Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Last of Us (PlayStation 3) (Naughty Dog, Sony Computer Entertainment, 2013)

The Last of Us Cover Art

The Last of Us, one of the last significant PlayStation-exclusive titles of the seventh generation, is not the most innovative of games. In both design and narrative, it treads familiar territory. Its gameplay is a mix of survival horror, stealth action, and cover-based third-person shooter, while the storytelling is conventional, relying heavily on scripted encounters and non-interactive cinematics. And yet it is a rare case in at least one way. It's a new IP whose release was anticipated with enormous triple-A expectations. From the moment its first trailer debuted at the Spike Video Game Awards 2011, fanboys and the press alike, without any idea yet how the game was even supposed to play, latched onto the confident maturity of the presentation and Naughty Dog's pedigree as developer of Uncharted, Sony's flagship series on the PlayStation 3, immediately pegging it as future Game of the Year. Gaming is a culture where serious criticism is all but nonexistent, reviews are increasingly a pointless exercise, and most consumers make up their minds on whether to buy a big-budget game well in advance of its release. And so, as the months counted down to release and anticipation built, enthusiasts, having already committed their money and emotion, were depending on this game being one for the ages. Remarkably, faced with such lofty expectations, The Last of Us mostly delivers, numerous perfect scores and Game of the Year awards giving testimony to Naughty Dog's achievement. I don't know that I'd call it "Game of the Generation," but I also wouldn't argue with anyone who would.

Coming into the PS3 generation, two of my favorite game series (which I haven't enjoyed quite as much lately), were Resident Evil and Metal Gear. In a lot of ways, The Last of Us plays like the best Resident Evil ever AND the best Metal Gear ever.

As a survival horror game, The Last of Us plays much more faithful to the classic Resident Evil formula than do Resident Evil's own PS3-era sequels. It's one of the more truly unnerving games I've ever played, as well as one of the most unforgiving high-profile titles in recent memory, the two points being not unrelated. The "infected" in this game are at first scary for the reasons that zombies usually are; they are grotesque in appearance and manner yet eerily resonant, their blighted forms still recognizable as something once human, and embodying our fears of what we are one day to become, when we reach our own expiration dates.

In the Resident Evil series, zombies have become less and less frightening with each installment, because, once you see through their threatening facade, they rarely pose a legitimate danger. Consider Capcom's most recent entry, Resident Evil 6, where Leon S. Kennedy is able to carve a destructive swath through a horde of zombies simply by kicking and punching them to smithereens. This is in sharp contrast to the original PS1 Resident Evil, where every encounter could be a mentally and physically draining exercise, as you had to consider your approach—fight or dodge—and then grapple with the clunky controls to try to execute, understanding that even a single mistake could be very costly.

The Last of Us marks a return to those classic Resident Evil days, as the stage-3 infected "clickers," in particular, pose a serious threat to player character Joel, able to cause instant death if they get their hands on him. This is true even on the easiest difficulty, and the clickers are introduced fairly early on in the campaign, before the player is likely to have the tools to effectively combat them. Segments that task you with navigating through rooms full of these monsters, when even a single one could mean the end of you, are psychologically exhausting, requiring intense concentration and patience, as you observe their movements and plan your approach accordingly. Perhaps, after silently shanking two of them in separate, very carefully planned and executed maneuvers, you'll decide, with only one left to take out, that you'll try to conserve your shivs and bet instead on your common brick to brain the last one, hoping that the somewhat clumsy melee combat doesn't let you down, and understanding that, if that three-hit combo doesn't go off according to plan—if, say, the erratic clicker lurches the wrong way just as you're about to strike—there's a very real chance that you'll end up having to replay the entire sequence over again from before the first kill. The game thus brutally conditions you to react with dread at the distinctive rattle that signifies the presence of one or more of these creatures in the vicinity.

