Monday, October 20, 2014

A Tribute to Shadow of Mordor's Nemesis System

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, the relatively new game from Monolith Studios, has received some rave reviews since its release in late September. While the combat is good, it also plays like a more forgiving, more skittish and jumpy version of the the Batman: Arkham series' finely-tuned counter fest. While the open-world exploration is also good, it plays like a less intensive version of the Assassin's Creed series' signature parkour. And while the story is good (and features probably the closest thing to an adaptation of the Silmarillion that we're ever likely to see), one can be excused from not being all that interested in Lord of the Rings lore.

No, what makes Shadow of Mordor fun and quite unlike anything I've played in recent memory is the Nemesis System. The game's protagonist, bland ranger person Talion, is killed at the story's outset and bonded to a mysterious wraith that keeps him "banished from death." Basically, whenever he dies, he is resurrected. What is interesting about this mechanic is what happens to the Orc or Uruk who kills him: if a random grunt manages to land the finishing blow, he will be promoted to Captain and take his place in a chess board-y "Sauron's Army" menu in the game, displaying all the current captains, their locations and their battle tactics. If the board is full, the new captain will challenge and incumbent for the position. If they win, they get promoted. If not, they die. What gives this mechanic flavor is that almost every one of these Orcs will be randomly generated from a set list of names, appearances, characteristics and voices, and they all remember their previous encounters with you. If one defeated you, he'll taunt you the next time you meet, referencing how he killed you, if you ran, if he ran or even just generally talk about weird shit and how much he wants to bathe in your blood.

I told you all of this to tell you the story of an Orc named Hoshu the Wrestler, and how he and I came to be the bane of one another's existence. Soon after the story proper began, I decided to start exploring the open-world a bit before diving into story missions. In doing so, I discovered a few captains and, ahem, interrogated their underlings for information about their strengths and weaknesses. In the middle of an interrogated a particularly terrified looking Orc, I was interrupted by a scrawny Orc captain named Hoshu. He barked something unremarkable about killing me. I saw the power level the game ascribed to him: 11. Not a pushover. Still, I wasn't going to take any chances. We started fighting, and I realized that he couldn't be countered. He knocked me down a few times and I fled, confused and unsure of how to best him.

Maybe an hour later, I was doing a side mission to power up my bow, one that I thought was detached from the rest of the open-world, as these sorts of side missions tend to be. Stuck in a ramshackle tent on a plateau between two groups of archers who had my name carved into their arrows, I started my grim work. After a few enemies fell, who should appear RIGHT BEHIND ME but Hoshu, the Wrestler, now sporting a wide-brimmed steel helmet and a cockier attitude. Living up to his name, he grabbed and threw me off the plateau, and before I could escape his throng of underlings, he vaulted from above and crushed me in one blow. It was my first death, and I was confused. Hoshu, the Wrestler was now level 12.

Interested, I used the minimap to look for some hint of Hoshu, finding him in one of the game's larger settlements trying to recruit supporters. I snuck my way through the outpost, finding the highest vantage point I could and fired a few arrows of glorious retribution into Hoshu's face. After a few hits, he noticed me and fled. I gave chase as best I could, avoiding his troops until I finally cornered him just outside of town. Avoiding his powerful melee attacks, I whittled his health down until I was FINALLY able to grab and interrogate him. Just as I was about to probe his mind before destroying it, someone hit me from behind and broke my hold. I turned around and dealt with a few brave underlings before realizing that Hoshu had straight up vanished. Sure enough, after my subsequent death, there he was on the update screen, taunting me and leveling up his power. Now he was level 13.

After reviving and using some of the currency I had earned to buy some upgrade, I set out on the warpath. Using the minimap to pinpoint Hoshu's position, I found him in the midst of an "ambush" side mission, where several jealous underlings attempt to assassinate a superior. Staying out of the fray, I peppered Hoshu's supporters with arrows until he stood alone against a half dozen angry usurpers. I took no small amount of glee in watching him stand alone before he dealt with his assailants. Suddenly, the game updated that in surviving his assassination attempt, Hoshu was now level 15. Then he escaped. Now he was level 16.

We'd had four encounters: one that he ran from, one that I ran from, one that he definitively won and one that he'd scurried away from by the skin of his teeth. I was PISSED. Next time I spawned, I made a beeline for his last position, only to find that he was simply gone. I looked for awhile, then decided to just carry on with the main game as best I could. After doing a mission for Gollum (yes, that Gollum), I was doing a little exploring in my new area and collecting some collectables. A lowly captain attacked me, and was dealt with. Just after I dealt the finishing blow, Hoshu burst onto the scene, snarling revenge and toting a cadre of 10 or so tough-looking dudes with shield. It started raining. It was ON. I tore through Hoshu's men like fire and vapor, flipping and dodging and using my newly acquired ground pound technique to dispatch everyone I saw. After a few exhausting minutes, Hoshu fled again, his health down to the lowest I'd yet seen it. Determined not to let him go again, I vaulted on top of a nearby ruin of sorts and put an arrow through the back of his head from distance. Finally, it was over. I made sure my game had saved, turned off my Xbox and went to sleep.

The next time I played, I was back at that area trying to scavenge the collectibles I'd missed last time, when Olrok the Collector, a sadistic, hedonistic slab or Orc I'd also been having tussles with shuffled his purring visage onto my screen for revenge. Suddenly, in the middle of fighting two captain, Hoshu re-appeared, filled with furious anger and toting a steel plate over one of his eyes, a trophy from our previous encounter. I turned and ran straight at him, ignoring Olrok, who was trying to flee. I fought him again, now level 17 due to his miraculous survival, and again he fled. The tide had turned in our rivalry. He tried to escape, and I put another arrow into his head, only this time, nothing happened. He was immune to ranged attacks now, the game told me. He was learning. Also, he was faster than I was, and he was escaping. Suddenly, as he ran down the craggy slopes, a Caragor, a sort of mounted annoyance that can be tamed, tackled Hoshu. The game updated to inform me of his fear of Caragors, and I the beast tossed him around like a ragdoll, I moved in for the kill. I picked off a couple encroaching Caragors and waited until Hoshu was near death, then intervened, dispatching the hunter and the hunted in mere seconds. I am become death, and Hoshu was dead once more.

Earlier today, when I picked my game back up after not having seen Hoshu for, at this point, several hours of gametime, I was presiding over a duel between two Orc captains. One, a fat bastard named Narug the Mountain, and the other Gorgum the Grim, who had killed me as a lowly grunt. Narug was the higher level, and I like Gorgum, since his grimness always led him to spout pessimistic drivel every time I saw him. He was this game's version of Eeyore. After I helped Gorgum win his duel, he fled at the sight of me, and while I considered letting him go or not, I was attacked from behind by a filthy looking masked Orc. At this point in the game I had unlocked a last stand sort of mode that let me counter my murderer's final strike into a killing blow of my own. As I killed this random usurper, I thought to myself "that guy looked sort of interesting. Too bad he didn't kill me and become the new Hoshu." Having decided to kill poor Gorgum the Grim, I set off after him. He's not too fast and not too good, so catching him would be easy. I didn't make it ten seconds before the masked Orc attacked me again, despite having just been cut down. This second attack did a titanic amount of damage, and as I crumpled down into the grass, I heard the Orcs around me chant a single name, over and over: Hoshu. I couldn't block the final blow this time and after reviving, I went to the Sauron's Army screen, and this is what I found.

Hoshu, the Wrestler. Legendary Captain, Power Level 20. "Seething with hatred for Talion. Eager for a chance to meet him again." The feeling is mutual, buddy.

That motherfucker. I can't wait to fight him again. We've got a score to settle.

