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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Movie Reviews: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Howdy Chaos Corner fans! I'm back with another in my series of "classic" movie reviews. I'm continuing with my reviews of the Star Trek movie franchise. Today, I'll be reviewing Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. I'll try to tread lightly, but I won't be able to avoid the spoilers here like I did for TMP. Now, for many Trek fans, TWOK is the "Holy Grail", the pinnacle of Trek's movie adventures. For others, it drifts too far from the lofty ideals of Roddenberry in favor of action, or it is seen as a step backwards from the epic scope of TMP. So, is this Star Trek par excellence, or is this a severely overrated TV show wannabe? Let's take a look then...

Personal Background: As a kid, I watched Star Trek; I grew up with it- my parents watched the re-runs constantly, which meant I watched them too. I was a wee one when Khan came out in 1982, and I know I didn't see it in theaters (a bit too young). I am unaware if my parents had or not, but I do know they owned the RCA VideoDisc format (like TMP). However, unlike my childhood interest in other Trek episodes and TMP, I intensely disliked Star Trek II. As a wee lad (I was 4 or 5 when this came out), I was scared by this movie. In particular, the part with the Ceti Eels terrified me. I hated the music, Chekhov's screaming, etc. The rest of the movie was dark and scary, and of course, the death of Spock traumatized me. I hated this movie.

Scared the hell out of a 6 year old me...
 However, as I grew older, I became more mature, and I "rediscovered" the movie when I was just getting into high school. I bought the set of movies on VHS, and began watching TWOK. I fell in love with the movie at that point, and have ever since. It isn't perfect, but heck- whatever is? I shouldn't even need to say that, but too many people look for "perfect". OK, so why is this movie so good?




Basic Plot: Admiral Kirk is nearing the end of his career as he and Captain Spock are put in charge of teaching new cadets aboard the Enterprise. Kirk is depressed about his new lot in life, missing the days of adventure and youth. Then, the unthinkable happens. Khan, a genetic superman from the 20th century, who was exiled by Kirk, is accidentally found by the crew of the Reliant. Khan immediately takes over the Reliant, and he has a plan in mind. Khan blames Kirk for all the tragedy that has ruined his life, and he sets in motion a deadly game of cat and mouse, plotting to see the demise of Kirk. In the balance is the Genesis device- a miracle of science with the power to create life on dead worlds! Kirk must now race to stop Khan from acquiring the device- least Khan uses it to take over the universe. But all Khan wants to do is lure Kirk into his trap...


 Themes/Concepts: This is where TWOK really gets its huge reputation and following. While the themes of TMP were grand sci-fi, this one is much more human, so much more relate-able. The movie is really about facing your mortality. Everyone dies, its that simple. But how do we each face it? Some scoff at the idea, others obsess over it. Many simply find it too disturbing to even think about. Of course, if you know you're going to die, you'd like to know that you found you're place in life and lived it to the best/fullest. That you did everything you'd like to do in life. It could be having a family, having a rewarding job, traveling the world, living up to a moral code, whatever- its different for each person. But- for just how many people does that all happen for?

Despite the fame of this bit, it does symblozie how broken Kirk is
Therin lies the heart of TWOK. It rarely happens like that; life is tough, and bad things happen. So many die unfulfilled, failing to live the life they thought/dreamed they would. That is what this movie is really about- aging, and the knowledge that death is near- did you live your life to the fullest? At the start of TWOK, Kirk is old now. He's 50- he knows that he won't be out "adventuring" anymore... its a "game for the young". Now, reflecting on his life- knowing that there are "fewer days ahead than there are behind", Kirk is melancholy. He's made personal mistakes, moral mistakes, and he isn't a hero anymore. He feels that he's already had the best- and its not enough. He treats his birthday as a "funeral", he's miserable, believeing he's finished and not happy with the results. Khan is at exactly the same point- this man was a ruler of "a quarter" of earth over 200 years ago. He lost it all then, left earth in suspended animation, and was awoken in the 23rd century by Kirk. Khan is then exiled to Ceti Alpha V with is wife, forgotten by Kirk and everyone else. Disaster strikes, and his world is reduced to a wasteland, and his wife is dead. Khan looks back at his life and he sees the tragedy, the waste. It drives him mad- a man so powerful, reduced to less than nothing. The state of Ceti Alpha V is a mirror for Khan's soul- a wrecked, dying landscape. The only thing that lives there, is hate.

