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.