UPDATE: Soon after posting this, I got a notification that Hoshu was hosting a feast in his own glory near the beginning area of the game. Remembering how spread out that place could be, I hastened there to plot my revenge. Remembering his fear of Caragors, I captured one, rode it to his feast and hid. After a couple minutes of watching his patrol route, I snuck up behind Hoshu and poisoned his grog. After he and his men were weakened, they began to fight, and though it took awhile, Hoshu eliminated his entire group, though it left him with less than half health. It was then that I struck.

Mounted on my Caragor, I rode after Hoshu like death, he fled in terror, which negated most of the skills that had made him unkillable. I ran him down and let my Caragor tear into him. After barely surviving, I grabbed him, read his mind and broke it. He crumpled to the ground, seemingly dead. I expected him to return. He never did. An anticlimactic ending to our rivalry, perhaps, but one that showed just how far I had ascended above petty conflicts such as the one with Hoshu. Later, near the game's conclusion, I was even more powerful, commanding a brainwashed Uruk army of my own. There had been other Uruks designated as my nemesis since then, but none of them had the lasting power of Hoshu. I had grown far too powerful, capable of felling lesser captains in a single blow. Now, when I defeated one, they never came back.

 When I moved on the castle belonging to one of the main bosses of the game, I was stopped at the gate by a small army of opposing Uruks. Leading them, was Hoshu, the Wrestler. Somehow back even after having been dead now longer than he had been alive in the first place. "Defeat your nemesis," the game told me, and I did. Hoshu tore into my own brainwashed captains, eliminating three of my five lieutenants before I could cut my way to him, and when I did, I fell upon him in a righteous fury, finally removing from him both his head and his life, for the final time. There was a short boss fight against one of the storyline antagonists, but it lacked the sense of finality Hoshu's death had finally given me. The game ended not long afterwards, and after it did, I barely did any of the sidequests opened up for me in the open world. My purpose had been fulfilled, as had Hoshu's. Glorious vengeance had been fulfilled.

What a fun game.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Terror Beyond Falling

Yesterday afternoon, news broke of the death by hanging of Robin Williams. He was 63. As one of the most beloved (and longest lasting) comedians in the world, Williams' death came as a shock to most, even those who knew how long and hard he has battled against his own demons. By now, more than enough has been said about the quiet desperation present in his work, and how his outward appearance as a manic funnyman was most likely a response to the crushing sadness he no doubt felt for his entire adult life. As someone who has dealt with depression for over half of my life, I understand both the temptation and the relief Williams must have felt at the end. It's true that the first thought most clinically depressed people must have had when the heard the news was a brief sense of relief to go along with the sadness. My mother fought breast cancer for over a year starting in July 2011, but it was her depression, brought on by both her disease and her disintegrating marriage, that nearly killed her and forced her to seek help.

Perhaps more broadly important, Williams' death has set off a widespread discussion of the true perils of depression, on twitter on the internet as a whole, with most people posting links to suicide helplines and at least the bare minimum of "everyone cares about you" or "don't give up." While there is absolutely nothing wrong with these sentiments, and they surely are welcome, one has to wonder how effective they truly are. While I'm sure someone uses them, there's not a single depressed person I know or have ever known that would even consider using a hotline. While this might seem counter-productive (why not seek help if you need help? No one refuses to go to the hospital if they break their leg), what I'm going to try to do is explain why. I've seen more than one person express sincere confusion and a lack of understanding of what, exactly this disease is and how it effects people. Its symptoms are as hard to describe as they are to experience, but I'll do my best.

For all the coverage of depression as an eminently sad thing, which it is, there's an aspect of it that never seems to be mentioned: how much of it is based on fear. Plenty of days, maybe most, I feel happy, capable and ready to take on the world. I'm not sad. I'm not bed-ridden. Yet, I know my depression is there, ready to take me, because I'm never not afraid. Afraid that I'm not good enough, that I'm not qualified, worthy, or even likable. Afraid that some day, everyone I know and rely upon for support, whether they know it or not, will uniformly reject me. I'm afraid that if that happens, I'll deserve it. It controls my life and the choices I make much more completely than the bouts of very real and crushing sadness I have to contend with every few days or weeks. The fear that something will happen that will force back into the cold, unfeeling maw that I claw myself out of is what drives me. It's why I rarely have nightmares, because I'm afraid enough in my waking life to compensate.

It's this feeling of general anxiety and inadequacy that makes me unable even to order a pizza, for fear that person on the other will know, somehow, how I'm feeling and mock me for it. Fear of rejection or mockery, fear of the uncountable stigmas associated with depression (or all mental illnesses), both in our culture and in our language dictates nearly every choice I make. It's why I choose not to go out most Saturdays, why I've almost never approached a professor for help, why I spent several hours during my first trip to Las Vegas Summer League in 2012 crying from nerves in an empty hallway, and why I've never asked a woman out who I wasn't already friends with. The concept of going outside my painstakingly established comfort zone is utterly alien. Thankfully, I've managed to expand my comfort zone over the past few years and carve out something resembling a normal life.

The two most important steps to dealing with depression, more important than any sort of medication or therapy could ever be, are first accepting the disease and then establishing a support structure to deal with its effects. The former is almost impossible for some people, as it seemed to be for my mother for the longest time, but it's the most important step imaginable. The second is less important by definition, but still critical and necessary. There's much made of the simple act of listening to someone's troubles, and though I can say from experience that it's very helpful, I understand how daunting a task it might seem. Perhaps more importantly, all we need is a friend. Someone to hang out with and to escape the pressures of the depressive mind is life-savingly important. I can count on one hand the number of times I've actually talked through any of my issues with the people I consider my best friends on the planet, either in my day to day life or on the internet. This doesn't mean they aren't my support structure. Even my dog has been stupendously helpful in this regard.

Robin Williams' fight is over, and believe me when I say it was a fight just as involved and dangerous as any other disease. He was afraid, but he was not a coward. He was hurt, but he was not weak. His daughter, Zelda, is less than two months younger than I am, and  now she is without her father. There's nothing that can repair her loss, but perhaps her loss can help other people, which I'm sure Robin would have wanted. Even without ever knowing him outside the relationship defined by his comedy, I can say that, because that's the relationship he wanted. That persona is what he wanted the world to see instead of the sad, angry and afraid man he surely was underneath. Depressives inherently distrust success. They know how fleeting it is and how likely they are to be right back where they started or worse when it fades. That a man as successful as Robin Williams could feel strongly enough to take his own life is testament to this.

All I hope is that the proper message comes of this. Telling people to seek help is good advice, but not as good as offering help. Or even just being their friend.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Five Best Xbox 360 Games by Each Year: Ode on a Grecian Xbox

Come this Monday, June 9th, Microsoft's Xbox One will debut at its new price of $399, which will prompt me to go to my local Gamestop, trade in my Xbox 360 and all my games, and buy one (and I might be able to do it without spending more than $80 or so of my own money, which would be nice).

As such, I thought it fitting to offer a small tribute of sorts to a console that I've owned in some form for eight years, a little under a third of my entire life to this point. After some (like five minutes) deliberation, I decided to write a little thing on the five best games I played during each year of the console's existence. 2005 doesn't count since I didn't own one then and there's like 5 weeks worth of games anyway.


5- Saints Row. Volition, Inc.

In plot, it is infantile. In tone, it is sophomoric. Also, it had one of the great demos in the history of gaming.

4- Prey. Human Head Studios.

Inventive isn't a good word for this game, but it tried to do something different, even if that something different was buried under a pile of same.

3- Hitman: Blood Money. IO Interactive.

 Blood Money is every bit one of those early generation console games that seems rather unsure of how to live up to the next-gen moniker outside of having better graphics. Still very fun and strange.

