Thursday, August 15, 2013

Review: The Last of Us (2013)

The Last of Us (2013)

Available exclusively for PlayStation 3
Price: $60

A couple of years ago, a game called Dead Island went from nowhere to the top of every gamer's watch list on the basis of an absolutely unbelievable trailer that left people's jaws on the floor. Everybody, even those in the mainstream non-gaming press who hadn't touched a video game since that one time they played Dance Dance Revolution in the arcade, was talking about this little zombie game that, before, had been seen as vaporware for which no new details had been released in years. Go watch that trailer for yourself, then wipe the tears from your face and shirt and get back to me.

Face dried off now? Good. To this day, I still consider Dead Island's first trailer a masterpiece of a short film. Unfortunately, it turned out that this trailer was a fairly poor representation of what the actual game was about. The only things that it accurately portrayed were the zombies, the brutal violence, and the tropical resort setting, with none of its characters actually showing up (outside a fun cameo at the beginning). The game itself was an open-world zombie action title with a heavy focus on online cooperative play, four relatively nondescript main characters with little personality outside of their initial biographies (there's the jock, the Asian woman, the rapper, and the female ex-cop), and a plot that was largely an excuse to move the player to new locations. Now, it was a fun (if glitchy) game, especially if you're into painting sandy white beaches red with zombie guts, but it was a far, far cry from what had been promised by the trailer, especially given the relative lack of a real storyline beyond "escape from the island."

Well, it appears that somebody at Naughty Dog Studios (makers of the Crash Bandicoot, Jak & Daxter, and Uncharted games) was also let down by the final product of Dead Island, going by the fact that their latest game, The Last of Us, is just about everything that Dead Island promised in that trailer but didn't deliver. It tells a gripping tale of post-apocalyptic survival with characters you grow to, if not love (because some of you will doubtlessly be pissed off by some of their decisions), then at least understand. It is a showcase of stunning environments rendered with some of the best graphics that the PlayStation 3 has seen yet, a number of scenes moving me with just their beauty. However, none of that would've mattered had the core gameplay not been up to snuff, and fortunately, The Last of Us delivers on that front with arguably more magnificence than with its story. It serves up a masterful example of the survival horror genre without falling into the trap of overwhelming the player with action and gunfights like so many other purported "horror" games (*cough*Resident Evil 6*cough*) tend to do, and without resorting to clunky combat and assorted cheap tricks to generate tension. With the next generation of video game consoles, the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One, coming out this fall, the PlayStation 3 could not have had a better swan song than The Last of Us.

The story begins in the very near future (roughly a month from now, in fact), when a member of the Cordyceps genus of fungi jumps to human beings. For those who don't know what Cordyceps is, this video narrated by the immortal Sir David Attenborough should provide a handy explanation. Anyway, this strain of Cordyceps pretty much turns people into zombies; The Last of Us follows the tradition of many classic zombie games and movies in never using the Z-word, but that's what they are, and within months a zombie apocalypse has brought humanity to its knees. After experiencing our protagonist Joel's struggle to survive an initial outbreak in Austin, Texas and protect his daughter Sarah (spoiler: he only accomplishes one of those things), we fast-forward twenty years, where humanity has retreated to walled-off, fortified safe zones under military rule, while a resistance group called the Fireflies seeks to restore America's pre-apocalypse civilian democracy and find a cure for the zombie plague. Joel now works as a smuggler in Boston bringing food, medicine, and other supplies into and out of the safe zone, together with his platonic partner Tess, the two of them battling zombies and bandits alike. One day, the Fireflies offer them a new job: to bring a girl named Ellie to their contact out west. Ellie is somehow immune to the zombie plague, and represents the best shot at a cure and a future that the world has.

What follows is a journey across a landscape of cities, suburbs, country roads, college campuses, resort towns, and more, all of it slowly being reclaimed by the wilderness. The story told here is easily the number one reason to play it, told with masterful voice acting led by Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson as Joel and Ellie. Even outside of cutscenes (which are thankfully short for the most part), we get casual dialogue that helps to connect our two heroes while developing both of them as characters and people. From Ellie's corny-ass jokes to Joel's grief over his lost Sarah, the game carefully builds an adoptive father/daughter relationship between the two that isn't always smooth (what teenage girl hasn't occasionally been angry at Dad?), but always feels real. This relationship forms the core of the game, and a great many critical story beats only make sense in light of the bond between Joel and Ellie. This is especially true of the climax and ending, where Joel makes a decision that, going by the response to it on message boards and gaming websites, has divided those who played the game. My answer (spoilers hopefully kept to a minimum) to those who think that Joel crossed the line with what he did is to ask this question: if it were your daughter or son in Ellie's position, and you yourself had lost a child once, what would you have done?

This game frequently goes out of its way to challenge the morality of those playing it, particularly when it comes to violent gaming tropes and conventions that are so often taken for granted. To give one example, about halfway through the game you are introduced to a pack of bandits who, naturally, try to rob you. Your escape from them involves leaving a lot of dead bodies in your wake. Well, a bit later, you find out that their group includes a lot of innocent people who did nothing wrong except put their trust in a leader who, though thuggish, has kept them safe, and they want revenge for their lost loved ones. To them, you are a monster so much more threatening than the zombies that they go out of their way to take you out. Then, of course, there's the aforementioned ending. I made my thoughts clear in the above paragraph, but that's not to say that the other side didn't have a very, very good reason to do what they did as well. Moments like this come throughout the game, making this a far cry from the lively, light-hearted adventure games that Naughty Dog had made before. Rest assured, you will probably be a bit depressed if you play this game for long enough.

