Tuesday, 14 July 2020

Wertzone Classics: Conflict Freespace: The Great War & The Silent Threat

AD 2335. The Galactic Terran Alliance (GTA) has been fighting a war against the Vasudan Empire for fourteen years. The war has taken its toll on both sides, but peace initiatives have not gained ground and both sides seem to be locked in a stalemate. Without warning, both sides are attacked by alien vessels belonging to a hitherto unknown species, quickly dubbed the "Shivans." The Shivans employ superior technology and seem to have no interest in gaining strategic or tactical advantages or seizing control of systems, only destroying everything in their path. With the Shivan fleet pressing in on the Vasudan homeworld and Earth, the humans and Vasudans reluctantly join forces to face the mutual threat.

Descent: FreeSpace – The Great War | Know Your Meme

The space combat video game genre enjoyed its heyday in the 1990s. Inspired by the original space simulator game, Elite (1984) and spearheaded by Wing Commander (1990), numerous games in the genre were released over the next decade. Arguably the best-received in terms of acclaim and sales was Star Wars: TIE Fighter (1994). A late challenger was Conflict Freespace: The Great War (Descent Freespace in the United States for various copyright reasons), released in 1998 by Volition, who, as Parallax, had created the Descent series of combat games.

Freespace chose an inauspicious moment to enter the genre, as its popularity had arguably just peaked and the developers had no experience in the field, but it proved a good move. At the time the game came out, many of its rivals (such as the X-wing series) had seemingly abandoned single-player narratives in favour of chasing a multiplayer audience, whilst the Wing Commander series has grown obsessed with elaborate cut scenes and full motion video starring Hollywood stars over actual gameplay. Freespace struck a chord with its visceral action, impressive game engine, fine sense of pacing and stripped-back presentation. Freespace has no lengthy animated sequences or cheesy videos packed with military cliches, instead presenting its story simply and matter-of-factly, and insisting on getting players into the action as soon as possible.

The game consists of 29 missions, each of which starts with a briefing. After the briefing your ship and weapons loadout are auto-selected, allowing you to join the action immediately. Veteran players can choose their craft and weapons to better suit their play style. During the game you can command fast, versatile (but fragile) scouts, hardier bombers and jack-of-all-trades fighters. The game is notable both for its unusually finely-tuned difficulty setting (with five rather than three settings, including a "very easy" mode that effectively allows you to sit back and just watch things unfold as your wingmen do everything for you) and for its unusually strong AI, particularly that of your wingmen whom you can give very specific orders to (such as automatically fending off enemies targeting your fighter or targeting specific subsystems on an enemy capital ship). Part of the game's enduring appeal is this more strategic element, sometimes allowing you to stand off and observe a battle from afar and order your fighters on how to proceed.

Freespace 1 The Great War - Freespace 2018 - YouTube

Much more fun, of course, is the up-close and personal dogfighting. Freespace has a robust flight model and, with modern versions of the game, excellently updated graphics which makes close-in space combat often joyous to behold. Matching speeds with enemies, executing an afterburner burn to break a missile lock and dropping velocity to keep an enemy in your sights is all well-handled and instinctive. It was great in 1998 and remains great in 2020.

The story unfolds over a lengthy campaign. The story isn't the most dynamic ever in the genre, but does a good job of keeping you engaged throughout. There's a nice XCOM-ish feel to early missions as the Terrans and Vasudans have to scavenge Shivan technology to match their superior shields and sensors, and later on the battles becoming increasingly large and desperate. It's not the most compelling SF narrative ever written, but does it job very well. Particularly interesting is the lack of exposition with regard to the Shivans, who remain a terrifying enigma right up to the end.

The original game is great, although it does have some technical drawbacks, particularly the lack of fully-voiced dialogue; more than once important plot information unfolds through on-screen text dialogue, which is easy to completely miss mid-battle.

After completing the main campaign, you can proceed on with the game's expansion, The Silent Thread. The modern version of the expansion includes 18 missions (all voiced this time), generally somewhat harder than in the original game, and with a much murkier and more original storyline. I must admit to enjoying this more than the original game, as it moves away from standard SF cliches a bit more.

Conflict: Freespace (****) and The Silent Threat (****½) are both joys to play in 2020, having, thanks to the dedicated and active modding community, aged and matured like a fine wine (see below). Even more importantly, they set the scene for Freespace 2, one of the best video games ever made.

Playing the Game: Playing games that are 22 years old can be a bit of an uphill experience, especially for a franchise that's never had an official remaster. Fortunately, that's not much of a problem; back in 2002 Volition released the source code for all three games in the series and that's allowed a very passionate modding community to continuously update them with new graphics, sound effects and voiceovers. The easiest way to play them is to get a copy of Freespace 2 from GoG, download and install the Knossos launcher, and, once that's done and found your copy of the installed game, you can then select which mods to use. The ones you really want to install are Freespace Port (which adds the original campaign), Freespace Port MedivaVPs (which updates all the graphics and sounds), Silent Threat: Reborn (which adds the latest version of the expansion campaign) and MediaVPs (which updates the Freespace 2 campaign with all the latest material). Then you're good to go.

As a bonus, there are also dozens of fan-made mods for the game, including ones for well-known franchises like Babylon 5 and Battlestar Galactica, as well as a fan-made new game in the Wing Commander franchise. There are also numerous mods which expand on the Freespace and Freespace 2 storyline.

Desperados III

The Old West, 1870. Bounty hunter John Cooper is hunting down Frank, a notorious outlaw who killed his father. Frank is in bed with the DeVitt Railroad Corporation, and thus is protected by wealth and power. Cooper joins forces with a group of disparate allies who each have their own reasons for taking on these formidable enemies. They have to work together and make the most use of their skills to win the day.

Back in 2016, Mimimi Games came out nowhere to deliver Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun. A stealth tactics game built around achieving at times impossible-seeming objectives with a limited team of characters. It was unexpectedly genius and emerged as my favourite game of the year. It was a game that wore its influences pretty openly: the Commandos series from the late 1990s but, possibly even more overtly, the Desperados series from the early 2000s. Focus Interactive, who had the Desperados IP, hit on the idea of hiring Mimimi to make a prequel to those games (to not put off newcomers to the series) using the Shogun engine. It was a match made in heaven.

Fortunately, this partnership delivers in spades. Desperados III wears two hats, as an actual continuation of the Desperados series and also as a semi-sequel to Blades of the Shogun. It fulfils both objectives admirably.

The game consists of sixteen missions, each taking place on a massive (and I do mean massive) map filled with enemies. You have between 1 and 5 characters, each with their own distinctive personality and set of skills, equipment and objectives. The aim of the game is stealth: you have to reach an objective by avoiding guards. You can try to sneak past them or pick them off one-by-one. Whilst your characters are capable fighters, they are very easily overwhelmed, so the aim of the game is to keep as low a profile as possible. You can also knock guards (or well-meaning civilians who'll raise the alarm if they spot you somewhere you shouldn't be) out if the idea of mass slaughter is unpalatable, but doing so is time-consuming and you risk detection.

There is some cleverness to the game. One of your characters can whistle to lure unsuspecting guards into ambushes, or one of your female gunfighters can put on a disguise and lure enemies to their doom, but more disciplined enemies will ignore such distractions, forcing you to be more creative in how you handle the situation. An optional mode allows you to pause the game to set up actions for your characters to execute simultaneously, a good way of taking out two guards who are permanently in each other's field of view.

Desperados III adds guns to the Blades of the Shogun mix and encourages a somewhat more aggressive style of play throughout. Each gun as a noise area which will alert guards in that zone, so you can be surprisingly aggressive in taking on enemies as long as you are also careful of what the consequences might be. Your sniper character - Dr. McCoy - is decidedly powerful in taking out enemies on watchtowers (whose disappearances tend to be easily missed by their comrades), but he is limited by ammo.

The decidedly semi-realistic tone of the game takes a turn for the weird just before the halfway mark when you recruit a character who can use actual voodoo magic, including seizing control of an enemy's mind or "linking" two characters together so whatever happens to one, happens to both. This feels a bit weird (and even overpowered) when it first appears, but it later gives rise to some of the game's most inventive puzzles and challenges, so it's fair enough. Some of the moves you can pull off with Isabella (and her pet cat) will have the player giggling like a buffoon.

Desperados III succeeds through its magnificent level design, which is often jaw-dropping. It's not uncommon, especially in the back half of the game, to be confronted by a mission that appears flat-out impossible, until you find that one guard who goes out of everyone else's eyeline for a few seconds, which then causes the map to start unravelling lot a knot. Each mission is systemic rather than prescriptive, though; it's completely up to you which tactics and abilities you use to achieve each objective. There's some excellent videos of the game developers being taken by surprise by some of the solutions that players have come up with to puzzles. There's also a splendid mission post-mortem screen which takes you (fairly quickly) step-by-step through the mission you just completed, showing how it unfolded without the several dozen quicksaves and quickloads you likely went through in the process.

The story is a fairly serviceable revenge narrative, but there's some nice character beats dropped on top of that (such as grumpy McCoy's gradual, reluctant acceptance into the team). At sixteen missions taking about 35 hours to complete, the game also hits a sweet spot of not being too long whilst not outstaying its welcome. In a welcome move, the game adds a bunch of optional missions at the end of the game which take place on the existing maps, but adds new enemies and puzzles, or allows you to use characters who weren't available earlier on in the game. More of these missions will be dynamically added in free updates over the coming months.

I'm not sure if there's any flaws of note in the game. It does share Shogun's occasional confusion on what you're trying to get a character to do, such as thinking you're trying to get a character to climb a wall rather than hide in the shadows next to it, but these occasions were much reduced from the first games. Hardcore Desperados fans may also grumble about the lack of utility for horses. In the original games you can ride horses (sometimes using them to reach inaccessible ledges), release them from the stables to cause a distraction or come up with other creative ideas; in this came the only thing you can do with them is spook them to kicking someone standing next to them.

Overall, Desperados III (*****) is compelling, incredibly smart, fiendishly clever and ridiculously addictive as it forces you to overcome its challenges on each mission. It is available now on PC, PlayStation 4 and X-Box One.

Friday, 10 July 2020

Valve tease next-generation HALF-LIFE game

Valve recently released Half-Life: Alyx, an interquel in their popular Half-Life video game series, set between Half-Life and Half-Life 2. The VR-only title was very successful (considering the small potential audience) and its cliffhanger ending, which revisited that of Half-Life 2: Episode Two, suggested that a proper Half-Life 3 was finally in the offing.

