Bottom line: Naughty Dog proves that, much like its protagonists, it knows how convert even the most disgusting scraps of trash into highly effective weaponry.
Those who’ve read my lengthy rant on The Last of Us know what I was expecting from Naughty Dog’s post-apocalyptic PS3 exclusive, and I’m happy to report that my apprehensions were validated for the most part, while also being irrelevant on some level, with a few surprises now and then.
I’ll deal with irrelevance upfront. This game is long, beautiful, and challenging. It creates a sense of stillness and immersion that is rare in games, and yet is very good at keeping you moving forward. The visual variety alone is enough to make you feel like you’ve gone on a worthwhile journey by the end, and it’s a smooth experience overall. Since dying doesn’t matter, you can play it casually and not worry about being punished for your poor skills, or the occasional difficulty spike. When you pick up a controller and simply want to kick some zombie ass, these are the kind of things that matter. But this review is interested in more than that.
Story and Gameplay
The first validation is what I said about the much-anticipated story: it’s bland, toothless, manipulative, and pretentious all in one.
It’s got a laundry list of politically correct checkboxes in lieu of actual characters, a total lack of social commentary, and relentless exploitation of Young Hardcore Gamer Fathers’ emotional soft spots. If you think The Last of Us is going to include “statements” about life or society because it’s a dystopian vision of civilization being destroyed, you’re wrong. Most dystopian fiction is filled with jabs at the economic unfairness, polarizing ideologies, fear mongering, cultural schisms, government corruption, etc. That’s nowhere to be seen here, which might be nice if you hate “preachy” science fiction or heavy-handed social themes. In fact, each group you encounter is a rainbow of ethnic diversity, united by nothing more than mundane pragmatism. That’s kind of nice. No more racism, religious intolerance, or class struggle, just arbitrary groups of survivors who do what they gotta do, day after day. (Well, actually, everybody you meet speaks English, so I don’t know what happened to all the immigrants. They probably got killed.) Ah well, this isn’t the kind of world you’re supposed to care about anyway, despite how gosh darn pretty it looks.
If you do feel tempted to explore the world and try to learn things, you won’t find anything. You’re not allowed to do anything besides the mission, because Joel only cares about transporting Ellie, who is somehow immune to the (apolitical and politically safe) spores that randomly wiped out civilization. Any RPG elements such as interacting with other people and revisiting locations aren’t part of the equation.
Which brings us to the second validation: the linearity of the game. You have choices on how to solve problem directly in front of you, but no choice about what problems you want to solve, or when. This isn’t a game about making tough decisions, it’s a game about watching who-cares characters get themselves into stupid situations in cutscenes so that you can figure out a way to fix the problem when they finally hand things back to you. The important decisions — where to go and what to do — are either obvious choke points that you’re drawn toward, or group decisions that don’t include your vote. This is what I predicted. If you played as Joel alone, you’d want to think for yourself and figure out the puzzle using the gameplay systems at your disposal, but now you just look around until there’s a Triangle button prompt and go find the ladder, because the people you’re escorting aren’t interested in your unique ideas for how to crawl, shimmy, or propel each other from one place to the next. I guess I could rant about the laziness of the buddy system in linear games again, but let’s move on.
If you get bored of the task at hand, you’re free to look around the immediate surroundings or do some rudimentary crafting, but that’s all. You can’t even backtrack because each new area begins by cutting off the previous one permanently. I crawled through a path under some rubble once, and when I turned around the path was gone. There wasn’t even a cutscene to indicate that the rubble had collapsed or anything. Several times I was required to hoist up an absurdly heavy loading dock door to let my friends slip underneath, while the zombie horde was quickly closing in on our location; this explained why we couldn’t just open the door again and leave if we wanted to. It’s all cheap “Hurry up, they’re gonna get you!” antics to distract you from the limitations you’re faced with. Then when you enter the new area, your buddies will start yapping about stuff again and discussing the next move, so you won’t even notice that you’re under constant restrictions. In this interview the developers joke about how much they struggled to block off areas, saying it was one of the biggest challenges they faced. This is evident.
Not many people hoped for a “camp” or “headquarters” to plan things from, but considering how vast and interesting the world seemed, there was a notion you might have to make strategic decisions a la The Walking Dead series. I was at least expecting some optional side quests; but no. It’s just one challenge after another, after another, until you’re finished. You don’t drink water, eat food, or recruit new party members with their own talents and quirks.
