Review: Whirlwind

Whirlwind

The 56th book in the Kirov series and the conclusion of its third World War III arc is Whirlwind. By this point, the same issues present in any other installment are there. The prose is what it is, and the “time travel soap opera mixed with wargame AARs” is familiar as well. A large chunk of this book doesn’t even pretend to be a conventional narrative and just recaps the war in detail.

While this (supposedly) second-to-last arc in the series doesn’t just nuke everything and overwrite the timeline like its predecessor, it leaves an uncomfortable feeling. The talk about how weapons and doctrine in-universe evolved gave me the impression that Schettler would pull the football yet again and have yet another four-books-too-long wargame sim. Especially because the main ship plot does have a lot of genuine promise.

The concept of the titular ship’s crew going back in time to stop delightful supervillain Ivan Volkov from destroying the timeline is a great one, and I know very well that you could merge such a plot with wargame scenarios. But even my patience is wearing down with the formula. The circle could be squared if the ship and its crew got a good final conclusion while allowing the toy box lets plays to continue, but I’m not really confident in that happening.

Review: The Rules of The Game

The Rules of The Game: Jutland And British Naval Command

In the seventh game of the 2001 World Series, Mariano Rivera faced Tony Womack, giving up a game-tying hit and setting the stage for Luis Gonzalez to win the series for the Diamondbacks. In that plate appearance, Womack triumphed. In the rest of their careers, it was quite potentially the greatest relief pitcher ever (Rivera) against a poor hitter whose sole virtue was speed in baserunning (Womack). A sample size of one doesn’t lead to good results.

Unfortunately, this is what Andrew Gordon tries to do in The Rules Of The Game: Jutland and British Naval Command, a history epic that is equal parts awe-inspiring and frustrating. When younger, I hung on this book’s every word. Now, it comes across highly erratic. See, the writing quality is still amazing. The research and attention to detail is excellent as well. In terms of historiography, Gordon stands out.

It’s just a shame that in terms of slant, he stands out as well.

Gordon is one of the few historians who stands with David Beatty over John Jellicoe, and his defense is weird. In the actual book, Gordon points out Beatty’s flaws -he put the slower but most-armored Queen Elizabeth battleships in the back of his formation, he didn’t coordinate more, he was a ‘difficult’, arrogant person that nobody liked, and so on. And yet he still supports the BCF commander on “his heart was in the right place” grounds. You know, he was scrappy, and he had that clutch spirit.

With a bias towards a decisive victory that never truly needed to happen, the book comes across as not what it could have been. Gordon takes that sample size of one (hey, remember the time a relief pitcher with only two career plate appearances managed a double off of Randy Johnson? The time Muggsy Bogues blocked a shot from Patrick Ewing?) and seems to just miss the forest for the trees-or if he doesn’t, he barely dwells on it.

This book is still a huge accomplishment and one very much worth reading. It just needs to be understood that it’s not exactly the most neutral in tone.

New Command Scenario For Testing

It’s been a while, but I have a new Command: Modern Operations scenario up for testing, 2KW Sub Strike.

I’ve wanted to do a scenario set in a mid-70s Second Korean War where the north smells an opportunity in the immediate aftermath of Vietnam. After much thought, I settled on “do a submarine scenario”, which also plays to one of my favorite strengths of having the player be objectively outmatched and having to manage the best they can.

With a few diesel subs, you have to take on an aircraft carrier shielded by, among others, a hypothetical guided missile battleship and a brand-new Spruance destroyer. Are you up for it?

Review: Holy Ground

Holy Ground

As readers of this blog undoubtedly know, I’ve dipped pretty deep into the small field known as [mostly] conventional World War III fiction. So when I saw an actual new release of one, Evan Currie’s Holy Ground, I felt obligated to check it out. The book is a prequel to an extensive science fiction series, and it shows. It centers around the defense of the island of Iwo Jima, on land, sea, and air.

Honestly, the setting image that came to my mind was “Command and Conquer Generals”. Not in the exact form or in it being an exact ripoff of that game-it definitely is not. But in the general (no pun intended) sense of a combination of sci-fi technology and stuff that’s visible in the obvious headlines/popular culture. Despite nominally taking place several decades in the future, there’s a lot of contemporary fighter aircraft designations. There’s also a lot of “cinematic” stuff, like missile-age aircraft using guns far more often than they realistically should.