As menacing as the clickers are, eventually you learn to dread encounters with enemy humans even more. The human foes in The Last of Us are just as disturbingly malevolent as the infected, and, although they cannot cause instant game over, they are often packing firearms, and, unlike mindless zombies, they will summon reinforcements and work together to try to flank you. The game does possess some third-person shooter DNA inherited from Uncharted, if you choose to go that route (and there are segments where you have no other choice but to shoot it out), but, with no regenerating health here, and with weapons and medicine in short supply, firefights in The Last of Us feel a good deal more desperate than in typical cover-based shooters. A stealthier approach is advisable through most of the campaign, and this is where the tactical side to The Last of Us shines through.

Again, the player has a lot of decisions to make on how to proceed through a room full of hostiles. Do you have enough ammo to try to fight your way through? Are you even confident enough in your mastery of the crude firearms at your disposal to wage a gun battle? If not, which guys might you be able to safely slip past, which had you better take out, and can you possibly strangle them stealthily, rather than using your noisy guns and melee weapons, which would be sure to attract other guys and escalate matters into a very hairy situation indeed? You also must adjust your strategy depending on whether you're dealing with humans or with infected, which adds a nice bit of variety. While humans rely primarily on sight, clickers and other higher-level infected are blind and depend on their enhanced sensitivity to sound to track you.

Aiding your decision-making process is the "Listen Mode" mechanic, functionally equivalent to the Soliton Radar from Metal Gear Solid, which lets you sense foes through walls, so that you can better observe their patterns as you formulate your strategy. No explanation is ever given for why Joel's senses are so superhumanly acute in this game that otherwise so aspires to realism, and things get even more ridiculous when Ellie becomes the player character and possesses the same ability. Use of it is optional, of course, although I personally feel that playing without it reduces the tactical component immensely, since you're often left flying blind and having to scramble in its absence.

The combat does become progressively more manageable as Joel learns to craft more useful items, such as the Molotov cocktail and the nail bomb. Even so, the stealth gameplay never takes on the mischievous bent of the Metal Gear Solid series, which has always encouraged the player to somewhat sadistically experiment with all the ways one can lethally prank dopey guards (I mean, distracting them with dirty magazines—really?). In The Last of Us, staying hidden is about survival, and those interminable moments when you're holding your breath, crouching behind a desk, waiting anxiously for the clicker or well-armed human lingering on the other side of it to just move along already, rate among the all-time nail-biters I've experienced in any stealth game. So too is the sense of relief incomparably exhilarating, when such moments finally pass without incident.

Even if the enemies don't intimidate you, it still behooves you to always maintain the element of surprise for as long as possible, picking guys off quietly one at a time, so that you can conserve your resources, which, in classic survival horror fashion, are scarce and must be managed judiciously. The constant scavenging of the environment for items is, for me, one of the more tiresome aspects of adventuring in video games, but at least, in The Last of Us, whatever supplies you may find are almost certain to be something you'll be low on and in need of.

The player's examinations also reveal, through notes and journals left behind, and just through the game's intricately detailed environments, a secondary narrative about how the infection has ravaged civilization, and how humankind has responded to this new order, whole societies pushed out of the towns and cities, which nature has now reclaimed in their absence. A particularly compelling subplot, explored only through environmental storytelling and Resident Evil-style documents, concerns the harrowing journey of a group of civilians, who, for a time, managed to band together into a sustainable underground community. From the remnants of their sewer settlement to their abandoned former houses in the nearby town, the player is able to follow these ghosts backwards through the unfortunate circumstances and tragic decision-making that led to their ultimate downfall.

It is the main story of Joel and Ellie, however, that will leave the biggest impression for most players of The Last of Us. Although, as I mentioned, the story is conventional in presentation, linear and frequently non-interactive, it is nevertheless superbly written and acted. The material is uncompromisingly, but never gratuitously, adult. The characters inhabit a dark and ugly world, that idea of "survival" taken beyond the genre's gameplay conventions to heavily inform the narrative's tone and theme. The brutal methods that enemy groups mean to employ against the player throughout the game are all strongly implied to have been tactics utilized by Joel himself many times before to survive. Our grizzled player character is clearly not a nice guy, but as the relationship between Joel and Ellie, eventually a surrogate daughter to him, grows and deepens, the player comes to understand and identify with his ruthlessness that seems merely a necessary evil to protect the things we hold dear.

