Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Last of Us

I finished The Last of Us recently, after borrowing it from Krumpynut for the PS3. (Thanks, Krumpy!) Here's the short version: I loved it, as you might expect. This is a tremendously impressive game, and even if you think you're sick of "zombie" games, you should still play it.

Wait, let me back up and dispel your worries. I won't be talking about story spoilers for The Last of Us in this post. This is one of those games that goes many interesting and unusual directions over its twenty or so hours, and you should go in unspoiled. Know that it's a very interesting story with believable characters and some impressive set-pieces. This shouldn't surprise you, given that Naughty Dog is responsible for the Uncharted series as well, and they've only gotten better with this new game.

What should surprise you is how much better the gameplay is than in that series. As impressive as the ridiculously-cinematic Uncharted 2: Among Thieves could be at times, everything fell apart towards the end when you needed to engage in extremely protracted gun battles with seemingly endless hordes of enemy soldiers, each one a bullet-sponge of epic proportions. The final few hours were a tremendous slog, and really served to undermine the mostly-good experience up to that point. How does The Last of Us avoid that mistake? A few ways:

1) Stealth is Often an Option 

This isn't a stealth game, like Thief: The Dark Project - you will be getting into gunfights with the various enemies you encounter. But in most situations, you'll be presented with an area in which those enemies are carefully patrolling or guarding specific locations, and you have enough maneuverability to
circle them and take them out silently. If you remain unseen you can then proceed to the next foe, and if you are seen you'll have fewer enemies to deal with during the ensuing gun battle. The tension of creeping up on foes is fun to start with, but the combat is solid enough that even when I was eventually seen I didn't feel the desire to reload a save and try again. Engaging in combat didn't feel like I had "failed" a stealth section. Instead, it felt like a natural extension of the story. An ordinary guy isn't going to be able to act like the world's most deadly ninja all the time, and sometimes you're going to get seen. I like the balance between the two styles much more than the seemingly endless waves of enemy soldiers you have to fight towards the end of Uncharted.

2) Very Powerful Tools, Limited Uses

One of the reasons that stealth is such an enjoyable part of the game involves the weapons and items at your disposal. You can pick up bottles and bricks from the environment and throw them to draw the attention of enemies, and a carefully-thrown brick can also stun certain foes. By drawing an enemy's attention to one location, you can quickly sneak up on them from behind and perform a one-hit kill using a shiv crafted from items in the environment. One enemy down! The problem is that you lose your shiv in the process, and you can only carry two or three of them (until you find the pieces to make more).

Or is that a problem? It really makes you treasure those shivs, because assessing a situation and determining the most dangerous threat, and then easily eliminating it, can turn a very difficult engagement into something much more manageable... but what if you encounter something even more dangerous just around the corner? This is further complicated by a class of enemies that can perform one-hit kills on you, which require you (in some situations) to use up those precious shivs.

3) Crafting for Fun and Profit (But Really for Survival)

In most games with crafting systems, you gradually discover an extensive web of crafting recipes that allow you to make dozens of different items. Not so in The Last of Us. Here there are only five or six different items to make, which makes sense: in a real survival situation you would focus on acquiring the things that work, and once you know those things work you would make them exclusively. Almost everywhere Joel explores has materials scattered around the environment, or in supply rooms or caches, and you really get into the groove of rapidly picking them all up, as quickly as you can. Since the game doesn't pause when Joel crafts, you find yourself hurriedly fashioning health kits, shivs, and melee upgrades (tying a blade to a plank of wood) in every small supply closet you find, while frightening creatures lurch around outside. It's tense, and very very thrilling.

Everyone will tell you to play The Last of Us for the story, and I'm not really any different; it's a phenomenal story, and it's the main reason to play. But I'll also tell you that the gameplay is very solid, and works to build the apocalyptic mood in a way that doesn't feel forced. Bioshock Infinite had you scrounging around in trash cans, eating thousands of burgers and bags of chips, but it never felt like there was any reason that you would be doing that other than 'it's a Bioshock game!' In The Last of Us the gameplay and the story tie together in a believable way, and that helps make it one of the best games of the year. I don't know if we'll ever get The Last of Us 2: More of Us, but I'd play it.

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