Monday, 22 July 2013

The Last of Us

Please note, there are no spoilers in this review.

On Playstation 3

The Last of Us represents the end of an era in many ways. It is one of the last big titles on the Playstation 3, it represents the culmination to a body of work from developer Naughty Dog and it embodies a high point to a particular style of game we've seen many, many times this generation.

Throughout the last ten years we have seen more and more big budget titles, with blockbuster presentation values and grandiose stories. Call of Duty, Assassins Creed, Bioshock and Uncharted are just a few that come to mind. The Last of Us is the climax to that particular ideology and design philosophy. It is by far the best amongst them.

One of the main talking points about The Last of Us is it's story. Set in a post apocalyptic world destroyed by a cordyceps virus (a spore fungus that infects the brain and triggers mutation), The Last of Us follows the journey and relationship of Joel and Ellie. Without giving any details away, the narrative is gripping, it is tense, it is emotional and it asks many questions. Key among those: how far would you go for the last of yours? There are many variants of the “us” within the game. Separate factions and groups, all who answer that very question in different ways. Whether that answer may help our protagonists on their journey or not. More often than not that answer is also incredibly violent and morally grey.

Joel and Ellie are wonderfully realised in a manner that is not commonly found in video games. Both feel real, their relationship feels real and the ups and downs within that relationship feel real. The performance, through voice work and motion capture, made me care immensely. Both go on an emotional journey, both have flaws and are paradoxical, and together they make you emotionally invest in their story.

Their story is really the highlight here. Gameplay, while serviceable, is nothing to rant and rave about and this has become a common theme throughout this particular style of game. The Last of Us shares the same flaws as Bioshock Infinite, Max Payne 3 and many others. There is a disconnect between the gameplay and narrative – however unlike previous titles, The Last of Us takes significant steps to reduce the dissonance. Resources are scarce and scavenging becomes both a game play mechanic and narrative element. The gameplay doesn't award points for stealth or action, both are what they are and either choice isn't celebrated or punished. This is a fact of the world The Last of Us is set in.

It is a violent world and violence is just tolerated, it is a fact of life. The slow movement and “tanky” controls help to convey the underlying tension that runs throughout the narrative as every gun fight becomes a game of resource management and self preservation – exactly how it would in a barren wasteland world.

My biggest gripe with the gameplay is the fact that when you are in control, Ellie cannot be detected by enemies. It rarely plays a factor but when it does become obvious that she is essentially invisible to them, it does take you out of the moment a little. Here is a story based on survival, survival of this couple and yet her safety is not a factor when you are in control.

This is where improvement needs to be made. Talking about character and narrative is fine but form and craft has to be taken into account. A perfect delivery of dialogue is both performance from the actor and the crafting of a director. In this instance the craft needed to be of a higher standard to keep in line with the high quality narrative. Treating the narrative and gameplay as two separate entities is a flaw of the particular design philosophy and ideology The Last of Us exploits to it's advantage and, at times, disadvantage.

Regardless of the gameplay slip ups, The Last of Us is still a fantastic game. It is the best game on Playstation 3 because it tells a story with conviction, with passion and heart. The big moments are not huge explosions or fight scenes but quiet, tender moments in a car, with two characters conversing. The key moments are not the blaring gun fire but the eerie guitar strum and a lingering camera shot across the desolate landscape. It steps away from conventional “press X to be hero and O to be villain” and presents an unflinching and uncompromising ending that many may not see coming.

The Last of Us represents, to me, the very reason why I dream to get involved in such an industry. To be able to lose yourself in such a lovingly crafted world is the best form of escapism, it has been true for the longest time with novels and stories. It is the same with this.