In the comments to my last post, I got some pushback from stating Covenants in WoW “were choices in the same way stacking Crit vs Versatility is a choice: namely, choosing to be objectively correct or gimp your character in X or Y (or all) content.” Indeed, I believe that the proposed 9.1.5 patch changes that remove the Covenant-switching restrictions is something that should have existed from the beginning. Which, since some people forgot, it kinda did since you could freely change Covenants without friction outside of going back to one you previously “betrayed.” In that one scenario, you were limited to a once-a-week quest.
But let me go a bit further: I do not believe that “meaningful choices” can or ought to exist in MMOs.
What someone means by “meaningful choice” is critically important, of course. There is no one answer. For example, is a mutually exclusive choice always meaningful? Does a choice have to be permanent to be meaningful? Does a choice have to have lasting consequences (which is different than just being permanent) to be meaningful? Does a choice have to feel difficult to make to be meaningful?
I bring up these different dimensions of “meaning” because I sometimes feel that people fetishize Permanence in terms of choices. That if you can change something later, it must mean that the original choice itself didn’t matter. To them I say: Every Moment is a One-Time Event. Specs in WoW have been imminently changeable at the drop of a hat for many years. If you choose to not tank for a raid, that choice lasts only for as long as you want it to. But here’s the thing: the choice you made to not tank yesterday is permanent. You can’t go back in time and make a different choice for the Tuesday raid time. So… was the original decision a meaningful choice? If you were good at tanking, it certain was for everyone there.
Let’s bring this back specifically to WoW Covenants in Shadowlands. For those not playing along at home this expansion, there are four Covenants (i.e. factions) the player could choose to ally with at max level. During the leveling process, you got to do quests for each one and also play around with the unique Covenant abilities that each one offers – some are general abilities, and others are class-specific. Eventually, you have to choose a specific Covenant to champion and otherwise experience the rest of the expansion with.
Is picking a Covenant a meaningful choice?
As I wrote before, I would say No. Was it mutually exclusive? Yes, you can’t have more than one Covenant at a time. Were there consequences? Yes. Sort of. Covenants were swappable even before 9.1.5 but let’s not pretend there isn’t a significant time cost to essentially starting over with rebuilding a Sanctum, grinding Anima, and all the sort of nonsense daily quests one has to do. Plus, you lost access to any Transmog from the original Covenant. Was it permanent? Obviously not, but that would not have been the secret sauce if it was – instead of meaning, such a decision would have brought in frustration and betrayal.
Why? The Covenant abilities themselves are an extremely mixed bag. Sometimes they don’t matter, and other times they matter a whole hell of a lot. For example, if you are a PvP Priest, you want to be Venthyr for the Mindgames ability. Mindgames is one of the most unique CCs ever introduced to WoW, and I guarantee you that it will be brought forward into the next expansion as a Talent or even baseline ability. If you don’t PvP on your Priest character, then sure, your Covenant choice is more wide open. But if you ever thought you would, not picking Venthyr would be playing with a handicap.
On the PvE side, Night Fae is an attractive choice for Death Knights given it increases their mobility, which is otherwise the classical weakness of the class. However, Night Fae is extremely terrible for both Unholy DPS and Blood tanking. So your “choice” is between the optimal DPS/Tanking or improved quality of life. Explain to me again why it’s a good thing that we have to pick between the two.
Notice how none of the above considerations touch on the Covenants themselves: their theme, their plot, their aesthetics, their characters, or anything that actually makes them meaningful from a narrative standpoint. There are certainly players out there for whom Covenant theme is the number one consideration. Helistar said in the comments yesterday: “When I started Shadowlands it was obvious that my druid would be Night Fae, optimal choice or not.” That’s totally fine! Although… I have to ask the follow-up question: if it was so obvious from the start you were picking Night Fae, was the choice really meaningful to begin with?
If it seems as though I’m playing both side of the argument… I kinda am.
The real crux of my argument is this: the designers should not be going out of their way to “enforce” meaningful choices. In Diablo 2, you could not respec your character; in Diablo 3, you could swap your abilities around at almost any time. Was picking talents in Diablo 2 more meaningful? No! All it did was make me feel bad every time I leveled up, knowing I was always going to be 2-3 levels late to the actual good talents due to the dumb, blind decisions I made hours ago. That doesn’t feel meaningful.
