How I Prepared for Game of Thrones Season 4

I find myself in a strange position on the eve of HBO’s mega-hit fantasy series Game of Thrones’ fourth season. I tried as long as humanly possible to not jump feet first into the world of Westeros… Sure I liked the show and watched it every week without fail, and yeah I might’ve picked up a t-shirt or two along the way, but all-in-all I’ve fought the urge to pick up the books or play any games or spend hours looking into the early history of the First Men and how they lived in harmony with the Children of the Forest until the Andals came and conquered the seven kingdoms… Oops…Game-of-Thrones-Mondo-poster-1

Shit, there I go. I lay all blame on the broad shoulders of George R R Martin.

So yes, in the dark hours of this last winter, I picked up Game of Thrones, the first book in the series. It was just sitting there waiting for me to pick it up… And then I couldn’t put it down. Of course. I don’t know what I was expecting, I don’t think I had any expectations, but now I see why the show is what it is to so many people. You see, I didn’t WANT to read the books. I have a complicated relationship with adaptations thanks to my undying love for Stephen King. I realize that some things are just better left on the page.

Well, I couldn’t wait any longer… And now I’m paying the price… Story of my life. Now I’m well into A Clash of Kings, and ready to start watching the second half of Storm of Swords… The part of the books that season 4 is based. I don’t mind. I’ve resigned myself to my fate as quickly as I could.

What can I say? I’m hooked…

882475_497649860299011_407630296_oThe books are amazing, his writing is brilliant, and I don’t care if I’m on a runaway train headed for a head-on collision at the end of the line. You see, I’m not a fan of waiting. Patience is a virtue, that sometimes just eludes me… Plus like I said, I’ve been through this once before, and I used to feel a little burned by the way The Dark Tower wrapped up. I remember waiting, wondering, lamenting every story that came out instead of… It was horrible. I stopped reading King for years because he just wouldn’t sit down and write the damn ending. Then when it came I was overjoyed at the prospect of an ending, until it was over. I love the ending of The Dark Tower. It wasn’t at all what I imagined, and that’s the point.

I’m a writer, while not necessarily a big-shot published so-and-so, I still understand the pain of writer’s block. Just ask the novels I’ve been letting collect dust for well over a year now… Inspiration is a tricky thing, and nothing feels more wrong than forcing writing… But in the end, if it’s a person’s job, and there are millions of people out there waiting with bated breath, hanging on every Google News alert for misinterpreted signs of your next book, I might be a little more motivated to lock myself away in my mansion and force myself to wrap shit up.

Martin has been writing The Winds of Winter for awhile now, and still has one more book to go before the series is over- A Dream of Spring. The internet is flooded with reports of the show ending before the books do, what will happen if the show catches up to the books, if Martin doesn’t publish fast enough… All the speculation, all the pressure… It’s got to be rough.

At the same time, it’s the best part of the series. The End. How much fun is it to write all the stuff you’ve been building up to? THE BEST! Maybe that’s just wishful thinking though.kings_landing

**SPOILERISH**

As HBO’s visual version of Westeros prepares to return in a few weeks, many are wondering how last season’s Red Wedding can possibly be topped? I myself, have never had my heart and stomach wrenched by a television show more than when Walder Frey’s men viciously stabbed Robb Stark’s pregnant bride in the stomach over and over again as arrows rained down from above, washing away any hope of a Stark family reunion with a tidal wave of blood. When Michelle Fairley screamed at the end of that episode… That sound will echo in my memory forever…stark-household-game-of-thrones-19599011-1280-720

Anyone who has read the books or has succumb to the pull of the internet knows that there are some MAJOR deaths coming up this season as well… I don’t want to say anything, mainly because I don’t know details, but I do know that the North will never forget, and the Lannister family is about to get a little smaller…

Now that the oldest, most noble house in Westeros has been brought to its knees by the usurping Lannister clan, the political climate in the capital is about to get even muddier. John Snow is back at Castle Black, destined for leadership, and Stannis Baratheon is headed North to help defend against the coming tide of Wildlings. Arya Stark is on the run with The Hound, headed for the Eastern shore and a trip across the Narrow Sea, while her sister Sansa has been married off to Tyrion Lannister- possibly the only man in Westeros who can still save the “kingdom” if his freaky family would just step aside and let him. The psychoboy King Joffery is set to go toe-to-toe with grandpappy Lannister as the powerful Tyrell family cements itself to a doomed house.

With Bran Stark and his gang of merry Wargsters headed into the white beyond the wall in search of the Children of the Forest, can the parapalegic boy find the three-eyed raven and save the world? Meanwhile the recently eunuch’ed Theon Greyjoy, aka Reek, is held captive by the traitor Roose Bolton’s bastard son Ramsey… And let’s not forget our favorite Mother of Dragons across the sea. Daenerys builds her armies as her ancestors did before her, all the while her three dragons grow bigger and bigger, and far less easy to control…

GOT1Never turn your back on a Targaryen with a dragon.

This season is the build-up to Martin’s Dance with Dragons/Feast of Crows experiment, in which he originally set out to skip the story ahead five years, but quickly realized that wasn’t going to happen and instead basically cut one giant book in two. Dance and Crows take place at the same time, and each one covers the events on different sides of the narrow sea. It will be interesting to see how the writers on HBO’s show choose to blend the books together over the coming seasons.

That on top of Martin’s hints that the series might wrap up with a big-screen finale due to the effects-heavy needs of the climax- and fans are champing at the bit for both new episodes and the new book that “should” be out late this year or early next. Either way, as long as HBO takes its time, there’s still a lot of story left to cover before the show catches up… And if he can get Winds of Winter out soon, or even better, write them both at the same time, then fans of Game of Thrones should have nothing to fear.

Winter is no longer coming, Winter is here…

 

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Infinite

IMG_0552

“There’s always a lighthouse. There’s always a man. There’s always a city.” – Elizabeth Comstock, Bioshock: Infinite

It’s like a dream. No sense of time, no sense of how I got here, or what’s going on… But alas I find myself in a dinghy off the coast of Maine, accompanied by the strangest pair of siblings I’ve ever met. Stormy seas churn the water around the small boat while my two companions chatter away about things I don’t understand. Up ahead, the turning beam of an island lighthouse pierces the darkened sky. The brother keeps rowing while she hands me a small box, smiling. There is something about these two, a glow about them, as if they had their own source of light.

As she hands me the box, she states matter-of-factly, “bring us the girl, and wipe away the debt.” Inside the box I find a dusty old photo marked Elizabeth, a silver key with a cage on it, a few pamphlets and pieces of paper… and of course, a gun.

Where I come from, there’s always a gun.

IMG_0553The year is 1912, and I’m standing in the pouring rain, trying not to capsize the damn boat while I climb a ladder to the dock above. The chattering twins wave goodbye, resuming their nonsensical arguing over particle physics and quantum mechanics, and I begin to wonder if the things they’re saying aren’t, in fact, somehow important… Somehow vital… Like clues to a puzzle I haven’t seen…

I make my way to the roof of the lighthouse, but only a large glass door greets me, barring passage to the inner chamber. On the outside of the door are symbols I remember from somewhere, but I can’t seem to place them… Until suddenly it dawns on me, and I pull out the photo and turn it over. Drawn on the back are the same symbols, with hash marks next to them. I figure what the hell right? And I hit the symbols in time, each one sending out an organ-like sound into the dark grey clouds above… Each symbol a different note… Then I wait, but not for long.

Note and LighthosueBehind me, above me, all around me, sound waves shake the foundation of the island as thundering blasts from some unseen horn seem to come from heaven itself. Deep red lights burst through the clouds with each thundering blast, shaking the glass panels around the top of the lighthouse. For a minute or two the music from the lighthouse and the music from the clouds seem to talk to each other, holding some kind of deafening tonal conversation…

Then, just like that, it’s over.

