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.
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).
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).
In recent years, few games have generated more bad press than Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. The epic role-playing game began life promisingly, if in an unusual way - the brainchild of former pro baseball player Curt Schilling, the game had worldbuilding provided by the fantasy author R.A. Salvatore and art direction from Todd McFarlane, the creator of Spawn. In time, however, the project became mired in legal, financial and even political controversy. Much of this related to a huge $75 million loan provided to Schilling’s company by the state of Rhode Island.
Shortly after the game was released in 2012, 38 Studios abruptly folded - in its first three months, Kingdoms of Amalur had sold around 1.25 million copies, but the company was crippled by debt and by Schilling’s poor business decisions. 38 Studios had been left unable to pay its staff or make loan payments, and the ex-baseball star said that he had blown his whole $50 million fortune on his dream RPG. Mass layoffs and years of financial and criminal investigations were to follow. In retrospect, it was a near-miracle that the game ever saw the light of day; even more surprising was that such a chaotic and doomed development process produced such an excellent final product.
Kingdoms of Amalur was originally published by EA, but in late 2018 the rights to the series were bought by the ever-acquisitive THQ Nordic, as part of their seemingly endless spending spree. Eventually in 2020, a light-touch remaster with the two existing DLC packs included was released with the subtitle Re-Reckoning, seemingly mostly to give THQ Nordic a means to sell the game. It also gives Kingdoms of Amalur a chance to emerge from the shadow of its own chaotic, ruinous development process and stand on its own - and there is a huge amount to enjoy about this sprawling, but surprisingly accessible fantasy RPG. To illustrate that, here are ten key reasons to try Kingdoms of Amalur: Re-Reckoning.
In the glut of World War II shooters that followed in the wake of Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, it could be difficult for a game to be distinctive. With their first original project Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30, Gearbox Software used an increased focus on realism and small-unit tactics to help them stand out from the crowd.
Today, the tight focus of Brothers in Arms and its strong emphasis on commanding troops helps the game overcome its dated technology and some clear shortcomings in its story and setting. Thanks to the success of the game and its sequels, Gearbox gradually outgrew their status as a developer-for-hire and became a major studio in their own right. Without this game, their subsequent projects like the blockbuster Borderlands series would likely not have come to pass. Whatever your feelings about co-founder Randy Pitchford, Brothers in Arms makes a good case to be a highlight of the original wave of World War II shooters.
I’ve recently released a new mapset for Doom II. Sucker Punch 2 features nine small, single-player maps and is a sequel to the original Sucker Punch, which was released back in 2018. A second release candidate is available to download and play now.
This project has been a long time in coming - while it was made over about three months, it has been three years since I released any Doom maps. One of the factors which helped to end this hiatus was the OTEX texture pack made by Ola “ukiro” Björling. A monumental contribution to the Doom community, this pack contains thousands of new graphics for mappers to use and has really helped to fire my imagination.
In February 2006, EA released Command & Conquer: The First Decade. Rarely, if ever, have more important and worthwhile games been put together in one boxed release. On one DVD, EA had assembled every Command & Conquer game released up to that point. From the original 1995 game which popularised the real-time strategy genre to 2003’s Generals, the set was a remarkable document of what Westwood Studios had achieved. EA had owned Westwood since 1998, and the developer was one of their most prized assets - a proven money-maker with a share of around 5% of the whole PC games market. By using the phrase “the first decade”, EA seemed confident that much more success was still to come.
It didn’t quite work out like that. Today, EA are usually vilified for their actions towards Westwood and the C&C series following the release of The First Decade. The usual line is that the Las Vegas-based developers were “destroyed” by their corporate overlords, in the years after they were absorbed into EA Los Angeles in 2003. The games released in the series’ second decade have very little of the iconic status enjoyed by the products of the early years. Eventually, the series became a shadow of its former self, with EA overseeing a mixture of catastrophic failures like Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight (2010) and a string of misbegotten, cancelled projects. A series that had spearheaded the explosion of RTS popularity in the 1990s now consisted of dumbed-down browser and mobile games, when projects were completed at all.
Looking back, though, there are things to be unearthed from the wreckage of C&C’s mostly inauspicious second decade. Chief amongst these hidden gems is what may be one of the best games in the whole series to play today - the gloriously tongue-in-cheek RTS experience with real lasting appeal that is Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3.
“I’d like to play more games, but I don’t have the time these days.” It’s a familiar refrain for players of my generation, who once sank whole days into management games, but now actually work in management, who once defeated bosses but now sell their every waking moment just to please them. The games that are most likely to fall by the wayside are role-playing games. Due in part to their origin in vastly overlong high fantasy novels, RPGs are some of the most time-consuming videogames that have yet been devised. Cash-rich but time-poor players are likely to have seen the beginning of many RPGs, but will have glimpsed the end of very few.
It’s one reason why Shadowrun Returns is such a refreshing game. The product of a hugely successful crowdfunder in 2012, it’s a hybrid cyberpunk-fantasy RPG which can be played to completion in something like 12 hours. After this length of time, many other games will barely have freed players from the torment of fighting hordes of rats with a wooden sword. RPGs tend to be bloated with myriad fetch-quests, wild-goose chases and shaggy-dog stories which greatly inflate their length and complexity, in a misguided attempt to replicate the capital-E “Epic” style of some long-forgotten Lord of the Rings knockoff.
RPG players tend to clamour for “depth” in games, but in practice this can mean the mass-production of identikit quests and locations which artificially bulk out or complicate the experience. To be sure, there are exceptions to this rule, but even in excellent RPGs a large proportion of the - to use a terrible term - content is rarely seen. For example: today, just 7.5% of those players who own the enhanced edition of Neverwinter Nights have the achievement for completing the game’s first act. There’s something to be said for an RPG which is actually modest in its aspirations, and which aims to be completed, not just dipped into. There is a case to be made for an RPG which is not deep, but actually shallow - an RPG like Shadowrun Returns.
I write about classic science fiction and occasionally fantasy; I sometimes make maps for Doom II; and I'm a contributor to the videogames site Entertainium, where I regularly review new games.