Imagine if Blizzard designed Covenants such that Covenant abilities were interchangeable (and probably Soulbinds), but the Covenants themselves were not. Priests could have Mindgames but fight with the Kyrians. That sort of thing. Would that detract from the meaningfulness of the Covenant decision? Or would it… enhance it? I would unequivocally say the latter. Because WoW is an MMO where you could be spending 40 hours a week playing your character and not spend a second progressing whatever story exists. So for me, gameplay decisions and projected viability and optimization are my top priorities. And those things are largely math problems with clear, non-ambiguous answers.
In a hypothetical Shadowlands where Covenants had no particular gameplay impacts, suddenly that decision becomes meaningful. The choice more reflects who I choose to identify with, who I am as a person, who best reflects my values, and that’s a hell of a lot more meaningful than 2% DPS. It would certainly be closer to what I feel were the meaningful choices in, say, the Mass Effect series:
What the exchange highlighted to me though, was how squishy the venerable Sid Meier quote actually is.¹ To me, the choice between curing the Krogan genophage or deciding not to was interesting. In fact, I spent ten minutes or so agonizing over it when the dialog wheel was presented. Was it fair of us to cripple an entire species because we feared their hardiness and breeding speed? At first, I was worried about that hypothetical. Once the Reapers were gone, who is to say that the Krogans don’t simply out-breed and out-muscle the rest of us out of the universe? Then I thought: wait a minute, is this not the same sort of argument used against inter-racial marriages in the past, and even concerns about Islam today?
The genophage choice is definitely one that I felt was meaningful. It can say a lot about you as a person. Maybe the fact that Covenants primarily boil down to a numbers game to me still says something about my values, but I don’t think you can read much more into it other than sometimes 2% DPS actually matters. Rather, I would say that the meaningfulness of a choice in an MMO is directly disproportional to its gameplay effect. If you care about the numbers, then it really isn’t a choice; if you don’t care about the numbers, what are they doing there in the first place? Just remove the numbers.
Finally, for those still stubbornly sticking to their guns regarding “permanent choices are meaningful choices,” I say to you one word: alts. Nothing is permanent if you can have alts. So really it’s just a question of how many hours of hazing you want to require someone to go through to experience the other choice. Or just to potentially be viable in another subset of content.
Bioware just announced there is going to be a Mass Effect: Legendary edition:
Mass Effect Legendary Edition will include single-player base content and DLC from Mass Effect, Mass Effect 2, and Mass Effect 3, plus promo weapons, armors, and packs – all remastered and optimized for 4k Ultra HD. It will be available in Spring 2021 for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC, with forward compatibility and targeted enhancements on Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5. More information to come in the new year!
This is extremely relevant to my interests. I consider Mass Effect to be one of the best RPG series ever made, and yet despite that, I never got around to purchasing any of the critically- (and fan-) acclaimed DLCs. At the time, it was more of a principle thing, but then later morphed into a “why do all of these still cost $70?” and “why are BioWare Points still a thing?” Having a complete package with everything included makes things much simpler, with all the other enhancements being a bonus.
There was also this bit of news:
Meanwhile here at BioWare, a veteran team has been hard at work envisioning the next chapter of the Mass Effect universe. We are in early stages on the project and can’t say any more just yet, but we’re looking forward to sharing our vision for where we’ll be going next.
That the franchise will continue is good to hear. I haven’t really kept up on the news/rumors before this, so I had still been under the 3-year old impression that everything was over. Hard to be optimistic when EA, of all companies, cancels all plans for DLC for a game. Still, it will be extremely interesting to see if they continue the Andromeda thread or do some kind of prequel or what.
So, yeah, pretty exciting. I had to look up who owns BioWare at the moment just to gauge the likelihood that this Legendary Edition hits the Xbox Game Pass. Looks like EA still owns BioWare. Considering that the EA Play membership rolls into the Game Pass starting on November 10th though, it’s highly likely that my /r/patientgamers-ing has paid dividends.
Oh, and it looks like Biden won the election too, so there might still be a world left to game in.
