Friday, July 18, 2014

What Zombies Fear: The Maxists

    What Zombies Fear is a five-book series by Kirk Allmond which reverses much of the usual drama of a zombie-apocalypse. Instead of being books about scared, desperate, and lonely survivors--it's a book about low-leveled superpowered humans kicking undead ass while rebuilding society. The zombies have many members who are intelligent and it co-ops many alien invasion motifs, providing a central antagonist as well as motivation behind the attack.

    For some, this may distract from the zombie narrative. Unintelligent zombies make the resulting apocalypse seem more like a natural disaster while this is very much a case of evil beings doing evil things. However, part of what I enjoy about this series is it's different from other bog-standard zombie novels and that is something which deserves to be noticed.

    The science fiction elements are also something I appreciated. We learn the origin of the alien invasion this book and while I object to the manner its conveyed (see below), I'm glad Kirk Allmond explained his zombie's origin.

    The premise of The Maxists is that Victor Tookes, the titular being which zombies fear, has just defeated a massive herd of zombies. One the size of a small city. This has caused the remnants of the United States military as well as the intelligent zombies to sit up and take notice of his village.

    Victor has no love for the United States government, blaming them for failing to protect the world (which is cruel given the majority of its soldiers DIED fighting the zombie menace), and finds the attempts by Colonel Fryes to bring his group back under its purview to be offensive. Given Victor and the rest of his secessionist state have superpowers, it's not something the US remnant can pressure them on.

    I was intrigued by this plotline and am saddened the United States remnant comes off as the duplicitous bunch of scumbags it does in this book. I was hoping there would be room for moral ambiguity in The Maxists but, by the end, any of it is dissolved. Victor Tookes and his settlement are not only in disagreement with them but the moral right. The United States remnant has reasons for acting the way they do but, bluntly, I find it difficult to imagine any readers sympathizing with them.

    A major subplot of the book also deals with Victor's precocious son, Max, who has developed possibly the most useful power in the world--the ability to control zombies. As one might guess, this makes him the most important three-year-old in the world. The chapters from his perspective are the most enjoyable part of the book, in my opinion.

    I loved watching him and his 'pet' zombies move through the world with an almost complete innocence of what is really going on. The terrifying potential of his abilities is also explored in interesting ways that reminded me of how a young Charles Xavier must have been.

    As before, much of the book is about action and acquiring supplies to rebuild human civilization--or, at least, Victor Tooke's small part of it. Zombies are rarely a threat to Victor and his group, which, after thousands of movies have portrayed them as invincible in great numbers--is cathartic. While Victor Tookes isn't up there with Ashley Williams of the Evil Dead franchise yet, he's still a good candidate for the zombie slayer.

    My only problem with the book is the introduction, really, where Victor Tookes explains how the zombie/alien invasion began as well as what the source of his superpowers is. While a great piece of exposition and world-building, there's never an explanation how the hell Victor Tookes knows any of this. I think the book would have been improved if we'd been given an explanation how he knew this or just had it given to us by an omniscient narrator.

    I think the What Zombies Fear remains a fun little series about a guy who has a great deal of luck kicking zombie butt. It's an independence fantasy, showing the post-apocalyptic world as a place where a person might be able to build a new life as well as a more equitable world.

    I don't believe an actual apocalypse would be anything like this as I'm quite fond of my creature comforts and the benefits of civilization but I can understand the appeal of the daydream. I will, however, continue reading the books and expect them to remain about the same level of quality, which is excellent light-reading.


The People vs. George Lucas

    I love zombies, don't get me wrong, but aside from finishing What Zombies Fear I'm a little zombied out. So, instead, I decided to watch a movie about a bunch of people shambling along and moaning--about Star Wars.

    Okay, that's unfair.

    The People vs. George Lucas is going to be one of my rare negative reviews, sadly. I applaud the filmmaker's skill, the fact they made a film about a subject which was near to my heart, and the obvious love of the franchise built into the work. Unfortunately, the movie's relentless negativity really dampened my mood.

