video games

Preface for “Sick Day” – A Preorder Update

The following is an excerpt from the T rated version of “Sick Day.”

To find out how to get your own copy of the book described as “Clerks” meets “Ready Player One,” click here.

Forward

I’m going to tell you a story that changed my life.  It must have been eleven or twelve years ago I heard it.  I’d just moved to San Diego, so this would have been my first time at Comic Con.  Actually, it was my only time at the San Diego Comic Con.  These days I set up interviews downtown and chat with the cosplayers without ever actually entering the convention center.  Back then, I could stand in line and buy a ticket, but since then it’s gotten so big tickets are basically impossible to. . .

Whatever.  That’s not really the point, is it?  What’s important here is this story, and I wanted to give you some background on where I heard it.

I was in the main hall when I spotted this gawky kid.  Nothing special — like I said, this is Comic Con, right?  But something about the way she was moving around the hall – as though she was seeing the world for the first time – caught my attention.  She would run a few steps, stop, clasp her hands together, gape at a booth, and make this high pitched “squee” noise.  I found the whole thing endearing, probably because she reminded me so much of myself at the time.  That’s the thing about a comic book convention: we come from all walks of life, from all over the world, and we are united in our mutual enthusiasm for something everyone else thinks is nerdy.

Okay.  Again, this doesn’t have much to do with the story exactly, but for the purpose of background, this was before every movie and TV show could point to a comic book as its source material.  This was before video games went mainstream.  We were nerds.  Geeks.  Misfits.  And it was awesome.  So what if I don’t have the emotional range to squee at stuff?  We were still forged from the same adamantium.  And one of the things we had in common, if we were being perfectly honest with ourselves, was that we had times when we absolutely lacked the confidence to make it in life.  There were times when our love for heroism only amplified our own lack of nerve.  And that’s why I’m writing down this story I heard third party.

Yes, this story is based on true events, and yes, I did my own independent research to flesh it out.  Still, I’m doing what I can to maintain the spirit of that original telling, because, like I said, it changed my whole life.  I was a coward with no self-assurance, and I felt inadequate.  I wasn’t getting anywhere, and I was getting there fast.  The story of Buster Benjamin changed all of that for me.

So the kid was looking at these trading cards that this vendor had on his table.  The guy at the booth was tubby.  He was wearing a Captain America t-shirt.  If Steve Rodgers had bought a similar shirt before he took the super serum and then put it on afterwards, it would fit him about as well as it did this guy.  Only this guy wasn’t muscular.  He was like the little tea pot; short and stout.  The flabby Cappy finished with one customer and then turned to the kid.  He asked if he could help her, and she looked up at him and froze.  It was like she thought herself invisible and shocked to discover he could actually see her.

“Um,” she stammered.  “Are these all of your Mystic Cards?”

“Those are the cards I let people touch.  I’ve got my good ones back here.”

She smiled, putting her hand over her mouth to cover her imperfect teeth.  “I’m looking for a Grimdrake.”

“There are Grimdrakes in there.”

“I want the Ginger Grimdrake from series one.”

The vendor grabbed at the hem of his shirt and pulled the fabric until the star-spangled shield was tight against his fluffy chest.  He reached under the table and after a few seconds of wheezing and turning red, he placed the card she was seeking in front of her.

When she saw it there, I swear I could see her heart beating hard in her throat.  “Do you take trades?” she asked.

“Depends what you’re offering.”

With shaky hands, she placed two of her own cards on the table.  The vendor looked them over and stroked his weedy beard.  “I think we can make this wor-”

“No way!  A Ginger Grimdrake?”  A large woman who came dressed as Xena, the warrior princess, leaned in over the gawky girl.  “How much do you want for it?”

“It’s my only one, and I just sold it.”

“How much was it going for?”

“Two hundred dollars.”

The gawky girl’s eyes widened.  She hadn’t realized just how much the card was worth.

“I’ll give you two twenty-five for it.”

The vendor folded his arms.  “I believe the girl still has the better offer.”

“What?” the large woman said, gripping her Chakram.  “An Albino Hill Giant and a Silver Serpent-Eater?  I have three of each of those in my collection.”

“Even so.  We’ve already made the deal.”