When I started playing The Outer Worlds back in December, I was not impressed. Having just completed the game yesterday, I can report that the game did not particularly redeem itself.
To be clear, the game may have been rigged from the start, so to speak. This was Obsidian, makers of Fallout: New Vegas! With a brand new IP! Like some kind of Mass Effect x Fallout space western! Except it wasn’t. At all. Like not even remotely close.
Was that Obsidian’s fault? Probably not, but they suffer the consequences of the hype just the same.
Regardless, the game did not improve. I was playing on Hard difficulty and the combat was just a mess from start to finish. Companion AI is tough to get right in any game, but here they are glorified abilities that you press once per combat, as they typically die immediately after they use them. Exploration was pointless, rewarding trash consumables or weapon mods you never have need of using. The whole Tinker/Upgrade system for level-based gear starts out as a promising way of keeping unique weapons (etc) relevant, but the escalating cost of doing so spirals out of control. When it’s easier and cheaper to just buy guns from a vending machine rather than try to upgrade the super-special gear you spent time exploring/questing for, you know things have fallen off the rails.
Quest-wise, things did not improve either. If you treat the game overall as a comedy, things might play out better from a tone perspective. And indeed there is some witty dialog to be had. Aside from that though, there was precisely one moment towards the end of the game in which I was surprised at the visual impact of a particular decision. Arguably though, it was surprising precisely because nothing else was ever taken seriously.
Overall… well, I was going to suggest to give this game a pass, but I myself played it for a whole dollar via the Game Pass, so… do what you want. If you get past the first planet and aren’t feeling it though, don’t feel bad about moving on. It’s not going to scratch a Fallout itch, a Mass Effect itch, a BioShock itch, or any itch beyond a bizarre one for BBB Unreal engine comedy games.
And if you have one of those, you might want to see a dermatologist instead.
Mass Effect: Andromeda was finished over the weekend.
My overall impression? Serviceable. Adequate. My /played time was about 90 hours, so it is a tad difficult to ascertain whether the characters blossomed by the mid-game or if it was a sort of Stockholm Syndrome effect. Well, I can say for sure that I immensely enjoyed Peebee and Drack’s company. Vetra too, perhaps, but she’s no Garrus. Cora can take a hike.
The combat and general environments are easily the best the series has offered. I played the entire game on Hard, which was appropriately named. It has been mentioned before, but a lot has been done to incorporate waist-high barriers into the environment in a logical manner. In fact, a sizable portion of the game have none. Which is real shame given how many enemies have beam laser effects, which effectively melt you outside of cover. Still, Hard is Hard, so it was a welcome challenge (most of the time).
The environments and the Frostbite engine in general were exquisite. I got a little tired of the theme planet trope (Desert planet! Ice planet!), but the terrain overall was varied and the organic vistas were amazing. Indeed, I can see now why such a big deal was made regarding wonky character animations given how outrageously polished the rest of the game looks – it seems so out of place.
What also felt out of place were the poorly-implemented mechanical aspects of the game. Fighting feels great. Switching abilities mid-battle feels less great. Downtime inventory management feels awful. Scanning things give you Research Points, which you then use to buy weapon blueprints, which then take resources collected from driving around to craft, which then take Augments and/or Mods you receive from fighting to improve. I’m sure it sounds like a reasonable way to tie all the player experiences together, at least on a whiteboard. In practice, you end up wasting tons of Research Points because every single gun is available from the start and you don’t know how it feels to shoot till you get one in your hands. By the mid-game though, you’ll have needed to pour all your points into upgrading a specific type of gun (e.g. Black Window) through its various iterations (e.g. III, IV, V, etc) to maintain combat effectiveness. So… either settle on something early, making the multiple pages of menus irrelevant, or try all the things and always wonder whether a specific gun sucks, or if it would have been good at max rank.
I played a little bit of the Andromeda multiplayer, and it was… basically ME3’s multiplayer. ME3’s multiplayer was a hidden gem and significantly extended my playtime of the game well beyond the (original) poor ending. That may have been a time and a place thing though, as I had basically zero drive to continue playing Andromeda’s multiplayer, despite an objectively more refined combat system. For the uninitiated, it is a 4-player Horde game mode where one caps out at level 20, but items/weapons/character options are gated behind lockboxes. Open a Black Widow sniper rifle? Now you can take it with any character. Unlock a second one, and now you have a Black Widow Mk 2 with slightly higher stats. And so on.