A new documentary about the making of the game, The Final Hours of Half-Life: Alyx, expands on Valve's activities since the release of their last big single-player game Portal 2 in 2011, and popular online arena game Dota 2 in 2013. The documentary confirms at least six different iterations of Half-Life 3 were prototyped and abandoned, as well as a Left 4 Dead 3 and an open-world Left 4 Dead game that would revamp the entire series. An action-RPG to compete with the likes of Skyrim was at one point considered, as well as a number of VR games.

The documentary chronicles Valve's infamously open and relaxed approach to project development. Since Valve own Steam, the most popular and successful PC digital storefront in the world with annual revenue in the billions, they don't actually have to release games to remain solvent. After Dota 2's release, the company also become more interested in hardware, leading to some interesting ideas which ended up not being hugely successful (like Steam PCs and Steam controllers) and some other areas which did work out better (particularly VR tech). Most interesting is the acknowledgement by Valve that their "open development" environment may have been fun, but it was also extremely frustrating. Eventually the company decided to focus back onto the Half-Life franchise, leading to Alyx.

A key point in the documentary is Valve confirming that they are no longer "afraid" of the legacy of Half-Life and now want to make a full-scale Half-Life sequel for next-generation consoles (and PC, presumably). Slightly surprising is that Valve may have to scale up to do this; their recent projects have been generally smaller in scope, so they don't actually have the battery of artists, programmers and coders that making an actual Half-Life 3 would require. Even Alyx was made somewhat on the low-down, re-purposing assets from other games and featuring significantly less action and enemies than a "proper" game would require. But obviously Valve have the resources to do this pretty much at will.

This isn't confirmation that Half-Life 3 has been greenlit, but it is a statement of intent by a company that seems to finally be waking up. And it'd be nice to get a new Half-Life game that non-VRheads can play before Half-Life 2's twentieth anniversary in November 2024.

Thursday, 9 July 2020

Watchmen: The Limited Series

Tulsa, Oklahoma, 2019. A white supremacist group, the Seventh Kavalry, is fighting a long-running battle with the Tulsa Police Department. To protect their identities after several of their number were assassinated, the police have been given special dispensation to hide their identities under masks; the Kavalry likewise hide themselves under masks based on that of the vigilante Rorschach. Police officer Angela Abar, who goes by the nickname Sister Night, is tasked with helping flush out the Kavalry and receives assistance from Jean Smart, formerly known as Silk Spectre, now an FBI agent. Meanwhile, Adrian Veidt, formerly Ozymandias, "the smartest man in the world" who may be also its greatest mass-murderer, finds himself trapped in the strangest puzzle box ever devised.

When it was announced that HBO was proceeding with a TV series based on the classic Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons graphic novel Watchmen, there was widespread scepticism. The previous film version of the novel (only released in 2009) was not particularly accomplished but was adequate, raising the question of if a further adaptation was necessary. The TV show, however, quickly hewed in a different direction, becoming more of a thematic sequel to the comic book and being set more than thirty years after its events.

The TV mini-series (which started as a regular series but was converted into a mini-series when the production team expressed doubt about returning) has ended up being, somewhat surprisingly, a qualified success. Damon Lindelof and his writers have crafted a new story which at first glance feels only tangentially connected to the original, but as the episodes pass it becomes more and more deeply entwined with the events of the original graphic novel and ends up being a strong continuation.

In the original graphic novel, Alan Moore (who was, as is his custom, not involved in this new project) created Rorschach as an exploration of what a vigilante without any oversight would end up being like in the "real world." Rorschach ended up giving his life for his belief that the people deserve to know the truth about what really happened in New York City and his message did get out in his journal...which was promptly dismissed as the tinfoil ramblings of a lunatic. Conspiracy theorists have gotten hold of his journal and used it to further their own insane agendas, further discrediting Rorschach's story, although we (as viewers) know it was completely true.

The tie-ins with the original series take a back seat for the first three episodes or so, which focus more on Sister Night and the Tulsa Police Department fighting the Seventh Kavalry. This is a pretty good story on its own merits, propelled by excellent performances from Regina King, Don Johnson, Tim Blake Nelson, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Louis Gossett Jr., and examines themes of racial inequality, bigotry driven by externalisation and police authoritarianism. As the story unfolds we also spend time with a mysterious character played by Jeremy Irons relaxing at a country house with some servants, which feels like a huge non-sequitur until the stories begin converging.

In the second half of the series the Kavalry storyline dovetails back into elements of the original Watchmen narrative, as we learn more about the backstory of the Minutemen and also what happened to Dr. Manhattan after the events of the original series, culminating in the episode A God Walks into Abar, easily the season's strongest episode and a callback to the original comic sequence where we see Dr. Manhattan's creation. Events culminate in a grand finale which feels distinctly true to the story's comic book roots, even down to the somewhat ambiguous ending.

Watchmen (the TV show) is a reasonably strong and effective work. It is clearly the work of the more restrained and thoughtful Lindelof who worked on The Leftovers rather than the self-indulgent and trite one who worked on Prometheus and J.J. Abrams' Star Trek films. The tone of the series walks a careful line - not dissimilar to the original comic book - of developing weightier themes and ideas whilst also remembering that it is a comic book story, with a more colourful ending. In this sense it is both a deconstruction and a celebration of comic books, rather than a cynical deconstruction alone (as Amazon's recent series The Boys is). Threading this particularly needle is not easy and it's impressive the show ends up as accomplished and well-judged as it is.

There are a few problems, particularly with character set up. It feels like the Lady Trieu storyline was not set up well enough in earlier episodes, meaning it feels a bit odd when this story assumes prominence towards the endgame. The Veidt story is entertaining on its own merits, but its psychotic comedy of English manners feels tonally disjointed compared to the rest of the series, but overall it adds variety to the story.

The Watchmen TV series (****½) (which feels like now it should really have been given a distinct title) is accomplished television. It's superbly well-acted, mostly well-written and manages the difficult balancing act of introducing new elements to this world whilst also picking up on story elements left behind from the original and addressing them. Combined with a haunting score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, it makes for impressive viewing. The series is available now in the UK and USA, as well on HBO's streaming services in the United States.

Wednesday, 8 July 2020

THE LAST KINGDOM renewed for a fifth season

The Last Kingdom has been renewed by Netflix for a fifth season.

Lead actor Alexander Dreymon broke the news to his fellow castmembers via several video chats. Understandably, they were very excited by the news. It's also a great sign from Netflix in the success of the series; Netflix has a habit of cancelling shows after two seasons, so for Netflix to pick up the series for a third season with them (they took over production from the BBC in Season 3) is a confidence booster that the show - expected to last for six or seven seasons in total - will go all the way.

The fifth season is expected to adapt the ninth and tenth books in Bernard Cornwell's novel series, Warriors of the Storm and The Flame Bearer, although the TV series has become an increasingly loose adaptation of the books as it has continued.

The thirteenth and final novel in the series, War Lord, will also be published on 15 October this year.

Thursday, 2 July 2020

FALLOUT TV series in development at Amazon with WESTWORLD creative team

Amazon Prime Television has added another show to its increasingly-crowded roster of science fiction and fantasy projects. Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, the creators and showrunners of Westworld for HBO, are developing a Fallout TV series, based on the best-selling video game series.

Nolan and Joy's Kilter Films is developing the project Amazon Studios with a go-clause in the contract, meaning that there will be no pilot phase and a full first season would be commissioned automatically based on the strength of the scripts.

Based on Nolan and Joy's statement, they claim to be fans of the Fallout video game series and are working with the current licence holders at Bethesda Game Studios on script and story ideas. The project has been in the planning stages for several years already.

Nolan and Joy are also in pre-production - pandemic permitting - on both a fourth season of Westworld at HBO and a mini-series based on William Gibson's novel The Peripheral for Amazon.

The Fallout video game series is set in a parallel universe where the transistor was not invented until the 21st Century, leading to a futuristic society that much more closely resembled the classic SF aesthetics of the 1950s. This society then destroyed itself in a nuclear war between the United States and China in 2077. The video games, set between 25 and 210 years later, depict the rebuilding of this world and the emergence of new factions, ideologies and nations who struggle to come out on top.

The series launched with Fallout (1997) and Fallout 2 (1998), both developed by Black Isle Studios, the internal RPG division at Interplay. The series was conceived as a spiritual successor to an earlier game, Wasteland (1988), when they could not secure the IP rights to that game. Two spin-off games, Fallout Tactics (2001) and Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel (2004), followed from Interplay. Facing bankruptcy, Interplay sold the Fallout IP to Bethesda, who developed and published Fallout 3 (2008). Much of the original Black Isle team had reconstituted as Obsidian Entertainment, who were then contracted by Bethesda to produce Fallout: New Vegas (2010). Bethesda themselves then developed Fallout 4 (2015) and Fallout 76 (2018), a multiplayer spin-off the series which launched to highly negative reviews but recently had something of a rehabilitation thanks to the Wastelanders expansion and relaunch (2020).

To date, the Fallout video game series is estimated to have sold over 60 million copies worldwide, almost half of which are attributable to the success of Fallout 4  by itself.

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Sales of THE WITCHER books pass 15 million

Based on publicity information released by Gollancz, the Witcher books by Andrzej Sapkowski have now passed 15 million worldwide sales.

The previous available figure indicated that the series had sold around 6 million copies by the middle of last decade. The massive jump in sales in just a few years is down to two factors: the immense success of the Witcher video game trilogy by CD Projekt Red (the last of which has now sold around 30 million copies by itself) and the success of the Netflix television series based on the books, which debuted last December. As we saw with Game of Thrones on HBO, a successful and well-received TV adaptation can massively drive sales of the books; the Song of Ice and Fire novels sold 9 million copies in 2012 alone and have sold around 80 million extra copies since the TV show debuted in 2011. Whether The Witcher can match those kind of sales remains to be seen.

The first Witcher book - also called The Witcher - was published in 1990 and was a collection of short stories. It was later revised and reissued in 1993 as The Last Wish. A second story collection, Sword of Destiny, was released in 1992. The five-volume "proper" novel series followed: Blood of Elves (1994), Time of Contempt (1995), Baptism of Fire (1996), The Tower of the Swallow (1997) and The Lady of the Lake (1999). A stand-alone prequel, Season of Storms, followed in 2013.


The latest Star Trek series has gotten an airdate. Star Trek: Lower Decks launches on CBS All Access on 6 August 2020.

Lower Decks, which takes its name and premise from the Season 7 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation of the same name, is the second animated series in the Star Trek franchise, following on from Star Trek: The Animated Series, which aired for two seasons in 1973-74. The series follows the crew of the California-class USS Cerritos in the year 2380, just after the events of the film Star Trek: Nemesis. The series will focus more on the junior crew of the starship, the crewmen in at the deep end in dealing with crises whilst the bridge crew make the important decisions.

