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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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…

 

Infinite

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“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.

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

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.

MassEffect2Citadel

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

Toomb’s Tomb Raider Review

286142-blackangelMaking a new Lara Croft game is a tricky proposition. A franchise that has spawned countless games, 2 Angelina Jolie-starring movies, and inspired one of the best been-caught-masturbating scenes ever filmed (Grandma’s Boy). So when Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics Tomb Raider-reboot, simply titled Tomb Raider, was announced a few years ago, everyone’s reaction was pretty much the same: “Well of course they are.”

Don’t you love it when you get proven wrong?

2446979-tombraider_2013_03_05_22_24_38_600Holy shit this is one of the best games you can get for any console ever! They hit it out of the park on this one ladies and germs, cause Lara Croft is back in a(nother) origin story that is filled with edge-of-your seat action, palm-sweating-climbing, and so much more. Tomb Raider also comes with the highly coveted “my wife played straight through in a couple days” seal of approval that only comes along maybe once a year. I knew from the moment I first rented it that it was one of those special efforts that transcends the typical “awesome game” experience. In fact I had to return the rental and go trade in some old games so I could own a copy. It’s good enough to go in this broke guy’s keepers collection.

Lara Croft is the most famous heroine in modern fiction. She’s sexy, she’s independent, and she kicks ass in a pony-tail. In Tomb Raider, we find out how she becomes that way. Her character crosses platforms, media, and pretty much picked up where Indiana Jones left off on, and where only Nathan Drake has been able to continue. I mention Drake on purpose here, because it’s so obvious that Square Enix drew heavily on the EXTREMELY successful Uncharted series for their latest reboot. uncharted-2-among-thieves-1902Uncharted and its sequels are hands-down the most fun you’ll have outside a Rockstar Game. They are not video games per se, they are playable action movies. If you’ve never played Uncharted and you’re a gamer, you need to take a look at your priorities… Uncharted 2 is in my top 5 favorite games of all time (a list that, should it expand at all, will undoubtedly include Tomb Raider).

The reason Uncharted works so well, and also why Tomb Raider works even better, is because of the cut scenes. There aren’t any. With traditional “cut scenes” you’ll play a level, then it will cut to a mini-movie that moves the plot forward (if your lucky enough to have a game with a plot) before you play the next level. Rinse, repeat… It’s boring and monotonous and makes most games sub-par. Cut scenes can ruin a game (Dead Island) or, if done right, can truly elevate a game to a different level of entertainment.

lara-7Like Uncharted, and now Tomb Raider, time and effort were put into the story, the voice-acting, the motion-capture animation, and the way they all work together. The result is truly astonishing. Cut scenes stop being just that and become seamlessly integrated into the game. Video games are always STOP-GO-STOP-GO because of cut scenes and I think they break up the action and take away from the immersion. In Tomb Raider, right from the start you’re shot out of a cannon and the action never slows down.

Camilla Luddington has stepped into Lara Croft’s climbing boots, and with the use of some remarkable motion-capture CGI, the new Lara is an unforgettable character. From the first scene where she is shipwrecked, hit over the head, and hung from the ceiling in a scary cave, you empathize for her. When she falls and is impaled (albeit slightly), you feel the shock… Tomb-Raider_2013-1When she scrambles under collapsing rocks in a cave-in, you scramble too, mashing buttons to get away as a scary bad-guy tries to grab her legs, you break out in a sweat… When she jumps across a mind-numbingly-high chasm to barely grasp the opposite ledge, you hold your breath… Any flaws this game might have are so overshadowed by the brilliance of the M-rated action that they don’t even register. Tiny things like handling (Lara has a tendency to NOT turn around and grab the nearest ledge, resulting in more than a few accidental falls) and frame rate issues become insignificant with all this beautiful game going on.

Plainly said, this is what a video game should be… Mystery, suspense, action, vertigo-inspiring climbing, immaculate graphics, hidden treasures, and the best part? It’s open-world for the most part. Once the main story line is over, you’re free to explore the island… Where plenty of side-missions, hidden booty, and of course, tombs to be raided.

“It hate tombs.” Lara says after emerging from the first one. I’ll try not to get offended.

tomb-raider-2013Lara is 21 years old in this prequel. Fresh out of college with a sound theory on the ancient Japanese legend of Yamatai, a forbidden island reminiscent of Lost meets Apocalypse Now. When she and her friends are shipwrecked on the island, it’s up to Lara to learn how to survive in the jungles, caves, mountains, and shanty towns of the island. At the beginning of the game she is a normal girl, in an extraordinary situation, where she must adapt, overcome, and yes, kill in order to survive and save her friends. When Lara has to kill for the first time it is brutal, intimate, and disturbing. On the other hand, because it is still a video game filled with bad guys, within minutes Lara becomes a cold-blooded arrow-shooting assassin telling her mentor, “I had to kill a man.” “Lara, that couldn’t have been easy,’ He responds.