So far, most of this has been high praise, so you might be wondering why the game is “serviceable” and “adequate.” It’s relatively simple: Andromeda is not better overall than any of the prior trilogy. Graphics and combat? Better. Characters, plot, themes, cohesive narratives, emotional gravity, witty one-liners? Not better. I find it extraordinarily silly to judge Andromeda “on its own merits” considering it has Mass Effect in the title. Andromeda is better than a whole lot of other single-player RPGs, yes, but better Mass Effects (overall, mind you) exist. If you had to make an exclusive choice between all the titles, I’d recommend one of those other ones instead.
And perhaps that is part of the reason why Andromeda may be the last in the series. At first, I was a bit sad, but it kinda feels like the right move now. The Mass Effect name has a lot of baggage attached and, outside of the various character races, there wasn’t exactly a whole lot tying Andromeda to it. Yes, all these people are from the Milky Way, there are various Easter Eggs and such pointing to Reapers and Shepard, and so on. But there didn’t have to be. The fact that it was tied to the franchise just made the world-building easier – no need to explain five humanoid races tooling around with each other relatively peacefully. Andromeda could have been the story of five human nations from Earth and little would have changed, narratively. Hell, the eponymous “mass effect” was uttered like twice in the whole game, always in reference to shields. Eezo sickness could have been any other miraculous plot disease.
Ultimately… I dunno. Andromeda is certainly better than any random given RPG out there. Andromeda is not better than any given Mass Effect title. It is worth experiencing, but it is not essential to experience right now. Perhaps in another couple of years when we finally get some more concrete idea as to whether Bioware is closing the Mass Effect door for good.
So it is looking more and more like the Mass Effect series is done. Latest word is that Mass Effect: Andromeda will not be getting any single-player DLC. While I do not normally care for DLC – much less story-based DLC – this is not a particularly good sign for the health of the series.
And that’s a damn shame.
Andromeda is not remotely close to being as good as any of the original trilogy titles. But… it’s not bad, either. Animations are still wonky, especially when compared to what came before. At the same time, the actual graphics and alien vistas are phenomenal. Combat too is probably the best it has ever been, in terms of cadence and action. While there are still waist-high barriers around in most areas, it certainly doesn’t feel as forced as it did in prior titles. The side crew can’t hold a candle to the OG team from the Milky Way, but perhaps they could have caught up in the next few games.
The problem seems to have been development run amok. I have seen a lot of people decry those derisive animation memes as the reason for the game’s poor reception, but few people examine why the animations were poor to begin with. Despite being in development for 5 years, the game only really coalesced a year and a half before launch. It boggles my mind that the designers were thinking a No Man’s Sky approach to Mass Effect was ever a good idea, e.g. thousand of procedurally generated random planets. This is a flagship franchise – if you want to screw around with the formula, do it with another property!
To date, I still have not completed the main story in Andromeda. As is custom, I got to a stage in which I felt like the endgame was approaching, so I quickly veered off into sidequest territory. I even completed that stupid sidequest that required 16 mineral readings from every crag of the ass end of the universe. Not because it’s fun, but because I’m cruising around with fun company. I mentioned it elsewhere, but I could listen to Peebee and Drak shoot the shit for hours. And I have.
I will be sad when it is over.
While I am a big believer in finding meaning and purpose in every action one takes, I also hate unfinished stories (Kingkiller Chronicles much?). You can certainly have fun with Andromeda, as I have thus far. But I am weary of encouraging anyone being sucked into an orphaned narrative.
A few (dozen) more hours in, and things are humming along.
In these early stages of the game, three abilities do not feel like nearly enough. I came across a website that suggested that Barricade – a Tech power that constructs cover on demand – was the bee’s knees. After a boss-ish encounter that saw me kiting an armored beast around for 5 minutes, I’d suggest it’s more akin to bee’s ass. Energy Drain and Pull were rather ineffectual with Barricade as the wildcard, and it’s too early in the game for my weapons to have much of an impact on anything.
