Tuesday, 30 July 2013

The Last Of Us Review

Story has made a comeback in recent years. With games like Bioshock starting the trend this generation, more developers have tried to compete with movies and try to make a game with a few more brain-cells in their head than Transformers. A few games have succeeded (Spec Ops: The Line), and even more games have failed (Max Payne 3, The Witcher 2 and Heavy Rain). I'm not saying the aforementioned games aren't good, just that they don't live up to their ambitions. Max Payne 3 was hella fun to play, but it took itself to seriously and tried to hard to be a Mystic River type deal, despite being contrasted with jumpy-fun-shooty gameplay. So where does The Last Of Us stand? Sadly, in between.
The transformation of a character.

The problem with trying to have a good story in a shooter is that the story is supposed to inform gameplay, and the story of the typical modern-day shooter is 'Shoot a load of guys in a grey/brown industrial area and get a bad ending'. The thing about killing another human is that it's supposed to affect you in some way. You either go traumatized and deluded like Captain Walker, or power-crazy like Jason Brody. Other games like Bioshock and Half-Life handle this differently, like choosing your own level of immersion in Half-Life, where you as a player can morally decide yourself whether they're affected or crazy, or in Bioshock where you're just a clockwork orange and you have no emotion or choice.

Most shooters, The Last Of Us included, have a main character that can kill all in his path without feeling anything, without being affected at all. You would have thought that in a post-apocalyptic world where human life is few and far between, human life would have some value, but it doesn't, they can just kill whomever they please. Death is part and parcel in their daily life, and maybe that's why they're not affected, because they have become completely desensitized to it. Be that as it may, it doesn't make an interesting story at all. There's no character arc there. If they start out as a disheveled, traumatized killer and end as a disheveled, traumatized killer then bugger all has happened and the story is boring and pointless. Ellie is a really cool character, full with personality and charm, and in a world where everyone is bland and underdeveloped, Ellie seems like fruit in a laundry basket.

The back story is, you know the drill, a zombie apocalypse has wiped out 95% of humanity and the world is left in ruins and the remaining humans have to live under strict supervision in order to survive. But with Ellie, they find hope in a cure, or at least I think so, it becomes kind of hard to follow after a while and it certainly lacks decent direction. Most times, I don't know why I'm going there or why I should care. At first there's a capital building which turns out bogus, then Bob's place, then a bridge, and in the midst of play, caring about where your going isn't important. It's a case of shoot first and ask questions later. The story is actually really well told, with few cutscene's, it rely's on Half-Life's method of storytelling which is to use the world to tell a story. You don't need characters blabbling at your face for half an hour, telling you that the worlds gone all apocalypse-style like we're playing a JRPG. The run-down buildings, the make-shift houses, the way characters respond to your presence, it all adds up to a hugely satisfying world, a world that has been crushed and defeated, where people hold on to whatever shred of hope they have in sheer desperation. It's incredibly effective and well-done. While well-presented, it comes across as too safe and rather predictable, with no huge game-changing twists or moral dilemma's to make things more interesting.

The gameplay? Yeah, it's alright. It's kinda like Uncharted with it's optional but still broken stealth, cover-based shooting, and puzzle things. It even has that thing where if you don't activate the next set-piece, a clue will come up and just tell you what you need to do. The shooting is kinda clunky but you get used to it after a while. I don't like how you have limited ammo with limited clips but the zombies keep charging at you and whacking you. They often come in groups too, making gameplay all the more stressful, trying to handle health packs and reloading and Ellie all at once. I like the lack of objective markers but it often makes it difficult for you to know where you are. In a world where the whole world has been run down, all the environments are alike. You move from run-down town #1, to run-down building, to run-down town #2. If you're in a building and there's a place to be, you'll find yourself running in circles, seeing the same room 50 times, and since all rooms look the same, you'll technically be seeing the same room 2,500 times. However, I do appreciate how Naughty Dog managed to make fun gameplay which also stuck to the tenants of Survival Horror. Gameplay is panicky, resources are few, melee weapons degrade over time (and at least there's a hit meter so you know when your baseball bat's gonna call quits), it's claustrophobic, it encourages stealth so you're not forced to waste resources, and most importantly it's avoidable, especially when cauliflower monster is raging up behind you, all you want to do is swipe that keycard and get out of there before he turns you into cauliflower monster #2.

You can easily stealth past guards to the next room so you don't have to waste time and ammo, but the stealth is often frustrating due to spotty AI and the fact that often times, the ratio of Enemies to Cover is 3:1. You get behind cover to hide from Guard A dead ahead, but Guard B comes to your right, so you try to find further cover to hide from both guards, but Guard C comes to your left and no way will you be able to hide from all 3 of them unless you're hiding in a bloody box.