2- Gears of War, Epic Games.

Is Gears of War a great series? I don't know, but in 2006 I could have been convinced so. One of the first great cooperative games of the generation.

1- The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Bethesda Softworks.

Looking at it now, you'd never believe that Oblivion was once considered the best looking game that had ever existed. In early 2006, though? It was mind-blowing. It was the first next-gen game I ever saw, and it almost single-handedly sold me on the concept.


5- Guitar Hero III. Harmonix.

Let's be honest: Guitar Hero is one of the stupidest things that was ever a gaming phenomenon. Have you ever watched someone play it? Damned fun, though.

4- Mass Effect. BioWare.

Compared to most games of its time, Mass Effect was ambitious in scope, depth and tone. It looks small and meaningless next to its successors, but it still has a cavalier sort of charm to it.

3- Halo 3. Bungie.

Halo 3 might be a bad game. I played it far too much to tell.

2- BioShock. Irrational Games.

Most any other year, BioShock would hold the top spot. This is a game that worms its way into your subconscious. At this point, it's hard to envision what things would be like without it.

1- The Orange Box. Valve Corporation.

Throw out the fact that Half-Life 2 and its first expansion are in this. Just take the new games. You have the far superior second expansion, the sequel to one of the great online shooters in history, and perhaps the perfect distillation of the art form (those being HL2 Episode Two, Team Fortress 2 and Portal respectively).


5- Dead Space. EA Redwood Shores.

Dead Space is a throwback to the halcyon days of survival horror, with one of the most immersive interfaces in the history of the medium.

4- Lost Odyssey. Mistwalker Studios.

Speaking of throwbacks, Lost Odyssey might as well be called Final Fantasy XI for how strictly it adheres to the turn-based formula. The last spark of a dying age.

3- Gears of War 2. Epic Games.

Is Gears 2 any better than Gears 1? Probably not. But it wasn't any worse.

2. Grand Theft Auto IV. Rockstar Games.

GTA IV was spellbinding when it was released. It's still the best representation of New York in the medium, and one of the best in all of entertainment.

1. Fallout 3. Bethesda Softworks.

Staggering in its scope, execution, detail, impact and solitude.


5- Left 4 Dead 2. Valve Corporation.

Essentially the same pretty enjoyable game as the year before, just in a weaker year.

4- Assassin's Creed II. Ubisoft.

I found it strange that ACII ranked up here given my dislike of the series, but this is its pinnacle.

3- Dragon Age: Origins. BioWare.

By all accounts a better game on PC still ends up pretty good here.

2- Halo 3: ODST. Bungie.

The shortest, smallest, and loneliest of the Halo games. Perhaps, in some ways, my favorite.

1- Batman: Arkham Asylum. Rocksteady.

The best superhero game ever created and probably the best Batman adaptation not to air on FOX in the early 90s.


5. BioShock 2. 2k Marin

What seems like the least necessary sequel of all time proves itself more than just commentary on a superior product.

4. Halo: Reach. Bungie

Bungie says goodbye to its flagship with a game half maudlin, half memorial.

3. Fallout: New Vegas. Obsidian Entertainment

I know several people who prefer New Vegas to Fallout 3. I disagree, but I can understand their reasoning.

2. Red Dead Redemption. Rockstar

When people talk about Rockstar becoming a more emotionally mature studio, RDR is what they mean.

1. Mass Effect 2. BioWare.

If ever a game series has improved  more from one game to the next, I haven't seen it. ME2 is a monolith of gaming, and a wonderful tribute to visceral late 80s-early 90s sci-fi.


5. L.A. Noire. Team Bondi.

It's weird looking and barely a game, but a more thorough tribute to film noir I have never seen in gaming.

4. Batman: Arkham City. Rocksteady.

It loses some of the focus of its more linear predecessor, but Arkham City features perhaps the most detailed open world in gaming, and also allows for things like this.

3. Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Eidos Montreal.

No better example of the wonders created by perfect synergy between theme, art design and tone has ever existed, I think.

2. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Bethesda Softworks.

Skyrim is the reigning king of free-roam, narrative-through-random-chance gaming until whenever the next Elder Scrolls game comes out.

1. Portal 2. Valve Corporation.

Portal 2 is one of the funniest games ever created at the same time as being one of the most interesting, well-written and inventive. A masterstroke.


5. XCOM: Enemy Unknown/Within. Firaxis Games.

A triumphant return from a franchise I could barely remember. I bought this game after seeing one gameplay video, and was never disappointed.

4. Halo 4. 343 Studios.

Equal parts radical departure and cloying tribute, Halo 4 does the impossible by not being rent asunder by its seemingly oxymoronical design.

3. The Walking Dead. Telltale Games.

Some would tell you that The Walking Dead isn't a game. That doesn't change the fact that it's great, and far and away the best thing related to this series.

2. Dishonored. Arkane Studios.

It's like an oil painting. With teleportation. And stabbing. And lots of rats. So many rats.

1. Mass Effect 3. BioWare.

Yes, I still think this. No, I don't care about a shitty ending or shorter missions. ME3 gets me, and also gets bonus points for having the most surprisingly great multiplayer mode ever conceived.


5. Dead Space 3. EA Redwood.

It should be evidence of how great 2011 was that the vastly superior Dead Space 2 didn't make it but this occasionally lackluster game did. Still, when it was good, it was better than either of the others. When it was bad, it was different.

4. Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes.

Yeah, it's a 3 hour game. Yeah, it's basically a paid demo. I didn't mind (because I rented it). I am officially stoked for the main product.

3. Batman: Arkham Origins. WB

While it does do what everyone feared and play like an inferior expansion to Arkham City, no one ever explained why, exactly, that was a bad thing.

2. BioShock: Infinite. Irrational Games

In what will likely be the last BioShock game from Ken Levine, Infinite was polarizing, mesmerizing, disappointing, enthralling, surprising and ultimately, memorable. That's all I can ask.

1. Grand Theft Auto V. Rockstar Games.

Look at this game compared to GTA IV. It's almost inconceivable that they were released during the same console generation. What a generation it was.

The 50 Best Xbox 360 Games

50. Alan Wake
49. Left 4 Dead
48. Injustice: Gods Among Us
47. Brutal Legend
46. Star Wars: The Force Unleashed
45. Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood
44. NBA 2k11
43. Max Payne 3
42. Resident Evil 5
41. Dead Space 3
40. NBA 2k12
39. Assassin's Creed II
38. Hitman: Blood Money
37. Dead Space- 2008
36. Dragon Age II- 2011
35. Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes- 2014
34. Dead Space 2- 2011
33. Final Fantasy XIII- 2010
32. Gears of War 2- 2008
31. Batman: Arkham Origins- 2013
30. Gears of War 3- 2011
29. L.A. Noire- 2011
28. Dragon Age: Origins- 2009
27. Gears of War- 2006
26. Borderlands 2- 2012
25. Dark Souls- 2011
24. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion- 2006
23. XCOM: Enemy Unknown/Within- 2012
22. BioShock 2- 2010
21. Halo 3: ODST- 2009
20. Fallout: New Vegas- 2010
19. Halo: Reach- 2010
18. Mass Effect- 2007
17. Batman: Arkham City- 2011
16. The Walking Dead- 2012
15. Halo 3- 2007
14. Deus Ex: Human Revolution- 2011
13. Dishonored- 2012
12. BioShock- 2007
11. Batman: Arkham Asylum- 2009
10. BioShock Infinite- 2013
9. Grand Theft Auto IV- 2008
8. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim- 2011
7. Red Dead Redemption- 2010
6. Fallout 3- 2008
5. Mass Effect 3- 2012
4. Grand Theft Auto V- 2013
3. Portal 2- 2011
2. The Orange Box- 2007
1. Mass Effect 2- 2010

