Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Last of Us (PlayStation 3) Review

Even though I don't write these reviews very formally, you still need some sort of a thesis to start things off. A lot has been said about this game and I'm not entirely sure where to start. I'll start at the very beginning. There's going to be a couple of spoilers, but I'll keep the big stuff out of it.

From the moment you put the game into your PlayStation 3, it's made apparently that this is a game of a serious nature. The background on the XMB is a dramatic black and white rendering of our main characters, Joel and Ellie. Once you load up the game, you're greeted with what is instantly recognizable as Gustavo Santaolalla's unique composition. He's an excellent composer, with his soundtrack to The Motorcycle Diaries being one of my favorite movie scores.

This struck me as a bit odd. I watched The Motorcycle Diaries dozens of times (usually sandwiched between readings on Che Guevara) in my teens. His score is perfectly suited for the movie, but it seemed odd here. A zombie cordyceps fungus monster game is something fundamentally American. Santaolalla's music has a distinctly South American edge to it. My initial thought was that this would end up in a sort of mismatch between environment and music, but it was actually quite the opposite. It fits; in the same way the score emphasized Che's early years and spirit to go out and do something, the music here emphasizes the same sense of scale and adventure.

It's fitting that they sprang for Santaolalla to do the score, as the story has the same weight as his music does. The writing here is a thing to behold; the characterization is the best of any game I've ever played. There's a myriad of games with powerful stories and excellent performances from voice actors (Robert Carlyle as Gabriel Belmont in the end of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow comes to mind), but we've never had such well rounded characters. Joel and Ellie are believable and real. We're not just treated to their personalities in cutscenes, they have banter while just walking around. Ellie spazzes out and acts weird like a kid would. You come to care for both of them and understand their actions.

Strong characterization drives home moments in a story. You could have the most dramatic moment imaginable, but if your characters are as paper thin as those in an SNL sketch, the moment will fall flat. The confidence in the characters is immediate and I think that this game has probably the finest opening moments of any game. Our zombies infected are here due to a mutated strain of a real life parasitic fungus that takes over ants and kills them, then uses their bodies to spread the fungus to other ants. This is a pretty clever idea, but really it's just another way to say zombie without being so cliche (I'll accept it because I'm so fucking tired of zombies everywhere). 

The introductory sequence is set in 2013 with Joel and his daughter just as the fungus is beginning to spread. They make an attempt to escape the town that they live in as all hell is breaking lose. They've almost made it to the road, when a soldier orders them to stop and shoots Joel's daughter dead. Bring up the Santaolalla soundtrack, smash cut to the title card and all of your feels are on fire.

We pick up 20 years later with Joel a (predictably) broken and changed man, working with a woman named Tess (voiced excellently by Annie Wersching, aka the reason Jack Bauer went full Bauer). They're into some shady thug shit, and are expecting a large shipment of guns. It turns out they were stolen and traded to a group called the Fireflies, who work in opposition to the government in trying to bring order back to society. Jeol and Tess are told that they can get the guns back if they take Ellie, a girl infected with the fungus but not changing, to a Firefly lab to be studied for a possible cure. Society has collapsed at this point in time, with survivors mostly packed into tightly controlled quarantine zones in major cities. Tess doesn't make the escape from the quarantine zone (Surprised? There's only two people on the cover, this isn't really a spoiler..), leaving Joel alone in taking Ellie to the Fireflies.

Joel resents this at first and sees it as a job, but eventually comes to care for Ellie. Their journey takes them across the country over the course of about a year, as they are always just slightly too late to meet up with the Fireflies. I won't spoil the ending, but it does bring up an interesting morality question which I may write about separately at another time. This was the talk of the internet when the game came out, and I managed to avoid spoilers. You probably should, too. The idea presented isn't necessarily unique, but the way the game forces you to consider it in the ending is.

I have nothing but praise for the story and soundtrack, but let's actually dig in to the gameplay. That's why we're really here, right? 


I'm going to be straight up. There's very little that's actually enjoyable about playing this game. You're either fucked or you're taking a casual walk to the next place that you'll be fucked. Supplies are limited in this game since we're 20 years into such a catastrophe. You don't have a lot of ammo, and you've got to scrounge supplies to put together makeshift grenades and weapons. There is still a healthy amount of ammo around, but the gun mechanics are just plain bad. Take a look at this screenshot from multiplayer (because I couldn't find any screenshots that actually showed the reticule on screen except this one):

The camera zooms into your character so tight and at such an odd angle that the reticule seems to have no actual relation to the position of your character and the gun. About midway through the game you begin to compensate for this and focus solely on the reticule, but then they pull the rug out from under you and the enemies all get armor and are almost impossible to kill. That midway point when you get comfortable with it? The game is fun to play at that point. 

This is largely set up as a stealth game, but it's infuriating beyond belief. I'm a big fan of stealth games, but The Last of Us doesn't really look at what other games have done in the genre. Take Splinter Cell, a game from 2002. If there is a light that's causing you difficulty in moving through an area you can A) shoot it or B) find the switch and shut it off. The Last of Us does no such thing. 

The shaky gunplay is basically a death sentence for you in almost every situation. There are enemies called clickers which typically take multiple hits to kill and if they get to you, you are IMMEDIATELY dead. You CAN level up a skill so that you have the ability to stab them, but it is one of the costliest skill upgrades in the game. It's not easy to upgrade your skills either; you have to collect pills that are hidden around levels. There are several other essential skills to upgrade, and by the time I got those to an acceptable level and went to get the stabbing skill, I didn't even end up using it because those enemies were hardly around anymore.

When you encounter enemies, you're usually greatly outnumbered. The game wants you to sneak around and stealthily deal with them one by one. This is... a lot to ask, and I'm patient with games. One misstep and you're fucked. The enemies have a pretty uncanny ability to shoot you consecutively until you die. You can sneak by enemies too, but there are times when the game has given you impossible odds and virtually forces you to fight by placing enemies in spots that you can't really draw them away from without exposing yourself. You will die a lot, it will be immediate, and it will be frustrating. To its credit the game does checkpoint frequently, but it still doesn't offset the frustration. 

The Last of Us is a movie of unusual power. But the bits of game inbetween? Those bits are deeply flawed on a fundamental level.

I believe that games have to be scored as a sum of their parts. I don't think one part can override others. Case in point, Mass Effect 3. Most people loved the gameplay. The story was a disaster, which had always been touted as a key point of the Mass Effect series. Yet, we had a game that was highly controversial because of all of the 9.0 reviews with the little "well, the story sucks" caveat.

In that spirit...

The Score: 7.5/10

This is an above average game with a lot of effort put into it, but it's just not fun to play. If I were to disregard the gameplay and reward it on its story merits alone, it would be a solid 9.

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