Elite Dangerous

It was getting late, and I was running behind schedule trying to carry well-paying tourists back to their destination. While they partied in the back of the limo, drinking and having a great time, I was stuck in the driver’s seat trying to navigate a strange route through increasingly perilous territory. With my eyes glued to the clock and my foot on the gas, I was already doubting my latest career choice, and this was only my second trip. Fighting the growing urge to dump my passengers in the middle of nowhere and scream off into the night, I took a deep breath, and pressed the accelerator forward.

It was right about then that I dropped out of hyperdrive smack dab in the middle of the gravity well of a massive star, and immediately things went to shit. Ah, the joys of a space limo driver…

Alarms rang in my ears as the controls in my brand-new Saud-Kruger Dolphin started smoking. The ship’s computer gently alerted me to a catastrophic temperature exposure. Suddenly everything stopped, and we were drifting.

Floating in space, with my cockpit panels shorting out and my temperature gauge through the roof, I glanced over at the cabin camera to check on my passengers, convinced that they were all cooked by radiation in their plush seats.

Still partying… Thank god for a decent shield generator.

As my shiny new Dolphin (now nicknamed Space Limo of Love, FYI) was relatively and slowly pulled toward a massive purple ball of gas, fire, and death, these guys are blasting music and falling over each other playing Twister.

“Anyone know how to find the escape vector from a purple giant star?” I yell over my shoulder, knowing well that they can’t hear me. A few calculations and a frantic discussion with the ship’s computer later, and we were burning away from the ball of death at speed.

Luckily for me, These guys didn’t even notice that they’d nearly died tonight, and tipped well.

My morning was much better. Less alcohol and near-total-annihilation, more relaxing and listening to some music while dodging gankers. The Space Limo of Love is fast. I mean, real fast. I had the techs put in a new power unit and upgraded the scanner so I can handle some tougher sightseeing trips.

In the meantime I ferried a cushy trip one system away that paid out over a million credits, so yeah it was a great morning. It wasn’t until midday when I picked up a few passengers headed to a nearby system that I ran into trouble again. It started fine, until I hit the jump button too soon and overheated, knocking us out of Supercruise and into the well of another star. It seems like this might continue to be an issue, so I might have to have a new shield put on.

The Star was easy since escape vectors are an old hag now, but not until I swung the boat around and saw our destination a good 30 minutes out from the jump point… I about shit. I was cursing the “damn bay full of prisoners” up one side of the galaxy and down the other, and hoping that if I kept leaning on the stick I could somehow will the Space Limo of Love (SLoL?) to travel faster than physically possible.

So lesson learned, check the distance on the next contract to make sure I won’t be stuck humming ancient Glen Hansard tunes and reading the same diagnostic menus over and over with a ship full of prisoners.

Funny thing happened when we finally arrived, I noticed that the prisoners were actually Aid Workers I’d just delivered to a war zone.

No wonder the payout was so low! Fucking charity right?!

So far I’ve played about 20 hours of Frontier Games’ massive online game Elite Dangerous, and already I’m lost in my space-geek imagination. After five years of Eve Online and a decade or two of X3: games, Elite is exactly the next best step in space sims.

Sporting a 1:1 scale map of the Milky Way Galaxy to explore, Elite Dangerous is an ambitious project. I blew my 11 year-old son’s mind today when I showed him the game map. I zoomed all the way out to see the swirling arms of the galaxy, then slowly zoomed back in and focused on just a few of the passing dots of light. When he finally understood that every single one of those dots contained a solar system like ours with planets and moons and a sun or two, he lost it, exclaiming that there is no point to our existence before returning to Minecraft.

Unlike most conventional video games, Elite doesn’t have levels or bosses, and in that sense is a lot like Eve Online, in what amounts to a strictly player-driven experience. When the game starts you are dropped in a space station in the middle of nowhere with $1000 credits to spend, a base-model Sidewinder, and the clothes on your back. It’s up to you to make your own fun in a the biggest sandbox I’ve ever played in.

The only game that comes close in scale is No Man’s Sky, which loses some the grandeur in its procedurally-generated, cartoonish landscapes and repetitive exploration. No Man’s Sky is to GTA III like Elite Dangerous is to GTA V. It’s bigger, it’s meaner, it’s less pixelated, and it’s got long, long legs. The developers have mapped out the game for the next few years, and only just recently introduced landing on planets and driving wheeled vehicles.

While I watch Star Citizen from afar with longing eyes, Elite Dangerous is the closest thing I’ve played to a perfect sci-fi junky’s dream come true. A completely intertwined galaxy with a fluctuating economy, an ever-changing war between human factions, and a mysterious alien presence on the edge of known space. While the learning curve is a little steep, the payoffs come fast. I quickly switched up the default control scheme to allow more intuitive play and I’m beginning to see a universe of possibilities in front of me.

I’ve run deliveries of goods and data from one station to another, I’ve sought out combat rewards, and I’ve made a small fortune from ferrying people around in my Dolphin transport ship, which came decked out with a passenger cabin and a sweet Flipper-esque hull. I don’t know how often it will happen but one lady I dropped off in 15 minutes and made 1.2 million, another few sightseers paid for a mobile party bus that only required me to show them beautiful stuff out the window. As I heap more credits into my bank account, I can’t wait to score a nice warship that I can use to mop up pirates or insurgents. I hear there is a nice income to be made for mercenaries in the Milky Way.

My only complaint is really only an inherent problem in all games of this type, and that’s the lack of focus that means that there is no way to manage your game time in any way. I’ve logged on to play for an hour and ended up online for three trying to find the right job or contract, or traveling across the stars just to find that one station selling an upgrade I need. As a father of two with a full-time job and a marriage, my window for gaming is later at night 90% of the time… and spending an hour trying to adjust my controls or hopping for station to station looking for a decent payday can leave me feeling unfulfilled. However that’s not necessarily the games fault, so like I said, any sandbox type game can swallow the hours quicker than you can spare them.

That being said, I would totally spend an entire weekend playing Elite Dangerous and having a blast doing it. I love a game that inspires me to write about it, that opens my imagination and lets me have unscripted fun. I just can’t make money fast enough yet, but the journey is always more fun than the destination anyway. Just ask my drunk tourists.

Elite Dangerous is on PC, PS4 and Xbox, with Oculus Rift compatibility that puts you IN the spaceship. It contains microtransactions and will continue to have paid updates over the next decade, at least. Elite is always online, and is playable on a solo server, a public one, or you can jump into a private group as well. The other day I scored the base game for a measly $11 on the PlayStation Store, and there’s also a $30 cumulative DLC package available as it’s been out for a few years

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The Last Jedi

Are big changes in store for the Star Wars universe? The latest episode of Rebels gives us a long-missing piece to the puzzle of the Chosen One, and might give a clue as to the future of the Force.