The USS Cerritos is a "second contact" ship, whose job is following up on civilisations who have already had their more glamorous first contact with the Federation and working out trade deals, whether the newly-contacted civilisation wants to join the Federation and so on.

The show is expected to have a lighter and more humorous tone than the other Star Trek series. It will air on CBS All Access in the United States and CTV Sci-Fi Channel in Canada, but no European broadcaster has yet been announced.

Season 3 of Star Trek: Discovery is expected to arrive in the autumn. Production of the next batch of Star Trek shows - Season 2 of Star Trek: Picard, Season 1 of Section 13 and Season 1 of Strange New Worlds - are currently on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic. A further animated show aimed at a younger audience is also in co-development at Nickelodeon; it is unclear what stage of development this show is at.

Scott Lynch and Elizabeth Bear named in SFF misconduct allegations

Author Alexandra Rowland has accused fellow writers Scott Lynch and Elizabeth Bear (who are married) of abusing them, claims which they have vigorously denied. This story follows several other accusations of harassment in both the SFF lit field and in video gaming over the past two weeks.

This is a developing story and one facts are in some dispute. However, there has been enough discussion of it in the public sphere that at least a bald recounting of the events and claims is possible.

On Friday 26 June, author Alexandra Rowland wrote a blog post in which they accused fantasy author Scott Lynch and Elizabeth Bear, of abusing and grooming them for several years. Their full post can be read here. To summarise, Rowland contends that, in 2015 and at the age of 25 (twelve years younger than Lynch), they were propositioned by Lynch into having a relationship with him on the basis that he was talking his wife into having an open relationship. Rowland agreed but this subsequently triggered a series of hostile confrontations with Bear, who (in Rowland's contention) put the blame for the event on Rowland and not Lynch, and they subsequently walked away from the situation and cut all contact. Rowland also contends that this kind of problem has happened before with several other young writers (there have been several anonymous allegations of this type supporting Rowland's claim, but no other writer has come forward publicly).

Scott Lynch's initial response was angry and threatened legal action. A subsequent and more measured response rejected the claims in greater detail, although agreeing that he had a consensual relationship with Rowland with his wife's knowledge. Lynch rejected any notion of this being a pattern of behaviour on his part and he has had no contact with Rowland in three years.

Elizabeth Bear also gave a lengthy response (after Lynch's initial response but before his second) in which she categorised Rowland's behaviour as part of a pattern of inserting themselves, unwanted, into other people's spaces and not respecting boundaries. Writers CD Covington, Arkady Martine and Devin Singer provided some support for this assertion.

Writer Kurt Panakau also claimed that Rowland is acting in bad faith, and posted screenshots confirming a similar event happened with another married author three years before the Lynch relationship took place. It should be noted, of course, that bad things can happen to the same person twice. The other married author has not yet been identified.

An anonymous Twitter account provided support for Rowland's account of events, alleging that Lynch behaved towards the account-holder inappropriately at a convention.

Elizabeth Bear has further posted a claim that this issue has reignited long-standing Twitter feuds dating back a decade to previous clashes between SFF writers over other issues (particularly the RaceFail controversy of 2009-10), and anonymous accounts may be posting false information to further their own agenda and even scores. Other commentators have accused this of being deflection.

Many of the previous stories of abusive behaviour and taking advantage of power dynamics in the SFF field have had multiple witnesses and the alleged perpetrators have owned up to their own bad behaviour. This story is much more contentious and contended, and involves multiple allegations and denials on both sides, which is why I was more reluctant to cover it versus other allegations since the facts are in much more dispute. However, the story has become dominant in the SFF field in the last few days.

For my part, I have met Scott Lynch three times and Elizabeth Bear once (briefly on all occasions), and have had positive but brief online interactions with both. I have reviewed some of their books positively in the past. I had not heard of Alexandra Rowland prior to this story breaking.

Further developments are expected.

The Breadwinner

Kabul, Afghanistan. Parvana is an 11-year-old girl living in a city under the control of the Taliban. She helps her father sell his wares at the market every day, but when he is arrested and taken away Parvana is left as the family's sole breadwinner. Unable to go out on the streets alone and unescorted, she cuts off her hair and poses as a boy. As times become leaner, she is forced to work harder and take more risks to ensure her family's survival. To keep them entertained, she tells them stories of the distant past, when Afghanistan was part of Parthia and heroes fought elephant kings in order to protect their people.

The Breadwinner is a 2017 animated film from Irish studio Cartoon Saloon, based on the 2000 novel by Deborah Ellis. The film is set in the capital city of Afghanistan was it was still under Taliban control. This resulted in an oppressive atmosphere with informers on every street corner, limited food supplies and women forced to cover themselves from head to foot and not allowed out on the streets without a male relative accompanying them. The story asks a simple question: what happens when the sole male breadwinner for a family is arrested and taken away, leaving the women behind, effectively trapped in their house?

The result is a story that's both relevant to the time it was written in, but also timeless: the family's young daughter has to disguise herself as a boy, Aatish, in order to work to afford food and get water for her family. This results in both tension - Parvana is at constant risk of discovery - but also liberation. Parvana has spent much of her young life under Taliban rule, so the sudden freedom to go where she wants and do what she likes (within reason) is liberating, to the point of risking overconfidence.

As the film's main narrative unfolds, where Parvana tries to help her family and discover her father's ultimate fate, so too does a secondary story which Parvana is telling to her baby brother every night, the story of a young hero who seeks to confront the Elephant King who has stolen his village's crop seeds. Parvana finds herself drawing on the story for comfort and solace, as it teaches her resilience and fortitude even in the face of insurmountable odds.

The film uses two styles of animation, one for each narrative strand and both are impressive. The Elephant King story takes on a storybook tone, with the animation suggesting paper figures animated in a more fairy-tale quality, whilst the "real world" material is still stylised, but more realistic. The voice actors, most of them Afghan, are also excellent, selling a story which can be both grimly bleak but also optimistic for the future.

The film is also successful in depicting life under the Taliban with nuance: many people, even ostensible Taliban soldiers, are clearly doing what they are doing under coercion and fear and take no real joy in oppressing others, whilst others are bullies taking delight in being given the freedom to exert their brutal authority. Some fight against the system, a few openly and a few through some acts of kindness for others. The film does not extend into the post-2001 civil war period, so we never find out how Parvana's life changes after the Taliban in Kabul are driven out, but the film does sound several notes of hope that things will improve, at least in part for these characters.

Instead, The Breadwinner (*****) remains anchored firmly with the characters, showing them adapting to life under difficult circumstances and finding ways of surviving and finding hope. There are no easy answers, but there is optimism to be found here in the depiction of human courage. The film is available now in the UK and USA.

Saturday, 27 June 2020

New definitive LORD OF THE RINGS 20th Anniversary edition in the planning stages

Digital Fix has acquired information indicating that a major re-release of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movie trilogy is in the planning stages for late 2021.

December 2021 will - somehow, terrifyingly - mark the 20th anniversary of the release of The Fellowship of the Ring. To celebrate, Peter Jackson's team has been working on a new 4K remaster of the original trilogy and a 4K version of the Hobbit trilogy. Both the original cinematic cut and the extended editions of all six movies are expected to be available. It's unclear if the behind-the-scenes extras will also be remastered; one criticism of the previous HD release of the movies is that the extras were not upgraded as well.

It's unclear if previously unseen material will be available. It's been known for years that extensive footage was shot of "the roads not taken," such as a version of the trilogy where Arwen led the elves at Helm's Deep, but very little of this material has ever been seen. It is likely there will be a new documentary looking back at the legacy of the trilogy, and perhaps some kind of tie in with the Second Age television series currently in production and expected to debut in late 2021 or early 2022.

Friday, 26 June 2020

SFF field rocked by multiple allegations of improper behaviour and abuse

Over the last 48 hours or so, the science fiction and fantasy literature field has been rocked by multiple accusations of multiple authors of improper behaviour, abuse, gaslighting, racism, misogyny, sexual coercion and authors using their platforms to engage in dogpiling and bullying.

The number of accusations has been almost overwhelming. Genre Grapevine is currently running a list of the allegations where the facts of the matter are not in dispute. Authors Paul Krueger, Myke Cole and Sam Sykes have been accused of inappropriate behaviour (Cole has subsequently been dropped by his publisher and agent, and Krueger by his agent) and others of enabling that behaviour.

Two other authors have also been accused of inappropriate behaviour but in their case they deny the claims vociferously and have been supported by others with knowledge of the events that the initial accusations were untrue, but the initial accuser has also received some support. This matter continues to develop.

The incident comes a week after the video games industry underwent its own such events, resulting in writer Chris Avellone and voice actor Cas Anvar both being accused of inappropriate behaviour. Avellone's work at a number of venues was subsequently cancelled; Anvar's future on hit SF TV show The Expanse remains unclear.

It should go without saying that these allegations are deeply disturbing and the end result is hopefully a more inclusive and safer space for all people in SFF fandom.

Thursday, 25 June 2020

CD Projekt Red unveil new CYBERPUNK 2077 trailer and announce Netflix tie-in series

CD Projekt Red have unveiled a new trailer for Cyberpunk 2077, their upcoming science fiction roleplaying game (note, contains swearing).

The trailer is part of a media blitz for the game taking place today, which also includes a gameplay stream and multiple outlets previewing the title via a special preview build of the game, with more reactions expected this evening. This kind of coverage is unusual given the game is still five months from launching, but is a display of CDPR's immense confidence in the project.

The game is set in 2077 in Night City, a new metropolis that has grown up on the Californian coast between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The game followers a central character named V who gets in over their head (the character is fully customisable). The game will feature remarkable reactivity, with the first several hours of the game dramatically different depending on what character background you choose, and the player able to exert tremendous influence over how the story unfolds.

The game was announced in 2012 and has been in full-time production since 2015.

CDPR and Netflix also announced that they are collaborating on an animated TV show, Cyberpunk: Edgerunners. The series is expected to debut in 2022.

Cyberpunk 2077 will launch on PC, X-Box One and PlayStation 4 on 19 November 2020. The game will also be backwards-compatible on the X-Box X and PlayStation 5, which are expected to launch around the same time.

Marvel announce first WARHAMMER 40,000 comic

Marvel and Games Workshop announced last year that they were joining forces to release a line of Warhammer comics and now they've confirmed the first title.

Warhammer 40,000: Marneus Calgar will tell the origin story of Marneus Calgar, Chapter Master of the Ultramarines and one of the most storied characters in the Warhammer 40,000 lore. Some of Calgar's most famous battles have been related before in two novels by Paul Kearney, Calgar's Siege and Calgar's Fury (a third book, Calgar's Reckoning, is on its way), but this new comic series will reveal more about Calgar's early days as a Space Marine. Kieron Gillen, feted for his recent Star Wars work about Darth Vader, will be writing the new comic series.

