Thursday, 27 February 2014

Review: The Last of Us (PS3)



Naughty Dog have certainly proven they can jump genre's with ease, going from Indiana Jones style adventure with Nathan Drake in Uncharted to soul crushing despair akin to watching post apocalyptic film the road on depressants in the form of the last of us.

The premise is simple.  The world has gone to shit after a fungal brain infection went worldwide and turned close to 60% of the populace into raving aggressive monsters who attack anyone not infected on sight.  The remaining human populace flee into hastily erected quarantine zones governed by the military.  Over two decades pass and things haven't gotten any better as a cure seems impossible to find and the threat beyond the walls remains the same as it did in year one, if not worse.

You play as Joel, a smuggler who takes a job considered suicidal by most.  He must escort a teenage girl named Ellie from the Boston quarantine zone to the paramilitary group known as the fireflies. Ellie is somewhat special since she appears to be immune to the infection and essentially her life is mankind's future.

The zone is a harsh police state
The last of us plays like a third person action, horror, stealth game with the odd smattering of puzzle solving every once in a while.  The Uncharted series DNA can be seen throughout the experience from the lavishly detailed environments, sharp dialogue, memorable score and it's characterisation.  Joel and Ellie are very believable people in a very unbelievable world.  Joel is a man with a gruff exterior and no nonsense attitude but underneath is still a father who has lost much in this world.  Ellie is a teenager but due to the harsh realities of life in the quarantine zone she is more streetwise and physically capable than your average teenager today.  Naturally the game focuses heavily on the relationship between the two as they take this nightmarish journey across the now ravaged United States together, facing off against the infected and those survivors who will do anything to live another day.

From the start this game is unforgiving, just because it was made by Naughty Dog do not expect it to be as laid back as Uncharted.  This game will punish you for dumb decisions since ammunition is always in short supply and combat is always a risky proposition.  Weapons do a lot of damage even on easy and it doesn't take much for Joel to be killed.  Hiding behind cover will protect you from bullets in a firefight but the enemy AI isn't stupid and will actively flank you to force you from cover or even attack you with melee weapons.  The infected will out and out rush you and if you aren't careful you will be quickly overwhelmed regardless of how many bullets you have.

The game actively recommends stealth whenever possible, either to avoid combat altogether or at least to conserve resources.  The game has numerous little arena's with plenty of options for the stealthy killers out there.  Using bottles and bricks to distract human and infected enemies as well as traps you can create (more on that later) to thin their numbers. 

Clickers are the scariest of the infected
A big part of the game is the crafting system which allows the player to craft numerous items to give Joel and Ellie a fighting chance.  Crafting requires resources that are scattered all around the environments, meaning you will want to check out every nook and cranny even when it means risking detection by threats.  These items allow you to create first aid kits, molotov cocktails, nail bombs, smoke bombs and shivs.  Each has an important use in the game, whether it be to allow a more stealthy approach with silent kills or creating traps for patrolling enemies with nail bombs. 

It's a system that is essential in the multiplayer mode which seems like the usual tacked on box tick feature but in play it actually works.  Players pick to be a member of the fireflies or the hunters with you representing a community of survivors.  Each match played online represents one day in a week for your community and brings in vital resources needed for that group to survive and expand.  The more people in your community the more items you unlock for your character.  These are things like new weapons, clothes and modifications.

Matches are played with teams of four and range from your typical team deathmatch, capture the flag and one life modes.  The system works very well and the same level of brutality is here as it is in the main game, especially the executions.  Another plus is that when a player drops out the game will actively search for more players to fill the gap, so it's rare you will end up with a team that is outnumbered for very long.  It's not perfect but at least Naughty Dog have tried to address the typical console crowd of players leaving when they start losing.

Bricks are pretty versatile items in TLOU
My negatives about the game are few but they are noticeable.  For a start the game takes an exceedingly long time to load, melee hit detection can sometimes be a bit wonky with Joel swinging at air instead of the man wielding the hatchet next to him and the AI can sometimes be a little braindead.  I also feel on occasion the game tries to kill you with cheap moves like spawning a gang of infected out of nowhere to surround you, such as the high school in Bill's town.

Graphically the game is great considering the age of the hardware in the PS3.  Character animate very fluidly and naturally and look very detailed.  Everyone, even the infected, are incredibly expressive and it all adds to the atmosphere of the game.  The environments are varied and lavishly detailed with stories to tell in every building, either through notes found on desks or literally written on walls.  Some places just have the aftermath of events that tell a grisly story of loss and terror.  It's nice to hear the characters comment on nearly every note found further adding to the immersion. 

The audio is just as good as the visuals with a haunting score that captures the feeling of this world perfectly.  The voice acting is top notch with Troy Baker giving an extremely powerful performance as Joel, but that isn't to say the rest of the cast do a bad job.  Ashley Johnson really makes Ellie stand out as a character you want to help and protect rather than ignore.  Many games fall into the trap of making sidekick characters annoying or bland but Ellie has just as much gravitas to her as Joel does and the two work well together in both a narrative and gameplay sense.

Every now and then the game becomes a little prettier
Overall the last of us is a good game.  It isn't a game full of new ideas or even refinements of those it uses but it all works well.  Technically it's solid, the acting is great and the story is mature and doesn't hold back.  To be honest for me the best parts of the game involved the exploration and discussions had between characters.  If combat had been more rare but also more deadly it would have worked just as well since the characters carry a lot of the game without the action.  Simply listening to them discuss things that have happened or they hope to happen while navigating a dilapidated hotel, abandoned high school, apartment blocks and more is entertaining in and of itself.  Removing these elements reveals a mediocre stealth combat game that has sharp difficulty spikes and repetitive gameplay, this can be seen in the multiplayer which strips away the characters for the combat and it shows quite a different game.

SCORE: 8.5/10

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