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The Last Of Us- An amazing experience

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The Last Of Us, the latest from Naughty Dog (Uncharted, Jak and Daxter, Crash Bandicoot), shows just how far videogames have come as a story telling medium. This is not just naother post-apocalyptic zombie game, though those elements do play their part. Rather, much like the TV series The Walking Dead, this is more of a drama driven by its characters. They're characters you come to care about quickly, and their journey across a United States ravaged by a disease and the subsequent societal decay will take you across a full spectrum of emotions. It is, by turns, thrilling, funny, chilling, sad, and even heart warming. It is a survival tale against incredible odds, and one that may make you question as to how you might handle such a situation. Its characters, and you as a player, find the need to balance swift brutality with the need for a more measured response. This is more of a thinking man's action game, and its creators pull it off nearly flawlessly.

WARNING: Some minor spoilers may follow

The story, written by Neil Druckman, is extremely well told. It opens in the near future, with single father Joel (voiced terrifically by Troy Baker) coming home late from work to find his daughter, Sarah (Hana Hayes) waiting up for him, since it is Joel's birthday. It sets a nice tone at the outset, and while Joel does come off as a bit rough around the edges, you can see that he cares for his daughter deeply. The next scene shows Sarah alone in the house, waking to find her father not at home. A frantic phone call from Joel's brother Tommy (Jeffrey Pierce) leaves her a bit concerned. Moving Sarah through the house is handled supensefully, giving us the feeling that something has gone terribly wrong or that something terrible is about to happen. This becomes more evident when Joel bursts into the house, and warns Sarah to stay away from the doors as he retrieves a pistol from a desk drawer. A horrific encounter seconds later has Joel and Sarah fleeing the house, meeting Tommy out front. They pile into Tommy's truck and attempt to get through the town, only to find chaos ruling the streets. There's a nice build-up of tension, all ending in a dramatic moment that alter's Joel's life.

The game then flashes forward by twenty years. America has undergone drastic changes, ravaged by a fungal disease called cordyceps which turns humans into savage, cannabilistic beings. Cities have fallen into disrepair, with Mother Nature reclaiming the land from mankind. Plants grow wild over deserted streets and buildings, and the remaining pockets of humans are contained within quarantine zones. These pockets are under military rule, rule that is challenged by a resistance group known as the Fireflies. This is the world Joel needs to deal with, and along with a partner named Tess (Annie Wersching) attempts to make his way. An encounter with one of the leaders of the Fireflies lead Joel and Tess to take on a task for them in exchange for a cache of guns. The task involoves getting a package outside of the quarantine zone, but that package is not some mere parcel. Instead, it's a young girl named Ellie, who just may hold the key to saving humanity.

Ellie (fantastically performed by Ashley Johnson) is afourteen year old who's seen more than her share of tragedy and horror. She is by turns stubborn, determined, and resourceful. She is terrified of being left alone, yet faces terrifying situations with a bravery beyond her years. As a companion, Ellie holds her own, only occasionally needing you to get her out of trouble. In quieter moments she hums and whistles, showing herself to be the kid that she is. The relationship between her and Joel isn't the smoothest at first, but as events force them to make the journey west together in search of the Fireflies it grows and expands, leading Joel to become protective of the girl, just as any father would be of his own daughter. He knows Ellie can never replace his own child, but he still needs to keep her safe.

I won't divulge any more of the plot here, as this is a game that players will want to discover for themselves. The journey of Joel and ellie takes you through ruined cities, creepy sewers, and forests that are both wondrous to behold and hide dangers within. As they move through this world, they need to be on guard from the Infected, humans afflicted by the cordyceps virus. The Infected at first appear to be slow, but once they sense you they attack with startling speed. The game makers chose to give us three types of Infected, each reflecting varying stages of the disease. Runners are the most common, roaming in packs. Clickers have had their eyes covered by fungal growth, but hunt with a sonar like ability, making them challenging to sneak by. The rarest and largest Infected are the Bloaters, large shambling masses that fire off vision obscurring clouds of spores. While you do encounter your fair share of infected throughout the game. they're not as prevelant as the foes are in other zombie themed games. This helps keep encounters with them from growing stale, keeping every fight with them tense and fresh.