My main problem with the game is that there's no weight to any of the death and gore. Sure, we get it, everyone's become desensitized to death and blood and zombies because it's been part and parcel in daily life for 20 years and all that bollocks, but there's no transformation, it just skips straight ahead. Literally, it just skips that 20 years of character development and world degradation which would have made a far more interesting game, but instead we're stuck with a game that lacks gravity in it's death. In a survival game, the life of another human should mean something, and it does with Ellie, but Joel doesn't care at all. In Telltale's Walking Dead, the player is utterly shocked when a human takes another human life, and even if that human is unpleasant to us, we still risk our lives to save that human because he's a human being. The Walking Dead handled life and death far better than The Last Of Us did.

Also, the title makes no sense. The last of who exactly? There are loads of humans, enough to make districts and an armed force. If we are the last of the human race, which is what the title implies, surely human life would have value. If we are the last of our kind, why is Joel and Co. oh so happy to rid the world of humans like Skittles? Sure, there's an uprising group called Firefly, but what exactly are they uprising against? The US Military are only trying to stop people getting infected, and Firefly are just whining and pissing their pants, and for what? For the most part, we're killing survivors who we could easily befriend. The survivors even tell us this, that we gave them no choice. It's like a dead serious Spec Ops: The Line without any moral dilemma.

But of course, there's a further complaint: how are we supposed to relate to a character who kills all the time and shows no signs of being affected? More importantly, how can we sympathize with someone who tortures people? Joel, for the most part, is an unpleasant guy. He is completely neglectful to what Ellie wants, and when Ellie dares to try to lighten the mood, all Joel cares about is getting to the next ledge and killing the next cauliflower monster. Then all of a sudden when Ellie goes missing, Joel tortures people for information. What pisses me off is that there's no transformation for Joel, he just suddenly becomes attatched to her apropos of nothing. What pisses me off even further is that he stabs a guys knee off, snaps the dudes neck even when the poor dude gave Joel the information, then proceeds to bludgen a defenseless, subdued 'enemy' to death. And he gets away with it. There's no punishment, not even a moral conflict for Joel, he just carries on.

We can sympathize with the fact that his daughter was killed because of the outbreak, but that's it. That's seriously the only reason why we can sympathise with this tea-tray shallow vessel of a character. At the end, he pretty much kills everyone, yet he shows no remorse, there's no payback for Joel, no moral payback or anything. It's like Michael Haneke's Funny Games except we're supposed to be rooting for the bad guys.

We can see that Joel taking Ellie under her wing as a father figure shows that he's still desperate for a daughter in his life, that he still hasn't got over her death and is channeling his need through Ellie, which does make sense in the end. Thinking about it, why is Ellie even here? She's running round the battlefield, obviously in the enemies sight, but doesn't get spotted. She's neither a hindrance or a help. Sure, she's there for the story, but this is where the dots don't connect: the story and gameplay are almost completely disconnected.

The game is a pretty huge mixed bag, showing pure excellence in some areas and laziness and haphazardness in others. I think Naughty Dog, although great, aren't suited for the job of a game like The Last Of Us, mainly because they aren't all that great with characters and Uncharted was notable for having a 'shoot first, ask questions later' theme to it, which has been continued into The Last Of Us. Maybe this isn't the correct genre for a game like this, perhaps Point-and-Click Adventure would have been perfect. Although a man escorting a young girl through a zombie apocalypse to a safe haven is already a game, a much better game, and maybe that's why The Last Of Us fails: because it tries to be so many things at once. It's immersive, beautiful and fun, but it all fails to come together with all the character development and struggles and the theme of survival.

As a survival game, there's no tension to it. There's no over-hanging long term threat like Far Cry 3's Vaas or Half-Life 2's Dr. Breen. There's no chance of losing everything like XCOM. Most importantly, there's no value to human life like The Walking Dead. What The Last Of Us does well is the gameplay, which is possibly the best example of a survival horror shooter I've seen, far superior to Dead Space. All the realism is in it's gameplay and environments, sadly, there's no realism in it's themes, and in my opinion, that brings the whole game down.

It saddens me, more than anyone, that The Last Of Us didn't succeed for me, and I was bloody pumped for this, because Naughty Dog are excellent. It tried to do so many things at once. It tried to be a fun, bloody zombie-em-up, and also a spellbinding emotional roller-coaster of an epic. In great, story-driven games, the gameplay and story sit in the same room with cups of tea and have a nice chat. In The Last Of Us, the story and gameplay are in separate rooms with merely a peep hole between them, occasionally exchanging eye-contact, if only either one of them had the courage to communicate.

Where The Last Of Us fails the most is that there is no connection between the gameplay and story, thus, this becomes an entertaining, though annoyingly flawed experience. It tries way too hard to impress us with beautiful sprawling environments with a spell-binding Oscar-worthy story, contrasted with limbs blowing apart and heads blowing off, but it doesn't connect the dots. There's Joel with his nailbombs, blowing up survivors left, right and centre, then we're supposed to sympathize with him and his motives. There's no reason why this couldn't have been a movie or a book or a zoetrope, rather than a game. Both the gameplay and the story are good, but the fact that they don't connect brings down the whole experience for me.

If I'm going to leave you with anything, let it be this: "Spinning a plate on a stick is impressive, but try to spin three at once, and you'll just end up digging porcelain out of your face." -Yahtzee Croshaw

Final Verdict: 6.7/10