“It’s scary how easy it was…” replies Lara.LaraBloodyGoodTime

You climb to the highest peaks, and zip-line to the deepest caverns, you sneak-attack with arrows or you’re caught in a full-on firefight with the homicidal cultists on the island. Nothing like a homicidal cult to ruin your expedition eh?

Go out and rent or buy this game right now. You won’t regret it. The graphics, the story, the acting, the gameplay, they’re all nearly perfect. Tomb Raider is available on all platforms, PS3, Xbox, PC, and it boasts a fairly-fun multiplayer as well. It’s guaranteed a great time!Tomb-Raider_Screenshots-12-3-9

Crysis 3 Tries Really Hard to Take the First-Person Shooter to the Next Level

iRhD5QPRZfw0LI rented Crysis 3 from my local Redbox on a whim. I’d never played either of the first two, in fact I didn’t even know it was a first-person shooter when I got it. With the miracle of modern technology I was able to yank up my Google app and look at some reviews from IGN while I was standing there contemplating getting it, and man am I glad I did. By the time I was finished with Crysis 3‘s main storyline I was sad I had to return the game. I could have played it over, and lately that seems to be the gauge for a good game.

crysis3dammap1First of all, it’s a visually stunning experience. Using the new CryEngine 3 it manages to pack more awesome particles on the screen than any game I’ve seen recently, and that was just on the PS3… I can only dream of how it looks on the PC with the settings turned up. What it really adds up to is very cool looking grass and water effects. I found myself being distracted by the environment MANY times throughout the short storyline, leading me off on little side adventures… Nothing as cool as Tomb Raider, but that’s another review. All in all Crysis 3 is a very well acted, written, and produced game. It almost felt like I was playing something next-generation. Along with a Call of Duty-caliber multiplayer on top, EA’s latest release is a good step in the right direction for this kind of game.

Crysis 3 takes place in the near future, when super soldiers wear special nanosuits made from stolen alien technology. crysis22011032311210878The suits enhance their abilities and let you jump higher, run faster, and best of all: turn invisible! The extremely complicated plot involves a mega-corporation that controls all of the energy on the planet. I don’t want to say too much but they get it from a source they shouldn’t be messing with, so it’s up to you, Prophet, the ultimate super-soldier, to stop them. The game is mostly an open-world experience, where exploring every nook and cranny will net you rewards. The weapons are fairly standard, except when you pick up an alien gun… But even then they’re nothing to write home about. The real fun comes from using the new bow and arrow. You get different tips on them for different situations, and it’s extremely satisfying to put an arrow through an unsuspecting bad guy’s head.

Unfortunately Crysis 3 has some glaring downfalls that really distract from the experience. One is the length, this is the shortest story mode I’ve played. They’ve trimmed off all the fat and made it a straight-forward break in and save the world plot. crysis-3-review-fpsI wouldn’t have minded so much, but it was such a great story, with some top-notch voice acting. Secondly, the use of the cloaking device is not nearly as good as it should be.  Before too long I found myself repeating the same situation over and over, I’d get to a new area, sneak around and arrow a guy or two until their buddies catch on that someone is there and start lobbing grenades everywhere. Then I’d hide until they calmed down and go around trying to take each one out. Then I’d move on to the next area. It wasn’t until the middle of the game when all hell breaks loose that it got really interesting. Then by the time I got around to enjoying the story and the game play it was all over.

Crysis-3-Explosions-Beneath-the-Liberty-DomeWhen I think about it now, Crysis 3 is more of an action movie than a video game It doesn’t feel immersive and it never stops reminding you that you’re playing a video game. You drop in, blast your way through what’s left of New York, watch a lot of well acted cut scenes, and then an extremely satisfying and rousing ending… Then it’s over and you’re left wanting more. I don’t know if it’s because I had rented it and was pressed for time, or if it simply seemed too short, but when I was done it felt like I’d just played the last half of a really cool, epic sci-fi shooter.

It’s a good rent, but other than the arena-style multiplayer, the outstanding graphics, and the above-average voice acting and storyline all add up to something that is less than the sum of its parts. Crysis 3 is available on PS3, Xbox 360, and PC.

Cutting the Cable Cord: Day 1

cable_cord_byAlyson_Hurt_flickrccHow much is your cable bill? How about when you let it slide for a few weeks? Ever pick it apart and read the fine print? Now let me ask you this: Do you know what Stockholm Syndrome is?

You know, the one where the hostages lose their minds and start to feel a bond with the kidnappers? It’s like the story of the frog in the pot. The water’s warm, it keeps getting warmer, it feels great and relaxing, and then it’s frog soup.