The doors open behind me, and I find a dubious looking chair has swung up from the floor. With nowhere else to go, I sit down. “Prepare yourself pilgrim, the bindings are for your protection.” A woman’s voice tells me as the doors clamp shut, an alarm blares, shackles spring out of the chair around my ankles and wrists, and all I can think of is what a fool I am for walking right into this obvious trap. I’m gripped with the realization that no one is going to pay my gambling debts, no one is going to offer me a way out. This is it. The Pinkertons have set up some elaborate trap for their number one most wanted ex-employee, and I stepped right into it. originalMy name is Booker DeWitt, shamed at Wounded Knee, the horrors of war, and the depths of the bottle. I gambled my way into the worst kind of debt, and now I’m going to die in some kind of electricity-chair trap. I close my eyes, drop the box, waiting for the end…

But then the building starts to shake… Like an earthquake I feel the lighthouse begin to sway in the black stormy sky. There’s a rumbling underneath me like a million fires, and for a second I think the lighthouse is collapsing as I open my eyes to see it begin to fall away through a small hole in the door. I stare at that tiny black hole, covered in the dark of the storm clouds, until suddenly a shaft of light blinds me. It’s not until then I realize I wasn’t falling at all, but flying. The rumbling was not the lighthouse collapsing, but some kind of engine beneath me.

Not a trap, but a flying machine, taking me high into a perpetually cloudy sky. The woman’s voice counts off the altitude as I rocket up past fifteen thousand feet, and the engines cut out. I brace myself for the fall, feeling my stomach drop, but it doesn’t come. Instead I glide down slowly toward the tops of the billowing white clouds, only to see gleaming white towers of brick, mortar, and stone.

IMG_0544This is Columbia, the mysterious city in the clouds that disappeared decades ago after its tyrannical religious leader, the “Prophet” Zachary Comstock, declared it the truer ideal of America and seceded from the Union… And the setting for Irrational Games’ 2013 blockbuster Bioshock: Infinite. A city that has shrugged off the shackles of modern American life for a utopia in the Clouds. Governed by the Prophet and his vast army of soldiers and mechanical monstrosities. Columbia is an ever-growing Eden in the sky. The last bastion of true American ideals as the world below descends into the chaos of the 20th century.

The_Flying_City_of_ColumbiaHeld up by quantum particles suspended in space (and time), a technology developed by the city’s brilliant scientist and co-founder Rosalind Lutece, Columbia is an awesome sight. Whole city blocks, squares, museums, theme-parks, even a floating beachfront all hang gracefully in the sun-lit afternoon, linked by a vast network of rails and gondolas that carry people and freight from one place to another. Columbia is breathtaking. A steampunk masterpiece of lush gardens, fairs, carnivals, and houses. Imagined by Comstock, funded by the US government, and held in place by Lutece’s quantum-levitation machines, Columbia was completed in 1893. Originally presented as a floating Worlds Fair, the enormous city circled the globe for years touting the supremacy of the United States of America… Before Comstock’s true vision of a modern-day Ark came to fruition…

IMG_0542The world of Columbia is one of the most original places I’ve ever explored, and when I say explored I mean ran through frantically while dogging bullets and mechanical soldiers sporting Gatling guns. From its floating city streets to its flying ships; from “super-powers” known as vigors that enable you shred through waves of oncoming soldiers to phonographs that scratch out a ragtime version of Tears For Fears’ Everybody Wants To Rule The World… This place is never quite as it seems.

Thanks to 2K and Irrational Games, Infinite (the third game in the Bioshock series) gives us one of the more imaginatively realized settings in video game history. A flying city where experimentation into quantum physics has allowed the upper crust to thrive amongst the technological marvels brought through from other dimensions and other times (getting the Tears For Fears song now?). A place where on the surface everything gleams of peaceful utopia… But just below the cobblestone streets and the green gardens lies a horrible truth… This American Utopia only exists if your skin color is white… A fact that snuck up on me during the first few minutes of the game when I found myself caught up in Secession  Day festivities that included an old-fashioned, all-American stoning of a bi-racial couple. Heavy topics like racism, slavery, inequality, and quantum string theory aren’t usually present in your average blockbuster adventure game. 

IMG_0550Nevertheless, Bioshock Infinite still manages to be one of the best I’ve ever had the privilege to play through.

A mission to save a girl soon turns into a fight to save the known universe as inter-dimensional travel and catastrophic powers threaten to rip apart the very fabric of time and space… And only one man, tortured by guilt for deeds he can’t remember and a past he can’t seem to escape, is the only hope for the future of mankind. With Elizabeth, in tow, Booker must battle the forces of The Prophet as a brutal civil war rages across Columbia. When she’s not tearing holes in between dimensions or fishing ammo out of thin air, Elizabeth is an entirely sympathetic character that exceptionally contrasts Booker’s anti-hero status.

Bioshock: Infinite is available on PS3, XBox 360, and PC. It’s even available for free for Playstation Plus subscribers, which is how I laid hands on this instant classic. Despite never making it far into either of the first two Bioshock games, Infinite got its hooks in deep from the first few minutes. Blending elements of sci-fi, mystery, steampunk, and fantasy together, this game’s plot is one of the better thought-out stories in recent gaming history… IMG_0546With a twist that will have you mulling over the implications for days, and an ending that will send you straight to the internet to find out what the hell just happened, it’s no wonder Infinite was voted third best game of 2013 behind Grand Theft Auto V and The Last of Us.

In fact, the only complaint I have about an otherwise immaculate game, believe it or not, is the insanely graphic and over the top violence. Normally I wouldn’t have an issue, but in this beautiful world of gorgeous backgrounds and suspenseful storytelling, it’s out of place. So much so that it detracts from the game itself. Yes it’s a video game, but do we really need to see Booker shoving his grappling hook spinning hand-thingy into bloody face after bloody face? 

I suppose it’s on purpose. A contrast. Something to show the hypocrisy and the brutal truths of Columbia in their own light… But as much as Elizabeth looks like Belle from Beauty and the Beast, it’s hard to turn around and pop a guy’s face off when she’s watching. It makes the violence more real and yet sterile and detached at the same time. Oh well… I don’t mind, but Infinite is something I’d love to show my son more than the first few minutes of. Irrational is limiting itself by succumbing to the bloodlust of its hardcore fans. Why not every once and awhile make a game where the evisceration of your enemy isn’t the hook to get people to buy it…?

Oh well, for a game that I downloaded because it was free and played because I remembered hearing it was great, I can’t believe I almost missed this gem. Most movies don’t get a plot this realized… Even if it starts to get a little dodgy at the end due to all of the multiple universes and time travel and what not… It’s still one of those rare games that manages to expertly use pacing, acting, setting, and storytelling to evoke real emotion. I found myself at the end of the game, knowing that my next button click would reveal the final twist and end the game, and I couldn’t do it. I found myself in the strange position of saying goodbye to a character in a video game… Because after everything we’d been through together, it just somehow seemed right.

Guess I should go back and play Bioshock I and II now…

IMG_0541Highest recommendations.

24: Live Another Day is Almost Upon Us

2013_Upfronts_24Mock me if you must, but I love 24. Always have, always will. It’s the perfect blend of cheese, suspense, soap, action and intrigue… With constant plot twists and character deaths, 24’s real-time format was a groundbreaking success and one of the best shows of the pre-Mad Men/Breaking Bad era.

See not that long ago, in a country just like this one, there was this shady little hobbit named George… powell-cheney-w-condi-card-tenet-rummyAnd George got himself, mostly through the political connections of his ex-president/CIA chief daddy, elected President of the United States. However, George wasn’t really the president. He was just the talking head for an administration that was unlike any other in recent history- a group effort… See George, well he’s not the brightest bulb in the donut shop, but he did have some very, very smart friends… And those friends also happened to be devious evil dickwads who controlled the government, media, and the people of the United States for almost 8 whole years of terrifying hell. With 9/11 and anthrax and 2 wars in the middle east… The country was stretched to the breaking point.