    The People vs. George Lucas is more or less an hour and a half about why Star Wars fans really-really hated the Special Editions and prequels. It shows the infectious raw enthusiasm of countless fans enjoying the movies from their release in theaters to the long drought until the prequels being released. The rest of the documentary has an almost message-board-like quality of everyone in the film explaining why the movies sucked and/or ruined their childhood.

    They specifically say, "raped" their childhood. A comparison which they utilize several hundred times and even make a couple of musical cues regarding--which I found to be both tasteless and problematic for a work about Star Wars. The People vs. George Lucas includes the footage from the South Park episode where Indiana Jones is sexually assaulted by Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas too--which, again, I didn't particularly like either.

    Nor did my wife.

    Listen, I've been a Star Wars fan since I was three-years-old and until the New Jedi Order followed by the Legacy of the Force novels, I was as obsessed with it as anyone else. I know something about fandom rage. I was there when the backlash against the Star Wars Prequels began, continued, and I'd say ended but that would imply there's still not people talking about the subject.

    The Star Wars Prequels were disappointing to me as well. They were empty spectacles with bad writing, bad acting, and a lot of exposition which got in the way of any sort of character development. George Lucas really needed a script editor or someone to write the script for him.

    George should stuck to using his vast knowledge of visual film-making to make the prequels the eye-candy they needed to be (and were--if nothing else). He  could have hired anyone in the world for the writing, Neil Gaiman showed up on this documentary for crying out loud, which makes it a double missed opportunity.

    However, I got over the prequels being a disappointment.

    Years ago.

    The really annoying thing about this movie is there's so much interesting stuff inside it. They talk about fandom films (showing scenes from some truly epic ones), people's personal memorabilia collections, and a few stories about what Star Wars meant to people. Star Wars helped develop my moral sensibility as well. All this gets ignored to focus on the immense sense of 'betrayal' fans have from George Lucas making movies they didn't like.

    They also do a few segments about what sort of responsibility filmmakers have to preserving their original work versus tinkering with it. Any of these would make a better subject for this documentary than people's sense of betrayal about the fact George Lucas made some mediocre movies. There's some really cute segments in this film too, including someone remaking Misery with George Lucas and a particularly obsessive fan. I actually want to check that one out because I really liked the girl's acting.

    But seriously, the movie's point seems to be about displaying the obsessive nerd rage of a large number of my people. I got to live it the first time and it wasn't that much fun in the first place. Its one-sided too with no real attempt to present the opinions of those who thought the prequels had merit (albeit one small merits). The documentary barely touched on the Star Wars Expanded Universe too, which annoyed me since it was pretty huge even if followed by only a fraction of the total fandom.

    In the end, my advice regarding this movie is this--if you want to watch a movie about people complaining about Star Wars for two hours then this is it.

    I don't.


What Zombies Fear: A Father's Quest review

    I am a firm believer there's no need for the Zombie Renaissance to ever end. However, for this to be the case, every author must bring something new to the pot. People talk about wanting to have George Romero shamblers indefinitely as if they are the only way you can do them. I've stated why I find this to be ridiculous (here).

    Kirk Allmond is a guy who manages to impress me not necessarily because I agree with all of his choices but I appreciate the fact he bothers to do things differently. It's not so differently as Braineater Jones (reviewed here) but he doesn't just stick with the bog-standard formula either. There's zombies, there's an apocalypse, and a father is desperately trying to save his young son from dying.

    Ho-hum, seen this before.

    Some humans are immune to zombie infection, though.

    Hmm. Better.

    Which gives them low-level superpowers.

    *blink* Okay, color me intrigued.

    Oh and some of the zombies are intelligent and capable of passing for human, effectively serving as a Fifth Column for whatever force is behind the rise of the zombies.

    Okay, now you have a story.

    The premise of What Zombies Fear is Victor Tookes is a father of a toddler named Max when the zombie apocalypse happens. Max is bitten early-on but Victor and his family have an inherent immunity to the bug which allows them to survive it as well as develop superpowers.

    Victor suffers several tragedies over the course of the novel and decides to use his newfound abilities as well as those of other immune humans to build a refuge against the zombie hordes. Likewise, he's going to try and kill as many of them as possible.

