Ellie of a ride…
Platform Reviewed: PlayStation 3/ RRP: £34.99 / Time Played: I finished it THREE TIMES! What more do you want from me?
The Last of Us is an imperfect specimen.
I get that out of the way first because, as brilliant as it is, few want to discuss it’s failings – which are many and numerous. Many of them don’t matter, and become almost a badge of honour that distinguishes the title a long way from its genre peers of Resident Evil and Silent Hill. But to say The Last of Us is a perfect example of a video game would be to do it the most heinous of disservices. Because it exposes them so neatly and so starkly that the future of the genre can now build bridges on the gaps, find ways across whilst following the exquisitely built bridges The Last of Us has laid down for them to get across.
If that seems like damning with faint praise, it really isn’t. The Last of Us is perhaps one of the finest games in years – narratively exquisite in every detail. It’s a game where less is more, and where silence can say as much as ten hours of dialogue. It’s a game where the environment paints a picture a hundred novels never could. It’s a journey; the complex, oft brutal trials and tribulations of Joel and Ellie. Joel, a man who has lost so much. Joel, a man where years of grieving have left him cold and heartless, scared of attachment. Ellie. A young girl for whom the outside world is naught but a lesson in a textbook. A girl who grows up, learns to survive, and similarly reminds Joel that life has to be about more than survival. A life without life is a life without meaning. And she struggles with this as much as anything else in her journey, often doubting, often losing hope only to find it again. The pair are an incredible narrative tour-de-force and there’s been nothing like this in terms of game storytelling in a long, long time.
Thankfully, the game tends to be light and brief on dialogue and cutscenes. Not much needs to be said, because everything is already in motion. You just sit back and enjoy the ride, so to speak.
And for the first half of the game, it’s a deliberately cold puzzle experience. A place of logic and reason, of learning paths and taking down your foes with precision and finesse. And it’s utterly glorious to behold, with a section in a station that is a magical, if terrifying, little spectacle. How, with limited supplies and knowledge of the layout, do you get from one side to the other in one piece? The low load times allow for a stringent and not unpleasant learning curve that allows experimentation, allows careful planning and patient observation. As you go on, this is the way of things; getting to know the lay of the land and a little careful scavenging can pay dividends, and it’s thrilling to uncover the myriad of little secrets and Easter eggs that are woven into this rich tapestry without nary an effort.
Alas, the game doesn’t hold this long. A long, choppy back and forth section with Ellie and Joel in separate places exposes that the game doesn’t work so well once the planned puzzle element is thrown out of the window. In an effort to be more “action”, the game slowly loosens its grip on its strongest asset and reaches for a run and gun affair, where the chest-high-wall is king and where sniping reigns supreme. It’s a crying shame because this is ultimately its undoing at the end; it feels somehow heartless and by-numbers. Ironically (those who have completed it will get this joke), it’s a rather clinical sensation that doesn’t quite fit into the games otherwise grand scope.
Likewise, the supporting cast is a condescending mix of stereotype and discrimination that is both refreshing and disturbing in equal measure. Refreshing because they are at least told in a human way, given the chance to flesh out the role rather than be lumped into it. But disturbing because, well, some of what is deemed acceptable here is somewhat questionable. If you thought the whole “Lara gets raped” thing was somewhat offensive then make no mistake, this game is going to explode your rage like nothing else will ever be able to do at any point. From “Gay people wear silly clothes!” and gay porn jokes to rape, incest and a whole host of other nasty ideas, there is nothing taboo here. It’s done somewhat tastefully considering the subject matter, but in reality, it lingers on the palette, a lasting bitter sensation that never quite escapes you.
Perhaps that’s also to its credit. It also tackles far less contentious topics; of womanhood, growing up, friendship and family, even a few references to the Size Zero phenomenon, something which in a place where food is scarce presents one of its most intelligent and constructive points. And it makes plenty of intelligent, thoughtful points throughout the several dozen hours I enjoyed it. It doesn’t always tie them off with a pink ribbon and a pat on the shoulder, but it rarely fumbles the ball. It’s just capable enough to make it look competent.
Full credit must go out to the people who crafted the character models and the landscapes, however, because trust me. You could almost cry tears of joy just by looking at the game, and its deliberate focus on a section-by-section landscape. At a time when a next-generation is looming and everyone is talking about how we must all go “Open World” in our games now, The Last Of Us demonstrates the nuanced simplicity of keeping it strict, on-point and relatively linear. Everything is detailed, not an inch is wasted and there is minimal tearing.