It was a perfect time for a different kind of hero. A secret agent who did what he had to do, no matter what, to protect the country that continuously kicked him in the balls over and over again… That man was Jack Bauer, of the fictional Counter Terrorist Unit… CTU. He saved Los Angeles, America, even the world over a period of 8 increasingly terrible seasons. He shot more terrorists than anyone ever knew existed, hell he even shot a few of his fellow agents now and again (RIP Ryan Chappelle). 24_Split_ScreenHe tortured suspects for information to a ridiculous degree (propagating the myth that torture is remotely good for getting information), but he did it because he had to… Because in the world of 24, there was always the one thing that made it such a brilliant show: A ticking clock.

The constant threat.

It reflected our society as a whole… All our fears, all our reactions, all our prejudices, and oh all our ignorance. At the same time, it was just a kick-ass show. Goofy but suspenseful, soapy yet still had some truly TV-history making plot twists. 24 was a mirror of the post-9/11 society, but with awesome lines like, “I’m gonna need a hacksaw” or “You’re going to tell me what I want to know it’s just a matter of how much you want it to hurt.” Then there was my favorite pastime the 24 drinking games. Every time Jack Bauer says “DAMNIT!” you take a shot.

Kim-Bauer-CougarAt the same time, television itself was a different machine than it is now. Supposedly we’re in the Golden Age of television right now. A Renaissance, of sorts, for long-form visual story telling. To an extent, I agree, but only because I look back and I remember what it was just 10 years ago. When seasons were 23-25 episodes long and were stretched out over the whole year with RE-RUNS in the middle. When there weren’t as many serial-form shows, and it was mostly the X-Files and Law and Order.

Then 24 came along, re-inventing the wheel with a real-time format. A whole season that played out one hour at a time over the course of a day in the life of special agent Jack Bauer. It was brilliant. While it suffered from the bloated and lengthy season format, often throwing in the lamest of the lame plot lines to fill up space (I’m looking right at you Kim Bauer, daughter of Jack and dodger of Mountain Lions), it told a story that no other show had, in a way that no one had tried before… And it worked. It was extremely popular and won a ton of awards before it faded into obscurity after 8 loooooong seasons.

Jack-Bauer-24-Season-9Who knew that watching the same guy do the same stuff over and over could get old?

Now days we have better TV in the sense that it’s smarter. Shorter seasons, better writing, better stories, and a seriousness that demands respect that keeps some people at arms length watch NCIS and Law and Order: CSI clones. HBO started this thing almost twenty years ago with OZ, The Sopranos and The Wire, but only until the last few years have basic cable channels like AMC and FX been able to produce shows that could compete on a level above all the popular clone shows and reality TV. The Networks are still struggling to recapture the fire of Lost, throwing anything out there that will get a bite.

jack-bauer-24And that’s why 24 is coming back to Live Another Day. A 12-episode arc that will continue the show’s real-time format, but will break it up so the hours are scattered. Thank god, with London traffic I don’t think Jack could get anywhere to save anything if he had to account for every minute of every hour. For example, we’ll get 8:00 am-11:00 am and then 2:00 pm-5:00 pm, that kind of thing.

Wait, since it’s overseas will the clock be 24-hours now? That’d be cool.

21408KiplingTonyCubbieJack Bauer returns May 5th on FOX, and I can’t wait. Super agent on-the-run Jack Bauer is transplanted to London this time, where he’s hunted by the chick from Chuck, and pitted against his old friend and ally Chloe O’Brien, Super Hacker (played by Mary Lynn Rajskub). Jack’s ex-love Audrey is back, and her father James Heller is the president now (should make for some great “Jaaaaack”‘s). We also might see the return of Tony Almeda… a return for Jack’s one-time friend and colleague turned terrorist was hinted by the show’s executive producer David Fury who said he’d just had dinner with Carlos Bernard and that we could “read into that” what we will. Sounds like he’ll be coming back if you ask me.

Hopefully it won’t suck. There I said it. It’s still FOX, and it’s still network television… so it easily could. Especially if they stray from what makes the show work so well: Jack Bauer doing what Jack Bauer does so well. Too many side-plots and somebody’s junkie brother are not necessary this time, especially given the shorter format.

mary-lynn-rajskub-24-live-another-dayWe will see on May 5th.

The Definitive Grand Theft Auto V Review, aka ‘The Final Word’

Welcome back from winter break everyone!

Now that the dust has settled and the holidays are behind us, it’s time to get back to work. To kick off the new year I’m taking a second look at last year’s massive blockbuster:

Grand Theft Auto V.

If you want to skip straight to the meat and potatoes click here

LogoIf you’ve been stuck under a rock, GTA V hit the shelves last September to a record setting release. It made a whopping $800 million the day it was released, has sold nearly 30 million copies so far. It is quickly gaining on Mario Kart Wii, which holds the top spot as the #1 selling console game of all time at 34 million. Did I mention that Mario Kart Wii has been out for over five years? In the long-run, GTA V could sell as many as 50 million copies, if and when it is adapted for next-gen consoles like the Playstation 4, XBox One, or over to PC.

So far GTA V has shattered every sales record, brought Activision and Call of Duty to its knees, and cemented Rockstar Games and Take Two Interactive as the hottest and most respected game makers in the business. All of these records broken, sales made, and it was only released on two consoles – the XBox 360 and PS3.  Right now, both the XBox One and PS4 are selling like hotcakes at around 4 million each, people are adapting faster to this generation than the last. It only makes sense that Rockstar would capitalize on this fact. That’s almost 9 million next-gen consoles sold, of which I’m willing to bet 80% of whom would all run out and buy a Game of the Year Edition of GTA V come summer time… I know that I would personally slap down another $60 to set foot in a suped-up Playstation 4 version of GTA V and Online… But that’s a story for another press release.

Point being, Rockstar still stands to make even more money off of this masterpiece of modern entertainment, and you know what? They deserve it. GTA V is top-to-bottom one of the greatest achievements in digital history.

GTAVoclock logoPreface: My adoration for the Grand Theft Auto series is obvious… That being said, there are a thousand other sites out there that have put much more blood, sweat, and tears into the game… For instance, if you’re a GTA fan and don’t know about GTAVO’Clock, you’re missing out on one of the best Youtube channels around. ComputerandVideoGames.com’s extensive and sometimes exclusive coverage of this game is unmatched by even the big boys at IGN, Kotaku, or Gamespot.com… Don’t forget the hilarious antics of the GTA V Mythbusters on DefendtheHouse. All of these guys deserve props before I get started.

What follows is my version of a review that’s been written a hundred, if not a thousand times over the last four months so I’ll try to keep it fresh.nico LC

See?

*SPOILERS AHEAD*

This story began a few years ago, in the early 2000s. Somewhere off the East coast of a fictionalized America, with a man named Niko Bellic. Niko immigrated to this Bizarro-America on a freighter from the Balkans. Niko was a survivor, a soldier, a man with a burning desire for vengeance for a betrayal years before that brought him to the dingy shores of Liberty City in search of the one who wronged him. He also represented a fresh face for the Grand Theft Auto series, whose protagonists had until then been Americans. This allowed Rockstar to delve to an even deeper level of social commentary all wrapped in a hilarious vision of American society that they have committed to bringing us for some time to come. Through Niko and Grand Theft Auto IV, Rockstar introduced a gritty, realistic version of New York and the country, and a new direction for the series. A series that until then was mostly cartoon violence and sex with prostitutes in a open-world sandbox setting. grand-theft-auto-iv-pc-screenshot-liberty-city-night-skylineLiberty City was the real star of GTA IV, ask anyone who has played it. A technical marvel of game programming, a living, breathing city where a player could get lost for hours driving at high speeds through Times Square in a bus or gunning down bad guys with the game’s rough shooting mechanics. Despite the game’s obvious faults (“Hello cousin, want to go bowling?”), it, more than any other, was the one I always came back to play no matter how long it had been.

