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.
On Thursday, I popped The Last of Us (TLoU) into the PS3 just to see if I needed to do some sort of lengthy install, but ended up playing for 5 hours straight. The game, simply put, is quite amazing thus far. However, I am experiencing some game design tropes that are grating on me to a higher degree than normal, perhaps precisely because everything else is so good.
Early on, you are basically told that while you can treat the game like a cover-based shooter to some extent, sneaking around is likely the best method given the chronic lack of supplies. That’s fine, sure. What is less fine is when you silently take down an entire warehouse full of guys very clearly armed with guns, and only happen to scrounge up 3 bullets of ammo from nearly a dozen corpses. Were the guns just for show? The last two guys were fine with shooting the conveniently-placed, waist-high obstruction I was hiding behind for almost a full minute, but in a moment of extreme bad luck, must have been killed right after they fired their last bullet.
I understand that this is One of Those Things in gaming in which we are supposed to suspend disbelief. I remember running a D&D campaign a few years ago in which I decided early on that I was going to rebel against gaming tropes and having the party’s human opponents drop everything they were carrying. In retrospect, it ended up being a perfectly foretold disaster: the party became understandably obsessed with looting each body clean and making frequent trips to Ye Olde Item Shoppe to peddle their warez. If I were able to loot full clips of ammo from each enemy I downed in TLoU, it would likely ruin the resource-tight mood by the end of the first hour of gameplay.
I am finding myself less sympathetic towards two other semi-related aspects that are not exactly TLoU’s fault but nevertheless somewhat jarring. First, the game is not and has never appeared to be an open-world sandbox or anything of the sort, which is fine. However, I feel subtly punished for exploring when the designers take the time to add in secret caches of goods in off-the-path locations. See, the issue is that I do not ever know if this “secret” door I’m opening isn’t actually the trigger for a cutscene or the path to the next area. I want to explore every nook and cranny of the game world! And yet I feel like I can’t, because I’m paranoid about inadvertently moving the story forward and being unable to backtrack. I’m seriously starting to miss the “Chrono Footsteps” feature from Singularity which highlighted the exact path you should take, so you know for certain which areas you could explore safely.
Compounding this issue is when I’m in the opposite scenario in which the game is clearly telling me where those story triggers are. “Oh, you want me to hurry up and walk over to that door? Good, now I know I can explore this whole half of the city instead.” The game is not Fallout, has never pretended to be Fallout, but I simply can’t help myself from treating every open building as an opportunity to scavenge for supplies. It’s the post-apocalypse! Let me spend hours combing the area for scrap metal and duct tape! I do this shit for fun.
Finally, Naughty Dog, really? I have a hunting rifle, shotgun, bow, two pistols, three Med Kits, a metal pipe with scissors taped to the end, three Molotov cocktails, a few proximity mine-like explosives, and a goddamn brick in my backpack… but I can’t carry more than 7 rifle rounds? Or more than four pairs of scissors? Inventory management is one thing, but limiting ammo to this degree is so overtly gamey that it sucks me right out of the narrative and back into optimization mode. “Hmm, if I use the shotgun to clear this next room instead of sneaking through, I can double-back and pick up those shells I left behind.”
Although I am complaining quite a bit, I need you to understand that it is only because these (ultimately minor) issues stand out in brilliant contrast to an otherwise amazing game. This isn’t so much a fly in the ointment as it is a hangnail the day after a big promotion. You know, minor, almost trivial annoyances that you nevertheless can’t quite stop thinking about.