Review: On The Path of Songun

The Armed Forces of North Korea: On The Path of Songun

It’s been a while since I read a really, really good military nonfiction reference. Thankfully, Stijn Mitzer and Joost Olieman’s The Armed Forces Of North Korea: On The Path Of Songun takes the cake. The product of the same people behind the legendary Oryx Blog of military intelligence, this took a while to finally get going. Thankfully, it’s well, well, well worth the effort.

So why is it so good? Well, for a start, it’s incredibly well researched, written, and photographed. It’s not an OPFOR manual or a ridiculously broad order of battle chart. What it does do is go into legitimate detail and depth about the KPA and its rise, fall, and rise. What made me absolutely fall in love with this was how this is the rare military book that doesn’t fall into either extreme of “unstoppable or helpless”. When I saw the self-proclaimed intent to the debunk the notion that the KPA wasn’t/isn’t a threat, I feared it would go too far in the opposite direction.

That was not the case. I was treated to a very evenhanded look that amounts to “Yes, there’s modernization, yes there’s legitimately advanced indigenous developments, but as of now it’s limited and foreign support is undoubtedly there” and doesn’t hesitate to point out their shortcomings and material issues. The authors are even good at pointing out what they can verify and what they can’t, a must for dealing with a country as secretive as North Korea.

For enthusiasts, general audiences, wargamers, and anyone, really, this is a great book that I highly recommend.

Review: Morning Noon And Night

Morning, Noon, and Night

Sidney Sheldon’s Morning, Noon, and Night is one of his later books, beginning with a ruthless billionaire falling into the sea off of his yacht and dealing with the subsequent power struggle. It is also one of his worst. How so? First, the obvious needs to be stated. Like every single other one of Sheldon’s books, it’s “gilded sleaze” with simple, easy prose. However, this takes things in different directions. And they’re not good directions.

The prose seemed even more bare-bones than the norm for the author, going from a strength to a weakness. More importantly, the book tried to be an outright thriller at times instead of a “pop epic” chronicling a tawdry saga of wealth and romance. Sheldon’s writing style just isn’t suited for pure thrillers, and this exaggerated version of it was even worse.

Also, the stakes seemed petty (with the wealth of its centerpiece character told more by telling than showing), and the plot was confused with a lot of loose threads and super-quick wrap ups. Sheldon has written a lot better, so I don’t recommend this book.

Review: Third World War: The Untold Story

Third World War: The Untold Story

It’s very hard for lightning to strike twice. And in Third World War: The Untold Story, John Hackett tried. He did not really succeed. The problem was that much of the appeal of the original came from being the first out of the gate, whereas by 1982 the zeitgeist had clearly shifted. (An obscure and amusing example comes from the line “World War III is drawing near” in the XTC song Generals and Majors, released in 1980).

While possibly unfair to list the earliest instance of a genre as not having held up well over time, I do believe that Hackett’s work has aged the worst of all the few “big-name” conventional WW3 books. It’s earliest, and it’s clearly meant as an explicit lobbying document in a way that the (still-slanted) other works of that nature did not. And this applies far more to a modestly repackaged version released four years after the original. Because that’s what it is.

This is the book equivalent of one of those “remastered special edition” movie DVD releases. There’s a reason why those, even if the underlying film is sound, do not generate nearly as much enthusiasm as the first, novel release.

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.