Last Friday I managed to nab myself a copy of Naughty Dog’s new game, The Last of Us. Having been dying to play this game for well over a year and half now, I couldn’t wait to get sucked in. Was it worth the wait? Let’s find out.
The Last of Us is a Sony exclusive title for the PlayStation 3. The game follows the story of aging, hardened, apocalypse survivor and smuggler, Joel, and his 14-year old potty-mouthed assignment, Ellie. 20 years after the world descended into chaos at the hands of the Cordyceps virus, Joel and his partner Tess have been tasked to escort the girl to a group known as the ‘Fireflies’, hidden deep within the ruins of Boston. However, when things don’t go according to plan, Joel must step up to the plate and get the girl to the other Fireflies, at all costs.
The journey takes Joel and Ellie across America, which isn’t an over-exaggeration. They start in Boston, MA, and finish up in Salt Lake City, UT. A journey which runs the course over four seasons and what we can assume was very close to a full year on the move. For anyone reading that isn’t familiar with American geography, have no fear. See, I’m British, and I’m hopeless with geography. So I took it upon myself to plot the points on the map as roughly as possible on Google Maps, more for my own curiosity, but it serves as a good image to show the vast trek the two characters go on.
The Last of Us (PS3)
Developer: Naughty Dog
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Release: June 14, 2013
The first thing that that can be said about this game is it certainly feels like a full year. Don’t take that as a jab at the game, but rather that the flow of time is excellently portrayed. Not even just in the simple things like snow in the winter, sun in the summer, etc, but in the way that Joel and Ellie interact by the change of seasons. Their characters grow fond of one another, bit by bit. This is of course integral to the game itself, or rather the emotional necessities of the game. There are also several points of note from each season about the tone, themes or ideas revolving around the two main characters. Some of which I would like to discuss but they would simply only serve as spoilers, and I’m not going to be THAT guy.
In terms of story, the game was…well….not to drag it out, but it was predictable. It’s all entirely predictable. If you gave the synopsis (with story locations and all) and teaser trailers to 500 screenwriters and told them to build a script based around them you’d probably find you’d have almost the exact same story. Where those stories would change is dialogue, characterization and emotional intensity, and it’s clear that this was always Naughty Dog’s main intention. Post-apocalyptic games, movies, books and TV shows are a dime a dozen. While they will always be a continuous part of each of these mediums, it’s important to not pander to the most loved works and rehash them as an almost instinctive reaction. With that being Said The Last of Us certainly worked hard to make sure that wasn’t all they were doing.
Rather than go for the typical ‘zombie outbreak, the world is over’ theme, they created something new. Some of you may be familiar with this, but if not I’ll fill you in. Naughty Dog used a member of the Ophiocordyceps fungal family, an absolutely real fungal infection that affects mainly insects. The stages that infected go through in game are also taken straight from the stages of how it affects insects. In reality the infection has no effect on humans, but in theory, given enough time and effort the fungus could infect humans, either through natural evolution or tampering by man himself. This is what makes the virus itself so much more engaging, although it may be a (very) long shot, it could potentially happen.
What’s particularly great about the story itself is that while the virus is central backstory for the game, it’s barely focused on. Surprisingly, you meet the infected a lot less than you’d actually expect to. The infected seemingly prefer darker and smaller spaces so you’re more likely to meet them in the confines of a ruined building than walking the streets. The real focus is on the uninfected human characters. Joel and Ellie, as well as other characters met throughout the game. One of the characters touches on the game’s true theme with a quote from one of the teaser trailers: “At least they are predictable, it’s the normal people that scare me”.
The game itself is a clever character study about all the different kinds of people you would come across if such an event was to strike the world. This pleased me to no end as when it comes to most games I find myself playing these days, I take more enjoyment from story character, and dialogue than I did a few years back. While the story was predictable, as I previously said, the characters and their dialogue (props to all voice over actors involved in the project, I might add) was so expertly handled that it far outstrips its competitors. There is one similar game that stacks up well, Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead. It’s no coincidence both games ended up with such similar review scores. Both revolve around similar storylines that have been done to death, and yet they excelled with the dialogue and characters. Not being able to change outcomes in The Last of Us is perhaps where it falls short. However, it plays much more like an interactive movie set, which is to be expected from the studio that brought us the Uncharted games. This does, unfortunately, give you no freedom to influence the storyline.
Now, as for gameplay. It’s a hard one to call. It’s not as simple as bad or good. Certain aspects worked a lot better for me than others. A lot of reviewers have been mentioning how you gain more from just straight-to-the-chase combat than sneaking. Which I agreed with in the early hours, but as the game progresses your sneaking isn’t just a valuable asset, but almost an indispensable tool. Certain groups of enemies may at first appear easy enough to dispatch with a few shots. But when you get halfway through that encounter you can see how quickly a group can converge on you. Every ‘Ohh! Missed it by that much!’ bullet you shoot, is a golden opportunity wasted. Bullets are a finite resource, and while enemies can drop them when they’re being killed, there’s no guarantee that they will, or if you’ll even be able to reach those bullets safely without being torn to pieces by the rest of the group. The game has you weigh your options. You take your time; observe, strategize and react. You jump over that box, shiv that guy, then strangle the one behind that wall. You throw a Molotov at those two then the last two you throw a sugar bomb and head shot them while they’re disorientated. It’s simply one possibility. The overall key is planning. Even a rough plan is better than no plan.