More series are in the planning stages, including more Warhammer 40,000 fiction and very likely a line based on the Age of Sigmar fantasy setting.

The best space combat game of all time has a new modding portal

Freespace 2, originally released in 1999, remains the finest space combat game of all time, with impeccable pacing, story, combat and, for the time, visuals. Thanks to the developers, Volition, releasing the source code, modders have run riot for twenty years, constantly developing new mods doing everything from updating the graphics to adding entire new campaigns, some based on properties such as Babylon 5 and Battlestar Galactica.

A new portal, named Knossos (appropriately, after the giant space portal in the game) has been launched to make modding for Freespace 2 easier than ever.

To use Knossos you need an install of Freespace 2. The game is available free, because the source code was released, but for convenience you can get a copy from GoG very easily.

Probably the best place to start is with the FreeSpace Port MediaVps mod, which upgrades all the graphics, models and lighting to the latest standards, and then FreeSpace Port, which updates the original Conflict Freespace: The Great War and its expansion, The Silent Threat to modern standards. Then dive into Freespace 2 itself before checking out the other material.

Production of THE EXPANSE impacted by misconduct allegations

The producers of The Expanse television series are dealing with a series of misconduct allegations against actor Cas Anvar, who plays Alex Kamal, the pilot of the Rocinante.

The allegations broke as part of a renewed discussion of misconduct related to the video games industry; the specific allegations against Anvar relate to his time in video game fandom and attending conventions following his appearance in Assassin's Creed: Revelations (2011), voicing the character of Altair. Anvar is reported to have made unwanted advances towards multiple female cosplayers and convention attendees.

Anvar has so far made no response to the specific allegations. The co-creators of The Expanse confirmed they are taking the allegations seriously and will be working with Amazon Television to do their due diligence and decide on what action to take moving forwards.

Season 5 of The Expanse had been completed before the COVID-19 pandemic began and is currently scheduled to air on Amazon Prime later this year. If Anvar was to leave the show, it would presumably have to take place before production of Season 6 began. It should be noted this is very much a minor concern when ranged against the extremely large number of allegations raised against the actor by multiple people, and the seriousness of them.

Over the weekend, similar allegations were also made against Chris Avellone, arguably one of the most famous writers in video games (having worked on titles including Knights of the Old Republic IIFallout 2Fallout: New Vegas and Planescape: Torment, amongst others). In Avellone's case he immediately apologised to several of the women involved. His recent work for several companies is now under review, and in some cases has been terminated.

Monday, 22 June 2020

Apple release first trailer for its FOUNDATION TV series

Apple TV has released the first trailer for its TV mini-series based on the Foundation novels by Isaac Asimov.

Set more than twenty thousand years in the future, Foundation depicts a Galactic Empire that spans hundreds of thousands of star systems with a population in the trillions. The Empire seems prosperous and strong, but mathematician Hari Seldon (Jared Harris) has used incredibly advanced mathematical models - a science he calls "psychohistory" - to predict that the Empire will collapse in a matter of years, ushering in thirty thousand years of barbarism. This creates a storm of controversy, with some citing Seldon as a panic-monger and others thinking he can help resolve a number of looming crises. Eventually Seldon is allowed to found a secret society known as the Foundation, a scientific elite operating from behind the scenes who can reduce the interregnum to a mere single millennium before a new centralised empire arises.

The seven Foundation novels cover the first five hundred years or so of Seldon's Plans, chronicling how the Foundation avoids destruction and helps guide humanity to the next phase of its existence.

The series also stars Lee Pace as Brother Day, Lou Llobell as Gaal, Leah Harvey as Salvor Hardin, Laura Birn as Eto Demerzel, Terrence Mann as Brother Dusk and Cassian Bilton as Brother Dawn.

The show began production at Troy Studios in Limerick, Ireland, last autumn and seemed to be around halfway through its shoot when production was shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Production is expected to resume in the next month or so. Apple has moved ahead with post-production and vfx on the completed episodes, with the hope of finishing work quickly for a 2021 premiere.

RIP Joel Schumacher

Joel Schumacher, director of numerous cult hit movies in the 1980s and 1990s, has sadly passed away at the age of 80.

Schumacher was born in New York City and developed an early interest in fashion, where he started his career. He switched to film-making, using his fashion experience as a costumer designer on Woody Allen's Sleeper (1973). He began writing and sold his first screenplay in 1976, for the musical Sparkle. His big career breakthrough came the same year when he wrote the musical Car Wash, followed by The Wiz (1978). His directing debut was The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981).

His first directing hit came with St. Elmo's Fire (1985), one of the so-called "Brat Pack" wave of films in the mid-1980s. He followed it up with the cult classic vampire movie The Lost Boys (1987). He achieved another cult hit with the horror film Flatliners (1990) and the existential angst movie Falling Down (1993). He also directed The Client (1994), based on the John Grisham novel of the same name.

Schumacher's most notorious directing duties came when he took over the Batman franchise from Tim Burton. Burton was developing a third film in his franchise called Batman Continues when Warner Brothers asked him to step down, citing complaints that Batman Returns (1992) had been less popular than the first film and merchandisers had complained about the lack of tie-in opportunities (reportedly the straw that broke the camel's back was McDonalds saying that Batman Returns had been inappropriate for children, so they'd made less money with their Batman-themed junk food deals). Burton selected Schumacher as his own replacement. Schumacher initially wanted to make a more serious Batman movie and toyed with adapting the comic books Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns, with Michael Keaton agreeing to reprise his role. However, Warner Brothers didn't want a prequel and also wanted a lighter tone, which those heavy-going comic books did not jive which. Warner Brothers held focus group meetings which seemed to conclude that a lighter, more jovial tone was needed which leaned into the character's camp appeal. Burton, who attended some of the meetings before committing to his Ed Wood project, was apparently bemused by this conclusion but Schumacher agreed to abide by their decision.

The resulting project became Batman Forever (1995), with the mish-mash of villains, confused tone and overload of guest stars proving divisive. Keaton left during development and was replaced by Val Kilmer. Despite a mixed critical reception, the film had a strong commercial performance and Schumacher was asked to develop another film, which became Batman & Robin (1997). The film was fast-tracked for release just two years after Batman Forever, which left little time for writing; reportedly Schumacher decided not to stress about the situation too much, repeatedly telling actors that they were in a cartoon and making decisions for commercial reasons or to sell toys rather than making art. Schumacher also referenced the 1960s Batman series starring Adam West as his primary inspiration, having been denied the opportunity to tackle the more interesting graphic novels he wanted to.

Batman & Robin was substantially less well-received than its forebear and made a lot less money, so the franchise was rested for eight years before Christopher Nolan resurrected it with Batman Begins (2005). Schumacher acknowledged that the film wasn't very good and noted that it did his career no favours. However, between the Batman films Schumacher had made what some consider his best film to that point, A Time to Kill (1996), starring Samuel L. Jackson and featuring a big breakthrough performance by Matthew McConaughey.

Schumacher made several low-key movies before returning to the big time with the critically-lauded Tigerland (2000), Phone Booth (2003) and Veronica Guerin (2003). His last credit before retiring was for directing two episodes of the Netflix drama House of Cards, working alongside his old friend David Fincher.

Schumacher had an interesting career trajectory which consisted of some very high highs and some very low lows. When presented with work that excited and inspired him, he produced outstanding work: The Lost Boys, Falling Down, The Client, A Time to Kill, Tigerland, Phone Booth and Veronica Guerin are all excellent films which have aged well. However, Schumacher was also a quintessential jobbing Hollywood director, agreeing to projects even when they didn't engage him and phoning work in if he felt creatively stifled by Hollywood suits (to the extent of apologising for Batman & Robin on the film's own DVD commentary). His later career decision to never work in blockbuster Hollywood again does seem to have paid off, being able to make smaller, less vfx-driven films more focused on character.

Schumacher seems to have found it easy to strike up good rapports with actors, working multiple times with the likes of Tommy Lee Jones, Nicole Kidman, Jim Carrey, Nicholas Cage, Colin Farrell and Kiefer Sutherland, many of whom came out today with tributes to him. Capable of great work in his time and refreshingly honest about his failures, Schumacher will be missed.

Saturday, 20 June 2020

Gratuitous Lists: The Command & Conquer Games, Ranked

The original philosophy of the Gratuitous Lists feature was to have lists of stuff that are unranked, because frankly if you're talking about the 12th best thing of all time or the 9th best thing of all time, the differences are going to be pretty minor. In the case of a Command & Conquer video game list, however, that's kind of pointless because there's too few things to put on the list. So for this one I'm ranking them and people can argue away to their heart's content. So let us proceed.

9. Command & Conquer: Renegade
Released February 2002

Back at the turn of the century, Westwood hit on the idea of expanding the Command & Conquer franchise to other genres. This wasn't a bad idea - Blizzard was only two years from turning their WarCraft franchise from one of the biggest names in strategy to the biggest name in online roleplaying games - but it felt a bit late in the day, with the popularity of the series having arguably already peaked. Still, a FPS version of the game with you playing the commando from the original game, blowing up fairly faithful 3D recreations of buildings from the franchise, was a fun idea. The execution wasn't. Compared to contemporary FPS games, Renegade was stodgy and disappointing, with a risible and forgettable storyline.

8. Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight
Released March 2010

At the tail end of the last decade the RTS genre seemed to be running scared from the rise of its all-conquering bastard child, the MOBA, so decided to incorporate MOBA-like elements into their games. This resulted in the disappointing Dawn of War II and seems to have at least partially inspired the decision to strip out traditional base-building and resource-gathering from Command & Conquer 4 to focus on all action, all the time. The problem is that Command & Conquer is so inextricably bound to those concepts that if you remove them, the game becomes just a generic action title, especially if you don't find another solution (such as Company of Heroes' clever use of fortifying battlefield strategic points). The result was a game that was playable but fairly stale and uninteresting, a shame for what is (so far) the final mainline entry in the series.

7. Command & Conquer: Tiberian Dawn
Released September 1995

The OG Command & Conquer game gets massive props for its evolution of the genre and introducing many characters and concepts that would be expanded over the next decade and a half. However, it's also clunky, old-skool and frustrating. The single-player campaign seems averse to actually just letting you build a base and attack the enemy, instead throwing gimmick level after gimmick level at you until your eyes glaze. Unit balance is also highly questionable (infantry are far too powerful in numbers again much heavier units that should make mincemeat of them) and the pace is far too slow. Excellent in its day, but almost immediately superseded by its own successors, but it deserves kudos for getting the ball rolling on the franchise.

6. Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun
Released August 1999

The sequel to the original Command & Conquer game saw the return of Kane and added a whole lot of star power to the game with James Earl Jones and Michael Biehn. The post-apocalyptic setting and the brave decision to move away from tanks in favour of giant mechs also showed that Westwood were not content to sit on their laurels and were willing to experiment. However, the pace of gameplay was slow, the mech units lacked character and the game felt massively underwhelming compared to the opposition. There was fun to be had in the game, but it really didn't feel like a Command & Conquer game and certainly provided no trouble for the all-conquering StarCraft's domination of online multiplayer.

5. Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3
Released October 2008

By the time EA released Red Alert 3, the secret appeal of this spin-off series had become apparent: the inherent lunacy and high camp of the alternate history pitting the Soviets and the Allies against one another. So Red Alert 3 took these elements and dialed them up way beyond 11. Tim Curry's scenery-destroying turn as the main villain (including, yes, that line) stole the headlines, but George Takei's barking mad portrayal of the Emperor of the Rising Sun and a prevalence of models in skimpy clothing fighting a desperate war for survival are also worthy (?) of notice. These elements tended to detract from the gameplay, which was relatively solid if a little overfond of stereotypical gimmicks such as the Empire's giant samurai mecha and planes which could transform into tanks. There's an enjoyable game to be found here, but the developers could have benefited to learn from "less is more" when it comes to the story and packaging.

4. Command & Conquer: Red Alert
Released November 1996

The original Red Alert took everything that made the original Command & Conquer great and refined it. The two factions are much better-balanced, units have more clearly-defined roles and the pace of gameplay is faster and more furious, making for much better multiplayer and skirmish matches. The singleplayer campaigns are also less frustrating and more fun. Red Alert is the first real classic game in the series and the one that defined it for future generations. Also, the inherent lunacy of receiving in-game orders from Stalin never gets old.

3. Command & Conquer: Generals
Released February 2003

This was a somewhat controversial game in the series on release, with EA's eagerness to cash in on and monetise the War on Terror being one of the most distasteful moves in its history. To the credit of the developers, they took the idea and ran with it to create the first proper 3D game in the series' history and to craft three well-balanced but asymmetrical sides. The original game was solid, but it was the Zero Hour expansion that fleshed out the three factions and added much more dynamic and exciting career specialisations that resulted in some pretty epic battles. This was also the first game in the series that allowed you to build multiple superweapons, resulting in some pretty absurd engagements that went beyond anything seen before (my favourite battle ending in no less than 25 ion cannons simultaneously firing at the enemy base).

2. Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars
Released March 2007

Tiberium Wars took the original Tiberian universe and melded it with the Generals engine to create the best of the modern C&C games, with an all-star cast keeping the FMV (packed with then-hot actors from Lost and Battlestar Galactica) just on the right side of camp and probably the best storyline in the series, with the escalating battles between GDI and Nod finally triggering the long-awaited invasion of the alien Scrin and refreshing a series dynamic that was threatening to get a bit stale. The expansion, Kane's Wrath, also did a fine redeeming job by converting many of the Tiberian Sun units to the new engine and acting as a bridge between games in the series. Thoroughly enjoyable.

1. Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2
Released October 2000

The best Command & Conquer game combined elements from its predecessors: the fast and furious gameplay and superior unit selection and faction balance from Red Alert combined with the technologically superior engine from Tiberian Sun. The game also took a massive ton of ideas from the then-best RTS on the market, StarCraft. The result is the best game in the series, with a storyline that further leans into the camp than the original Red Alert but doesn't go completely berserk with it like the later Red Alert 3, and in Yuri finds a villain to rival Kane. We can only hope EA are planning a remaster of this game up next.

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Friday, 19 June 2020

RIP Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Spanish novelist Carlos Ruiz Zafón has passed away at the far-too-young age of 55.

Zafón was best-known for the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series. This series launched in 2001 with The Shadow of the Wind, which became one of the biggest-selling novels of the 21st Century. It was followed by The Angel's Game (2008), The Prisoner of Heaven (2011) and The Labyrinth of Spies (2016).

Zafón also wrote four young adult novels: The Prince of Mist (1993), The Midnight Palace (1994), The Watcher in the Shadows (1995) and Marina (1999), as well as short stories. In the 1990s he movd to Los Angeles to work as a screenwriter but found the work unrewarding, so switched to prose fiction.

Zafón passed away earlier today from colorectal cancer, which he'd been battling for two years. The enormous sales success of The Shadow of the Wind and its sequels (over 40 million copies, by some counts) made him, by some counts, the most-read Spanish author since Cervantes.
Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands... its spirit grows and strengthens.

RIP Ian Holm

News has sadly broken that British actor Ian Holm has passed away at the age of 88.

Born in Goodmayes, Romford in the outskirts of London in 1931, Holm became interested in acting at school. He joined the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in 1949, although his studies were interrupted by National Service and a trip to the United States. He graduated from RADA in 1953 and joined the Royal Shakespeare Company upon its founding in 1960.

He made his screen debut in 1957 and became a regular, recurring face on British television. He attracted widespread notice for the first time in the 1965 BBC serialisation of The Wars of the Roses, in which he played King Richard III, and the 1969 film Oh! What a Lovely War, in which he played President Poincare. He continued to act on stage until 1976, when he suffered a massive bout of stage fright during a performance. Filled with anxiety by the event, he did not act again on stage for more than a decade.

Holm switched to acting exclusively on screen, starring as Napoleon in Napoleon and Love (1974), Wedderburn in The Lives of Benjamin Franklin (1974-75), Zerah in Jesus of Nazareth (1977) and Heinrich Himmler in Holocaust (1978).

In 1979 Holm appeared in his breakout role, that of the treacherous android Ash in Ridley Scott's Alien. This led to him being offered more prestigious roles, and in 1981 he played two of the more influential roles in his career. The first was as Sam Mussabini in Chariots of Fire, for which he was nominated an Oscar and won a BAFTA. The second was as Frodo Baggins, the principle protagonist of a very lengthy BBC Radio adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.

Holm continued to star in films through the 1980s and 1990s, including roles in Time Bandits (1981), Brazil (1985), Dreamchild (1985), Henry V (1989), Hamlet (1990), Naked Lunch (1991), Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994), The Fifth Element (1997), The Sweet Hereafter (1997), eXistenZ (1999) and From Hell (2001). He won his second BAFTA for the TV series Game, Set and Match and also won over younger fans with his role on children's drama The Borrowers (1993). He was nominated for two Emmy Awards, for a PBS broadcast of King Lear in 1999 and the HBO TV movie The Last of the Blonde Bombshells in 2001.

Holm returned to Middle-earth in 2001, when he starred as Bilbo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Peter Jackson had been a major fan of the BBC Radio adaptation in which Holm had played the younger Frodo and specifically asked him to take on the role. The film was notable as it was the first time that Holm acted on screen with fellow Shakespearean actor Ian McKellen, whom he'd known socially through the scene for decades. McKellen was impressed by Holm's process, which involved carefully selecting a different emotional register for each take to give the director more options to choose from in the editing room, something McKellen had never considered before. Holm returned to the role in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) and The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014), appearing in a framing device in the latter two movies whilst Bilbo's younger incarnation was played by Martin Freeman.

His success in the Lord of the Rings trilogy saw a late-career renaissance, and he appeared in films including The Day After Tomorrow (2004), Garden State (2004), The Aviator (2004) and Lord of War (2005). Facing health issues - he successfully fought off prostate cancer in 2001 and used a wheelchair during his last few years - he switched to voice roles, narrating the TV documentary series Horizon from 2005 to 2008 and playing Skinner in the Pixar movie Ratatouille (2007), as well as providing the narration for the TV documentary series 1066 (2009). However, professional courtesy saw him return to the role of Bilbo Baggins for the Hobbit trilogy.

Perhaps fittingly, Holm's last acting credit saw him return to the job that made him famous, by reprising the role of Ash for the video game Alien: Isolation in 2014.

Ian Holm was a mainstay of British television, theatre and film for half a century. Rarely the star, he was a reliable and committed performer who excelled as the hero, the sidekick, the mentor or the villain. He is survived by his fourth wife, five children and a grandson. He will very much be missed.

Thursday, 18 June 2020

Franchise Familiariser: Command & Conquer

After a decade of quiet, the venerable Command & Conquer franchise has risen from the ashes like a phoenix, thanks to the release of a remaster of the first two games in the series. But what if you are a stranger to this series? What do you conquer and who do you command? Who is the sinister bald man in all the videos? Relax as we have you covered.

The Basics

Command & Conquer is a video game franchise created by Westwood Studios in the early 1990s and published by Electronic Arts between 1995 and 2009. Eight main games in three distinct sub-series were released, along with a myriad of expansions and spin-offs.

The core games are based around the idea of constructing a base (consisting of several buildings dedicated to constructing vehicles, training infantry and gathering resources), assembling an army and then fighting the enemy on the battlefield to achieve strategic objectives. These may range from simply destroying all enemy forces to escaping to a certain location, escorting a friendly or safeguarding a location from enemy assault. The three distinct sub-series all feature dramatically varying factions, tones and background lore.

The Tiberian series, often referred to as the core Command & Conquer series, is set in the near future and revolves around a substance called Tiberium, which falls to Earth in a meteor shower. Tiberium, when harvested, provides massive amounts of energy and minerals for very low-intensive mining, allowing it to be used to construct weapons of war very rapidly. A semi-mystical religious cult turned paramilitary organisation, the Brotherhood of Nod, led by the charismatic Kane, has sworn to exploit Tiberium for its own end, but its measures are ruthless and brutal. The Global Defence Initiative (GDI) is founded by the United Nations to secure Tiberium for the betterment of mankind, but soon becomes the UN’s de facto military wing in the war against Nod. Later games in the series reveal that Tiberium is an energy source developed by an alien race known as the Scrin. A Scrin harvesting force later invades Earth to reclaim the Tiberium, widening the scope of the conflict.

The Red Alert series is an alternate-history series set in a splinter timeline, created when Albert Einstein travels from the 1950s to 1924 to assassinate Adolf Hitler and avert World War II. Although the plan is successful, the changes to the timeline are unpredictable. In the new timeline, Josef Stalin instead launches a massive invasion of Europe, resulting in a devastating conflict. In the 1970s the conflict widens to include an assault on the mainland United States. Attempts to use time travel again to prevent this new conflict cause history to further spin off its axis, resulting in the creation of a technologically-advanced Japanese empire which also attempts to conquer the world. The Red Alert series was originally intended to be a more direct prequel to the Tiberian series (hence the otherwise inexplicable presence of Kane in the first game), but evolved into its own storyline and universe. This series is noteworthy for the increasingly camp, humorous and self-referential tone it adopts through the games.