Much of the experience hinges on how the player responds to the character of Ellie, and it is greatly to Naughty Dog's credit that they have managed to craft a child character who doesn't come off as one of those "annoying whippersnapper" types (as are most child sidekicks in movies and TV). A typical teenager, she can be irreverent but also approaches the world with a fresher set of eyes, providing some necessary levity and gusto to balance out Joel's stoicism and the overall bleakness of the story. Part of it is that actress Ashley Johnson, who voices the character, is, unlike the character, not an adolescent but an adult with decades of experience. That's one of the advantages that a video game can have over a live-action film or TV show. In a live-action movie, you would need a kid to play a kid, when, the truth is, most kid performers can't play much of anything. Beyond that, Naughty Dog was clearly determined that Ellie be not a mere tagalong kid to get in the way and periodically need rescuing, but a full-fledged co-protagonist, who can carry the story together with Joel, and potentially even without him.

This transfers over into the gameplay, as, even with the player having one or more AI companions at almost all times throughout the campaign, no part of it ever feels like an escort mission. Although failing to protect Ellie can lead to a game over, this actually doesn't happen, in practice, nearly as often as it realistically should. Ellie and the other AI companions mostly disappear during combat (or potential combat) situations. They can be of limited assistance, sometimes pulling an enemy off Joel, but their bullets seem to be made of rubber, and so it takes forever for them to actually put an enemy down. But they also don't get in the way and are surprisingly adept at avoiding detection during sneaking segments. Or, rather, it is, by design, impossible for enemies to notice AI companions until the player is spotted first. Occasionally, this can lead to absurd instances where the computer-controlled Ellie might take cover in the wrong spot, ending up out in the open, right in front of an enemy, but, so long as the player remains hidden, the enemy will walk past her as though she is invisible. This happens fairly regularly and is hard to ignore, as it totally breaks the spell of the game. But I take it, along with Listen Mode, as one of those concessions to gamey-ness that is in service to the player. I think it's fair to accept these advantages to balance out such an equally absurd convention as, for example, enemies who have seemingly unlimited ammo when they are shooting you, but who then leave none behind after you kill them.

The gunplay in The Last of Us is not its strongest suit, and the handful of sections where the player is forced into exchanging fire with enemies from behind cover, while competent, are unremarkable, feeling like any generic third-person shooter. At least most every gun feels distinct and has a use, and a nice touch is that Naughty Dog actually shows where on his person Joel is carrying each of his many weapons, thereby avoiding the common issue of video game heroes presumably carrying grenade launchers in their pant pockets. I do find the game suffers somewhat from a clumsy interface that makes it tricky to switch to the right weapon in the middle of a firefight. I would have preferred a simple wheel system to cycle left/right through all of the guns (and another, vertical wheel for explosives).

Naughty Dog has purposefully limited both Joel's selection of firearms and his ability with them, as a way to dictate, not only how one plays the game (stealthily, rather than aggressively), but also how one feels while playing (desperate, rather than like a badass killing machine). As someone who has played and enjoyed a lot of more straightforward shooters this generation, this feeling of gun inadequacy in The Last of Us could be frustrating for me at times. The upside to it, however, is that, because the game so conditions you to scraping by while feeling under-equipped, consequently it is that much more satisfying when it does throw you a bone.