The woman stared down at the gawky girl, her eyes burning.  “And if she decided to withdraw her offer?”

The gawky girl looked up at the woman and quickly turned away, staring down at the cards on the table.  After a heavy moment, she picked her cards up and quietly walked away.

I witnessed all of this from the line I’m standing in.  I’d been waiting for over an hour to get an autograph from a venerated veteran of the comic industry.  I’m not going to say his name here, but you know the guy.  I just don’t want any legal issues, and besides, if we end up turning this book into a movie, I don’t want anyone to get the impression this was just meant to be a cameo.

I wasn’t the only one who was watching this kid get bullied out of her dream card.  This comic guru — who again, is someone you’ve most definitely heard of — was keeping tabs too, and when the girl was walking past us, this inventor of so many incredible super heroes said, “Excuse me, miss.  You aren’t going to take that lying down, are you?”

The girl looked over both of her shoulders.  One at a time, not all at once.

“That’s right, young lady.  I’m talking to you.  Are you let her get away with that?”

She stared back at him, her chin on her chest.

“Why don’t you step on up over here, and let’s have a little chat.”

She stumbled forward, eyes dead like a zombie’s.  Everyone in the line groaned as she cut in front of me.  Some of the people behind me vocalized their disapproval with guttural grunts and nasally naysaying, so the comic guru held up his hands.  “Calm down.  I just want to talk to this precious child a moment and fill her head with wisdom.  Alright?  ‘Nuff said.”  He set aside his Sharpie and prints.  “Alright, sweetheart.  Why don’t you tell me just what happened?”  And then he waited while she swallowed and blinked and her senses slowly returned.  “Why did you just walk away like that?”

“She’s bigger than me.”

“Ain’t that the truth!.  She’s bigger than me!  But if there’s one thing I know, it’s most of life’s obstacles will be bigger than you.”

“What was I supposed to do?  I’m just a nerd.”

“Just a nerd?  Just a nerd?  I’ll have you know no one is just any one thing, and besides, being a nerd is a great and noble thing.  Where would the world be without nerds?”

She shrugged.

“Look, you come from a long line of important people.  Newton was a nerd.  Einstein was a nerd.  Buster Benjamin was a nerd.”

“Who?”

“Who?  Newton?  He’s the cookie guy!  What kind of nerd doesn’t know who Isaac Newton is?”  He got a smile out of her, which perked him up like black coffee.

“No!” she said, finally not shaking.  “I mean the last one.  Who’s that?”

“Oh.  You mean Buster Benjamin?”

She nodded.

“You’ve never heard the legend of Buster Benjamin?”

She shook her head.

“Well, no wonder you’re so lost in the world.  You don’t know what you’re capable of.”  The comic guru leaned back in his chair and intertwined his fingers behind his head.  “Sit back, kid!  I’m about to unravel a yarn so spectacular – so incredible – it’ll sweep you away into a world of endless possibilities.”

The sounds of angst and reproach that rose from the line was practically deafening.

 

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9. How Should I Spend My Lottery Winnings, in which I make plans for a couple million bucks

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8. The DO’s and DON’T’s of Action Flicks, in which I compare and contrast the original Jack Reacher film with Skyfall

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7. How to Spot a Racist, a post that is even more important today than it was when I wrote it in 2013

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6. The Greatest Depictions of Single-Minded Emotion, a continuously popular blog

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5. VOTER’S GUIDE: California Propositions and Measures, a helpful voting tool

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4. Back Story, the story of my debilitating back injury and the miracle that went with it

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3. Ghostbusters (2016): A Superfan’s Perspective, my thoughts on the reboot

Kill Me Now and AVGN

2. Going Long: Reviews for “Kill Me Now” and “Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie,” reviews of a couple of independent films made by popular Youtube artists

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1. Predator versus “Predator,” my take on female teacher sexual scandals

 

 

Ghostbusters (2016): A Superfan’s Perspective

My Qualifications

I am not an authority on “Ghostbusters.”  I do not own my own proton pack, have not engineered my own Ecto-1, and I’ve never drank an Ecto Cooler.  But people that know me have expressed interest in my thoughts on the new movie.

