Monday, June 24, 2013

REVIEW - The Last of Us.

The Last of Us is a story-driven, linear survival stealth-action game set twenty years after the terrifying cordyceps fungus (check it) adapts to attack humans, turning them in to raving zombie-esque monsters and maniacs.  People struggle to survive in the ruins of the old world, where some rely on the protection of military-state quarantine zones and others try their luck beyond the walls, scavenging for supplies or preying on the remnants of humanity.  It features a robust team-based competitive multiplayer component and a great deal of replayability for its campaign, with lots of secrets and collectibles to find.

Let's dig in.  Ready?

This is a masterpiece.

Initial impressions are often made through rose-colored glasses, but The Last of Us loses none of its luster on repeat playthroughs, which only serve to reinforce the notion that this is one of the most finely-crafted experiences ever to grace gaming.

The phrase "linear action game" represents thousands of titles that run the gamut of genres - RPGs, shooters, brawlers, platformers - but all seek to retain your interest and drive you ever-forward, always involved, trying their damnedest to ensure you never grow bored.  Which ain't easy.

Many, many games aspire to the perfection of that, regardless of the mechanics their games rely on - it's a precarious tightrope walk - and The Last of Us is a masterwork of the form.

It is a treatise on the use of "negative space" in gaming, allowing moments of gentle storytelling and calm scavenging to act as counterpoints to its remarkable action and heartbreaking plot turns that will leave you reeling, buzzing with adrenaline or overcome with empathy and emotion, as if you hadn't slept for days and feel you might burst into tears at any moment.  It's stunning.

In most games, when a title forces your character to walk through a room instead of allowing you to run, you're certain it's because the developer is using it to hide a load screen.  In The Last of Us, it only ever feels like a perfect and necessary beat - a long exhalation after a frightened, held breath.

Like watching an old actor at the height of their craft, it represents a heady mix of considered insight and raw talent.

Let's talk about art direction, and the world.

In the two decades since humanity abandoned their cities and superhighways, nature has begun reclaiming the country. The Last of Us is a noble examination of the liquid flow of plant life and the irrepressible survival of fauna, both of which manage just fine without our interference.  Rats scurry from a room when you approach too close to where they cower, birds take to the skies (in gorgeous flock patterns) when disturbed, and these are the tamest examples of the comforting, striking, affecting views Naughty Dog sprinkles throughout the game.

There's a scene in a sewer.  A car had long ago crashed through the ceiling, and is now washed entirely in a beautiful green moss, half-submerged in the water that's flooded the room, a young tree sprouting from its windshield with sunlight trickling in from the gaping hole above to feed the life below.

There's a hallway in an old office building that groans awkwardly at a fifty-story angle.  Rain patters down a nearby window, and grass grows there.  It's taken root in the carpet at the end of the hall - but only reaches as far as the nourishing sunlight filtering through the window will allow.

It's a world built on scientifically-supported suppositions of "what if," but it's also a series of very-intentional, gentle bends to lighting, weather and thus atmosphere.  An energetic mix of locales which come together with the game's action to support all the subtleties of the narrative and inform tone, reinforcing and amplifying the emotions that carry our heroes through their adventure.

Dense in detail, rich in character, gorgeous in motion, purposeful in execution. Such craft.

Let's talk about the storytelling.

If there is one area in which The Last of Us is entirely worthy of overweening hyperbole, it is its narrative.

Set though it may be following a zombie-like apocalypse, The Last of Us is nothing if not a wise, insightful and sure-handed character study.  A character study - something a mere handful of games have attempted, and (almost) never in the triple-A space.  Who in their right mind would bankroll it?  Who would imagine this facet of the game could be so... successful?

Well, Sony, it seems.  Thanks, Sony.  This is as far-removed from the two-dimensional, pulp-adventure fluff of Nathan Drake as it gets.

The Last of Us is the story of a mean old dog named Joel, who's seen the worst that this new world can offer and has long since abandoned the notion that life can ever again be about more than mere survival.  His pragmatic, willfully hopeless view of the world, built to keep an old heart that's mostly scar tissue safe, has kept him alive for twenty years and is not challenged until the care of a fourteen-year-old girl is thrust upon on him.

The story is an empathetic, insightful and most of all honest examination of Joel's long-wounded heart, and I will spoil nothing of it beyond that.

