Assassin's Creed II

Ubisoft Montreal
Windows, X360, PS3
ESRB Rating: Mature

In a word: Stunning.

It really does improve on the original in every single conceivable way.


Like the last game, you play as Desmond Miles, a descendant of the ancient Assassin order which is engaged in a millenia-long struggle against the Knights Templar. You are unraveling a mystery by tapping into the "genetic memory" of your ancestors using a McGuffin Machine called the "Animus." I'd like to think the PlayStation will look like this in ten years. The story could have easily come from the mind of Dan Brown. What makes for half-baked pulp novelry also makes for an excellent premise for a video game. Using the Animus machine, you'll relive the memories of Ezio Auditore di Firenze, one of Desmond's ancestors living in 1400's Italy. You'll rub shoulders with Medicis, assassinate Pazzi's, get gadgetry made by Leonardo Da Vinci, and generally be immersed in the rich history of the time. Like Dan Brown, the history here is a little murky, but mostly true to source - although it does serve to advance the farfetched videogame plot for the most part. Still, it's a rich premise for a videogame, captivating and original. Part Matrix, part Deus Ex, part Angels and Demons...this is good stuff for gamers. It's much better writing than we're used to, but even that's getting better all around. Videogames are really coming into their own as unique player-driven storytelling media, and this is amongst the best of the field writing-wise.


Out of the park. Ezio's character model is very well done. The Venetian architecture is on full glorious display here. The palette is somewhat muddy, but consider the source material. Draw distance is very respectable, no texture pop-in noted. Shading and shadows are top-notch. Special recognition for the cutscenes, and the facial animations/body language. It rivals and in some cases exceeds Mass Effect in the realism. Ubisoft obviously spent a lot of time in addressing the inherent Uncanny Valley problems with eliciting emotional responses from CG characters. It works extremely well, and is quite immersive. This is a violent game, too. I don't know if you disable the blood (haven't checked.) Assassination kills involve a lot of neck-stabbing and the arterial spray that comes with it. Oddly enough, I don't think turning off the blood would kill the game for anyone that wanted to experience it. On the downside, ragdoll physics can cause environment collision sometimes, and your sword magically pierces through a bench if you sit on it. Doesn't look like any developer's gotten that perfect yet, and it really doesn't take away from the experience anyhow.


Stellar. The voice acting is fantastic. Unless you understand quite a bit of Italian, I'd recommend leaving on the subtitles. The characters jump back and forth between English and Italian - leave on the titles if for no other reason than to pick up a few choice Italian curses. Soundtrack is very well done, unintrusive and adds to the experience quite effectively. When you're chased by guards or confront them, it changes appropriately.


There are a few core components to this game, all of which are immersive and quite fun. The free-running portion is quite addictive, and it's a joy just to haul ass across the rooftops of Florence or Tuscany with no particular destination. When you run into a surface with a sharp angle change, Ezio can get confused and fall 20 feet to an injury instead of gingerly changing direction. For the most part, you can avoid this if you plan your freerunning path a few seconds ahead of where you are. This is fun.
Assassinations work about like they did in the last game, but they've added some context-sensitive moves that you'd expect a sneaky bastard like Ezio to use, like shanking from concealment in a pile of hay, from the other side of a ledge, or even underwater. A particularly satisfying addition is a second hidden blade, enabling you to assassinate two unwary targets at the same time. Double Prizes!!!!
Open combat mechanics are largely unchanged, but they've beefed up the unarmed portion to allow disarms and utilization of the opponent's weapon. This is a must when you come up against heavily armored foes, and is cool as all hell when you wrench a sledgehammer from a heavily armed Templar and then proceed to crush his legs with it. These animations are freaking sweet. Medieval reenactors take note: these are beautifully captured Western martial arts moves at their best.
This title adds some RPG-lite and collecting elements as well. You have a palatial estate that you upgrade through buying fine art (which is later displayed) upgrading the town to encourage tourism, and all of it feeds a continual income and simple economy system. More money means more sets of armor, more weapons, more fun stuff, more courtesans you can hire. YES! The cool thing about collecting weapons and armor is that it's displayed in your estate later along with all of your other trophies. Your mansion is littered with stuff to upgrade, and these upgrades have tangible gameplay benefits. This is SO much better than the mindless 'fetch the flag' quests of AC1. It's perfectly okay to blow off the main quest and upgrade your digs. It's what I'm doing.