In last week’s Star Wars: Rebels, Obi-Wan Kenobi faced off with the Sith Lord Darth Maul, who killed his Jedi Master way back in Star Wars: Episode 1 (before getting sliced in two and tossed into a bottomless pit). For those that don’t know, Rebels takes place a short time before the events of Star Wars: A New Hope, the first Skywalker movie. In this episode, Obi-Wan is shown living in hiding in the desert, watching over a certain plucky teenage moisture-farmer who has no idea that the fate of the galaxy is about to come squarely down on his blonde head. Obi-Wan and Maul don’t fight long, but before they do the Sith figures out that his Jedi nemesis is hiding on a back-woods desert planet for a reason… Because he’s protecting someone. “Is he The Chosen One?” Maul asks, and Obi-Wan nods.

I’ll give you a minute if your mind is blown.

If not, scrape the crust from the memories of the George Lucas Star Wars prequels and remember that originally Anakin Skywalker was hyped up to be the Chosen One, a powerful Jedi who would bring balance to the Force and destroy the Sith. Instead, life got in the way and Anakin went full-aggro after letting himself be manipulated to the Dark Side by the Evil Emperor. Obi-Wan, who felt responsible, gave us the only good lines of dialogue from those movies, “You were supposed to destroy the Sith, not join them! You were supposed to bring balance to the force, not leave it in darkness!” and then took off to go watch over Anakin’s children. So either Anakin/Darth Vadar was the Chosen One and the prophecy was crap, or he wasn’t, and all that immaculate conception stuff was just crap his mom made up… Hmmm.

We were never told either way who the Chosen One was, and many believed after The Force Awakens that it might be Rey the Force-powered heroine of the new trilogy… Until the latest episode of Rebels that is… Now it’s on record.

Luke is the Chosen One.

Obi-Wan’s revelation got me thinking about the nature of the Jedi and what the Chosen One “bringing balance to the Force“ could mean in the new Disney era of Star Wars. Most of the internet believes the title of the new Star Wars, The Last Jedi is plural (As in, these guys are the last Jedi, not this guy is the last Jedi) But what if the internet is wrong and title is literal? Yoda did tell Luke back in the swamp, “when gone am I, the last of the Jedi, will you be” and the title crawl at the beginning of Episode VII clearly says “…Skywalker, the last jedi…”

But what if the term Last Jedi doesn’t mean, “he’s the last before there were more”? What if the Jedi die with Luke?

The Force Awakens doesn’t tell us much about why Luke has decided to leave it all behind and go stand remorsefully on a rock. We get that he tried to restart the Jedi Order, he tried to train some Force strong students, and that it all went to shit. So obviously, even in a post-Empire world, power corrupts. Luke can’t stop his own nephew from giving in to the dark side and his best laid plans got a bunch of his students killed before he split and turned his back on The Force… Supposedly.

The nature of the Jedi/Sith relationship is very complex. Jedi are the Buddhist warrior monks who swear off attachments and desires in pursuit of a deeper meaning of love and the greater good, while the Sith are the emotion-wielding fear mongers that use their moods like gunpowder. It’s the classic ying and yang, light and dark scenario. One simply cannot exist without the other, and Luke Skywalker keeps learning this the hard way. If you think about it, how did he save Darth Vadar in the first place? With selfless love. In the end, Anakin Skywalker didn’t want to watch his only son die, and his selfish hate was broken by the selfless love of a parent for a child. It would be ironic that two sides of the same whole have battled it out for thousands of years, locked in a battle that neither side can win, destined to repeat the same mistakes again and again while the fate of the galaxy gets dragged along behind them.

In rides the plucky teenager with the lightsaber to save the day.

In this modern era of Star Wars, it makes sense to leave the old schools behind. If Luke Skywalker is the Chosen One, and the Last Jedi, it’s conceivable that going forward there will be a new kind of Jedi. That Luke will be able to train Rey with balance in the Force. Someone able to feel without giving in to the dark side, able to wield parts of the light and the dark. After all, they are two pieces of the whole, one cannot exist without the other…

When the new Star Wars opens this December we will find out what the scoop is.

 

The Outcast

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The only bad thing about the new Cinemax thriller Outcast, is that it’s done so damn good that a lot of people won’t tune in to check it out because of preconceptions about the genre. Unlike a lot of other “horror” shows on the air, there are some truly creepy and sometimes downright scary moments in the new Robert Kirkman-produced drama. However, despite the demons and the exorcisms, Outcast is a detective story both meticulously written and precisely shot. It’s put together like a puzzle, one deliberate and exact piece at a time… Often hiding clues in plain sight (a huge I Want to Believe poster in one of the opening shots, but I’ll come back to that) to keep the viewer glued to the screen at any given time.

03-outcast.w529.h352Over the course of the first season (new episodes air Friday nights on Cinemax), Outcast tells the story of two men battling demons both internal and external in the sleepy town of Rome, West Virginia. The main character Kyle Barnes (played by Almost Famous‘ Patrick Fugit) grew up in Rome, raised by a single mother who succumbed to a violent and abusive possession when he was younger. Flashbacks show her stalking him through the house like an animal, from the shadows, knocking him around and dragging him by his hair into the pantry closet Carrie-style. Years later, Kyle has moved into his mother’s old house after a domestic violence incident involving his wife and daughter. Here he meets up with Reverend Anderson, an older and somewhat wiser man, who tells him he has been fighting these “demons” for years. He is the kind of preacher that believes he is one of God’s holy warriors, and who has a Friday night poker game every week with the mayor, the sheriff, and the fire chief. Like Anderson, Outcast holds its cards close to its chest the entire game. From the first episode, there is very little exposition or set up, instead the writers keep the focus on the characters themselves as things happen around them.

Outcast doesn’t rely on gimmicks, special effects, or flashy camera work like so many others do these days to stand out from the pack. Instead it is expertly crafted in a minimalist style, dolling out scraps of info here and bits of clues there. It’s part detective noir, part character-driven horror/thriller, Outcast reminds me of a scarier version of Netflix’s Bloodline or HBO’s The Leftovers, operating on many levels at the same time.

kyle-preacherMost shows these days spend an inordinate amount of time making sure the audience is following along. Outcast correctly assumes that most people can follow a plot without laying things out every step of the way… And it works extremely well in this case. The writers hook us in the first episode with a possession case that goes right for the gut- (SLIGHT SPOILER) – a young boy named Joshua nearly chews his finger off absentmindedly under the influence of some evil entity. When the Reverend and Kyle finally arrive to try and help the boy, the demon recognizes Barnes, calling him the Outcast and asking about his mother (who has been in a vegetative state for decades). Along the way, Kyle is bitten and some of his blood seeps into the boy’s mouth, causing him to convulsive and react violently, eventually spewing forth some kind of swirling black oil demon that dissipates into the air.

It sets up a very compelling mystery right from the beginning… What exactly is going on in Rome, and why are so many people showing signs of demonic possession? And what the hell is “the Merge”? Some kind of Demon Apocalypse?

Outcast-TV-show-on-Cinemac-590x345While the Reverend and Kyle Barnes play Demonic Hardy Boys, Kyle’s adopted sister Megan struggles to balance family life with an ever-increasing level of insanity in town. The sheriff follows a different set of clues following an arson that may or may not be connected to the rest of the town’s goings-on. Meanwhile a mysterious stranger shows up in Rome who seems to know a little more about the Merge than he might be letting on. All of these side-plots and interconnected story lines weave seamlessly through one another at the hands of shrewd and talented writers who have so far been able to ratchet up the suspense with every new episode.

