It’s finally here! Annnnd it’s gone.
The Last of Us has been so over-hyped leading to it’s release it seems like the media doomed it to mediocrity. Fortunately, Naughty Dog has already done that on their own. Uncharted 3 was a frustrating disappointment that highlighted both the best and worst features of the franchise. Awesome setpieces, graphics and story and a disproportionately high amount of arbitrary, annoying combat. On the bright side, ND seems to have gotten over their slump and delivered an enjoyable game, though it is does nothing remarkable or new.
The graphics in the game are absolutely beautiful. Truth be told, to anyone who has played the Uncharted franchise, it looks a lot like more of the same, but they seem to have tweaked them about the best they can on the PS3. Throughout the game you will be treated to glorious landscapes of urban decay, and of nature taking over again. That isn’t to say the interior environments (of which there are quite a lot) are less beautiful, in fact they make it even better when you finally get to go outside again.
Just like Uncharted 3 highlighted everything wrong with that series, The Last of Us will excel at disappointment when you do step outside – which is most of the game. Naughty Dog for the past 15 years has been really good at making lifeless simulacrums that are more or less efficient in an action game where you don’t have time to notice the seams, but this is a game with downtime. A game where the sequences of action and suspense are frequently juxtaposed against quiet jaunts through a dead town or the wilderness, which provide more than enough time to reach out and peel away the walls of your playhouse. Once you do it’s apparent, both in terms of immersion and in terms of physical depth, that these worlds are completely shallow. Everything is surrounded by invisible walls and the playable area of their game worlds is minimal.
There are some flaws, however, and they seem to have carried over from Uncharted. One thing I noticed is the graphical tearing that was present in Uncharted, wherein moving the camera at any speed produces some intense frame lag and pixel changes that are quite hard for any but the best back-lit micro-dimming LCD sets to keep up with, if indeed they do. But these issues also persist in gaming monitors, so it isn’t just an issue with the TV set. The good news is that those moments are temporary and go away within a second or two of a new area. Another thing that carries over from Uncharted, and still bothers me, is the shader channels used on characters hair. Anyone who does 3D work will be familiar with this: the specular highlights, just like they did in Uncharted, are over-emphasized. For example, in the way Tess’s hair looks like she stepped out of a premium shampoo commercial, or, in how clean and beautiful Callous’s mane is. It’s not a bad thing and most of the time it’s unnoticeable but I hope one day Naughty Dog works around that in their engine and implements some layered shaders so they can include dust or dirt or whatever else.
As far as story goes, it is superb for a zombie/apocalypse flick. Make no mistake though, it is a flick – It plays out like a movie and sometimes you kind of want to watch the cutscenes rather than play. It may be less of a movie than MGS4 – there are 4.5 hours of cutscenes in a game that clocks in at a reasonable 12 hours if you aren’t slow, but it’s certainly more movie than game. The facial animation capture is absolutely spot on and breathes convincing life into each character when they talk. The voice acting too is excellent and fits perfectly with the animation and the situations. Naughty Dog has taken what they were good at in Uncharted and pushed themselves even further into excellence. As hipsters and I will point out, the story isn’t that special or new, or original, though. It pulls from a lot of sources and uses cliches because they are realistic and they work for the story, such as the entire beginning sequence. Zombie movies are never exactly the most emotional or heart-wrenching tales, but this game nay made me cry a few times (and not because it contained Uncharted-esque gunplay). At the very least I cared about the characters, even the bad guys, even those who didn’t last long.
Gameplay was never a dull experience, nor was it a frustrating experience more than a few times. There was some frustration which all came from approaching situations from poor angles, unlike the frustration of Uncharted which was “This guys shotgun does 500 dmg and he fires 20 shells in a row before reloading! AND I have to fight other guys at the same time!” or “I shot that guy in the head 5 times WHY IS HE STILL ALIVE?”.
Actually, that last one does occur a few times in the game, and consequently those are the few moments where Uncharted bleeds through and lessens the experience. Human enemies are often completely overpowered even with upgraded weapons or head-shots, and that translates to multiplayer as well. Every time you face human enemies there is a potential for a sour experience, but fortunately none of those encounters last long enough to make it so until the last 20 minutes of the game. It’s a good thing too because the endless enemies of Uncharted would have ruined this game beyond a shadow of a doubt.
The Last of Us has a very natural game flow, and it never feels like Naughty Dog is trolling you, even if you get attacked by 12 Clickers at once. All of the environmental puzzles and the minimal platforming are very easy and common sense to figure out, meaning you get to focus on enjoying the game and not facing an unduly difficult challenge that adds nothing. Imagine that – you have to find a pallet for Ellie to cross water, but it’s stuck in a pallet jack because one of the boards got bent, so then you have to play a minigame to fix it. How horrible of a game would that be?
Also, let’s hear it for those death animations? They’re on par with Dead Space 1 and 2, though not as varied.