Indeed, I have talked about uneven difficulty in games before, and Andromeda seems poised to follow the same patterns. In Divinity: Original Sin, the difficulty was uneven in the early game because enemy CC was powerful while you lacked options towards ending encounters quickly, e.g. by blowing up the team with OP spells. In Andromeda, you can specialize yourself into a corner by not selecting all of the abilities, or perhaps not bringing the right kind of weapons. Andromeda allows you to actually change the three abilities you have in the middle of combat, but that won’t help you if you never spared the Skill points to buy them.
That said, I don’t actually like Andromeda’s swapping Skill system.
While the game goes out of its way to make the process mostly smooth – you can swap Favorite loadouts with a couple clicks – I find the entire process too… metagame-y. Ryder’s ability to switch abilities on the fly is given an in-universe explanation, but that doesn’t prevent the flow of combat from being broken whenever you pause the game to become an entirely different “class.” It’s like… why? I would agree that this is better than being able to paint yourself into an unwinnable corner by choosing the “wrong” abilities, but only barely. Why not allow us to equip more abilities at once?
Ah, right… consoles.
In any event, I will continue chugging right along. I am warming up to the characters a bit more, and going out of my way to complete most of the side-quests in typical Mass Effect style. It is hard to tell how far along in the game I am, but I’m guessing it might be closer to halfway than anything.
Bad facial animations are bad.
It is difficult to know whether I would have noticed the details on my own had it not been for the hilarious (and sad) examples spread across the internet. I would like to imagine that I’d notice, but maybe not. The toothpaste is out of that tube though, and straight into the fish-lips of every member of humanity that survived the journey to Andromeda. Maybe cryogenics causes one’s skin to slog off the bone.
About 5 hours into Mass Effect, all I can say is holy shit.
One of the most groundbreaking things occurred in the city after the first “dungeon.” In talking with a receptionist to the Consort, she winked at me.
… and then a few months later:
My favorite aspect of the original Mass Effect was the integration of non-verbal dialog into the narrative, and the general narrative itself. In ME2, that is kicked up a notch^². Characters smile, nod, gesture, facepalm, wink, and otherwise emote in subtle, natural ways. Indeed, these little actions end up becoming part of the dialog, creating nuance and meaning that words themselves could not convey.
Perhaps the novelty has worn off. Perhaps the Witcher series has ruined facial expressions for other games for me. Or perhaps the animations in ME: Andromeda are really that bad. At the moment, I am leaning towards the latter. Ryder pretty much looks drunk all the time.
I have only played about an hour or two thus far, but the rest of the game seems okay. The gunplay does not seem as tight, but it could be the learning curve of the Frostbite engine. Or perhaps my low-level guns. I like how you can swap out abilities and such, but don’t like how apparently I’m limited to three abilities at a time. I suppose in the paradigm of quick recharging Biotic skills, it would be too much to be just slinging more mass effect fields than bullets.
Still, I always question whether these sort of decisions are made based on solid design principles, or whether it was to dumb down the game for consoles.
I was trying to describe the Dragon Age series to a friend the other day, and failing miserably. You see, this friend is a huge fan of the Mass Effect series. Should be easy, right? “It’s like a fantasy Mass Effect. It’s even made by the same studio!”
Except that is not really true.
I mean, yeah, it’s made by Bioware. But the longer I look at the Dragon Age series as a whole, the less it looks like a coherent narrative and more a mishmash of one-dimensional fantasy tropes. Dragon Age: Origins was a breath of fresh air with the Mage/Templar relationship, turning Elves into wandering Gypsies, and otherwise subverting a lot of traditional fantasy. Perhaps the genre has evolved in parallel or the novelty has worn off, as these days I’m finding the Dragon Age setting floundering for an identity.
I liked the Grey Warden schtick in the first game, even if it ultimately meant you were fighting dragons and orcs. In Dragon Age 2, you really weren’t doing anything of note; things just happened around you. While there is still time for Inquisition to kick into gear plot-wise (no spoilers, please), I’m at a bit of a loss in mustering up the motivation to care about anyone around me. Don’t get me wrong, party banter is pretty much the reason someone plays Bioware games; I just find it hard to like someone when there’s no real context for their decisions or personality.
