The Last of Us has been getting stellar reviews across the board, with many journalists giving it a perfect 10. So what does Low Fat Gaming’s Matt Reynolds make of it? Read on, it may not be what you expect…
There’s Not Mushroom In Here…
In the vast pantheon of science fiction and horror, nothing speaks to the pop culture nerd as strongly as the genre of zombie apocalypse. A brief trawl of the internet will uncover myriad memes, fan fiction, comics, TV shows and of course, video games covering the subject. There is something alluring in the concept of a ragtag group of survivors desperately making their way across a ruined and deadly landscape populated with the ravenous undead. We’ve all wondered how we would cope under the same circumstances. The inherent problem in this day and age is finding a fresh spin on a genre that has become oversaturated to the point of tedium.
The Last of Us is the latest entry into the well worn zombie genre, from Uncharted developer Naughty Dog. They have sidestepped the overused ‘viral outbreak/experiment gone wrong’ premise in favour of something far more chilling, as it is grounded in a horrifying reality. The Cordyceps fungus is a real life parasitic organism that infects a host (normally arthropods) and replaces its mycelium with its own cells. The unfortunate creature sprouts fungal, antler-like growths and dies a painful death. Some strains of the fungus even have mind control capabilities; forcing the host to travel to an environment optimally suited to the spreading of the parasite. Its a truly stomach churning display of nature’s sometimes brutal capabilities; and one that Naughty Dog have adapted with terrifying glee – what if the Cordyceps fungus mutated to infect the human race?
Not a Fungi to Be Around
The game opens as the parasite is first spreading; and deals with protagonist Joel’s reaction to the situation as it escalates in his home town. The infected humans are a grotesque sight – fungal growths sprouting from orifices and driving the unfortunate citizens mad with rage and confusion. Its a visually stunning prologue – we didn’t realise the point where control was given to us as we assumed we were still watching a CGI cutscene. The game certainly opens with a shocking and emotional weight; and sets up Joel’s character beautifully. Fast forwarding twenty years we find an America – and Joel – ravaged beyond recognition by hunger, fear and loss. We get the sense that Joel is not an all-American hero and does what he must to survive. Accepting a contract to escort a teenage girl named Ellie to a group of freedom fighters called the Fireflies, who are fighting against the corrupt military, Joel gets more than he bargained for. Ellie might just be the key to curing the Cordyceps plague… So far, so familiar. The source of the outbreak aside; the game’s premise is nothing we haven’t seen many times before. So how is this well-trodden plot translated into a game? The answer is elegantly; but with the same nagging feeling that we’ve seen it all somewhere else.
The game is beautiful. Naughty Dog are masters of the PS3’s architecture and really put the ageing machine through its paces. Environments are gorgeously realised and often bursting with unexpected colour – much like Enslaved before it; this is an America where nature has come to rule once more. The mis-en-scene and environmental detail is pitch perfect, with assets seldom reused and the world exuding a real sense of place. The occasional scenery glitch does raise its ugly head – we saw walls disappearing, and got stuck on the scenery more than once, but this doesn’t take away from the sublime art direction. All of that pales in comparison with the voice acting and motion capture – they are astonishing and exquisite. Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson are utterly believable in their respective portrayals of Joel and Ellie; lending a beautifully understated chemistry to proceedings. Their reluctant pairing blossoms into grudging respect and beyond in a predictable manner made credible by the weighty performances. Naughty Dog’s mocap wizards have squeezed in every facial twitch and look with unnerving realism that gives the pair a sense of reality missing from a lot of games. Its a good job, because in spite of some wonderfully scripted exchanges between the two leads, the plot is very much a by the numbers zombie survival story. It aims high; but ultimately feels like a lesser telling of a well worn tale, although there are poignant breaks that are occasionally exquisite. Characters the duo meet along the way are likeable but are nonetheless genre archetypes that feel cliched, such as a young black man and his child ward (Walking Dead, anyone?) or a gruff survivalist that owes Joel a favour. Whilst the characterisation of the protagonists is solid and believable, Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead game is a vasty superior display of pathos and devastating emotional beats to this offering. However; special mention must be given to the soundtrack – Oscar winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla (Brokeback Mountain) has created a poignant, haunting score to rival the best of his film work.