Because of these limitations, it doesn’t succeed in being a technothriller. At the same time it’s too comparably grounded to be a Wingman-style pulpy thriller. And even judged purely on its own terms, the action isn’t the best. I want to emphasize it’s not the worst either, but I’ve definitely read better. For me it was a little fascinating to see what a technothriller in the style of a popular science fiction book looked like, but that can’t raise the novel above average on its own.

A Thousand Words: High Seas Havoc

High Seas Havoc

Data East’s High Seas Havoc is one of the many 1990s mascot platformers. In fact, it was so generic at first glance that when I saw footage of it and wanted to look further, it took some effort to do so. Still, looking at it closely shows some interesting things and some that are very well-done.

The title character, a sailor seal (no, not that kind) has to save the damsel in distress and Macguffin Gem from an evil pirate lord. The opening part is a sort of semi-soft attempt to sort of, maybe a little, come close to Sonic. There’s slopes but not really any mechanics to take advantage of them. The base mechanics are a lot different too-most notably, you have a refillable health bar instead of anything like rings. Then the game gives up on that and goes back to being a completely traditional platformer. It also becomes a lot harder.

Though janky (the main character really needed to be able to use the sword he was shown as having in the box art instead of relying on an iffy flying kick) and having all the issues of a “B-list” game, this is never outright bad. Certainly it’s not a rushed absolute low-effort game like too many other trend-following platformers of this time. And this especially shows in the music. Emi Shimizu’s soundtrack is one of the most underappreciated ever, with my favorite track being “Cold Paradise“.

The level that song plays on, Frozen Palace, is also something to behold. It’s a variant on the typical “mechanical works” level, albeit with freezers and water instead of the usual molten metal. Combined with hovering meditating dogs (yes, really) as some of the enemies, it’s definitely the most unique stage in this game. The rest is more generic, but the graphics are still well done for the time.

There is some undeniable “inspiration” from Sonic and the game is in the same basic field, but it’s different enough thematically and gameplay-wise to not be considered a mere lazy ripoff. Probably the biggest issue besides “cartoon animals” is the gem Macguffin, and that’s small. And did I mention the soundtrack is amazing?

Review: Breakout

Breakout

It’s kind of hard to take a look at individual entries in the Kirov series once its formula gets going, but if I had to choose one, I’d say Breakout. At the very least, it’s emblematic of the series. The Allies in this timeline have launched an amphibious invasion France from the south instead of from the north like they did historically. My fear when I first encountered the Kirov series was that it just would be stuff like that, or even more minor ones like “oh, well there were two Tiger battalions at ______ instead of the historical one?”

Instead, we get, in this book alone, timeshifted nuclear warheads, nuclear warheads developed with future technology by Volkov, airships, more airships, a timeshifted modern Bundeswehr brigade that inexplicably fights for the Axis because the author wanted to wargame it, and of course the adventures of the ship itself and its crew. There are reasons why, in spite of the pacing on display here, that I really enjoy this series. And Breakout has all of them.

Review: Battle of the Three Seas

World War 1990: Battle of The Three Seas

It’s time to return to William Stroock, an author who I’ve previously slammed as the worst World War III writer ever. Has this been fair? And has his new Battle of the Three Seas improved on his previous entries?

For the first question, it’s a weird answer. It’s like talking about the New York Knicks or Jets. They’re still pro-level teams, and even a “bad” pro player is still among the greatest in the world. Being the 32nd-best team in the world is still an accomplishment. Similiarly, to write a long novel at all in a niche genre is a talent many don’t have, and Stroock has still gotten more basics right in the field than non-specialized authors have. (Research on military equipment, especially above small arms, is something frequently in very, very short supply). So yes, it has been unfair to simply denounce in fire-breathing terms.

Yet it’s still fair to consider the Knicks and Jets not the 32nd-best teams in the world, but the worst compared to their colleagues. They’re still bad by those (incredibly high) standards. And they’re not going against college/international teams-you judge them by who they’re up against. So, with a heavier heart, I still have to say that Stroock is one of the worse World War III specialist writers, and while this book has improved somewhat compared to the earlier ones, it’s not enough to shift the rankings that much.

