From the creators of Jak & Daxter and Uncharted comes The Last of Us, a new third person adventure that is an absolute must-have.
A few weeks ago I got a chance to play the demo for The Last of Us (TLOU) and I wrote up my impressions. Overall, I was very encouraged by Naughty Dog and SCE's latest collaboration. Having just completed the single player mode today, I'm convinced this is not only on target to be one of the very best games of 2013, but it's one of the very best games this generation.
The Last of Us is a powerful character and story driven third person survival horror/adventure/action game that revolves around an outbreak of a deadly infection that has killed off or zombified some 60% of the world population. The spread of this infection and its apocalyptic effects happened very quickly, leaving most people completely unprepared. A typical person goes from being exposed (either through inhalation of fungal spores or being bitten by an infected) to full-on zombie in just two days. As far as the United States is concerned, the remnants of humanity fall into groups of government, survivors, and the infected. You will play as two special survivors -- Joel and Ellie.
Joel lived through the madness, and continues to survive. His hometown of Boston was decimated by its effects, yet twenty years later, which is when the story takes place, he's still alive, and still scraping a living for himself as a smuggler. Ellie is a fourteen year old who was born after the outbreak and knows next to nothing of life as it was before the outbreak. Both Joel and Ellie are used to being alone, but circumstances bring them together as they must make a cross-country trek to save humanity.
I have played very, very few games that have a story as engrossing and characters as powerful as TLOU. Pundits may try to write this off as a 'typical post-apocalyptic zombie game,' but they would be sorely wrong. Within a couple of hours I found myself acutely interested in not only Joel, the main playable character, but in the NPCs as well. This is a trend that continues throughout the entire game -- meaningful NPCs, both good guys and bad, that you will be eager to see what happens to them. Their outcomes aren't always good, but how Naughty Dog unfolds and tells their story, and inserts new plot twists, is never short of amazing. There are no 'boss fights' or some over-arching enemy or enemy force, either, which is actually very refreshing. When a game can get you to buy in this much, you know you're onto something good.
That TLOU is also very fun and addictive only adds to its prestige. This is the type of game that hours fly by without you even knowing it. On more than one occasion during my sixteen hour play-through, I found myself up at 4AM, hours past my normal bedtime, just wanting to get a little bit further. The pacing encourages this; there's always some place you need to get to, ideally the sooner the better, and threats are almost constantly around. TLOU uses the same silent, constant auto-save system first introduced in Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. There are no save points or any need to stop and save manually. This is one of several methods Naughty Dog employs to keep you immersed, and as with those previous games, failures are recouped quickly thanks to near instant load times.
As for the pacing, gameplay is literally split into two forms: exploration and action, also known as encounters. The exploration scenes give time for the characters to talk, the story to develop, and for players to enjoy the marvelous artwork and direction. These scenes have you searching for and gathering key in-game items and also some of the many (roughly 150) collectibles to find. Platforming and very simple puzzle solving occurs here too. Provided you have the materials, crafting medkits, nailbombs, shivs, smoke bombs, and molotov cocktails is best done during these calmer scenes too. Every now and then, you'll find a bench to use collected points to upgrade weapons, too. Weapon upgrades include the typical gamut of reducing recoil, increasing reload speed, clip size, damage, adding a scope, and so on. A separate, always-accessible upgrade screen lets you upgrade Joel's skills like crafting speed, a steadier aim, increased health meter, and increasing your Listen mode distance. Joel (and Ellie) can "listen" by pressing R2 -- when you do, a graphics filter paints everything a fuzzy black and white. Locations of nearby characters, friendly and enemy alike, are shown, helping you plan your attack.
I'm happy to note that encounters are not all just against the infected -- you will spend at least as much if not more time fighting bandits and other non-infected human lowlifes that have essentially become modern day savages. Their unsophisticated combat compliments other encounters with humans who are better organized, trained, and armed. Stealth is often an option, but sometimes it can be more of a chore than it's worth. While you can sneak up and strangle, knife, or just shoot an enemy in the head while choking them, not to mention use your bow for longer range silent kills, the guns-blazings route is often efficient enough (at least on Normal). A handful of tight infected situations ended up working out better for me by going all out, but your mileage may vary. Either way you'll be having fun.
Some areas demand stealth, others a quick trigger, but regardless, ammo is always precious. Most guns can only hold a dozen or so rounds and if you aren't targeting enemies well or they are armored, ammo depletes really fast. Melee weapons such as boards, bats, and machetes help, but break after just a few hits. These too can be temporarily upgraded by taping scissors onto them. Loose bricks and bottles are used to stun enemies for a quick melee kill or a diversion, too. You can only carry one brick or one bottle at a time, but they're never in short supply. Using such a diversion to get a few enemies close together is the perfect time to take out several at once with molotov cocktails or nailbombs. There are also smoke bombs to help you escape but I only used these once or twice -- most of the time forgetting I even had them at my disposal.
Friendly NPCs hold their own and are fairly helpful -- the good thing is that they're never a liability, whether you are sneaking around or involved in a firefight. You may see their lifeline pop-up if they're really under duress, but you're given ample opportunity to bail them out. However, when you die -- instantly via a Clicker bite for example (man those are annoying), or from being punched out -- it's game over.