For example, I have lost all investment in the Mage vs Templar narrative arc. The concept of anti-mage knights overseeing mage initiation rituals was pretty cool in the first game. It evoked a sort of Wheel of Time “mad dog on a leash” image; I started thinking that perhaps a similar thing should exist in the Star Wars universe vis-a-vis Jedi. It gets the mental gears moving, you know?
But now we are left with insane Mage vs insane Templar generic fantasy 101. My next Inquisition plot point indicates I will need to choose between seeking Mage support or Templar support, with the decision being mutually exclusive. I’m honestly about two seconds away from looking it up on the Wiki and making a decision based on which side gives the better loot. Quite simply, the game hasn’t given me any reason to care about the outcome. Compare that to my utter agony over the Genophage decision in Mass Effect 2. Same sort of binary, morally grey decision, but Mass Effect managed to get me to care. Dragon Age doesn’t even try anymore.
If someone asked you to sum up the Mass Effect series, you could say “scrappy Commander gets ship, builds galactic coalition to defeat Reapers.” As for summing up Dragon Age… uh… hmm. “Series of unrelated scrappy heroes collects NPCs and fights mobs.” Obviously it’s a lot harder to come up with a coherent narrative when you change heroes every game, but I’m not sure how much slack Dragon Age deserves. The Far Cry games have nothing to do with one another, and yet I can feel the thread that binds them. Where is the Dragon Age thread? What is Dragon Age even about?
I think Bioware would have been a lot better off sticking to the Grey Warden angle. Having a new Blight every game would be pretty formulaic (and unsustainable), of course, but I would of loved to have seen a more nuanced exploration of what life is like for the condemned Wardens in the post-Blight period. Sort of like a subverted fantasy plot, wherein your coalition and party members start strong and then fade out, slowly ground to dust via political machinations that find the Warden treaties inconvenient once the world is no longer ending. Perhaps there is a schism that develops amongst Wardens that desire children and security for their families. Maybe the Mage vs Templar rebellion could have started by the Mages deciding to free themselves en masse by joining the Warden cause.
Shit, can you imagine? Do you allow the Mages to essentially subvert the Warden code to emancipate themselves? They get their freedom, but there won’t be enough safeguards amongst the Wardens to keep a check on their power. Plus, what of the nobles who suddenly see the Wardens become a stateless army whose treaties supersede their sovereignty? Do the Wardens become complicit in the subjugation of Mages by rejecting them, especially when the Templars crack down extra hard after the attempted mutiny? Meanwhile, an Archdemon stirs from the all the conflict and bloodshed…
That would be an interesting decision. Not choosing between two NPC leaders that I was introduced to 10 seconds ago.
Who knows, maybe Inquisition will turn out to be super interesting in the final analysis. It isn’t terribly interesting now though, and it will have a hell of a time matching the plot I just invented a minute ago. The game is still fun, but I’d rather be playing Skyrim 2. Since I can’t, Inquisition will have to do.
So hey, there is another sale on Origin right now – pretty much the entire EA catalog (all six games) is reduced by 50% or more. Know what isn’t reduced in price though? Goddamn Mass Effect DLC:
That’s right, you can buy the entire Mass Effect franchise for $15. If you want to get all the canon DLC though, that will be an additional $64. For a 2+ year old game. For DLC that has never been on sale.
At this point I can no longer tell if Bioware is just stupid, or evil, or what. Is the nefarious plan to rope in new players at the $15 price-point and then squeeze the $64 out of the few who become super-enamored with the game? Or is the marketing department asleep at the wheel (or fired) and they just never got around to running the numbers on having a Bioware point sale? Or, you know, migrating from the goddamn ridiculous point system like every other game company?
I suppose the good news is that Casey Hudson, project director for KOTOR and the entire Mass Effect series, left Bioware last week. While I still have some sour grapes (more like sour raisins at this point) over the ME3 ending debacle, the fleshed-out endings went a long way in regaining my trust. I do not idolize content creators as a rule – individual works are the only thing that deserves respect – but this move makes it more likely that Bioware will be left with games I won’t be compelled to play, thereby making it easier to both hate them and not give them money simultaneously.
