Sean O'Connor has spent the last fifteen years making the PC strategy games Sean O'Connor wants to make. For GBP 26 he will sell you the fruits of his labour - a bundle of nine different titles that play a whole lot better than they look.
Firefight is one of the prettier offerings in the compendium. A real-time WW2 wargame with a surprisingly authentic feel, it uses a random-map generator to create its gaudy tracts of French farmland, North African desert, Pacific jungle and Russian steppe (no urban warfare sadly). Each skirmish or campaign episode begins with requisitioning. Pick the biggest tanks you can afford, grab a few infantry squads, maybe the odd mortar, or bazooka team, then deploy. Harsh spotting rules ensure the first few minutes of battle are always nail-biting. Sending troops and armour through deserted valleys and villages, you wait for the inevitable crackle of small-arms fire, or worse, the bark of a hidden AT gun. Contact! Sprite soldiers automatically hit the dirt, run for cover, or start returning fire. Vehicles reverse hastily through hedgerows. You call in an artillery barrage, begin a flanking manoeuvre while trying to pull back pinned-down men. Before you know it you're studying the detailed post-scrap stats and wondering where the evening went.
Critical Mass, a sci-fi shoot-'em-up chopped into frantic two-second segments, can be just as engrossing. As in Firefight, randomly generated campaign missions commence with unit shopping. Here it's agile fighters, lumbering bombers, far-sighted scouts and hybrid vessels of your own devising (there's a ship editor included) vying for your attention. Only one craft in the squadron - the flagship - is directly controlled. You manoeuvre it by adjusting a trajectory arrow at the start of each turn. Bend the arrow to change direction, lengthen or shorten it to alter speed. Jab weapon icons to authorise missile launches. It's slightly fiddly, but usually you're too absorbed to care. Too absorbed because this is another anecdote factory; the more sorties you fly, the more stories you amass. 'Did I tell you about the time I smoked a factory-fresh Super Watcher with a single Daycorn, or shook off three Geenee missiles by flying backwards through an asteroid field?' Fluke shots, friendly fire, collisions, eleventh-hour ejections...the swirling dogfights have got it all. It's just a shame they aren't nicer to look at. CM with Kenta Cho graphics? Now that would be really something.
Slay is hexagonal hypnotism, a skeletal wargame so perfectly honed it feels ancient. Maps, randomly generated or pre-built, start-out as a mess of tiny territories distributed between 2-6 players. By building and moving four kinds of unit (peasants, spearmen, knights and barons) you expand your lands, endeavouring to link them up, strangling enclaves in the process. It's a very satisfying business, cerebral thanks to luck-free combat, a subtle economic layer, and some fine AI programming, but not so demanding you can't face it after a beer or a hard day. One of my favourites.
Less original but almost as moreish is The General, Sean's interpretation of brilliant board game Stratego. Never played it? You should. It's like chess spliced with Minesweeper and Guess Who. Bearing in mind how important subterfuge and bluffing are in the original game, the silicon opponents provided (there are eight, each with a slightly different approach and skill level) are remarkably sharp. Just in case you do eventually weary of Bruno, Pamela and chums, this is one of the four titles in the pack with multiplayer (the others being Slay, Football-o-saurus and Conquest).
Everybody should have at least one Risk clone tucked away on their hard drive. This one - Conquest - is the best I've come across. An able AI, and a good choice of custom maps and rule options, make conquering a pleasure whether you're warring in Europe, Hyboria, or a giant outline of Snoopy. Encouraging stealthy work-place imperialism, the game starts and shuts-down instantaneously, automatically saving and loading any games in progress (Slay and The General do the same). Convenient.
I realise I'm covering the games in rough order of personal preference. This means Niggle deserves to be next. A digital version of a card game the O'Connors play at Christmas, it doesn't sound great on paper. Don't be put off. This is fun; it's certainly superior to all those joyless poker variants that masquerade as entertainment. An easy-to-learn trick-taking game, its hook is that each of the each players attempt to predict the number of tricks they're going to win. Trying to match your prediction - thus scoring maximum points - means you're frequently trying to lose tricks rather than win them. Surprisingly tactical, Niggle is another pleasant way to liven up a limp lunch hour.
Football-o-saurus - Sensible Rugby with thunder lizards, forward passes, and no kicking - is the closest thing to an arcade game in the pack. Mechanics are simple but effective: steer your dino around the field hoping to attract a pass or clatter slow and sloppy opponents. In possession it's all about getting the pigskin out to promisingly positioned team-mates as rapidly as possible, then running into space. Dither and you'll be dispossessed. Tactics are limited to picking one of half-a-dozen formations before a match. Would I pay GBP 13 - the standalone price for a Sean O'Connor game - for it? No, but it's balanced and fluid enough to draw me back now and again. One day Tarpit Athletic will make it into the first division.
Mother Of All Battles is a homage to Empire, one of the very first PC wargames. Imagine Civ without economics, culture or diplomacy and you're pretty much there. Seize cities, and then use them to produce the military hardware necessary to take further cities. Random maps and canny silicon adversaries ensure interesting games, but the experience seems cold and colourless in comparison with Sid's masterpiece.
Last and least there's the controversial End of Atlantis. This solid port of the board game Escape From Atlantis had a sci-fi makeover after complaints from the copyright holder. The switched setting doesn't do it any favours, but, like all the games here, it will snare you given half a chance.
Yes, you can criticise Sean for his amateurish artistic skills, or his lack of adventurousness (how about a few more original designs?) but it's impossible to deny the magnetic allure of the games he produces. Even if you only get serious mileage out of two or three titles in this bundle, you're still getting a bargain.
8 / 10