I will say that The Last of Us represents the most intelligent, mature writing and storytelling of any game I have ever played, with a total lack of over-writing and crucially, easy writing.  Just as its gameplay (which I'll get to in a moment) is built on tropes, but twisted and bent to a new purpose, The Last of Us throws every cliché in the book at its daring duo, and never, ever takes the easy rout with them, or allows its plot to coast on an answer you see coming.

That's a dangerous tightrope too.  Fail to deliver what your audience expects and wants, and you'll end up disappointing them.  Do it in a way that they can anticipate, and theyll lose interest.

In The Last of Us there is no easy answer.  There's only what is.  It constantly and consistently moves in a direction that can only be described as honest, and does so to profound effect.  Reading all the opinions online about Joel's arc and the game's point and themes - a myriad of conflicting and complimenting perspectives - offers a clear answer to the age-old question.  This is art.

It is nothing less than a game-changer, raising the bar for an entire industry of game developers who fancy themselves storytellers.  It's shockingly accomplished.  If it has a downside, it is only that - a bit like Joel, I suppose - I cannot genuinely hope that we will ever see writing and characters of this caliber in a video game again.

Such hope seems foolish, and misinformed.  But my God, what a high-water mark.

Let's talk about the performances, shall we?

When Ellie says "watch out," you need to turn around.

The soundtrack by Gustavo Santaolalla (Brokeback Mountain, Biutiful, Amores Perros) is as confident, understated and insightful as the writing -

- but in many cases here, it's the performances that feel like revelations.

Naughty Dog pioneered a hybrid of simultaneous motion and voice performance capture in games, which is then tweaked by animators.  The impact of two actors actually having a conversation together, physically in the same space, as opposed to recording their lines alone in a booth, independent of the performance feedback so crucial to natural behavior, cannot be overstated.  It's a large part of what made the story presentation of Uncharted 2 and Sucker Punch's inFamous 2 stand out so strongly among their peers, and is here, again, entirely in service of the gamer.

Almost every member of the supporting cast - W. Earl Brown, Brandon Scott, Merle Dandridge and Jeffrey Pierce (oh, and Nolan North in another one of his fantastic character bits) - are in lockstep with the quality of the leads.  Annie Wesching, in particular, is a standout as the Toughest Lady on Earth, Tess - a smuggler kingpin of the Boston quarantine zone, who everyone knows and fears and is the defacto boss of our big, mean 'ol dog Joel.  After completing the game, Naughty Dog admitted that they had a much larger arc in mind for Tess, and it shows.  She is easily as well-rounded and engaging as either of the leads.

Tess is bad ass.

As for the leads?  Well, it's no secret Troy Baker's got it goin' on.  Following his delightful Booker DeWitt in BioShock Infinite, his performance as Joel highlights not just the actor's versatility, but showcases a level of controlled restraint and ability that's almost nonexistent in gaming performances.  Joel has a gentle west-Texas accent, for example, and his voice is a good octave lower than Baker's normal pitch - but cracks never show in Baker's character work.  Joel needed an actor of great range and a capacity to communicate character - strength and sadness and anger and love - with little more than a shrug and a drawl, and Baker absolutely steals the show.

Ashley Johnson's Ellie - a foul-mouthed fourteen-year-old who's only ever known the post-apocalypse world - is a surprisingly nuanced and elegant performance.  She matches Baker's fire and vulnerability, makes Ellie her own, and - like the script, like the soundtrack, like Baker - wisely chooses subtlety where a lesser actor would have chosen ham.

It's a remarkable cast all-around, but Johnson and Baker, with so much scenery to chew through and so far to go with their character arcs, deliver performances that are best described as beautiful.  Just beautiful, beautiful performances.

This incredible, gorgeous, inspired game would have been far less, were it not for their presence.

Let's talk about the tech.

The lighting system is miraculous - there's nothing else like it on consoles.

Twice in all my playthroughs, I've seen tenth-of-a-second bugs in which a character will pop out of their prescribed animation to their static pose, and twice I discovered an object I needed to interact with (a ladder, a turnstyle) wouldn't let me interact with it until I reloaded a checkpoint.

And lo, I have described everything that I found wanting in TLoU in the above sentence.  The short version is, this is an unrelentingly beautiful game.