Well this analogy can be used for anything in our society today, from the inability of our government to function on even the basest levels, to the Doritos Cool Ranch Taco at Taco Bell, the water is boiling… and we’re too relaxed to notice we’re about to be soup… But I’m talking about cable television.

infographic-cutting-the-cableWho knows this game? Your bill is too high so you call up Comcast and say you need to cut back some services and possibly switch to Dish… The representative pretends he or she hasn’t played this game every 5 minutes for the last 5 years  and gives you free HBO for six months and a boost on your internet speed… and maybe if you’re lucky will cut your bill down enough to make you feel like you’re empowered, like Comcast really cares about your business and wants to keep you as a customer.

I played this game for over 10 years and I can’t do it anymore. So as of today, as painful as it might be, my family has “cut the cord.” I turned in all of our cable boxes and gave up the charade of cable television. After literally months of back and forth, pros and cons, and swearing “this’ll be the week…”, tonight we are free. We can watch whatever we want without the constraints of “the guide.”

Let’s face it Comcast, “the guide” is the same crappy blue boxes you implemented 20 years ago. I’ve been staring at the same unresponsive menus and horrible interface for the better part of my adult life. Well, all of it actually… And yes I know that says something about my lifestyle, but I assure you, I do all things in moderation… ESPECIALLY moderation. While they might have added HDTV programming and On Demand (which now completely sucks because there and commercials and you can’t fast forward) to the mix, it’s still the same 25-year-old technology they’re selling us as next year’s model.

the-cable-guy-tbi-1Our last bill from Comcast was $601.00. That’s six hundred dollars, and that’s not a typo. That was also the last straw. Yes, it is three months worth of bills cause of their stupid bill-in-advance system, but still… $600??!! We had an HD-DVR in the living room, an HD box collecting dust, and an old black Motorola doing the same… Plus HBO (half price) and Showtime (half price) and a myriad of shit channels we don’t EVER watch. So I packed them in the trunk, went down and took a number in line, and stood there watching Netflix on my iPhone just to say “F you Comcast.” It would have been a much more satisfying experience if the dude at the counter hadn’t been so damn cool. So that plus internet works out to $200 a month. That’s $2400 a year. Are you beginning to see the water bubbling?

We’ve got 2 PS3s, 1 Sony BluRay, a Wii, a half dozen i-devices, and an HDTV antennae. We’ve also ordered the Boxee, which will be here Tuesday. It uses an internal HDTV antennae to record live TV, DVR-style, and stores it on a server without a limit to how much you store. Did you say no-limit cloud storage? We’ve got Amazon Prime, we’ve got Netflix, and we’ve got resourcefulness.

photo_610x357I’ll admit, it was a little overwhelming. Simply because cable has been such a part of my life, especially HBO and lately AMC, but now I can just BUY those episodes when the day they air anyway. Then I’ll own it! In the next month, two of my favorite shows return, and even if I have to pay $40 for an HD season of Game of Thrones, $40 for Mad Men, $40 for True Blood, etc… That’s still less than one goddamn Comcast payment! And it’s a cost that’s spread out over a few months, and lets me add my favorite shows to my video library!

cord-cutting-cableIt’s time to change the channel from cable television… To boldly go where no one has gone before and all that… Huzzah!

To be continued…

Dead Space 3 Proves There’s Still Plenty of Life Left in Sci-Fi

Isaac_DS3Let me tell you a quick story. While it may be one you’ve heard before, I won’t keep you long…

Not long ago, Isaac Clarke was just a clever engineer on a rescue mission to save his girlfriend. This is in the future, after the human race almost caused its own extinction by using every resource it could get its hands on. This is after the Concordance Extraction Corporation (or CEC) unveils the colossal USG Ishimura, the ship that became a symbol of mankind’s endurance and will to survive. Not only was it the biggest ship ever built, but the first “planet-cracker” as well, using gravity tethers to pop giant chunks of rock from the crust of lifeless planets. CEC, and the Ishimura were almost solely responsible for bringing humanity back from the edge of extinction and jump-starting space expansion.

Deadspace_CrackedNearly a century later, our hero’s scientist girlfriend Ellie is stationed in the Ishimura‘s medical research wing when it is dispatched to CEC’s not-so-legal mining colony on Aegis IV. You see in the 26th century, the dominant religion is Unitology… A faith based on the belief that mankind was created by an alien race through the power of an all-power object known as “the marker.” This isn’t one of those flower-holding religions where you’re accosted in the airport, this is the “death is only the beginning” kind where followers adamantly believe they will be reunited with their alien architects after death and their leaders ascend to the highest levels of military, business, and government.

Dead_Space_Vs__Alienware_by_DarkCrash100The Ishimura is sent to Aegis IV to retrieve “the red marker,’ an alien object which is believed to be a holy object and the source of life in the universe… However not long after the marker is discovered, the colonists start to suffer from hallucinations, outbreaks of irrational behavior, and violence. Once the Ishimura arrives at the planet and the marker is brought up from the surface, all hell breaks loose, and all communications are lost.