I do have a lot of paraphernalia from the first film.  Those are mainly gifts from people that know that the original 1984 film is tied for the top spot of movies in my heart (with “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “American Movie”).  And since I am such a movie enthusiast and because my passion for storytelling is boundless, that top spot means I can tell you details about the film to the tiniest minutia.

If it’s Ghostbusters related, I know about it, and I have something to say.

Ghostbusters 1

Ghostbusters 2

So let me start off with a story about a ten year old kid.  I was excited so excited to be going to see my heroes on the big screen for the first time.  I had watched Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, and Ernie Hudson on VHS and TV showings for years.  I had watched every episode of The Real Ghostbusters on Saturday mornings.  Despite being poor, I even had a couple of the action figures (the kind that animatedly freaked out when you pushed down an arm or squeezed their legs together).  Bill Murray was then and still is one of my favorite actors (one of my personal goals is to write a role for him that would win him an Oscar).  I didn’t know it then, but the original film would easily qualify as the film I would see more times in the theater than any other (usually on my birthday).  So when I watched “Ghostbusters 2” unspool on the big screen, I was about as excited as a kid could be.

But I’ll tell you something, that movie is terrible.  It uses convenient job changes that make no sense (Dana goes from world class musician to world class art historian, Luis Tully goes from passionate accountant to lackluster lawyer, all in five years?).  They completely change characters, forgetting what made Egon funny and have him hamming it up for the camera and having Janine go from mousey Queens nerd to flamboyant Queens hipster.  The logo was changed to show it was a sequel with no world-building reason for doing so.  And most importantly, it wasn’t funny.  There are a handful of funny lines in the movie, but overall, the first film was a much-improvised masterpiece, lightning in a bottle, and the second movie fell flat.  I was a child, and they were pandering to me, and I knew I was being pandered to and felt betrayed.

Ghostbusters 2

Ghostbusters 3

For years they talked about a third movie, and for years I was in Bill Murray’s camp.  “We made a good one.  We made a bad one.  Why make anther one?”  And when Bill callously said he was concerned that “some of the people involved” had lost their taste, siting Harold Ramis’s “Year One,” I cringed for their unresolved personal relationship but was right there with him.

Ghostbusters 6

My Expectations

So here comes the inevitable reboot.  I knew it was going to happen and had been bracing myself for it.  I even wrote this blog, which is a part of my “Re-Imagining” series that I sometimes do, the premise being “They’re going to remake it, so how could they do it where it could ever possibly satisfy me.”  Knowing the rumors that they were thinking of making a female version (and this was a couple of years ago), I had even included casting choices for that.  The only actor I could think of that could come close to Murray was Melissa McCarthy, so when she was cast, I was optimistic.  Really, the whole cast had me excited.  I’m a huge fan of Kristen Wiig, and I love what Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones are doing on Saturday Night Live.  These are great choices.

I watched Paul Fieg’s “Spy,” “Bridesmaids,” and “The Heat” to get a feel for his work.  The first two were great, and the last one was at least funny.  So I was optimistic about his inclusion too.

 

Ghostbusters 8

The Trailer

Then the trailer came out, and it was bad.  The most hated movie trailer in internet history.  It looked lame, unasked for, and worst of all, unfunny.  People were done being tricked into watching terrible movies based on beloved franchises. . .  Sick of Michael Bay’s adaptations. . .  Tired of tone deaf recitations of The Lone Ranger’s theme. . .  Fed up with darker, overly-shadowy versions of beloved icons, this would be the battleground on which they would make their stand and say, “No More!”

In response, the filmmakers called us all misogynists, and some of us undoubtedly were, but not all.

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Ghostbusters (2016)

Which brings me to last night, when I sat in a theater with 3D glasses.  It was the theater directly across from my old store, where I had staged a legendary release party for the video game that had come out seven years earlier.  A party that had authentic costumes and equipment, games and themed snacks, and a real-world, internationally acclaimed psychic who claimed to have talked to someone’s dead mother right there that night.  And there I sat with both high and low expectations.

What a relief when the movie was actually pretty good.