Assassin's Creed 1 turned a few heads when it was released, but was largely written off as an ambitious tech demo. Ubisoft listened to gamer feedback, and have really pinned down what keeps a player coming back. This title is stunning to behold, a joy to look at - and is littered with secrets and unlockables. It's puzzles upon puzzles upon enigmas, and they all serve to either upgrade your character or to advance the narrative. You'll see what I mean when you "unlock" your first hidden glyph. You're going to do it, because no X360 or PS3 gamer should go without playing this game.

Run across the rooftops, assassinate people in line before you if you must, but get your hands on this game as soon as possible.

Four and a Half out of Five Donuts. Damn Near Perfect.

Thoughts on the Ft. Hood Tragedy

My condolences to all touched by this outrage. I'm pretty sure I know what the Army's countermeasure against this sort of thing happening in the future is going to be, and it's going to be sadly ineffective.

I'm usually able to come up with a long a reasonably well-thought out post, but this hits way too close to me.

I really have no words to quantify the way this whole goddamned thing makes me feel, but here's an attempt.

You never think of this on a base. Ever.

A military base is a lot of things. It's that thing you dread getting up and going to every day. You're stuck in traffic behind the one gate out of five they have open because of RAM (random anti-terrorist measures) screaming at the gate guards to get the freaking lead out, otherwise you'll be late.

It's that place you spend from 0530-knockoff jaunting around base for parts you probably don't need, shots you'd rather not get, training you've had a thousand times before.

It's also the place where you see your loved ones after long periods of separation. It's setting foot on American soil and looking into those eyes you've thought about every day for months. It's throwing the lines to the pier, the ramp of a transport bird hitting the tarmac, the opening of a bus door while your ears fill with John Phillips Sousa and all that.

It's that place where in a single moment you're able to drop everything you've been carrying mentally for months and months. You don't have to draw a gun on every strange sound in the night (though you probably will.) You don't have to throw your boots on and scramble for flash gear ready to fight a mainspace fire every time you hear something beep (though you probably will.)

In that single moment, no amount of "welcome home" speeches from high-ranking officers, no amount of TV cameras in your face, nothing can say welcome home like seeing the faces of your family and knowing that at least for now - it's over.

In that single moment, that base you hate to drive to every day becomes the greatest place on the face of the earth.

In another single moment, Malik Nadal Hasan shattered that place.

Military bases are supposed to be safe, but not by force of arms - by strength of brotherhood. We get in our arguments and our squabbles like anyone else but at the end of the day, we are brothers and will jump into the maw of Hell itself to pull our fellows out. Nothing special or heroic to it - that's just what we do.

In another single moment, Malik Nadal Hasan walked into a place made safe by strength of that brotherhood and violated its trust and caused the blood of his brothers to be spilled.

And for what? Madness? Fear of danger? Some sense of religious conviction?

I don't think a single answer exists, nor does it matter.

The Army will soldier on, the Navy will continue sailing, the Air Force will keep the skies clear, and the Marines will still be Marines.

But that brotherhood I spoke of has been weakened considerably. Muslim soldiers will notice hushed whispers where before there weren't so many. There'll be slides, and Powerpoint, and training, and a saturation bombing approach to a smaller-scale problem. All of this will happen because the Army has to do something, anything when things like this occur, so they can say they did.

Hasan may be worth more alive from an intelligence and psychology standpoint, but it's far more than he deserves. He'll get to live and get the attention he desperately wants. He won't get deployed, and he won't get the death sentence. There'll be outpourings of support in Fundamentalist Muslim countries.

The man's going to be a hero to the violently disenfranchised and the misunderstood lunatic.

The Army cannot "train" their way out of this problem.

But that is a problem for the brass, troops. Those of you who still wear the uniform, do what you always do. Head up, powder dry, scan 360, and most importantly - take care of your own.

Hug your kids extra tight, brothers and sisters.

Our bases may be safe from a gate-crashing truck bomb, but they will never be safe from madness.

Progress! Victory! SPARTAAAAAA!!!

Had my followup appointment at the Oklahoma Heart Institute recently.

