September 14, 2013

Game Review: The Last of Us

The first problem with reviewing The Last of Us - and this was true even when it first came out - is that most people had already decided what they think about the game before playing it. When GameSpot scored the game an 8/10, the website and reviewer Tom Mc Shea received a torrent of angry and at times downright hateful responses claiming that they scored this "masterpiece" unfairly – this a full 9 days before the game was released. This incident was one of many things which inspired me to write this post.

Considering the fact that The Last of Us has been out for two months and that pretty much everyone has heard about it by now, it may seem pointless to write a review of it now. But given how much this game has been praised - usually, for all the wrong reasons - and given what I have already written, I believe it can be safely said that this review remains relevant. While I will discuss the plot, I am going to first and foremost discuss gameplay, and especially, how often these two aspects are confused when discussing this game.

Disclaimer: As far as I can tell, this review is spoiler-free. However, keep in mind that when reading a review, there's always the risk of being exposed to some minor spoiler, like the location of a fight or a type of enemy. Tread carefully.

I WANT TO TALK ABOUT IT

A good place to start a game review is identifying its genre, so that people would at least loosely know what to expect. With The Last of Us, that's not as easy as it may seem. The game has been marketed as a survival horror game; however, anyone who identifies survival horror with games like Alone in the Dark and Resident Evil (I know, I'm ancient) will have a hard time understanding why. To explain that statement, let's talk about what survival horror is in the context of video games.

Survival games are about overcoming a situation in which the odds are stacked against you: you have limited means in your disposal with which you have to overcome impossible odds, including enemies that are extremely difficult or impossible to defeat. In Alone in the Dark, few monsters could be killed with conventional weapons, and some could not even be seen without special equipment. The Resident Evil games (the first few, at least) are well-known for not even giving you enough ammo to clear the first few rooms you go through. The message that these games sent you early on is that not all encounters can or should be dealt with as fights; that killing all your enemies is not always desirable or possible, making them a constant threat in your exploration of the game world. And you usually have to explore those areas of the game a lot. [1]

If we agree on that interpretation of survival, then it certainly doesn't apply to The Last of Us. Your characters are much stronger than most enemies you'll meet, and unless you're incredibly wasteful and careless, you'll have more than enough ammo and supplies to beat every enemy in the game, even on the highest difficulty level (Survivor). In fact, for the most part, not only is it possible to finish off all enemies before moving on, but it is actually required. There are very few encounters in the game that you can avoid, and even then the game sometimes discourages that choice by giving one of the enemies some collectible that you can't get any other way. There is even one cutscene, which I can only interpret as an intentional meta-joke, in which your character is told by another that you could sneak by the next set of enemies without killing them, "even though I know that's not your style", to which the response is "we'll see how it goes".

So there is no survival element in this game; what about horror? You probably already know that there are zombie-like creatures in The Last of Us, the Infected, which have already killed the majority of humanity, and are a constant threat to the survival of the species. This setting sounds promising: what's more horrifying than to have all of humanity under the constant threat of a violent death at the hands of a throng of nightmarish monsters?

To its credit, the game does a remarkably good job of explaining the existence of these "zombies": the Infected are not undead, but humans whose brains have been taken over by parasitic bacteria. They are living creature, similar (at least at first) to zombies, who are highly aggressive towards humans. The fact that this is based on the real world Cordyceps parasite, which can take over an ant's brain, makes the story seem all the more realistic and horrifying. It also explains why the Infected can be killed by conventional means like bullets and choking.

However, all that tells you is that The Last of Us is a video game set against a horror backdrop. Sadly, this horror is never reflected in the gameplay. Horror in a video game is the constant feeling of insecurity; the understanding that not only are you comically under-equipped to defeat your enemies, but that you can never know what threat will come next, nor when and where it will appear. Both Alone In the Dark and Resident Evil are full of examples.

There's none of that in The Last of Us. Oh, you'll face quite a few Infected; however, the game almost always lets you know when the Infected show up and when you've killed all of them, and the same is true for fights with humans. Combine this with your ability to hear Infected from afar and effectively see them through walls (think Detective Mode in the Batman Arkham games) and it's basically impossible to be surprised. To be fair, this super-hearing is disabled when playing on Survivor difficulty, but Survivor only opens up after one playthrough. Since it doesn't change the location or number of enemies in any encounter, you are unlikely to be surprised.