Project Genesis: some of the earliest CGI work in movies
The other theme is rebirth- the cycle of life and death. This is clearly represented by the Genesis device- a miracle of science that is "life from death" in every sense. A power beyond imagining. When Khan learns of this device, think of what must run through his mind- he could use it to make a new world for his followers, perhaps. Or use it to take over earth- a threat like a nuke. But, he is so broken, so lost, that he decides to use Genesis to get back at his hated foe, his tormentor, Kirk. Khan is willing to pervert such brilliant power for a single, crude murder is just staggering, when you think about it, especially when you factor in how brilliant Khan is and he surely can see Genesis for what it is. Ironically for Kirk, the crisis of the Genesis device becomes a means to possibly re-connect with his family- a second chance to do right by his son.

Spock ties into these themes also, a man who HAS found his place, who has accepted things, who has "found himself". He lives by his moral/logical code, and he sacrifices himself, without hesitation or hand-wringing- unlike either Kirk, who doesn't quite understand "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few" until the end, or Khan- who is willing to die in order to murder his rival.  Again, the themes all come together here. This is why the movie is brilliant. No other Trek movie is about such lofty, but all too human, themes.


Characters/Acting: Of course, Ricardo Montalban IS Khan. His performance is indeed worthy of the reputation he gets from this movie. Better still, if you have seen him in the TOS epsiode "Space Seed", his performance takes on even more depth. Khan is a genius, and Montalban shows that thoroughly- in his words, in his eyes. Constantly thinking... five steps ahead of everyone else (except Kirk). Then there's his strength- Montalban makes you believe that he IS a genetically engineered "superman"; there has always been fanboy debate about his famous pecs, are they real or not... frankly, it is irrelevant. Montalban carries his physical prowess as a threat- despite his age and his weariness and the suffering he's endured- he can put the hurt on anyone still. Finally, there's the broken rage. Khan went from being one of the biggest, strongest, and most powerful leaders of old Earth and, by strange fits and starts, he has been reduced to nothing. Just a relic on the "barren, sand heap" of a planet. Of course, he is infuriated by the loss of his wife. That is something that anyone could relate to- the loss of a loved one. But for Khan, this was the last straw. He has lost it all- his wife was the last in a long line of indignities. And who has been responsible? The man who "woke" him in "Space Seed"- Kirk. Kirk woke him, deduced his identity, and thwarted Khan in his plans to take the Enterprise and begin again (a major theme for the movie).It was Kirk who sent him to Ceti Alpha V... Khan, a superhuman genius, in every way Kirk's superior- just can't get out from what Kirk has done to him, these last injustices. And Montalban gets that and nails it. He is all anger and fury- his other traits warped and diminished by his hate and resentment. Montalban makes that so apparent- no wonder he gets cred for being one of sci-fi's best villains- his reputation is well deserved.

"Other people have birthdays- why are we treating yours like a damn funeral?"
Speaking of Kirk- this is Shatner's finest hour as Kirk. Yes, Montalban gets the praise, while Nimoy gets the tears, but in actuality- this movie works because of Shatner. Khan could be the best villain ever and Spock's death could be sad, but the movie rises above those things- a meditation on aging, dreams unfulfilled, and finding and accepting one's place in the scheme of things. Shatner's Kirk goes on that journey. In TMP he had one last "big adventure"- at the start of TWOK he seems resigned to the fact that his best days are behind him. That he is "old, worn out". You see the weariness in every scene until Khan shows up. Suddenly, a "new adventure"- but this time, death seems very real for Kirk. Until now, Kirk has laughed in the face of danger- he's escaped the worst fates imaginable in TOS- and the episodes always ended in a laugh between Kirk and the crew. But this time- Khan could well succeed- when Kirk sees Khan's image onscreen as his attacker- look at Shatner- there's bewilderment, fear, and then the sense of  "That's it. I'm screwed".