    Hence the title.

    A Father's Quest is a pretty good bit of heroic fiction. Victor Tookes suffers some setbacks but the story follows him on a largely successful quest to carve out his own little fiefdom in the post-apocalyptic world.

    Kirk Allmond spends a good amount of page-time describing the specifications of the fortress, what sort of weapons they have, and paying cursory attention to how they begin setting up their town. Much of the rest of the book is devoted to well-written action scenes where our heroes take the fight against the bands of zombies roaming the Earth.

    If I have a problem with the book it's that the emotion of the events is somewhat muted. Our hero doesn't take much time to reflect on the personal losses he suffers and more or less just chugs along indefinitely. This isn't bad for the style of book this is but it did leave me a bit surprised.

    In conclusion, I think What Zombies Fear: A Father's Quest is a nice little novel which I give points for originality as well as being of a different sort of feeling than many others. It's pretty upbeat and I think zombie novels which are other genres than horror are a great idea, personally. If we can have action movies with vampires, why not zombies?


The Walking Dead Season 2: Episode 3: In Harm's Way

    Note: Due to the nature of serialized storytelling, this will contain spoilers for the episodes prior to the one I'm reviewing.

    In Harm’s Way is the third installment of Season Two of The Walking Dead video game franchise. I have to admit, I’m genuinely surprised as much happened in this episode as it did. I would have thought a few of the events would have been saved for the climax. Then again, Season One threw everything but the kitchen sink at players in Episode Three so I shouldn’t be surprised.

    The premise is Clementine, Kenny, Sarita, and the Cabin Survivors have all been captured by the mysterious Carver. Carver is, apparently, the father of Rebecca’s unborn child and has captured the group in order to return them to his settlement. Telltale Games chooses a hilarious location to place Carver’s erstwhile kingdom and I can think of no better place to build an empire.

    The role of Walkers is reduced in this episode and they assume a different sort of threat to the lone stalkers from previous episodes. Instead, the Walkers take on the role of a coming natural disaster like a storm or earthquake which humans may or may not be prepared to deal with. The focus, instead, is on humans and how they react when penned in together like animals. Carver claims all of his harsh draconian methods are necessary for the greater good but are they?

The threat this time is from your fellow humans and it's a much more severe one than the St. John brothers.
    It’s interesting how roleplaying was such a major concern of mine during my playthrough. Despite this episode lacking choices to support Carver, my Clementine was torn between her burgeoning loyalty to the Cabin Survivors (who had treated her like garbage until realizing she was useful) and the desire to be part of a kingdom which is seemingly safe against Walker attacks.

Like the Governor in the television series, we get a sense as to why people would want to follow Carver while also understanding why he’s not the man they think he is. He’s an extremely well-realized character and if he’s not as terrifying or memorable as the Governor then he’s at least the best villain they’ve created for this franchise.

    The addition of Kenny to the group livens up things considerably and I found the Cabin survivors much more likable this time around than in previous episodes. It’s really a shame so many defining events happen this episode because I would have liked to have seen more of the dynamic they start to show before the climax. Unfortunately, the character of Nick is marginalized given he could die in Episode Two. I fully expect him to not play much role in future episodes or die. This is a shame since I like Nick significantly more than the character of Luke.

Carver remains the best villain of he video games thus far.
    The new survivors added to the group are interesting and offer some intriguing reflections into Clementine’s own developing character. The character of June, in particular, may represent the hardened survivor Clementine may become in the future—at the cost of nearly the entirety of her humanity. Is this the Clementine that chooses not to be a part of a group? The character of Sarah, however, shows the dangers of relying too much on others as she is almost completely helpless without her adults to look after her.

     This episode is a tight mix of action, puzzle-solving, role-playing, and everything else which makes a good Telltale episode. Clementine's character developed more in this episode than any other one save, perhaps, Episode Five of Season One. That's pretty high praise and watching poor Clem try to claim her independence from a group determined to protect her (but unable to protect themselves) is a story arc which reaches its climax here.