Far more common are human enemies. In the quarantine zones you'll encounter soldiers, and outside the zones they move in groups known as Hunters. Human foes may be easier to kill, but they're just as brutal as the Infected in their attacks. Plus, they're often armed with various types of guns. Ammo isn't so plentiful that the game just becomes an ordinary shooter, making you think on how you approach any given encounter. While the guns blazing approach may be needed at times, stealth is often the greater option. The game does a nice job on giving players the choice on how they want to proceed. Encounters often become intense affairs, becoming a game of cat and mouse where the table scan turn in an instant. Adding to this tension is the fact that you can only carry a limited amount of supplies and ammo, and you often need to craft things to aid in your survival. Exploring an area to scrounge for materials becomes a necessity, and fortunately there are plenty of supplies to be found, making exploration a rewarding proposition. Checkpoints are nicely spaced, so even if you do die in your endeavors you're not forced to replay a large chunk of the game.

The crafting really is a nice added touch, but be aware that it occurs in real time and not in a paused mode, so you're vulnerable to attack. This means you need to find a sheltered spot when crafting, or hope Ellie can cover you long enough to accomplish your goal. With crafting you can make things like first aid kits, shivs, and bombs, as well as upgrading your melee weapon. Special tables allow you to upgrade your arsenal, increasing clip size or firing rate. While supplies can be found, they're not overly plentiful, so you need to be wise on how you use them. Other items can be used to increase your attributes, such as increased health or crafting speed. This adds a nice RPG-lite touch to the game, and can make playthroughs a little more unique to the individual players. In addition, collectibles such as comics, letters, and dog tags can be found lying about, giving you further incentive to explore every nook and cranny.

The game controls beautifully, and works well for whatever your style of play may be, be that shooting it out or sneaking up and quietly dispatching your foes. With the battles being satisfying yet intense affairs, you do come to appreciate the game's quieter moments. Some of these offer some light puzzle solving, exploration, and some of the game's best character moments. Strong voice acting really makes these bits shine, and it extends to all of the roles, not just the leads. The game gives you a memorable cast, with none of the characters ever coming across a just one note. A layer of emotion underlines the game, and it will toy with you throughout the 15-20 hour experience.

I haven't played much of the multiplayer, but what I have played is fun and well designed. It's divided into two parts- Supply Raid and Survivors. Supply Raid allows you to pick a side (Hunters or Fireflies) and has your team gather supplies as you work together to eliminate the enemy. In Survivors, there is no respawning- once you're dead, you're dead, until the next game. Most people will buy The Last Of Us for the single player, but for those who enjoy multiplayer it's nice to know a well designed mode was included and not something that was just tacked on.

 For all its good parts, The Last Of Us does have some minor flaws, and those come in the form of technical glitches. There's nothing game breaking here (though one did mkae me reload my previous save) and are often more amusing than irritating, but they are noticeable in an otherwise highly polished game, so they're worth noting. Everyone may not encounter these glitches, so it may be a disc specific problem. 

All in all, The Last Of Us is just an amazing experience, kept just shy of perfection by some minor but noticeable technical glitches. It's a beautiful looking game with stunning environments and excellent character animations. The voice acting is superb, and the musical score by Gustavo Santaolalla provides the perfect backdrop for your journey through post- apocalyptic America. It's a game that will thrill you, scare you, and tug at your heartstrings. It is one of the best exclusives to come out for Sony's console, and for PS3 owners this is a must play title, if not a must buy. It's incredible from start to finish. Don't miss this one.

9.5/10 stars

Musings as I hit the half century mark

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Hard to believe, but I've hit the half century mark. Seen a lot over the past 50 years. Plenty of historical events have happened in that time frame, some I even recall watching on TV, like the Apollo moon landing in !969, the Watergate hearings, the energy crisis in the seventies, the Challenger disaster, the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Ten men have served as President of these United States during my lifetime (even met one of them- Jimmy Carter, when he was campaigning for President in 1976 and came to Allentown, PA). Wars have come and gone in the world, and have come again. The economy has been up and down. But these are historical things, and while interesting in their own way, this isn't really about those events.