Ghostbusters 3

 

The Negatives:

There are a few times when the movie makes choices that don’t make sense (Chris Hemsworth standing in the street, saying “I’m a part of the team” comes out of nowhere).  There are a few too many one-liner references to the source material.  And lines that should have been improvised away (“That’ll leave a mark” being the sorest thumb).  But it worked.  Aside from the cameos, which were well-paced and fun, the film hummed best when it stood on its own merits.  There are scenes that lay flat here, and then there are laugh out loud lines and moments that far outweigh those.  The middle of the movie is where it would have benefited from re-writes and skilled improvisation, and the end feels heavily edited.

Ghostbusters 9

The Positives:

Here’s where I might take some crap.  While the first film is a better comedy, this one is a better ghost story.  The ghosts in this movie are beautiful and scary.  The explanation for the extra psychic-kinetic energy in the city is a fun new take.  And while the story of Zuul lingers in the background of a character-driven 80s comedy and only becomes the central figure in the third reel, this new movie’s grounded in that story from the first scene.

A lot of the stuff that bothered me in the trailer were fine in the film.  This is particularly true for Kate McKinnon’s character, which only makes sense when you spend some time with her.  Kate and Leslie Jones are the comic force of this movie, and they both steal scenes, blowing a hole through the television screen to step onto the big screen in a big way.  Still, Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig are the heart of the film, and they keep us grounded in the real world while so many strange things are happening around them.  The movie is about friendship and about how finding someone that gets you can save you from torment and ridicule (or at least from caring about that stuff as much), and after an hour and forty seven minutes with these characters, I wanted to see more of their story.

The film also lets the supporting cast shine in their own right.  Every actor that speaks, from Zach Woods to Karan Soni, Nate Corddry to Steve Higgins, Ed Begley Jr. to Andy Garcia, Cecily Strong to Chris Hemsworth, turns in a strong performance here.  And this honestly shouldn’t surprise you if you’re familiar with Paul Fieg’s work.

The busting also made me feel good.  No, really.  The whole way they fought ghosts was fresh, unique, and emotionally satisfying.

Ghostbusters 5

In Summary:

It’s not a perfect 10.  It’s more of a 7.5.  But in the end, when it comes to material based on the “Ghostbusters” franchise, it stands above most of the rest.  It’s on par with the video game and the best episodes of the cartoon and comic books, and that’s a hell of an accomplishment.

We also learned something about how Hollywood works, didn’t we?  When the studio puts out a trailer the fans don’t like, you can either blame the studio or the fans.  I think by focusing on the most vocal bigots in the fan community, the filmmakers were able to get the studio to back them and get the fans that weren’t rabid woman haters to give the movie a chance.  It sure got ugly and made a lot of people defend themselves for simply worrying about what they were seeing, and it put the cast and director on the defensive.  That’s not the kind of atmosphere you want a big, nerdy love fest to come out in.

Finally, while I hate to tell people their opinions are incorrect, if someone tells you that “Ghostbusters 2” is a classic and this is trash, they’re dead wrong.

Ghostbusters 4

 

UPDATE  10/15/2016:

I don’t really purchase movies anymore.  I have over three hundred DVDs and never load them, instead streaming Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime or watching Direct TV.  But since I’d really like to see a sequel in this new franchise, I ordered the Bluray for “Ghostbusters: Answer the Call,” which includes the extended cut.  Upon my second viewing, I have a few more things to say.

First of all, I’d like to acknowledge that the first hour of the film is pretty solid.  It’s the middle portion where most of the cuts could be made (some of which were), and if I had the job of doing the theatrical edits, I would have seriously considered leaving out anything that didn’t actively move the story forward.  That would unfortunately include Bill Murray’s scenes.   I think you could have left more of the middle on the editing room floor and left in more of the end.  As stated in my review, the end felt choppy and there were some things that didn’t make sense because of the edits that were made.

That being said, I actually prefer the extended cut.  In fact, some of the scenes that remained in the deleted scenes could have been put back in as well.  Overall, it wouldn’t approve on the score I gave the movie.  It would still be about a seven, but it is more of a comprehensive narrative.  Since I enjoyed what I saw, I don’t mind having more, even if the movie doesn’t kill me like it did during that first hour.

The day I got my Bluray, I woke up from a dream about the sequel that will probably never be.  I was thrilled that it was coming out, and I imagined that they would grow the material in more meaningful, emotionally grounded ways the second time around.  Let’s hope these girls get a second chance to answer the call.

