Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Review: The Last Of Us

The Last Of Us, the latest game from Naughty Dog, tells a story centred around two complex characters – Ellie and Joel – as they traverse the United States twenty years after a zombie-like apocalypse. TLOU is a third person action game with stealth and horror components, but is also Naughty Dogs most cinematic experience yet. From the outside TLOU bears a resemblance to two of the biggest games from the last year or so, The Walking Dead and Bioshock: Infinite - though overall is very different to both, even though they can all be thought of as glorified escort missions. Ellie is a great character that grows as the game progresses; starting off young and naive and evolving into someone who rivals Joel in terms of ability – but who still defers to him for decisions, seeing him as a paternal figure. Ellie is witty, impulsive, optimistic, and everything that a child of the apocalypse should not be, and everything that Joel is not – but she is also the emotional core of the game and provides some much needed comic relief. Joel also changes throughout the game going from being very gruff, to being just slightly less gruff. Joel isn't a hero, he’s not even a good person, he’s often a character that you want to be a better person, to help keep Ellie safe. For much of the game he’s not that, in many ways he’s not even that like-able – but that’s OK, you don’t always have to play the hero. Both The Walking Dead and Bioshock: Infinite have great stories, but bland and tired game-play mechanics – TLOU manages to combine great story telling with game-play that feels fun and challenging for at least two thirds of the game.
The Last Of Us is a third person action/adventure game, you take on the role of Joel as he fights against or sneaks past humans and the infected alike; in most encounters you can just sneak past if you don't want to fight. Fighting comprises of melee and ranged combat, and for most of the game it is up to you how you approach a situation. Do you sneak up behind everyone? Or simply go in guns first. The melee combat in the game is brutal and feels exceptionally solid whether you are using your fists or a metal pipe. The way enemies grab up at your face as you strangle them from behind is realistic, if somewhat disconcerting. The game has a crafting system, whereby you use objects you find in the environment to create shivs, explosives and med-kits, as well as different resources that allow you to upgrade your weapons and yourself. Shivs can be crafted to give you an instant kill grab, but this consumes it, or can be crafted on to melee weapons to give one hit kills that make the melee weapons even more brutal than they were before. Explosives such as Molotov cocktails and shrapnel bombs can be created, but you have to decide what you would prefer - a Molotov or a med-kit, or a shrapnel bomb or a shiv. All of the guns can be upgraded in multiple ways, and you can be upgraded to be more effective in combat; for example you can buy an upgrade that let you shiv a clicker when are in their instant kill grab.

The story is quite predictable, the only real surprises are the beginning and the ending. The start of the game blind sighted me, instantly engaging me, and making up for the lack lustre second chapter that follows. In fact much of the early game is where TLOU is weakest – when your character can die instantly and the combat options are few TLOU seems quite narrow in scope. When everything opens up the combat feels great, and like less of a chore to do between cut-scenes. Working out how to approach an encounter, with the resources you have, only for it all to go wrong and for you to only just survive is oddly satisfying. I won't go into any spoilers but I applaud Naughty Dog for sticking with the story that they wanted to tell, even when focus groups showed that their ending was unpopular. They could have taken the easy option - but instead we are left with a bittersweet ending that feels very in-keeping with the tone of the game. Whilst the main arch of the story is somewhat predictable some of the tangents you take and the areas you explore are anything but; whether it be through side characters you meet, enemies you face, or just notes you find areas can have a surprising amount of depth to them. If you have played the game you will know of Ish, and know what I mean.
Taking inspiration from the Cordyceps genus of fungus – a group of parasitic fungi that takes control of insects, but which has spread to humans – the architects of the apocalypse offer a different take on the zombie trope. The infected in TLOU take a few different shapes; the recently infected - that can still see and will run at you if provoked – are typical zombies, Clickers are people that have been infected for a while – they use echo-location to find you as they have fungal growths protruding from their eyes, and those that have been infected for a long time, bloaters, are covered in fungus plate armour and take a lot to bring down.  The different types of infected combine together really well as you they require different approaches to kill or get past. One of the great things about TLOU is that many of the encounters can be entirely stealthed through.  Standard humans are also a problem for Ellie and Joel as different types of societies have sprung up in the wake of the apocalypse, few of them good. If anything I was a bit disappointed by the human factions you face, as it is not until towards the end of the game that any of them are morally ambiguous - they are all quite clearly the baddies.

The Last Of Us looks good graphically, but it is how the environments, animations, and cut-scenes  come together that makes TLOU stand out. Everything combines together to make a truly cinematic experience. When brushing against something Joel will put his hand out, he naturally slides into cover when near a wall, and changes direction organically – it really helps the characters feel as though they exist within the world. The cut-scenes add a lot of emotion into the faces of the characters unleash how great a job the voice actors did. Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson both provide the main characters with excellent voice work that really drew me in and made me believe in the characters. The end of the first section alone puts Troy Baker in the category with VA greats like Nolan North and Steve Blum. The score that accompanies the game is minimalist yet moving as the composer, Gustavo Santaolalla, uses a wide range of unusual instruments to create an uneasy atmosphere and one of the most memorable themes of any recent game - that still manages to tug at my heart strings.

My problems with this game are few. If you want to restart a section there is an option in the start menu to 'Restart Encounter', my problem is not with the choice this allows, but with what it represents. All the enemies in the game feel like they belong to one encounter or another;  you don't find many enemies on their own, they have to be part of a pack, and this makes it feel like there isn't a natural progression of enemies, but a series of challenges instead. The game can feel very segmented; you can walk through a door and everyone starts talking normally, whilst I'm still crouching though an environment and mentally hushing them, because they have passed an invisible wall and know there is nothing around - even though I don't. Whilst this prevents them from overdoing it on cheap scares, it also removes much of the surprise from the game. When sneaking around with others they often walk right by or into enemies, which doesn't break your stealth, though it does heavily break the immersion. TLOU fails to be scary though does manage to create a tense atmosphere - some of my favourite sections of the game were in dark basements, creeping slowly though infested areas, on edge - but never really frightened.

The Last Of Us makes me excited for what developers – especially the great ones like Naughty Dog – can do with the next generation of consoles. TLOU  is not only an emotionally evocative game, it is also a marvelous technical feat; with very limited memory Naughty Dog were able to not only create a beautiful game world, but realistic character movements and interactions. The way Joel shields Ellie if they occupy the same space especially shows the level of detail the developers put into their core relation – the little things really add on top of the big up to make this game one of the best of the generation.

No comments:

Post a Comment