As things near a boiling point this Friday night, Kyle and the Reverend must keep their eyes on the goal as distractions come at them from every angle. “The nameless, the numberless” descend on Rome for the Merge, and the stakes have never been higher for our two heroes. As they piece together more of the mystery surrounding the demons in their midst, the true nature of the intruders themselves comes into question. Are they really Satan’s minions, or are they perhaps invaders from some other place? (Back to the I Want to Believe poster in the opening shots of the show…)

If you haven’t check out Outcast for one reason or another, it’s not too late. All episodes are available on Cinemax’s streaming app, and it looks like iTunes has the first few as well. As usual, there are less upstanding ways to watch, only a few short Google searches away. Give it a shot, if you are a fan of good drama and like a few thrills, you won’t be sorry. I’ve already re-watched the first episodes and realized how many things I missed the first time because I didn’t have the other puzzle pieces that come later. Cinemax liked it so much they ordered a second season before the first episode even aired… I agree wholeheartedly.

The Walking Dead: the Joy of Negan

 

As a culture, we love our bad guys.

We claim to be hero-worshippers who cheer when the good guys beat all odds… But the awful truth is we can’t wait to see what the bad guy is going to do first. We get off on both the thrill of fantastical violence, and the thought that it “wasn’t us.” We love to see adversary overcome, but first we want to see the adversary. Whether they’re diabolical, scary, terrorizing, or just plain evil, we love our villains just as much as we love the heroes we call on to vanquish them.

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This Sunday night, on AMC’s mega-hit show The Walking Dead, one of fiction’s best bad guys will make his screen debut… and to quote the late, great Ben Kenobi, “I feel a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced…” I fear something terrible is about to happen.

I have no idea how they are going to get away with this, but I’m keeping an open mind.

Since the beginning of the show, there has always been some terrible threat just around the next corner. Whether it’s the flesh-eating hordes of the undead that walk the Earth, or the savages that have been made of the men who once called this place home… A staple of The Walking Dead has always been death. As sheriff Rick Grimes and family struggle to survive in an insane world, multiple members of the main cast and countless red shirts have lost their lives since they first left Atlanta. From Andrea’s sister Amy to Carol’s daughter Sophia, Lori, Dale, even Andrea… One by one, the “core group” has dropped away over the years. Almost no one is safe in The Walking Dead.

So far, the show has done a great job of setting up Negan’s arrival. They’ve put our heroes in a particularly vulnerable position thinking that they’ve got it all figured out. I’ll tell you this right now, if you’re not prepared for a core-group member to die this Sunday, you’ve got about a day to let it sink in.

In the books, the Alexandrians meet the Hilltoppers much like they do in the show, via a bearded mystery ninja named Jesus. They agree to take care of Negan and the Saviors, who have been running a local protection racket with the communities around Washington D.C. because they are who they are. Apparently not many other groups have had the same experiences and self-training that our heroes have, and in order to secure enough food to survive, Rick agrees to do what they do best because confrontation is not something they’ve ever had a problem with. Plus, life in the new world is tough enough with flesh-eating zombies everywhere… Rick is too much of a good ol boy sheriff to let these assholes go on exploiting everyone else.

t8JuQKBAs a Walking Dead comic reader, hindsight is 20/20, and it’s their arrogance that blinds them to what they can’t see coming. There was no “midnight raid” on the savior outpost in the books, but again, the build up to the fall is what this has all been about. Our team of murdering heroes have crossed over into the “we don’t take chances” realm… And they are about to get a wake up call regarding their REAL position in the new world.

So what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? In the books it was a blood-soaked multi-issue arc called All Out War… If that gives you a clue.

This Sunday night is the main event as far as The Walking Dead goes. All of this misery, torment, and death has led us on a bloody road to this moment. I don’t know WHO is going to die… But I have my suspicions. And know this: you might as well call in sick for Monday now. It’s going to get REAL nasty, and I mean… Nasty… As in, bring a bucket and the Kleenex, it’s going to be a hell of a ride.

You see, as bad as the Governor was, and as bad as the other Human Bad Guys our heroes have dealt with were, Negan is something else. Negan is insanity, brilliance, and cruelty wrapped in a generous code of ethics and an endearing flair of colorful language.

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Actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan (The Watchmen, The Salvation) is set to bring Negan to life on the small screen, and while the AMC executives are cringing, those of us who get physically ill when crazy shit goes down on Sunday nights are about to have the ride of our lives. In the books, Negan’s arrival is like a nuclear bomb going off, destroying everything we thought we had known about how comics work as stories and as character-driven pieces. I will always remember reading that book, feeling my hands sweat and my pulse pound, feeling my jaw hit the floor as tears welled in my eyes.

Even though I have STRONG suspicions that the show is going to switch up the batting order, all I will say is that no one should ever go out like that. See you Monday morning for the reactions. The season 6 finale of The Walking Dead airs this Sunday night on AMC.

 

 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

tfa_poster_wide_header-1536x864-959818851016It’s everywhere. You can’t turn on a screen without seeing Star Wars right now. You can’t turn a corner in any major city without seeing a bus stop poster or a billboard. Saturation has reached a Disney-fueled fever pitch like nothing I’ve seen since Harry Potter died. (oh, spoiler…)

You have to understand that Star Wars is an intensely personal thing for millions and millions of people. There are endless streams of little boys and girls that have grown up swinging lightsabers and fighting over who gets to play Han and who gets to be Luke. How many of us remember when there was actually a viable love-story between the beautiful space princess and the cocky kid from Tatooine? How many of us remember going “NO WAY!” when we learned they were brother and sister, having spent so many afternoons trying to save her from the Death Star, and ending up playing a Star Wars version of house after the blaster-fire settled? I grew up with Star Wars figures in my hands 24/7. I still have stormtroopers on my shelf in my office, alongside my Darth Vadar head walkie-talkies. I have loved it so long, I don’t remember my life without it.

starwars-happyfamily_hugeI’m not alone. I don’t even go to conventions or cosplay, I’m just a “normal” Star Wars geek. Think of all the people that are ACTUALLY obsessed with it. (oh, wait…) Over the decades, not even the “enhanced special editions” (with added lame computer graphics) nor George Lucas’s prequel trilogy could ruin it for me… The Phantom Menace is literally one of the worst movies I have ever seen. Only Ewan McGregor was worth a damn, and I will always cringe when I see Hayden Christenson’s ridiculous whinging face.

So when I heard that Disney bought Lucasfilm and had tapped JJ Abrams, today’s hottest action director, to helm Episode VII, that 9 year-old child inside of me that had been lightsabered into pieces and tossed into a lava river by George Lucas jumped up and down on the bed like he hadn’t done in decades. On the outside, I’ve kept my cool.

Until now. I’m officially freaking out.

