*NOTE 1: While I want to attempt talking more vaguely about certain praises for story and storytelling than with my recent Uncharted reviews, it’s not possible to skirt every possible story spoiler for that to happen. Viewer discretion is advised.*
*NOTE 2: All of my online play has occurred after August 7th 2014 (something like patch 1.07) Any additions, like modes and maps purchased will be mentioned but don’t dramatically affect overall opinions of multiplayer.*
“…and thus ended the heralded developer’s streak of making a kart racer after crafting a new adventure trilogy. The End”
While I wouldn’t say that storybook-themed thought process was word-for-word what I was thinking at the time of The Last of Us’ announcement at the VGA show, it seems apropos considering how this creative decision coincides with the general attitude of the AAA industry at large: less bouncy fun and more decrepitude. Veering away from squeezing out an Uncharted kart racer, Naughty Dog has created one of the final new intellectual properties of the seventh generation altogether; and with that, a compilation of the many things that are considered to “work” by big businesses. It’s a post-apocalyptic, zombie-filled world framed around a third-person cover stealther/shooter hybrid mixed in with several other expected design elements. But even with such expectancies, The Last of Us (TLOU) is able weave more than enough nuances within both the narrative and gameplay to make this Naughty Dog’s best game since Jak II.
The majority of the story takes place twenty years after a fungal outbreak began mutating people into zombies. The main character is Joel who’s tasked with smuggling a teenage girl, Ellie, out of a quarantine zone which eventually leads to a trek across the United States. Along the way, a bunch of expected tropes are peppered throughout to anyone familiar with the genre, but there are some creative decisions that feel captivating in their artistic intent.
For the prerequisite "world goes to heck" beginning of the outbreak, the gameplay actually starts off through the perspective of someone else. And while it is limited, the simple level of interactivity coupled with the intense set of events happening makes it one of the best parts of the campaign. The subtly-reinforced collectible scavenging early on and the environmental storytelling is a great way of introducing the player to the dependency of scouring under every nook and cranny to catch all the details it has to offer. Considering how the entire section could’ve just been a great series of cut scenes, it was a wonderful surprise to see the subtle gameplay emplaced capped off with a very effective cut scene that also sets up one of the key focal points to the narrative’s subtext.
Just as that obligatory opening may be considered passé to some, zombies (or Infected as they’re called here) may also roll a few eyes. Considering the fungal infection, known as Cordyceps, used as the framing device here is actually based upon documented cases against certain insect species and the altered physical effects it has in comparison to typical zombies, it does feel like a more grounded twist on the typical formula. Different stages of infected persons eventually results in their face being deformed and overtaken by fungal growths. Even some dead Infected in secluded indoor areas will eventually be overtaken by Cordyceps and discharge spores in the surrounding area, acting as another way to become infected.
As one could begin to suspect, not a whole lot of wild twists are taken save for a few towards the latter half of the game. But it’s in how this yarn is weaved, the characters met across the journey, and the subtext buried into this tale that make it so interesting.
Just like Naughty Dog isn’t new in using a subtitle as a clue of what to anticipate within the story (see: the main Uncharted games), the central theme could actually be found in the title. It may not be something that initially beseeches any sort of pensive consideration, but it later hit me as a way of examining certain loyalties during a bit of Joel’s dialogue. Namely: who is the 'Us' in this case? The way in which we've draw lines in the sand of who's included in social groups. Are said loyalties limited to a slim caste of people to care for or a larger community or perhaps expanded to humanity altogether? Whichever choice is determined by specific characters, limits are constantly tested as to how far they're willing to go for that 'Us.'
Humanity vs. family is the first line being drawn by Joel and another person in the beginning and the results end in his outlook “20 Years Later” being jaundiced and selfish. Throughout the series of vignettes, the narrative constantly toys with the title by presenting various scenarios of external pressures forcing different characters' to react for their 'Us' in interesting ways. It's also a means of giving each character value: weaving a different internal struggle for them to tackle in the current situation that toys with the overall concept. Even a certain character only known through collectible notes actually has his own unique arc.
This kind of meaning is deftly-handled later on in the story when one of the most typical game tropes is turned on its head. When considering the context and the social lines being drawn for the last situation, the two opposing ‘Us’ ideologies are used as a way of critiquing traditional hero tropes as some ugly thing that can make one look more selfish and pathetic than heroic in the process. And it’s a disillusioning point punctuated by an ending I honestly didn’t see coming.
