Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Last of Us

As a developer, Naughty Dog has had a very good track record, having created the Jak and Daxter and Uncharted franchises, which were both highlights of the PS2 and PS3 respectively. Since I'm a fan of those two franchises, I got excited when I heard they were going to make a new IP, The Last of Us, which I thought was a good idea since Uncharted was starting to get a little stale near the end. While I'll likely look at previews or other information about a game I want to play as it's revealed, I made a conscious decision this time around to not look at anything related to the game in order to preserve the element of surprise. I still pre-ordered the Survival Edition of the game and everything, but I knew next to nothing about it aside from its basic premise and the identities of its main characters. The only thing I did beforehand was play the Early Access Demo from God of War: Ascension, but that only made me more curious about the world of the game, since I now had a loose idea of its mechanics. Come launch day, I sat down, examined the contents of the Survival Edition and then began to play whenever possible. About 15-and-a-half man hours later, I thought back on this breathtaking game and came to the conclusion that, although this is perhaps the height of what Naughty Dog can do, it does still have a couple of problems the developer seems to have repeated.

The Last of Us follows a man named Joel, who has made somewhat of a name for himself as a scavenger and smuggler in a Boston quarantine zone within the 20 years since a tragic accident as a mysterious infection broke out in Texas. In the present year of 2033, Joel and his partner Tess track down a man named Robert, who had sold off a cache meant for them. Before killing Robert, Joel hears that the cache went to a rebel group known as the Fireflies, which leads him and Tess to find the group's leader, Marlene. Marlene offers to give them their cache back in exchange for taking a girl named Ellie to a drop off point where more Fireflies are located; Joel begrudgingly agrees to these terms. On the way to the drop off, it is discovered that Ellie is immune to the deadly infection, which usually takes hold of the body within three days; her bite was three weeks old. This revelation causes them to try and hasten the deal, but this decision doesn't come without its consequences, and what was meant to be a simple trade becomes a tragic chain of cause and effect.

You may recognize this from the demo.

Where the story is concerned, Naughty Dog seems to have reached new heights, even surpassing the Uncharted series, as it deals with heavy subjects like murder, death, cannibalism and survivor's guilt. While Uncharted 3 was good, it did have some plot points that ended up going nowhere, thanks in part to the increased focus on action set pieces. In The Last of Us however, the focus is put squarely on the emotions of each individual character and how they cope with the world around them now that it has taken a turn for the worse. Within the first section of the game, there is a scene, which I cannot describe here without white text, that is so emotional and heartbreaking that I actually cried. At that point, I knew that I cared for the characters, especially as that heartbreak carried over to Joel's future and affected his budding relationship with Ellie, which is handled splendidly and rather realistically thanks to the game taking place across four seasons.

There are some interesting new ideas presented within the game, one being that we actually get to meet the leader of a group of cannibals and try to get a read on his intentions, since he actually comes off as a pretty nice guy that has had to resort to a certain practice for the sake of survival in a malevolent and forsaken world. It's this kind of understanding of a villain that I don't see very often, and I appreciate the fact that Naughty Dog actually went to those lengths to create interesting characters. Another thing I actually liked was how the morals and ambitions of the Fireflies are written in a way such that one's interpretation of the ending, which hints at the question of whether or not Joel made the right decision, can be determined based on if you feel that they or Joel were in the right all along. These sorts of nuances are something that I like in a game like this, since it gets us to think about what we would have done in a given situation and if we would have done anything different from the characters, on top of offering different ways to interpret the kind of people that they are.

Joel and Ellie are surprisingly complex characters.

Though I enjoyed the story, I must admit that I thought certain twists were telegraphed based on when they happened in the game, as well as (oddly enough) who appeared on the box art. There are certain story tropes that came to mind while playing, which is also partly how I figured that a certain group was going to eventually die (this is not to say that I didn't care for this particular group, it's just the telegraphing happened to involve them). In other words, I could guess the fate of some of the characters, which is something that I wasn't sure I liked. Certain expectations come to mind when we have a game of this order, like the fact that there will be death in order for the plot to move on and for the characters to grow as a result of this experience. However, while I still really enjoyed the story regardless, I almost didn't like the fact that I could guess with almost 100% accuracy who would die and when, as well as what plot development was going to come next based on what got focus. To put this in a way that is not as eloquent as I would like, I could say that the story is predictable since I've seen these plots before and know what to watch out for. What made me still shocked at some of the scenes despite this was how they would actually put a different spin on it, or in the case of the ending, the context of the information presented to us. This was appreciated, but I think the edge is still lost a little since I was still able to figure the fates of people I actually managed to get attached to.

Before I touch upon combat, I have to mention that crafting is a major gameplay mechanic, one which has everything to do with your survival. With the crafting mechanic, you use items found in the world to create useful items such as shivs and medkits and can even upgrade melee weapons to allow for increased durability and more one-hit kills. At crafting benches, you can put your skills to use upgrading your weapons to increase individual stats as well as craft additional holsters to increase how many guns you have quick access to, which normally require you to put down your backpack and manually change which gun is out. One thing to take into account with crafting is that it all takes place in real time, so if you need something urgently, finding a safe spot to do it is important; the same goes for healing, though the speed of both can be increased with personal upgrades made by applying supplements to certain skills. I grew to like the mechanic, since the realistic use of it caused me to think about how exactly to approach combat, mainly by taking advantage of lulls to craft the ever-important medkits (which, by the way, was what I think to be my most crafted items aside from shivs).