Here's what's happened since quitting smoking, getting running shoes, and generally kicking that crap out of myself with interval training:

My BP in the doctor's office was 140/90. I'm pretty sure that I get the "white coat" hypertension, and I had an Accounting exam later that evening, so this number has got to be elevated from stress.

What this means is that I've taken my hypertension and front-kicked the sh*t out of it. Like, BAM!


I'm not going to let up. I'm going to get my 5k time under 20 minutes, and in the spring I'll be returning to the world of martial arts, this time in Judo. I can't wait to get slammed, choked, pinned, and generally whooped up on.

Something That Makes Me Nauseous.

Affliction or Ed Hardy T-Shirts.

"How are we supposed to get laid when every other douche in this place is wearing the same thing?"

A person wearing them is advertising one of the following, listed by percent of likelihood:

55%: "I am a slavishly trend-following and unoriginal douchebag."
20%: "Midlife Crisis. Seriously, brah."
20%: "I took the free introductory lesson at a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu school. Now I'm a man-mountain of badass. My distressed flaming skull pattern is proof I am unstoppable."
4.9%: "I'll buy anything at unreasonably high prices."
.00001%: "I am a professional mixed martial artist with an endorsement deal from Affliction."

I'll admit, I wore some pretty hideous shirts back in the day. Time was, if it was oversized and covered in kanji, reflective characters, or wide-eyed samurai drawings, I'd wear it. Somebody should have punched me and told me how ridiculous I looked. I grew out of it, thankfully. In my defense, even at my height of clothing-based social expression I wasn't bankrupting myself on overpriced schlock like these guys are wearing.

It's important to differentiate between Ed Hardy and Affliction, even though they are basically the head and tail of the douchebag coin. Both of them appeal to a groupthink mentality, and are designed to slap you in the face with enough distressed graphics and tattoo flash (shamelessly stolen from the master himself, Sailor Jerry) to kill a charging bull moose. The first time I saw some 27-year old hipster strutting around in one of these Ed Hardy monstrosities, I nearly expired from a combination epilepsy/laughter fit. +15 Douche Points if you wear a matching trucker hat.

Affliction wearers are the guys that were wearing TapOut t-shirts a few years ago. Now, they've either landed a steady gig at Orange Julius, Express Men, or they're old enough to access their trust fund and now desire a higher class of clothing. Rather than go with quality manufacture and classic mature trends, they've opted to to wear something that looks like a tattoo artist just vomited all over a smock, but not before putting some random MMA fighter's name in Olde English lettering on it.

Take a memo, gentlemen. You don't look intimidating. As a matter of fact, the only person that does whilst wearing an Affliction shirt is Randy Couture. And let's face it, that guy would look scary as hell wearing a poodle skirt.

"I'm gonna choke the shit out of the Renaissance Faire." Man!!!

*insert crunchy riff here*

I had my first MRI today. I found the experience to be pretty enjoyable actually. I'm fairly certain they were taking an angiogram, considering my circulation is suspect.
For those that don't know the backstory, I was recently diagnosed with Stage Two Hypertension. This is odd because I'm 29, 5'6, 145lb and not exactly sedentary. At any rate, this has inspired me to quit smoking once and for all, get back into cardio training, and make some serious but necessary changes in my life. Hooray for me.
So, wearing a pair of scrubs, I had an IV needle placed in my arm by a kindly young gentleman who may have just inspired me to go into the field of medical imaging myself. I was then laid on the "bed" portion, and then noticed a nice serene oceanside scene to look at before I was loaded into the superpowered magnetic torus.
Overall impressions? Not bad at all. I'm former USN, so claustrophobia is a non-issue. I could have taken a nap in that thing no sweat. I did have headphones on, which helped somewhat. Local classic rock station. Good stuff. The guy even gave me a blanket for the experience, which had been WARMED UP to the kind of fabric temperature that makes you think of hot apple cider, Christmas morning and biscuits in the oven. That part was awesome.
The most interesting part was the first pass after a gadolinium-based contrast enhancing agent was injected through the IV and into my bloodstream. It was a slow and rolling wave of icy, but not painful, cold that crept up my arm and shoulder and into my neck. As the first imaging pass ensued, I could feel a reaction in my soft the underside of my tounge had a subcutaneal sparkler firework going off. Pretty cool.
I'm going to try to get an animated loop of my MRI results to share if I can.