Looking less vigorously at different meanings up for interpretation, the characters and pacing are top notch as well. Aside from structurally producing quality subtext, the dialogue for each key character never feels inane or useless. Whether being good—or as “good” as one can be in this situation—or twisted, each one is fascinating in their own way. The best of the bunch shown in this dark and dreary world would have to be Ellie. Discovering new things about the old world and of its bizarre behavior for even the simple things like...a pre-pandemic teenage girl’s worries has that childlike bewilderment that’s easy to grow an attachment for.
While it’s going to be easy to anticipate the upcoming twists and turns, it’s tough to find any fault with that when considering everything else TLOU's story has going for it. On top of just being succinctly-written with several memorable characters, there's multivalent subtext to wade through and it has a mature eye for constraint when delivering specific thematic material, which is very hard to come by in games.
Though I seem to hold harsher reservations for Naughty Dog’s recent releases, one thing they’ve seem to hold true to since the Jak series is the quality of cinematics. There’s a slim minority of developers out there who’re able to mix the cinematography found in films with motion capture that doesn’t feel stiff or inconsistent in any regard. Helped by the written material, mo-cap acting and voice acting work is among some of the best out there. These elements along with some of those lingering shots attempting to make you feel the same emotion as the characters are what make for some of the most memorable moments here. The game knows its greatest strength lies in its characters rather than explosions and headshots.
The visuals in other regards are among some of the best on the Playstation 3. While interior designs are still solid, the wow factor most will attribute to the environments is in the immense amount of detail packed into concrete areas overrun with luxuriant foliage. Whereas titles such as Metro 2033 do a wonderful job of having a lived-in feeling, the equivalent in TLOU would probably be considered a long-abandoned impression. From dozens of would-be stores with empty and overturned racks to plant life blooming across walls, the artistic direction coupled with meticulous level design makes it impressive to consider so many areas packed to the gills with environmental details. The length of the journey feels appropriate and the backdrops consistently change enough so as to never feel stale. In the end, it seems like everything on the tech side had been covered in the Uncharted games (water, snow, horses), was piggybacked onto here, and utilized to the best this hardware could’ve hope for, and even made some improvements like more believable contact sensitivity.
As it’s been with their visual presentation, audio design is another one of the best qualities. Dialogue between that Southern-toned Joel and euphonious Ellie are some of the best moments in the game thanks in no small part to the voice acting. And in a gaming year such as 2013, it really says something to have one of the best soundtracks of the year. The focus on natural acoustics (crafted by Gustavo Santaolalla) enhance each scene without ever feeling imposing. Technical sound design is another aspect that feels solid all around. From what’s heard between brawling, shooting, stealthing, etc., only one aspect regarding stealth even reaches “quibble status” as far as I can tell.
Beyond the all-around quality when sound is used, the specialized constraint in the lack of any background music in parts of the game is also something that’s very admirable. For games of the old Super Mario Bros. caliber it’s true that a constant mixture of chip tune beats is a secondary component that elevated play to some degree. When considering the different tone trying to be achieved here, that lack of anything beyond the light screams of Infected and the audible character movement complimented the already high-intensity combat that simply wouldn’t have reached the same heights with music.
Just as the on-paper scenarios within the story may seem expected, gameplay can initially be seen similarly by accumulating so many different elements. From Uncharted’s action sensibilities to ZombiU, these multifarious elements seem like a best-of collection at times. Like the story: the distinction comes with the execution.
The quick-n-easy method of comparison would be to think of a 3rd-person Metro (series) confection with real-time inventory managing swapping out a bullet currency system. Since Joel doesn’t have the celerity of his adventuring counterpart and ammo doesn’t come in bulk here, stealth is the salient approach to each combat scenario between humans and Infected. But when considering the game systems, the accomplishments of stealth can feel like a double-edged sword.
When it comes to a lot of iconic stealth games in years past, separating them from the rest depends on what those stealth systems are based upon. Older Splinter Cell games would have a gradient light/dark detection system and this affected your approach in manipulating the environment while other games would have a means of averting alarm based on quick movements, such as Dishonored’s set of powers. As far as design goes, TLOU isn’t really coupled to anything like that. It really just plays to the same chest-high wall cover-based system Uncharted 2 had in that lazily-designed museum section but also enhancing the enemy AI patrol routines and implementing Splinter Cell’s can-tossing mechanic. Stay out of enemies’ line of sight, throw an object to direct attention elsewhere, and go from there. There’s really not much else to it beyond its post-apocalyptic version of Detective Mode. It’s a shame that this ‘see all enemies in a certain distance’ design choice comes at the expense of there being no grounded contextual reasoning for this superpower as well; but at the same time, there is the option of removing it altogether and it's removed in the Survivor and higher difficulties. As a consumer without the shiny baubles of great speaker systems or surround sound, I suppose I can also understand the design need to implement some kind of a level playing field in this regard and this being their answer.