Going Long – Reviews for “Kill Me Now” and “Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie”

Making the transition from shorts to features can inspire and challenge a storyteller.  It can unleash brilliant long-form ideas that may have lay dormant in their minds, but it can also expose weaknesses in their abilities that would likely go unnoticed in smaller doses.  With that in mind, I would like to focus on two full length films that have come about from two of my favorite filmmakers that I found on Youtube.

KILL ME NOW

Kill Me Now 03

Michael Swaim and his production company (Those Aren’t Muskets) is best known for his work on Cracked.com.  I’ve been a fan of his work since the days of Agents of Cracked and have had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Swaim and several of my favorites actors from his short films.

They’re great.

“Kill Me Now” is written by Michael and lists Those Aren’t Muskets as one of the production companies in the credits.  Several of Swaim’s collaborators show up in various roles throughout the movie, including Kaitlin Large, Katie Stoll, Nick Mundy, Daniel Rubiano, Katie Willert, and Lisa Marie King.  Daniel O’Brien makes two brief cameos as well.  The film also stars  Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney (both current Saturday Night Live cast members),  Jacob Reed (Piranha 3D), and Brett Fancy (Outpost and Lost Christmas).

The film’s basic plot is one you are probably familiar with.  It’s a horror movie that centers around a teen party that takes place in a secluded cabin in the woods.  In some ways, it’s not much more complicated than that, but there are so many unexpected things that happen that I can’t say it’s a by-the-numbers slasher flick.  It’s not for several reasons, but there are two major areas that I would like to focus my commentary.

The first important thing here are the characters.  Swaim plays the classic Swaim role of the irresponsible party-boy, and it feels like every part is carefully written to fit each actors’ strengths.  You can tell that a lot of work went into this script, and the dialogue shines under Swaim’s polish.  Each of the characters is interesting and fun to watch.  This is admittedly kind of a weird thing to say, but when the lights go out in the cabin and everyone starts to panic, the thought that went through my mind was, “This is as close as we’ll ever get to a Muppet horror movie.”

I say that in the nicest possible way.

The second area where this differs from a standard horror movie is unfortunately a bit of a negative.  The small budget is felt in the big moments.  The crashes and slashes don’t play well.  Not because they are off camera – a lot of films have benefited greatly from allowing the viewer’s imagination to fill in those moments – but rather because the production didn’t seem as interested delivering those set-piece moments as it was in the delivery of the one-liners.

Overall, this is quite an enjoyable movie with surprises and great performances.  It’s the same vein as “Scream” and “Cabin in the Woods,” but while those two could satisfy both the audience that was in for the satire and the horror crowd, “Kill Me Now” is aimed straight for the funny bone.

You can watch the movie here.

ANGRY VIDEO GAME NERD: THE MOVIE

AVGN 02

The Angry Video Game Nerd has been a mainstay on Youtube since. . .  Well, since Youtube.  But before that, James Rolfe (the nerd) and his production company (Cinemassacre) were busy working on film projects.  In fact, James started making movies as a kid, and throughout the years, he’s developed some rather impressive skills for stretching a budget, even if his effects are  – as Rolfe puts it – intentionally made to look a little fake.

Rolfe’s idea is that if you can see how the effects are done that you will have more of an appreciation for them, and since the titular character is overtly retro (on gag involves the use of a record player in lieu of a car radio), the pre-CGI vibe works perfectly for this movie.

In many ways, AVGN suffers in areas where Kill Me Now thrives and is competent where the latter struggles.  Basically, the big set piece moments are thrilling, but the film would have benefited from better writing.  Truly, if we could combine the powers of Rolfe and Swaim, what we’d end up with would be something truly special.

But since that’s off point. . .

AVGN stars Rolfe, Jeremy Suarez (The Bernie Mac Show), and Sarah Glendening (All My Children).  Since the web series on which the film is based centers around reviews of bad old school games, the catalyst of the action was wisely set up to force the Nerd into digging up (pun) what legend holds as the worst video game of all time.