Toward the very end of the game, with only a few rooms of guards standing in my way along the home stretch, I grew impatient with sneaking and decided finally to just go in loud, whereupon I quickly found myself hilariously outgunned and shredded by flack jacketed goons armed with assault rifles. Before I fell, however, I did manage to take a few of them down with me, and, for a split-second, as I stood looking down upon a slain foe's body, right before my own character collapsed, I glimpsed a button prompt indicating that I could pick up the fallen soldier's rifle. And so the new plan solidified as the game reloaded me into the mission. I used smoke bombs to cover myself as I rushed that soldier, took him out immediately with my hatchet, then, as quickly as I could, claimed his gun as my own and immediately swung it around, opening up on my pursuers. There was not a second to spare in execution, but everything went according to plan. Once I had that assault rifle, the tables were turned, and I quickly gunned down three of them in as many seconds. It was one of the most thrilling and empowering moments in gaming. Truly, having that gun in my virtual hands made me feel like a god. What's silly is that, really, that rifle was a weaker version of the most basic weapon in Gears of War, a series I've toured four times and never felt as much a badass in. But, because nothing else like it existed anywhere in The Last of Us, once I was finally able to wield a fully automatic weapon, after some fifteen hours spent making due with less effective handguns and shotguns, of course it felt glorious.

The same could be said of the combat as a whole. Make no mistake, combat does constitute the majority of the experience in The Last of Us, but there are also regular stretches where you're just investigating your surroundings, looking for items or working on simple puzzles (e.g. where does the wooden plank go?), and, during these quieter moments, Joel and Ellie will often walk and talk, and you can enjoy the scenery. And the game is surprisingly sparing in its use of the infected, saving clickers from ever becoming commonplace and ho-hum.

The Last of Us deserves no accolades for innovation. It's not a new experience in any significant way, although I can't, offhand, think of any game before so unflinchingly and soberly mature (and I don't just mean that it's violent, or that there are swear words). In this still-young medium, where enthusiasts are always looking for the next great idea, what truly is the contribution of this prospective "Game of the Generation" to the evolutionary arc of the form? Personally, I do feel The Last of Us is a masterpiece, one of the great games of its generation, or ever—not a turning point, no, but a culmination of the entire three generations of PlayStation that preceded it. Playing it, I was reminded not only of Resident Evil and Metal Gear and Uncharted, but also EnslavedArmy of Two, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, Syphon Filter, Vagrant Story, even a bit of Final Fantasy X. I'm not saying that Naughty Dog was necessarily influenced by each of those titles, only that its members are clearly ardent disciples of game, having assimilated from across the canon to craft their own brilliant synthesis of potent ideas. The Last of Us is, if not a bold new invention, nevertheless a crowning achievement in the form. For me, playing through it was like embarking on a journey through some of my favorite memories of games past, as valid and vital as ever.


Robert Fung said...

"The game thus brutally conditions you to react with dread at the distinctive rattle that signifies the presence of one or more of these creatures in the vicinity."

The only game that immediately comes to mind as having a similar level of environmental immersion is Metroid Prime. Of course, I never played the early Resident Evil games. I miss the days when I had the mental drive to play through whole games single-player.

Journeying through Old Haunts in The Last of Us | FRAGGIN' CIVIE said...

[…] In my write-up on The Last of Us, I referred to Sony and Naughty Dog’s PlayStation 3 opus as the “culmination of the entire three generations of PlayStation that preceded it”—not a seminal work, as such, but one that expertly harnesses and synthesizes a number of great ideas pioneered by distinguished forebears. Much of the discussion surrounding the title has touched on its literary and cinematic influences (Cormac McCarthy, Children of Men, The Walking Dead), but I consider The Last of Us truly the product of “video game buffs.” Playing through it was, for me, an unexpectedly resonant experience that left me reflecting on games of the PlayStation era (my gaming prime, it’s fair to say) that have left indelible impressions on me. Since I named a bunch of them last time, I thought I’d better go ahead and elaborate on the connections I drew between these games and The Last of Us. Be warned, there will be spoilers—for The Last of Us obviously, but also for Shadow of the Colossus, Army of Two: The 40th Day, Final Fantasy X, and Syphon Filter. […]