This is a little more on my personal ones, like my first memory of seeing a movie in the theater (think I was 5 or 6 when my Dad took me to see Disney's The Jungle Book), my fascination with dinosaurs (that even led to teaching the kids in the upper grades about them when I was a 4th grader) which led to my life long love affair with the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres. Dinosaurs led me to all those great monster movies of yore- King Kong (love the original 1933 version and Peter Jackson's 2005 remake, could do without the laughable 1976 fiasco), Godzilla, King of the Monsters and its many sequels and remakes, on up to Spielberg's great film version of Michael Crichton's novel Jurassic Park. As a kid I enjoyed watching shows like Speed Racer, Ultraman, and Space Giants. I remember going to see Star Wars in the theater in 1977 (before it was called Episode IV) and still have the program from the movie. I also enjoyed Star Trek on TV, as well as the original Battlestar Galactica and Space: 1999. I always looked forward to Chiller Theater on Saturday nights, which ran many genre films, both good and bad.

  From movies and TV I went to books. My first real introduction to the fantasy genre came when I was 12 when my uncle got me The Hobbit for Christmas I was hooked, and moved from there to the Lord of the Rings and later to more involved sci-fi epics like Frank Herbert's Dune. My Mom is an avid reader, and she got me started early, and to this day I myself am an avid reader as well and have tried, somewhat successfully, to pass that own to my daughter. It was inevitable, I guess, that my reading would lead to my own attempts at writing. I wrote plenty of stories, songs, even a full book and a play (Ban the Bomb, but Only if You Can Make a Buck Doing It, which had two performances while I was a student at Lehigh County Community College), but it wasn't until 2008, after losing my third job in a row due to closings and going on disability due to a pituitary tumor, that my first book was actually put into print. PublishAmerica enabled me to get The Zarchler Chronicles Book One: The Cassandra Crisis out and at least available to the public (though sales are, alas, not there, since my budget doesn't allow for publicity). Two sequels followed- Shalgroth in 2009, and Madman's War in 2012. Though I didn't make any real money off of the books, it still didn't deter me from writing. Currently, I'm working on my fourth novel, a sci-fi/murder mystery tentatively titled Tears of the Goddess. It's going slow, due to my increasing arthritis, but that allows me more time to reflect and get things right, as well as apply lessons learned from my trilogy and advice from my daughter who passes on tips she's learned at college. I plan on shopping this to a new publisher, so hopefully things will go better. If not, well there's always the book after that.

In addition to TV, movies, and books, videogames have also become a passion of mine (You were wondering if this was going to get around to games, weren't you?). My early introductions to gaming were simple. As a kid I had Pong and Mattel Intellivision (friends had an Atari system), but most of my early gaming in the late 70s and early 80s was in arcades. I spent many a quarter on games like Asteroids, Galaga, and Pac-Man. I didn't own a gaming system again until my daughter was three (in 1993 got a Sega Genesis), but it would be another thre years until I really got into gaming. In 1996, my daughter got a Playstation for Christmas, cortesy of me and my parents, and it turned out that ti was a new toy for the big kid as well as the little one. I may have gotten into gaming late by some gamers' standards (I was 33 when we got the Playstation), but hye, better late than never. From there I fell in love with gaming and have been playing since, moving next on to the PS2, then the PC (finally owned a computer in 2007, also later than some) and now on the PS3. And I'm sure that at some point I'll move on to the PS4.

    In the beginning I played mostly action games and sports titles, but have branched out since then, trying all genres of games. Some of my favorites over the years have included such titles as Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy IX, Fear Effect, Grand Theft Auto III, Beyond Good and Evil, Primal, Assassin's Creed, Bioshock, and my latest fave, Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch. With any luck, I'll be gaming for another half a century.

So, I figure I'm halfway through life. 50 years in, and have gotten to see many great TV shows and movies, have read great books and plenty of comics, and have played a lot of great games. Looking forward to the next 50, to catch up on what I missed, as well as indulging in what is to come.

Thanks for reading and hope you enjoyed it. Comments are welcome. Til next time...