We are now days away. The premiere happened in LA last night, and the reviews will hit the internet tomorrow. I’m only one of probably hundreds of thousands of people that are sitting at a laptop writing about Star Wars right this very second. I doubt anyone outside of my Facebook friends will even read this, and even that is rare… Who wants to read ANOTHER Star Wars article? I haven’t allowed myself to get sucked into the hype beyond looking forward to it. I don’t want to know anything about the plot before I see it on the screen, which means I’ll have to stay off the internet for a week before I can go see it Christmas weekend.

This is a tricky thing for me. On one hand, Star Wars has been in my life longer than any other relationship outside of my birth family, I’ve loved Luke Skywalker and Han Solo longer than any other characters in the whole universe of different “universes” out there… When I think of science fiction, pictures of the Falcon zipping through asteroids or weaving through the reconstructed Death Star flash in my mind for pity’s sake. Seeing the original cast all old and grey only reflects my own nearing middle age. Luke Skywalker probably won’t be swinging from any tiny ropes this time… although I’m not counting out him doing some kind of CGI-enhanced Yoda flips with a lightsaber in his hand (a reality that both saddens me, and makes me very happy at the same time), Han broke his foot on the Falcon’s door, and Leia probably won’t fit into Jabba’s bikini anymore… But despite the next generation taking over, I really only have one concern. Us Original Trilogy types might be a little wider in pant size, but we know more about the Force that these Midiclorian-loving Pod Racer types…

starwars3The Force is the beating heart of the Star Wars stories, and yet it’s always been treated as a gimmick or a weapon. While Yoda and Obi-Wan might’ve talked a big spiritual game, when it came down to it, it was always “can I throw this large object at someone with my mind?” or “Now I will turn into a CGI-character who can move like a super hero!” JJ Abrams might be a superb movie maker, but if the Force Awakens leaves the Force out in the rain like the other movies, I will be sorely disappointed.

After all, its an invisible energy force that surrounds everyone and everything, binds them together in a galactic fate that hints of prophecy and redemption… There are aspects of Star Wars lore that mean more than the sum of their parts. They create wonder and yearning in the heart, tempting even the most cynical to look to the stars and dream of other worlds. They weave in and out of the imagination, surrounding us, binding us together in a shared experience that reflects the very story being told.

The Force might not be real, but in a way it is. While we can’t move things with our minds or shoot lightning from out fingers, Star Wars fans are all united by the same shapeless “force” shared in those moments when lasers flash across the screen or when a spontaneous lightsaber duel breaks out in line for the midnight show. star-wars-force-awakens-teaser-3-1205x803It is a “force” of dreams and imagination, of spaceships on fire and epic struggles for the future of the galaxy. It is hope in the face of evil and despair, it is a chance for redemption after a lifetime of mistakes, it is the ache of home and the futility of fighting destiny.

From everything I’ve seen, and from my level of trust in JJ Abrams, this is going to be one of those rare moments in life where everything converges at once around some popular culture event. Where an artist has been given the tools necessary to unite the past, the present, the future, emotion, imagination, laughter, and family… And it’s all thanks to a few short hours of film and a whole lifetime of dreams.

I can’t wait.

 

Daredevil Review

 

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Forget Ben Affleck. Netflix’s foray into a comic book franchise is a home run. Daredevil is a completely bad ass crime drama (That just happens to be about a superhero).

Ok, wow… I was honestly just going to not watch it. I read a few of the Daredevil comics back in my Marvel glory days, but I was mostly a Spiderman/X-Men kinda kid, so I could tell you that he’s a blind ninja with super hearing and no fear, but I couldn’t tell you how many of his girlfriends have died over the decades (It’s all of them I think). With my 8 year-old’s recent obsession with CW’s The Flash (unwatchable as far as I’m concerned), and that damn horrible Ben Affleck movie I sat through 10 years ago… I was less than enthused when I saw a reboot of DD was out.

But it’s Netflix, so when my brilliant wife suggested it, I said “sure, why not?” I figured what else am I gonna do on an Friday night? Watch Dateline?

Well, needless to say it was great. That Guy From Boardwalk Empire (Charlie Cox, minus the Irish accent) does a bang up job of capturing a uniquely complicated character, and coming across as both a likable lawyer and a fierce crime-fighting ninja at the same time. His smirk and his sunglasses are exactly what I remember from the late 80s Marvel era. It’s kind of a Law and Order: Superhero. dbfc67b8554757a0d65bd5c1e2215b94f4f99c12During the day we get cops, crooks, and everything in between… And at night we get non-caped crusading at its bloody best. Daredevil’s fighting style is vicious. It’s exciting to watch, like something exploding… A mix of boxing and what looks like jujitsu make for very hard-hitting, Bane-esque moves.

The show takes place in post-Avengers New York, specifically Hells Kitchen, and so far there have been more than a few tie-ins… But this is not Agent Carter, or even Agents of SHIELD… This is a bloody, and brutal window on the Marvel universe. The son of a boxer, Matt Murdock and partner/lawyer Foggy Nelson are fledgling local boys turned defense attorneys, and in the first episode they stumble across a murder case involving True Blood‘s Deborah Ann Woll and a local mob front she happens to work for. The dialogue is witty and the characters are well realized… And Cox shines as the troubled vigilante who can’t outrun the choices he has made.

daredevil-netflixDaredevil is Marvels answer to Batman, and creator Drew Goddard (Lost, Alias) capitalizes on this. It practically screams The Dark Knight with its long shadows, tall buildings, and nameless henchmen. The story is good, the characters fleshed out and funny, but what really sets Daredevil apart from any other Super Show around is the choreography of the fights. I haven’t seen hand to hand combat like this outside of a movie screen ever. There’s a particularly cool hallway fight in the second episode that looks like it was peeled straight out of The Raid, 1 or 2.

One of the things that bothers me the most about PG-13 “comic book movie” violence is that way it glamorizes that violence. From lone super heroes taking on armies of computer generated bad guys with all manner of destruction and yet no blood or death. It teaches kids a completely unrealistic, and frankly dangerous view of violence: that it’s safe. IMG_2575In Daredevil the violence is disturbing… As it should be. Daredevil gets beat, stabbed, and thrown around A LOT, and these aren’t safe fights by any means. Instead, it’s as if we’re really watching two (or more) men pound the shit out of each other… They get tired, they bleed, they collapse, they die. How very anti-Disney of Disney…

Anyway, I’m impressed… And I’m totally in. It’s about time we had an action show worth it’s salt. Plus the opening credits are the coolest thing I have ever seen.

 

Best Westerns

The_Dark_Valley_poster“The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men… And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.” –Pulp Fiction

“I don’t deserve this… To die like this…”   “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.” –Unforgiven

What is it about the western? They are straight genre-fiction, practically paint by numbers storytelling, but they always transcend their cliché elements and rise to be something more than the sum of their parts… Well, most of the time.

For a long time the western was dead. Unforgiven made sure of it. Clint Eastwood’s Academy Award winning masterpiece rang the death knell for a genre that had been sputtering for years. (I’m looking right at you, Bad Girls) However, recently a few European filmmakers have ushered in a much-needed revival. Andreas Prochaska‘s The Dark Valley, and Kristian Levring‘s The Salvation, are not just two of the best westerns in the last decade, but easily two of the better films I’ve seen in the last few years.