If Liberty City was a living, breathing city, San Andreas is a living, breathing world. This Bizarro-California is a massive, sun-soaked state complete with most of California’s major landmarks. Grand-Theft-Auto-VWhere fake plastic people compete for fake plastic lives in the spotlight, and everyone is looking for their big break at the hands of some other poor unfortunate. I’ve been down to LA plenty of times, they really nailed the feel of the place. Desolate and yet crowded, dingy and beautiful, heaven with an extra serving of hell. Los Santos and the surrounding state of San Andreas is an amazing place to be set loose in.

They story starts with a prologue set around the same time Niko stepped off a freighter in Liberty City. In the frozen tundra of the Canadian border region of America, three assholes try to rob a bank. Not the first bank to be knocked over by these particular assholes, it would surely be their last. Because as Grand Theft Auto V begins, we are dropped head-first into a firefight that kicks off as soon as the assholes leave said bank. Instead of the usual opening movie you see in games nowadays, it’s straight to the shootin…

And shootin we do good…

screenImmediately the new cover system (adopted from Rockstar’s brilliant shooter Max Payne 3) gives an immersion that was never available in a GTA game before. Bullets whiz by, ricocheting off walls and chipping away at the cover you’re desperately ducking behind, officers duck behind cars and move from cover to cover trying to flank you, and the sound of your assault rifle bounces off the walls of the enclosed warehouse entrance… It quickly becomes overwhelming. That is until you suddenly remember this is a GTA game, and all guns blazing is the law of the land.

Swapping targets, getting head shots, rolling between cover, it’s all a little daunting at first. While not as fluid and seamless as Max Payne 3 was, it’s exhilarating in the least, and third-person ass-kickin mayhem at its best. The three assholes fight their way across the snow-covered parking lot, turning cops into hot, steaming splashes of red in the never-ending white. 453428262Escape from the bank becomes a test of will that’s only dampened by the sneaking feeling that you can take a lot more bullet damage in this opening scene then you’ll ever be allowed to again. Well, outside of the Paleto Score that is.

Once you reach the getaway car you’re suddenly trying to steer a speeding truck down an icy road while cop cars whiz by in the other direction. A roadblock sends you careening down a snowy dirt road, trying to beat a train across the intersection. Well this being a prologue, it doesn’t work out. The truck crashes, two of the assholes get shot while the other, Trevor, reluctantly escapes into the blizzard. At the camera pans up into the falling snow, the first of many extremely well-done cut scenes recounts the aftermath of the failed bank robbery. A snowy grave-side funeral, a man in the shadows watches as a coffin gets lowered into a plot with his name on the stone. He is Michael Townley, aka De Santa, and he is just one of the three playable characters in Grand Theft Auto V.

Flash-forward ten years later to 2013, GTA’s Bizarro-version of Venice, Vespucci Beach, stretches for miles in the golden sun of the Los Santos sky. Ultraviolet rays beat down on bikini-clad girls and board-shorts wearing boys all playing in the sand as dogs circle their masters looking for thrown balls and above gulls caw in the afternoon air. The beaches give way to beautiful, rolling hills to the north, all covered by vineyards and farmland. Photo-1_7_14,-11.55.13-AM-27To the north-east is the Grand Senora Desert, a vast and arid landscape just begging for exploration. Beyond it, the Alamo (Salton) Sea dotted with trailer parks, meth labs, and oil derricks galore. From the sea to the mountains, to the forest and beyond. Every single day of the five years it took to make Grand Theft Auto V shows through in the way you are completely immersed in this world. A world that seems to teem with life. People, deer, dogs, cougars, birds, sharks, fish, and more burst from every corner of a map that goes from high mountain peaks to deep ocean trenches.

Photo-1_7_14,-11.55.13-AM-30I could spend an entire post writing about the way the sun sets over Mount Josiah, west of the desert. The way the day fades into beautiful hues of red and orange that stop you in your tracks more often than not… Or about the sudden thunder storms that bring much-needed rain to the baked hard-pan of this amazing landscape. How the lightning cracks like brilliant white fire in the night sky, sending echoes of thunder and light across the horizon. Rockstar has done so many things right, it’s almost impossible not to get lost in the dizzying display of colors and sound.

Let me just tell you about the sound…

I’m standing on the corner of Vinewood Blvd and Power St., and I’ve ducked out of the rain, into the safety of the nearest sunglasses shop, and everywhere I look I see Los Angeles. I’ve been to LA, I’ve walked the Hollywood streets and seen the wax museum, the adult movie marquees, and the endless lines of souvenir shops… It looks exactly like this. Vinewood and PowerAs the rain makes its way up Vinewood Blvd, car tires start screeching on the wet pavement and people begin covering their heads with umbrellas and newspapers. Soon the cursing starts, pedestrians swearing at the weather and grabbing cabs or ducking out of the rain like I am. It isn’t long before puddles are gathering on the stars’ stars that run up and down the sidewalks, and thunder can be heard booming in the distance. The rain makes driving a mess, and soon the sirens start echoing off the buildings while the rain hammers away at the concrete and metal that surrounds me. Car radios, car noise, and people… People everywhere… This is not a video game, this is something else.

Before long the rain begins to stop, the birds start chirping again, and like it never happened, the city welcomes the burning light of the sun. San Andreas is gorgeous from top to bottom, from the bottom of the ocean to the top of Mount Chiliad, to the barrio to the desert trailer park… Even in it’s most ugly form, Grand Theft Auto V is breathtaking.

Photo-1_10_14,-10.11.41-AM-1The city of Los Santos itself is bigger than the entire map of Liberty City in GTA IV, and even it is just a fraction of the entire map of V. In other words, this game is huge. Grab a bicycle in Vespucci Beach and head north. See how long it takes you to bike around the state. Trust me when I say you won’t make it… Somewhere along the way a stranger will stop you, often yelling for help. It can be a bachelor tied to  tree by his bachelor party friends, or a drunk couple who need a ride home from the bar in Sandy Shores, redneck America. Or maybe you’ll run into one of the game’s many armored cars, just begging you to toss a sticky bomb on the back. Or a dot-com millionaire who’s had his bike stolen, or a golf champion whose wife is tossing his crap out on the front lawn. Its little side missions like this that allow you to just pull back layer after layer of content in this masterpiece.

Photo-1_7_14,-11.55.13-AM-46Back to the asshole in therapy. Michael De Santa (aka Townley) is a whinging, self-obsessed narcissist who thinks he’s just a normal guy… He thinks that his former life of crime is as much a memory as the 80’s action movies he’s always watching to escape reality. He’s retired, he’s rich, and he’s miserable as he wastes the days in his own version of witness protection. How he got there, and why it’s not exactly a government-approved retirement is all part of the underlying mystery that plays out over the course of the game. See, Michael’s old partner, Trevor, the one who escaped in the snow… Well… He’s a psychopath… A methamphetamine-fueled psychopath at that… And he thinks Michael was shot and killed that day.

In a way, Trevor Phillips represents every person that’s ever found themselves lost in a GTA game. He’s the lurking psychotic part in all of us. He’s the middle finger we wish was an RPG in traffic. He’s the obscenity-laced tirade we don’t go on. He’s not the killer, he’s the weapon.

Trevor Phillips is also the funniest game character ever given digital life. His lines are hilarious, he’s always doing crazy, sometimes disturbing (RIP Floyd) stuff, and you can not count on his next move through the entire game. Photo-1_7_14,-11.55.13-AM-36See one of the moves that Rockstar decided to make when they went with the three-character-switchable game play model was to give us drop-in scenes. These little vignettes play every time you switch to a new character on a new(er) save game, and their purpose is to immerse the player even more and suspend disbelief. It works beautifully. Swapping characters makes the camera pan up into the sky and drop down on the guy you’re switching to. That guy is always in the middle of doing something, and more often than not, it’s hilarious. Trevor gets all of the good switches of course. You never know if he’ll be drunk and slurring on a rooftop, mid-heave of throwing a biker off a bridge to the cement below, or exposing himself to the denizens of Los Santos… And of course, Trevor gets all the good lines…

“I want him to be the kind of guy who understands that all the money in the world won’t save him from a nasty guy who thinks he’s an asshole…”

0_0Rounding out the cast of characters is Franklin Clinton, a young twenty-something gang banger from the ghetto trying  hard to break out of the old life of petty crime and into something bigger. While sharing a house with his aunt, Franklin and his buddy Lamar Davis are the center of GTA V’s beginning chapters. It’s these two miscreants that Michael runs into while leaving his therapist’s office down in a beach-side house straight out of Californication. There’s the obligatory “how-to” missions that get the story going, mainly following Franklin and his work for a shady tax-defrauding car salesman named Simeon. Between repoing whips and the occasional gun-fight with rival gangs, Franklin’s story introduces us to another of GTA V’s playable characters, Chop the Dog.