The crafting and upgrading also sat nicely with the rest of the game. I liked the crafting from your backpack without pausing gameplay, and only being capable of upgrading weapons at certain tables placed throughout the game. It means you have to consider how you go about these actions as well. Upgrade your shotgun twice while at the table to make it more powerful. What if you run out of shotgun ammo and your other weapons just aren’t up to scratch to be able to dispatch your enemies? Create 3 health packs now. What if you get caught by a bunch of Clickers and you could be really using the alcohol for a petrol bomb right now? You see? Your decisions have weight and how you decide to go on early on, may come to haunt you a little later on.
Now, I reach the part I really dreaded. I dread it in all games like this. The multi-player. Quite simply, I don’t think games of this sort require it. I understand that it is included to increase game longevity and customer value for money. You can have a really short campaign, but it’s made up for with these online gaming modes. However, I’d rather just have a massive, time-consuming single player campaign than a tacked on multi-player. Having said that, it wasn’t that bad. The major issues were that, for me personally, I don’t think third person POVs work for multi-player gaming. You get to see someone coming without ever having to leave the safety of cover, you can line up your camera for the shot you plan on taking or just wait them out and once they run past you then BAM! It’s an imbalance in the gameplay where the victor is whoever has the most patience. The Last of Us may be unique in the sense that it’s the first third person shooter I’ve played were hiding behind cover was largely ignored. Of course this opens it up and makes it a bit more intense and less camping than normal. However it now defies most of the things you learned in single player, such as the bullet issue. Just like single player, the multi-player is lacking in bullets. You must scavenge fallen enemies or supplies boxes dotted around to find some, or you can use scavenged materials to make some bullets. You can also activate one use boosters at the start of the match to give you increased bullets, amongst other things. But now the it’s just ‘whoever has more bullets wins’, which kinda spoils the game. The multi-player should feel like a less predictable single player. Instead it feels like I’m playing any old online shooter, but with much less ammo.
Being downed is also a factor. You can go down into a sort of ‘Last Stand’, as in Call of Duty. But instead of holding out a pistol and fighting for your life (as is expected in a game all about survival), you instead crawl around on all fours, trying not to be killed, all the while hoping to be revived by a team mate. I can say now, after being downed about 30 or 40 times (I’m awful at multi-player games), I was revived twice, when I could’ve easily been revived a dozen or so times. Considering it’s all team based combat in the online side of the game, there isn’t a whole lot of teamwork to be seen.
The classes were also a gripe I had. Not that they weren’t balanced, or fair. Far from it actually, the preset classes suited most styles of play, while the ability to create custom classes allowed for more customization and flexibility. My issue stood with class selection. Before the match started, you choose a class and then you’re that class for the the next 15 to 20 minutes. Meaning if you choose a close-range class but are up against 4 snipers then you’re out of luck. I understand that it’s to make it seem less like you’re just a soldier, doing what he’s told, like Battlefield or Call of Duty, and more like you are the character on screen. This is your role, and you must go on as you started out. This doesn’t change the fact that it’s incredibly punishing. Especially in the early stages, when you’re still trying to get a feel for the maps, how the games are played and what works well and where it works well. It makes it somewhat restrictive to join in, by the time I started with the multiplayer, most of the regular players had grown accustomed to what’s what in terms of maps, scavenge, weapons and how to best play. I was cannon (and bow) fodder for most of my first four matches. It was my 5th match when things got serious and I got two kills in a row.Except it was a hollow victory as both of them had been downed by a player already, and therefore had no way to fight back or even just heal. All in all, I wasn’t really feeling the online features. Having said that, I haven’t given up just yet.
You see, there’s one feature that I can’t help but love about the multi-player. It has a story, too. I’ll grant you it’s not as in-depth as the single player campaign, but it’s a clever twist to an otherwise tacked-on feature. You choose to play as either the Hunters or the Fireflies. Each player online has their own group of survivors that they must maintain and provide for, and as time goes on you gain new survivors and require more supplies to keep them all healthy and happy. I joined the Hunters and as such my storyline involves the impending arrival of a supply convoy in twelve weeks and the gathering of strength and numbers to seize it. Each match is a day in-game, and the better you perform the more supplies gained and the more survivors you shall attract. How the story changes if you are a Firefly instead, I’m unsure. Maybe it won’t change at all. What’s important is that it adds a new dynamic, it also makes it feel like rather than just playing in a team with random strangers you are actually playing as a part of your survival camp. If you have your Facebook account synced up to your PS3 it allows your survivors camp to become populated by your friends, and occasionally comes up with amusing snippets such as ‘Dustin Triplett is spit-roasting a raccoon’.
So with my multiplayer, the survivors’ storyline is about two weeks in at present, and my single player campaign finished on normal (as I mentally prepare for ‘Survivor’ difficulty in my new game+ at some stage), I can conclude this review with a thought that was playing on my mind the whole time I was playing. An early review of this game (I forget which) said The Last of Us was gaming’s Citizen Kane. Now, I haven’t seen all of Citizen Kane. I know, right? Shoot me, but I do know of the film’s history, its cultural impact, the spark that ignites great ideas in cinema still to this day is often Citizen Kane, so when I saw that I thought ‘that’s too much, this is above hype’. However, playing through the game itself I understand now what they mean. It’s more than how good the game is, what it’s done right and what it’s done wrong. People hate Citizen Kane just as people will hate The Last of Us. It’s more of what the game will inspire in others, attempt to knock some sense into these developers that are making games that don’t need to be made, like three Modern Warefares when we only needed one. It’s encouraging a great, engaging story, with a game mechanic a little deeper than the core element of the game itself. To say The Last of us is as good as Citizen Kane is not my call; that’s a personal thing for each and every person who has their own feelings about that movie, as well as about this game. Do I think it could impact games in a similar fashion? I could see it, I’d certainly like to see it. What will really happen though, only time will tell.
[Written by contributor Dan Connor]