Jul 25, 2013 04:52 PM
I think the game has sufficiently sunk in, so here goes. Oh yeah, instead of spoiler tagging every other paragraph, stop reading now if you do not want the game to be spoiled for you. You have been warned.
Well, where to start... It's very difficult to approach a game that has been so thoroughly loved and reviewed and try to offer any "fresh" insights. I certainly enjoyed the game because it is a very good game, great even, but it's much harder to concisely wrap the whole thing up into a neat little package than a less ambitious game, like Metro. If The Last of Us has to be showcased as simply as possible, then it is a triumph of modern game design in all aspects. Graphics, Animation, Sound Design, UI design, Storytelling, Voice Acting and Functionality. TLoU (stupid looking abv.) fires on all cylinders in each of these categories. The visuals are just dripping with awesome, and that's not just a result of moar polygons, the design that has gone into the world is just breathtaking. The only game I still think has it beat as far as majestic scenery is Skyrim, but this is a close second. I could go on and about about how the sound design is pitch perfect and the motion capture is amazing, but I think it's easier to simply say the game has all core elements of a AAA game nailed*, moving on...
*Enemy and friendly AI for me were a complete non-issue, I suspect playing on Hard vs Easy has something to do with it.
Obviously we have yet another zombie <insert medium here> taking place in apocalyptic <insert locale(s)> so let's get to this right away. As an apocalyptic setting it nets a solid B from me. All the elements are there (quarantine zones under complete military control? check) and it's pulled off nicely enough that nothing bothers me. I'll tell you two things I do love in my zombie-nightmare scenarios, lush "nature-reclaming-civilization" and lots of encounters with infected in broad daylight...also check. The crown jewel of this game, to me, are the infected themselves. With over a decade of infected, slow zombies, fast zombies, etc etc the genre has indeed been done to death (har). Here is not only a very fresh take on the idea, but an excellently executed one at that.
The infected are horrifying, properly so. Your run-of-the-mill infected are called runners, and they still have the use of their sight. Basically your standard fast zombie. The thing is, when you're around them for long enough you start to pick up better on their overall...let's say, personality. They cry and hyperventilate, they moan and groan and gasp for air. They generally sound like someone who is in an immense amount of pain. They seem very literally on the cusp of the animal and conscious brain, unable to keep themselves from basically being a monster, yet not so far gone and still in a living hell. I feel bad for them most of the time, which is an odd emotion for zombies to evoke, but I also see their death as a release from their torment. It's such a subtle thing they've done with the Cordycep Infection backstory and it carries through nicely to the in-game infected. The sections of TLoU that include the infected are all the highlights of the game, all of them. Each encounter is terrifying, exciting and varied. The 'boss' creatures called bloaters are massively-infected humans who have been infected for a very long time. They take an absolute beating and punctuate some of the very best parts of the game. Clickers, for those who are not already familiar, are totally blind and click their way around by echo-location. They present some of the greatest overall difficulty when dealing with a group of Infected, and their OP grab attack will immediately kill you unless you're progressed enough in upgrading your abilities to include using a shiv for counter. So throw a few clickers, a bloater, and about 8 runners together and you got some pretty f-ed up s to deal with several times throughout the game. Stealth will only get you so far but despite constant ammo shortages sticking with it when the shit gets thick is completely doable, even on hard. Horror part of survival horror? Check.