On the flipside, this is also a downfall of great design – it can seem too perfect, too deliberate and too obvious. A casual glance at surroundings with some cold logic can tell you what the next segment entails, and there is rarely much if any alternative route. The whole design is so stringent and so strictly A-to-B that it can at times veer wildly between rather calm and enjoyable and then super-frustrating, super-annoying and really pretty badly designed sections too. It also struggles when it tries to be too much of its genre – the now staple survival-horror “Defend The Hut” section both callous and painful to experience and not in the right way either. A dramatic misstep, and missteps that occur with alarming frequency towards the end of the game. Nothing overall game-breaking, but still all the more damning when you consider how jarring and awkward it feels.
But at least the growing bond between Ellie and Joel pulls it all together. Without this barrier, the whole thing would veer too wildly between sections but instead, Joel and Ellie keep the game, and its narrative, on a set course and the hurdles and inconveniences of the past are put aside as you plough onwards, ever onwards, towards some kind of a goal. Joel and Ellie make a destructive double-act in every sense of the term too; both are unflinching in their resolve, and between them they take out enough people and infected to populate an average city. The game does try to address this issue, but ultimately this is where it does fumble the ball. It can’t quite get the juxtaposition right between the need to kill and the thrill of the kill. It tries four times to square this up to my count; four times, and each time, it’s never quite a satisfactory feeling. When a game is designed to line up people for you to butcher your way through, you can’t really expect to also address it and make it seem odd at the same time.
But, for all these faults, it’s still a great game. It’s a sign of a growing maturity in narrative terms and a more sensible, logical design ethos that just about holds up. It’s very much all of itself, and it knows exactly where it wants to go and how it wants to get there. Sure, there are pitfalls and stumbles along the way but that’s par for the course with this sort of thing. It bridges many gaps – it doesn’t explain everything and doesn’t need to go into mystical mumbo-jumbo or play the generic pseudo-science angle. It doesn’t apologise, it keeps its little indulgences short and sweet. It checkpoints wisely in most cases, although one or two segments could have done with some extra tweaking. And ultimately, for everyone that comes in and out of the picture, the focus is maintained squarely on Joel and Ellie, and how they come to depend on each other and help each other grow.
It’s not a perfect game. It’s a game which is striking, that much is true, a game which arguably this year we really needed more than anything else. With so much crap, so many cut corners with Aliens: Colonial Marines and Resident Evil: Revelations HD, it’s a pleasant experience to play something which feels like it was made by people who did care, people who genuinely believed in the product, people who WANTED this more than anything else in the world. Perhaps this devotion contributed towards its flaws; but there’s no question that it’s a joy to play something that feels to be fuelled by such creative passion and feeling, and this much is evident from the tingly feeling I got finishing the game not just once, not just twice but three times.
Few games these days pull me in that deep. So I guess that’s something in its favour. But I am under no illusions, this is not a “perfect” game. It goes up, it goes down and we go round and round and round with it on one hell of a ride, spat out at the end, haunted and somewhat changed by the experience. But it’s the imperfections that make this such an interesting game; because it highlights what is technically possible whilst also getting flummoxed by the very limitations of the medium. That it even gets to the limitations is what impresses most, and its by getting there and showing where the genre is stuck that others can follow, and help to break those walls down.
The Last of Us is a trailblazer. For the sake of the genre, let’s hope it’s not the last of its kind…
- Brilliant narrative, expertly told.
- Utterly stunning to look at in any light and at any angle.
- A huge game, well over ten hours per playthrough.
- Quick load times mean even the chore-iest of spots doesn’t end up too great a chore.
- Well checkpointed for the most part.
- Animals which look like animals. There’s a giraffe. Up close. You pat it’s head. It’s magical.
- Joel and Ellie. Masterful creations, sorry Ellen Page. You couldn’t have done a better job here.
- Slips into mockery and deliberate stereotypes fairly often, sadly.
- Swings wildly in terms of design quality at times, with some segments easier than others.
- The gunfight ethos at the end is meant to be “an action crescendo”. I just call it a noisy racket. Wasn’t necessary.
- Everything can seem a bit too conveniently placed.
- Exposes the limits of what can be done. But I guess that’s also to its credit.
- So, how is it spores can’t get inside an open wound again?
- Seriously, I’m nitpicking at this point.
- Umm… no, I’m done.
OVERALL CONCLUSION – I think we’re alone now… (8.5 out of 10 – almost awesome!)
The Last of Us is an industrial point; perhaps the most striking of industrial points. For the medium to grow, we need games willing to push the limits and the boundaries of what can be done. Naughty Dog have excelled themselves with this, crafting a human tale that isn’t always easy to like, but is ultimately part of the story. It fumbles many issues and at times struggles, of course, but any game broaching the limitations of what can be done will have these issues. The Last of Us is one hell of an experience; some games can sell systems. Nintendo has Zelda, the XBox 360 had Halo. The PS3 has The Last of Us. Shame it’s come so late in its life, but c’est la vie. This makes me hopeful with what might come to pass in the coming years, if nothing else…