Ok, so i went back and redid everything. reapplied everything. and it definitely looks better. I have no idea what i did to fix it, because I used all the same files, and i did have the tangent space normals option on. Im trying to make it look as bad as that last pic and cant. anyways, here are the 2 flats, as well as an updated render (with default lighting, which doesnt help my case really)
I think maybe im just expecting too much from my first real go at it, especially since i see so many professionals posting on these forums, and most of which, appear to be the high poly render, not the normals applied to the low poly. Im just use to seeing games look so good, i was expecting it to look exactly how it does in zBrush.
ah well. with practice, right?