TheSalvation2014PosterWhether it’s me or not, Hollywood is busy pumping out teen-friendly science fiction/superhero blockbusters, the indie scene is fascinated with crime dramas, and everything worth watching has migrated to the small screen. You can’t get better viewing than Mad Men, Game of Thrones, House of Cards, or Better Call Saul, so why bother going to see Fast and the Furious part SEVEN? (I’m kidding though, I love James Wan and RIP Paul Walker, I totally want to see that). My point is that “the movies” are in a lull. That will all change in a few weeks when Age of Ultron drops and summer season begins, but that’s what I’m talking about.

In The Dark Valley and The Salvation, the theme is similar: revenge. Both are brutally realistic in their violence, which is always interesting to see through the lens of a director that’s not from a country so obsessed with guns. In Dark Valley, for instance, a key shoot out hinges on a new piece of technology and provides another layer to a tried and true western trope.

Available on Netflix, The Dark Valley is a unique look at what the “Wild West” might’ve looked like in the Austrian Alps. Sam Riley plays the a-typical Stranger, who rides into an isolated town just before the winter snow blocks access to the outside world. Under the guise of bringing photography to the town, it is quickly plain to the two women that are lodging him that his intentions go beyond just recording the beautiful countryside and taking engagement photos… Especially when the power-drunk sons of the local town boss make it clear he might not make it through the winter if he stays.

maxresdefaultThe Salvation is another revenge story, but this time set against the backdrop of the American west. It follows two immigrant brothers from Denmark, one of which is played by Mads Mikkelsen (of Hannibal fame). When his wife and son arrive from the old country, their family reunion is cut short by a band of bad guys who just so happen to be riding the same coach, and who are neck-deep in a conspiracy to drive off the locals. Also starring a scene-stealing Jeffrey Dean Morgan and the gorgeous Eva Green, Kristian Levring’s gritty parable was filmed in South Africa, and will be released in May.

the-dark-valley-3Both are heavily influenced by Unforgiven, and yet both also have their own clear voice and style. Whether the music and cinematography of The Dark Valley, or the stark desert landscapes and emotionally charged story-telling of The Salvation, both are easily two of the best westerns I’ve seen in a long time. Neither film panders to the audience, instead the filmmakers play their cards close to the chest when it comes to plot and it works in both cases. I like a film that makes me think, that drops me into a story without giving me a bunch of back story up front. There’s an immediacy that gets lost in exposition.

In either case, I’m glad to see the gritty, old-school, bad-ass western is back.. We’ve all suffered through enough Kevin Costner, Cowboys and Aliens, and The Lone Rangers

Alien: Isolation, a Stunning and Absolutely Terrifying New Chapter

 

What do you think of when I say the word fear?

I’m talking about real fear, like terror, horror, sheer “f^ck fight, FLIGHT!” kind of jump-out-of-your-shoes afraid. Where the fear touches a primordial place in our basest instincts. Where most people pee a little and do stupid things like try and smuggle a dangerous organism through ICC quarantine.

Alien magI remember when I was a kid, I was afraid a lot. The whole jumping at shadows in my room at night routine, pulling the covers up over my head to hide from the monsters I was absolutely sure were hanging out in my closet or under my bed. When I got older I found that I’d spent so much time afraid, that I learned to like it. I sought it out. As young as 9 years old, in 1986 (yep, I’m an ancient historical fossil), when I picked up a magazine on a shelf at the store. I’d never seen anything like what I saw on the cover of that glossy book. You remember back when they used to do “behind the scenes” of movies in magazine form? I do! This one was for the movie Aliens, by James Cameron… And I think I fell in love with the most terrifying thing I’d ever seen. I hadn’t seen the original, I wasn’t even old enough to see either, but I was totally obsessed. I remember pouring over the pages of that “Movie Book” and just getting lost in a world I had no idea existed: adult science fiction. I grew up watching Star Wars, Aliens seemed like the next logical step.

Now picture if you will: a family of five gathered in the living room with the lights turned down on a rainy Saturday afternoon in 1986 to watch a VHS tape… The movie on the agenda for this happy little gathering? Ridley Scott’s sci-fi/horror masterpiece, Alien. There was no commonsensemedia.org back then, no imdb.com to look up what they were getting into, only the begging pleas of a 9 year-old boy. It was epic. When that facehugger dropped from the ceiling halfway through the movie, I spontaneously dropped my Pink Panther stuffed animal on my little sister’s terrified head.

I literally cannot believe they let 3 kids under 10 watch Alien. Ahh the 80s.

hr_giger_desktop_1200x808_wallpaper-179171There’s something about H.R. Giger’s design of the Alien in the movies… It’s simultaneously both terrifying and disgusting, yet also strangely beautiful. Giger had a way of turning his strange characters and paintings into erotic images with organic, sometimes phallic designs… They’re almost impossible to turn away from, and I think that’s the part of the attraction of these nasty-looking things… They’re so different, so fascinating, that the brain wants to understand what it’s seeing. When you make a movie with the scariest creature ever made and then use nothing but low lighting, smoke and shadow… Well… You’re daring the audience to look closer on purpose. The Alien franchise, while screeching for new blood, has held up over the years as a testament to what can go right in sci-fi/horror, and what can go wrong when the studio decides it knows best (I’m looking right at you, Alien 3 and Resurrection… Even Joss Whedon’s story couldn’t save that mess).

Over the years we’ve been given differing looks into the Alien universe. From Dark Horse’s comic series to the Aliens vs Predator movies and games, none of it really held a candle to the original (2) movies. However, the Creative Assembly and SEGA Games’ 2014 release Alien: Isolation looks to have broken the decade-or-longer losing streak of failed Alien video games. In fact, Alien: Isolation knocks it out of the park.

alien_isolation111111111111Isolation is a direct sequel to the original Alien from 1979, and honestly, it looks EXACTLY like the movie, to a painstaking detail. From the ship designs to the old green CRT monitors and retro-tech tools, Isolation does the best adaptation I’ve ever seen in a licensed video game. There’s easter eggs and nods to everything from the “Water-Drinking-Bird” perpetual motion toys to the beeping motion trackers… But beware… There aren’t any Pulse Rifles or Loader Exo-Skeletons to give the acid-dripping Alien a stand up fight. This is not Colonial Marines, this is hide and seek, with a deadly monster.

The game picks up the mythology of Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley, who is at that point in time floating through deep-space after detonating the emergency self-destruct systems on the commercial towing vehicle she worked on. After 15 years, her ship’s “black box” has been found on the edge of known space, and as Amanda Ripley (who has been searching for answers to her mother’s disappearance) your task is to fly out to Sevastopol Station and retrieve the flight recorder.

Simple right? Wrong…

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First of all, let me just say that Alien: Isolation is graphically stunning. I wanted to pause the action every five seconds and just look around at the space station’s massive interiors, ominous passageways, and dark ventilation shafts… But this is one of those games where looking at the scenery will get you impaled by an Alien tail. In a game reminiscent of Dead Space 2, where lone engineer Isaac Clarke must explore an infected space station turning on systems and diverting power in order to escape all the while battling a horde of mutated monsters, Alien does a brilliant job of breaking up the action just enough for you to catch your breath. Usually just long enough to walk through a medical lab or a docking bay and be surprised by a massive snarling creature dropping from the vent duct above you or a blank-faced android looking to smash your head into a wall.

