Wednesday, 30 April 2014

The Last Of Us

Post-Launch Review
The Last Of Us
Developer: Naughty Dog
Released: June 2013
Played: story complete in 15 hours


Twenty years after a fungal pandemic has wiped out most of the human population, a smuggler named Joel finds himself transporting an unusual cargo: a girl, Ellie, who may be able to fight the disease. Joel and Ellie set out across the United States to find the Fireflies, a rebel group resisting the authority of the quarantine zones.

At Launch

The Last Of Us received rave reviews, averaging scores of 95%. The story and voice acting were especially praised for creating a bond with the characters. Sound design and graphics received high praise, and the combat, stealth, and crafting systems were also well received.

Post Launch

Patches included some minor single player fixes, but were mostly focused on multiplayer balance, improvements, and additions.
Several DLC packs have been released. The most notable is Left Behind, a single-player pack that expands on Ellie's time while Joel is injured, as well as following the loss of her friend Riley just before meeting Joel.
There are also several multiplayer expansions - map packs and appearance sets. The Season Pass includes Left Behind, two pre-order packs (soundtrack, PS3 theme, avatars, multiplayer bonuses), a map pack, and another upcoming multiplayer DLC.

Initial load was very slow. I timed it - a full two minutes from pressing "start game" to actually starting the game. Fortunately this doesn't happen again so it's only a one-time annoyance.

This is a very slow game, which surprised me a bit after playing Uncharted. There's a lot of quiet time spent moving through the environment without any combat, just looking for a safe route and scrounging for supplies, with Joel and Ellie (and other allies) chatting occasionally. Even the game's combat is slow and tense. You can choose stealth or a direct assault, but stealth is always the better option, even allowing you to bypass encounters entirely if you're careful. Combat is quite brutal but it makes sense for the setting and the design: you need to kill quickly if you want to survive, and making combat distasteful is an extra incentive to avoid it. The actual combat mechanics are solid if not particularly noteworthy, though animations tend to be excellent. Cover isn't sticky like in some games, but Joel and Ellie will lean on or touch objects to support themselves.

Since I just mentioned animation, let's talk technical stuff. Character models and animation are very good, and voice acting is top-notch. Graphics are generally excellent, with a lot of fine detail in the environments. Unfortunately the few areas that are less detailed tend to stick out against the better stuff, but overall the visuals are as good as the PS3 gets. Naughty Dog does a better job than most with natural environments - plenty of hills and snowbanks and rocks caught my eye for being very well rendered. And the already minimal UI goes away when it's not being used so there's no clutter and most of the time all you see is the environment.

I liked the different spins on some standard game elements. Crafting is very visual - you're not shown a list of stuff you have with numbers beside them, you have three icons for each item, with their squares filled depending on how much of it you have. A full square is enough to craft something. Each craftable item uses two materials, so there's a little bit of overlap and you'll have to decide how to spend your resources - for example, you might have enough blades to make one nailbomb or one shiv, but not both. It probably sounds more complicated here than it actually is in game - the visual elements are very easy to understand when you're actually looking at them.

Upgrading is neat too. You collect "parts", which are just generic upgrade items. Each weapon upgrade costs a certain number of parts and requires a certain level. But the level isn't determined by an experience value - it's dependent on the tools you've picked up. Joel knows how to upgrade everything but he needs the tools to actually do it, so make sure you keep an eye out for toolboxes. Weapon upgrades aren't mandatory but they'll certainly help.

Though upgrading isn't tied to it, there is a form of experience that lets you upgrade Joel's skills (such as healing speed, max health, listen radius, etc). Instead of earning experience for kills or quests, Joel finds supplements - basically vitamins and herbs and stuff. You can also find manuals that Joel can read to learn more technical upgrades, like building better bombs or health kits. So levelling up, crafting, and upgrading are all tied to exploration and not kills or game progress. Since I love games that let me explore, this is great for me. 

There are also notes and journals and other collectibles hidden in the environment, but again with a nice little twist: instead of simply going into your inventory, a lot of these notes will give you a bit of dialogue as the characters talk about what you just found.

I was actually kind of surprised that I enjoyed the story so much. The structure is set up as a series of episodes over the course of the journey across the U.S., so the plot isn't as direct as I usually prefer. But the more episode-based storytelling works extremely well here, conveying a sense of how long the trip actually takes, and providing plenty of little character moments. The slowly strengthening relationship between Ellie and Joel creates some very tense moments late game when they get separated.

The Last Of Us handles some fairly standard post-apocalypse plot points very well and quite subtly. There's a group of freedom fighters, but it's mostly in the background. Joel doesn't like to talk about people he's lost but it's never in-your-face, he'd rather just quietly deflect or stay silent. Reacting to betrayal or deception isn't as simple as expected. Even seemingly black-and-white scenarios turn out to be not so clear cut.

I'm not sure how I should feel about the ending. That's not to say the ending was bad - on the contrary, it was excellent. It's the morality of the ending that gives me pause. Highlight for spoilers: Logically speaking, one life for the entire human race is an obvious choice. But in the moment, with someone you care about... that's a hard decision. From a utilitarian perspective Joel made the wrong choice, but it's impossible not to sympathize with him and understand why he did it, even when he shoots three defenceless doctors. What really bugs me, though, is that Ellie will never know what happened. No one asked her what she wanted to do - Joel and the Fireflies made all the decisions. Would she have chosen to sacrifice herself? How would she feel if she knew what Joel did to get her out of the hospital? The lack of easy answers or closure creates an uncomfortable but powerful conclusion, and Ellie's trust makes Joel's actions feel even heavier - though the ending does break down a bit if you make it through without caring very much for Ellie.

Left Behind DLC is quite good. It expands on the story (and backstory) without making the original game feel like something was cut. There's even less combat than there was in the main campaign but exploring the mall with Riley is still captivating. In the "present" part there's also a new kind of encounter that wasn't in the main story but I didn't even realize was missing - infected and bandits at the same time. You can make them fight each other and mop up the leftovers.

Recommendation: play it.

The Last Of Us incorporates some appreciated variants to some common gameplay elements, and it's easily one of the best looking games on the PS3. But the story and characters are the game's real strength, and they're downright excellent. The slow pace, subdued music, and mostly abandoned but beautiful world set up some very weighty character moments and plot points, and really make you feel for Joel and Ellie as the tension ramps up. The Last Of Us is a dark, complex, and emotional story that I strongly recommend.
Unfortunately my PS3's disc drive died just as I was nearing the end of Left Behind so I didn't get to see the conclusion, but it was enough to recommend the DLC.

No comments:

Post a Comment