I just told you a lot about what The Last of Us isn't, but I still didn't tell you what it is. To do that, let's be unconventional and talk gameplay. Like I said, encounters are little more than out-and-out combat, but The Last of Us actually does a good job of forcing you to be smart about how you engage enemies. Combat is fast and fluid, with a very good action vibe to it. There are many, many ways to engage enemies, and the game generally forces you to take advantage of all of them to be effective. 

The game gives you many chances for armed combat, with 12 different weapons available. The game thankfully avoids shooter cliches like three barely-distinguishable machine guns or overly-powered RPGs, with most guns different enough that you will find yourself switching between all or most of them in accordance with the situation you find yourself in. Some guns are better for taking down enemies who are further away, some are better at close range, and others are useful mostly against the bigger and stronger enemies. Even the two basic weapons, the pistol and revolver, which are pretty much the same in practice, have enough cosmetic differences between them to feel legitimately distinct.

Melee combat is less effective, as you may quickly get overwhelmed by enemies, but you will still use it in the beginning and in the later stages of an encounter to conserve ammo. Luckily, your character is so badass that he can kill almost anything with at most four punches. You can also use various melee weapons like crowbars, two-by-fours and baseball clubs to make it harder for enemies to hit you back, and these can be outfitted with various extensions that give you a certain number of one-hit kills. 

While guns and punches are fun to use, you will be even more effective if you take advantage of the game's stealth mechanics. Like pretty much any action game released nowadays, sneaking up on an enemy allows for an instant-kill takedown, but The Last of Us offers several fiendishly clever variations on that concept. Your character is quite the ninja, and can sneak around without being heard by human enemies, and for the most part, by Infected as well. Upon grabbing unaware enemies, you can finish them off by choking them, which doesn't take up any resources but does take a lot of time, meaning that you could be spotted and attacked by other enemies in the meantime; or you can finish them off with a shiv, which is fast but uses up precious supplies. Either way, you'll want to drag grabbed enemies away before taking them out in order to keep enemies unaware of your presence for as long as possible. Alternatively, you can use grabbed enemies as hostages, forcing other enemies to stay back while you sneak off with their buddy, or use them as human shields, firing at enemies with a handgun while forcing them to either hold their fire or hit their own comrade.

This is only one example of how combat in The Last of Us is smart, fun and strategic. However, it is also the only thing you do in The Last of Us. This is how the game goes: you go from one location to another, killing almost every living creature you come across and picking up any supplies you find. And don't get me started on the "puzzles" in the game, uninspired fetch quests which make the Legend of Zelda's box-moving affairs look like advanced calculus in comparison.

Older gamers will remember that there used to be a genre a lot like this back in the day: games like Double Dragon and Final Fight, called beat 'em ups, where your goal was to advance across the screen, kill all enemies and pick up anything they dropped. And while combat in The Last of Us is a hundred times more sophisticated than any beat 'em up I've ever played, it operates on the same basic philosophy. The result is that The Last of Us is a stealth-'em-up game with a survival-horror plot. Few games are able to make the plot and gameplay fit together, to make combat feel like a necessary and logical extension of the story, and sadly, The Last of Us isn't one of those games.

I JUST SHOT THE HELL OUT OF THIS GAME

The plot and voice work in The Last of Us has received praise from just about everyone, and rightly so. As far as writing and voice-overs go, The Last of Us is perfect, and I am not exaggerating. Everything the characters say and do is believable, [2] and even the dialogue that enemies exchange with their comrades and with you is mostly very solid.

The most surprising thing about the game's plot is it's attitude to humanity. It could have been very easy for the writers to say that after the outbreak, times are tough and people are scum, period. But the game insists, even in this dark setting, to show faith in humanity. You'll see characters go from being ruthless killers to caring human beings through their interactions with others; you'll see the most aggressive and violent people showing their vulnerabilities upon finding the body of a loved one who fell victim to an infected attack; you'll learn of people who, against all selfish instincts of self-preservation, let strangers in need into their lives and sometimes paid dearly for it. In a way, The Last of Us isn't just the story of humans trying to stay alive; it is the story of how some are still trying to stay human. With this in mind, the daily struggle to not become Infected – manifesting itself not only in fights against Infected, but in the actions of humans who preferred to end their lives rather than let the parasite take over them – can be seen as a much more metaphorical struggle against losing one's humanity.