The best scenes of Shatner's career
Throughout his battle with Khan, Kirk is fighting for his life, and he realizes that life is worth living- worth fighting for. He's doing what he does best- fighting against the odds to save his crew (and the galaxy). Kirk seems to recover his old "swashbuckling"- and then, Spock dies. All over again, death becomes all too real for Kirk- someone has paid the price for his "adventuring". Shatner's scene with a dying Spock is his best moment, along with his moving words at Spock's funeral. However, this is where it gets really good for Kirk (Shatner)- life goes on. He has a son, a family- that's worth living for. He has made mistakes, as has everyone else- Spock's death teaches Kirk that, and when he says "I feel young"- its not his age. Its his understanding- about himself, about human nature.

Spock's moving death
Nimoy also reflects this idea of "understanding" in his portrayal of Spock. Truth be told, Spock is surprisingly muted here. Such a vital character- yet he's quiet, serene in this movie. This is not the cold logic of TOS and TMP, Spock has come to an understanding about his human side since TMP. He is, in a sense, balanced. His role of teacher suits him greatly. He is official with his students, yet he cares for them (not just Saavik). His scenes with Kirk for his birthday shows that too. Spock has "found his place" in the universe, and he is more "human" than ever before as a result. His quietness/subtlty in the movie is then exploded in the final minutes in the Mutara Nebula- Spock, without a word to Kirk- goes to engineering to fix the warp drive- knowing full well that he will die doing so. It's not a "here goes nothing" action- Spock is too logical for that. His neck-pinch of McCoy is great, and his death scene is absolutely tragic. It's emotional without Spock being emotional. The glass that separates him and Kirk is a great metaphor for the "alienness" of Spock- and Nimoy shows his character breaking through that in his final moments, as he explains his rationale.

Even the other characters reflect the themes of the movie
The other characters get more to do this time as well. Scotty is great in his scenes, especially in the extended cut, with his nephew dying in his arms. McCoy is also strong, as usual. His debate with Spock about the merits of Genesis is classic Trek. Sulu and Uhura get a few good lines. Chekhov gets a chance to shine when he is captured and tortured by Khan. Finally, the first "next gen", if you will- David and Saavik. They represent some of the themes of the movie, and both give memorable performances. Who knew that Kirk's son would be so whinny? Hehe!

Saavk represents the natural cycle
Special Effects: Compared to TMP, the effects here are minimal, to say the least. Indeed, many have said this is where the movie is more like a TV episode- a bottle episode, at that! Even the bridge of the Enterprise is the same set as the bridge of the Reliant. Some of the Enterprise shots in space dock are from TMP, as are the shots of the Klingon cruisers during the Kobyashi Maru scene. All of that is true; it was done to save money. After all TMP was incredibly expensive, and while it made money, it was not nearly enough- so the studio said "not again" and paired down the budget. Makes sense, business-wise.

However, I'd argue that the special effects ARE very good- even if there aren't a ton of them. Indeed, filmmakers today, obsessed with putting CGI into nearly every scene, could learn from TWOK. The effects are put into the service of the plot, and NOT the other way around. The battle scenes do exactly what they have to do- the tensions of "submarine warfare" are served by these ship effects. The Genesis simulations give you the sense of what's at stake (and the first major use of CGI, by the way) if Khan gets the Genesis device. Finally, the battle of the Mutara Nebula is visually stunning and memorable. Additionally, it serves the plot in a symbolic way- both Kirk and Khan are "lost" in the movie- Khan is lost to his desire for revenge, and Kirk is lost in terms of his youth and "place in the universe". Thus, both are symbolically lost, and their ships are just as blind- there is no clear path, and it is difficult to see your way out. In that sense, the Nebula effect is perfect for both the battle and the symbolism- and it DOES look great.

Thus, while TWOK's effects aren't the greatest- they work in service of the movie, and therefore, are used sparingly. Which is just fine.

