Live Active Cultures 

I'm a seasoned sci-fi geek, practically from birth, and since my first weekly column (Feb. 7, 2008), I've been bringing you dispatches from my annual visits to various fanboy conventions. I was hoping to report on the guest stars, speakers and vendors at MegaCon 2009, the massive gathering of comic connoisseurs and anime aficionados assembled at the Orange County Convention Center last weekend. But a mysterious miscommunication mislaid my appeal for a press pass, and the friendly folks at the registration desk (who obviously aren't OW readers) were cheerfully unable to accommodate me.

Fortunately, the trip down I-Drive (and the $8 I paid to park in an Escher-esque nightmare of a parking garage) didn't go to waste, thanks to the team at TerrorWerks. At last year's convention I got a quick lights-on tour of their first sci-fi combat simulation; this time they graciously granted me the full 45-minute experience, even though I was sans credentials. I was alerted to their presence by Rob Sandler, a veteran haunt employee ("Another one bites the dust," Feb. 22, 2007) who always seems to be the first to know about the newest horror-related oddity in town. He introduced me to Robert "Mac" McLaughlin, president and director of operations for MindGame Productions, the evil geniuses behind this live-action, first-person shooter game.

Mac had pitch-perfect, PG-rated R. Lee Ermey delivery as he barked out our pre-combat briefing. Seems our outfit of United States Space Marines ("Earn money for college … Protect America across the stars … And rain fire and brimstone on your enemies!!!") was assigned to execute operation Hostile Contact. We were tasked with intercepting a rogue freighter and terminating Dagger, notorious captain of a bloodthirsty band of Space Pirates (distinguishable from the more familiar Space Zombies by their penchant for bandanas).

Standard ordinance consisted of a fully automatic, low-velocity AirSoft rifle, capable of spitting out 40 soft plastic pellets in about a second. ("These fine killing instruments of death were built by the lowest bidder.") After strapping on flak vests packed with extra ammo clips, military helmets and safety glasses (the projectiles are softer than BBs, but you could still shoot your eye out), we breached the airlock into the enemy vessel and our mission began.

Through the low-budget magic of strobe lights, fabric walls, subwoofer speakers and some suspension of disbelief, 5,000-plus square feet of ballrooms stood in for the corridors of a derelict spaceship. Crouching behind cardboard boxes and peering around plastic-sheeting doorways, our six-man squad crept through darkened pathways. Shrieking pirates popped out of every angle, swiping at us with plastic swords as they went down in hails of nonlethal lead. Periodically we were corralled into an "elevator" reroute to the next "deck" while the dead pirates resurrected and rearranged the furniture, cleverly compounding the limited playing space.

Details are lost in the fog of war, but I have a post-traumatic impression of being impressed with the improv enthusiasm of both cast and competitors. I remember Sarge sending Cowboy (aka a tween kid on our team) crawling through an "exhaust shaft" (read: cloth-covered banquet table) and the boy returning barely alive. The rules are that three hits from the bad guys puts you out of commission until you get help; our medic Wolf was quickly overwhelmed and ran low on "health pack" armbands. When he took one in the back I dragged him along, screaming, "Stay away from the light! Think of your wife and kids and other wife and kids!"

It all came down to a final showdown in the ship's reactor room, where our adventure went totally FUBAR for want of some control rods. I have no idea if we defeated the boss baddie or not before we bailed out, but nuclear annihilation or no, I ended up with a smile on my face (and a blister on my trigger finger).

This is the third such virtual video game I've been through lately. I thought TerrorWerks struck a good balance between the time-limited laser tag of Hard Knocks' zombie training (Culture to Go, Aug. 2, 2007) and Xtreme Paintball Xperience's exhaustingly epic outdoor Zombie Adventure (Live Active Cultures, Oct. 30, 2008). The understandable insubstantiality of the set pieces subtracts somewhat from the sense of immersion, but atmospheric details like themed computer screens and a teeth-rattling soundtrack take up the slack.

MindGame produces combat simulations of various themes around the year, and they plan to be back at next year's MegaCon with another TerrorWerks adventure. Hopefully I'll get my credentials conundrum worked out and be back there myself in 2010.

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