The Greatest Digital Stories Ever Told, Pt. 1

Video games are like porno movies. The vast majority of them are guilty of having just enough plot to get to "the good stuff." Or at least, that's the way it used to be.

In some cases it still is. Developers tend to spend the majority of their time focusing on finely tuning their core gameplay mechanic. If you were to look at the story backdrop of most games you'd find a barely coherent narrative that no screenwriter or film director would ever touch. Unfortunately, that's never stopped Uwe Boll.

However, there are a few developers that have realized that the video game presents an opportunity to tell a story in a way that cannot be done by a book or a film. The interactive nature of the medium gives the savvy developer the ability to deliver plot exposition and character development through the actions of the player controlling the game. Video games have crawled out of the primordial Atari 2600 soup of their fledgling days and must be considered a legitimate art form.

The mainstream media doesn't agree with me here. Most coverage you see regarding video games revolves around sensationalizing the new release of a particularly violent title.

The outpouring of righteous indignation by the talking heads when it was discovered Grand Theft Auto IV allowed you to pick up a hooker and then murder her on the street to get your money back is a good indication here. It wasn't mentioned that at no point does the game require the player to do this to advance, nor was the violent nature of the title ever viewed in context of the overall narrative.

When commentators learned that Mass Effect features a sex scene between the player character and a blue-skinned female alien, momentary hysteria exploded as the developer BioWare was accused of destroying the moral fabric of our children with fully interactive hardcore digital sex acts. It wasn't mentioned that this non-interactive sex scene consists of blurry side-angle shots of the character's midsection, legs and partial buttocks cut together with 'montage-style' love-making cinematography. Seriously, folks, you'll find more hardcore content than this in a Lifetime Original Movie. And once again, this sex scene isn't mandatory. It's sort of an Easter Egg you'll see if you've spent time in the game cultivating a relationship with either a human or alien female. Oh, and by the way - if you choose to make your player character a female, you have the option to pursue a relationship with either a human male or alien female, with the same type of 'sex scene' included depending on whether or not you've developed a relationship with them. I suspect the simulated depiction of on-screen lesbian sex might just be what torques the Jerry Falwell crowd more than anything.

This kind of hack moral posturing doesn't happen so much anymore when it comes to cinema. Racy and provocative content gets put out every year without so much as a peep from the mainstream media. Yet it seems if adult themes are explored in a video game, it's time to light the torches and rally behind Jack Thompson. Never mind that every single title sold in this country is rated by the ESRB. Parents have no right to deflect responsibility to the game's producer if their kid comes home with a copy of Manhunt. The hypothetical retailer that sold this title to the child is at fault for not enforcing the ESRB rating system...but the parents shoulder the majority of the blame. Would you let your kids go and purchase whatever movies they wanted without you there to supervise? No, huh? Then why would you let your kid do it with a video game?

It seems that media outlets as a whole view games as things that should only be used by children, and whenever adult content is placed in a game, the software companies are purposely trying to corrupt and destroy the fragile minds of our children. I'd suspect this is more of an age-gap issue than anything else. The majority of the journalists in question here remember video games as being like Pong, Asteroids, Paperboy, and Gauntlet - mindless repetition of a simple task for little more than a reward in points. I think it's fair to assume that they believe interactive digital entertainment still holds to this paradigm. And while they outgrew video games and pursued their careers, the digital entertainment industry grew and evolved right under their noses into the legitimate art form they are today.

To view video games as nothing more than children's toys is to take an incredibly unrealistic view of what the medium is capable of from an artistic and storytelling standpoint. To be sure, many games are released each year whose plot lines are incomprehensible and ludicrous, seeming only to exist to justify whatever "twitch" action the game is based on. But there are many movies released each year that suffer from this as well. Video game reviews from sites like are aware of this, and routinely take marks away from titles for half-baked storytelling.

In Part Two of this post, I'm going to focus on some examples of contemporary video games that pushed the boundaries of storytelling and delivered an absolutely compelling experience worthy of notice and respect from gamers and non-gamers alike.

An Open Letter To The Iranian Guardian Council

Is this the face of a "terrorist?" Of a "vandal?"