Great imagery, special effects, and music in this scene
Musical Score: The musical score is by James Horner, and is, in fact, one of his earliest. Now, I know that some complain about Horner's scores, and it is true that his Star Trek music sounds an awful lot like Krull, which has an uncanny resemblance to his Aliens score, which is very close to his... well, you get the point. However, the same could be said for Danny Elfman and John Williams. The truth is, the score of TWOK is incredible. It is not as "sci-fi" as the TMP score, but it invokes something that TMP (as a movie) didn't- emotion. Horner's score captures and then amplify's the emotions of the scene. Listen to Spock's theme- its quiet, stately, and contemplative nature. Contrast that with Khan's slow reveal- which is also quiet, but has growing menace behind it. Then there's the battle cues, and the Battle in the Mutara Nebula being a great bit of action music. Finally, Spock's death and burial is just incredible- sad, melancholy. I still get a bit misty eyed with the bag pipes and afterwards. Again, while this score isn't as sci-fi and "experimental" as TMP, it is a great compliment to the events and emotions onscreen.

Kirk has found peace after all- and the music conveys that
 
 Lasting Impact: There's so much here, it's not funny. The cultural impact is immense. From Kirk's "Noooo!" to Spock's death, to Khan's rage- its all here. The events set in motion here will reverberate thoughout the rest of the Trek movie series one way or the other. The uniforms, also, will be with the franchise from here on out.

TWOK- Trek's best moment, or a curse?
There's more, but I would rather talk about something that has been making the internet rounds lately, and that is the impact Khan himself has had on the franchise. Almost every movie in the franchise since has had a villain, and some say you could almost hear the writers/directors screaming "be just like Khan" throughout! The question is, has every movie in the Trek franchise tried to live up to Khan, only to fail miserably? The answer is yes and no. Some of the movies have tried, no doubt. Certainly, the Next Gen movies are waaaay more guilty of that- Look at First Contact and Nemesis in particular. For the classic Trek movies- I'd say no. Trek's III and VI have Klingon bad guys, and yet those particular villains are NOT the center stages of those movies. In IV, there's no "bad guy" at all. As for V, perhaps, but the movie is so lighthearted  that there's no way its trying to be TWOK. And in the 2009 Trek- Nero is just a plot device, and he's barely in the movie at all. Looking at it like this, the argument that the desire to imitate the villainous Khan and the dark mood of TWOK  in EVERY Trek movie just doesn't hold water for the classic Trek movies; the TNG ones DO fall in that direction though, interestingly enough. What does that mean for the next JJ Abrams Trek...? Haven't a clue. Should they do Khan again? Hahahaha... don't get me started.

In any case, TWOK is, without doubt, the best Trek movie ever, and one of the best Sci-fi movies of all time. I would certainly give it 4 out of 4 Marks of Chaos. Hmmmm.... I think I know what I'm going to pop into the Blu-Ray player now...

Until next time!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Movie Review: Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Hey there Chaos fans. I've been terribly busy lately, lots to do at work and home, as well as killing zombies in Dead Island (I'm about 80% finished with that game- its a great one, no doubt). I haven't done too much in Warhammer 40K, though that will change in the next few weeks when I'll get back to it with a vengeance.

At any rate, I have decided to do something different. I thought I might start reviewing some of my favorite movies and film series. After some thought, I've decided to kick it off with the Star Trek franchise. So, without further ado, Chaos Corner will begin with Star Trek: The Motion Picture...






Personal Background: I have been a bit of a Trekker forever. Now, I've never put on Spock ears or wielded a Klingon Bat'lith (in public, at any rate ;-), but Star Trek has been a part of my life since pretty much day one.  Both of my parents were regular Trek viewers, and had watched it when it first aired. My mom liked that intellectual aspects of the show, while my father liked the action. They watched it later when it was in syndication, and that is how I was introduced to the show at a VERY young age (WPIX-NY re-ran them at this point). Indeed, Star Trek: The Motion Picture came out a little over a year after I was born. Yes indeed, I grew up watching this, and the episodes. I had the toys, coloring books, etc. My parents even owned TMP on the old (ancient) RCA VideoDisc format... remember those? Haha!

The precursor to Laserdic and DVDs
In any event, I have been into Star Trek to varying degrees since, and TMP has been at the core of that. Now, that movie has been hugely divisive for Trekkers. Some say that it revived the concept, began moving Star Trek mainstream, made it legitimate sci-fi, and more. Detractors say that it is slow, ponderous, preachy, and, infamously, it has been called "The Motion-less Picture". So, let's take a look at this in detail...