The crafting screen, where you'll realize you need more alcohol and rags.

Now, onto combat. Joel is able to use a variety of weapons, some of which need to be discovered in the environment (as is the case with the almighty flamethrower). Each one has their own strengths and weaknesses, which are handy to know when caught in the inevitable firefights. However, ammo is limited and should be conserved if possible. I was able to find plenty of ammo throughout the course of my playthrough to keep going, but this wasn't my go-to tactic for killing enemies. Sometimes I would melee them to death, and that was in fact the highest kill stat listed for my lifetime of playing. It's good to have fully working and reliable secondary options, which include stealth tactics and shiv kills along with the well-designed melee. Juggling weapons is also key when it comes to different enemy types, since certain weapons are either more effective or completely ineffective against different ones. I hope I'm not sounding generic when I say that, but the mix present actually does give you something to think about, especially given how the different versions of the Infected operate.

Just a sample.

The enemy variety in this game is actually pretty brilliantly done. There are four different types of Infected, with Runners and Stalkers acting in similar ways, which is when I savored the ability to melee kill them in groups when possible. This is because the other two types, Clickers and Bloaters, could be a real pain to deal with. For one thing, neither of them can be harmed with melee weapons, nor can they see you, but have their own twists to them. Clickers detect you by echolocation, so stealth is key when trying to outmaneuver or kill them, as is tricking their senses with bricks or bottles. Touching them is instant death, unless you're able to use a shiv defensively. Bloaters, on the other hand, are heavily armored and will charge at you when a commotion is made, though they will also throw spore bombs to lower your health from afar; while guns will work well against them, the phrase "kill it with fire" has never been more appropriate. The big challenge comes from trying to get around the levels despite these obstacles, especially when three or more different Infected are there at once, and figuring out effective ways to never trigger invincible killing machines from eating your jugular vein. I always felt satisfied when finding the solution, given the difficulty of later stages in pulling this off. Surprisingly, it is the human enemies that are more difficult to defeat, simply because they are actually smarter and use guns.

And that's another thing to consider, the AI. The AI in this game is actually pretty well made, with smart enemies and smart allies. Humans will react to how you approach your situation in diverse ways, for example fanning out when they find that you've left bodies behind from silent kills. They will know when to take cover or try to draw you out, or even try to get a silent hit on you. Ellie will also point out useful locations or items to you, which becomes useful when you're outgunned. I'm impressed by what Naughty Dog did and it makes the world more believable, though I would occasionally see enemies loop a certain script as if trying to decide on whether or not they should stay behind cover. The most baffling thing to me though was what would happen when dealing with Clickers. Since they operate on echolocation, not touching them or making noise is very important. However, I'd notice that when my allies blatantly brushed up against a Clicker, nothing at all would happen, and yet it wasn't okay when I touched one. This is probably an anti-frustration feature, one which I'm also grateful for so I don't pay for someone else's mistake, but that just brings up some questions about the Clickers that I would never have otherwise thought to ask regarding my enemies.

I really like the environments in The Last of Us. Every place that Joel and Ellie go during their cross-country journey has something about it that feels unique, something that makes it stand completely separate from other sections. There are no two environments that look the same, which says volumes about the care that Naughty Dog put into their design. Every section is very detailed and feels like a place one could actually explore in the right conditions and these environments bring about new challenges to overcome every single time. One problem though: just as I could predict to some degree of success what would happen in the plot, I was also able to predict what would happen in the environment based both on when it was in the chapter and the presence of bottles and bricks; seriously. Whenever I saw an area littered with bottles and bricks, which can be used as audio distractions or stunning tools, I thought to myself "There is going to be a fight here. If not now, then maybe after I reach a certain point in the level or trigger an event flag." I was able to break down a level with just this line of thought and deducing if there was some kind of event flag that still needed to spawn more enemies and was able to guess pretty well how the encounters would go.

Despite this predictability, I was still able to get into the swing of things, especially since I liked the choices open to me within each encounter. When I didn't have to fire my gun, I would try to figure out some way of sneaking past everyone and performing stealth kills, which is when I would put my skills from playing Metal Gear to good use. This level of choice is instrumental in ammo preservation and taking as little damage as possible, which is a detail I personally enjoyed taking advantage of.

Listen Mode, which makes 'Metal Gearing" more possible.

The graphics are very good, especially in cut scenes, and showcases the level of detail put into making everything appear real. Even the Infected have their infection bloom in ways that make them completely horrifying up close, but realistically placed. I couldn't help but feel that the graphics were similar to Uncharted 3, but that makes sense considering that it shares a developer and they managed to figure out a good engine to show off the console's technical capabilities well. I also praise the absolutely perfect musical score, which highlights the exact emotion and makes certain events all the more powerful. The voice acting is also very good, with Troy Baker and Nolan North giving powerful performances as Joel and David respectively. Ellie was also both voiced and motion captured by Ashley Johnson, which lends a greater amount of depth to her performance and creates a better emotional connection between her and Joel.

The Last of Us is, to put it bluntly, a PS3 game that shouldn't be missed. While there is some predictability in the plot and level design, the story is still emotionally powerful and the gameplay is the best that Naughty Dog has provided on the platform. Uncharted fans will also find something to like, since there is some degree of familiarity in it all. For everyone else, this is a great showcase of what Naughty Dog has learned over their lifetime and can be judged completely on its own merits. If you want to play what may become one of the best games of this year, you now have the chance.

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