Monday, March 31, 2014

My 100 Favorite Games (Updated)

100. Fable. (Lionhead Studios, 2004)
99. Guitar Hero II (Harmonix, 2006)
98. Roller Coaster Tycoon. (Chris Sawyer Productions, 1999)
97. Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes (Kojima Productions, 2014)
96. Max Payne 3 (Rockstar Studios, 2012)
95. Dead Space 2 (Visceral Games, 2011)
94. Left 4 Dead 2 (Valve Corporation, 2009)
93. Final Fantasy X-2 (Square, 2003)
92. Star Wars: Battlefront (Pandemic Studios, 2004)
91. Star Wars: The Old Republic (BioWare, 2011)
90. Mario Kart 8 (Nintendo, 2014)
89. Borderlands 2 (Gearbox Software, 2012)
88. StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty (Blizzard Entertainment, 2010)
87. Lost Odyssey (Mistwalker, 2007)
86. Warcraft II (Blizzard Entertainment, 1995)
85. Final Fantasy XII (SquareEnix, 2006)
84. Dragon Age II (BioWare, 2011)
83. Star Wars; Battlefront II (Pandemic Studios, 2005)
82. Star Wars: Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy (Raven Software, 2003)
81. Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor (Monolith Productions, 2014)
80. Star Fox 64 (Nintendo, 1997)
79. Resident Evil 4 (Capcom, 2005)
78. Final Fantasy XIII (SquareEnix, 2013)
77. Grand Theft Auto III (Rockstar Studios, 2001)
76. Batman: Arkham Origins (WB Games, 2013)
75. Perfect Dark (Rare, 2000)
74. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (Bethesda Game Softworks, 2002)
73. Gears of War (Epic Games, 2006)
72. Wolfenstein: The New Order (MachineGames, 2014)
71. Evolve (Turtle Rock Studios, 2015)
70. L.A. Noire (Team Bondi, 2011)
69. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (Rockstar Studios, 2002)
68. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (Nintendo, 2006)
67. GoldenEye 007 (Rare, 1997)
66. Final Fantasy VIII (Square, 1999)
65. Dark Souls (From Software, 2011)
64. Unreal Tournament (Epic Games, 1999)
63. Jade Empire (BioWare, 2005)
62. Warcraft III (Blizzard Entertainment, 2003)
61. Star Wars: Jedi Outcast (Raven Software, 2002)
60. Super Smash Bros. Brawl (Nintendo, 2008)
59. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (Bethesda Game Softworks, 2006)
58. Final Fantasy IX (Square, 2000)
57. Halo: Reach (Bungie, 2010)
56. Star Wars: Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight (LucasArts, 1997)
55. Diablo III (Blizzard Entertainment, 2012)
54. Batman: Arkham City (Rocksteady Games, 2011)
53. Max Payne (Rockstar Studios, 2001)
52. DOOM II (id Software, 1994)
51. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (Rockstar Studios, 2004)
50. Fallout: New Vegas (Obsidian Entertainment, 2010)
49. Half-Life 2: Episode One (Valve, 2006)
48. Dragon Age: Inquisition (BioWare, 2014)
47. Walking Dead Season 2 (Telltale Games, 2013)
46. Destiny (Bungie, 2014)
45. Halo 3: ODST (Bungie, 2009)
44. Super Mario 64 (Nintendo, 1996)
43. Metroid Prime 2: Echoes (Retro Studios, 2004)
42. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (Nintendo, 2011)
41. Super Smash Bros. Wii U (Nintendo, 2014)
40. XCOM Enemy Unknown/Enemy Within (Firaxis Games, 2012)
30. BioShock 2 (2k Games, 2010)
38. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (Kojima Productions, 2001)
37. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Nintendo, 1998)
36. Half-Life 2: Episode Two (Valve, 2007)
35. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (Nintendo, 2003)
34. Grand Theft Auto IV (Rockstar Studios, 2008)
33. Halo 4 (343 Industries, 2012)
32. The Walking Dead (Telltale Games, 2012)
31. The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask (Nintendo, 2000)
30. StarCraft (Blizzard Entertainment, 1997)
20. Batman: Arkham Asylum (Rocksteady Games, 2009)
28. Metroid Prime 3: Corruption (Retro Games, 2007)
27. Fallout 3 (Bethesda Game Softworks, 2008)
26. Mass Effect (BioWare, 2007)
25. Halo 3 (Bungie, 2007)
24. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (Kojima Productions, 2004)
23. BioShock Infinite (Irrational Games, 2013)
22. Half-Life (Valve, 1998)
21. Grand Theft Auto V (Rockstar Studios, 2013)
20. Mass Effect 3 (BioWare, 2012)
19. Red Dead Redemption (Rockstar Studios, 2010)
18. The Elder Scrolls IV: Skyrim (Bethesda Game Softworks, 2011)
17. Diablo II (Blizzard Entertainment, 2000)
16. Dishonored (Arkane Studios, 2012)
15. Shadow of the Colossus (Team Ico, 2005)
14. Super Smash Bros Melee (Nintendo, 2001)
13. Final Fantasy X (Square, 2001)
12. BioShock (Irrational Games, 2007)
11. Deus Ex: Human Revolution (Eidos Montreal, 2011)
10. Halo 2 (Bungie, 2004)
9. Portal (Valve, 2007)
8. Final Fantasy VII (Square, 1997)
7. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II (Obsidian, 2004)
6. Metroid Prime (Retro Studios, 2002)
5. Portal 2 (Valve, 2011)
4. Mass Effect 2 (BioWare, 2010)
3. Halo: Combat Evolved (Bungie, 2001)
2. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (BioWare, 2003)
1. Half-Life 2 (Valve, 2004)

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Shadows Lengthen: On HBO's "True Detective."

"Fine, I'll write about True Detective," I said to myself as I finished watching the finale of HBO's much acclaimed 8 episode mini-series earlier this afternoon.

On first blush, I admit I wasn't too interested in the central concept of True Detective. It sounded like just another too-morose-for-its-own-good cop show in a sea of cop shows. Then, a couple weeks before it debuted, I read an off-hand comment about "all the Lovecraft" stuff in it, and my interest was piqued. Upon further investigation, I found that the show's creator/writer, Nic Pizzolatto, was a former professor of literature. Long have shows like The Wire, The Sopranos, and to a lesser extent Breaking Bad both prospered from and fallen victim to the more literary aspects of dramatic television. Finally, I could see that potentiality seen to its logical extension. A show written and controlled by a novelist. It was both exactly and not at all what I expected.

Sure enough, upon seeing the pilot, I read several comments comparing the show's gothic southern atmosphere to the warped, corrupted South of William Faulkner, and several others compared the show's premise to that of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Sure enough, in a recently published interview with Alan Sepinwall, Pizzolatto highlights Faulkner and Conrad as ideal companion authors for his show, in lieu of the oft mentioned (and rarely understood) The King in Yellow, a collection of short stories from the late 19th century by Robert W. Chambers that famously influenced Howard Phillips Lovecraft, he of Cthulhu fame, who in turn heavily influence such wildly disparate modern authors as Steven King and George R. R. Martin.

