Naughty Dog’s Great Experiment
Kevin Smith—via Ben Affleck—once said in Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back, “You gotta’ do the safe picture. Then you can do the art picture.” Naughty Dog has made three safe and very profitable “pictures” with the Uncharted Series. Each title is a familiar, conventional, roller coaster ride that leaves players thrilled and at ease with the world and their place in it. Uncharted is comfort food. Then we get to The Last of Us and it is clear that this is the game Naughty Dog has been wanting to make but needed the clout to do without interference. It is not safe, comfortable or reassuring to the typical gamer. It may actually be somewhat offensive to that demographic. It also happens to be one of the best games of the generation and is an example to others of how to merge narrative and interaction into an unforgettable package.
The End Of The World
The Last of Us is a post-apocalyptic tale, but one with a premise unique to the genre. After a prologue that will undoubtedly go down as one of the most gut wrenching in years, the game proper begins, 20 years after the outbreak of a humancentric Cordyceps virus. The Cordyceps virus is a fungus that grows in the brain, first turning the host into a rage crazy homicidal maniac, before gradually morphing into a blind cannibal that clicks like a bat as a form of echo location to track prey. Joel is the gruff smuggler turned guardian of the story; a man who’s lost too much and is now compelled to escort 14 year old Ellie across the USA in a bid for a new, desperate hope for a human race that is clearly in the twilight of its existence. On the way, Joel and Ellie contend with horrors both human and mutant, undertaking a journey that is the most surprisingly compassionate, sophisticated and unsentimental examination of father/daughter relationships ever seen in a game.
In that regard, The Last of Us truly is something special. The likes of David Cage with Heavy Rain and Brendan McNamara with L.A. Noire have aspired to the creation of immersive, cinematic games. But Naughty Dog’s writer and creative director, Neil Druckmann, has finally nailed it, with a tale that invokes the bleakness of The Road and the speculative social insight of Children of Man. Druckmann has written every Uncharted game to date for Naughty Dog, but TLoU makes it clear that he’s capable of much more than a snappy buddy story. People will be discussing and arguing the ending of this game in the years to come, and not because it’s bad, but because it’s so human and divisive.
Y’All Are Gonna’ Die
The Last of Us is a triumphant return to the genre of survival horror, minus the horror. There are moments of fright in the game, but it’s not specifically focused on a horror experience, so maybe “survival survival” is more appropriate. Like Resident Evil games of yore, this is a third person action game, where the characters is weak, ammunition and other supplies are sparse. Every combat encounter is a tense affair because every shot needs to count, and going “Rambo” every time guarantees that the next encounter will be fought only with fists. In many ways this is the game that Ubisoft’s I Am Alive aspired to become.
The combat is still cover based, and feels very much like Uncharted, but the ammo conservation issue means that gun confrontations deplete precious rounds quickly. In another nod to old school gaming, regenerating health has been removed, forcing players to be even more risk averse about shoot outs. This is where Metal Gear Solid style stealth becomes critical. Players can sneak about the environment, either strangling enemies—which consumes no ammo—or taking them out with knives and other melee weapons thus consuming some of their durability and hastening their break down.
It should be obvious by this point that this is NOT a game for traditional run and gunners. This is a game obviously targeted at the hardcore gamers that miss the days of tension that came with being a character of limited power and means. The Last of Us is not a power fantasy enabling people to feel like a god of guns. Instead, it is a harrowing experience where even a simple task like trying to find medical supplies becomes a desperate struggle against either human or Cordyceps infected opponents.
So it is with some disappointment that even though I actually prefer The Last of Us to Bioshock: Infinite I’m going to be scoring it lower. We weren’t granted access to the multi-player, which didn’t go live until the game’s release, so it’s impossible to say whether it adds value to the game (though with Naughty Dog’s success with Uncharted multi-player it’s not such a huge risk). However, it does mean that unlike Bioshock: Infinite which was reviewed as a complete package, The Last of Us is not.
What it is, however, is an engaging, necessary experience that brings back the tension of survival horror gameplay. The slower pace and more unforgiving combat will turn off Call of Duty players, but for the hardcore that want one of the best stories of the generation with varied, immersive gameplay, this is a no brainer. The Last of Us is one of the best games of the generation, and if you have a PS3, must add this game to your collection.
Read Wayne's full review of The Last of Us in the upcoming issue of Comics and Gaming Magazine!