Alien-Isolation-E3-scaryI’ve never played a video game that had me so scared. The main reason, other than the disgusting Alien hunting me the whole time, was there is NO AUTOSAVE feature. Let me stress that point one more time. If you die, you go back to your last save that wasn’t the beginning of a new level. You’ll only learn this lesson once, trust me, but take my word for it. If you hear the chirp of the Save Game Station, don’t think, just do it. Unless the Alien is literally in the room with you, you’ll generally have enough post-load time to get to cover quickly. This left me frazzled, at the end of some levels, miles away from the nearest Save Point, hearing the thump of the Alien hitting the floor behind me, and my heart rate shot through the roof.

After one particular intense night of mid-game play, I even had to pause it to just take a deep breath… That damn thing scared me so much my heart was racing from adrenaline. Now that’s a horror game!

Even the Last of Us, even Dead Space, they only scratched the surface of what the Creative Assembly is able to achieve here. Mainly because Alien: Isolation is not a weapons-heavy blast-a-baddy Bioshock, but a sneak-around-or-get-an-embryo-in-your-chest kind of game. One of the ways they’re able to do this is through the behavior of the AI. Most stealth games, horror or not, follow the time-honored tradition of Bad Guys on Tracks. All you have to do is post up, watch the route the AI takes through the level, and adapt your play in order to sneak from one end to the other. In Isolation, the Alien is programmed to think.

Yes, think.

New-Alien-Isolation-Screenshots-Artwork-are-here-to-terrify-you-2-1024x613The level will start like this: you’ll enter a space where you need to find something to switch on or off and then get back to the elevator. It sounds so simple, and if there were no bad guys in the game you’d be able to just sprint down the corridors and get it done. However, because this is Alien: Isolation, about halfway into the first corridor, your little motion tracker will beep, and your heart will skip a beat every time. Soon you’ll hear it moving around in the vents, behind the walls, all around you. You can keep dibs on it with the tracker, but the Alien has heightened senses, so use it when it’s too close and it will find you instead. Remember what I said about how you could just sprint from one end to the other? Yeah well, you don’t ever want to sprint. Ever.

By heightened senses I mean if the Alien is standing outside the locker you’re currently hiding in, don’t pull up your tracker… The locker will be shredded with you in it. Luckily Sevastapol is teeming with lockers, tables, even tiny little cabinets for Ripley to squeeze into when the familiar rumbling of the vents becomes the terrifying thump of the Alien’s footsteps- which means it’s on the floor, and at its most dangerous.

2414282-6It’s a surprisingly simple plot, coupled with all the corporate intrigue and greedy side-plots that make the Alien universe what it is. Sevastopol is damaged when you arrive, triggering a slow descent into the nearby planet’s atmosphere. As Ripley you have to crawl from cover to cover, up one side of the enormous station and down the other in order to try and A) capture/kill the Alien B) Find out what happened to your mother and C) Escape. All the while the evidence of what has transpired over the last weeks or so since the Nostromo’s flight recorder was discovered. There are bodies everywhere, some disemboweled with a detail that leaves you a little disturbed… And where there aren’t bodies there are survivors, some friendly some not.

If fear of the unknown is the big-mamma-jamma of our deepest fears, then Alien capitalizes on it at every corner. It’s a pressing feeling of dread. One that filled my entire body with chills and had me literally on the edge of my seat for almost the entire play-through. From sudden explosions that turn your simple level objectives on their head to the startling appearance of the Alien from a nearby vent, Isolation is full of scares, thrills, and just plain exhausting terror. At the beginning of the campaign I found myself only able to play for about an hour at a time before the constant adrenaline would just wear me out.

Alien-Isolation-Video-Features-Original-Movie-Cast-Reunited-452153-2In fact, now that I think about it, Alien: Isolation is just a delivery system for adrenaline. It is, at least, on the harder settings where the AI’s distance-to-detection is significantly pushed out (meaning that on Easy the Alien doesn’t see you standing across the room, but on Hard it can spot you across huge distances if you’re not behind cover). Like lighting up a cigarette and getting your nicotine, or drinking a shot to get your alcohol, a poor soul plays Alien: Isolation to be pumped full of adrenaline, jumping at shadows, and hearing the echoing sound of “something in the vents” long after the power light has faded on their console of choice.

I picked it up for 75% off during the Playstation Holiday Sale bonanza, and after playing it I would have gladly paid full price for this masterpiece of set-piece wizardry and AI physics. Warning however, do not play this game on any lower setting the first time through, it WILL ruin the game. If the AI is turned down you can pretty much walk around the station without really getting into too much trouble… And I can see why most people would think that this is why the game is too quick and too easy.

I promise you that if you put the AI on medium or above this will be one of the most frightening games you’ve ever played, whether you’re an Alien fan or not. Bravo Creative Assembly, you made one of the best games of the new generation… Hands-down. I can’t wait to play a sequel.

Alien-Isolation-Walkthrough-Mission-17Alien: Isolation is available for XBox360, Xbox1, PS3, PS4, and PC. It currently holds Game of the Year from multiple publications including PC Gamer and Kokatu.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grand Theft Auto V for the Next Generation

 

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The term, “broke the mold” comes to mind when I think of Rockstar Games. No one does it like this anymore. Video game companies pump out title after title, sequel after sequel, year after year… Call of Duty has a new arcade shooter every November, as does Assassin’s Creed and countless other franchises. But not Grand Theft Auto.

You see, Rockstar has this crazy idea that if they spend years building and perfecting the best game they can possibly make, that the quality of said title alone will be enough to get them in the black. They spend six years and hundreds of millions of dollars making GTA V, and much to their investors’ delight, they were absolutely right.

Grand Theft Auto V was the greatest game of the last generation, and it’s about to make its Next-Gen console debut on Tuesday, the 18th of November. I imagine that right about now everyone at Rockstar Games has got to be feeling pretty good about themselves. Last September GTA V broke nearly every video game record there was when it launched on PS3 and XBox360, selling over $800 million in its first day of release and breaking the $1 billion mark just a few hours later. As of now, it sits just below Mario Kart and Minecraft as the most popular game of all time… And that was just on the two 10 year-old consoles.

IMG_0676Tuesday, when the long-awaited ball drops, and GTA V hits the streets for Next-Gen, the records will start falling just as quick. I’ll tell you right now that it’s going to be the biggest launch of a Next-Gen title yet. Never mind that a 4K-resolution PC version of the game will drop in January.

You might ask why I think that so many people will run out to buy a game that’s been out for over a year… And I’ll ask you a simple question in return: Have you played it?

If you’ve played GTA V (and you’re not one of the immature minority that lives to hate for hate’s sake) then you know why every single person that owns a PS4 or an XBox1, and is old enough, will absolutely buy this game. We’ve seen a few re-masters of last-gen games now, the highlight being Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, which I played through way too quickly over the summer, despite trying to take it slow and savor the sublime gaming experience that it is… But GTA V is something else entirely.