    The explosion action-filled final part of this chapter is something I give Telltale a lot of credit for too. Just when you think the emotional beats of this episode have reached their conclusion, the Episode throws three or four more at you. If the Cabin Survivors had been as likable and interesting as they were during this chapter, tI wouldn’t have been nearly so critical of the first two chapters. In any case, I consider this to be the best of the Season Two episodes thus far and am anxiously looking forward to Episode Four.


Thursday, July 17, 2014

Dead Rising review

    It's strange for a man who considers himself a huge fan of the Dead Rising series that he hasn't played the original until now. I haven't played the latest title in the series yet either but I think Dead Rising fans will be more forgiving of that due to the fact I'm saving up to purchase an Xbox One.

    Despite this, I went into the game intimately familiar with the story since I watched it online when it came out because I was such a huge zombie fan but didn't yet own an Xbox 360. Likewise, I was intrigued by all of the features the game promised. Every magazine I read emphasized the game's open-world nature, the potential for exploration, and the mammoth amount of objects which could be used to slay zombies in inventive ways.

    Still, it wasn't until I'd played the sequels religiously that I decided to finally shell out the money and purchase the Platinum version of the title. As a result, I'm going to speak of both what was innovative in Dead Rising at the time of its release as well as how it holds up today.

Just wandering around the mall, whacking the hell out of zombies with a board.
    While it's become something of an industry staple, the big thing Dead Rising brought to the table was the full exploitation of slow zombies and a sandbox environment. The debate between Slow Zombies and Fast Zombies has been something talked about by geeks for a very long time but Dead Rising is an argument all its own. Packed from wall to wall, the zombies are individually harmless but you can't travel very far without falling into the hands of one. Dead Rising zombies can't run but they can lunge and that's just as deadly.

    The premise of Dead Rising is you are Frank West, photojournalist, who has received a hot tip that there's something happening in the town of Willamette. This turns out to be, of course, a zombie outbreak. The only place with any survivors left is the town shopping center in a direct-but-denied homage to Dawn of the Dead. Frank's ride, a helicopter pilot, promises to pick him up in three days. You are left to rescue survivors by taking them to the security room of the mall so they can be airlifted with you, investigate the outbreak, and deal with several survivors who have become violent psychopaths.

The Willamette Mall is an excellent and diverse sandbox to explore with multiple levels, environments, and background scenery.
    Dead Rising wouldn't be nearly as entertaining if not for the fact the Willamette Mall is such an entertaining location to explore. The contrast between the familiarity of the location, everyone having visited a place like it, and the fact you've rarely had a chance to adventure in a place like it comes together well. Virtually every object in the game can be picked up and used as a weapon so there's a staggering amount of improvised weapons. You can fight zombies with handbags, sandwich boards, stuffed animals, lead pipes, 2x4s, mannequins, buckets, mops, and (yes) guns.

    The game's weapons are all very fragile, though, so you can't rely on one throughout the entire game. Your lead pipe or battle-ax (from the antique shop) will break not long into combat and this forces you to seek anything on hand to do battle with the zombies around you. This gives the game much of its frantic pace as the heart of the gameplay is fighting off zombies that might start spread out but can swiftly become an impenetrable wall of rotting flesh.

    The chief activity aside from zombie-slaying is the location and rescue of survivors. This is, sadly, my least favorite part of Dead Rising and an area where Dead Rising 2 improved on the original. While rescuing people gives me a warm fuzzy feeling, keeping them alive in this game is almost impossible.

    They fall behind, often get caught up in zombie hordes only to eaten (in horrific cutscenes), and can't defend themselves well even if given a weapon. About the only thing I'm grateful for to the survivors is the massive amount of experience points they provide (called "prestige points" and the fact you can heal them by giving them food.

This guy worships a department store mannequin and has a hundred raincoat and mask serial-killer followers. Some people do not deal well with stress.
    Thankfully, distracting from the tedium of rescuing survivors is the presence of the Psychos. Dead Rising has a surprisingly serious and somber main plot, the origins of the zombies aside, so it's kind of dissonant to see such an eclectic cast of bosses. There's clowns, mad grocery store clerks, pyromaniac "Nice Guys", your standard mad butchers, cult-leaders, and redneck survivalists all competing for your attention. They're often hilarious, tragic, and wild in one and that's what gives Dead Rising its unique feel.

