Monolith Productions have reached a milestone that not many video game development companies can boast of, celebrating 25 years in the industry this October. As a tribute to their longevity, and the games that they have produced over the years, I’d like to present a little look back at their history.
Coming together in October 1994, the company was formed by Brian Goble, Garrett Price, Paul Renault, Toby Gladwell, Brian Waite and Jace Hall. When they were formed, I was a fresh faced young man of 21 (and you have no idea how old it makes me feel to type that!), and the dominant operating system that was around at the time was DOS, believe it or not. For our younger readers, DOS was a command line based interface that had many rules, one of which was that no file name could be more than 8 letters long. As you can imagine, when you are trying to get a company off the ground, trying to find a suitable name for your venture is probably one of the hardest things to do, and with the constraints of the OS at the time, it was made harder. As co-founder Brian Goble said at the time… “we knew we had to come up with a name that was 8 characters or less (for 8.3 filenames). We had been researching story and technology ideas for our demo CD and we were watching a lot of movies. “Monolith” came up, was semi mysterious, wasn’t taken, and was 8 characters. Perfect!”.
So, with the name established, it was time to start cranking out the games! I imagine that’s how it worked, anyway. Their first game, released on the DOS platform was a title named Maabus, developed by a the Canadian studio of Microforum International; I have to be honest, in those days I was a console man, as I am now, so completely missed this game. Looking at reviews from the time, it wasn’t terribly well received, so maybe it’s for the best that we brush that one under the rug.
Their first big hit was Blood, an early FPS that built on the success of DOOM and Duke Nukem 3D to become one of the more successful first person shooters that were around at the time. Now, again, being a DOS only game I’ve not actually played this title, but the Metacritic reviews are pretty good, and in a 2015 retrospective, Blood was described as “one of the most underrated shooters of the whole decade. Blood arguably built more on the legacy of Duke Nukem 3D than Shadow Warrior did, taking its gameplay to sophisticated new heights and offering its referential overtones with an even greater degree of refinement”, which is pretty generous praise for a game that at the time was 21 years old!
Looking at their back catalogue, it appears that Monolith had decided they were quite good at these FPS experiences, so they kept on doing what they were used to, apart from to create odd games like Gruntz. Gruntz was a puzzle/strategy game where the object was to get a Gruntz, a goblin type creature, past enemies and into a warpstone. A number of RPGs were released by the studio in this time period, but not any that I’ve heard of, to be brutally honest. However as we move into the brave new century, and after all the Y2K nonsense had died down, I was finally able to get my hands on one of Monolith’s most praised titles, one that has gone on to be one of their most famous. I’m talking of course about the The Operative: No-one Lives Forever (NOLF), a 60’s styled FPS with stealth overtones, that offered a different way to approach levels than going all out, with a guns blazing assault. Released first on PC in 2000, NOLF came to PS2 in 2002, and it was here that I was able to play. With the whole 1960s vibe and with a female protagonist, it was a real change from the DOOM or Duke Nukem style games that I had been playing up until this point, and with multiple ways to achieve the level goals, it opened my eyes to the world of stealth. Best of all, the PS2 version came with three unique levels set in Cate’s past, when she was a cat burglar, playing things out as flashbacks. The humour that was present was also a plus for me, as up until that point FPS games had been serious business! A sequel to NOLF was released, but sadly that stayed only on the PC/Mac platforms.
In the year 2004, change came to Monolith, when they were acquired by Warner Brothers Entertainment. With their take over, WB seemed to put more emphasis on the burgeoning console market, and with a purchase of an Xbox 360, I was able to play a lot of their new games. The one that sticks in my mind most was F.E.A.R., a game that managed to blend FPS shooting action with a strong horror story, and I have to admit to still having nightmares about Alma to this day! With a look that was straight out of Japanese horror flicks, particularly that of The Ring, seeing her pop in levels was a memorable moment, and with strong FPS action to back up the subject matter, this is still – to this day – one of my favourite FPS shooters from that era.
It was from here where Monolith then went from strength to strength, with games like Condemned: Criminal Origins, Condemned 2: Bloodshot and F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin building on the strong narrative tradition, tying in horror strands and making great games out of the resulting weave. I still remember creeping around in the dark, waiting for a manikin to suddenly come to life and attack in Condemned 2, and the way that these games made you more scared by what didn’t happen, rather than by showing graphic violence all the time, was truly remarkable. For a large part, I think this is where my love of story driven games has come from, so I’d like to personally thank Monolith for that.
In 2014, Monolith became involved with the Lord of the Rings franchise, after their previous foray into the Tolkien Universe, a “multiplayer online battle arena” game called Guardians of Middle Earth. Despite being released for PS3 and Xbox 360, this game sadly passed me by. However, their next two Lord of the Rings experiences certainly didn’t, and they still stand as masterpieces to this day. Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor blew me away when I first played, with beautiful graphics, flowing combat and best of all, a fantastic story of revenge and double crosses. Set between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings books, the Nemesis system was introduced, which made every playthrough slightly different. When an Uruk managed to kill or even just survive an encounter with Talion, our character, they are promoted to Captain, and become stronger. Taking them down at this point would weaken Sauron’s army, and so there is a delicate balancing act to be struck, as if they defeat Talion again, they grow even stronger, and so on. Having powerful Captains breathing down your neck makes the game pretty tricky! With a flowing combat style that reminds of the Batman Arkham games, except with swords, the game played as well as it looked, and I spent a lot of time with this title and the DLC.
In 2017 Monolith followed this game up with Middle Earth: Shadow of War, which dropped Talion back into the universe and tasked him with once again saving the day. I played this to death as well, but it felt less pure than the first game to me, with loot boxes and micro transactions creeping their way in. I’m not a fan of the way that the series was seeming to be going, and while you could play without opening loot boxes, it did seem a small element of “Pay to win” was introduced. Hopefully future games will get back to the story driven adventure that I for one crave!
So, in conclusion, I’d like to wish Monolith Productions a very happy 25th birthday, and thank them for the fun they have brought over the years. But how about you guys? Do you have fond memories of Monolith’s titles? Did Alma scare you so much you almost needed new pants? Let me know in the comments!