The Generals series is the shortest-lived of the three sub-series, consisting of just one game and an expansion. It was created when Electronic Arts diverted what was supposed to be a new Tiberian game to a more “realistic” take on the War on Terror, focusing on a three-way conflict between the United States, China and a global terrorist organisation.

The Canon

To date, the Command & Conquer series has solely almost consisted of video games and their accompanying soundtracks. There was a single book, a novelisation of Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars by Keith R.A. DeCandido in 2007, but it was extremely poorly received.

Tiberian Series
  • Command & Conquer: Tiberian Dawn (1995)
    • Command & Conquer: The Covert Operations (1996)
  • Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun (1999)
    • Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun – Firestorm (2000)
  • Command & Conquer: Renegade (2002)
  • Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars (2007)
    • Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars – Kane’s Wrath (2008)
  • Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight (2010) 

Red Alert Series
  • Command & Conquer: Red Alert (1996)
    • Command & Conquer: Red Alert – Counterstrike (1997)
    • Command & Conquer: Red Alert – The Aftermath (1997)
    • Command & Conquer: Red Alert – Retaliation (1998)
  • Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 (2000)
    • Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 – Yuri’s Revenge (2001)
  • Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 (2008)
    • Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 – Uprising (2009) 

Generals Series
  • Command & Conquer: Generals (2003)
    • Command & Conquer: Generals – Zero Hour (2003) 

Remastered Series
  • Command & Conquer Remastered: Tiberian Dawn & Red Alert (2020) 

The Tiberian Series

The Tiberian Series opens in 1995, shortly after a large interstellar asteroid or comet breaks up over the Earth, showering it with strange crystals. The substance becomes known as “Tiberium,” apparently from the first investigation site near the Tiber River in Italy (although this is disputed by the Brotherhood of Nod, which claims to have named it after Julius Caesar Augustus Tiberius). Tiberium contains huge amounts of energy and also acts in a strange “leech” fashion, drawing up valuable mineral deposits from the surrounding area into a form convenient for collection. Tiberium spreads through soil and through physical structures. It also emits low levels of radiation that will kill or mutate unshielded lifeforms over time.

The arrival of Tiberium was exploited by the Brotherhood of Nod, a quasi-religious cult which claims it was founded circa 1800 BC in ancient Babylon. The Brotherhood’s ideology promotes the notion of peace, unity and eternal brotherhood in which humanity is unified to face the struggles of life as one people. The Brotherhood also believed that the world had come to be dominated by corrupt superpowers only at the expense of the world’s poorer nations. The arrival of Tiberium allowed smaller nations to gain excess to cheap energy and also allowed the Brotherhood to quickly build up a military machine to rival that of the traditional superpowers, a process it dubbed “peace through power.” After going public in the early 1990s, the Brotherhood won the allegiance of numerous countries through Asia (most notably China), the Middle East and Africa and began waging war against what it regarded as the imperialist and colonialist powers of Europe and the United States.

Key to the Brotherhood’s success is its charismatic leader, Kane. Despite his American accent, outlandish sources claim that Kane is the actual Biblical Caine, brother of Abel and is over 6,000 years old. Some of Kane’s utterances also suggest he is not human at all. However, Kane’s mystical background and alleged alien origins are possibly an attempt at myth-making to give him greater credence than would otherwise be possible. The only thing that is clear is that he has greater knowledge of Tiberium than anyone else and he appears to not age at all, or very slowly.

Opposed to Nod and Kane is the Global Defence Initiative (GDI), a military force funded by the United Nations to secure Tiberium resources and work to defeat those who would turn it against the population. As a military force beyond the control of any one nation, the GDI is controversial and it faces numerous funding battles through its existence.

The original Command & Conquer (1995), later renamed Tiberian Dawn, is set in the late 1990s and depicts the First Tiberium War, a struggle between GDI and Nod for control of global Tiberium resources. The game is split into two campaigns, with a Nod campaign seeing Nod fighting a war for control of Africa. The GDI campaign sees a new and untested GDI commander fighting Nod for control of Europe, culminating in a massive battle at the Nod Temple Prime in Sarajevo. The expansion, Covert Operations (1996), features missions that take place during the original game. The First Tiberium War ends with Kane’s apparent death and the destruction of the Nod Temple by GDI’s orbital ion cannon weapon.

Tiberian Sun (1999) is set in 2030 and reveals that Tiberium has overrun most of the Earth’s surface, destroying major cities and displacing hundreds of millions of people, with agricultural regions and wildlife habitats devastated. GDI, now commanded from an orbital space station known as the Philadelphia, has neutralised Nod by helping a moderate rise to power, Hassan, and take control of the Brotherhood to use it as a force for good (at least as defined by GDI). However, Kane unexpectedly announces his return and Hassan is executed. The Brotherhood reverts to its former ways, building a powerful war machine, and GDI is forced into an unexpected conflict. Loyalists within the Brotherhood have spent thirty years building up a new war machine and developing CABAL, a powerful AI to help coordinate the Brotherhood’s plans. The game heavily revolves around the Tacitus, a computer system found in a wrecked alien spacecraft, which holds the key to understanding Tiberium. In the game’s GDI campaign, which is considered canonical, GDI overcomes initial setbacks to defeat Kane’s army in a massive battle outside Cairo. In the Nod campaign, Kane succeeds launching his Tiberium missiles from Cairo which completely saturate the world with Tiberium and bring about his “ascension” to a higher plane, and the forced evolution of humanity into an unknown form.

The game’s expansion, Firestorm (2000), depicts the aftermath of the war with Nod regrouping under General Slavik. However, CABAL rebels against Nod and goes rogue, posing a threat to all of humanity. The Brotherhood and GDI reluctantly join forces to defeat and destroy CABAL. At the end of this conflict is revealed that CABAL has saved Kane’s life and is bringing about his restoration.
Command & Conquer: Renegade (2002) is a spin-off from the main series. It is a first-person shooter set during the closing days of the First Tiberian War and focuses on a GDI commando sent behind enemy lines to rescue some captured scientists.

Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars (2007) picks up the story in 2047. After helping defeat CABAL, the Brotherhood went to ground and vanished for seventeen years. The GDI has successfully established safe “Blue Zone” cities which can resist the spread of Tiberium and a new way of life has emerged, but this focus on nation-building and massive infrastructure construction has shifted attention away from its military and intelligence divisions. As a result, GDI is caught by surprise when Kane announces (again) his return with a nuclear missile strike on the Philadelphia, decapitating both the military and civilian leadership of the organisation in one swift move. Nod succeed in overrunning much of GDI’s territory, but a successful counter-offensive stalls their advance, forcing them to switch to developing weapons of mass destruction, including a liquid Tiberium bomb. GDI discover the bomb’s existence and use an ion cannon strike to neutralise it; however, the interaction of the ion cannon and the resulting bomb explosion send a massive signal across the solar system. The Scrin, the aliens who originally sent Tiberium to Earth, realise that the substance is ready for harvesting and send an invasion force to claim it. However, rather than the entire planet being overrun with Tiberium as they expect, they find the human race still extant and capable of defending itself. With their superior technology, the Scrin establish several invasion beachheads but faced stiff resistance from both GDI and Nod forces and their vastly superior numbers. With insufficient forces to defeat all of humanity, the Scrin set about building massive towers, possibly wormhole gateways to allow them to bring in reinforcements from their homeworld. Kane wants one of these gateways captured intact to allow him to “ascend,” but GDI thwart his plans by destroying all of the gateways and wiping out the last remnants of the Scrin invaders. Nod, once again, go to ground.

Tiberium Wars’ expansion pack, Kane’s Wrath (2008), depicts three military campaigns. The first is set in 2034 and depicts the struggle for power in the Brotherhood after the events of Tiberian Sun and Firestorm. The second is set before and during the Third Tiberium War and focuses on internal Nod struggles. The third is set in 2052 and sees the Brotherhood finally reclaim the alien Tacitus databank, which Kane plans to use to bring about his plan to ascend.

Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight (2010) is set in 2077 and depicts a world in which the Brotherhood of Nod and GDI have formed an uneasy alliance, Nod using the data from the Tacitus to bring Tiberium under control and GDI providing the enormous resources needed to stop it overrunning the last of the Blue Zones. In secret, Nod has been working to reactivate one of the destroyed Scrin towers to bring about ascension, but this is not general knowledge within the Brotherhood. One of Kane’s followers, Gideon, betrays him by denouncing the alliance with GDI. 

GDI and Nod fight a devastating war against Gideon’s Brotherhood forces, but GDI discovers Kane’s own betrayal and race to stop him reactivating the tower, fearing it will allow the Scrin to invade the planet. They fail, and Kane steps through the portal and vanishes, taking most of the Brotherhood with him. The expected Scrin counter-attack never materialises, and GDI is able to use the information left behind in the Tacitus to actually outright eradicate most of the Tiberium from the Earth, and begin the process of rebuilding. Kane’s ultimate fate is unknown.

This is the “core” Command & Conquer series and is noteworthy for its shifting tone, from a near-future, semi-realistic military conflict to a much more overtly science fictional, post-apocalyptic story featuring an alien invasion of the planet. This sub-series features the franchise’s most iconic character, the villainous Kane (played by Joe Kucan). The series is noteworthy for its FMV (full motion video) cutscenes, featuring actors including Michael Biehn, James Earl Jones, Tricia Helfer, Josh Holloway, Michael Ironside, Billy Dee Williams, Grace Park, Keith Szarabajka and Carl Lumbly. It’s also unusual in that the primary story arc begun in the first game had in fact been planned out by the writers ahead of time as a trilogy (who had announced Tiberian Dawn, Tiberian Sun and Tiberian Twilight as the three game titles as early as 1996) and this story was more or less executed to completion, although the events of Tiberium Wars had been inserted to expand the franchise.

Although fondly regarded for its foundational role in the RTS genre, the Tiberian series has a more mixed critical reception. Tiberian Dawn was considered revolutionary at the time but was quickly superseded in unit and level design by Red Alert. Tiberian Sun was heavily criticised for a poor unit selection (mostly revolving around walkers rather than tanks) and a very slow pace of gameplay compared to earlier titles in the series, as well as not being on a par with competitor games like Total Annihilation and StarCraft. Command & Conquer 3 was very warmly received in 2007 and was praised for getting the match of story, units and gameplay just right. However, Command & Conquer 4 attempted to break away from the core gameplay loop of the series by abandoning base-building and traditional resource gathering and was heavily criticised as the worst C&C game of them all, despite bringing the overall storyline to a (more or less) coherent conclusion. C&C4’s critical drubbing and commercial underperformance is held responsible for the demise of the franchise.