Pizzolatto's angst at the endless comparisons to Chambers' stories is understandable, for in all honestly, The King in Yellow isn't all that good. It's interesting, but also something of trash fiction. First off, only the first four stories in the book make any reference to the Yellow King, and only two of those, "The Repairer of Reputations," and "The Yellow Sign," hold any real similarity to the abstract, cosmic horror that Lovecraft would eventually make famous. They are, on the whole, pulp. Good pulp, to be sure, but pulp nonetheless. This is not to disparage The King in Yellow or anyone who likes it (of which, I am one), but merely to illustrate that the fate of True Detective is perhaps fitting given its inspirations. Similarly to its central characters, Rust Cohle and Marty Hart (two of the great neo-noir detective names in existence, to be sure), it seems the show's fanbase got a little too carried away in the specifics of the crime, of who, in fact, the Yellow King was, and how far his influence spread. I won't go as far as to say that they missed the point, but, well, even if Nic Pizzolatto didn't want to, he stayed faithful to the core of Chambers' story more than he did anything by Joseph Conrad or William Faulkner.

Something interesting brought about by True Detective's finale is the concept that, similarly to its literary inspirations, it ended with something of an anti-climax. Rust and Marty both survive and are ostensibly victorious, but nothing really changes. They find their man, and they kill him, but they uncovered only the tip of the Cthulhu. The rest of the conspiracy, whatever it was, remains unknown, buried by time and corruption. The climax of the show is a conversation under the stars, where Rust lets go of some of his guilt and his anger and shows, for the first time, some sense of optimism. As far as literary endings go, its a lot happier than Marlow lying to the horrible specter of Kurtz's fiance in "Heart of Darkness," Darl Bundren laughing maniacally en route to a mental facility in "As I Lay Dying," or any of the King in Yellow stories. It's even a damn sight more positive than The Sopranos' cut to black or the Wire's solemn acknowledgement that nothing ever really changes and that the Marlo Stanfields of the world will continue no matter what we do.

Where True Detective stays in line with the Chambers stories is simple: the eponymous Yellow King never makes an actual appearance. You could argue, in both stories, he does so by proxy (I was under the impression that the killer's father was the actual King, and he was simply following along in his footsteps for lack of purpose). The King's identity, purpose, and motive is not important. It is his actions that define him. In Chambers' work, the King in Yellow's main influence over the story is through a play named in his honor. The play's which is never fully reproduced in the text, is the one common theme linking the characters in the four King in Yellow stories together; upon reading the play's second act, they all go insane, and various calamities befall them. In this way, the actions of the Carcosa cult could be seen as the play, and the video tape Rust shows Marty and Sherrif Garaci are the second act: the contents remain unseen by the audience: the horrified screams of the character doing the viewing are the only evidence we receive. Both Reggie Ledoux and Errol Childress tell Rust that he is "in Carcosa" with them. The knowledge of the tape drives men insane, and Rust has long since passed the point of sanity. There is nothing they can do to hurt him in his madness and his single-minded pursuit. And yet, while he tracks his quarry through the horrifying labyrinth near the finale's conclusion, Rust is visibly afraid. Then, when Errol surprises him with a knife to the abdomen, he tells Rust that it's time to "take off his mask," echoing one of the excerpts we get in Chambers' stories.

Camilla: You, sir, should unmask.
Stranger: Indeed?
Cassilda: Indeed it's time. We have all laid aside disguise but you.
Stranger: I wear no mask.
Camilla: (Terrified, aside to Cassilda.) No mask? No mask!

Before getting to ahead of myself and turning this into fan-fiction, I'll conclude by saying that the primary allure of things like these is not in the answers we receive, but in the possibilities. Rust and Marty chase their demons, both personal and professional through a series of darkened shadows, and the fear that hounds the edges of their vision comes not from what they see, but what they don't. The negative spaces in the darkness in which anything could exist. The fifth episode of True Detective ended with Rust inquisitively holding up the devil's traps he found in an abandoned school. After we'd just finally had the potential of Rust being the killer laid out for us, it was meant to be a terrifying image, our favorite nihilist avenger seen in a new light, through the black stars of Carcosa and the dark, endless void of humanity's potential for evil.

"Man is the cruelest animal," posters for True Detective claimed, and where the weird, Lovecraftian horrors suggested by Yellow Kings, lost cities, and dead gods become their most frightening is not in the idea that they might exist, but in the idea of what men might do to one another in service to them. It is in perhaps this concept alone that True Detective rises past its pulpy, exposition-laden origins and stares firmly into the eyes of something beyond itself, an abyss that Kurtz recoils from in horror on his deathbed, where Darl Bundren laughs forever and tall, scarred men do unspeakable things to children in the dark, unmapped recesses of an America we thought we knew, an America that never existed and never went away.

Television is a flat circle.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Every Draft Class Post 2003

The 2003 Draft Class is, unquestionably, the best of the last 15 years or so. Since then, they've been spotty, and there isn't really a consensus #1.

Here are some 15 man squads from every class since, because posting them on twitter is too difficult. My restrictions are thus, the player must have been drafted during the year in question. No undrafted players, no overseas signings, and they must be currently active players, when possible.

Starting Lineup      
C- Dwight Howard
C- Al Jefferson
SF- Luol Deng
SF- Andre Iguodala
PG- Jameer Nelson

Centers- Anderson Varejao, Emeka Okafor
Forwards- Josh Smith, Trevor Ariza, J.R. Smith
Guards- Kevin Martin, Tony Allen, Ben Gordon, Devin Harris, Shaun Livingston

Staring Lineup
C- Andrew Bogut
PF- David Lee
SF- Danny Granger
PG- Deron Williams
PG- Chris Paul

Centers- Andrew Bynum, Marcin Gortat
Forwards- Channing Frye, Martell Webster, Ersan Ilyasova, Marvin Williams
Guards- Jarrett Jack, Raymond Felton, Gerald Green, Francisco Garcia

Starting Lineup
C- Andrea Bargnani
PF- LaMarcus Aldridge
SF- Rudy Gay
SG- J.J. Redick
PG- Rajon Rondo

Centers- Joel Freeland
Forwards- Paul Millsap, P.J. Tucker, Ronnie Brewer
Guards- Kyle Lowry, Thabo Sefolosha, Randy Foye, Shannon Brown, Jordan Farmar, Daniel Gibson

Starting Lineup
C- Marc Gasol
C- Al Horford
SF- Kevin Durant
SG- Arron Afflalo
PG- Mike Conley

Centers- Joakim Noah, Tiago Splitter
Forwards- Thaddeus Young, Carl Landry, Wilson Chandler, Corey Brewer, Jared Dudley
Guards- Ramon Sessions, Rodney Stuckey, Marco Belinelli

Starting Lineup
C- Roy Hibbert
PF- Kevin Love
SF- Nicolas Batum
PG- Derrick Rose
PG- Russell Westbrook

Centers- Brook Lopez, Nikola Pekovic, DeAndre Jordan, Robin Lopez
Forwards- Danilo Gallinari, Ryan Anderson, Serge Ibaka, Jason Thompson
Guards- Eric Gordon, Goran Dragic

Starting Lineup
C- Jordan Hill
PF- Blake Griffin
SG- James Harden
PG- Jrue Holiday
PG- Stephen Curry

Centers- N/A
Forwards- Taj Gibson, DeMar DeRozan, Chase Budinger
Guards- Ty Lawson, Jeff Teague, Tyreke Evans, Gerald Henderson, Patrick Beverley, Darren Collison, Ricky Rubio

Starting Lineup
C- DeMarcus Cousins
C- Greg Monroe
SF- Paul George
SG- Lance Stephenson
PG- John Wall

Centers- Larry Sanders
Forwards- Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward, Patrick Patterson, Ed Davis, Al-Farouq Aminu
Guards- Eric Bledsoe, Evan Turner, Avery Bradley, Greivis Vasquez

Starting Lineup
C- Nikola Vucevic
PF- Kenneth Faried
SF- Kawhi Leonard
SG- Klay Thompson
PG- Kyrie Irving

