Like many eager gamers who were enthralled by last year’s E3 gameplay trailers and numerous teasers since, I preordered The Last of Us, Naughty Dog‘s newest action-adventure, survival horror game for the PS3. When I was still guessing, I had imagined that the game would be about an aged-up Nathan Drake from the Uncharted series, escorting his daughter (a young Ellen Page from Juno) through a post-apocalyptic wasteland, killing bandits and plunderers on their way to some lofty oasis where they could live far from the madness.
Obviously, as more information for the game came out, I realized that even though the female protagonist’s name was Ellie afterall, she was not Ellen Page, and Ellen Page was already in an upcoming videogame called Beyond Two Souls. (Which also looks incredible.) Apparently, when you need a female protagonist, it’s good to start with someone Diablo Cody might cast, because Diablo Cody knows how to write strong but dynamic female characters. The male protagonist was also not an aging Nathan Drake, but in fact a new Naughty Dog character named Joel, and this was a new franchise.
Well, The Last of Us launched on June 14th, and my copy arrived mid-day from Amazon. I checked my Facebook status and saw that several other people were equally excited. It had been a long week of wading through /r/gaming posts about how much PS4 dominated this year’s E3, how badly XboxOne apparently bombed, and how magnificent the critics’ ratings for The Last of Us had been. This was not without some anxiety, as June 14th’s message boards were flooded with concerns about the fact that a crippling bug in the game was causing peoples’ autosave to lock-up indefinitely, effectively forcing all players to exit to the PS3 menu without saving and lose all of their progress. When I got home from work, Naughty Dog had already paid attention to their players’ requests and fixed the problem, which had less to do with the game itself and more to do with their own servers. I was excited to get into the game and play, though my expectations had become ridiculous.
When I finally sat down to play, I only had a few hours in me and only got through about an hour or two of the game before I went to bed, but then revisited it for many hours at a time throughout the weekend, eventually getting Joel & Ellie to Pittsburgh.
The game is not without its flaws, but the well-crafted story and level of challenge takes care of any issues that might bug me about any other game. The intro had me feeling so emotionally attached to the characters within 10-15 minutes that I had to stifle my own whimpering. It’s good. Naughty Dog elevates its games to the level of art, and this game is by far the best in terms of creating unexpected emotional depth. As a story and a performance, it stands up to film and could easily compete for awards.
Let me get into a better breakdown of Pros and Cons, and do note that the cons are complete nit-picks and can be generally overlooked, but definitely need to be mentioned in a game that will probably garner untouchable praise for years to come. It feels a bit like theor The Godfather: Part 2 of games, the game that everyone will be comparing to everything else for quite some time.
- Naughty Dog’s storytelling, writing, and mo-cap acting: For me, this game is a “holy shit” moment. It was a moment where I realized that if done effectively, CGI actors can convey plenty of emotional depth with great voice acting and spot-on motion capture. The uncanny valley seemed a distant concern. I found myself watching characters’ eyes, watching tears well up and faces squint in anguish. Subtle movements in body language and facial expressions underlying the conversations… there were a few passionate moments where I watched a female character’s face, waiting to see how she was going to make a decision, and I was feeling myself pleading for her to change her mind. It’s stunning.Side-note: This isn’t a “pro,” necessarily, but the level of uncensorship in the game is also a bit shocking at first. It is violent and unforgiving, and loud, and full of swearing. I do not, on the other hand, think it’s overdone. It feels appropriate for the level of danger and tension in the story.Like I said, I felt connected to the characters and their development from the beginning, enough to begin feeling what they were feeling and really engross myself in the story on another level.
- Challenging, anxiety-ridden gameplay: One of the first things I noticed while playing was that it constantly encourages me to push forward, because there’s either something clawing at the door behind me, or my party is running away far ahead of me. Sure, many of Naughty Dog’s games do this, but there’s always been a bit more patience that suggests that I might want to stick around and look for shiny things to pick up. The Last of Us makes it feel like if I explore too much, I might really screw something up. I probably won’t, but there have been a few times I’ve been overwhelmed, eaten, or Ellie has been eaten. So, I never really feel completely safe when I decide to go look for a few tools or secret passages.The major dynamic of the gameplay has to do with making a decision whether or not I am going to act stealthily and sneak around ten wandering infected, or barge head-on into danger and blow them away with my shotgun, alerting more of my location. While characters follow particular “patrols” while I am hiding, they become very unpredictable when they are alerted and react to my fighting style. In particular, it depends on if I am dealing with human enemies, or infected enemies. The worst (so far) of the infected enemies are the Clickers, which cannot see, but use sonar like bats to monitor movement. Generally, I find that the best thing to do is sneak around these guys, because unless I have a melee weapon, I can become easily overwhelmed when they lunge at me and loudly tear open my neck in an insta-kill. I imagine that I could beat the entire game without killing too many enemies, though there have been a few encounters that suggest that this may be unavoidable.I found myself repeating certain sections of the game many, many, many times until I got it right. And every time, I was on the edge of my seat hoping I would remember to hit crouch (O) instead of turning on my flashlight (R3). (Skyrim screwed me up with this one.)