Basic Plot: An unknown force of incredible destructive power is heading towards Earth. It's outward apprentice is that of a huge, swirling energy cloud. It has been "disintegrating" (for lack of a better word) everything in its path. Starfleet decides to send the Enterprise to stop it from doing the same to Earth. Of course, the old crew has been on different career paths since the TV series ended, and must now come together and figure out the mystery behind this entity.

An ominous mystery...
The plot unfolds very, very slowly indeed. For many, that is what breaks the deal for TMP. I am inclined to agree for the most part, but not fully. Now, I'm all for character development and all, but that is not what the problem is- the first half of the movie (AFTER the first V'Ger attack and Spock on Vulcan) is practically glacial. The plot moves SO slowly. Take the Wormhole accident, for instance. It's supposed to be an action scene, and how do they film it? In slow motion- the WHOLE time. Ugh. And when the Enterprise gets to the V'Ger entity, there are a MILLION shots of the cloud, the cloud interior, the cloud's interior interior, etc. Yes, this brings the movie to a screeching halt, and gives credence to the "motionless picture" criticism.

The... wormhole... slows...down...every...thing....
 However, the story, at its core, is solid sci-fi. The entity, V'Ger is shrouded in mystery, and is clearly dangerous. The crew is in peril, as is Earth. That's a pretty big narrative scope. Kirk and company must unravel this, and as they do it becomes clear that V'Ger is not what it seems, and certainly not a "villian" in that sense, which is very interesting. Once the Enterprise gets through the cloud, the movie picks up steam, and ends on a very strong note. The issue is getting to that point, which is hard for some.

"The Meld"- a solid conclusion
 Themes/Concepts: TMP is very high concept, sci-fi on a grand scale. Do machines have souls? What is humanity's responsibility to what it creates? Is there a god? Higher planes of reality? What of morality in a large and oh-so-empty universe? Yep, the movie asks all of these questions and more. The only problem is, they never really connect, on an emotional level. These themes are there, and they practically spell it out for you, but... you never FEEL it. Your brain acknowledges it, but your heart doesn't. With two exceptions, it comes across as cold as space. First, the themes tie in directly between V'Ger's journey and Spock's, and the only reason this is successful is Nimoy's acting (more on that below). The second, is when V'Ger stands revealed and "The Meld" occurs. The effects, themes, acting, etc, all come together here for a bit of a rousing finale.

Spock attempts to achieve Kohlinar, but can't...
Characters/Acting: Now, you either watch Trek for the Sci-Fi, or for your love of the characters (and the actors that became synonymous with them), and in this respect, TMP does fairly well. Like most Trek movies, the ancillary guys like Chekhov don't get much to do, but the big three get their moments to shine. The best here is Nimoy as Spock. In the time since the TV show ended, Spock has attempted to purge ALL emotion from him, studying on Vulcan to the exclusion of all else. Seeing Spock on the sands of his home world is great, but even better is his recognition that he STILL hasn't succeded, that no matter how hard he tries, he is still half human and emotional. For the rest of the movie, Spock remains more cold and aloof than usual, until he realizes that he is in danger of becoming like V'Ger. Now, he never embraces emotion, but he learns to accept it. Nimoy's acting is great here.

Shartner is also solid as Kirk. At this point, Kirk is an Admiral, and hasn't been a ship commander for years. He can feel time slipping away, and he decides to pull some strings to get to command the Enterprise to investigate V'Ger. Shatner plays his Kirk as angry and frustrated, even when he gets his way. He fights with Decker (the guy he's replacing) like a petty child, and even mouths off at Scotty. However, as Kirk gathers the old crew and McCoy and Spock join him in the mission, Kirk becomes more like his old self- a leader, a decsion-maker, a hero. Shatner does that transition well, and by the end, he's the Captain we recognize from the show.

"In simpler language Captain... they DRAFTED me!"
Finally, there's McCoy. Kelly proves once more why he may be the best actor in the series. If Kirk is the hero/heart, and Spock is the intellect, then McCoy is the humane soul, and he shows that here to great effect as he questions V'Ger's (and at one point, Spock's) motives. McCoy also represents us in this universe- a "simple country doctor" with a distaste with technology, etc. He's also a humanist: "Why is any object we don't understand simply called 'a thing'"? Terrific work!