    Perhaps the most interesting feature of Dead Rising is its strange new of the New Game+ mode. At any point in the game, you can stop it and restart it with all of your levels and equipment. Completing your game perfectly on your first try is more or less impossible and it is designed to be replayed multiple times so you can see everything. I'm not sure I agree with this design decision but it's worth noting. There's also a photography mini-game where you can get small amounts of prestige points for taking interesting pictures of survivors, psychopaths, or the endless zombie hordes. You can even get bonus points for taking pictures of "sexy" zombies and ones wearing toy hats.

The zaniness of the boss battles contrasts sharply with its (mostly) dark and somber tone.
    So, does the game have any flaws? A few. The lip-synching action to the models isn't very good, the photography gameplay could use a little work, the aforementioned survivor issues, and a few other niggles here and there. The worst is the time limit. Dead Rising has a punishing series of challenges which are mandatory to progress the plot and require you to be in specific places at specific times in-game or all incomplete ones are failed. While this ups the challenge, I think the game would have been improved without them.

    In conclusion, I consider Dead Rising to be a landmark game in a lot of ways. It's still my favorite pick for the best zombie game of all time. While future game in the series improve on its gameplay, I'm going to say that I prefer this one's dead serious plot. Gamers looking just for a good time may prefer Off the Record but this is well-worth the money to pick up.


Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Doc of the Dead review

    Doc of the Dead, standing for "Documentary of the Dead", is the (as now) definitive work explaining the appeal of zombies in popular culture. At an hour and a half, it feels like it's just barely scratching the surface of a much-larger cultural phenomenon but it manages to be consistently entertaining and informative.

    This is one one of those rare documentaries which manages to be enjoyable to both laymen as well as die-hard fans. Albeit, don't expect to be blown away by its informativeness. Doc of the Dead is squarely aimed at the causal viewer--which isn't necessarily a flaw. If you're going to introduce someone to "the appeal" of zombies, then Doc of the Dead may not be a bad place to start after some of the more famous movies.

    Guests on this documentary include Max Brooks (World War Z, Zombie Survival Guide), Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead), Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator), Bruce Campbell (Evil Dead, Army of Darkness), George Romero (The "Dawn" series), Tom Savini (see Romero), and Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead). There's plenty of other guest stars, a few who are just laugh out-loud funny in their choice as "expert" like porn star Joanna Angel.

    Doc of the Dead follows the history of the zombie in cinema ranging from its origins in adapting the titular monster of Haitian mythology to its break-out role in Night of the Living Dead. From there, it talks about how various people adapted the Romero zombie and "improved"/ruined it. Much talk is given to the infamous Slow Zombie vs. Fast Zombie debate, a conflict I've weighed upon (here), and there's even a discussion of whether a zombie apocalypse could happen in real life.

    Despite its all-star cast, Doc of the Dead seems more interested in entertaining its viewers than talking at length about the zombie. Interesting sections like a discussion of the zombie as a sociological phenomenon and how George Romero came up with his creature are thrown aside for (admittedly awesome) bits like Bruce Campbell talking about how he was asked to officiate a zombie-themed wedding. The various zombie experts seem more interested in sharing amusing stories and shooting the breeze than discussing the monster, which I am willing to forgive because none of them are ever boring.

    If the documentary has any flaws, it perhaps casts too wide of a net in order to try to cover all elements of zombie fandom. While covering zombie-walks are fun and an interesting side, there's perhaps too much time spent with a corporation which provides zombie-themed targets for shooting practice.They could have also just included more Bruce Campbell as he's, by far, the stand-out in the story. Hell, if they ever do another medium-or-higher budget documentary on zombies (and they will), they should get him to host it.