This time around, with the implementation of Grand Theft Auto Online, Rockstar has pushed everything into the cloud. Almost every aspect of your gameplay is tracked and compiled in their online Social Club. You can join “crews” of friends in GTA Online, check out stats, and even take care of Chop in a mini-game available on the iFuit (Apple jab) app that you can download on almost any smartphone or tablet. If you take care of Chop on your iPad, he’ll be a “better dog” in the game. This is my first complaint, the NEED to care for a virtual animal and the fact that failure to do so makes for an uncooperative pup in the story. Only insofar that he won’t perform stupid tricks, but still… There should really be an option for taking care of Chop in the game… For those without the extra tech or time to play another game to satisfy a dog (ewww).

021fcab68f8b4d0368a653d8a7b703a5Since I’m on the subject, I might as well roll straight into my main complaint, the car mechanics. Not the driving mechanics mind you, they are unmatched in any previous GTA or even racing game I can remember. (Except for the inherent problems with using a stick to drive a sports car at 200 mph) I’m talking about cars themselves. GTA V gives every character a safe house with a car park of some sort, and an extra four-car garage somewhere else across the city. On top of that, every character is given a “default” car. They’re not the best cars, in fact, they’re pretty crappy on the scale of cars in the game. They can be modded and tricked out to a degree, however, non hold a candle to some of the cars you can buy on your in-game phone’s browser or any accessible laptop. The default cars follow you around most of the time, but the problem is that Rockstar gives you the ability to buy $1 million super cars and then every time you start a mission it gets lost.

Well, it gets towed to the local impound MOST of the time, but sometimes it just disappears. This can be infuriating in a game based on cars, that’s set in a city where everyone drives cars everywhere, all the time. It’s impossible to buy a super car, go mod it out, and then use it practically. If you go start a mission, you’re ALWAYS using some sort of other mission-specific vehicle, or need something with four doors… Which the super cars don’t. Instead, you’ll finish a mission, then have to cab it to the impound every time to get your whip again. That means more often than not you’re driving to get the car you want to drive or you’re driving to leave the car you want to save. In GTA Online you get a 10-car garage and a for-hire mechanic that can deliver vehicles to you at any time, any place there’s a main road. Even more importantly, in Online your car follows you everywhere. Photo-1_7_14,-11.55.13-AM-14If you designate a car as your main car, it follows you after missions, everywhere. When you’re done raising hell you’ll turn around and your car is right where you left it parked. You can also buy insurance in Online, so when your million dollar super car explodes or launches into the drink, you can order another for a fee. Rockstar REALLY needs to bring these options to the single player campaign.

All this really means is you have to adapt, and fortunately Rockstar gives us plenty of options. Garage issues aside, if you’ve got a car you really enjoy driving? Just make sure to park it in your garage before you head out for a mission. Problem solved. The call-a-cab and skip-the-ride routine still works for instant travel anywhere on the map. Need to do a mission? Catch a cab, boost a car, etc. Want to go for a nice Sunday drive? Get your good car out of the garage and cruise, just don’t forget to put it back.

“I’m not sure shooting people online counts as networking.”

maxresdefaultWhen Franklin’s boss Simeon sends him on a repo into the classy side of town, things get interesting. A simple sneak-in and drive-away turns into a confrontation between Simeon and Michael, who recognizes a tax fraud scam when he sees one, and doesn’t take too kindly to Franklin’s boss ripping off his son. Michael wrecks the dealership, causing Franklin to lose his job. Soon the two develop a mentor/mentee relationship, and before you know it the missions, and the mayhem, begin rolling in. When their antics draw the attention of the news media after a daring day time heist, somewhere in the desert a psychopath sees a ghost.

Let me take a minute to talk about the glowing center of Grand Theft Auto V… A series of complicated heists that require set up, materials, disguises, planning, etc… All of which you’re in on most of the time.Grand-Theft-Auto-V-heist-plans Whether it’s Michael’s brainiac buddy Lester calling out options for sneak attacks or the great Trevor Phillips himself scrawling marker on a Vespucci Beach condo’s wall, heists are always set up beforehand so you know what you’re getting into. Due to the massive popularity of GTA IV’s mid-game bank heist, Rockstar wisely chose to make these heists the backbone of GTA V. This gives the game structure that it lacked before. A unifying theme that ties the whole game together. There are a half dozen major heists, and any of them are more fun that any of the missions from previous games in the series.

Some of them are lifted straight from the movies that so prominently inspired GTA V, especially Michael Mann’s cops and robbers in LA classic Heat. Like the dump truck smashing the armored car or the downtown Los Santos shoot out at the end of the game that spills from block to block as waves of cops try and stop you from escaping with the loot from the last heist. Even little things like names, characters, the way the game looks or the way Michael’s wardrobe so closely matches Robert DeNiro’s from the film. It’s a good thing, trust me. If you’re going to rip off a movie to make a video game, you could do WAY worse than Heat.

Michael-gta-v-robert-de-niroHeists are supposedly coming to GTA Online some time in the next month or so, which means even more planning, teamwork, boosting getaway cars, buying/stealing supplies… All kinds of good times. It’s what Online is truly lacking at the moment. Something to link all of the random crap together.

The jewelry store heist has Michael enlist the help of Franklin and Lester to help him knock over a Rockford Hills shop in order to pay back a ruthless Mexican mob boss that Michael pissed off in a fit of mid-life crisis rage. After rounding up disguises, an exterminator van, and some handy knock-out gas, the boys raid the store with the help from hired goons. These goons you either meet throughout the game like Packie McCreary from GTA IV or other characters will introduce them, like Trevor’s meth-cook but level-headed buddy Chef. On the way out, before the daring underground dirtbike race, Michael mouths off to one of the guards outside… Spouting, “You forget millions of thing every day pal, make sure this is one of them.” A line from the prologue, and one that goes out on the evening news.

We first meet Trevor Phillips while he’s balls-deep in Ashley, the on-again/off-again tweaker-girlfriend of Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and the Damned’s protagonist Johnny… They’re obviously doing meth and having a good old time in the trailer park when Trevor sees a news report that sends him over the deep end he’s been circling for quite some time. In one of the few cameos from previous games, a now meth-addled Johnny comes looking for his girlfriend just in time to get curb stomped by Trevor in a fit of homicidal rage. Our first five minutes with the man and he’s already cornholed a tweaker and stomped the brains right out of a prominent GTA series figure.

Needless to say, Trevor is the man.

From time to time the choice to swap characters will disappear while the game steers you in a particular direction in order to hurry the story along. Taking over Trevor for the first time is one of those moments. While Michael and Franklin hide out in the wake of the jewelry store heist, Trevor decides to ride the wave of homicidal rage, taking out the local competition in the meth and guns trades. In a blaze of gunfire and bile, Trevor wipes out the drug-dealing Lost Motorcycle Club single-handedly before he sets his sights on the Aztecas, who control the local gun running. Along the way he goes to war with a rival clan of redneck meth cooks and pisses off a Triad mob boss looking to get into the meth biz. Once Trevor Phillips Industries (also Incorporated, Enterprises, and many others… the inconsistent name is a running gag in the game) secures the black market operations in Blaine County, Trevor finally gets the lead he’s been looking for and grabs his juggalo tweaker buddy and heads for the city, recanting a bit of he and Michael’s past along the way.