One of my favorite Matte Paintings
Special Effects: This is where TMP was meant to shine. Millions of dollars were poured into this, to make it a larger than life sci-fi movie (thanks 2001 and Star Wars). Recall that this is being done without CGI and the like... these are practical effects. In some instances, it succeeds beyond imagination. The Enterprise has never looked better- you can feel the weight of it, the size. The Klingon ships at the beginning also look great. Vulcan looks appropriately other-worldly. The V'Ger cloud is intimidating yet beautiful, and some of the "interior" are great. The only problem is they tend to linger on some of the shots for far too long. I get that when we first see the Enterprise, we are supposed to feel chocked up. And we do. But the scene lasts like 5 minutes... you could trim that. Same thing with V'Ger- its great to see for a bit, but they keep showing more cloud shots, etc. Again, it looks great, but we need to keep the movie going, but we're stopping to see MORE special effects... Sometimes, less is more.

There are a million shots like this... and each of them are so slow and dull
Musical Score: Great work by Jerry Goldsmith. We get the "modern Trek" theme, the Klingon theme, and more. His cues for V'Ger are appropriately deep and mysterious and foreboding. His theme for "The Meld" is one of Trek's best- fearful, turning to hopeful, and always majestic. The score is one of the best things about the movie, giving the boring, slow pans a little something. Top notch here.

The Enterprise never looked btetter
 Lasting Legacy: And here's where it gets tricky. TMP, despite its weaknesses, set the tone for all Treks to come (movies and TV). The ship and set designs would inform all future Trek ships and interiors. It also sets up the idea that Trek could go BIG with both the effects and the themes. The Starfleet costumes look bad, but... look at first season TNG to see how this design influenced later. On the other hand, this movie made the "modern Klingon". The language, the uniforms, their bridge design, and of course, the ridges on their heads.

The first "modern Klingon" (interestingly, played by Mark Leonard)
 TMP also impacts other movies in terms of theme/plot. Spock comes to terms with his emotions- look at him later in Wrath of Khan to see this. Spock finds a measure of inner peace here. He remains a Vulcan, but he is not dismissive of emotional humans anymore, and he shows them more often (except for the minor speed bump in The Voyage Home, but who can blame him there?). Kirk also changes here- he gets his shot at one last adventure- but then it's over. He must go back to being a desk-bound Admiral. When we see him in Wrath of Khan,  his mid-life crisis in full swing- he knows he must accept that his adventure days are behind him now. The two movies tie together for Kirk very well in that respect too. As for Bones... well, he's as grumpy as usual. I guess some things don't change...

Will this be his last adventure?
Bottom Line: This will be the hardest one for me to rate. On the one hand, it is grand sci-fi, the actors do a great job, and it sets the standards for future Trek. On the other hand, it is ponderously slow at points, lacks the emotion of Trek, and, as a movie, doesn't have enough energy (slow movies CAN have energy- a slow burn, if you will). I'm going to have to give this 2 1/2 out of 4 Marks of Chaos. My nostalgia factor wants to give it a 3, but my heart knows it doesn't reach that height.

Hope you enjoyed this. Till next time...  

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Game Review: Dead Island

Here there Chaos fans! Welcome back to to first posting in the year 2012. Hope you've all had a great holiday. I was very busy with my family and friends the past few weeks, celebrating the holidays of Christmas, New Years, and of course, Festivus.

Naturally, being that its 2012, all sorts of crazy people are talking about the (mis)interpretation of the Mayan calendar and are talking about the end of the world. So, I figured it would be a great time to review an "end of the world" scenario: zombies! In today's edition of Chaos Corner, I'll be reviewing Dead Island, for the X Box 360. So, away we go (Bwaiins)!




Yep- Those ARE zombies. Deal with it.
I have long been a fan of all things Zombie in movies and video games. It all started with that seminal classic, Resident Evil. Or did it start with Splatterhouse? Or perhaps Zombies Ate My Neighbors? Haha. Both of those games are fantastic, and I return to them often. Splatterhouse was controversial in it's day for the level of gore (I played it when I was 12, and my mom considered taking the game back- ah! the days of no ESRB ratings). Meanwhile Zombies Ate My Neighbors was the complete opposite- cartoony and goofy, but a great game nevertheless (I still love the hedge maze level).