The arsenal is your standard fare, but what really impressed me was the very subtle way the game designers forced you to become well versed in all weapons. Most larger encounters with infected would use the following (shiv x3, pistol x4, revolver x2, shotgun x2, bow x2, etc) You just have to run through your weapons so often that it becomes second nature to switch to a weapon even if it only has one round...one round is better than the none you have in you current pistol. The melee upgrade (which uses shiv resources) and the Shivs themselves are precious. One-time quick kill is priceless, for reals. Also priceless, molotov cocktails, which are totally OP and soooo very needed when playing on hard. Late-game weap that is also amazing, Flamethrower. You start with one primary holster and one for secondary, so using your second pistol requires a kneel down and open up of your backpack, which is just about the time that a bandit will find you. You can craft an extra slot for both weapon types, make bombs and molotovs, and your trusty melee, which makes....if you are lucky, 7 ways to defend yourself quickly at hand. Of course when you are sneaking around with 2 arrows and nothing else you might not feel as invincible. Gun can be updated using nutz n boltz, and some are just downright necessary, like the clip size for your main rifle. To say ammo is scarce is putting it lightly, the only time this game will take pity on you is usually dropped by the room full of enemies you just used all your ammo on. When I say the game takes pity, it is a pittance of pity. "Did you just use 8 shotgun shells? Here's two rounds for your 9mm pistol." Survival part of Survival-Horror? Check
I'll touch on crafting, inventory and 'powerups' briefly. Crafting is pretty basic. There are 6 ingredients and they craft 6 items (melee upgrd., shiv, bomb, molotov, medkit, smoke bomb) and the ingredients you find are rarely over half of one full use. I like it, every-time you find a bottle of rubbing alcohol it's not going to be full, more often than not it's only 1/4 full. Also the crafting and proper venue for a molotov makes allll the difference in the world. Good rule of thumb is "do I have any other way to survive?" if the answer is no, use the molotov. Inventory is your backpack, but it isn't just a storage grid you open. Holding X on a spent weapon type does the animation of kneeling to the ground and opening the bag, which a small icon menu appears and you can scroll through available weapons to replace the spent weapon. It's also very useful to cycle through weapons that actually have ammo and keep them reloaded and at the ready, those two pistol rounds you have buried away aren't doing you any good in your backpack. Pills, you find pills and they are basically XP which can be spent on personal upgrades for Joel. More Health, faster crafting speed, reduced weapon sway, etc... Most useful branch early on allows for shivs and melee upgrades to last multiple uses. So that one-hit-kill pipe with scissors now has 3 uses, very very useful.
Christ, this is getting long...time to wrap up on the final aspect of this game. The story.
Yes, it's got QTEs, Yes it's got straight-up cutscenes, which are beautfully rendered. Yes, it presents a rather powerful narrative and takes that job very seriously. So basically AAA stuff. The problems arise as the game enters its last third. Here we are presented with Joel, a broken man who lost his daughter to a soldier at the beginning of the outbreak, living a life full of violence and darkness. The game alludes that he was once a 'hunter,' basically a plunderer who will murder and steal for personal gain. The first section of TLoU is a section where Joel and his squeeze Tess murder their way through a rival smugglers gang and ultimately shoot the smuggler right in his face even when broken and begging for mercy. Joel is not a likable character, even despite the powerful opening to the game (which was very well done IMO). Ellie provides us with the "redemtion of Joel" character arc, and is a spunky naive teenager to Joel's bitter husk of a man. The problem is that right when the game is starting to get you to care about Joel again, and make him a likable character, they start making Ellie less likable by having her go down the same road of "kill or be killed" that made us not like Joel in the first place. As a counter to the tense and unpredictable infected encounters the 'bandit' encounters start getting long in the tooth at the 2/3s mark. Especially when the lines of bandit are blurred and you are basically playing as the bandit against people who have very much a reason to live.
The ending is basically as such: Joel and Ellie make it to the special resistance Hospital that will reverse-engineer a cure from Ellie's immunity, Joel discovers this process will kill Ellie, Joel goes on blood-thirtsy rampage to save Ellie, Joel then lies to Ellie as she wakes up from anesthetic and tells her she was not needed and others who were immune had already provided the needed sample, Joel swears to Ellie's face that it's the truth and the game ends. Now if it is the intention of the story to make Joel ultimately unlikable, then it was a success. Joel's last wisps of humanity evaporated sometime after his daughter's death and when we meet him in-game. His warming nature towards Ellie does indeed lend him more humanity, but by the end of the game it is clear that Joel is only interested in his own delusion of Ellie replacing his daughter and them living out the rest of his days back in his home-town. Effectively killing most of the group responsible for looking for a cure, and hoarding the only source of a possible vaccine to serve his own life. I actually greatly enjoyed the ending, especially since by that point I was already not a fan of the character Joel had become and was refreshed to see he and Ellie's final screen-time wasn't some saccharin "everybody-wins" scenario. Only one person wins, and that is Joel...I guess by being a selfish murderin machine you will always come out with what you want the most....which is a depressing final note to say the least. The whole game is rather depressing, and if there is some underlying message of hope I didn't find it. The only message I walked away with is that when forced into self-preservation humans are deprived, selfish, cruel and violent creatures. Those who attempt to serve humanity will only get swallowed up by the Rest of Us.