Trevor’s arrival in LS marks the end of Grand Theft Auto V’s first act, and the beginning of a long and kick-ass story that takes our heroes from high-altitude hijackings to underwater break-ins. The tension between Trevor and Michael builds, all the while you’re never really quite sure who is playing who, or who is undercover and who is making moves to take over the town. Wrapped up in a government conspiracy, the three amigos must put their differences aside in order to pull off that one last score…

Grand Theft Auto VGTA V is an amalgamation of every type of game out there, from racing game to shooter, from tennis to golf and all the places in between… There’s even a hunting game, a darts game, a parachuting game, races on sea, in the air… More content than any other console game I’ve ever seen. It’s engaging, well-paced, and absolutely hilarious. I’ve never laughed at a game as much as I did while following the antics of these three idiots… Hell as much as I STILL DO every time I play.

Then there’s the layer below the game itself, the movies you can go to the theater and watch, the  24-hour television, radio, and internet programming to distract you, the alcohol, marijuana, prostitutes and strip clubs. The pier has a roller coaster and Ferris wheel for pity’s sake. There is so much fun packed into every inch of the map, you’ll find it hard to focus on any one thing at a time. I often find myself having to choose what I want to accomplish ahead of any play time in order to commit myself to getting something done. Otherwise I’ll spend hours driving in the country side, catching massive air from sand dunes, bicycling, bmx jumping, breaking into high security military compounds to steal tanks or jet fighters… And these are all a la carte… Let alone the hours of mission running, Online play, or race/deathmatch creating you can do. The story is complex and multi-layered, the voice acting is the best I’ve ever heard, and the technical wizardry at work that lets this beauty run so well on a 7 year-old machine makes GTA V my favorite game of all time.

Never have I seen a game that is worth SO much more than the $60 I paid for it. It’s almost unheard of for me to STILL be committing unhealthy amounts of time to a game that’s been out for four months. I have barely touched the Playstation 4 sitting in the house because of one reason: I can’t play Grand Theft Auto V on it.

Until then I’ll be slumming it with the PS3 and having a brilliant time doing it.

Highest possible recommendations.Photo-1_7_14,-11.55.13-AM-55

Grand Theft Auto Online is About to Change Everything You Know About Online Gaming

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The Internet is alive with anticipation and the buzz is almost unbearably loud. Its a fan-boy’s wet dream, and its only going to get worse as we draw ever closer to September 17th. The imminent release of Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto V is shaping up to be the ultimate swansong for this generations Sandboxand more. gtaiii_3They’ve pushed the envelope of both graphics, storytelling, and the open-world concept.

Rockstar is one of the most, if not the most respected and revered publisher in today’s gaming world. Ten years ago they single-handedly redefined 3D game-play with Grand Theft Auto III, then promptly followed it up with the motorcycles, helicopters, and planes of Vice City. At the end of the Ps2’s life cycle, Rockstar released GTA: San Andreas, which featured a map that covered all of Southern California and Nevada from Los Santos (LA) to San Fiero (SF) to Las Venturas (Las Vegas). It was the pinnacle of the Playstation 2, and a game that millions devoted countless hours to the over-the-top gang warfare, character customization, gta-iv-san-andreas-03-700x466bicycles and jet fighters and parachutes that San Andreas brought.

Not to be out-done, Rockstar revolutionized the current generation as well with the brilliant and realistic Grand Theft Auto IV. Set in the same fictional Liberty City (NY) from GTA III, this time around the sandbox became highly detailed and realistic, shying away from the silly antics of the San Andreas days. GTA IV brought gritty, thought-provoking satire and offered the most realistic simulation of a city ever built inside a computer. Rockstar immediately followed that up with the expansive and ever-fun Red Dead Redemption, which brought the open world sandbox style of GTA to the old west… With what most consider to be the best western ever made.

You like what I did there?

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From all accounts they aren’t letting up. Grand Theft Auto V, which takes us back to a re-imagined San Andreas, comes out September 17, and its already being hailed as the next step in sandbox evolution. With Rockstar’s largest, most detailed map yet, this Oceans 11-type heist-fest is set to steal countless hours from you over the next few months.

But wait… Rockstar isn’t done.

gta1Over the past few days I’ve poured over interviews, read reactions, and soaked up everything I can learn about what is is going to be a total sea change in multiplayer gaming. Let me phrase that a little differently:

Grand Theft Auto Online is about to blow every other online gaming experience out of the water.

xl_GTA-Online-Screenshot-5-624In an interview with Rockstar’s Leslie Benzies, it was recently revealed that the game engine behind GTA V and GTA Online is fully expandable, meaning there is not limit to the size of the world that GTA Online can inhabit. He was quoted as saying that it was their ultimate goal to simulate The World.

So what started as a game engine to build the world of Grand Theft Auto V with quickly became the jumping off point for what is now looking to be one of the greatest achievements in online gaming history. So much so, that Rockstar has even pushed out the release date of GTA Online to Nov. 1st so that gamers can become accustomed to the single player world and the changes in game play. gtav2I’m blown away by the technical achievement here alone. For the head of Rockstar to say they can theoretically simulate the Earth, with cities and countries, people and all… The implications of that are just enormous. Benzies said that they wouldn’t stop until they’d simulated life.

For anyone that’s played Grand Theft Auto IV, that’s not too far a leap. If you’ve spent time in the living, breathing, bustling Liberty City, then you know how just standing on a street corner can prompt some of the game’s funniest mechanics. I once stood outside a cafe, letting the camera drift out over the street as I lay the controller down. Eventually there was a “crash” as an auto accident happened on the street in front of me, both drivers get out and start yelling at each other… Then one punches the other guy and hops back into his car and speeds off! This is exactly why GTA IV (and now V) are the most immersive experiences you can plug into. I mean come on, you can sit in your apartment and watch clever, satirical television programs made by the geniuses at Rockstar. The levels of GTA V are even deeper, and Grand Theft Auto Online brings it all live.

GTA_5_Multiplayer_13765788626619You can form crews, perform co-op heists, buy stocks, property, cars, insurance (in case some asshole steals your ride), the amount of detail put into this world is mind-boggling. There are the regular Deathmatch modes, other co-op missions, races on land, air, and sea, military jet dogfights above the city, air-support for elaborate heists that you and your friends (or strangers for that matter) can pull off for more cash. There are ATV races, jet ski races, launching-off-mountains-on-motorcycles-then-opening-your-parachute races, there is tennis, sports, gambling… Rockstar went ALL OUT this time… There are nearly 500 different missions that mix and match each time to create the most fun you can have online with both hands on the controller.

grand-theft-auto-v-91Now there aren’t any specific plans to release GTAV or GTA Online for next-gen consoles as of yet, but with Microsoft and Sony both set to release their next generation consoles this fall, it’s only logical that they will. Rockstar has built this all-inclusive simulated world, and they intend to keep it, expand it, and let it evolve as the years go by… So it’s no stretch that they wouldn’t force people to play on their Ps3’s and Xbox 360s five years from now. That means it’s perfectly safe to get the game if you’re planning on upgrading to a next-gen console this holiday. Just don’t throw out your old one yet, cause if you’re like me, a guy who still plays GTA IV to this day, you’ll be playing GTA V and GTA Online right up until it’s released on next-gen consoles.

fake-gta-v-hud-display-by-bones2When GTA Online releases, it will be seamless. There’s a wheel on the game’s heads-up-display that allows you to switch back and forth between the single player’s three main characters… And on Nov. 1st a fourth character will simply appear. You’ll be able to click on it and as the camera pulls back, up into the sky and then back down again on another portion of the map, it will drop you right into multiplayer mode. It’s all controlled from the in-game iPhone knock-off, and then loads during the character-switching animation. That means no lame party lists, no waiting in lobbies for other players to join, no countdowns while you furiously try and select your loadout, none of the old-school multiplayer annoyances.Grand Theft Auto V Rockstar has made the transitions in GTA V and Online as immaculate as possible.