Centers- Jonas Valanciunas
Forwards- Chandler Parsons, Jimmy Butler, Tristan Thompson, Tobias Harris, Markieff Morris
Guards- Kemba Walker, Isaiah Thomas, Iman Shumpert, Alec Burks

Starting Lineup
C- Andre Drummond
PF- Anthony Davis
SF- Maurice Harkless
SG- Bradley Beal
PG- Damian Lillard

Centers- Miles Plumlee
Forward- John Henson, Draymond Green, Jared Sullinger, Terrence Jones, Andrew Nicholson, Harrison Barnes, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
Guards- Dion Waiters, Evan Fournier

Starting Lineup
C- Steven Adams
SF- Giannis Antetokounmpo
SG- Victor Oladipo
PG- Michael Carter-Williams
PG- Trey Burke

Centers- Mason Plumlee
Forwards- Andre Roberson, Cody Zeller, Otto Porter, Tony Snell
Guards- Tim Hardaway Jr, Ben McLemore, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Nate Wolters, Matthew Dellavedova

Looking at this, I'm hard pressed to say that any one class is better than 2011 (or that any one class is worse than 2013. It is early, though)

Monday, September 30, 2013

Respect the Chemistry: A Breaking Bad Recap, Episode 62- Felina

Before I start this, a small preface: in September 2009, whilst playing Halo 3: ODST, the oft-maligned, yet disquieting and occasionally beautiful Halo spin-off, I was introduced to a little show called Breaking Bad by my step-brother. While beating ODST for the first time (which is an experience I won't burden you with, dear reader), I saw the majority of the first season of Breaking Bad, less and less in bits and pieces and more and more directly interfering with my playthrough, which is not something I abide often. Something about it got to me, though. Not the tension, which was palpable. Not the acting, which was grand. Not even the wonderful cinematography and general style, both of which are wholly unique. It was the feeling. The sort of existential dread that permeated every frame of every scene of every episode. It was something I'd only felt watching a show once before, The Sopranos, and that show had entrenched itself in my mind in a way nothing else would or could since. Except Breaking Bad. The feeling I'm describing is less college freshman, angsty existentialism as it is mid-life crisis, standing on the edge of a cliff and not knowing whether to jump or run. A genuine, palpable sense of not knowing where to go or what to do or what's going to happen in the next five minutes.

This show was about many things. In the first season, it was a dark comedy about a milquetoast nobody trying desperately to escape the life he never wanted. Later, it was about how lies seep and fester and destroy everything they're meant to shield. Then it was about power, and absolute corruption. For a little while, in these last episodes, it almost played like a commentary on abusive relationships, with both Jesse and Skyler trapped by someone they couldn't escape from, no matter how they tried.

In the end, this show was about one thing more than any another. It was about the choices we make, or, more importantly, the choices we've already made, and how we use them to construct some sort of meaning or individual agency out of the unknowable muck that is our universe. Every character on this show was bound by how they defined themselves. Walt defined himself as a failure, but not of his own doing. There were people out there who wronged him, who forgot him, and he wanted to be sure that they knew who he was. Jesse defined himself as a loser, as a no one, as a tool to be thrown away, and he spent the entire show searching for someone to accept him. He never found them. Hank defined himself as a cowboy, a lone wolf, and it killed him. Gus defined himself as a professional, beholden to rules of conduct that he himself would break only for the gravest, most important circumstances. Perhaps only Mike (and eventually Skyler) saw past their own definitions into what they really were: whatever they chose to be. Jonathan Banks described Mike on the final Talking Bad as someone who has "already lost his soul, and he knows it," which I feel describes the slight character inconsistencies some saw in this episode perfectly. Walt has finally hit that point. The first few seasons were, at least in plot, about the ascendance of Walter White, drug lord. How thrilling the launch. How breathtaking the apex. Season five was about the fall, about what happens when you try to struggle against force and destiny and end up as something other than another fallen star. If the overarching plot of Breaking Bad was the loss of one man's soul, then the end of "Ozymandias" was the moment where it was finally gone. These last two episodes were merely the epilogue. And a grand epilogue it was.

"I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it, and I was...really. I was alive."- Walter White

Picking up, ostensibly, right after Walt slinked out of that dive bar, we see his face through a car window, snow wiped away to reveal an unlocked door. Scrambling inside, Walt pauses for a moment, and begins searching the glovebox for something, anything, to help him get back to New Mexico. Pushing aside a Marty Robbins cassette (because of course people in rural New Hampshire still have cassettes), he finds a screwdriver, and tries to pry his way inside for some Heisenberg hot-wiring action. He fails. His bones are too sore and too cold. He doesn't have much left. Just then, he hears some police chatter. Motionless, he pleads, out loud, for his wish to get home so he can fix all of this. Slowly, eventually, the flashing lights recede, their passage marked by the sound of snow crunched under tires, and Walt breathes again. Then, he looks up to the sun visor, gradually pulling it down with the screwdriver. Almost as if his prayers were answered, the keys fall into his waiting hand. Vince Gilligan commonly referred to the second season finale as proof of a moral, abiding force in the Breaking Bad universe, punishing Walt for his hubris and for his greed by "raining hellfire" down on his house. You can read this key ex machina however you want, all that matters is the facts. Walt found some keys in an unlocked car. A song called "El Paso" started playing. Even if you find it incredibly silly and coincidental that this would happen, even if you don't believe in some sort of moral, guiding force in this or any other universe, it doesn't matter. Walt does. And now he's going home. To fix things, just as he always said he wanted to.

Back in the Land of Enchantment, Walt pulls up to a gas station. It still looks the same. He doesn't. Popping open his trunk, filled with all the money I presume he got from his barrel, he rifles through a duffle bag, grabs a nearly empty bottle of pills and downs a couple. Then, at the other last payphone in the world, he makes a call, pretending to be from the New York Times, asking who I presume is Gretchen and Elliott Schwartzs' PR rep to schedule a proper photo op and interview. Deftly probing if they still live in the same place, Walt gets his information, says his goodbyes, and takes the watch Jesse bought him a year before off and sets it down. At this point, I'm a little stunned that all those doofy predictions about Walt up and deciding to kill his oldest friends and rivals because he saw them on television are coming true, and sure enough, the next scene picks up with Gretchen and Elliott arriving home, waltzing through their front lawn and politely arguing about pizza and Thai food, unaware of the lurking shadow waiting for them. As they walk inside another set of doors, Gretchen re-arms their security system, while Walt surreptitiously closes the front doors behind them. As they continue to discuss their shared erudite liberal existences off screen, Walt waltzes inside, silently appraising their home and inspecting their photographs. They cannot see him yet. He is a ghost, returned from their shared past, but they cannot see him yet. He waits. Patience is not one of Heisenberg's calling cards, but this is not Heisenberg. So he waits.

Eventually, Gretchen wanders out into the foyer and shrieks when she sees him. Elliott runs out to her defense. "Hello Gretchen, " Walt says, greeting her before curtly acknowledging Elliott. "I really like your new house," he says, in a not-entirely sinister tone. They ask what he's doing here, and he responds that he saw them on Charlie Rose. "You looked great," he adds to Gretchen. They both begin stammering out some sort of defense in case he's there to hurt them. "Actually, I'm here to give you something," he says, offering that the three of them walk to it since he couldn't get it past their gate. Understandably shaken, Elliott levels the knife he had been holding while Gretchen hides behind him. Walt is not amused. Adopting his best Mike Ehrmantraut, he tells his best friend that if they're going to go that way, he's going to need a bigger knife. Elliott drops it.