With the negative end out of the way, it’s only fair to acknowledge just how engrossing and technically well-crafted this system can still feel. The biggest appreciation I can have for the stealth can actually be tied back to its ultimate weakness, only more in the action-oriented instances. The LOS-based system can be gamed in stealth mode, to be sure; but the sense of desperation—that feeling of breaking line of sight and subsequently jumping over a bed or drawer in another room and hoping that now-hesitant attacker makes a wrong move—is what makes it feel so tense and believable here. The scenarios between human and infected enemy types are also juggled adequately enough so as to never feel old. Humans are typical but the environmental situations vary quite often and Infected make no reaction to flashlights, making the usual pitch-black areas filled with spores wonderfully atmospheric. The quibble I have with sound design comes from how loud the struggles of grabbing and strangling an enemy may be without detecting anyone else around, even when another enemy may only be feet away.
One special mention to make regarding stealth are some of the tensest moments in the game with Clickers, a higher level of infected that’s claimed to see using sonar vision via clicking sounds. The rules for them in stealth: can’t see but are much more sensitive to sound, require shivs to stealth kill, and they one-hit kill you when grabbed UNLESS you unlock a certain character upgrade. The only bother I have against the game in this regard is comparing them to bats when that’s clearly not the case. Sonar doesn’t mean they can’t see someone unless they’re being too loud. That’s irrelevant. It would’ve just made more sense to come up with some excuse about better hearing instead of that. While this inconsistency doesn’t remove the frissons of terror they’ve caused me to feel whenever heard, it’s something that struck me as odd; having said that, the fact something that can so easily to be shrugged off as nothing is brought up by me shows just what kind of standard the game puts upon itself.
When the element of surprise is lost, a less routine kind of action kicks in that emphasizes the paucity of bullets found in this post-pandemic world. With consideration for what the game’s attempting to accomplish, the shooting systems work intentionally against the player. The amount of gun sway to initially get used to with Joel is something that shouldn’t have been made any other way in my honest opinion. The slower, more precise demand of sneaking off headshots can feel appropriately frustrating. On top of that, the melee system that can switch between fists or melee weapons acquired feels clunky and weighty in a way that harmonizes with the gun handling.
It’s interesting to see the shift in design attitude since ND’s first seventh gen shot with Uncharted compared to now. Whereas the first Uncharted only had one legitimate instance of gameplay adding texture to the surrounding environment, TLOU’s bolstered in this regard with the real time crafting/inventory system. Joel’s backpack here could be considered a centralized way of holding all the weapons discovered throughout and creating materials such as bombs, health packs, and more. Certain items like scissor pieces, alcohol, bindings, and more are scattered throughout areas that can be used to craft something. The catch to this is crafting's still happening in real time. It proffers up opportunities to get out of mad scrambles by a number of options like crafting certain offensive weapons for the short amount of time created after running away from a pack of enemies. There’s a great sense of dynamism in this structure that oscillates between stealth and combat so frequently, and the crafting system felt as a legitimate means to innovate upon the hybrid structure of action, stealth, and survival horror.
If there is one bigger complaint to level against TLOU’s system of mechanics, or execution in general, it would be frustrations with the friendly AI in regards to immersion. Sometimes they would be genuinely impressive. Moments such as the first time I mistakenly thought Joel and Ellie collided into each other when hiding behind cover only to notice she was huddling up was truly a sight to see. Other instances of sophisticated AI that would throw an object at someone threatening to attack or point out an enemy was also impressive. But then at the game’s worst moments, immersion breaking would occur when an enemy would say “where are you?” only for Ellie or someone else to walk right in front of the assailant. Or when Bill, a rather husky man, would whisper about being quiet near clickers only to hear the audio for his boots constantly THWOMP THWOMP THWOMP against the ground could get ridiculous. Human enemies fare much better with a “Balance of Power” system that seesaws between their defensiveness when the cards are against them to brazen attempts of flanking when you feel cornered. Though there are a couple of moments when some spawned enemies would just stand still or the like, it never felt too drastic to warrant concern.
