July 5th 2013
The Last of Us
It took me less than 10 minutes to realise that The Last of Us is a special game. It’s rare that I play a game that blows me away start to finish and hits all the right notes in terms of story, characters, game play, setting as well as graphics and art design. There are so many things that I loved about the game that I could talk about it all day, but instead I am going to focus on what made TLoU a special experience and probably the best game I’ve played on the PS3. I am going to eschew my usual “3 likes and dislikes” for this and instead just talk about the many strong points, before winding up with some brief criticisms and conclusions. First of all, I wanted to talk about how the game feels to play compared to its peers.
The Last of Us launch timing is interesting– this game could not have been made at the start of the PS3’s life and it is clear that Naughty Dog have all but mastered how to design a 3rd person action adventure with an emphasis on tactical battles that give you the choice between full stealth, full action or a blend of the two. When I first picked it up, I was immediately reminded of the combat in Uncharted, but realised that this had been improved significantly. Whereas Uncharted feels flighty and loose, the Last of Us is intense, personal and relentlessly violent. So much so that, whereas by the end of games like Uncharted, Gears of War and even Call of Duty I am usually desensitised to killing, the Last of Us seemed to get more and more brutal as the game wore on - right to the very last battle it retained a sense of grittiness that I’ve not found anywhere else.
It is also clear that Naughty Dog had the confidence to make some critical gameplay design choices that are bold, but definately pay off. First of all, the game is played almost entirely in real time – you can pause to go to a menu, but every other action takes place live in the game world. From healing and reading to executing your opponents, you always need to be aware of your surroundings. For example, your character (more on him soon), can perform some really cool execution style moves – these vary and often take time to take down an enemy in anything from 1 to 5 seconds. However, while doing so, you are not immune- you still get shot at, still get hit and can still die. This immediately makes you think about how to use these techniques as a tool rather than as a get out of jail card meaning that they always remain satisfying and brutal.
Another design choice which pays off massively is to eschew the use of bosses and “traditional” game tropes such as getting bigger and better weapons right before you fight the next big enemy. Sure, you get improved guns and there are a couple of set pieces where you need a particular weapon, but for the most part they are introduced to bring variety to the game rather than to clue you in to an impending boss fight. Oh and you can upgrade and improve your weapons (in real time) allowing you to tailor your style to the situation at hand. Nothing fancy, but a nice enough touch to add depth to the game play that always makes you think.
The most striking design choice however is more about what goes in the guns, rather than the guns themselves. During my play through on normal difficultly, I rarely, if ever, had double figure ammunition in any of my weapons, and rarely had ammunition for more than 4 of the 10 weapons at a time. This may sound limiting, but it is actually liberating. It encourages you to do two things: 1. Explore the environment to find additional ammunition / supplies and 2. You end up using all the weapons at your disposal and learn to be creative with them. For example, while I initially ignored the Bow and Arrow, realised quite quickly that using it in combination with smoke bombs is super effective as you distract enemies, don’t give away your position and can take a couple out from distance before moving in to finish them off with a shiv, crowbar, bat or your bare hands. It’s great fun and always varied and challenging and even minor skirmishes or the early small environments feel challenging to play through.
Moving on from the design, The Last of Us tells a story that is both anchored in its characters but deals with big themes such as loyalty, personal purpose, and the future of mankind and the purpose of life. Much of the tale outside the characters is told in subtle ways – you travel across and through abandoned cities, countryside and towns and as you loot, scavenge and kill, you often come across snippets of information about the people who lived there before you, get to hear and read their stories and piece together a broad picture of what it must have been like going through the end of modern civilisation.
Sure, this has been done before and it would have been easy for The Last of Us to fall into genre clichés, but it never does. Every environment is beautifully realised with incredible detail and you’re encouraged to explore them in your own time (there is no map or radar). This has the effect of making the broader story feel very organic in how it unfolds as it is often up to you, you have to decide where you go, how deep you explore and how much time you take to find out about the world. It is a great way to immerse yourself in the game and when you combine this with the tension that comes from exploring areas that are full of infected and / or military / survivors, it creates a fascinating and tense backdrop to the narrative that runs throughout the game. In fact, the game paces this so well that right up until the end you feel like you’re on an incredible journey through a fully realised post apocalyptic world with its own stories and background - it's just its up to you to find them.
I can’t comment on The Last of Us without at least mentioning the main characters, Ellie and Joel. I intend on keeping this spoiler free, so I’ll not say a huge amount about their story arcs and instead focus on how they hold the game together.
