Monday, February 24, 2014

Review: The Last of Us

The Last of Us is a weighty game. It lets you know this the moment you start it up, because to even start a new game requires lots of disk churning and whirling. I once timed a game startup at 15 minutes, though after the game got cached onto my hybrid SSD startup became a much more manageable 3-4 minutes. The characters move as though the weight of the world is on their shoulders as well. Joel, the main viewpoint character, grunts and moves slowly, and even on the occasions when you play Ellie, the girl he's supposed to protect, she doesn't quite dance, either.

The first 80% of the game absolutely drove me nuts. Part of it was my own fault, and part of it was the game's. I'd read many reviews saying that this was a game where you could stealth your way past a lot of enemies, and so I set out to do precisely that, only to be frustrated time after time by an exit that required making noise and therefore led to my having to kill every moving object in the arena. This was my fault: I shouldn't have paid any attention to reviews.

And then sometimes I would try to stealth a section and for no apparent reason monsters would descend upon my location and the game would frustrate me no end. I couldn't apparently shoot my way out of the encounter, nor could I find a way to avoid the monsters! This was the game's fault. In many ways, the first 80% of the game felt like the first day you attended an English class that wanted to teach you LITERATURE. Until that day, you enjoyed reading, and you loved stories. What that English class taught you was that LITERATURE means you can't have any fun reading whatsoever. The stories would have to be insipid and boring, like The Merchant of Venice, instead of Flowers for Algernon. You would have to read Things Fall Apart instead of A Wizard of Earthsea. In many ways, The Last of Us does for action games what The Merchant of Venice would do for Shakespeare: make you hate it. Instead of the beautiful state of flow you can achieve in Among Thieves, you got a character, Joel, who plodded instead of ran, couldn't aim a weapon straight, and of course, ran out of ammunition at every opportunity. Even the "realism" rankled, because your enemies would shoot infinite bullets at you, but when you finally killed one you'd try to loot his body and discovered that he'd apparently used his last bullet just before you killed him. The first 80% of The Last of Us felt like I was being made to atone for years of being a rat-bastard DM. And yes, I was playing the game on EASY mode! Nowhere did the word fun enter into the game play. I played the game hoping for a payoff, but watched in despair as the hours racked up on the PS3 without a sign of me becoming actually good at it.

Then in the last 20% of the game everything finally clicked. First, I'd finally upgraded Joel and his weapons to the point where I didn't feel like he was incompetent at everything. He still ran out of ammunition frequently, but I finally learned that nail bombs were for humans and Molotov cocktails were for monsters. The repetition finally drilled everything into me. Then the game switched me over to playing Ellie, the girl he was trying to protect, and her encounter with the enemy David sent chills up my spine, tingling with suspense. That's followed by a gorgeous sequence in Salt Lake City where every cliche would have had Joel running after Ellie as she ran head-long into danger, and instead... we got giraffes in a beautifully rendered post-apocalyptic urban setting. Make no mistake, this game is gorgeously rendered. Naughty Dog has managed to motion-capture and program its way past the uncanny valley of character animation and facial expressions. Every nuance of the characters, from body language to little ticks and smiles is rendered in such a way that the game feels very much like a feature film, and I'm not talking about the cut scenes. If this is what Naughty Dog can manage with an 8 year old CPU/GPU combination and 256MB of RAM, I can't wait to see what they do given modern technology and 8GB of RAM.

There are minor glitches in the game, though the most glaring one was the stealth-kill button when you play as Ellie. The game prompts you to push the triangle button, but it really should be the square. This bug cost me no small amount of frustration.

What's more, the game does all the right things in terms of story. For instance, I agree that one of the problems with Tomb Raider was the character called Sam. Naughty Dog could have gone that way, with you having to rescue Ellie all the time, but in fact, didn't. Not only does Ellie rescue herself, but during combat she frequently helps Joel, which is one of the reasons the relationship between Joel and Ellie is believable. By the end of the story, you understand that these two will do anything for each other. On top of that, the story is extremely self-aware: the violence is brutal, and the game doesn't shy away from it, and Ellie gasps when Joel does something particularly nasty. The game does for the zombie game what Unforgiven did for Westerns.

The soundtrack is also well done, full of quiet beauty, and quite unlike anything else you might have heard in video games. I was content to let the ending credits roll and just listen to the music when the game was over, but rather than feel satisfied that I had done something, I just felt relieved that I didn't have to play this game any more.

Thus, I am left with a dilemma. As a technological tour de force, this game is a must play. For the moments of beauty in a post apocalyptic world, it's clear that the teams of artists that worked on this game did not waste their time. With great voice acting and a reasonably decent story (though unfortunately I spotted the plot twists miles away), the characters draw you in and make you believe in Naughty Dog's creation in a way that lesser games struggle to do. But is the game play fun? Not really. It's repetitive, and the amount of work you have to do to gather objects, etc., overshadows the moments of brilliance. And you really just care about the story, you could just watch the entire game on youtube. Nowhere does the game actually let you make substantial choices, so you wouldn't be missing much.

If you haven't played games for awhile, play Among Thieves or Tomb Raider first. Both those games excel at putting you in flow, and being fun. Then when you have had enough fun, and want to eat your vegetables, play The Last of Us. And in this case, it's OK if you never get to your veggies. You won't get constipated if you don't.

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