After the break, the three of them return with the last handfuls of money, which Walt explains is $9,720,000. Gretchen demands to know where it came from and why it's there, to which Walt explains that he earned it, and that they're going to give it to his son on his 18th birthday. Gretchen asks why he doesn't just give this money to his son himself. "My wife and son hate me. They won't take my money" he responds, again with the hindsight of a man past due. His children are his victims, just like the people undergoing meth rehab are that Gretchen and Elliott so recently wrote a $28 million check to. Let us not think this is Walter White getting his wings, however. As soon as he lays out the plan, he forbids Gretchen and Elliott from spending a single dime of their own money on this. "They use my money. Never yours." he spits, suggestiung that they shake on it and he leaves. After a couple stilted handshakes, not unlike the disgusted handshake Walt offered up to Uncle Jack so long ago, he turns to leave, but not before asking if he can trust them. Elliott immediately responds yes. Gretchen says nothing. Turning to face the entirely windowed side of the room, Walt gestures flatly, and two laser points appear, one on the chest of each Schwartz. Walt tells them not to move. He tells them that he took $200,000 from his pile and hired the "two best hitmen west of the Mississippi" to keep tabs on Gretchen and Elliott in case it turns out he can't trust them. He tells them that if his children don't get his money, that eventually, when they least expect it, death will come for them. "Darkness," he says, before grabbing each Schwartz by the shoulder and telling them to cheer up. "This is where you get to make it right," he says, the first and only vague reference he makes to the grave, unanswered wrongs he blames them for. Then he leaves. Walt pulls his car to the side of the road and flashes his lights a few times, code for two masked men to stumble out of the wilderness and get into his car. His masked assassins, who are of course Badger and Skinny Pete, the only two people left in New Mexico he knows don't know enough about him to take a job offer. They don't feel great about what they did, "you know, morality wise." Walter pays them to change their feelings, and asks about the Blue Meth still on the market. Confused, Badger and Pete say that they thought it was him. Walt pauses, and utters one word: "Jesse." As Badger and Pete argue over Pete hearing a rumor that Jesse moved to Alaska, Walt peels out and leaves, taking them all back to the ABQ.

After the break, we pick up on a scene Breaking Bad is not known for: an idyllic fairy tale where a clean, serene and peaceful Jesse Pinkman works on a box in a musty, sepia toned studio. This is the same box he talked about in therapy during Season 3's "Kafkaesque," when asked if he'd ever really given his all on anything. He related a story of his shop teaching calmly asking if what the did was "all he had," and responded by putting full effort into what he described as a beautiful tinder box. He smells his priceless creation, and turns to walk away, when the scene abruptly shifts to Jesse in Jack's hangar lab, carrying a different sort of box and chained to the ceiling. He looks scarred and haggard. His hair is too long and his eyes are almost entirely devoid of life. Totally Kafkaesque.

Now, we are finally caught up with the two flash-forwards that started the two halves of this final season. On the morning of Walt's 52nd birthday, he goes into a Dennys and buys an M-60 in the parking lot. Then he sneaks into his house and grabs the fabled ricin capsule, prepared so long ago for Gustavo Fring. We know all this, and there's no reason to go over it again. So we don't. The two scenes whisk by in highlight form, and then we're in the desiccated remains of the White's living room again, where Walt pauses in front of where his television used to be, and remembers Hank telling him that he needs to get a little excitement in his life. "Someday," the neutered shell of Walter White responded. That day has long since come and gone. Walt closes his front door. Without skipping a beat, we pick up behind Lydia as she walks to her favorite table and sits in her favorite seat at her favorite cafe to plan drug deals at. She grabs her favorite packet of Stevia and doesn't notice the disheveled man on the other side of the room. Todd walks in, sits down, and begins complimenting Lydia on her shirt. Walt strides up behind them, grabs a chair, and sits down, begging them for two minutes of their time. He begins a spiel about a new cooking method he has devised, that requires no methylamine. He needs the money, he begs, having spent all of his trying to stay ahead of the police. Lydia inquires how much it would cost. "Nothing short of a million," Walt responds. Lydia says that Jack should hear this. Walt agrees. The waiter arrives and asks what Todd and Walt will have. Lydia insists that Walt was just leaving. So he does, dejectedly. It seems as though he's been defeated. After he leaves, Lydia flatly states that there's no way they're doing business with him, insinuating that they need to kill him. "We'd be doing him a favor," Lydia muses, pouring another packet of Stevia into her tea. The camera lingers a little too long on it, though, and suddenly we remember another white powder Walter White seems to be so fond of, and we know who the ricin was for. Walter White remains a ghost and a whisper. People move in patterns, and Lydia knows Heisenberg as a man of action and fear, and man who cannot resist standing tall and bellowing out his victories. Lydia doesn't know better. Walter White does. And so, he again moves unseen into the periphery, unseen on the edges of life while his foes are looking for him in all the wrong places.

Out in the desert after the break, Walter White puts the finishing touches on the motorized winch he has built and wired to go off when he clicks the starter on his new car. As he leans in to inspect the apparatus as he puts it through its paces for the first time, his ring, still tied to a string around his neck, dangles free. He stops and grasps it, thinking of Skyler. So we cut to her new condo, with those old drawings of Ms. Lambert and her son on the wall, Walter no where to be found. Skyler's answering machine goes off. It's Marie, with "news about Walt." Skyler answers, and Marie tells her that Walt's in town. The widowed Mrs. Schrader, her house seemingly surrounded by DEA agents, tells her sister that the authorities found the car he stole in New Hampshire, and that her old next door neighbor ("what's her name, Becky?") saw him this morning. People have been calling in threats, to, as Marie perhaps correctly surmises, spread the police thin (I'm not unconvinced Walt wouldn't have had Badger and/or Pete do this). Marie reasons that there are agents watching her place, Flynn's high school, and probably Skyler's condo, the three places she assumes Walt would go. "There is no way Walt's getting to you," she states, before calling Walt an asshole and saying that he's not as smart as he thinks he is. They say their goodbyes and Marie wishes her sister well, before Skyler hangs up and puts out her cigarette. "Five minutes," she says, seemingly to herself, before the camera pulls in a little and reveals Walt in her kitchen, previously obscured by a well-placed pillar. Once again, he appears as if from nowhere. "You look terrible," she mutters. "Yeah," Walt agrees, somberly, before adding "but I feel good." Walt says that he needed a better goodbye than their last conversation, before admitting to Skyler that he's not going to the police. They're coming to him. Skyler asks if him being in custody will stop the men who threatened her and the children from coming back. "They're not coming back. Not after tonight," he says. Skyler asks what's going to happen tonight, and he doesn't respond. He takes a step forward, and Skyler insists that they don't want his money. Walt says that he doesn't have any to give, before pulling out the old, crumpled lottery ticket. He tells her that the numbers are coordinates, and that she should call the DEA and tell them that those coordinates are where they'll find Hank and Gomez' bodies. Skyler begins to weep, and Walt briefly reverts to his old persona, saying that that's where the men who stole his money killed Hank and Gomez and buried them. Walt wants her to trade this knowledge for a deal (a deal I'm sure would tell him probably wouldn't come). "All the things that I did," he begins, his old spiel long since defunct, before Skyler cuts him off. "I did it for me," he says. He was good at it, and he was...alive (echoing his own words in the Pilot to Jesse, that he was "awake"). He isn't that anymore. Skyler nods, seemingly relieved to hear him finally admit to his oldest lie, before saying that their son will be home soon. Walt asks to see Holly before he leaves. He rubs her head lovingly, before sharing one last look with his wife and leaving. Walt steals one last look at his actual son, arriving home from school under the watchful eye of the DEA, before leaving, fading out of focus like a wraith, dispelled from the mortal plane. The specter of Heisenberg is at least removed from the hearts of his family.