The sound the zombie made when biting you is still creepy
Let's just say RE, for the sake of this discussion, is the first 'modern' zombie video game. I remember putting the disc into the original PlayStation. Wow. Those were the days... I remember being awed by the graphics and overall look of the mansion. The sound effect of you walking on the hardwood floors, and the muffled sound on the carpet. The "wonderful" voice acting (haha!). But I'll never forget that first encounter with the first zombie. It looks dated now, but back in 96... simply terrifying. That one moment changed video game history. It also ignited a love of the zombie sub-genre for me and, I'm sure, countless others of my generation.



Zombies overrun Raccoon City in RE 2 (one of the all time greats)
The entire game was scary like that. The undead hounds bursting through the windows. The Hunters, clicking their claws as they stalked you. The tarantulas as they skittered down the hallway. And who could forget Tyrant and Wesker at the end? That game had it all. It was gory, it was cinematic, it was a tough game that would see you die many times. You could only carry a certain amount of items with you, and bullets were scarce. And don't get me started on the damn Ink Ribbon save feature... haha. This game was beginning of "Survival Horror"- it's own genre in video games. 




The Las Plagas cult in RE4- a subtle dig at religion?
 Of course, though zombies were in all RE games, the focus moved more and more to mutants and creatures that were science gone wrong territory. Heck, even in RE 1 that was true, as I look at the list I made above. Yes, they were zombie games, but they were more than that. They tackled issues like family (RE2 and RE Code Veronica), corporate greed, moral choices, religion (RE 4), and more. Forget those mostly crappy RE movies, it's the games that tell an incredible zombie-apocalypse story.





Then came the next big step in Zombie video games. Of course, I'm talking about Left 4 Dead. Released in the fall of 2008, Left 4 Dead brought the zombie sub-genre to a whole different level. This one is a fast action, first person shooter. The action is rapid paced, as you fight through wave after wave of zombies. Of course, the game's real conceit was multiplayer, something that zombie games had not had yet (yes, there was RE Outbreak that allowed you to play with others online, however, it was too limited for the PS2 at that time).

Beat em or burn em... the go up pretty quick.
In Left 4 Dead, you can play locally or online with other people, as you fight your way through the mass of undead. You can help each other, trade items, heal each other, etc.You can also have friendly fire incidents (oops). The game is an absolute blast to play. In a way, it's a modern version of Gauntlet. The zombies just keep coming, as you make your way to the end of the level. The zombies are killed fairly easily, but there's just SO damn many, its amazing how many are onscreen at once. You can feel the desperation of your band, as you fight your way to an evacuation point, and I have on more than one occasion had a team player "left  for dead" (sorry brother!) in order to escape (someone has to survive).

When there's no more room in Hell...
The graphics are great, and you get a sense of the destruction and desolation that has been the result of the zombie plague. Of course, the game takes the requisite digs, blaming the CEDA (A CDC style agency) for the failed response to the outbreak. Indeed, one of the nastiest things in the game is in the "safe rooms", where people who came through before you write their tales on the walls, with more and more questioning the government's role. All in all, this is a great addition to the zombie sub-genre.



That's another one for the fire!
Which brings us now to the fall 2011 release of Dead Island. A few months prior, Techland released a trailer which really wowed the media and gamers. I was skeptical, since relying on a trailer is not a good sign. I needn't have worried; I got the game for Christmas and have been playing it whenever I had the time (which has meant less Warhammer modeling/painting). I haven't finished the game yet, but here's my impressions:

There's never enough bullets!
Story: This is an area where the game has been getting a bad rap. Basically, the game takes place on the islands of Papua New Guinea. One minute, your partying it up at a glamorous beachfront resort, the next minute, all hell has broken loose, with zombies rampaging and only a few scattered survivors. It's up to you to help the survivors make it through this ordeal. It has been compared to Fallout in terms of leveling up and taking on missions, but your character has no "story arc" or moral decisions to make. While I agree that it's not Fallout in terms of story depth, it does have something else. At this point in my playing, there's a ton of confusion and uncertainty. Only one guy seems to know anything, and he can't be found. There seems to be no overall greater story- it IS a zombie apocalypse, and all you can do is survive. With so many games having convoluted stories (look at Metal Gear), Dead Island has stark simplicity to throw you into the carnage, head-first, without any distractions.