Joel is the world weary but determined survivor - he looks out for himself and his partner and that’s about it. While this may sound a tad stereotypical, from the opening scene there is a brutal intensity to Joel that you rarely see in games. While Joel starts out essentially as a mercenary, through his journey with Ellie you see a change in his character and attitude to life. It is remarkable to see such a believable character in a game – he is mature, conflicted and extremely well voice acted and even his occasional in game quips seem natural.
In stark contrast to Joel, you have Ellie, an independent 14 year old who relies on Joel’s protection to help her survice in the harsh post apocalyptic world. Ellies role is part sidekick, part emotional mirror to Joel. While there are obvious father / daughter undertones in the 2 characters, this never distracts from the believable friendship that develops between the two. Ellies character changes during the journey and while she initially relies on Joels protection, eventually she shows herself to be a very capable survivor in her own right.
The excellent voice acting and animation are more than welcome, but the script is so good that on occasions it seems more like watching a movie than playing a game – everything from the casual conversations between the characters to the critical plot moments are handled superbly and the game uses the moments spent traveling to allow the characters to interact and discuss their thoughts and experiences. It’s much more character driven than the likes of gears of war and the fleshing out of the characters through interesting side discussions and key plot moments works so well that when the big twists / plot moments happen – even if you saw them coming – they are incredibly rewarding.
There last point I wanted to make about The Last of Us is about the main game play. Similar to Uncharted, you get a mixture of light puzzles, exploration and combat. However, the action in The Last of Us is absolutely central to the games experience and is much, much stronger than in other 3rd person action adventure games. The reason for this is 2 fold.
Firstly, the actual combat itself is superbly handled. You’ve usually got the choice of stealth or balls out action, but you can also mix this up with a blend of the two through using bottles & bricks to distract your enemies, smoke bombs to confuse them, or even nail bombs and Molotov cocktails to take out groups from afar. All sounds standard enough? Well, maybe so, but the game is tough and you are almost always outnumbered and outgunned (both in terms of the weapons you have + the bullets available), so you better get used to mixing close quarters combat with crowbars, bats, machete’s if you want to go in big and loud, or your bare hands if you want to do it quietly. Some areas you may find stealth is the only way through, but you miss some supplies, others require combat but your health is very low – you’re constantly under threat to think about how to handle the challenges the game throws at you and never does it feel repetitive. There is always enough variety in the places you’re fighting, the cover spots, the options for stealth vs. combat and the weapons that every area feels like it has multiple paths through and multiple ways of dealing with the problems you face. It makes the whole experience immensely rewarding and fun.
The second point about the combat is something that really sets the game apart (very minor spoiler ahead). I’ve mentioned previously that I am not a big fan of bosses in games and the last of us ignores bosses entirely. Instead, it pits you up against different types of enemies, all of whom have different ways of dealing with you. The infected are chaotic and brutal and boy do they feel tough due to their heightened hearing and one hit kills from some of them. In contrast, you also fight people, some of whom are military (behind barriers, ranged weapons), scavengers (poorly equipped and spread out) as well as other bandits and general all around nasty people. They will try outflank you, they’re good shots for the most part and they will work together to make your life difficult with some of the best AI I’ve seen in an action game and some of the battles play out more like chess matches where you’ve got to out think as much as outfight the enemy.
There are also plenty of moments that make the combat special too – you’ve got a limited amount of QTE’s that never disrupt the game play and lots of moments where i found myself thinking “Wouldn’t be cool if....” , right before the game allowed me to do exactly what I wanted – sometime this was a brutal stealth kill, others it would be something more subtle like a way of dealing with a situation. It is rare that a game gets the combat as right as this.
As you can tell, i loved the game and I am not going to say much about what I didn’t like as there is genuinely not that much to dislike. There are occasional moments where your AI partner does something weird (e.g. runs in front of an enemy and doesn’t get spotted) and the game doesn’t seem to mind, and there are one or two moments where the story maybe misses a beat and feelsa little awkward (there is one moment in particular, but it is definitely forgivable), but other than that, there is so much to love in The Last of Us that you forgive the small number of minor issues.
The Last of Us is genuinely one of the best games I’ve played and certainly one of the best on the PS3 – the only other games that I can think come close to it are Metal Gear Solid 4 and maybe Skyrim (though an entirely different type of game it is). In fact, MGS4 is probably the closest game I’ve played to The Last of Us in terms of mixing stealth and combat and, as much as I love Metal Gear, I’d probably say that I enjoyed The Last of Us more, its a tighter and more emotional experience (probably about 2/3rds the length of MGS4) and contains a very human story that ties together the amazing setting with incredible combat that really does make it the a complete experience.
I can’t recommend the Last of Us highly enough – it is a truly excellent game and quite possibly the last great game on the PS3.