Really? A 26-year old music student has you so afraid for your safety that you sanction her public murder by a Basij sniper? And then, you won't even permit her to have a proper funeral ceremony.

What is it about this face that frightened you so much?

I'm pretty sure I know, and the rest of the world is coming around to it as well if they haven't already.

Rest assured that the enduring image of your legacy will not be all of the recreation centers that Ahmedinejad built. (Stalin had those too, you know.) Nor will it be one of quiet respect towards the wizened elders that stood up to Western influence and held alight the torch of sensible rule by Islamic decree.

No. The historical portrait of your effectiveness as leaders is captured in a grainy cell phone video of a young and beautiful woman bleeding to death in the streets - by your hand.

Yes, you will most likely win 'this round.' You have the advantage of having the Pasdaran and Basij at your beck and call. You also lack the empathy and wisdom to let a different voice be heard, and the willingness and black hearts that are required to beat it into painful submission. Is this sanctioned by the Koran? I don't think so.

But what do I know? I'm part of the "Great Satan." That allows you to disregard anything I have to say, no matter how true it rings.

Regardless of what Ahmedinejad tells the world, your current troubles are not of Western design. Nor are they Zionist in origin. Sooner or later, you're going to have to accept that there is no one around to blame but yourselves.

I'm sure some of you have children that are the same age Neda was when you murdered her. Does it eat at you, that you get to spend time with your children - safe in your comfortable throne of moral superiority and unquestionable political power - and Neda's family and friends are left to grieve in hiding because you won't allow them the courtesy to remember her at her grave?

I think what bothers you is a nagging realization in the back of your mind. History will march beyond you. The human race will eventually evolve past the ways of men such as yourselves, and there is nothing you can do to stop it. Your people want freedom. Not in the American flag-waving sense. They want freedom gained by their own actions, dictated by their own accords. You exist to provide them with protection and to provide for their welfare.

I'd like very much to visit your country and meet your people. I'd do so in a heartbeat if I didn't think I would be putting your own citizens in danger from associating with me. Besides, Westerners have a very short shelf-life in your country, don't they?

Why won't you allow international election observers into your country? What is it that you are hiding? We're supposed to just take your word that the elections were fair and just after you punctuate this sentiment with a 7.62mm rifle round through the torso of a young woman?

I'm going to close this rant with the words of a man whose feet you are not worthy to touch:

"The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." - Martin Luther King, Jr.

I believe Neda Soltan would have liked that quote.

I also believe you have good reason to fear it.


This message is for whomever the IRGC is employing to investigate Twitter posts.

You can't stop us all. There are things you cannot control. Your people are screaming for modernity and level-headedness, and it's reaching a critical mass you will be unable to stop.

You can slow the march of change with the truncheon, but only for so long. Tell your masters their days are numbered. The same immutable force of change that installed the Islamic Republic is fully capable of throwing you and your Basiji lapdogs out on your collective asses.

One more thing - This page is hosted in the United States. Do something about it.

Five Movie/TV Badasses That Can Actually Use One-Liners

5. Wyatt Earp - Tombstone (Kurt Russell)

"You gonna do something, or just stand there and bleed?"

4. SGTMAJ Basil Plumley - We Were Soldiers (Sam Elliott)

"Any of you sumbitches calls me Grandpa, I'll kill ya."

3. Will Sonnett - The Guns of Will Sonnett (Walter Brennan)

"No brag, just fact."

2. Jack Burton - Big Trouble in Little China (Kurt Russell)

"Just remember what ol' Jack Burton does when the earth quakes, and the poison arrows fall from the sky, and the pillars of Heaven shake. Yeah, Jack Burton just looks that big ol' storm right square in the eye and he says, "Give me your best shot, pal. I can take it."

1. SGTMAJ Jonas Blane - The Unit (Dennis Haysbert)

"Now, Rangers, did you sign up to get out of the house, or do you want to come with me and kick the door down?"

SGTMAJ Jonas Blane - callsign "Snake Doc" - is pound for pound the greatest television badass that has ever walked the small screen. Sure, Jack Bauer's great - but Snake Doc exudes the kind of quiet and understated confidence that would make you befoul your pantaloons if he gave you the right kind of look. He's been silently keeping the United States number one from the shadows for years. He's fluent in multiple languages, which means he can threaten almost anyone in the world in their own language. Which isn't really necessary most of the time. What sets him apart is his humanity. He's fragile in his own way - which exemplifies Tom Clancy's depiction of Special Forces soldiers - "Lions on the battlefield, teddy bears at home."