Naughty Dog have long been masters of foliage and weather effects, and The Last of Us represents the uniquely talented developer operating at the height of its craft.  (Incredible) dynamic animations and character details are certainly an improvement over their latest efforts, in keeping with the absolute heights of quality on PS3, but where The Last of Us exceeds its heritage (and any other console game I could name) is in the lighting engine that Naughty Dog began refining in Uncharted 3.

Most of the game's post-apocalyptic locations are without power, and (unless you use your flashlight), the only light source are the rays of the Sun, flooding through broken walls and bare window frames.  The ambient lighting gives a warmth and familiar, true-to-life sense to the game world, with light accurately bouncing around the environments, providing subtle variations to brightness and shade the likes of which I've never seen on a console.  The light from your flashlight, torches, the sun and even muzzle flare are all rendered on-the-fly in real time, and the masterful qualities of the effect fades in to the background of your experience.

Sometimes you'll stop and marvel at just how sharp the shadows cast from your flashlight are, but - like the best of Naughty Dog's tech work (snow) - it's never the point of the game, merely the gorgeous foundation the experience glides on.

No install.  No load times beyond an initial boot.  It's remarkable.

Now.  Finally.  Let's talk about what it's like to play this video game.

Sound-sensitive clickers are blind, but an infected Runner will beeline for you as soon as they make line-of-sight.

This is a stealth game.  This is a survival game.  This is an action game.  It's a stealth-survival-strategic-action game, almost entirely at odds with the easy-breezy, liquid flow of Uncharted 3.  It's heavy.  Weighty.  Desperate. ...meaningful.

Built on basic controls any gamer would be familiar with - L1 to aim, R1 to shoot, square to melee, X to vault objects, circle to crouch - The Last of Us takes a comfortable foundation and spins it out into gameplay that's not quite like anything else.  It feels deeply inaccurate to suggest that The Last of Us is a shooter or a brawler or even a straight-up survival game - it feels only like itself.

Which, alone, is... precious - built though it may be on the familiar.

You must scour every single location you stroll through, rifling through cabinets and shelves for a scrap of tape, an old half of a pair of scissors, so you can perhaps - hopefully - gather enough materials to craft yourself a simple shiv.  You'll grin like an idiot when you side open a drawer and actually find two shotgun shells hiding inside.

Slipping in to cover is beautifully natural - when crouching or sneaking by an object, Joel will dynamically reach out his hand to steady himself on the wall - you are unseen.

In The Last of Us, life is very cheap - yours most of all.   Slick artificial intelligence (for both your companions and human enemies) lend the entire affair a much deeper sense of immersion than I'm accustomed to in a third-person game.  Or at least the deepest sense of immersion in a third-person action game this side of Dark Souls.

Oh yeah.  I went there.  You've likely heard that your AI companions are invisible to enemies while you are in stealth.  This is true - but the alternative (Ellie's pathfinding getting her shot at, and ruining my stealthy strategies) would be a far greater misstep.  The choice is made entirely in the gamer's favor, and I refuse to suggest it's anything less than the correct design decision.

As Ellie learns from Joel, her combat prowess steadily evolves over the course of the game.  She'll start by shouting "eat it, motherfucker!" before hucking a brick into a dude's face to open up a split-second opportunity for Joel, and grows into a salty little junkyard dog just as mean and capable as her protector.

You and your enemies die easy.  Headshots and point-blank shotgun rounds hurt you just as much as your foes, and so the game is often played in inches.  Whipping a bottle (which could have doubled as a one-time melee upgrade, for smashing over an enemy's head) into a far corner will result in a short discussion between two hunters:

"I'll check it out - you watch my back."

So you watch the back of the man watching the back.  You pop up from the other side of the room, taking a few precious seconds to level your revolver at his head, holding down the aim button until the reticle tightens and focuses and steadies and BOOM!

There goes your last round - but it was worth it.

Get out of there - move - they know where you are.  ...know where you were.

Take your time.  Take a breath.  Study the environment.  Pick up that brick.  Use cover to flank him.  He's coming around the corner you're hiding behind - no time for hesitation - you tear around the corner as he starts with surprise and mash square to chtok clock him in the head with the brick.  And again - whukk - beat him down until he's trembling, holding up a hand to shield himself.

"Don't, don't do it man - we can work somethin' out!"

Work this out.  The brick shatters, along with the man.  Best keep your eye out for another.

The game requires far more stealth than its trailers would lead you to believe - and it does stealth really well.