As I look over my notes and just think about my time playing through TLOU, almost everything is positive. A few other notes I wrote include how I liked the Run command was mapped to L2, not L3 (where I often get a lot of accidental presses) and that the medkit and HP system is far better than the lazy "take cover and you'll automatically heal" system used in Uncharted and so many other games. I'll have more positives to mention a bit further down this article, but what about he negatives? There were some things -- admittedly a few that are of the nit-pickey variety -- that stood out in a negative light. I also mentioned a few of these in my impressions article of the demo last month. I suppose the best way for me to do this is just a bullet list with a brief explanation:
-At one point early in the game, I crouched through a small opening. When I turned around to go back through it, suddenly there were some boards blocking the path back: A game like this wants to keep players moving forward and avoid the frustration and loss of time by giving the average player too many routes. Indeed, there is no map or "objective list" -- if you are idle in a place for more than a few minutes, a optional Hint cue will pop up. Anyway, level design is pretty straight-forward. There are usually a few potential alternate paths to take, but these turn out to be either dead ends (like a staircase that has a bunch of furniture blocking it, or a locked door) or they just quickly wrap around and meet up with the sole intended and proper path. My takeaway from this is that I would have liked some more openness and freedom, but I can appreciate what Naughty Dog did here in keeping players immersed and focused on the narrative.
-I found it odd that you could not search enemies for supplies; some drop supplies, but you never know when or how much: Having the option to stop and search every fallen enemy (of the non-infected variety let's just say) would have really slowed the pace down and also taken away a lot of the survivor-horror gameplay. Even enemies that were shooting at you a moment ago can't be searched for ammo, which technically is unrealistic, but at the cost of negatively effecting pace and gameplay, I can again understand why this was not done.
-While your character (usually Joel) has to sneak around (Clickers especially), the AI does not: With Clickers, you have to not only crouch, but barely push the left stick forward to move around them without being detected by their echolocation. You will see your AI buddies dash about them however, undetected: This disparity may be seen as a break in the game world's own established rules, but I'll take that over having the AI trigger Clickers on any kind of regular basis.
-The AI knows immediately when an area is clear, even if you haven't even "gotten to the other side" of the encounter: Similar to when games immediately stop the action music as soon as you take out the last enemy of an area, you'll immediately know if an area is clear of enemies because the AI is very quick to let you know. I would have preferred the tension stay high until I could have confirmed that the area was clear myself, by looking and Listening. Having the AI immediately give an all clear when there are still lots of areas and hiding spots in the vicinity that you haven't checked is disagreeable.
-For some reason when playing as Ellie and trying to throw bricks or bottles, I kept hitting the wall in front of me despite the "crosshair" showing otherwise.
-Crafting and puzzle solving are, like the level design, pretty basic: The puzzles you encounter involve negotiating the terrain. Whether that's getting Ellie across a body of water (she can't swim) or getting up to a higher place, this usually involves one of a few basic things -- boosting Ellie over a locked door of some kind, finding a pallet for her to float on, moving a ladder a few feet, or dropping a plank down across two structures to walk across it. At one point, even Ellie makes a crack at having to hop on another pallet, which is funny in that fourth-wall-breaking kind of way. I thought crafting was similarly kind of basic -- there are about six different kinds of material and the game will tell you when you can craft something. To do so, you just hold X for a few seconds. You can only craft five or six different things. I think this aspect of the game could have been better if it involved more thinking and interaction on the player's part.
-On two separate occasions, my screen blacked out for two to three seconds: Could be either my launch PS3 struggling a bit or just a bug.
-I ultimately would end up disagreeing with the ending to the story as well, and was a somewhat surprised players didn't have a choice to make: But I will say the ending has had me thinking about it several times since I experienced it, which is more than I can say for most games I play through.
So even in my list of "negatives," I found some positive explanations or submissions to include for several of the items. It's just that damn good of a game. Two other layers I have yet to speak of are the presentation and multiplayer. I actually can't say much about the multiplayer mode known as Factions. Sony released a video about it on their blog recently, but the Online Pass is inactive until June 14th. I wouldn't normally say this about a game, but the multiplayer component could have been left out or not even working and my thoughts on TLOU wouldn't change for the negative. The story mode is so engrossing you're liable to forget their is a multiplayer mode altogether, not to discredit the effort that went into making it.
As for presentation, in a word, it's marvelous. The Uncharted engine flexed its muscle for us in Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception and does so again here. In typical Naughty Dog fashion, players are taken across a variety of environments, including blinding snow, gentle rains, and underground areas. The contrast between these is significant and often refreshing. A cramped, uninviting indoor area is sometimes followed by serene outdoor areas with glistening sunlight peppering the landscape. I do not recall another game where the lighting -- especially from the sun -- was done so well and realistically. The amount of random shadows, just like you experience in life, is stunning. The visual detail in abandoned houses, offices, stores, and in nature are enough to make you slow down and examine things. You'll discover clocks on the wall (most showing 10:10, even across different cities, which I found odd), family pictures, wanted ads, lists, trash, even a Jak & Daxter board game. Obviously, there's much more than that short list but it all goes towards making the whole experience much more than just a soul-less, perilous trek across the US. It helps nurture the idea of the tragedy that has befallen the world and its people.
As for the voiceovers, effects, and soundtrack, these all contribute in generally positive ways, too. I can't think of anything I found disagreeable with the voiceovers except Ellie cursed a bit too strongly and a little too much. Not to the degree of Rico in Killzone 2 mind you, but still. It's not hard to overlook that, but I thought maybe Naughty Dog went a little overboard with her language. The soundtrack has several somber 'twangy' acoustic guitar tunes that are fitting and somewhat memorable.
TLOU took me just a few minutes over sixteen hours to complete on Normal according to the game stats and I found around two-thirds of the collectibles in doing so. A New Game Plus mode is offered upon completion, and you can purchase, with money you somehow earn during your play-through, new shirts and backpacks and graphics filters and concept art. Some clothing and items are only available if you beat the game in Hard or Survivor modes. Multiplayer should prove interesting, but only time will tell. With that, let's get to the summary...