The story, as compelling and well-written as it is, would not have been as effective if it weren't for what is definitely the best voice-acting cast in gaming history and one of the best casts I've seen in general. Especially noteworthy are Ashley Johnson and Troy Baker, voicing Ellie and Joel respectively. Baker is an established voice-acting god, and Johnson is a pleasant surprise for those who haven't heard of her before, to say the least.

This is The Last of Us' true triumph and the lasting impact it will have: never again will anyone be able to give a game a pass on terrible voice acting and a silly plot because "it's just a video game" (I'm looking at you, Final Fantasy X). Gamers can and should expect more from video games in the future, and The Last of Us is a perfect answer to all who say that video games are not art.

Of course, everyone's opinion is valid and whatnot, but I can't help but call out some of the criticism of the game's plot. One less-enthusiastic review which I have already mentioned is the one written by Tom Mc Shea for GameSpot:

"Joel, already accustomed to a life of brutality and focusing on his own needs [Mc Shea asserts throughout the interview that Joel was a criminal before the arrival of the Infected, something which I have found no support for anywhere in the game], has partnered with a woman of a similar disposition. Tess… like so many of the characters in The Last of Us, has a one-note personality that allows little room for a more nuanced interpretation… Such flimsy characterizations erect an emotional barrier for the first few hours of this adventure… Without any sympathetic characters to latch on to, you are left with little attachment to this pack of selfish animals."

Philip Kollar, writing for Polygon, went even further:

"The Last of Us made me feel sick to my stomach... It paints a vision of a near-future that is cold, heartless and, in many cases, downright evil. It's not a fun place to be, and likewise, the game isn't really a fun thing to play."

When I first read these comments, honestly, I was kind of offended. Not to play the Middle-Eastern card or anything – I'm no oppressed refugee myself – but I don't think these lines could have been written by anyone except members of the better-off sections of Western society. It is as if these people have absolutely no sense of what violent oppression and a daily struggle to survive do to people. People like that have no time to be sympathetic. People like that don't have the privilege of sticking to some lofty, abstract moral code. It is exactly the humanity that occasionally shines through in The Last of Us that shows that its creators got it, that they put their judgment aside and made the effort to think what sort of humans a disaster-struck environment might breed. Anyone who doesn't get that obviously can't enjoy the plot to this game, and I truly pity them for that, because if you don't understand hardship, you don't really understand humanity either. The Last of Us does a perfect job of presenting both. It is nothing short of incredible. [3]

WELL, IS THAT EVERYTHING YOU HOPED FOR?

I really enjoy playing this game, and I highly recommend it to anyone. I just think we sell video games short when we say that this is as good as they get, because to be honest, it's not. There are better games out there than The Last of Us, with comparable plot and voice acting. And although better and worse are subjective things, there are certainly games out there that have introduced new concepts, revolutionized gaming, and have done that while looking and sounding better than The Last of Us. If anything, I think the graphics in this game are objectively bad. Lighting is weird, textures are often ugly, and the game will frequently give you headaches if played for too long. Final Fantasy XIII came out 3 years before this game, and say what you will about it, it had far better graphics and was probably a little less linear.

At this point you might say: OK, The Last of Us may not have a lot going for it other than a really great plot and the combat. But how much more do you need? I mean, a lot of games try to be sophisticated and end up wasting your time on backtracking and busy work, so maybe The Last of Us' genius lies exactly in its simplicity? Well, there are a lot of genuinely sophisticated games out there, but it's true that if combat was really flawless, there wouldn't be much to complain about. However, combat is plagued by many problems which hold it back, especially in terms of AI.