The weight of action and movement, the life-like (read: slow) animations, the pace of the play is very unique.  It flows along at what is practically a crawl compared to most action games, and here those extra beats communicate the vulnerability and, well, humanity of our heroes and those who would do them harm while providing the player more time for snap decisions and on-the-fly strategies.  It massively heightens the game's tension, and grounds this fungus-zombie-plague post-apocalyptic world in a believable reality.  For example, you know when you're behind cover in a third-person shooter, and you pop up to take a shot - take a second to aim - and an enemy shoots you before you get a round off?  Y'know how that will make your aim jiggle?

Not here.  In The Last of Us, when you're about to take a shot and an enemy shoots first, that bullet hits like a... well, bullet.  It slams into you like a sledgehammer, knocking you flat on your ass, blood splattering the virtual camera behind you.

That hurt.  Gotta' be smarter.

The blind Clickers will one-hit you if they get close enough, but a wise player can sneak right on by without wasting a single round.  

Where nearly all action games shoehorn stealth in that doesn't quite work (Uncharted) or lean so heavily on stealth that it's your only option for survival (Hitman, Tenchu), The Last of Us is a remarkably successful mixture of stealth and action.  After a tense series of sneaky takedowns, an enemy you didn't see coming could blow the whole thing wide open, turning your careful planning into a vicious, one-last-chance, desperate bid for survival.  After a brief shootout or brutal melee takedown, scurrying away to break line-of-sight is always the wisest course of action, to begin the hunt anew.

Here, one never feels punished when stealth is broken - only more involved, more immersed.  Your heart will thrash with adrenaline, your last breath will become lodged in your throat as you desperately sprint through a door, vault some cover and drop to the floor, praying you have the time (and resources) to quickly prepare a molotov cocktail.

The sound of the burning rag when you throw it is so...rippy before it smashes in to them as they come through the door.  And their body armor ain't so helpful, now.

"Oh my God," Ellie mutters.

Whewww.  Let that breath go.

Alright - c'mon Ellie, let's search the place.

So.  Lemmie break this down.

The Last of Us is a master's thesis on pacing, and nearly impossible to put down.  The narrative presents a new high-water mark for intelligent, honest writing in video games, but never feels like it gets in the way on subsequent playthroughs.  Indeed, I find I always well up at two key points - even familiarity does not weaken its grip on your heart.  It's just... so touching.

It's a supernaturally gorgeous game, yet more proof that Naughty Dog have forged some dark pact with unholy forces to grant them dominion over the PS3's capabilities.  The game's world is beautiful, intelligently-designed and painstakingly detailed.

Its cast is exemplary, with Ashley Johnson and Troy Baker in particular delivering stunning, beautiful performances that elevate the entire production and hammer home the brilliance of Neil Druckmann's human, emotionally honest writing.

It's one of the best "survival" games to appear on the current gen, but more than that its fresh-feeling, weighty, desperate, impactful combat is a wonderfully balanced and nuanced blend of stealth and action, which repeatedly imparts a heart-thrashing adrenaline high.

The Last of Us is so uniformly accomplished across every facet that it's... shocking.  Its intelligence, craft and uniformity of excellence is a shock to the system.

In the years to come, it will be regarded as an absolute classic, and a landmark game.

It's a masterpiece.


  1. "Hey Joel, what did the mole say to the other mole while it was stuck in traffic? I smell MOLASSES!"

  2. One of the fantastic touches of the game. I actually went my entire first playthrough without Ellie ever pulling out her joke book. Didn't hear about the boobie trap until NG+.

  3. "You must scour every single location you stroll through, rifling through cabinets and shelves for a scrap of tape, an old half of a pair of scissors, so you can perhaps - hopefully - gather enough materials to craft yourself a simple shiv. You'll grin like an idiot when you side open a drawer and actually find two shotgun shells hiding inside."

    Given the option, I'm a habitual scavenger in video games. Dang it, Chance; I don't need another video game right now!

  4. The person-who-has-to-pay-for-video-games in me says wait until you've got less on your plate. The part of me that adds up and measures every game against others in their calendar year (and years prior, come to think of it) encourages you to drop whatever else you've got on your plate and play this as soon as possible.

    Unless you're playing Muramasa: Rebirth - in which case I'll forgive you for supporting Vanillaware.

  5. Walked out of the theater today after seeing World War Z, and picked up The Last of Us.

    I blame Chance.