Games historically excel when mechanics and level design combine for hours of fun. The medium’s Achilles Heel, however, lies in its inability to tell stories worth a damn. People lose their sh*t when a game like The Last Of Us (PS3) maintains the high-wiring act between storytelling and gameplay. Naughty Dog’s latest creation isn’t without faults overshadowed by waves of praise at launch.
The Last Of Us‘ story starts off on the eve of a massive infection ripping through the US. A contagious fungus turns humans into various forms of murderous zombie-like creatures ready to kill under the slightest provocation. The outbreak spreads at an alarming rate and Joel, the game’s main character, learns quickly about love lost in the madness.
Then the narrative shifts years later as the military’s oppressive regime limits freedoms, food and supplies. Years of scrap or die turn Joel into a cynical, weathered smuggler. He eventually crosses paths with
Ellen Page Ellie, a smart-mouthed 14-year-old girl who’s immune to the infection and a possible host for a cure. Joel must escort her to a research facility run by the Fireflies, a rebel group, with hopes of creating a widespread cure.
Supporting characters and gripping scenes are very delicate to the game’s experience. Thus it’s tough to mention them in detail without dropping spoilers. Then again the tale is easy to follow which comes to the game’s benefit. The dire setting, impressive voice acting and convincing facial expressions may foster a strong connection between the player and the subjects throughout the campaign. Even the notes left by stragglers and those long dead pull you into the game’s hopeless atmosphere.
The Last Of Us‘ quality art design amidst some pop-in and jaggies may lead gamers to assume it’s Uncharted with zombie. Well, the notion is dead wrong. Joel can’t take much damage before dying, moves around like a middle-aged man should and his health doesn’t regenerate. Resources require judicious use and the constant theme of fight or flight holds true for most of the game’s encounters with common enemies. Players can’t shoot from the hip and ammo isn’t bountiful. Well-placed shots with less auto-aim than most console shooters stay key whenever the trigger’s squeezed.
Joel is also equipped with a listening mode which looks like sonar vision straight out of the Splinter Cell series. It has limited, upgrade-able range, slows Joel to a crawl yet seems overpowered since enemies’ sounds visualize them through walls. The tool eventually becomes indispensable later on as set pieces routinely open Joel up for blind spots.
Linear stage design locks players on a set path but most engagements are open-ended. Outsmarting a pack of hunters or maneuvering past clickers initially feels daunting with a bare inventory. Then things gets less nerve-wracking as you gain crafting skills, enhance your abilities and naturally get better at the game.
All your actions take place in real-time: adding suspense to everything you do. Buying time to heal and craft while humans flank, spending precious seconds to strangle foes and flat-out running for your life emit memorable, impromptu engagements for the most part. Unfamiliarity with new locales on top of an unforgiving health system force some instances of frustrating trial-and-error but, on normal, they don’t feel insurmountable or game-breaking.
Then there are times when encounters apparently force you to kill everyone or devolve into wack-a-mole shootouts with humans indiscriminately running for cover. Hit detection also flakes out at the most inopportune times. For example, a shotgun blast which normally kills regular foes from up close might not work that one time…and cost you your life. Strangle attempts aren’t available on elevation changes either; meaning you can’t subdue an enemy while walking up or down stairs.
The game’s puzzle design also leaves much to be desired. They’re basic exercises in moving objects and activating switches, generators and doors to advance. Perhaps that’s good news for people who hate brain teasers. Nevertheless, the design choice doesn’t follow in a game requiring you to scour then MacGyver household items into bombs, molotov cocktails and such.
An online pass unlocks “Factions” aka online multiplayer. You start off with picking between the Firefly/Hunter squads and collect resources every match to develop your commune. The modes, variants of team deathmatch and team elimination, don’t lend themselves to lone-wolf play. Teamwork is essential and one bad link can really ruin your chances at winning. It’s almost not worth playing alone since you’re at matchmaking’s mercy to put you on a competent team. However, it’s a fun diversion and surprisingly good with friends adept at the game. Only providing two playlists hurts its replay value, though.
Joel and Ellie’s saga isn’t beyond reproach after its hype-train died down. We’ve seen elements like crafting and survival in plenty of games before. What sets it is how well it seams inventory management, stealth, action and decision-making together despite its rough spots.
The emphasis on storytelling here also proves how said aspect is more important than the story type. Various media have seen a protective figure chaperon a weaker character with a parent/child relationship subtext. This game cogently builds the dynamic while maintaining the sense of urgency from the start to finish. The feat is a tall order for a 15+ hour game and it’s a major reason why The Last Of Us succeeds.
Leave the “best game EVAR” cries from fans alone for now. This is fine PS3 swan song in the meantime. The largely methodical gameplay isn’t built for impatient players as windows of opportunity stay tight. Those still looking for a more cerebral adventure should find enjoyment in Naughty Dog’s best game yet.