November 07, 2013

That's A Wrap: The Last of Us

warning: may contain spoilers

I've detailed this story several times already but for completion's sake, I'll tell it again. In case it's not already clear, I seldom get around to playing games at or shortly after release. They often come out too quick, cost too much and my backlog is already so overwhelming that new releases usually just get added to the bottom of a very long list, and as such, I'm always late to the party. October of 2013 was a month in which I broke this "rule" of mine several times, beginning with The Last of Us.

Having seen the promos like I everyone else, I vowed to pick this game up some day, but with no haste. I had intended to have a small get together with friends and play some older games, as many of my game-playing friends don't often check out the older stuff. My friend Simon had flown in from overseas to visit so it seemed a perfect time to get everyone together. Simon is not someone who participates in gaming heavily, but every now and then something catches his eye and he feels obligated to annoy the hell out of us about it. In this instance, he brought a copy of TLoU and ordered us to "play the first 10 minutes, and get a feel for the game". All but one of us, apart from Simon, had not yet played the game, so I stepped up to bat and volunteered to give it a whirl...

...6 hours later I was in the middle of Pittsburgh hunting for ammo. If I had to sum up my first impression of TLoU in one phrase: blown the fuck away. I immediately fell in love, and as Simon took his with him when he left, I ran out the next day to fetch a copy of my own.
I guess it's worth noting that this doesn't happen to me very often, that I'm so engrossed in a game that I don't even notice the time, my phone going off, or the various people passing out on my floor at 5 or 6 in the morning. What's more is that in spite of having my own shiny new copy, I decided to put off the game until I'd finished my current endeavor. That didn't last long. The game nagged at me until I finally gave in and played it through to the end. And it's still nagging me! I still haven't stopped thinking about this game. It's been a very long time since I've been this impressed by a game, and an action game no less! I'm usually most drawn to RPGs, but here I am, raving about The Last of Us.

Do you ever read the first chapter of a book in a library or store before deciding whether to buy it? Or watch the first few minutes of a movie then decide whether to sit through it? Naughty Dog gets massive, massive points in my books for acing the one thing so many entertainment mediums fail miserably at: hook them immediately. TLoU has one of the most engaging intros I've ever seen in my life. Unless you're some kind of sociopath, you will fall in love with these characters immediately. You will NEED to know what's going on. Your pulse will likely rise. I'm so impressed by the story in this game that I've considered showing the cinematics to my family, who not only give no rat's ass whatsoever about video games, but aren't necessarily stimulated by VG graphics or even survival stories. I wouldn't have bet that, yet another "zombie" horror/survival story would be this addicting but the events in this game had me stunned. The writing is delicious.
That said, I was slightly disappointed by the ending. In a game with such emphasis on plot, I felt the ending was unsatisfying and empty. There are so many things they could have done to blow you away, go out with the same bang they came in with, but they took a pretty safe route. I'd argue that they did set it up nicely for a sequel. It'll be interesting to see if that ever happens.

The downfall to having the best intro ever is that that kind of momentum is difficult to keep up throughout a 15+ hour game. There are plenty of events scattered throughout the game to surprise you, but these events are separated by long periods of exploring and combat - a dangerous gameplay model as this is the easiest way to disinterest people in continuing. As a native RPGer, I'm not too picky about my action games and was more than willing to stick it out, but what I gather from the people who didn't like this game, this was its downfall. And I tend to agree, there were, at times, what felt like endless levels and too much combat and in a game whose story is its leading quality, these things can get old real fast. There were definitely times when I was raging over the combat scenarios, but more on that later.