And, like Will Sonnett, he is not a braggart. Doesn't need to in order to derive satisfaction from his work. What does make him happy? In a recent episode of The Unit, Snake Doc and his team successfully managed to get satellite-tagged fake passports into the hands of a terrorist handler, and then allowed him to escape across the Mexican border.

Later, in the Unit's Tactical Operations Center, he witnesses the satellite tracking of the fake passports coming online and plotted on a world map. As he sees the map light up with dozens and dozens of new targets for his team to hunt down, a wry smile crosses his face as he utters the single line that sums him up better than just about anything:

"I love my work."

Ranger on, Snake Doc. Ranger on.

Hall of Shame

Det. LT Horatio Caine - CSI: Miami (David Caruso)

Douchebag. Douchebag. Douchebag.

In The Studio

Ok...for anyone that doesn't know, I'm in a band called Driveby Sonata in the Tulsa, OK area. Here's a quick and dirty history. My good friend Jocelyn used to be in a metal group called Rook here in Oklahoma. Rook was on hiatus and she was looking to start something new. Enter the alt/rock band Copious, who had also been on hiatus for several years. Jocelyn decided to bring me into the new group as a bass player along with Brent Ober, a guitarist who did the songwriting and arrangements, and Sean Miller, a drums guru with a good ear for production. After a few practices, Brent and I realized that we wanted a big two-guitar sound, so I transitioned to playing rhythm geetar. This prompted Jocelyn to bring on board an old friend, Erik Dabrowsky of the metal group SolRaven to take my place on bass guitar. We practiced fairly regularly and got a nice 30 minute set ready for our debut at the Freaker's Ball, an annual Halloween music-fest here in town. We got a crappy timeslot, but we played it and had a blast. However, a few weeks afterwards as we were thinking about doing some recording work, Brent came to the decision to leave Driveby Sonata and take his music in another direction. We bid each other adieu and good luck, and set about the work of composing new songs as a four-piece alternative rock group.

It's been an absolute thrill to work as a four-piece. It's really rewarding for me, since I've been able to take a lot of original compositions I've had "in the bag" for a long time - and by the time Erik, Sean, and Jocelyn put their input on them, the finished product is something so much better than my original visions of the song. All of these months of preparation culminated last week as Driveby Sonata hit the studio to lay the groundwork on a three-song EP that will eventually grace the MySpace site, our official .com, and be sold at any future gigs we come across. We've had the good fortune to work with a fantastic recording engineer. If you're an old school punk fan you probably know who he is. Stephen Egerton, formerly of the Descendents recorded us over a period of three days at Armstrong Studios in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

He's meticulous and has one hell of an ear for sublety and songcraft. I actually came to think of him as more of a producer as well. He gave us a lot of good feedback on the construction of our songs and suggested subtle changes to open the whole thing up and make it far more balanced and ear-friendly. Anyway, there's still quite a ways to go on the recording...we still need to track Jocelyn's violin, vocals, and mixing but what we have so far is really damn impressive and man, am I ever proud of it. looks like in April we'll be able to unleashed our twisted baby on the intertubes. We've gotten some early feedback which has pegged our sound as Smashing Pumpkins-Perfect Circle-meets 70's and 80's AOR for lack of any sort of real description. It's been months and months of hard work...but the end result is a musical concoction unlike anything the four of us have ever heard. Hopefully you'll like it too.

Fallout 3 Review

Xbox360, PS3, PC
Post-Apocalyptic RPG
Released 10-28-08

"War. War never changes."

I remember booting up the first iteration of the Fallout series on my PC back in 1997 and hearing Ron Perlman speak these words. I'd never seen anything like what would follow. There had been isometric-perspective RPG's prior to it, like Syndicate for example. But nothing had the damned-near perfect mix Black Isle Studios managed to pull off. The campy retro-futuristic, ultra-violent romp through a nuke-scorched wasteland of southern California brings back fond memories even today. When I heard that the series was coming back, with Bethesda Softworks at the helm...I counted the days awaiting the release like a kid awaiting Christmas. Bethesda's other swan song, The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion was an enormous world to explore but it was riddled with nagging gameplay issues that dampened the experience. As much as I anticipated Fallout 3's release, I tempered it knowing that I may very well be disappointed with the end product.