You’ll first appear at the airport, a fresh face to San Andreas, and be guided by some of the single player’s characters through the first couple of missions, to give you a feel for the set up. In Online, just like the campaign, the game is all about money. There’s a real, fully functioning economy in San Andreas, where you can purchase stock, real estate, and different houses, condos, cars, and more. You can customize every aspect of your character from clothes and tattoos, as well as your vehicles- paint jobs, rims, convertibles!! gta2Each multiplayer mission nets you more cash, which you’ll need to remember to drop off at the bank, cause if you get capped out on the street by another person, they can steal it! That means once you get going, you’ll have to go to ATMs and such to keep your daily expenses paid (weapons, cars, etc) without carrying enough to make yourself a target for other players.

From planning elaborate heists that require multiple people, to simply robbing a liquor store while your buddy waits in the car, GTA-Online-Pictures-313Rockstar has made the criminal underworld simulation as detailed and as realistic as it can be. They’ve also re-done the combat mechanics of GTA, no more run and gun and try to not get shot. They’ve simply taken the cover and combat system from last year’s masterpiece Max Payne 3 and transplanted it into GTA. That means no more clunky gunfights… We get a true cover system, aiming, and even slow-motion bullet time for some instances! They’ve kept the driving mechanics from GTA IV (where the cars feel real because they have weight), and refined them. Better camera angles, more responsive steering and brakes, and the best of all? Slow-motion bullet-time driving in some cases as well!

GTA_V_Online_2All in all, it would appear Rockstar listened to the fans. Gone are the days of drive here and kills him missions, now everything ties into the heists, their planning, execution, and fallout. They took the great start they had in GTA IV and expanded it, making every single aspect of game play as good as it could possibly be… And I can’t explain in one post the extent to which they have gone to simulate a detailed and changing world in GTA Online. Even long after the single player campaign has been finished, people will be logging into GTA Online for years to come. If everything I’ve seen works are well as they say it will, one day you might log into GTA Online and start the game in your actual hometown, then travel out into the countryside to wreak havoc and mayhem from there.

This world is gigantic, it’s layered incredibly from the clouds to the bottom of the ocean, and it’s designed to expand well beyond the borders of Los Santos. This is the future of the sand box, and Rockstar has done it again.

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The Last of Us (PS3) – Review

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Let’s talk about magic. Not the Harry Potter, wave your wand kind of magic, but the real kind. The kind you feel on a first date, or a beach, or any time when events, emotions, thoughts, everything just seems to flow in harmony. When your ears are ringing from the comprehension that something truly special is happening… It doesn’t happen as often as it should in life. Especially in the realm of entertainment. Entertainment is another beast altogether. It’s manufactured magic… And most of the time you can tell the glaring difference between the two.

Movies, and lately TV, have always been the perfect medium for manufactured magic- just as any other art stirs emotion, thoughts, questions, etc… But at the same time, for every Godfather, Unforgiven, or Indiana Jones, there are 200,000 direct-to-video Steven Segal movies hoping to cash in. That’s the thing about entertainment. In it’s most refined form, it’s strictly for profit. last2It’s not coincidence that movies make billions of dollars these days, they’re designed to. However, luckily for us, even manufactured magic is magic. Let’s face it, there are great movies, and then there are Apocalypse Now’s… Just as there are great shows and then are Mad Men‘s.

Well, the 8th dimension has just been blown open. Now we have great video games, and then we have The Last of Us.

I’ve never played anything like it. Technically it’s a video game, in that it comes on a game disc and you play it on a console… But when the opening scene of this unfathomably fantastic adventure begins… It’s all magic from then on.

imagesThe Last of Us is the story of two people, Joel and Ellie, and how they survive 20 years after the world as we know it ends. Do you remember that scary picture of the tarantula that had been over-grown by the Cordyceps fungus? I do. It looks like some kind of monster from under the sea. As the spores from the fungus replaced the spider’s cells with its own, it changed it into the freakish alien-looking horror it became… While the spider was still alive. Ultimately, the spider dies and the spores are released into the air to find the next host. Scary right? Well imagine it happens to people. The spores have mutated, speeding up the process, turning regular people into mushroom-headed nightmares that attack and kill anything they see or hear.

It’s a twist on the old zombie apocalypse, one that’s rooted in real, disgustingly terrifying science.

the-last-of-us-hd-wallpaperThe Last of Us starts off on the night of the outbreak, with animation done so well it looks Pixar-real. Animation in a game is key, and the motion-capture technology used to bring these characters to life is as good as it gets. The movements are real, the faces, eyes, and the mouths all move perfectly to suspend the disbelief. The characters have weight, they don’t spring like normal video game avatars. They move deliberately, it’s one of the dozens of tiny details that work together seamlessly.

After the heart-wrenching opener we cut to Joel in Boston, 20 years later. He’s older, greyer, and hard as f*cking steel. The story picks up when Joel and his girlfriend Tess, a pair of morally-ambiguous smugglers, people who ferry goods and services in and out of the Quarantine Zone, get roughed up by a local henchman. Boston is one of the few remaining Zones that are still functioning, although the more time you spend in the Zone, the more it feels like these people are just dying a little slower than the infected that roam the dark corners of the world. The_Last_of_Us_Preview_1The story doesn’t fall back on exposition, it drops you in the middle. It doesn’t stop to explain everything that isn’t vital to the main story, and therefore doesn’t insult the intelligence of the player.

In fact, this “game” is all about not insulting the intelligence of the player. It takes every zombie-horror-survival cliche and turns it sideways. There is never a moment in the entire 17 hours of play that feels stale or tossed in… And did I mention no load times? Usually in games you’re waiting for a little bar to fill up in order to play the next mission or level… Here, it’s all one seamless experience. There’s no breaking the fourth wall to pull us out of the world we’re submerged in.

Seriously, there were times I referred to things in the game in the first person. Like, “well she’s been traveling with me for this long,” that never happens for me. I play a lot of video games and not once have I felt personally responsible for the outcome of the story. Why not? Because I’ve never been invested like I have in The Last of Us. I’m telling you, this is not a video game. It’s a simulation.

images2There are moments of pure shit-your-pants terror, where the controller is slipping from your hand because your palms are sweating from adrenaline. All because Naughty Dog, the makers of the uber-popular Uncharted series, plays it straight and lean. There’s no over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek here… There is brutal, unforgiving, and yet ultimately beautiful “game” play. From the scariest depths of spore-ridden basements to the stunning views of an over-grown world where nature has taken back what man had built, this is a phenomenal experience.

I won’t spoil a thing that you don’t already know. Joel and Tess meet up with Ellie, a young teenager, and they are paid to smuggle her out of the Quarantine Zone to the local militia/freedom-seeking Fireflies outside… But of course, things go wrong along the way, and it’s up to you to guide these characters across a ravaged landscape chocked full of scary fast zombies and even scarier fast people. Early on one character muses, it’s not the infected you have to worry about, it’s the people that are unpredictable.

elliesThe Last of Us is a triumph in every way. It succeeds in flushing out a world only glimpsed in films like The Road, Children of Men, or I Am Legend, in which the environment itself becomes a central character. It take you out of your living room and into a world so dangerous, so unforgiving, that the only choice is to be even more brutal. Eventually you come to truly care about the characters on the screen. When they’re hurt, you feel it… You really do. More than once I found myself tearing up, feeling grief, feeling betrayal, feeling the cathartic struggle for life. I cannot recommend this “game” enough. It’s the reason why the PS3 was made, and a fitting swansong for one of the best entertainment consoles ever made.

Bravo Naughty Dog. This is truly a work of art.

Mass Effect Trilogy Vol 1

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Bioware‘s massive science fiction franchise Mass Effect has been a favorite of fans for half a decade. If you like epic storytelling, ass-kicking heroes, and an open-world galaxy to explore, Mass Effect should be your next play. Spanning 3 hit games, a graphic novel series, a handful of books, and many more, Mass Effect is modern sci-fi entertainment at its best.