The design of the game is quite stunning. The graphics are gorgeous and some of the most realistic images I've seen to date. There were a few programming glitches, but nothing to write home about. The only graphic idiosyncrasy that got to me was the lighting pass. It seemed whenever the characters were in daylight they were often glowing. Unless Naughty Dog is being paid to promote grey hair positivity, this was sadly overlooked. The character design is gorgeous and the level design is realistic and very detailed.
Audio in TLoU is pretty minimal. I noticed nearly no music throughout the actual game although the music incorporated into the menus and such is very unique and fitting. Basically if you hear music in-game, you know shit's about to go down - an audio trait the game borrows from its developer brother, Uncharted. The rest of the sound in the game is probably the only thing that earns "horror" points for TLoU. Abrupt sounds would add suspense and have you worrying about supplies for combat. Or Ellie would start whistling and scare the crap out of you. Whichever. As the game was meant to be as realistic as possible, there weren't a ton of other special effects, apart from perhaps Joel's synesthetic ability to see what he hears, which was all well-and-good so long as you're not in snow. Just another reason to hate snow.
Second to story, I'd argue that character development is the strongest feature in TLoU. You immediately meet Joel and his daughter - who appear to have a very modern relationship, and eventually Joel's brother Tommy. You fall in love with them all and then the outbreak begins and the game immediately starts messing with your attachments. Every character in TLoU is very strongly developed. You even grow attached to the bad guys. You want to know what happens to these people. Additionally, the dialogue and acting is marvelous.
Joel is a fantastic protagonist. Once introduced, he's more or less exactly what you expect but every now and then he surprises you. Tess is one of your early comrades, she's a great example of strong women in games. Eventually, you get temporary, non-playable partners like Bill or Sam and Henry, and while they're pretty weak by comparison, the extra guns (and unlimited ammo) are never unappreciated. And then of course there's Ellie. Surprise surprise, Ellie is probably my least favorite character in the game (it's always the kid!). She's by no means a terrible character, but I felt that her writers often went a little too far trying to make her seem like an average teenager, and she came off pretty abrasive at times. She's super helpful once you give her a rifle but she got me killed a half-dozen times after that and I kind of wished we hadn't given her a gun at all. I also ran into one glitch in which she disappeared, which wasn't much fun, since I lost all my progress in the reset.
You don't have to worry too much about your allies in combat situations; they run around carelessly but none of the baddies seem to notice them unless Joel's cover has been blown, in which case you need to keep an eye on everybody because they can "die".

Combat is by far the worst element in this game, and unfortunately, there is quite a lot of it. I suppose if you're a fan of shooters, this is another day at the office for you but for me, I find excessive combat delays the story too much and just plain annoys me. This is amplified in TLoU because the story is what motivates you to keep going. You'll wander into an ambush and often spend a while - and sometimes many deaths - trying to figure out how to navigate it.
In combat you're usually presented two options: 1- shoot 'em up, or 2- stealth. It's convenient that in a post-apocalyptic world, there is always something to hide behind. It's inconvenient that it seldom actually hides you. I'd say about 80% of the time I attempted stealth, it would end in a shoot out. You're usually overwhelmed by enemies, and more than half of the times I tried to sneak up and choke or shiv them out, the controls would fail me, I'd be spotted and voila! Cover blown. As soon as someone fires a gun you get ambushed. Oddly, I had no trouble with Clickers after I got the hang of combat. As far as I'm concerned, Clickers are the easiest enemies in the game, but it seems many people disagree with me.
On the plus side, I liked the variation in enemies. You're forced to fight humans as well as various forms of infected, all which need to be handled differently. I enjoyed the strategy aspect here. This is by no means a mindless game that you can just buzz through at 4 a.m., you have to stop and assess the situation, watch for patterns and devise a plan. Although sometimes you just have to run like hell.

The rest of your time is spent wandering through the levels, foraging for items and exploring. This was actually my favorite part of the game. I enjoyed discovering little nooks with items, reading the artifacts and checking out the detail in the levels. Some games go a little too far with the details but in TLoU it felt just right. The puzzles in this game are pretty simple; there isn't a lot of challenge in finding out how to escape to the next area and I believe you can turn hints on in your menu if you're really hurting. It's more linear than it looks and it's usually just a matter of finding a ladder or something to climb on. I wouldn't have minded if it were a little trickier to get around. I'm not certain yet if this gets any tougher on higher difficulties but I doubt it.

Beyond that and advancing the story there isn't much else to do. There are a few sidequest-like things to hunt down, like training manuals which improve your abilities, but the rest of the things you're meant to find don't really offer you anything in-game. Just something to do while exploring. You can prompt optional conversations from your teammates if you engage them at the proper time, and if you find enough collectibles you are rewarded with a currency with which you can purchase game bonuses, like additional outfits or concept art packages.

I liked the mechanics regarding weapons and upgrades. There is an array of different guns you can find and you get to keep each, and simply have to equip the one you want for any specific scenario. You can then upgrade your holsters as well so you can have more than one weapon ready to equip. You then find parts throughout the game and upgrade your guns so they perform better in combat, and you can also find materials to build combat aids like molotov cocktails and smoke bombs, as well as health kits.
Additionally, you can upgrade Joel himself, and increase his health meter, for example, or how far he can hear. I dislike that some of your tools fall apart after use, but that's just ordinary game difficulty and probably more realistic.

Controller mapping in TLoU is questionable. I'm not sure what's up with the dual input buttons (Triangle and X) or why aim and fire are L1 and R1… I guess Naughty Dog wanted the game to feel familiar to Uncharted fans. You access your weapons with the D-pad but then have to hold down X to see them all, that got annoying pretty fast. Swimming in this game was an absolute nightmare. It usually took me 3 or 4 attempts to sort out the swimming areas, not because the puzzles were challenging, but due to how difficult it is to control Joel while underwater.
I can't help but feel like the controls could have been a little simpler and would have helped make the gameplay a little sleeker.
The menu approach was a neat concept. To access your in-game menu you essentially have to stop and open your backpack- weapons, artifacts, materials... it's all in there.