Spore or Less
The mechanics of the game offer the same feeling of solid enjoyability coupled with nagging familiarity. The Last of Us is a cinematic, linear third person action game, as you would expect from the makers of Uncharted. It does what it does exceptionally well for the most part. It is primarily a stealth title – resources such as bullets are scarce and you will often find it prudent to sneak past encounters rather than tackle enemies head on. The stealth works very much like Hitman Absolution. Joel can sneak up behind enemies and either choke them to death, or if you have a shiv handy, brutally stab them in the neck. The violence in the game is uncompromising but never feels gratuitous. Joel is merely doing what he has to in order to survive. He can also employ ‘Listen’ mode which is the game’s equivalent of Agent 47’s Instinct or Lara Croft’s Survival mode; allowing him to see enemies through walls. Its a very ‘gamey’ mechanic that feels at odds with the realistic tone the game portrays, but can be very useful.
Areas are semi-open with several routes through each. You have three enemy types to contend with – humans, infected humans, and then Clickers; repulsive humans in late stage infection who have nothing but fungal eruptions for heads. Humans and regular infected need to be navigated round as they have lines of sight; but Clickers are blind and operate on sound alone. Provided you inch round them slowly you can operate with impunity. Be careful though – should you be grabbed by a Clicker its instant death.
This can make for some remarkably tense encounters – but often the illusion is shattered by a fundamental flaw in the AI. While Joel can be spotted by enemies, Ellie and whoever you might be travelling with at the time are completely impervious and often stomp around in front of enemies with reckless abandon and complete immunity. Its unintentionally hilarious and a complete mood killer.
Should you fail at being stealthy you will have to go toe to toe with the enemies. You have two options – come out swinging with a melee weapon or start shooting. Melee combat is extremely brutal, meaty and satisfying. The camera swoops in as Joel viciously caves in heads and slams faces into scenery. Its by far the best element of combat – not so much the subpar shooting. Much like Uncharted, the shooting is lightweight, unwieldy and thanks to Naughty Dog’s bizarre insistence on mapping the aim and shoot buttons to L1 and R1 rather than the triggers; unsatisfying. There is an extensive selection of weaponry featuring the usual suspects (shotgun, pistol etc) but none of them are as rewarding as a hefty lead pipe or baseball bat with nails. It definitely feels like the game encourages you to play stealthily, but we’re not convinced the shooting is awkward by design, as Uncharted felt very similar.
Shroom With a View
While the encounters are well executed, they are all the same. The Last Of Us is a very long game for a linear adventure (around fifteen hours), and combat fatigue starts to set in around the halfway mark. The game’s crafting system allows for nail bombs, smoke bombs, Molotov cocktails and the like but eventually every encounter is predictable. It reaches the point where you can tell an encounter is coming by the shape of the area and the placement of debris – another illusion-shattering problem.
The action and stealth segments are broken up by quiet passages of exposition and character building, and on many occasions you will have puzzles to overcome. We say puzzles – the game has a single puzzle that it repeats with depressing regularity. Upon reaching an impassable gap or unclimbable wall, Joel will have to search for a plank or ladder. The problem is, without exception these objects are always right next to the impasse, defeating any sense of accomplishment. The only variation to this is when you reach a body of water. Ellie can’t swim, so Joel must find a makeshift raft. Again, the raft is always either right next to you or below the surface of the water right underneath you. Uninspiring. You will also find many collectibles on your travels, of the type seen a thousand times before. Some are the obligatory notes, diaries and audiologs; others are the more useless variety such as dogtags. None of these things add to the gameplay, offering instead a way to pad out the run time.
The Last of Us is an understated, well acted game with enjoyable but flawed combat that goes on just a little too long. Its an exceptionally well made game that borrows from many other titles, but unfortunately doesn’t do any of it better. Its third person action is like Uncharted without any of the spectacle; its crafting and bow & arrow mechanics aren’t quite as good as Tomb Raider; its stealth is a carbon copy of Hitman spoiled by friendly AI; and its characters & story are well thought out with depth but don’t come near the emotional heft of The Walking Dead. The game’s plot is reasonably pedestrian, with a thought provoking but ultimately unsatisfying conclusion. It is an adventure well worth your time, but don’t be fooled by the Game of the Generation talk – it isn’t a masterpiece; just very, very good.
– Matt Reynolds. Follow him on Twitter @thelostmoment