it with American audiences, Woo needed to make American movies - and that meant blowing up some helicopters.
The exploding helicopter is one of the images synonymous with action cinema in the west. By the '80s a helicopter's very purpose in an action film was to explode. On a poster or in a trailer, an exploding helicopter is almost the ultimate visual shorthand for excitement. Even on The A-Team, a show where no-one could ever die, a chopper had to be taken out from time to time - its crew inexplicably climbing unscathed from the wreckage.