This game's artistry extends into the graphics and visuals. The Last of Us wisely avoids the cliche of rendering its post-apocalyptic environment with gun-metal grays and rust browns like so many other games have, instead filling the wilderness with lots and lots of... green and blue. This isn't new for Naughty Dog; their Uncharted games were famous for their rejection of such a muted color palette in favor of vibrant colors, to the point of mocking the former with an unlockable "next-gen" graphic filter as a way of showing just how ugly that style looked. The Last of Us takes Uncharted's visual flair and applies it to familiar American backdrops rather than exotic foreign locales, and when seen in action, it becomes abundantly clear that Naughty Dog is still on top of its game. High polygon counts and great lighting effects mean little if the world they're being used to render is drab and boring to look at, but The Last of Us makes its world not only look real, but -- perhaps strangely for a post-apocalyptic game -- inviting and full of life.

Perhaps the single most amazing visual moment for me was the sight of a herd of giraffes going through a ruined city. They're not zombie giraffes, they're just normal giraffes who ran off from the zoo, and I wanted to stay there and watch them. It was in this and other, smaller moments, like a squirrel running up a tree, that brought me a strange optimism for this game's world. Even if humanity is dying, everything else will live on. It was like The World Without Us brought to stunning life, and it was perhaps because of this that I was better able to accept what Joel did in the climax -- a clear case of amazing visuals serving to enhance other elements of the game.

Lastly, there is the foundation of every game, and that is how much fun it is to actually play. While I still say that the story and characters are what truly make this game, it still would've made for a phenomenal experience on the strength of the gameplay alone. This is among the best survival horror games ever made, and certainly the best one I've played. A heavy premium is placed on the "survival" side of the equation, with Joel having to scavenge through every nook and cranny to find melee weapons, ammunition, parts to upgrade his weapons, pills to improve his skills, and assorted pieces of scrap that can be used to make various items (shivs, first aid kits, firebombs, and smoke bombs among them). Ammunition is always in short supply; only near the very end of the game will you find yourself with enough ammo for your assorted guns to take out everything in front of you, and even then, they could just as easily kill you. You likely won't be in perfect condition most of the time, with health items hard to come by and health regeneration taking a very long time to kick in, if at all. (I played this game on hard difficulty, where it is turned off altogether; I'd have to play a chapter on an easier setting to see what it's like there.) You will never find nearly enough parts or pills to fully upgrade all of Joel's weapons and skills, which means that you will have to choose between, say, upgrading your rifle's scope or your pistol's ammo capacity, or between extending your life bar and reducing weapon sway. (Though after you beat it, you can play through a "new game plus" where all of your upgrades from your last playthrough carry over.)

And then there is the "horror" part of it. I haven't been talking about the zombies much in this review, but those guys can be damn frightening here, and not just because they're zombies. Stealth is the name of the game, with your only saving grace often being the fact that Joel can stop and listen for where the enemies' footsteps and movements are coming from. One false move, and you could find a horde of zombies eager to take a bite out of you, a good number of which have one-hit kill attacks. (Ever notice that, in many zombie games, you can get bit and never have to worry about getting infected and turning into one yourself? Ehhh, doesn't work like that here. One bite, and cut to black and restart at the last checkpoint.) Bricks and bottles, thrown to distract or stun enemies, will be among your most valuable assets. It's the same deal when you're fighting human enemies, who react to your actions with an intelligence that goes far beyond just noticing you in their sight or hearing your footsteps. If they find one of their dead comrades, they will alert their buddies. If they hear gunshots, they will duck for cover, and if they hear your gun go click after it runs out of ammo, they will be bolder and go on the attack. They do seem to have a blind spot when it comes to Ellie, but to be honest, this was a fair compromise; if they went after her the same way they attack Joel, the resulting escort mission would have been an epic pain in the ass. Between your foes' intelligence and your own vulnerability, staying out of sight and out of mind is always preferable to going in guns-blazing.

It helps that the silky-smooth controls on display here make it easy to do just that, never getting in the way. It's a traditional twin-stick, third-person shooter setup along the lines of Uncharted, albeit with some added features for the game's more stealth-oriented gameplay, which is certainly preferable to the rigid controls of something like old-school Resident Evil or the latest Silent Hill game. This is how survival horror is done. My only qualm with the gameplay is with the melee weapons, particularly its use of weapons that break after just a few blows. Given that Joel is an experienced survivalist, I'd expect him to trust his life to something a bit tougher than whatever old, rotting 2x4 he finds... like, say, the kukri machete that Bill, one of the minor characters you encounter, uses to hack through zombies. Having a permanent melee weapon also would've given players another weapon to upgrade, stretching the supply of parts even thinner. Still, it's no biggie.

Perhaps the only truly disappointing part of the game is the online multiplayer mode, known here as Factions mode. It starts with a solid setup, which is that you are in charge of a camp of survivors that's affiliated with either the Fireflies or a bandit gang. During online battles, you must also collect supplies to bring back to camp and keep your survivor group healthy, well-fed, and growing. Killing enemies earns supplies, as does scavenging them from the environment. While interesting, it barely changes the fact that the two game modes on offer, Supply Run and Survivors, are both pretty much variants of four-on-four team deathmatch, the former being the standard article and the latter being a "last man standing" mode with no respawns. It's fun for a while, but it feels tacked-on, hardly comparing to the greats like Halo, Battlefield, and Call of Duty, especially with only two gameplay options and almost no character customization outside of weapon and perk loadouts -- things that have been standard practice in online multiplayer for years by now.

Score: 5 out of 5

At the end of the day, though, the forgettable multiplayer has no bearing on what remains one of the greatest single-player experiences of this console generation. If you own a PlayStation 3, then you probably already have this game, so why the hell are you reading this review to confirm what you already know? If you don't own a PS3, well, they're gonna be dirt-cheap once the next generation of consoles is released, so you might want to think about picking one up -- with this game in tow, of course -- on Black Friday.

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