The book is less one-sided in absolute terms than some of his previous books. It’s undeniably improved in prose quality. But it still has a jumbled structure with way too many viewpoint changes for its own good and writing that’s still too flat to really work. There are still bizarre subplots that don’t really add anything.

It’s ultimately just still too hard to find something in this book, or Stroock’s series as a whole, that does what another “conventional World War III” book doesn’t do better, be it characterization, tone, or technical plausibility. It might be better than a historical “sports nadir” team. But it’s still, in a now-obsolete baseball term, very much a “second-division” series.

Review: Dance of the Vampires

Dance of the Vampires

The ebook Dance of the Vampires is a behind-the-scenes look at the wargaming Larry Bond used for what would become Red Storm Rising. It’s fascinating to see how this battle was conducted. For someone who’s worked on Command, seeing this comparably ancient system is like looking at one of Naismith’s original basketball games.

Most of the book is composed of after action reports and figures detailing the games. Besides the ones that play out similarly to the actual book, there’s a short summary of the “Keflavik Turkey Shoot”, a scenario where the Soviets attempted to force the GIUK Gap with heavy bombers and got crushed (despite legitimately clever play on their side). This was what required them to take Iceland in Red Storm Rising proper. The smaller-than-I-thought presence of that country in World War III fiction started here.

This is in many ways a book about struggles, because they were on unfamiliar ground, and not just about rivet-counting specifics. When something like this hadn’t been done in this way before, there’s bound to be issues. And there were. But the results were still impressive, and so is this chronicle of the wargames. For those interested in this kind of history, I can recommend this book.

Review: Jericho

Jericho

The 55th book in the Kirov series and most recent as of this post, Jericho is a victim of the series’ structure. In it, the third World War III in the series rages on, as wargame lets plays naval fighting rages off the coast of East Asia. There amphibious landings and tense reinforcement missions. There are also big naval battles where tons of offensive missiles are fired and tons of defensive missiles are fired.

The problem is there were six books in this arc before of big modern naval battles where tons of missiles are fired. And then there was an eight-book arc before this one with plenty of naval battles where tons of missiles were fired. You see the issue here?

Even with keeping the “huge set of wargame lets plays” structure, there’s a lot that could be trimmed. The novelty of a toy box with unique force structures is bound to wear off after several books of seeing that in action again and again. It happened in the previous arcs, and despite this (deliberately) being more out-there than the earlier World War III, by now I’m used to seeing the platforms, formations, and paper-thin Steel Panthers Characters crewing them. The actual simulations could still happen while not going into detail on the least important and/or dramatic of them. One can novelize a game without detailing every single encounter.

As for the central characters, well, they’re not very significant here. Part of this is just that the series is getting ready for the next big arc (insisted yet again to be the final one in the series), but there just aren’t that many words devoted to them in this novel. They’re just there to crew ships like the other to-be-erased cutouts.

This feels like a sports game late in the regular season where nothing is really at stake for either side and there’s no traditional rivalry to spice things up. Yes it’s sports/a Kirov book with wargame battles and jumping plotlines in it, but the feeling of being something greater just isn’t there. It’s understandable given the structure, but that doesn’t change the lackluster quality of the specific novel/game.

Review: The Sixth Battle

The Sixth Battle

Barrett Tillman’s The Sixth Battle is an interesting book. The 1992 novel of a gigantic combined battle over South Africa can either be considered the last Cold War “big war thriller” or the first post-USSR one. Because of its timing, the plot has to be kind of, er, forced a little, but that’s a small issue.

When I started reading the book, my thoughts turned to Red Phoenix. The similarities are there in that both are big picture thrillers that need to have a certain type of structure (most notably a lot of viewpoint characters and a setup period) to get that wide view across to the reader. For me personally, the perils of this is that since I already know a lot of what the authors are trying to communicate to a less knowledgeable audience, I see more of the downsides to this approach than the upsides.

However, I can also see-and appreciate-how rare a book like this is. “Big war thrillers” with this level of detail and knowledge behind them are and were very hard to come by. The Sixth Battle goes for a distinct setup, thinks it through, and competently executes the action in an evenhanded way.

Taking my biases into account and trying to adjust for them, I still recommend this book. It does feel a little clunkier than the best “big war thrillers”, but it’s never unreadably so. And it offers an all-too-uncommon experience that’s rarely duplicated elsewhere.