Unitology_010With religious zealots scheming to bring about the “evolution” of mankind, greedy corporations who are only after what they can exploit, and a REALLY gross alien virus that reanimates dead tissue and turns your dearly departed into twisted monsters called Necromorphs… It’s up to you to help Isaac Clarke and his suspiciously gun-like engineering tools to save the universe.

Dead_Space_3_Ice_Demo_01Welcome to Dead Space… Welcome to science fiction horror gaming at it’s best… Welcome to a silent universe, where new planets are always lifeless, and where only the scuffling of razor-sharp claws in the ventilation ducts is there to keep you glued to your controller at 1:45 in the morning. I’m talking NASTY critters here, the kind your girlfriend is going to hate this game for. The kind that have to have their arms and legs blown off to really slow them down at all. The kind that send you screaming into controller-throwing frenzies when the limbless corpse of your digital hero goes tumbling through a darkened corridor for the fifth time in a row.

This is also really fun.

dead space barrel

I haven’t finished Dead Space 3 yet, EA‘s latest installment in the blockbuster, multi-platform franchise released last week on PS3, Xbox 360, and PC, but that’s because I’m deliberately going slow. Normally I cruise through Dead Space games, including the original, the sequel, the spin-off Dead Space: Extraction, and even the two animated movies (available on Netflix). I eat it up like chocolate, pulse pounding and palms sweating… But I always end up completing these games too fast… And while my first inclination is to run through these horribly scary environments as fast as I can, I’ve made the right choice. Visceral Games has given us something worth taking our time.

dead-space-3-ice-planetThere are enough reviews of Dead Space 3 out there right now, so I won’t go into too much detail, suffice it to say that the game has its faults… But you barely notice them. One of the biggest complaints for this iteration is the action-heavy theme this time around. Making Isaac more maneuverable, able to duck and roll and climb ladders, the significant jump in ammo count, but these aren’t just thrown in… I was never happy with the Resident Evil-style slow-walking Isaac from the first game, with his stiff movements and unconventional weaponry. These “changes” feel more like fixes to me, but that’s just my opinion. They haven’t turned Dead Space into Mass Effect… This game is straight up terrifying… And I like horror. I live for the thrill, the jump, the yelp. Dead Space takes it to a whole new level. See, one thing other reviewers are missing is the bigger picture here… And I think it’s because a lot of reviewers have a quota. dead-space-3-pc-1343203492-020They have to rush through and finish 3 or 4 times to test out what most consumers can take weeks, even months to savor… And that’s when I realize that Dead Space, while action-packed this time around, is meant to be savored.

It’s a feast for the senses. A gruesome, suspenseful, and epic sci-fi adventure that takes Isaac and his crew across the galaxy chasing the origins of the marker conspiracy. It looks bright and colorful on my LCD, and nearly flawless on the plasma screen. The crowded corridors and giant machinery of the environments are all accented by the scariest soundtrack I have ever heard in my life. Seriously, turn up the levels on your surround speakers a little and it practically drops you into the game. Noises like creaking ducts, slamming doors, awesome weapons, and all manner of beeps, blips, and alarms fill the scene… But it’s the whispers that truly freak me out. Dead-Space-3-PS3-610x400One of the main aspects of the plot is how the marker gets into people’s’ minds and seeps poison that drives them to insanity and murder. These whispers make you want to turn the game down, it’s that creepy.

I want to stress how visually stunning this game is. It’s easy to forget the graphics in a horror game where everything is dark and gory with disturbing monsters jumping out of nearby air ducts to surprise you as you walk down a seemingly safe passageway… But in Dead Space 3 there is a moment in the first few chapters, when Isaac must use his engineering smarts to fix up a 200-year-old space ship from a floating junkyard in orbit… This is genius level designing… Various half-wrecked hulks and abandoned space stations all connected by a handy little taxi system that lets you explore a staggering amount of free-roaming space… And the best part? It’s all in zero-gravity.

DeadSpace3-4

When Isaac emerges from the taxi to see the ancient spaceship graveyard for the first time, standing on a flimsy metal platform that overlooks the never-ending debris field that orbits a mysterious and stunningly rendered planet… It’s nothing less than poetry. It’s a special kind of magic that only video games can give you, and that’s when you forget you’re playing a game. It’s when you’re transported into the screen. Isaac and EllieWhen you’re actually standing on that flimsy metal platform, with the abyss of space before you. You can feel that first step off the platform…  The vertigo is real… The suspense is maddening. It’s a beautifully crafted piece of pop art that deserves more praise and analysis than I can give. With an intricate plot, professional acting, outstanding graphics, intense gameplay… However it ends I know it’ll leave me wanting more. This is Dead Space.