Want to get really depressed? Why not play a video game about a zombie apocalypse?
“The Last of Us” (Rated M for Mature, $60 for PlayStation 3) is the latest high-profile game about a virus decimating the world and leaving rattled, trigger-happy survivors to pick up the pieces. As with last year’s excellent “The Walking Dead,” “Dead Island” and the never-ending “Resident Evil” series, “Last of Us” has gnarly zombies. In this case, it’s “Clickers” infected with a horrific fungus (among us) that turns their heads into what looks like a giant, rotting cauliflower. There are also fast-moving “Runner” zombies and plenty of nasty human cannibals and bandits to dispatch well.
What separates “The Last of Us” from most zombie games is that it’s from Naughty Dog, a well-regarded studio that also made the “Uncharted” adventure games. Like “Uncharted,” this one is extremely cinematic and features sharp writing, believable characters and environments that are just shy of photorealistic.
That means the decaying, crumbling environments you have to slog through — from dark sewers to exposed, mildewed apartment buildings — begin to wear on you during the 15-20 hours the single-player part of the game takes to play through.
“The Last of Us” also does that thing where much of your time is spent hunting every inch of the expansive virtual environments for items to craft medical packs or to upgrade your weapons when all you want to do is see how the story turns out. And it’s a remarkably good story. Twenty years after the first outbreak, a battered, emotionally scarred man named Joel is being paid to transport a 14-year-old girl out of a dangerous Boston outpost. The deal goes bad, but Joel still must forge ahead; the girl, a dead ringer for actress Ellen Page named Ellie, could be the key to mankind’s future. Over time, a remarkable bond forms as the two rely on each other against constant danger and death.
It’s an ambitious game that wouldn’t work if the motion capture, voice acting, superb game soundtrack (from “Brokeback Mountain” composer Gustavo Santaolalla) and writing weren’t top-notch. This is video-game craftsmanship that transcends the game’s sometimes tedious gameplay tropes and the misfortune of being the third highly acclaimed game in the last year about a tough guy protecting a young woman from danger. (The others, “Walking Dead” and “BioShock Infinite,” also had great writing and knockout cathartic endings.) It’s even got some local appeal. The game begins in what appears to be Austin and later on, an abandoned Colorado university’s motto is said to be “Go Big Horns!”
So why did I mostly hate playing such a superbly made game with a great story? It may be because I’m getting weary of the video game industry’s goth phase — its fixation on death, gun violence, child endangerment and tragedy porn to get an emotional rise out of players. If you meet an interesting character in “The Last of Us,” it’s likely they’ll die gruesomely. Ellie’s emotional responses to the brutality of each new horror breaks your heart until it becomes so routine you realize she’s gotten used to it.
“The Last of Us” is dramatic, draining and punishing. While it may not be the video game answer to Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” it certainly achieves it’s own brand of hopeless, end-of-times ennui before plot twists and excellent character work give it more humanistic dimensions.
You may not have much fun playing “The Last of Us,” but if you do, you’re unlikely to ever forget Joel and Ellie.
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For me, an antidote to the epically exhausting drama of “The Last of Us” has been a clever, hilarious indie game called “Gunpoint” (www.gunpointgame.com; $10, $20 and $30 download in Standard, Special and Exclusive Editions for Windows PCs).
At first glance, it reminded me of the old arcade game “Elevator Action,” but with a lot less shooting. You play a freelance spy and hacker who breaks into buildings, foiling security guards by using tools to link elevator doors, light switches, trap doors and other items.
It’s got simple, throwback graphics, but its noir soundtrack and whip-smart dialogue quickly put you into the game’s off-kilter frame of mind. Written and designed by former PC Gamer writer Tom Francis, “Gunpoint” has style and wit to spare. Hover over items in a locked-down fortress and you’ll be surprised by descriptions like, “A glass ceiling: shattered by strong impact or progressive thinking.” The game gives you the ability to punch guards hundreds of times, then admonishes you for doing so. Your cellphone text exchanges with clients are funny enough to make you believe Douglas Adams has been reincarnated.
The gameplay itself is a set of progressively more complex puzzles that’ll have you thinking like a coder. Using a “Crosslink” tool to rewire devices to each other, you’ll need to think a few steps ahead to the cause and effects of each action lest you get stuck in the basement of a secure office building with no way out.
If you’re on the fence, download the free demo; it’s definitely worth your time. Mac and Linux versions are on the way as well.
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I’m a geek in a lot of gadget areas, but with digital cameras I’d been feeling a few steps behind. Our family’s SLR camera, a Nikon that we bought almost 10 years ago, was showing its age. It didn’t shoot video, could only accommodate memory cards up to 2 Gigabytes and was producing lackluster photos I knew could be better with newer hardware.
When Nikon introduced its D5200 model earlier this year, I kept an eye on it until the price fell $100 from its original $900 list price. Soon after, when a Memorial Day online deal pushed it down another $150, I ordered.
So far, I’ve been thrilled with the photo quality. I get a lot fewer blurry photos of quick-moving kids and the camera shoots very high-quality 1080p video. It’s got enough novice features to keep me from getting overwhelmed and it works with the old Nikon lenses from our original camera. Even though it’s still a relatively bulky, heavy camera compared to, say, a compact point-and-shoot or a cell phone, the quality of photos I ended up with after a recently family vacation seemed worth the extra weight and price.
My biggest complaint: Nikon continues to make Wi-Fi an optional, add-on feature with a $60 adapter. When your biggest competition is incredibly cheap cell phone cameras, your $500-plus products should all have Wi-Fi, allowing them to easily transfer photos to online services or other devices to post on the web.
Otherwise, the camera, with its unique fold-out, twist-around screen, is highly recommended.
Find technology news, reviews and more at Omar L. Gallaga’s blog, Digital Savant, at austin360.com/digitalsavant.