- Survival Horror: One of the primary facets of survival horror is an emphasis on survival through limitation. In the original Resident Evil, for example, the player knows for a fact that he’s in a mansion full of zombies, but he only has so many inventory slots, a handful of bullets, a plant or two, and a printer ribbon for saving the game a limited number of times. While The Last of Us has unlimited saves, like most survival horror games you are rather limited on how many bullets and supplies the player can find early on.The remainder of the gameplay typically centers around finding bottles, bricks, and boards to distract/lure your enemies away from the player while he sneaks around them. Brave, stealthy grab-and-strangle attacks silently keep the other enemies unaware of the player’s presence.I will say that at a certain point the game becomes a lot more generous and gives the player lots of access to everything. Sometimes I’ll walk into a room and find a ton of supplies to make a bomb and several health kits, or an infected will drop 6 rifle bullets after I’ve killed it.
- Ambiance & Level Design: The soundtrack is minimal and tense, and heightens the experience considerably. Too much music and it would have felt tacky; it’s better to hear the birds in the sky, raindrops hitting the roof of an abandoned bus, the sloshing of your jeans in a flooded subway tunnel, and the sound of Clickers somewhere on the other side of the wall. Atmospherically, the camera-view employs interesting tricks, such as various blood/water splatter on the screen, dust on the lens, and wonderful beams of light coming through the trees. There are many times where the vision is very obscured by fog, spores, or darkness, and this adds to the mood.While the gameplay is generally linear, there are many instances where the player can roam freely in small towns or open areas.The level of detail and character in various locations is enviable, and I’ve come to expect this of Naughty Dog games ever since the Uncharted series mapped out unbelievable jungles and exotic cities brimming with life. Naughty Dog is fantastic at layering and making locations feel expansive and believable without putting up obvious walls or “You can’t go that way” invisible barriers.
- Badass AI: Between the AI of the enemies and your co-op protagonists, the AI is really special. Watching a human enemy lunge at me, then panic and run away for cover when I draw my gun… that’s the stuff of magic. No more “What was that? …Must’ve been the wind…” after I’ve already shot a character with an arrow. They move around, cover, change weapons, grab the player and work together to take him down… Also, regarding working together, it’s exhilarating when you’re playing and Ellie grabs a brick and knocks out a guy who’s strangling Joel to death. This doesn’t happen in any game I’ve ever played, nor have I ever expected it to.
Cons (Total nitpicks, but I thought I’d mention them):
- Seriously, could you move?: There have been more than a few times where Ellie or another main character is following me or walking ahead of me and then stands in the way, and I have to awkwardly run into them and push them out of door frames in order to get through… Even worse, there have been a few times where one person runs to the same cover I’m running to, and then pushes me out of the way into clear view. Actually, even more irritating… a horde of infected are chasing us, and there’s Ellie just standing in front of the thing I need to climb up onto… For fuck’s sake fucking move, I’ma get eaten, Juno.
- A moment of feeling like the game wasn’t actually fun: For awhile, I felt like the game wasn’t fun at all. It was bleak, a bit slow at the beginning, stressful, and sparse in terms of “things to do and find.” It was challenging, but sometimes oppressive to the point where I was getting irritated and I wanted to put it down. Which I did, and after I slept on it, I came back to the game and beat the same level with not many problems. It wasn’t immediately addictive, and it felt a bit like a skill that I needed to hone. As the game progressed though, beating the challenges became rewarding and I forgot that survival horror is never very “fun” in the first place. It’s about getting through hardship and difficulty, amping up your adrenaline, and surviving while moving forward. But now that I’m further into the game and things are set up, it’s genuinely full of heart-pumping fun. It’s that same feeling I felt playing Katamari Damacy and almost reaching the right sized katamari, and having that countdown buzzer ringing loudly… just have to roll up… one… more… sheep… aahfuckalightpole!
- Weird texture glitches: Some are glitches, some feel like rushed design in places I shouldn’t have been looking. For instance, I might enter a room and see the parallax sky through a bunch of little hairline glitches in the ceiling, or some glass on the ground might glow like a flashlight in the middle of the dark. Or I might be wandering near a pond and notice that the plants are shiny like a pane of glass and just as flat… Or I throw a molotov cocktail into a hallway, and the ceiling lights turn into weird bright white squares with halos around them. But until I fall through a floor and fall indefinitely like the time Trip fell through the wall while I was playing Enslaved and I couldn’t get her back, I really love this game and am willing to overlook some minor glitches for the sake of the whole picture.
All in all, it’s an incredible game. Definitely not for everybody due to the mature content and the type of gameplay, but I’m looking forward to playing more soon. I will update at a later date when I have more to say. Thank you again, Naughty Dog, it’s been a pleasure.
Images courtesy of and © Naughty Dog & The Last of Us.