We return from the final break to Walt pulling up at the gates of Jack's compound, where Kenny strides out to greet him. Kenny appreciates Walt's car, then steps inside, directing Walt to park at the clubhouse. As they pull in, Walt purposefully misunderstands Kenny's directions, parking perpendicularly to the clubhouse instead of directly in front of it. The camera lingers on his remote starter as he and Kenny step out of the car, and Jack's man frisks him, taking his keys and his wallet. Kenny insists they check him for a wire, which they do. Satisfied, they bring him inside, leaving a man outside to watch. When Walt walks in, Jack marvels at his hair, asking if it's real and if Walt shaved before, to which Walt gives perfunctory yes and no answers, while never taking his eye of his discarded keys, laying behind Jack on a pool table. Walt begins trying to walk through his new plan, but Jack isn't buying it. He asks Todd to explain it to Jack, and Todd merely says that he never should have come back, and apologizes. Kenny aims a pistol at Walt's head and asks Jack if this is where he wants to do it. Jack tells them to take it out back and Walt snaps and says that Jack owes him. "For what," he responds incredulously, to which Walt replies that he owed him Jesse Pinkman and that, since they're still cooking, he knows Jesse and Jack are partners. That word, partners, catches Jack's attention and he calls his men off for a minute, determined to prove to Walt that while Jesse might be alive, they are in no way partners. Todd leaves, and soon after returns, marching Jesse to the clubhouse. Walt has managed to position himself where Jack once stood, back to the pool table, where he slowly, without being noticed, manages to grab his keys. Jesse is brought it and Jack urges Walt to look at him to see what sort of "partner" he really is. Walt steps forward, and they lock eyes, Jesse for the first time this having some sort of light in his eyes. Walt rolls the remote starter around in his hand, contemplating killing Jesse with the rest of them when he triggers his trap. Jack, continually mocking Jesse, asks them to hurry it up and make it quick. Walt obliges, tackling Jesse off screen while Kenny starts to raise up the massage chair he's been dicking around with this entire scene. The crew laughs at what they assume if another fight between White and Pinkman, and Jack tells Todd to pull them apart. He leans down to floor level to do so, and that's when Walt spring his trap. His car beeps, the trunk opens, and the M-60 he bought starts firing, chest level, through the walls of the clubhouse, ripping apart the man standing guard and everyone standing at all inside, including Kenny, who takes a round to the forehead for his trouble. Todd scrambles for cover as the bullets keep flying. Walt holds Jesse down, grunting as glass rains down around them. Jack's crew is wasted, and eventually, the bullets stop. The gun mechanism continues spinning. The clubhouse is now deathly quiet. Walt rolls himself off Jesse, while Todd scrambles to the window to see where the bullets came from. He begins to ask Mr. White a question, but is interrupted by Jesse's chains around his neck. They tumble back, bouncing off a table and onto the floor, where Walter stoically watches Jesse choke the life out of his primary tormentor without interfering. As this is happening, Jack begins to stir. Walt slowly, agonizingly leans down to grab a pistol. Meanwhile, Todd's neck breaks with a disturbingly satisfying snap. Jesse has choked the life out of him. Jesse finds Todd's keys and unlocks his cuffs and Walt advances on a slowly moving Jack, who props himself up. Walt raises the gun, and Jack puts up his hand in defense, asking him to wait. Walt, perhaps giving him the same courtesy at gunpoint he himself just received, does so. "You want your money, right?" Jack coughs, putting a cigarette between his lips. "You pull that trigger, you're never gon-" Jack starts, before Walt interrupts him with a bullet, definitely showing Jack the same courtesy at gunpoint Jack showed Hank in the desert.

Walt turns to see Jesse, risen from bondage and pacing nervously. Walt leans down, puts the gun on the floor, and slides it to Jesse, who picks it up and points it at Walt. "Do it," Walt says vacantly, having vanquished his foes and achieved his purpose. "You want this, " Walt urges, to which explodes, much like he did when Walt suggested he move to Alaska. He wants Walt to say that he, himself, wants this, and that nothing's going to happen until Jesse hears him say those words. Walt acquiesces, and Jesse glances down at Mr. White's stomach, a large patch of blood showing and growing through his clothes. He took a bullet in the chaos. Pausing, Jesse reflects for a moment, then casually drops the gun and tells Walt to do it himself. He said before that he's done doing what Walter White wants him to, and he means. He won't be manipulated anymore, even if it's to do the one thing he's wanted to do for half of this season. Jesse turns and leaves, and Todd's cell phone goes off. Walt scoops it up and answers. It's Lydia, looking sick as death, asking if "it's done." "He's gone. They're all gone," Walt says, slowly following Jesse outside. Confused by the voice she hears, Lydia asks who this is, to which Walt tells her. "How are you feeling?" he mockingly asks, wondering if she's feeling under the weather. "That would be the ricin I gave you," he says, before she can respond, revealing that he slipped it into her Stevia. Walt bids her goodbye and hangs up. Lydia is nothing if not a creature of routine, a fact which Walt used to her detriment and to his gain. Of course she would assume he wanted more money, and of course Jack assumed he was a nebbishy, unthreatening nothing. All Jack had ever seen of Heisenberg the schemer was a strange man staring at a hotel painting and ordering ten hits without ever getting his hands dirty. When Gretchen and Elliott reluctantly shook his hand earlier, they did so like they were disgusted to even be breathing the same air as him. Walt did the same thing when made a deal with Jack, but now, Walt understands that you can't succeed in his line of work without getting your hands dirty. This entire series, he'd been trying (and failing miserably) to extricate himself from the seedier, dirtier sides of what it is he did, leaving it to Jesse or Mike or Jack and his men. This is the new Walt. The post-Heisenberg Walt. He lives in the shadows. In the muck, and he has no qualms about killing.

Before Jesse leaves, he turns to look at Walt one last time, this time completely obscured in shadow. They stare at one another wordlessly, and Walt slowly, almost imperceptibly nods at him. The last time he nodded at Jesse, it was to give his consent to selling Jesse into torture and bondage at Jack and Todd's hands. This time, it's as something of a tacit approval to run, and to live. So Jesse runs. Flying out of the compound in Kenny's car, he blasts through the gates that had stopped his last escape attempt and speeds off into the night. The last image we see of Jesse Pinkman is him crying, then laughing, then screaming. Some have criticized this all as being too neat an ending, and maybe it is, but nothing about Jesse's life will ever be neat again. He'll carry the scar tissue from his two year tutelage with the Great Heisenberg for the rest of his days, wherever they take him. Maybe he'll finally get to Alaska and be one of those Ice Road Truckers he likes so much.

This leaves us with Walt. After he watches Jesse go, he slowly opens his jacket, wincing at the bloody wound now spilling out of his abdomen. Gingerly, he limps towards the hangar/lab. Striding around, he takes a look at Todd and Jack's setup, admiring the giant chemistry set he created. His legacy. As police sirens echo around behind him, he stops, and as Badfinger's "Baby Blue" begins, he lovingly cradles a gas mask, not unlike the ones he and Jesse used and left in the To'hajilee desert so long ago. Limping away again as police cruisers become visible in the distance, he brings himself in front of a giant mixing tub, patting it tenderly, a small smile crossing his face. Through the reflection on the tub, we see Walt collapse. His hand leaves behind a streak of blood. The camera focuses on Walt's face, life already gone from his eyes, and begins to pan up just like it did in Crawl Space, when he cackled the last bits of his soul into the nothing and emerged as a new sort of monster, ready to duel with Gus Fring and build an empire. The camera continues panning, up and up into the rafters. The police move in, guns at the ready, ready to apprehend Walter White. But Walter White is gone, and in the end, he respected the chemistry.

Executive Producer: Vince Gilligan.