MEAliensIn the future, humans will live among the stars as newcomers to the galactic melting-pot. A well-established society of aliens living amongst themselves exists out there, and we’re just the latest, hot-shot kids to the table. That means we’re always getting picked on, always getting the shit jobs, always without a shred of respect from the others races of the universe. From the blue-skinned and beautiful, ancient and wise Ansari, to the religious, jellyfish-like Harnar, there are dozens, if not hundreds of intelligent species out there.

What we lack in experience, we make up for in everything else. urlOut of all the races, none seem to encapsulate the full range of knowledge, wisdom, experience, emotion, drive, self-reliance, like us humans. So this makes us simultaneously the butt of all jokes and the object of all desire. Ironic right?

It was mankind’s settlement on Mars that finally kick-started interstellar spaceflight and propelled us into the galactic community in 2148. When scientists begin poking around the planet’s south pole they find a long-abandoned alien outpost buried underground… Proof that we are not alone in the universe. Mankind’s identity is shaken to the core. Religions fall, tensions ease, and peace begins to take shape after centuries of strife. Technology from the alien outpost is adapted and it isn’t long before another, even more important discovery is made. Charon, the frozen moon of Pluto, is actually an ancient alien space station known as a mass relay… tumblr_lz5ggqUxui1qee5lgo1_1280A giant slingshot. Believed to be built 50,000 years before by the ancient and powerful Prothean civilization, with the help of the relays mankind begins to explore the galaxy. The Systems Alliance Charter is signed by the 18 largest nations on Earth, and for once humanity starts acting like a single species instead of squabbling children.

Soon colonies begin springing up, the first in the Arcturus system, where the massive Alliance Fleet is built, then later at Terra Nova and Eden Prime. Aided by the Alliance Military, mankind settles into the galaxy, still unaware of the bustling universe of alien life around them. MassEffect_2008-08-13_12-37-22-09Until scientists at Shanxi begin an attempt to restart a dormant mass effect relay, and are attacked by an unknown force. Unbeknownst to us, activating dormant mass effect relays is a strict no-no. What bumbling children mankind is, throwing their ego around wherever they go, assuming they are the wild west inheritors of the galaxy. The incident at Shanxi ignited what is now known as the First Contact War. 

All in all it was a big misunderstanding. Isn’t it usually? Citadel_Council-Turian_council_memberA Turian patrol came across an unknown life form (us) trying to jump start a gate that led to a sealed-off section of space inhabited by an extremely dangerous species known as the Rachni… The Turians had no idea who we were, they just saw some life form breaking galactic law so they killed it. We fought back, they fought back, we fought back harder, escalation, escalation, then “Woops! Sorry!”

Humanity stumbles onto the galactic stage as the shoot-first-ask-questions-later kind of irritant we’d normally shrug off. First impressions aren’t always the best.

It is 2157, and Shepard is 3 years old.

UP NEXT: The Citadel

What’s millions of years old, maintained by a race of little green guys, and perfect for the propagation of sentient life in the galaxy? The best damn space station ever built, that’s what.

Welcome to the Citadel.

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Mass Effect I, II, and III are available on PS3, Xbox 360, and PC

The Americans – Why it’s the Best New Thriller on TV

The-Americans-FX-showImagine it’s the early 1980s. Ronald Regan is newly-elected President, cassette tapes, Phil Collins, and Return of the Jedi are all the rage… And everyone’s wearing those puffy coats they used to wear that made them look like they just jumped ship.

Back to the Future jokes aside, it’s a scary time. Kids these days don’t remember the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, but I remember the constant threat of the “Russians.” They were always the bad guys in every action movie, and they were always on the news with scary parades of giant missiles, not like these North Korea guys…30americans-span-articleLarge The Russians were actually scary.

There aren’t any cell phones, or internet, or laptops or iPads… But there are color TVs and microwaves, and these new things called personal computers… Oh, and the constant threat of thermonuclear annihilation.

Now imagine you’re a regular guy, with a wife, a house, two kids, a travel agency to run. You go to PTA meetings, you mingle with neighbors, you go to the movies and follow Carson… The American dream, right?

ta20130104-357-jpg_204929Then you get a phone call, and there’s a code, and you’re off to meet your handler in the middle of the night… Why? Because you, and your wife, are actually deep-cover KGB agents. You have been since you were 17. Recruited to become super-spies, to lose the accent, to blend completely. You met your wife for the first time just a few weeks before you left Moscow. You are a KGB cell, and you are here to spy, to kill, and to destabilize if necessary. Oh, and honey? Can you pick up some .45 caliber slugs, some C4, and some butter on your way home?

This is the premise of FX’s hit thriller The Americans, which airs Wednesday night at 10, and this is my vote for best new show. Starring Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell as the Jennings, the normal couple next door that just happens to be KGB.

jYQdyGu9tl75VCreated by ex-CIA agent Joe Weisberg, the series has been a hit for Fox’s cable channel, FX, following a string of successful shows like Archer and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia… Shows that have redefined television as far as I’m concerned. Cable’s after-10pm time slot is the coveted “We can show and say almost anything” spot thanks to South Park, and in the last few years channels like FX and AMC have used they leeway to push the envelope. This is FX’s first high-concept action show, and it sometimes strays into fantastic-land, but Fox knows what they’re doing. No one brings action to TV like Fox, anyone remember Jack Bauer? Thankfully The Americans doesn’t stray into over-the-top cliche suspense, it relies on something much more intricate.

What makes The Americans work so well? The characters. Rhys and Russel are amazing as Nadezhda and Mischa, aka Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings. At the heart of the show is the marriage between the two agents. FX-TheAmericans-2_Keri-Hallway_1009_CMYK_FThey’ve been pretending to be married for over 15 years, they take the kids to school, they make the dinners, check the homework, do the dance, all the things we do everyday… But the brilliance is the fact that they walk the line between truly just “going through the motions” and real human connections. They’ve been pretending to be happily married for so long, how do their own personal feelings fit in there? The rest of the cast, thankfully, isn’t just window dressing either, this is an extremely talented team. Co-star Noah Emmerich, one of the most underrated actors in Hollywood, is compulsively watchable as the emotionally scarred FBI agent that moves in next door. It provides opportunities for so many layers of suspense as the season progresses, especially after an incident with Emmerich’s partner.

We find out early on that both husband and wife use sex as a tool in their espionage belt, and the show is at its best when both of them return home at the end of the day, going to bed like the Cleavers at night. It’s a better version of Mr. & Mrs. Smith. These people have to wear so many masks, they’ve lost their real identities in the process. One of my personal favorite characters in the show is Phillip’s alter-ego Clark, a character he plays in order to get information from the FBI office. When they’re alone and the mission is over and the kids are in bed, who are they? rhyamericans1Do they love each other? Can they turn a fake marriage into a real one? After 15 years of living with someone, fighting with someone, spying with someone, wouldn’t a natural emotional connection emerge? Can that survive in the harsh world of cold-war espionage? Phillip is more Americanized, Elizabeth is slightly unstable, and someone is always watching… Can you take the kids to school this morning? I was stabbed in the leg during a mission last night.

Plus the build up to these two having a knock-down, drag-out, ass-kicking fight is just killing me. I know it’s going to happen, you know it’s going to happen, they know it’s going to happen. Oh man I can’t wait to see it.

the-americans-fx-1It’s also refreshing that there is something decent to watch during the week. Usually all of the good TV is on Sunday nights, while the rest of the week is spend waiting for Sunday night. We need more of these mid-week thrillers to keep break up the monotony of the prime-time landscape. There’s no shaky-camera, no over-the-top action… The dialogue is sharp, the plot multi-layered, the characters are believable, and best of all- it leaves you wanting more. If the credits roll and I’m holding my breath for next week’s trailer, I know its a good show.

If you haven’t seen The Americans, you need to. If it looks cheesy and pulpy, then your expectations are the problem, not this show. This show isn’t perfect, but it’s as good as it gets for mid-week escapism. In a post-Lost world where TV executives have to go head-to-head with adult-drama behemoths like Mad Men, Game of Thrones, it’s hard to find a good show that isn’t a weekend-ender. The Americans has my vote for best new show this year. Suck it Revolution.