The Red Alert Series

The Red Alert series opens in 1946 in New Mexico, with Albert Einstein putting the finishing touches to the Chronosphere, a device capable of travelling through time. Einstein transports himself to 1924, just outside Landsberg, Germany, where Adolf Hitler is being released from prison following his role in the Munich Putsch of 1923. Einstein shakes Hitler’s hand, apparently vapourising him with energy, before he is pulled back to his own time.

A new timeline is created, one where Germany was not taken over by the Nazi Party and World War II did not take place. However, in this alternate timeline there is no check to the advance of the Soviet Union, which begins expanding into Eastern Europe in the 1940s. By the early 1950s a new equivalent to NATO, the Alliance, has been founded, consisting of the UK, Germany, France, Greece, Italy and several other European powers, although the United States (still isolationist, since its global economic dominance resulting from WWII did not come to pass) is reluctant to join. The Allies form a powerful military to act as a counterbalance to the Soviets, but this not enough to stop Stalin ordering an invasion of Europe. A devastating war erupts, eventually becoming more destructive than the “real” World War II.

Command & Conquer: Red Alert (1996) chronicles this alternative Second World War (assumed to begin in 1952, before Stalin’s death of natural causes, although it may be that in this alternate timeline and with the removal of the stress of the heavy losses in WWII, Stalin would have lived much longer). Red Alert was originally designed as a prequel to Tiberian Dawn, with the plan being that the Allied victory would be canonical, with the Allies eventually founding the GDI and the Brotherhood of Nod arising from the ashes of the Soviet Union and unifying its forces (this would explain why Russia goes unmentioned in Tiberian Dawn). This also explains why Kane cameos as a Soviet advisor. However, Westwood changed its mind and decided to divorce the two timelines. Further expansions – Counterstrike and The Aftermath (both 1997) – expand the conflict with new missions and units, whilst Retaliation (1998) combines the two packs with new cut scenes for console release.

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 (2000) is set in the early 1970s and assumes an Allied victory in the first game. It reveals that after the war devastated Europe, the United States stepped in and helped both the Allies and the Russians rebuild after the conflict. Russia has been a key ally of the United States ever since, but it is revealed that this is a ruse and Russia has been rebuilding its military in secret, plotting a massive invasion of North America via forces secretly assembled in Mexico and Alaska. The reborn Soviet Union executes the invasion with the help of Yuri, a mysterious man who has developed extensive psychic powers. The invasion is a success, with Washington, DC falling to the invaders and Yuri using his psychic powers to compel the US surrender, but the military mostly ignores the order and continues fighting. US Special Forces also eliminate the short-range Russian nuclear weapons in Eastern Europe, which allows the Allies to invade the Soviet Union itself whilst the bulk of its forces are fighting in North America. The Soviets are eventually defeated. The Soviet campaign depicts the USSR as being victorious in both America and Europe, but then switches to an internal struggle between the Russian commander (the player) and Yuri.

Yuri’s Revenge (2001) is the expansion to Red Alert 2 and depicts a renewed conflict, with Yuri using his “psychic dominators” to take control of two-thirds of the world’s population and launch a renewed invasion of the United States. Unable to fight off the invasion, the US uses Einstein’s Chronosphere to travel back in time to the events of the previous war and disrupt Yuri’s plans. Yuri is defeated once and for all. Yuri’s Revenge is notable as the first Command & Conquer game to feature three factions rather than two (as also later seen in the Generals series and Command & Conquer 3) and also the last game in the series to use 2D graphics.

Red Alert 3 (2008) opens during the closing moments of Red Alert 2, with the Allies closing in on Moscow. In desperation, the Soviets trigger a secret time machine they have been building in imitation of the Chronosphere and successfully travel back to 1927. They kill Einstein after he killed Hitler – resulting in the creation of the new timeline in the first place – but before he could develop much of the Allied weapon technology (including nukes). Returning to their home time, they find the Soviet Union victorious in its conquest of both North America and Europe, but vulnerable to a sneak attack by the Empire of the Rising Sun, a superpower centred in Asia and led by Japan (in the former timeline, Japan was simply a member of the Allies). In the resulting chaos the Allies and Soviets form a reluctant alliance which breaks the back of the Empire and sees Japan occupied. An attempt by the Soviets to betray the Allies is thwarted and the Soviet leadership is imprisoned.

Uprising (2009) is Red Alert 3’s expansion. It deals with the aftermath of the previous conflict, with both the USSR and the Empire of the Rising Sun attempting to reestablish themselves and both facing internal and external conflicts. In the canonical ending, the Allies are victorious once again. The USSR and the Empire both collapse, with the resulting free nations joining the Allies in becoming democratic powers. However, a wild card is left unresolved in the form of Yuriko Omega, a young Japanese woman with formidable psionic powers created through experimentation.

The Red Alert series is seen as the campy, self-aware and increasingly ludicrous antidote to the more serious Tiberian series. The series plays on Cold War and WWII tropes turned up to eleven and features an even heavier emphasis on larger-than-life characters (culminating in what mostpeople would agree to be the single most ridiculous line of dialogue uttered inthe history of human fiction). The series cast includes Kari Wuhrer, Ray Wise, Barry Corbin, J.K. Simmons, Jonathan Pryce, David Hasselhoff, Gemma Atkinson, Jenny McCarthy, Tim Curry, Peter Stormare, Gina Carano, Ric Flair, Malcolm McDowell, Holly Valance and George Takei as the Emperor of Japan.

The Red Alert series, although a spin-off, is widely regarded as the strongest sequence of games in the franchise, with Red Alert having a better unit balance and mission design than Tiberian Dawn and Red Alert 2 often being cited as the best individual game in the entire Command & Conquer canon. Red Alert 3 attracted significant criticism for its incredibly OTT tone, though, and its mission and unit design was considered disappointing following Command & Conquer 3. Red Alert 3’s mixed reception may have driven the decision to make Command & Conquer 4 a completely different style of game, further alienating fans.

The Generals Series

Command & Conquer: Generals (2003) is set in 2013 and depicts a more realistic world than either the Tiberian or Red Alert series. The story opens with a Middle Eastern terrorist organisation called the Global Liberation Army launching a surprise nuclear attack on Tiananmen Square in Beijing and attempting to trigger a global nuclear war between the United States and China. The game depicts attempts by both the USA and China to destroy the GLA, with them occasionally coming to blows as their forces are operating in the same territory. Eventually they succeed and the GLA is driven out of Asia and the Middle East altogether. C&C Generals is notable as being the first game in the franchise’s history to not have FMV briefings, and also the first to use a full 3D game engine.

The game’s expansion pack, Zero Hour (also 2003), sees the war renewed with the GLA regrouping in Europe. After a lengthy campaign, China invades Europe and destroys the GLA altogether, but refuses to leave, preferring to establish the “Eurasian Unity League” in Europe, hinting at a future conflict between the League and the United States.

The Generals series is the shortest in the franchise’s history, and was never really supposed to exist. Instead, the game started life as C&C3 but was repurposed in development to “cash in” on the War on Terror and the invasion of Iraq. On release, the game’s story was heavily criticised for sensationalising real-life events, including terrorist attacks on civilian targets and the use of units such as suicide bombers, although the move to full 3D was generally praised as being successful.

However, the game was redeemed by the release of Zero Hour, which added a huge amount of new content to the game (much of it meant to be in the original title but cut for time reasons), including specialist generals and the uncapped use of superweapons. It also dramatically adjusted the tone from the grim and serious nature of the original game to a more knowing and somewhat lighter tone. Particularly praised was a new showdown mode where each specialist general faced down each of the others in a conflict that had absolutely nothing to do with real life conflicts and was cheesier and more enjoyable as a result. As a result, Zero Hour arguably challenges Red Alert 2 for the title of best game in the entire C&C franchise.

The Command & Conquer series began as a spiritual successor to Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty (1992), the game that popularised the modern RTS genre.

Development History

Westwood Studios began life in the mid-1980s as a games development studio based in Las Vegas. They worked with SSI (Strategic Simulations, Inc.) on their late 1980s Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying games, which set them in good stead to create their own RPG series, the first two games in the well-received Eye of the Beholder trilogy (1991-92) and then using the same engine for their own IP, the Lands of Lore trilogy (1993-99). They also developed the Legend of Kyrandia trilogy (1992-94), an adventure game influenced by LucasArts and Sierra titles.

In the middle of this period they were offered the chance to work on the Dune IP. Virgin Interactive, who owned the video game rights, were developing an adventure/strategy hybrid with Cryo Interactive and wanted to expand the IP with another game in a different genre. The team at Virgin were inspired by a Sega Megadrive (Genesis in the US) game called Herzog Zwei (1989), which allowed players to control multiple units from a top-down perspective. They held a brainstorming session with Westwood where some of the staff proposed creating a fast-paced wargame which looked a bit like Civilization or SimCity, but where the action unfolded in real-time. The genre wasn’t completely new to Westwood, who’d worked on BattleTech: The Crescent Hawk’s Revenge (1990) which was notable as one of the first games that allowed players to order entire units into battle simultaneously. A key development of the new game was the mouse and keyboard interface, which allowed for much greater, more precise control than Herzog Zwei.

The game was developed relatively quickly, with an internal competition at Virgin to see if Cryo or Virgin could get their game out first. Cryo won the race and their game reached the market first as Dune in early 1992, with Westwood’s game released as Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty (the much punchier The Battle for Arrakis in Europe) just a few months later.

Dune II was the much-better received of the two games and attracted high review scores, as well as an energetic multiplayer scene. The game was showered with praise and sold a huge number of copies. The team at Westwood were pleased, although they also noted fan feedback that having to click on each unit and send it into battle individually was laborious. Having to tap a button (“Attack” or “Move”) and then a destination was also not particularly fun. For the Megadrive port in 1993, they added the ability to select several units at once and also a context-sensitive controller, so clicking on open land would cause the selected unit to move there and, on an enemy, would make them attack.

A small team at Westwood began developing a “spiritual sequel” to Dune II that would expand on the same ideas but in a new IP which they owned themselves. They also developed new ideas, such as using the “bandboxing” technique from the new generation of operating systems to select multiple units easily and quickly. With the advent of the CD-ROM format, they also decided to have elaborate mission briefings performed by actors, with fully-rendered CG cutscenes. Despite the game’s ambition, the budget was tight so they saved money by using some of the developers as actors for the cutscenes. Their dialogue and cutscene director, Joe Kucan, agreed to play the game’s villain, Kane. The writing of the game took on a contemporary feel, referencing locations in the news such as Sarajevo and Bosnia, and with the collapse of the Soviet Union the writers decided to make the enemy a global terrorist organisation.