    Likewise, the survivalist interview discussing the use of bomb shelters for surviving a zombie apocalypse seems extraneous. I would have expanded the criminally short section on the use of video games to promote the zombie as a beloved horror icon. While the movie covers the, admittedly, poignant Dead Island trailer--it neglects to give anything more than a few seconds to the many franchises built around shooting the undead.

    In conclusion, Doc of the Dead is a fun and light documentary for fans of the horror genre and those who aren't too.


Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Walking Dead Season 2: Episode 2: A House Divided review

    Note: Due to the nature of serialized storytelling, this will contain spoilers for the episodes prior to the one I'm reviewing.

    The episodic nature of the Telltale video games is both a blessing as well as a curse. It's a blessing because it's rare you get serialized storytelling this good. For a fraction of the cost of a full-priced video game, you get an hour and a half of re-playable storytelling for less than the price of a movie ticket.

    The curse element is, like your favorite television show, there's expansive waits between. Waiting for the end of Season 2 of The Walking Dead video game is something I know a lot of Season 1 fans are doing because they don't want to have to wait for the resolution to the plots within. I liken it to waiting for a television show to come out on DVD. Thankfully, I still have a couple of episodes before that becomes an issue.

Poor Clementine is always taking point.
    The premise of A House Divided is Clementine has been separated from her guardian, Crista. Forced to survive on her own, she's managed to find herself with a new group of survivors. Unfortunately, these survivors are considerably more hostile to her than her previous group and the only one who was unconditionally accepting is either bitten or dead by the beginning of this episode.

    A House Divided, as might be inferred by the title of the game, is about how distrustful humans have become since the apocalypse. The simple act of celebrating Christmas, something which brought about ceasefires during World War 1, has become something riff with lies and secrets. There are still good people out there but the episode examines whether or not they're smart for being so. Several times during this game, "doing the right thing" has disastrous consequences.

    Of course, so does doing the wrong thing. Clever, Telltale.

    While the first episode showed how Clementine is entirely capable of taking care of herself, this episode takes the time to develop the characters she is traveling with. We find out why they're so distrustful of strangers, even ones in the shape of an eleven-year-old girl. We also meet someone who has the potential to be the most memorable bad guy of not just this season but the entire Walking Dead video game franchise.

At least the new survivors can shoot.
    It was spoiled by the "trailer" at the end of Episode 1 that Clementine was going to be meeting up with someone she thought dead and I'm of mixed feelings about this character's survival. Still, in retrospect, I think it was necessary to bring back someone from the original group for Clementine to deal with. While already one of the darkest video games of all time, Season 2 is shaping up to make the original season look like "the good old days."

    The new villain, Carver, is a character I find quite appealing and I'm glad Telltale decided to create a "Governor-like" figure for Season 2. I felt the absence of any survivors in the "micro-nation" of Crawford was a missed opportunity. The fact Carver seems more intelligent, capable, and better suited to surviving the apocalypse than the current band Clementine is traveling with makes the developing storyline all the more intriguing to me.

    I also approve of the morality subtext to this episode. Whether or not one is religious, it's interesting to have a holiday traditionally associated with family and togetherness be a night when you might endeavor to conceal something horrible from an innocent man for your own protection. Given the way the Walking Dead video games have shown "the best intentions" to go horribly arry, it was really a struggle for me to decide what was the right thing to do.

    I was pleased by the tie-ins to 400 Days, too.

Carver and Clementine's talk is pure genius.
     Of all the new survivors, I think I'm the most fond of Nick. My Clementine and he bonded over the tragedy of the previous game and their conversation after said event was really touching. The later events flow from what happened to his uncle Pete and watching him come to terms with them as well as his later mistakes really moved me. By comparison, I can't say I've bonded with any of the other characters.

    Unfortunately, the new group of survivors isn't quite as awesome as the "original recipe" group. I instantly bonded with all of them and think of them as some of my favorite characters in video games. The only duds for me were Crista and Omid. None of the new characters here are bad, per say, but I can't say I care whether they live or die. The one I like the most is Nick and events make me wonder if he'll have much of a role at all in future episodes. Sadly, the character I'm most interested in the fate of is the Season 1 survivor.