First of all, combat has no clear rules. It's not about randomness or circumstances: what you can or can't do changes not only between battles, but between enemies in the same battle. Take the first serious fight against Infected: the first Infected you notice is standing still, and you can easily sneak behind it and choke it. When playing on Hard, you can usually sneak up on the rest of the Infected just the same, even if they sometimes detect you for no clear reason. However, on Survivor, I have never been able to sneak up on any other Infected in that encounter, no matter what I did. I could have accepted that I'm just not good at sneaking if it weren't for the fact that I could still sneak up on that first Infected, but all others immediately detected me when I was a few steps behind them. In other encounters, Infected didn't even need to see me or hear me to detect me, leading me to suspect that the game just made them automatically detect me when I crossed some map boundary, like video games did about two decades ago.

Another problem with combat is that it often punishes you when you try to be clever and rewards you when you take a brute force approach, especially when dealing with Infected. See, the weaker Infected, called Runners, are easier to sneak up on, but they are faster, and upon seeing you, will alert the rest of the Infected around to attack you. The more dangerous Infected, called Clickers, can't see, but have excellent hearing, and can kill you as soon as they catch you. There are also Stalkers, a stage between Runner and Clicker and probably the game's greatest miss. They are supposed to be sneaky and cunning while still able to see, but in practice, they mostly just run between two spots making scary noises.

These problems are illustrated by one fight where you face two clickers and a pack of Stalkers. Try this out if you want to have some fun: make a lot of noise, say, by running in place. The Runners, who don't have such great hearing, won't react, but the Clickers will come out swinging. You can finish both of them off – I used a shotgun for this, so you don't even have to be that quiet – and can now deal with the runners with no hassle from the clickers. Worse yet, because of the messed up detection mechanism the Runners have, you can approach and draw them back one or two at a time, so that they don't even stand a chance. Similar tactics won't necessarily get you through all fights - again, the rules are very inconsistent - but often enough, they do.

Human AI also fails to impress in this game. It happens all too often that enemies will see you from a distance, shoot at you, see you running to the right, then go to the spot you stood at, go to the left, and ask "where is that guy?" There are even worse cases where enemies seem to just forget ever seeing you, and cases where they know where you are but fail to pursue you, even when they outnumber you and could almost certainly beat you if they didn't try to get you one by one.

All of these AI bugs greatly encourage camping and brute-force tactics, and discourage intelligent stealth combat. I actually thought the game was pretty challenging when playing on Hard because I was trying to go Metal Gear Joel, but since on Survivor, being stealthy is rarely an option, I quickly realized just how easy combat is if one simply camps and takes advantage of faulty AI. Add to that your apparent ability to choke a person to death while standing right next to another enemy without him hearing you, and things really get facepalm-worthy at times.

Of course, you can ignore this and handicap yourself by refusing to take advantage of these bugs, but you really shouldn't have to, and in other games, you don't have to. Try to win by drawing enemy fire in Arkham City or Mass Effect 3. I dare you. You'll see the Game Over screen quicker than you can say "man, this review is long".

BOTTOM LINE

The Last of Us is a fun game with an amazing plot. It's not a masterpiece gameplay wise: combat, as fun and innovative as it is, is all there is to it, and it has more than a few problems, including an underwhelming AI and lack of clarity regarding what you can get away with. Still, it's a great game which in all likelihood will keep you coming back to get all the collectibles and see what else you can or can't do in a given encounter. And when you're sick of the single-player campaign, there's very good multiplayer in this game as well.

This review was written using the PAL version of the game, which is thankfully much less gory than the American version (though still plenty gory), after finishing the game on Hard, Survivor, and Survivor+.

[1] There are actually survival games which have little or nothing to do with horror. For example, Far Cry 3 is a survival game: you have to be clever in picking up resources and taking on enemies, because for the most part, everyone else is much better equipped and much stronger than you. And that's not only true for human enemies: a tiger in Far Cry 3 will mess you up, hard.
[2] Other than that cringe-worthy "I just shot the hell out of this guy". Ugh. Some people claim it's a reference a scene from The Unforgiven, but I'd say it's a bit of a stretch, and even if it is, doesn't quite work.
[3] It's also worth mentioning that anyone who played the game should know that Mc Shea's characterization of Tess is completely wrong.

2 comments:

  1. I really enjoyed this review. A nice read and it's always refreshing to see a game review mostly populated with talk about the actual game-play mechanics and design.

    ReplyDelete