Would Bethesda hold true to Black Isle's original vision? Would they take lessons learned from Oblivion to the project?

The answer: Stunned silence. This game is nothing less than the most ambitious and stunning gameplay experience I have ever had in a 15-plus year history of gaming.

You play as the Vault Dweller, and your experience begins at birth. The first face you see in the world is that of your father (brilliantly voiced by veteran actor Liam Neeson.) You then progress through a fairly detailed character editor where you sculpt your wasteland avatar to your liking. Once you are done, your father removes his surgical mask to reveal a face remarkably similar to the one you just designed. It's a nice touch. After a few minutes of hand-holding, you're thrust into a power struggle for control of the Vault. The Overseer has gone power-mad, your father has unexpectedly left the Vault, and a full-scale riot/giant cockroach infestation is breaking out. Here you really begin to get the jist of what this game is really all about: choices and their consequences for the world at large. Do you kill the Overseer? Do you sneak into his office and hack his terminal, giving you access to the outside? You can do all of this, and a lot more. What you choose will have repercussions down the road. Every major event and NPC encounter in the game gives you a chance to define what your character is all about. Saint or scoundrel? Thief or drunken good-hearted brawler? It's all up to you. Just be prepared to be surprised. The Law of Unintended Consequences is fully in play here, and a well-intentioned deed may come back to haunt you in a horrible way later on.

On to the meat:

GRAPHICS: This is arguably the most important part of the experience. This game is an absolute joy to play. The first time your character emerges from the shelter of Vault 101 after a short introductory experience, your character is blinded temporarily by the sun your eyes have never before seen up to that point. Once your vision returns to normal you find yourself staring at a vast wasteland of the Washington D.C. area. Far off in the distance you see the ruins of the Washington Monument. Go a little further down the road and you'll see the wreckage of a once-proud society arrayed around you as far as the eye can see. It's relatively easy to design nice pristine environments where a house is a house and everything is in its place. It takes some real skill and attention to detail to realistically depict the chaos and general trashiness of a world years after the bomb. Simply walking from point A to B in this game is a pleasure. Fallout 3 uses the Gamebryo engine, also showcased in Bethesda's other offerings. It pushes modern game consoles and PCs to their limit. Textures are detailed, pop-in is negligible which is impressive given the distances involved. There are only two real negatives to speak of in this category. There's not a lot of variety to NPC facial design, and their animations are atrocious. Oblivion had this problem as well. There's no body language to be seen, and it's hard to appreciate just how big a role it plays in human communication until it's gone completely. The immersion of the narrative suffers as a result, but not enough for the player to be unmoved by the scope of the storytelling. They really should have taken a page from the stellar Mass Effect for how to do character interaction right. The other down-check has more to do with design than anything else. Everything is a drab shade of grey - as could be expected in a post-nuclear situation. It does make a lot of the landscape look the same without foliage there to differentiate it.

SOUND: Musically, it's a sublime treat. Your character is equipped with a PDA of sorts that allows him/her to listen to adjacent radio signals. You can listen to broadcast propaganda from the pseudo-governmental entity "The Enclave" which is amusing for the first ten minutes or so, but if you're like me you'll have that Pip-Boy tuned to Galaxy News Radio. GNR's the closest thing to a news and music station post apocalyptic DC has. A really nice feature is that the announcer will broadcast news of your latest heroic action - or dastardly deed. Nothing like being called a bastard over the radio after you nuke a small ramshackle settlement for monetary gain. GNR's got a nice little library of music as well. This game introduced me to some toe-tapping ditties from the 1940's that I most likely wouldn't have been exposed to unless I got a sudden Danny Kaye movie jones. You don't know the meaning of ironic fun until you smash a Super Mutant's head into a million pieces while listening to the jump blues tune "Butcher Pete" by rock n' roll pioneer Roy Brown. Speaking of crunching mutant heads, the sound effects generated by in-game actions are pretty satisfying. The first time the Vault 101 blast door opened with a sickening metallic squeal, I grit my teeth. It hurt my fillings a little bit.