If the movie had merely been a long version of one of the episodes, it wouldn’t have worked at all.  Instead, AVGN is more about the twists and turns and set backs the characters must face before they can do the actual review (which happens in the final credits – spoiler, I guess).  Those obstacles include aliens, death robots, a carnival filled with zombies, a video game level come to life, and a giant monster that destroys Las Vegas.  In all of it, Rolfe’s love for classic cinema is on full display.

My final thoughts mostly circle around how impressed I am by what James was able to accomplish with such a limited budget.  Having made films myself, I was absolutely blown away by how much he managed to ring out of every dollar.  From the high profile cameo to the Bear McCreary (The Walking Dead) soundtrack, this movie is truly a labor of love, and as a testament to the twelve plus years that The Angry Video Game Nerd has been entertaining us, much of that labor and love came from its fans (Kickstarter contributors, McCreary, etc).  In the end,  this movie is a love letter to those fans, and I really don’t think the movie will play well to anyone else.

You can watch the movie here.

 

A Thief’s End – My Thoughts on Uncharted 4

Mild Spoilers.

Naughty Dog is easily one of my favorite developers, because they aren’t afraid to be traditional.  In an era when cut-scenes are considered old fashioned, their games are stuffed with them.  It’s not that the action comes to a grinding halt, there’s some story, and then there’s another movie.  The story continues with the action, but the storytellers behind the games utilize both narrative devices, interactivity and passive play, to create an engrossing, engaging, emotionally-involving experience for the players.

What I wouldn’t give to have Naughty Dog (or Tell Tale Games, who is also very story driven) take on Fallout, my favorite gaming franchise.

This TV spot for Uncharted 4 perfectly captures what these games are all about.

“Nathan Drake, that two-bit thief, risking it all for some piece of treasure.  I guess that’s how they know me.  How they’ll remember me.  But that’s not who I am.”

As he says this, the camera has us believe that Nathan is throwing himself toward a cave-in – toward almost certain death – for a gold coin that is spinning into the chasm, but in the end, he is reaching and putting himself on the line to save his brother, Sam.

Uncharted is a human story.  It’s about relationships.  And those elements are elevated by the perilous stakes.  By the beautiful surroundings.  By the thrill of discovery, the chase, and competition.  The adventure that you go on would be hollow if you were on it alone.

Through three previous games, Nathan’s relationships with his mentor and partner, Sully, and his now wife, Elaina, have come to feel real and vibrant.  The particularly great third part of the series solidified emotional context between these three and in the process continued to elevate the art of video games.  I went into this game with a grand fondness for these characters, and that is very important, I think.

One of the surprises with this final installment of the franchise is that, while the game does benefit from the nostalgia of these mentioned relationships, it doesn’t center on them.  This time around, we are asked to focus on Sam Drake, and until now, we didn’t even know Nate had a brother.  Realizing the risk they were taking, the writers remark on the surprise about halfway through the game through Elaina, but at least for me, I felt like this was a welcome addition to the lore.

It worked, and I felt a kinship with Sam.

Part of that, as I mentioned, is in the execution of the game play.  With every puzzle that requires interaction with Sam, with every door that needed two people to open and every wall you couldn’t climb alone, and with the witty banter between the characters, I felt that closeness growing.  Yes, between the characters, but since video games are more than simple voyeurism, since you CONTROL the actions of the protagonist and literally SEE THE WORLD through their point of view, you feel this bond growing as well.  By the end, you really do develop a connection to these characters.

My only real qualm with the game is that it didn’t quite feel as fresh as the previous installments.  The environments are HUGE, detailed, and masterfully designed, but I’ve explored jungles and snowy plains with Nathan before.  The last half of the game, which takes you into Libertalia, a lost city of pirates, felt new and different, and the ocean was definitely something special.  Honestly, I don’t know what they could do to avoid the mild sense of deja vu, and maybe it’s not all bad.  I mean, this is a game about the past and about our history with these people.

To place a value on the quality of this game is difficult, but as this is a review, that is my task.  I can say this.  I really enjoyed this game.  I don’t quite know if it is my favorite in the series (that’s probably 3).  I also couldn’t say it’s Naughty Dog’s best game (that’s The Last of Us).  However, it is a satisfying conclusion to a series that totally absorbed me.  There were moments of sheer bliss while playing, which is a rarity for me, and I was sad when it was over.

I’ll miss Nathan Drake.