Innocent beach-goer or decadent hedonist?
However, no zombie game/movie worth its salt goes out without some kind of sly social commentary. This game DOES have it, though you must look a bit under the surface. The outbreak takes place on a resort and the surrounding areas. The hotel/resort is gorgeous, with people drinking, doing drugs and sexy/kinky things (find Svetlana in the game for just ONE example). Meanwhile, the natives of the island live in the slums of Moresby just down the way- yes, this game takes issue with wealthy, hedonistic, and mostly foreign partygoers who don't care about the people of the island. This moral is further compounded when you get to the slums, and see how bad it is there, compared to the beachfront you came from. Also, the wealthy people of the island have barricaded themselves in the opulent town hall, deliberately trying to keep the poor survivors out. Yes, social commentary is here, you just have to read between the lines. In fact, unless something happens radically in the plotline, this may be the most effective social commentary yet in this video game sub genre.

Last, let me also add that the game has thrown in some references to Kuru. This is the name of a disease acquired by cannibals when they eat prions in the brain. The disease was present on- yep, you guessed it- Papua New Guinea. A great use of history in a game too... check it out: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kuru_%28disease%29
 

It looks like a postcard... just with zombies and destruction...
Graphics: The graphics are nothing short of miraculous. The environments are just amazing. The beach areas look fantastic, and some of them reminding me of my Bermuda honeymoon- gorgeous skies, clean beaches, and warm waters. Without the zombies, it could be a postcard to an island resort. Well, the game does a great job with the look of the world- it HAD been beautiful, but the zombie plague has ruined it all. The details are great- dead bodies, broken glass, debris everywhere. Then,. the developers move the action to Moresby, the slums (you can move back and forth in this large island)- again, great attention to detail, with buildings wrecked, the filth of the slums compounded by the chaos of the zombie attacks. The zombies themselves are also incredible to look at. Some look pretty close to alive (recently zombified), others look suitably messed up. I must also note that as you kill the zombies, the damage to their bodies is great and in real-time, you see the blood fly as you hack them to pieces.

Gameplay: This game is the closest that you will get to feeling as if you are IN a zombie apocalypse. Unlike RE and Left 4 Dead, each zombie IS a threat. Even as you level up, the zombies remain tough. You have to fight the zombies, up close and personal for much of the game (yes, there are guns, but they are scarce). You have a ton of weapons at your disposal as you run though the terrain, however these weapons can break, they can be lost. You can throw your knives and such (great fun, by the way), but that leaves you with less weapons. As you fight a zombie, it takes several hacks to kill them up close. While you're fighting with that zombie, others are drawn in by the commotion. If you are not careful, you will be overwhelmed. That may be the best way to describe the game play- it is totally visceral. You feel the stress of each fight, and you learn that it is better to out run the zombies than to fight them all. The game is that good- you ARE lost if you try to fight them all up close.

The rest of the game play is solid. You go on "quests" for people (some interesting, others not). There's a map system, leveling up (and you can develop different skills), you can drive (awesome running over zombies), you can only carry a limited amount of weapons, etc. Let me add here that though the game is multiplayer, I haven't tried that feature yet. I've been engrossed playing it one player- all alone, with only my own wits to keep me alive.







There's always more zombies around the corner
Tech issues: Like many large, open world games, there are some glitches here. Now, Fallout New Vegas was the king to these problems, but Dead island has a ton. Forget the occasional graphical glitch, there's full-blown problems like saving at checkpoints. In more than one instance, I've gotten to a checkpoint, seen the red saving symbol, played just a hair further, then shut off. When I put it back on, I was much further back than I had been. Sometimes items just appear and disappear (NOT thrown weapons necessarily). Yes, the game is buggy. I don't mind minor issues, but sometimes the glitches stop you from enjoying, and that shouldn't be.

Bottom Line: We have a new and most worthy addition to the Zombie sub-genre in video games, and that is Dead Island. The game is fantastic in that it makes you feel as if "you are there", which is just amazing. If you are a fan of the genre, it is a must. The only thing that keeps this game from getting a perfect score is those damn glitches. I give this game 3 1/2 out of 4 Marks of Chaos. You owe it to yourself to give this a spin. You won't be disappointed.