The games played for 2012

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It's the end of the year, so it's time for me to make my lists. This is my list of games that I played over the past year. I only included on the list games that were released this year (I did catch up on some 2011 titles as well, but chose not to list them here as I like to keep the list to the current year's releases), and the games are the PS3 editions, as that's the console I own (so sorry, no Halo 4, though I'd like to play it one day). Before I hear complaints, there are some notable absences from this list, since I haven't gotten to play them yet. Among the games I need to get to are Sleeping Dogs, The Walking Dead, and XCOM. Hopefully I can get to these soon. My list is mostly ranked (with a couple of exceptions) according to my rating for the game, with some brief comments on each. I'll work backwards, from worst to best. Note that this list is only my opinion and that your own list may differ, but your comments are welcome. So, here we go. Hope you enjoy the read.

35. Risen 2: Dark Waters- The less said about this, the better. Last gen graphics, terrible voice acting, slippery controls, and the inability to ever make enough money for meaningful upgrades. 2/10

34. Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City- A neat idea, playing from the Umbrella side of things, that received terrible execution in the form of bad camera and horrible AI. As a solo player this was an exercise in absolute frustration. 3/10

33. Ninja Gaiden 3- Bad voice acting, mediocre story, and slippery controls doomed this one at the start. 3/10

32. Game of Thrones- A huge disappointment, as the lackluster gameplay never lived up to the game's license. The story wasn't bad, but the voice acting was awful, and the controls were off as well. Plus, it was just an ugly game to look at. 4/10

31. 007 Legends- Bond deserved much better than this mediocre shooter. 4/10

30. Disney Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two- This had a lot of potential, with a variety of gameplay, a good voice cast, decent story, and bright graphics bringing to life some of Disney's lesser known toons along with some more famous ones. Sadly, the gameplay falls apart due to poor controls and poorly placed checkpoints. A shame. 4/10

29. Binary Domain- This shooter sounded better than it actually was, with some shaky controls and overall mediocre gameplay. Killing enemy robots should have been a lot more fun. 4/10

28. Yakuza: Dead Souls- The Yakuza series meets zombies. This should have been epic. Sadly, it wasn't, as the gunplay (always the weakest part of the series combat system) just wasn't up to snuff. 5/10

27. Doom 3: BFG Edition- Yes, I know Doom 3 is an older game, but this was the first time it appeared on the PS3. While nice to include the first two games along with the third, they really showed their age. The gameplay was fine, but it would've been nice to have more upgrades than just having your flashlight a part of your weapon. 6/10

26. Medal of Honor: Warfighter- For all the talk of Danger Close getting real vets to lend their expertise, the game came across a just another modern-day shooter. Plus, it was buggy as all hell, and, as with its predecessor, a glitch ended my time with the game earlier than it should have. And that was even after installing the patch. It makes for a decent rental, anyway. 6/10

25. Twisted Metal- The cutscenes, shot Grindhouse-style, were the best part of this combat racer. The controls semed awkward, and levels with changing checkpoints were more frustrating than fun and challenging. More for die-hard fans of the series. 6/10

24. Dragon's Dogma- Capcom's RPG was big on some unique ideas, but fell short on executing them. Add to that some wonky AI, imprecise controls, and a poorly implemented save system for this type of game, and this became a more frustrating experience than a thrilling one. The mediocre story didn't exactly help with incentive to wade through the 30-35 hour campaign. A sequel is reported to be in the works. Hopefully the problems will be fixed and this will live up to its promise. 6/10

23. Resident Evil 6- Another missed opportunity for Capcom. The promise of an epic game was there- four separate campaigns, with crossing stories, and some of the well loved characters from the series past appearing in the same game. Again, poor execution muddied the final result, with control and camera issues, especially cutscenes that intruded on gameplay, wresting control away from the gamer and returning control at the worst moment, leading to too many cheap deaths. Not helping were inconsistencies in the story, and a poor save file system that locked you into one campaign at a time. It tried to be a hybrid of both survival horror and action, and fell short for each. It looked good, graphically, at least, and is worth renting to play. Buying depends on how big a Resident Evil fan you are. 6/10

22. Sniper Elite V2- A lesser known title, but a fairly fun WW2 shooter with the cool distinction of providing some neat Mortal Kombat-style x-rays of your targets when you made that perfect shot. All in slow motion. Yes, it wasn't that hard to make that perfect shot, but it looked cool and never really got old. A solid rental. 7/10