First of all, Rockstar basically rewrote the game from the ground up in order to bring us a fresh take on a familiar story: First Person Mode.

IMG_0638This isn’t just a gimmick where they put the camera on the 3rd person character’s shoulders, no, they scripted thousands of new animations for hands, guns, weapons, cars, planes, everything. Let me stress that: EVERYTHING. So on top of the 1080p 30fps graphics with Next-Gen textures and shadows, this new First Person Mode drops you, literally, right into the action in San Andreas. With a menu full of customizing options, we will be able to play through the entire Single Player Mode and GTA Online as a 1st Person shooter… Complete with designated grenade button and both 1st person and 3rd person cover mechanics. In fact, you can tell the game which order you want to play in. You can set it to 1st person when on foot, 3rd person when driving, and then back to 1st person for all of the rag-doll effects… Because there’s nothing as disorienting as being hit by a car in the 1st person. One second you see sidewalk, the next you’re spinning wildly through the air.

First Person Mode is a revolutionary step for Rockstar and for Grand Theft Auto, which has always been traditionally a Third Person Game. The design team has thrown down the gauntlet and directly challenged its only competitors, 1st Person games like Call of Duty, Battlefield, and Far Cry.

IMG_0691I’ve said since launch that GTA V is the be-all end-all for video games, simply because it has everything you could ever want to do with a video game all in one package. Now that First Person is coming to GTA, fans of other shooters will be able to set up their own First Person Only matches using the Content Creator. I can’t wait to see homage levels springing up in GTA Online… Since the creator allows you to basically wall off any portion of the huge map and turn it into your personal racing/shooting/flying playground, I expect to see themed jobs springing up constantly. it would be fairly simple to set up the same exact Battlefield: Hardline demo level in downtown Los Santos.

With First Person Mode, the games damage effects are over-hauled to a ridiculous  and disturbing, degree as well. For example, running up to a pedestrian on the street and socking them in the face produces actual feelings of guilt as the new 1st person mode and crisp graphics shows their reaction, pain, shock… The new hatchet weapon is particularly trauma-inducing when it gets lodged in the flesh of your victim and you see your character’s foot come up and brace the body while you yank it free. The expression on peoples’ faces, the blood effects, and the 1st person mode all make for a VERY hardcore GTA experience.

Along with the new First Person Mode comes a newly-designed and fully-functional interior for every vehicle in the game. From the working speedometer and tachometer in your favorite super car to the altimeter and artificial horizon dials in aircraft… Rockstar pulled out all the stops with this one. If you’re like me, and drive most of the time in “hood-cam” mode, you’ll love 1st Person driving. For those that are still weaving in and out of traffic in 3rd person, I expect many a T-bone collisions with traffic that’s just out of sight.

IMG_0688Rockstar has also announced, nonchalantly, that Online Heists will be coming in the first title update to hit the Next-Gen version. If you don’t know already, this is a REALLY big deal to fans. Rockstar originally intended for Heists (which are the best missions in the story mode) to be included with Online when it launched, however the unexpected popularity and a bunch of early hackers breaking the game caused multiple delays, and the release kept getting pushed out… Much to the chagrin of Twitter and Youtube commenters. Alas, a year and many delays later, it’s finally (almost) here. If nothing, I won’t have to listen to fanboys cry about how Rockstar personally let them down anymore.

This is the same GTA V you know and love, new and improved. The animal count has been raised to include many different dogs, cats, supposedly bunnies, and tons of others. Traffic, which is strangely scarce for a city modeled after Los Angeles, has been raised as well. Because there’s nothing like hitting an armored car, jumping on the freeway to get away, and running smack-dab into a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam. I mean, come on, this is L.A. right? Plus, all of the new DLC cars that have been released over the last year will be blended in with regular traffic… Which hopefully means no more, “I’m driving around the city and the same car is everywhere.”

IMG_0672There’s bark on the trees, needles on the cacti, leaves on the bushes, and dust on the wind. There are dolphins, killer whales, hammerhead sharks, and more swimming in the HUGE underwater portions of the map. There’s a new hatchet weapon as well as a new Railgun that causes thins to explode instantly if you can hit your target. There’s also a hundred-odd hours of music and original radio station chatter included… Which is alone one of the best ways to make GTA seem fresh: Change the damn music. Nothing gets more repetitive than the same songs over and over.

Rockstar has added a whole new level of detail to an already breathtaking game. When you’re driving on the back roads of San Andreas, and the sun dips below the horizon, lens flare shoots across the screen while lightning flashes in the distance, and soon only the car’s headlights are visible as rain pelts off the hood and fills puddles on the ground… For fans like me, this is a no-brainer. Grand Theft Auto V was the first game of a new generation, despite being constrained by the limitations of the last-gen consoles… Now, a year later, it’s finally here.

The last year has been warm-up. Spring training. I’ve spent hundreds, HUNDREDS, of hours playing GTA V… And now it’s time for the big game… Training wheels off… And many, many other sports analogies. If it isn’t clear, I love Grand Theft Auto. The freedom, the driving, the flying, the heart-skips-a-beat gunfights, everything. It has everything a video game about criminals in a fiction Los Angeles should have… Except for surfing. I’ll never understand why a game as researched and as developed as GTA V left out one of the essential elements of L.A. life: surfing. The ocean looks amazing on PS4, and I still can’t grab a board and hang ten.

But I can toss a brick of C4 on a surfboard and blow it out into the ocean. Or I can push a donut-shaped float out into the surf with the characters’ legs… Choices, choices…

 

The Walking Dead is Back With a Bang For Season 5

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Zombies haven’t always terrified me. In the sense that being bitten to death by disgusting, smelly, dead things while having my intestines pulled out through my body cavity, scary… It’s not like a zombie is really that threatening, after all. They shuffle, they move slowly, and they can’t out think you. But I have always considered zombies scary, plural, as in a you’re never safe, no matter how many you kill, how many walls you put up, or how far you run. You’re surrounded at all times by a shifting, shapeless horde of teeth, just waiting to bite and rip. IMG_0436The way they just pop up everywhere, overwhelming everything, and that horrifying sound that they make!!

Now that’s scary.

When I was younger and obsessed with Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, I often thought of the cultural satire that was woven into the story line. How the zombies come back to the mall, get caught on escalators, stuck in fountains. It all had this air of camp. When a zombie tore into another character you cheered, it was about the awesome special effects not the walking corpses. Back before zombies were a cultural phenomenon, when they were still used as symbols for our consumer culture. Back before Robert Kirkman wrote a little comic called The Walking Dead… and LONG before the great Frank Darabont had the guts to turn that book into one of the best shows on television.

There isn’t much room for camp on The Walking Dead, however. Much to its credit, the show chooses to follow human reactions to a zombie apocalypse instead of just staging the zombie apocalypse as a disaster-piece.

