Last of Us Review (PS3)
I’ve found the simple act of writing helps solidify how I feel about a topic. The process helps create a cynosure of sorts. Used as a foundation I can offer others my opinions as well as defend my own with conviction. So it’s with this review that I hope to cement my own thoughts from the tumult of information and emotion regarding Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us.
You see, I am stuck in a mental quandary. An incessant looping of logic, gut feeling and simple fact. The Last of Us has inspired within me an ad-hoc mixture of awe and saddened frustration of emotional connection and sullen detachment. The games story and direction, art and characterization, pacing and acting are all huge features of unremitting brilliance. Yet the gameplay stands apart as old, misguided and dull. So I stand flip flopping between these two aspects finding it difficult to reconcile them.
So let’s get to it. The game is set in a post-apocalyptic future twenty years from now. Humanity has been forced to live in fortified district slums by a ‘zombie’ pandemic. Unlike the usual run of the mill zombie contagion The Last of Us uses the idea of spores, something that at least has a basis in real life in Cordyceps. Thanks Attenborough!
The fortified towns are strictly policed by the government, who are of course very heavy handed in their control of the populace. It’s a very bleak frightening world where food is scarce and life is cheap.
You play as a smuggler named Joel who scratches a living by trading goods between districts and those that live in the wilderness outside. He is a pragmatic survivor, strong and able despite being in his late 40’s. Resources are short and goods usually become a source of conflict and cold blooded murder, something that Joel is not averse to. His ruthless and needful detachment is a product of the human will to survive. Despite his cold-heartedness when a job needs done, he is in fact contemplative, tender and surprisingly relatable. It’s difficult not to root for him.
After a deal goes awry he finds himself burdened with Ellie, a young girl who is very much naive and innocent despite her hardened nature. Her loud and brusque approach directly opposes Joel’s much quieter, matter of fact manner. It is their growth and their experience shared that made this game for me.
The Last of Us is a very reminiscent of Naughty Dog’s other seminal title Uncharted. However the emphasis here is very much on stealth. You do have access to a lot of vweapons that can all be upgraded either through practical use – such as crude nails fastened to the end of a pole – or through Joel’s own proficiency with firearms or combat. However the game does discourage all-out combat as ammunition and other weapons are in short supply. Instead you are rewarded for staying out of trouble and The Last of Us gives you various tools to do this. Bricks and bottles can be thrown as distractions. You are also able to sneak up on enemies to dispatch them without alerting others. Joel can also focus his hearing to locate nearby threats, very much like Lara Croft’s visual focus in the recent Tomb Raider game.
It is here that I have my only gripe with The Last of Us, albeit a large one. I decided to play the game on easy difficulty for various reasons, but mainly to be able to power through the game. I found however that the game was incredibly unforgiving. Brutal even in its decision to end your life and toss you back to the last checkpoint. Combat with other humans was never a problem in the game. I could use the tools at my disposal to eliminate them with ease despite them having a fairly good A.I. flanking system. It’s all very uninspiring though. I would catch a few guards and dispatch them or use very underpowered firearms to shoot at them as they moved in and out of cover.
The game was set on easy so this was to be expected. however when it came to the infected (and the Clickers in particular) I found it far more difficult. This wasn’t due to my inability to use the mechanics at hand, it was more to do with the lack of necessary controls. I found it frustrating to play this game when it required me to go through areas swarming with the infected. Control of the camera is extremely limited; you cannot look around corners to survey the path ahead. You must step out into the area and pivot the camera. The areas themselves are often open allowing the infected to approach from multiple angles. Despite using the tools at my disposal I would find myself caught by the infected and forced to fight.
Again the controls are very limited. I can attack and there are lots of context animations that allow me to use the scenery, however there is no ‘lock on’. I swing at enemies in front of me and hope that it connects. Similarly there is no option to evade or sidestep. The only path open to me is to about turn and run full tilt in the opposite direction in the hope that I distance myself from the enemy and that I don’t run into another patrolling group of infected.
Getting caught by an infected begins a quick time event that has you bashing square to escape and usually ends with you following up with the business end of a pipe. However being caught by a Clicker, the more terrifying variants, requires you to use a shiv. These are fairly rare and need parts to craft. To make matters worse you can only carry a few of them and they usually break after one use. If you are caught by a clicker and you do not have a shiv you are automatically killed.
Shivs are essentially extra lives in The Last of Us and, be it from the developers terrible design decision or your own errors, they are absolutely essential in getting you through areas. They are a crutch that is used to cover up these failings and I vehemently dislike them. There are some serious reservations to be had with the games control scheme. As mentioned I played the game on easy and found it maddening at times. I can only imagine how frustrating the game could become at a higher difficulty where perhaps shivs are less frequent or enemies required more hits to defeat, or worse that there are just more of them.
Getting that nastiness out of the way I get to now focus on the rest of the game, and what a game it is! The Last of Us is a drama first and foremost. It wears the guise of a typical survival horror game, however it’s in the writing and direction, in the acting quality and animation that this game delivers its fundamentals. From the moment the game begins you are under no illusion that this is well crafted and carefully considered.
When you are first given control of a character it is a young girl. Tired and awoken in the middle of the night, she goes in search of her dad. Consider for a moment her movement: it’s sluggish and meandering. Naughty Dog took the time to ensure you were not broken out of your immersion by a sloppy copy and paste run animation. Yet further and more considered is that her walk subtlety stabilizes to coincide with her more alert state in game.
Why would I draw attention to such a tiny aspect of the game? Well it’s in these details in their careful planning and exact execution that this game grabs hold of you. The acting on show throughout this game is top-notch and not just ‘good for a game’. As good as all this is it wouldn’t deliver the same gut reaction without the amazingly talented animators behind the scenes. I believed whole-heartedly in the characters as they go through this game world. I became invested, attached even. The actual gameplay at times becomes a distraction; something to rush past in order to get to the heart. I wanted to see what happened to Joel and Ellie next. I wanted to see how their relationship would grow. What wise crack Ellie would give or what insight Joel might offer her and what crack in his armour Ellie would expose.
As breath taking as the acting and direction on show are, it wouldn’t have had as much impact if the world they crafted wasn’t so vivid. Collapsed civilizations and overgrown urban areas seem to be a-dime-a-dozen these days, but here everything seems more deliberate and personal. The buildings you traverse feel like they were once lived in. The spores themselves are eerie and can be seen sprouting from dead bodies and running up the lengths of walls to branch out over ceilings. They stoke that primal human fear of control loss and parasitic intrusion. All these elements are weaved intricately to form a very convincing world.
What we have here is probably the best example of an interactive movie ever made. All the lessons from film study are used expertly during this game to create a masterful show. However I feel like the lessons from actual gameplay are often overlooked, which is a crying shame and why I find it so difficult to reconcile the two aspects of this game. Despite sounding overly negative I really did enjoy playing through this game. However I would be remiss if I didn’t draw attention to what I believed to be serious flaws. The Last of Us is will be extremely successful and I have absolutely no doubt that I will enjoy the movie one day.
8 wishful shivs out of 10Last of Us Review (PS3),