21. Syndicate- An interesting shooter with a sci-fi twist that fell short. The story was fine and the controls decent, but it never rose to the level it could have. Another solid rental for shooter fans. 7/10

20. Final Fantasy XIII-2- A slight step forward from its predecessor, and yet, at the same time, a step back. Annoying random encounters every two feet in some sections and a ridiculous, repetitive fetch quest towards the game's end made this less fun than it could have been. 7/10

19. The Amazing Spider-Man- A surprisingly decent movie tie in, even if its release date was earlier than the movie's release. Which was odd, considering the game takes place immediately following the movie and contained some pretty big spoilers. Oops. That said, web slinging around New York was fun, lots of collectibles to find, and both the story and voice acting were decent. The combat got repetitive quick, dragging the game's score down, but it's worth playing, especially if you're a Spidey fan. 7/10

18. Protoype 2- A decent sequel following a new character as he mutates and wreaks havoc on enemy soldiers and monsters across a decaying NYC. The hunting missions were tedious and bogged things down a bit, though the story was okay and the voice acting fairly well done. Fun while it lasted, but it won't stay with you after you turn the game off. 7/10

17. Lollipop Chainsaw- One of the silliest games to come out this year. A cheerleader with a chainsaw, who happens to be part of a zombie slaying family, who takes on a evil plague of zombies to save her town and school? What's not to like? Another daffy title from Suda 51, that's mostly a lot of fun but occasionally frustrating. 7/10

16. Call of Duty: Black Ops II- A decent follow-up to the series best (in my opinion) title with a branching story line that gives you two endings. Plus an expanded Zombies mode that moved you around the city. Not all of the new ideas worked as well as they could have (the Strike Force missions, trying to inject a bit of a strategy sim into the mix, was marred by sloppy controls) but the near future setting and the gameplay worked well enough to be enjoyable, even with the one unnecessary mission showing the killing of an innocent (this, like the No Russian mission in MW2, is skippable, at least). It's not ground breaking, but still a competent shooter as always and worth at least a rent. 7.5/10

15. Darksiders II- A sequel that improves on its predecessor in every way. Death was a far more engaging character than War, and was more fun to play. The voice acting and the music was outstanding and the game's environments were imaginative. Sadly some contol and camera issues marred the experience, and the collecting of three objects to complete tasks got old in a hurry. With THQ's financial difficulties we may not see a third, which would be a shame, considering with a few tweaks a third game could be the charm for this series. 7.5/10

14. Darkness II- Jackie Estacado once again unleashes his demonic powers on the gangster world, with mostly enjoyable results. Good voice acting and a decent story make this worth your time. 8/10

13. Asura's Wrath- More an interactive anime than an actual game, this was still an overall enjoyable experience. Graphics, voice acting, and controls were all handled well, and the story is worth playing the game for. It's more of a rental than a purchase, but worth checking out. 8/10

12. LEGO Batman 2: DC Super Heroes- The first fully voice acted LEGO game sticks to its tried and true formula that, while it has some of the same flaws as previous titles, makes for a fun experience. As always, tons of collectibles keep you going after the decent story is finished. Fun for both kids and adults. 8/10

11. Spec Ops: The Line- Taking a cue from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and the stellar war film it inspired (Apocalypse Now), this third person shooter has one of the genre's best stories, with choices that leave you feeling soiled regardless of the one you choose. It's a very well done descent into madness, with multiple endings depending on your choices and solid controls. The campaign isn't overly long (about 6-7 hours per playthrough) which holds this back from being a must buy, but it is a must play in my opinion. 8/10

10. Max Payne 3- Everyone's favorite dysfunctional cop is back, this time in the private sector working as a bodyguard for a family with shady ties in Brazil. The story is well done, playing out like a Tony Scott film (Man on Fire, Domino). The controls make for some fun gunplay, even though the camera occasionally gets in the way. 8/10

9. Transformers: Fall of Cybertron- Well done sequel to War for Cybertron, this time cutting back and forth between characters on both sides. A choice at the end gives you an alternate ending. Great graphics, voice acting, and controls (plus Dinobots!) make this a lot of fun to play, marred only by the occasional odd camera angle and frame rate slow down. A must play for Transformers fans. 8.5/10