But seriously, Bioware, put that goddamn Mass Effect DLC on sale and I will buy it.
Game: The Last of Us [PS3]
Recommended price: $30
Metacritic Score: 95
Completion Time: ~17 hours
Buy If You Like: Metal Gear Zombie, brilliant storytelling, good games
When it came down to a decision as to whether I should do an extremely late jump into this (now past) console generation, I really only had one question: did I want to play The Last of Us, or the Halo series? Despite ultimately choosing the PS3, I waited on purchasing The Last of Us for quite some time. This was the reason I bought this console, and I was a bit apprehensive about putting that $200+ decision to the test. After all, everyone raved about Bioshock Infinite at release and looked how that turned out for me. How could this Metacritic 95/9.1 game live up to the expectations I have levied upon it?
The answer is “Easily.”
The Last of Us (TLoU) is 3rd-person, stealth-emphasized cover-based shooter set twenty years into a “zombie” post-apocalypse. An outbreak of mind-destroying spores has nearly wiped out humanity, and the survivors are doing their best to stay alive in a world of infected bites, raiders, and mundane starvation. You play as Joel, a professional smuggler and hardened badass, who along with your partner Tess is looking to get even with a guy who robbed you both of a shipment of guns. After a series of close calls, Joel & Tess take up one last job: to smuggle a 14-year old girl out of the city and to a safe house.
The principal gameplay is exploring, sneaking, and killing from an over-the-shoulder perspective. While the environments are extremely linear and the number of enemy types fairly basic, I found the gameplay itself to never get dull. Supplies are almost always limited, so some real decisions will need to be made as to whether you take the time to sneak around and get some stealth kills versus lobbing a Molotov cocktail into that group of enemies right now. Compounding this, the human AI is brutal in its sensibility – enemies will fan out, attempt to flank you, send only one guy to investigate noises while the others watch, and so on.
About the only complaints I have about the combat side of things is the reverse difficulty curve and checkpoint system. Like many similar games, TLoU is harder in the beginning and only becomes progressively easier as time goes on. Part of that is familiarity with effective strategy, given how there aren’t a lot of new enemy types, and part of that is from access to more/better weapons. Indeed, facing human enemies became somewhat of a joke later on since they would frequently congregate in small groups at the beginning of encounters, which made it extremely easy to blow them all up at once with a nail bomb. And while I give Naughty Dog some credit for a truly seamless checkpoint system, it ends up doing some strange things to the difficulty insofar as discreet encounters only end up being ~5 minutes long.
For as fluid and exciting the combat system may be, where the game truly shines is everywhere else. The visual juxtaposition of ruined human civilization and a greenery of nature reclaiming the space filled me with sadness and wonder simultaneously; it feels like the most compelling combination between the movies I Am Legend and The Road. The musical score is amazing in its ambiance and willingness to not take over a scene. As for the voice acting, well, I never really noticed there being voice acting at all – it was just normal, natural dialog.
The overall narrative is likely the thing most everyone talks about when TLoU is brought up, and I can confirm that it is about as amazing as advertised. The weird thing is that there was not one particular moment in which I remember sitting there thinking “Wow, that’s some good videogame plot.” Instead, I felt permanently affixed to my screen, playing in five-hour increments, as each scene segued perfectly into the next and I eagerly devoured every little detail.
Now that I think about it, there actually were a few details in cut scenes in which my jaw dropped at the excellence of Naughty Dog’s craft. When Joel ever-so-briefly looked at his watch, for example, I was taken back to that first wink in Mass Effect when I understood, for the first time, how much farther gaming as a storytelling medium has evolved. These subtle-yet-significant gestures hold such a hidden depth of emotion that it boggles my mind that their meaning wasn’t as belabored in-game as I am doing right now. I mean, the gesture would be ruined if it called more attention to itself, but it is such a calculated risk that I’m surprised they did not.
Ultimately, The Last of Us is one of those shining examples of Games As Art that also happen to be extremely compelling to play. And unlike some other titles which overreach in their attempts to be narratively “deep” and complex – *cough* Bioshock Infinite *cough* – The Last of Us simply presents its case amongst gripping gameplay and, story told, drops the mic as the screen fades to black.