Between these intense bouts with enemies are moments of scavenging for more supplies via careful exploration of the environments. A pair of carrot-on-a-stick upgrading systems are implemented for both Joel and his acquired weapons which necessitate specific medicine and parts respectively. These are folded well into the game and act as a good contrast to the longer action engagements. It handles this up-and-down pacing quite similarly to the structure of a couple of later levels in Uncharted 2 that were utilized as means of catching your breath. This is also—unfortunately—accomplishe d through the extended use of plank, ladder, and pallet puzzles that have no real difficulty in solving them. You pick up planks and ladders so they can be set somewhere else and you set pallets for Ellie to jump on so she can avoid falling in the water, since she can’t swim. While I have no problem with the inclusion of puzzles altogether, considering the setting, it definitely starting wearing thin for me towards the end. For a character so intent on talking about survival, it seems strange to see such a missed opportunity as a gameplay/storytelling moment like Joel, i.e. the player, teaching Ellie how to swim.
Another aspect to the game’s tone that makes it a very engrossing experience is how the violence is depicted. It’s one of those rare cases in a violent game making the very acts it’s depicting more and more cringe worthy as it progresses. Considering the audience consistently trying to be captured, recent mature-rated titles have amped up the level of brutality in new ways. It’s interesting in the way TLOU handles this attitude with a slightly different mindset. It’s in the subtleties such as moments where a downed human enemy near death will appeal you to spare him or in how palpable every action feels in the animated takedowns that punctuates the atmosphere in a completely different way. Going further and further down this road doesn’t lead to the expected desensitized effect of violence but rather to the point that it feels more and more unsettling.
Value can be proclaimed in TLOU in even one completion of the campaign. Even for multiple playthroughs, the dependency on stealth or action in a playthrough can vary wildly depending on the selected difficulty. For example: my adventurous, collectible-hunting attitude in both my Normal and Grounded varied between sixteen to twenty-five hours respectively. And though Grounded Mode was an engrossing ride filled with frustration and ultimate reward, I must comment on the foul business practice (currently) in place for it. What the mode does is remove the HUD and slightly heighten AI difficulty. It’s the hardest difficulty in the game. The catch is the mode was released at a later date than the original launch. The only means of acquiring said mode is either by being a Season Pass holder—as was my case—or purchasing it. A shame to see that sort of attitude similar to what the 360 version of Metro 2033’s Ranger Mode did. What keeps this from changing my outlook in regards to score is that it’s withholding a mode with minor-enough changes for something like Survivor to be a fine option too; whereas in Metro 2033’s case, that locked away gameplay FIXES behind a paywall.
Campaign replay value is bolstered even more so here with a dense amount of story-oriented collectibles found throughout this world. They don’t feel like completionist filler but instead a valid reason to search every nook and cranny to learn more about someone else inhabiting this world. The complaints of missing unlockable goodies in UC3 were obviously heard as different visual themes, costumes, etc. can be unlocked via in-game currency here. But I suppose the best way to stamp a seal of replay value would be in it being the seventh-gen Naughty Dog game I became most excited about replaying just for the gameplay itself and the varying degrees of options I’d have between different difficulties.
In keeping with today’s AAA standards: there's online multiplayer. While pre-release praises by the developer themselves calling it the “best MP ever conceived” may have sounded troubling for me at first, considering what that typically means for the campaign, the end result was—thankfully—an unaffected campaign in regards to its quality and an impressive multiplayer supplement. Think more Uncharted 2 as it being completely unneeded to reinforce an opinion rather than Uncharted 3 where online components felt a bit more like a crutch.
Just as the gameplay components accumulate many staples so too does online follow in the footsteps of other popular systems. There’s a meta-game progression system that ties unlocks of various accouterments to a survivor body count or number of ‘weeks’ endured. Instead of the experience bar or challenges informing of skill status, these systems have a more contextually sensible means by making each player a digital leader over a number of people (that show as blips on a radar) who can be healthy, hungry, sick, or even die off. And rather than prestige mode, each match played counts as one ‘day’ and over the course of time various procedurally generated events will threaten your camp's well-being; in turn, resulting in a specific challenge, from revives or executions, that needs to be accomplished to save camp members or lessen the severity of how many will be lost.
There’s no straining required to find something different with the spirit of competitive play in TLOU because the systems translated from the main game already plotted out differences from other hybrids. It engages the player in a way different from the twitchier mentality of most shooters. How it handles health and radar detection whenever sprinting near an enemy location demands methodical approaches in moving from section to section. The inventory/crafting backpacks and Listen Mode have been replicated here and add a similar sense of desperation to flock towards supply drops on the maps to get an upper hand. On top of crafting shivs and whatnot, backpacks also have an in-game store option that exchanges parts acquired in a match. Since those spare parts can be changed into supplies at the end of each round, there’s an interesting dynamic in considering short-term gains with a more powerful weapon for one match or more parts for the camp.