Westwood were feeling confident about the new game, which they dubbed Command & Conquer, but they felt upstaged when another developer, Blizzard Interactive, beat them to market by ten months with their own real-time strategy game, WarCraft: Orcs and Humans, released in late 1994. Fortunately, although WarCraft picked up good reviews and modest sales, it failed to make a huge impact and lacked some of Command & Conquer’s innovations, such as bandbox selecting.
Command & Conquer was a huge success by both Westwood’s standards and the strategy genre overall, selling over a million copies in under a year (almost four times WarCraft’s sales). The developers had mapped out a storyline unfolding over three games, with the sequels to be called Tiberian Sun and Tiberian Twilight (with the first game retroactively named Tiberian Dawn, in a similar fashion to the rebranding of the original Star Wars as A New Hope), each featuring a new engine and substantial improvements to gameplay and design. However, the developers wanted to get a new game out quickly by repurposing their existing engine and decided to start work on a WWII-themed prequel. This evolved into Command & Conquer: Red Alert.

Red Alert was released in November 1996, just thirteen months after the original game, and won even greater critical acclaim and even bigger sales. Both Command & Conquer and Red Alert were also ported to the Sony PlayStation in 1996 and 1997, winning acclaim for the quality of the ports and bringing the strategy genre to the console space. In addition, Westwood ported Dune II to the new engine (complete with brand new FMV cutscenes), releasing it as an early example of a video game remake as Dune 2000 in 1999.

Development of Command & Conquer 2: Tiberian Sun (the “2” was later omitted to encourage more newcomers to the franchise to try out the game) began in 1997, but faced heavy delays. The company was acquired by Electronic Arts in 1998, with the resulting financial and business complexities slowing development down. In addition, there was considerable internal debate about whether to move to a new engine and if the company should be pursuing a 3D model. Eventually it was decided to stay in 2D but to use voxels (three-dimensional pixels) to represent units, for improved performance. They also decided to switch from a top-down to an isometric viewpoint. This “2.5D” approach felt fresh in 1997, but somewhat dated by the time the game was released in late 1999.

In addition, the RTS genre had developed with remarkable speed in the meantime. WarCraft II: Tides of Darkness had been released just a couple of months after Command & Conquer and won immense acclaim for featuring innovations beyond Westwood’s model (such as limited unit queuing, allowing multiple units to be built simultaneously and a heavier narrative focus, with “hero” units on the battlefield). Total Annihilation, released in September 1997 by Cavedog Entertainment, won even greater critical acclaim for its full 3D engine (albeit viewed from a fixed perspective), unique resource gathering system and its ability to render far larger armies than C&C could manage. The biggest success of the period was StarCraft, released in early 1998 by Blizzard. The game had begun as a space opera reskin of WarCraft, but had been redeveloped into a much more original game, also using an isometric viewpoint. The game featured fully-rendered CG cutscenes that were light-years beyond Westwood’s abilities and a truly compelling balance between three distinct factions that was very finely tuned. StarCraft went on to become the biggest-selling RTS game of all time, with almost 20 million copies sold to date and establishing a strong presence in South Korea, where the game became a staple of Internet cafes and multiplayer matches were even covered on sports channels.

Against this backdrop, Tiberian Sun arrived in late 1999 feeling very late to a party its own creators had started, not helped by a slower style of gameplay and an uninspired unit selection that dispensed with fan favourites from the first two games in favour of identikit robots. Despite a mixed critical reception and complaints that the game had failed to innovate compared to the competition, the game sold quite well, but failed to match the speed of success of the first two games in the series.
The developers decided to repeat the pattern from the original game, by using the same engine to develop Red Alert 2. Responding to the complaints of fans, Red Alert 2 hewed much closer to its forebear than Tiberian Sun had, with stronger focus on unit variety and side balance. The result was the best-received game of the series, with a lack of innovation largely forgiven for how playable and fun it was.

Westwood turned its attention to the future and began developing a 3D engine to use in the third and (at that time) final set of Command & Conquer games. Due to the sales success of Dune 2000, they decided to prototype the new engine in that franchise first, with the result being Emperor: Battle for Dune, released in early 2001. The game was moderately well-received, although the 3D engine was somewhat primitive compared to those seen in the likes of Homeworld (1999) and Ground Control (2000).

During the development of Red Alert 2, a new studio called Westwood Pacific had been opened in Los Angeles. Westwood Pacific had undertaken the bulk of development on Red Alert 2 and, after the shipping of the Yuri’s Revenge expansion, used the Emperor engine to begin development on the third C&C game in the Tiberian universe. Westwood Las Vegas wanted to lead development on this game, but had been side-tracked into working on the FPS Command & Conquer: Renegade (released in 2002 to indifference) and the MMORPG Earth and Beyond (2002), which had an expensive development process.

Due to overrunning cost issues and the distinct failure of Earth and Beyond to make much impact on the MMORPG scene, EA decided to shutter Westwood Las Vegas in January 2003. Some of the team transferred to EA Pacific, whilst others formed a new company, Petroglyph, and secured a licence to work on a Star Wars RTS (which became Empire at War).

Early during the development of Command & Conquer 3, EA decided to redirect it from being a Tiberian game to focusing on contemporary issues, such as the War on Terror and the impending invasion of Iraq. This resulted in Command & Conquer: Generals and its expansion Zero Hour. Despite distaste in some quarters for the exploitative subject matter, the game was highly playable and praised for being a more convincing move into 3D than Emperor had been.

EA Pacific rebranded as EA Los Angeles, a much larger studio with multiple games in different genres in development. An FPS team worked on additions to the Medal of Honor franchise whilst the RTS team developed both the Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle-earth franchise and further Command & Conquer games. This resulted in Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars in 2007 and Red Alert 3 in 2008. Both were well-received, especially given that the RTS genre had fallen out of favour in recent years and the games were relatively rare releases in the field.

Unfortunately, the RTS genre had been dealt a serious blow by the advent of the MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena) genre in 2003 with Defense of the Ancients (DotA). A heavily-modified map from WarCraft III, DotA concentrated the gameplay loop into a much smaller amount of territory with a more focused objective. The changes to the genre most notable reduced the focus to a single field of engagement, unlike an RTS where large and small battles might be happening simultaneously across a much larger map. This change was important to improve the viability of MOBAs as a spectator sport, making the action easier to follow.

The huge success of MOBAs had led to games developers chasing that success, in particular choosing to embrace more MOBA-like elements in their RTS series. Relic Entertainment decided to incorporate strong MOBA-like gameplay in Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II (2009), abandoning the game’s RTS roots. Although it wasn’t quite to the same degree, EA also mandated a major change to Command & Conquer 4, particularly abandoning the base-building element altogether in favour of having single mobile command centres which built all of the units themselves. This move was received hugely negatively by fans when it was confirmed, with many fans organising boycotts of the game until base building was re-implemented. In the event it was not.

On release, Command & Conquer 4 (2010) faced the equivalent of a critical drubbing (meaning it got 6 and 7s out of 10s rather than the 9s to 10s the franchise had once almost automatically commanded) for its move away from the classic gameplay style and the overwhelming focus on multiplayer. The decision to “chase the unicorn” of getting lots of new players interested in a 15-year-old franchise at the expense of the millions of existing fans was very heavily criticised, and in fact was shown to be hugely mistaken when StarCraft II, with its very strong retro feel and heavy base-building focus, launched just three months later and was an enormous mega-hit.

The fate of the Command & Conquer series was unclear at this stage, but behind the scenes EA decided to move forward with a new game. With EA Los Angeles winding down, Victory Studios was selected to begin development of a new game which would become Command & Conquer: Generals 2, a direct follow-up to the 2003 game. Generals 2 returned the focus to base-building with a singleplayer campaign and robust multiplayer model. The game was a sequel to Generals but also had a general opening which did not require foreknowledge of the first game. It also used the Frostbite 3 Engine, to give it a visual sheen unmatched by other games in the genre. However, EA seemed to be in some internal dissent over the nature of the game and in August 2012 renamed it just as Command & Conquer (part of a highly annoying trend of giving new games the exact same title as earlier, already-existing games) and manded it drop the single-player component altogether. Instead, it was to be a free-to-play, multiplayer-only game.

Somewhat mercifully, the game was put of its (and prospective players’) misery and cancelled in October 2013. EA did briefly explore moving the game to a new studio in 2014 but could not find a suitable home.

The franchise appeared to be dead in the water, along possibly with the entire real-time strategy genre (even the mega-selling StarCraft II seemed to run out of steam before the release of its second expansion in 2015). Apart from a risible mobile game in 2018 (Command & Conquer: Rivals), the franchise seemed to be no more.

Or so it seemed. In August 2017, Blizzard Entertainment released StarCraft Remastered, a revamped version of the original game which maintained the original gameplay but hugely improved the graphics and UI. A year later, Electronic Arts announced Command & Conquer: The Remastered Collection, which would update and revamp both Tiberian Dawn and Red Alert. Fans were initially highly sceptical, until it was confirmed that the majority of the development team from the original titles had been reunited to work on the project. The game was released in June 2020 to widespread critical acclaim, with the original games updated with surprising skill and finesse to modern standards whilst also retaining the original core gameplay. The remaster also used advanced AI techniques to upscale the original video FMV, revamped all of the music and integrated the console-only missions and FMV into the main game experience for the first time for PC gamers. It went above and beyond the expectations of fans.

The Future

Just a couple of years ago, it looked like Command & Conquer was dead forever, but the success of C&C Remastered has changed that. Given the success of the package, hopefully a second remastered collection will follow, including Tiberian Sun and the best game in the series, Red Alert 2. A new game would also be nice, although it’s unclear what form that might take. C&C4 wrapped up the Tiberian story arc pretty conclusively, but it did leave some room for a sequel and developers might want to still make use of Joe Kucan whilst he still looks convincingly like the Kane of the original game. Generals 2 was in the planning stages at one time and still seems the ripest of the sub-series for further expansion, although at this point a sequel to the most obscure game in the main series might feel like a bit of a stretch. Red Alert 3 took that series as far as it could go in self-referential humour, but there might be a way of making a Red Alert 4 that made sense.

Perhaps more likely is a new sub-series, such as a Command & Conquer set during the actual Second World War, or a wholly new take on contemporary warfare. Somewhat less likely, unfortunately, is a revisiting of the Dune franchise; Funcom picked up the video game rights a few years ago and don’t seem as interested in a revamp of the original games. What is clear is that for the first time in a decade, there is some hope that a new Command & Conquer game is possible, and hopefully one that does better for the series than C&C4. The future is hopeful, commander.

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