The challenges themselves are repetitive and linear in their own ways. Enemies are all pretty much the same, with varying levels of intelligence and awareness to worry about. It’s still intense, and the game does properly encourage you to be smart, however. It can feel like an eternity before the game gives you new toys to play with and lets go of your hand, but whenever it does, it’s pretty great. I loved throwing a smoke bomb as enemies approached, only to waltz up to them and blow them away with a sawed-off shotgun, before switching to my bow and arrow and nailing somebody peeking through the window. I loved throwing proximity bombs around the entrance of the room so that I could smash a fool’s head in with a baseball bat in peace. I loved strangling zombies and setting them ablaze with Molotov cocktails, just like I do in pretty much every other action game by now. As long as you can manoeuvre around Ellie as she tries to get in your way and turn a blind eye to the jarring revelation that she’s invisible to enemies, this is a good murder simulator. I wish the whole game was a murder simulator, really.
The first time I played through the game I was obsessed with doing things in the most cautious and paranoid manner possible, because I hoped it would pay off somewhere down the road. I guess the general feeling of paranoia reminded me of Dark Souls, and part of me thought of how cool it would be if the game forced you to always stay on your toes. Therefore I was constantly using the “listen” ability, which I upgraded with magical narcotics I found scattered around, and never trusted the peaceful surroundings as my companions strolled along and talked like everything was safe. It never paid off, because this game is the polar opposite of Dark Souls, of course. So the next time I played (using the “plus” mode, where your upgrades carry over from the previous playthrough every time to pick up a weapon) I just stopped caring and ran through areas with a bloodthirst. It made me realize how little replay value there is in The Last of Us. The suspense is nonexistent the second time, the enemy locations are predictable, and the routes you need to take are memorized, leaving little to challenge you. Add the fact that I tried to be super conservative with my ammunition and supplies the first time – and subsequently died constantly, with zero consequence — and the only “new” way to play was sloppy and wasteful, which had its own charm. It led to situations where I ran out of supplies and needed to get creative again. Yet in those happy times, where I felt the desperation for ammo and supplies, I quickly started to hate the design of the game again, because enemies practically never drop ammo. This has been a popular criticism, and rightfully so. They can shoot at you infinitely until they die, and there’s not even a pretence for why you shouldn’t be able to steal a few rounds from their corpses, but that’s how it is. A super realistic game where you have to conserve everything, but you fight people who waste endless bullets and then don’t even drop them when you quietly stab them from behind. Doesn’t feel right.
The best part of the game by far is the ability to play as Ellie and Joel separately, I’d say. The “Winter” chapter of the game won me over, and this was a pleasant surprise. This is partly because I’m a huge sucker for beautiful winter environments, but also because I finally felt like I was independent, and unburdened by the buddy system. Nobody telling me what to do, and nobody to drag along wherever I go: just pure instinctive stealth action. Why couldn’t there be more like this?
Loading, and then again
A big issue was the loading screen. When you’re playing the disc version of the game, it takes forever to load the game, and sometimes it just gets stuck at 99%. More than once, the game almost reached 100%, but then inexplicably reset to 0% and started over! What the hell, Naughty Dog? That’s some amateur stuff.
At first I forgave this because I told myself that the game was truly pushing the boundaries of the platform and the PS3 could barely handle all the stuff going on, but I’ve been playing Grand Theft Auto V, which is more advanced and almost as pretty, and I realized there’s no good reason for it.
Factions is the highly unfortunate name given to the multiplayer mode in The Last of Us, which has you pick a side – Fireflies or Hunters – and lead a small group of survivors on various raiding runs. The actual matches are pretty typical skirmishes where you collect stuff and kill people, but like Call of Duty, everybody has their own progression bar to worry about, so you can feel like you’re winning, even if you never win. The more successful you are, the more people you recruit, which means the more mouths you have to feed if you want to sustain your group. This is represented by a funny little screen where dots wander around a big circle. You can unlock perks, fashion bonuses to your gear, and generally ruin the game balance by playing more than others. It’s where all your replay value is hidden, and I can see a big appeal here.
I didn’t play multiplayer a lot though, because trying to steer the camera around with a dual analog controller is infuriating when you’ve grown up playing shooters the correct way – with a mouse — and I’m far too competitive to enjoy something when I don’t have a chance of winning. It made me wish Factions was available on the PC, but then I remembered Day Z and Left 4 Dead, and realized the PC is chocked full of superior multiplayer shooters anyway. So, if you love 3rd person console shooters and own a PS3, this could be a good game to keep you occupied, assuming enough dumbasses realize that “Factions” is actually a multiplayer mode on the main menu, since it’s not labelled properly.