There’s a plethora of understood yet unique wrinkles to the underlying mechanics that simply work to keep the player engaged. In some ways, the Listen Mode detection system here feels much less like a slightly overpowered mechanic than in the campaign because of whose being fought against. This isn’t a player with an unfixed camera against combatants with a cone of vision but against online players with the same abilities. The levels of detection between everyone hearing someone sprint within a certain range to jogging or crouching revealing one’s location in Listen Mode feel appropriate. And taken into account that a costly ability booster (TLOU’s version of COD’s perks) for crouching undetected and standing still are the only ways of avoiding detection, there’s a refreshing cognitive process in trying to evaluate the next course of action. From downed teammates in need of a revive which could be a trap—one which I’d always be happy to counter —to the decision between sticking with teammates or lone wolfing to acquire more supplies early on, there’s a level of moves and counter moves between various loadouts, boosters, and methodologies that have a deep level of proper imbalances.
One sticking point that may bother some is the number of shipped maps and modes. Although there were initially two team deathmatch oriented modes, a free update added an objective-based one later on. The two deathmatch ones are Supply Raid and Execution. The first is the basic team deathmatch with a limit of twenty respawns for each team whereas the latter is focused on rounds that disallow any respawning. The Interrogation mode put through the update is a two-tiered match that initially focuses on getting several executions until the enemy’s safe is revealed then resulting in your team trying to break open their safe. When considering the addictiveness of Supply Raid alone and how each emphasizes different approaches altogether, it’s really not that bothersome. The amount of six shipped maps may seem scant to some, but “quality over quantity” became my lasting feelings on the matter overall—despite not being a huge fan of two maps. Many settings from the campaign have been repurposed for four versus four fighting and most show a lot of thoughtful design to encourage a variety of long-range to short-range encounters. While I find every day-setting map to vary from very good to excellent in quality, I must admit the two night-setting ones aren’t quite as enjoyable. One in particular, named “Downtown,” feels more like an intern-tier map due to it implicitly encouraging a heavier emphasis on guns-blazing approaches. Two DLC map packs have come since its release and many of those are of solid quality that have their own sets of appreciable design quirks.
The most shocking feeling I’ve had with TLOU’s multiplayer is in being surprised as to how enjoyable I found it to be despite being reluctant to initially try it out. It sounds strange to state considering the same set of systems are in both the campaign and multiplayer, but what triggered my reluctance goes back to the thematic material the gameplay and storytelling mix together when it comes to violence. Unlike Uncharted’s “rip-snorting” adventure pastiche from Indiana Jones, it feels a bit more alien to translate this bloody adventure because the further it goes into depicting the violent acts the more unsettling it’s meant to become. Having that artistic intention with a “but can we add multiplayer?” attitude can feel a bit jarring, all things considered.
Even with that shift in tone, it’s not hard to shake that off in order to appreciate the minutiae set up here to try making that tone still work while also incorporating a great confection of stealth-action hybrid mechanics. And though there are some annoyances to the half-baked extras like character customization and emblems or a couple of quibbles regarding the design of how often enemies are just downed instead of outright killed for so many actions (besides good Molotov hits), it’s easy to be almost as engrossed with this as it is with the main campaign. One final annoyance with the MP is microtransactions. To be fair, it’s to a much more lax degree than Uncharted 3’s setup; however, the fact a complement about an unnecessary monetization system is "not bad as their last game" is also a bit worrisome to consider.
To my own surprise, I’ve ended up considering TLOU to be my favorite multiplayer that Naughty Dog has produced thus far.
It’s tough to really come up with some form of a simplistic closing call for my thoughts when there’s so much to consider. At times, it feels like a masterful effort in mixing gameplay and narrative in a cohesive way. The winter section in particular has some of the most chilling revelations and several quiet moments throughout are wonderfully atmospheric. But it’s in all the technical polish and artistic ambitions that can—unfortunately—be leveled quickly by the autonomous, invisible friendly AI while in stealth that can rob the immersion it tries so hard to build up. Stuff like that and certain individual design elements can butt heads now and again. Those problems do little to stifle a blockbuster gaming experience I haven’t felt this wholly engrossed in since the likes of Alan Wake. The moment-to-moment bits of action to stealth being able to switch in a moment’s notice and the glue between various elements that sometimes results in more of a survival horror experience than...survival horror games are just some reasons why it’s easy to remain engaged. More than this, it’s an introspective tale that’s adept in engaging you enough to make you continually play it and ponder the actions afterwards.
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coolbeans’ 2013 Game of the Year Nominee