GAMEPLAY: It's been called "Oblivion with guns." That's pretty accurate. Targeting is pretty standard first-person shooter fare, though of the old school variety. No "iron sights" mode to be found here. What sets it apart, is the brilliantly executed revival of the V.A.T.S. - Vault Assisted Targeting System. Even though your battles take place in real-time, you can pause the action at any point in a battle and bring up a computer targeting assessment of your soon-to-be victim. You'll be able to focus on specific parts of the assailant's body and are given a percentage estimate that you'll hit what you're aiming at. If you're having trouble getting that headshot from the hip with that Scoped .44 Magnum you found out there, you'll need to avail yourself of the great RPG advancement system. SPECIAL is the Fallout world's answer to traditional RPG mechanics and it works pretty well - it's better and more concise than most. Your leveling up is accomplished through Skills and Perks. Skills translate to how good you are with the equipment and techniques you use - and even how well your "gift of gab" works. You can make a pacifist diplomat-type character that can be surprisingly effective when maxed out in Charisma points and Speech skill. Or go the other way, and do your negotiating with melee weapons and flamethrowers - use Strength/Endurance points and Big Guns skill. The freedom in character development is positively staggering. Rather than pigeonhole you into one of several character classes - you make your own from scratch. You'll have difficulties at different points in the game based on how you build your wastelander - the sneaky sniper ninja that loves to pop mutant heads from 300 yards out will have to think quickly when his perfect sniping spot gets an unexpected visit from a Giant Radscorpion, and your silver-tongued PR shark will have to get creative when cornered by enemies that don't understand the subtleties of language and are only interested in tearing you to pieces. In that regard, the challenge level of the game is constantly in flux. Your morality comes into play as well. It's a little bit harder to play as a conscience-less roving murderer. Not only will wasteland beasts and mutants want to kill you, but townsfolk will have heard of you and are likely to shoot you on sight.

LASTING APPEAL: Off the charts. You can play this game start-to-finish multiple times through and not come even close to seeing everything. The world of the DC wasteland is absolutely enormous, and is chock full of rewards for the patient explorer. There's a good bit of downloadable content expansion for this game with more on the way. You'll still be getting enjoyment out of this game months after buying it.

FINAL ANALYSIS: This game doesn't really revolutionize anything. There are better first-person shooters out there. There are also better pure RPG's as well. But no game to this date has a world this big, an experience this poignant, a story this huge. This is a game that is exponentially better than the sum of its parts. The overall experience is beautiful, haunting, and will keep you coming back. This game is not 100 percent perfect, but you'll have a hard time finding gameplay this immersive anywhere else. For that reason, it's going to be a little intimidating to the casual gamer - the option to save progress anywhere alleviates this somewhat.

This is also NOT a game for young children. The gore factor and mature subject matter make it suitable for older teens at the youngest.

SCORE: 5 out of 5 Donuts. Perfect Score!

Once more into the Fray.

I'm not going to waste time waxing philosophical about the introductions.

Right to the meat.

I won't be updating this site very often, mostly because I'm not one of these folks that will ever average 20 blog posts a day. I can think of better things to do.

I will, however be posting my reviews and impressions of things that actually matter to me. Here you can expect to see my unique take on films and video games. I promise to not be current on them either. I don't really have the disposable income to go out and buy the newest triple-A XBOX360 releases or check the latest releases in the theaters on Opening Day. What I do have is GameFly, streaming NetFlix, and an unorthodox way of viewing the world.

I also will use this blog as the reporting device for what I'm calling the "Wii Fit Experiment." It's not so much a scientifically sound double-blind experiment as it is measuring the effects of the Wii Fit Balance Board and workout software on a fairly healthy 29-year old American male with an already decent metabolism and small pair of love handles.

Lastly, my kitchen might as well be Dexter's Laboratory. I've come up with some solid recipes and most of what I make has been pretty well raved about by anyone who's eaten it. You can think my lovely wife Hailey Hawkeye for putting up with my 5 years of trial and error to get to this point. I'll share some experiences from time to time about what works for me, although it will be accused by some as simply parroting one of my heroes, Alton Brown.

That's about it. If you clicked on this blog from JREF, welcome. You're already family so make yourself at home in my particular seedy corner of the intertubes.