IMG_0414Tonight’s season five premier proved to us that this show is a balls-out, neck-biting, suspense-filled, thrill-ride with cannibalistic humanoids and all. It is a show at the top of its game, and running on all cylinders. I was literally on the edge of the couch the entire 40+ minutes.

I’m assuming that no spoiler tag is needed?

Season four ended with small-town-sheriff-turned-Zombie-apocalypse-savior-of-mankind Rick Grimes finally being reunited with the rest of the group from the prison. Yes, it was while trapped in a train car by cannibals parading as sanctuary, but that’s not the REAL point. As we see so well in the season five opener. There’s no sitting around and lamenting, there’s no crying in the corner like the original Terminus-ites do in the flashbacks that bookend the episode. There’s only the loose nail in the floorboard, or the crumbling-but-sharp wood in the walls… Season five starts with our group going all Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, and prepping to fight their way out of the fix they’re in while snipets of dialogue show how they all catch each other up on what’s happened to them since the Governor brought a tank to a sword fight. As the guards come to take them, Rick tells the group to steady themselves.

IMG_0420“You all know what to do… Go for the eyes first, then their throats…”

No truer words were ever spoken.

Too bad the Termites (sounds better, right?) “flip the script,” so Eugene says, and drop a gas grenade in through the ceiling. Cut to the scariest room ever filmed: the slaughterhouse at Terminus. As Rick is dragged through the doors he sees a body on a table being broken down but two men in coveralls, and three big bins marked BURN, FEED, WASH. Through the center of the room there’s a long, shiny metal trough that Rick, Bob, Glen, and Daryl are lined up in front of. This gleaming, obviously polished trough that sits there like a cold, hard truth. This trough is where our survivors’ lives will drain out in a single stroke. Lined up, coincidentally, next to four random red-shirts all Star Trek style, the butchers start on the other end of the trough from Rick. Just as the horror begins, we get a glimpse of the blonde guy on the end, and if it isn’t the hippie kid from last season (played by none other than The Penguin on FOX’s new drama Gotham)! Remember when Rick kicked Carol out of the group and they ran into those kids hiding in the house? We only ever got to see what happened to her. (it looks like things didn’t fare too well for him either). One at a time smack the hog-tied survivors in the back of the head with a baseball bat, then slit their throats, and let them drain into the trough.

You can almost see the steam coming from the blood as it hits the cold metal. It’s a disturbing scene.

IMG_0426Before long, Bob tries to talk an uncaring Garreth, the leader of the Termites, into sparing them. He quickly talks about the Cure and Eugene and starting the world over… But he’s not remembering who he’s talking to. This is a man who has crossed a line in his mind that he can’t come back from. In a show all about skirting the line and coming back from it, we know when Garreth says, “Can’t go back, Bob…” and slides the gag back on, that appeals will not be considered. Soon we learn that this smack-and-slice show is all for Rick’s benefit. To scare him into telling Garreth what was in the big bag they buried in the woods before coming to Terminus.

IMG_0432Rick never breaks his stare. Like a vicious animal that has locked onto its prey, Rick is only thinking one thing: “The sharp piece of train car in my hand isn’t sawing this zip-tie fast enough.” But when Garreth begins to take Bob’s eye out, Rick tells him. “Guns. AK-47, .44 Magnum, automatic weapons, night scope… There’s a compound bow and a machete with a red handle. That’s what I’m going to use to kill you.”

And we know that Rick will get to do just that because Garreth only chuckles at him smugly, like a true hipster-turned-cannibal-leader, Garreth is too detached to feel the fear he should while staring into those eyes. Hell, I feel it, and I know it’s just a tv show. (keep telling yourself, it’s only a tv show, it’s only a tv show)

IMG_0429When gunfire erupts, there is a smile behind Rick’s murderous eyes when he hears it. We already know who and what it is, there’s only one group of survivors outside the gates. It’s Carol, of course, come seeking both her friends and redemption. Like a total boss she deftly maneuvers into the horde of walkers all Old School, covered in zombie Guts. (Season one shout out!) Using the distraction, Rick frees himself and runs through the two butchers like a hot train-car piece through butter, and it’s ON.

I almost didn’t think Carol was going to find the others… The way the episode tracks her progress through discovering what Terminus is for herself the same way the survivors did last episode… But the end of this roller-coaster ride is a deftly constructed emotional climax. I had tears falling pretty freely by the time Daryl sees her for the first time, running and taking her up in his arms… And then when Rick and Carl see Judith… Oh man, just thinking about it gets me a little misty. I applaud the show for keeping Judith alive long after she’d perished in the comic… It was a wise choice, and one that provides ample opportunity for the show going forward.Lauren-Cohan-in-The-Walking-Dead-Season-5

I don’t know about you, but I’d like to see at LEAST another five seasons, and somewhere in there we need some time-jumps. I still think the ultimate way to end the series is to show a flash-forward of a time in the future where the world looks more like The Last of Us. Where nature has reclaimed the Earth and while the Walkers are still out there, really only in scattered hordes that are easily tracked or diverted. I see a network of communities, thriving, starting the world over, and I see the finale being all about having Judith’s wedding. Where we see Rick, while I’m sure crippled in some way (ahem, hand… kneecap), he frets about things like not knowing how to dance with his daughter with a busted old zombie-killing knee. A whole episode where no one gets their neck ripped out or cut up by cannibals… Where our survivors get to once again taste that normal life… And it will be oh so sweet because of everything we’ve gone through with them.

IMG_0442But I digress… There is literally too much going on in this episode to cover in one post, from Eugene’s disclosure about what sounds like an actual plan (as opposed to the books), to Tyrese’s extremely troubling conversation with a Termite who threatens Baby Judith, to the Terminus flashbacks where we see how a group of people trying to be human chose to be butchers instead of cattle… But most importantly is the stinger at the end, and its troubling implications. Just as the credits roll on one of the best episodes yet, we see a masked stranger walking the tracks our group just finally left toward the NO Sanctuary sign Rick left behind… The camera tightens in and the mask comes off, and as our brains quickly think back, “No, Shane’s twice dead, Dale is too, Hershel’s decapitated, Amy’s shot, Andrea’s gone, Lori’s dead, and now Nelson Van Alden and Chalky White?!!” (oh crap, wrong recap, sorry…)

IMG_0445But no, it’s a very mean-looking Morgan. The man from the beginning of the show, who Rick promised to radio every day and come back to find… Who we last saw shit-house-rat crazy and blaming Rick for his son’s death. While he seemed to have gotten over it and accepted his part, the look on Morgan’s face and the strange tree-carving Hobo-code symbols he’s following through the woods…? What are they? Who carved them there? They look fresh… And they don’t seem to be the markers Daryl left where they buried the big bag o’ guns… I’m curious, and while the episode’s plot and Morgan’s appearance seem a bit contrived, I remember that this is a juicy zombie show, and I should let certain plot devices just lay as they are.

Can I say, that I was VERY happy to see Walkers playing such a pivotal part in tonight’s episode? It seemed at times that they were just window dressing last season, only popping up at the right time to chomp. That explosion was KILLER.

The Walking Dead is back. Steady yourself. It think it’s going to get worse before it gets… Well, even worse.

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Sometimes writers are just too clever…