8. Borderlands 2- A worthy sequel, this shooter/RPG is a lot of fun, with plenty to do. It improves on its predecessor by giving you a tighter story and villain. The controls, graphics, and voice acting are all well done, and the game is loaded with laugh out loud humor. It's a good time though flawed by the occasional wonky camera, enemies who are bullet sponges, and some poor checkpoint placement. Still, with all there is to do, it's enjoyable enough to be placed on my list higher than a higher rated game, despite its flaws and its frustration for solo players in later missions. 8/10

7. Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Future Soldier- A well written story with some good voice acting lifts this shooter up a notch, along with tight controls and multiple ways through the levels. A lot of fun to play, with varied gameplay divided between vehicles, all out combat, and stealth. 9/10

6. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning- A well done RPG steeped in lore with a script written by noted fantasy author R.A. Salvatore. The main story may not be exceptionally deep but it's engaging enough to keep you moving forward, and side quests and factions have their own mini stories. The graphics are nice to look at and fit the game well, and the controls are good and easy to use. Too bad Studio 38 went bankrupt, so we may not see a sequel. Plenty to do in the game to keep you occupied for 60-80 hours or so. 9/10

5. Far Cry 3- One of the best open world shooters ever, and a vast improvement over its predecessor. Again, Conrad is an influence here, with spoiled rich kid Jason Brody making the journey from scared party boy to warrior. It's a well done arc following jason down the rabbit hole into madness, and Vaas, leader of the pirates that captures Jason and his friends, makes for one of the more memorable villains in gaming this year. Stellar voice acting and pretty visuals make exploring Rook Island and its neighbor fun and engaging, with threats not only coming from pirates but the local wildlife. A choice at the end gives you an alternate ending, with plenty to do once you finish the main story. 9/10

4. Assassin's Creed III- The story moves from Europe and northern Africa across the ocean to the New World. It takes a few hours until you get to play as Connor, but the set up is well done and necessary to the overall story. Movement has been refined, making running through the wilderness as much fun as travelling across the rooftops in the well populated towns. Naval combat adds even more to the game, and is a blast to play. Desmond's story does come to an end in what is certainly a divisive ending for fans. Some will hate it, others will be fine with it, but it leaves roomas the series usually does for another installment. Some people found their copies quite buggy. For myself, the patches cleared most problems up, so I didn't encounter anything that ruined the overall experience. My favorite game in the series so far. 9/10

3. Mass Effect 3- An excellent end to Shepard's story, though many also were divided over this game's ending. The Extended ending went a long way in righting things, though I personally was fine with the original. But the journey there is more important, and it's an enjoyable one. Once again intelligent writing makes this sci-fi series one of the best in gaming, with well defined characters and a branching story that carries over from choices made in the previous games. Easily one of the more replayable titles of the year. 9/10

2. Journey- One of the most beautiful games to be released this year, this short but sweet trip across the desert and into the mountains makes for one of the most memorable experiences to hit a console this year. There's no dialogue, but none is needed to convey the story, which is accompanied by one of the best musical scores in a game. It's short length and limited replay keeps it from being my top game, despite me giving it a rare perfect rating. A must play. 10/10

Which brings me to my personal GOTY, which is-

1. Dishonored- Multiple ways through levels, side missions, and three different endings make this my favorite and one of the most replayables titles of the year. Three playthroughs and I've seen and done something different each time. Trying to play through without killing a single soul is highly challenging, and rampging through the levels is quite fun. The powers are all easy and a joy to use, the voice acting is well done, the graphics fit the game excellently, and the story is engaging. It's not perfect, but it's been the most fun I've had in games this year and is one of those rare games that I immediately started a new game after finishing one up. Because of its replayability, longer length (each playthrough took me around 20 hours), and the fun I had playing it makes it my GOTY, even with the lower rating than Journey. It was a tough choice. 9/10

So, there you have it, my gaming list and rankings for 2012. I'm sure some may agree, and there will be those who don't, which is fine. Overall, I felt it was another good year for gamers, and 2013 is shaping up to be another excellent year. Comments are certainly welcome, just remember this list is simply my opinion and not the only one that can be held. Hope those who read this enjoyed it. Til next time...