I suppose I clocked about 20 hours in The Last of Us. A lot of this was exploring or repeat combat scenarios. I'm pretty sure a more experienced action player could shorten that time a bit. I played it originally on normal mode, but after I restarted my own game file I switched to easy in the hope that it would help me get back to Pittsburgh a little quicker so I could move on in the story. I honestly didn't notice much difference between the two modes, although I hear survivor mode is much more challenging. I found the game to be of average challenge, keeping in mind that I am not, like I said, an action game enthusiast so much as an RPGer, something I plan to work on in the coming months. A couple of the battles were tough but overall the game is very manageable on easy and normal modes.

The Last of Us is probably the best game I've played for the PS3 and one of the most engaging games I've ever played. It is a game I will definitely, definitely replay sooner than later and insist all my friends play as well. If you're a fan of action games, I would recommend this game to you. I advise that you do not expect a horror game, per se, but a great third-person action/shooter with exceptional writing but slightly unpolished gameplay.

LOTIPS
  • Go light on the left stick in combat. Some of your enemies hunt you with their ears, so moving slowly and precisely will save you a lot of trouble.
  • Search EVERYWHERE. You will find a lot of items that can help you out, some of which are kind of rare. Sometimes you'll find scraps of paper with combinations to nearby safes which often contain upgrade parts and supplements.
  • Speaking of supplements, these are sometimes presented to you as what appears to be some kind of potted plant. They look like purple baby's breath or something. (Yeah right, Lo. Like anyone knows what the hell 'baby's breath' is...) These usually amount to 10 "pills" so they're worth looking out for.
  • Always have plenty of shivs. Not only useful for stabbing Clickers, but they can also open locked doors for you.
  • Nail bombs are your friend.




SIDE QUEST
Left Behind
'Left Behind' is an optional, single-player downloadable content quest directly related to the Last of Us. The addition takes place during a time in the main story where Ellie is largely by herself. Half of the events take place during this period and half are flashbacks which provide a great deal of background story on Ellie's activities before the events in the game.
In Left Behind, we meet Ellie's friend Riley, who has apparently been gone for over a month. She disappeared after the two had a falling out, and just returned to try and repair their friendship. They travel to the mall, and participate in a number of shenanigans, including the famous photo booth session, a water gun fight, an epic joke telling recital, and a makeshift arcade game. These events draw the gameplay away from constant suspense and combat, and showcase the quality of the game in other aspects. This is easily the most impressive and enjoyable part of this DLC.
The rest of the content takes place in "real time" and demonstrates how Ellie managed on her own without Joel to look after her. These events fit seamlessly with the main game, and the quality does not drop a single percent. It's as flawlessly constructed as the main title. That said, Ellie is far less experienced than Joel, so playing as her comes with a few challenges, and you have to start from scratch in terms of items and upgrades. You will definitely miss Joel. It doesn't help that I waited so long to play this, that I was a little out of practice. Regardless, I felt the major encounter in the DLC seemed rather unfair. I actually had to switch it to easy mode after about 8 failed attempts. Dudes just kept coming out of the woodwork and there seemed no reasonable way to do away with them. Even on easy, it took me a few tries, and I feel like I still only got by on dumb luck. Did I mention I actually like clickers? The baddies in Left Behind seem to have a higher intuition. They know who they're searching for, and actively hunt you, even if they don't know you're nearby. You can also set them off against other enemies (i.e. humans versus clickers), which was cool to experience!

All said and done, I got 2 and half hours out of Left Behind. It could certainly be done faster, but why would you want to? I love spending time just looking around and appreciating the game design, made even more fun by the fact that you get to see new areas and characters. Except the clickers. Pretty sure the same clicker was used for the entire DLC. There are a few sequences which will quickly take you back to the main game and make you want to play it all over again.
I will praise Left Behind for its variety, it's certainly not 2 hours of the same thing over and over.

Left Behind was recently made available separate of TLOU; you can now buy it on PSN and play it alone. You could use this as a sort of demo, if you're still undecided on TLOU, but it's much, much, much more fulfilling if you play the game first or at least understand the story in great detail. If you enjoyed TLOU, this is a safe buy, but it's certainly not a necessity. I enjoyed it, and would recommend it to anyone as astounded by the game as I was.

Left Behind is available on PS3 and PS4 for $14.99 on PSN. You do not need to own The Last of Us to play it.

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