Preview – The Last of Us


Preview – The Last of Us
Naughty Dog. Cheeky Pup.
I’m not courting controversy when I admit to having reservations about The Last of Us.

Well, technically, I am.

But it’s not intentional, merely a coincidental, attention-grabbing upshot.

It seems now the gaming world rests its hopes and dreams on Naughty Dog’s latest Intellectual Property. Though it’s one of the largest industries on the face of the earth, easily twice the size of a more ‘reputable’ film industry, Games and Gamers still suffer this lingering inferiority complex. And everyone has essentially prophesised that Naughty Dog will rectify this injustice.

Even Naughty Dog themselves.

Last December, in a heartfelt, albeit fairly conceited revelation to Eurogamer, creative director and writer Neil Druckmann talked of his desire to “change the f***ing industry” with The Last Of Us, urging rivals to admit, “Okay, I really need to learn the craft of storytelling, I really need to involve my actors in this in order to get realistic performances and realistic actors. That's what we want to do.”
Do Naughty Dog have the monopoly on decent narrative?
Do Naughty Dog have the monopoly on decent narrative?Enlarge Enlarge

"We try so hard at Naughty Dog to push things... And then games come out that are fun and exciting and get visceral things right, but to read in reviews that they have an amazing story is disheartening to us because we work so hard at it.

"As critics we need to raise the bar, otherwise no-one's going to change. We're going to keep pushing ourselves, and kill ourselves to make this story happen - but hope that by doing it, the rest of the industry is going to take notice and try to do the same thing."

ND’s Uncharted is conceivably the defining IP of this console generation. Much of its acclaim is due to stellar performances and gripping narrative.

But this bears stressing: The art of storytelling is fluid, evolving and not limited solely to aping beloved adventure films and splicing in eight hours of shooting galleries?!

Perhaps crafting a game that’s just-like-a-movie isn’t de facto the healthiest way for this medium to grow.

And yet,

The Last of Us.

Set during a ‘Day of the Triffids’ level floral catastrophe, born survivor Joel and quick-witted youth Ellie scrape together some semblance of a life in the lively, colourful ruins of western civilisation.

Despite the presence of dual protagonists, Campaign co-op will not be supported, leaving the developers to expand and hone their story without gameplay constraint.

And with Oscar Winning Gustavo Alfredo Santaolalla (Brokeback Mountain, Babel) scoring their upcoming title, ND have the scene set for a taught emotional rollercoaster of moral quandaries, dry wit and distressing acts of violence.

Like the loveable half-tucked rogue before them, Joel and Ellie will spend time sedately exploring richly textured and expertly rendered environments, taxing themselves with some light platforming (and even lighter input) as they scramble and climb through civic vestiges.

The post-apocalyptic world of The Last of Us is an education in the abilities of ND’s custom built engine and the precision of Irish developed Havok physics.

The serene ambience sparkles with points of interaction, such as decrepit movie posters, sparking dialogue between the inquisitive young woman and her seasoned protector, and shatters with the arrival of fungal nasties and sinister survivors.

This blossoming, vibrant realism tends to wilt during combat.

Obviously sensitive to criticisms of the regenerative health mechanic, Joel sports a very trendy, very retro life bar.
This feel a regression, an ill considered relenting to fan pressure. I’m not advocating magically renewed vigour, but Joel’s ill health can be represented in far more imaginative, immersive ways than a distracting, screen-filling, lime green shaft!

Stealth has been promised a larger role than in the Uncharted titles, with dynamic cover slinking, cinematic sleeper holds and ambitious edifice scaling proving a greater lure than panicked fire-fights.
Nap time
Nap timeEnlarge Enlarge

Ballistics are understandably scant in the savaged remains of Boston. Unfortunately, rather than experimenting with precise, methodological, high risk gunplay, retrieve Joel’s trusty revolver from his jeans wrapped ass crack and its arcade city!

Tired genre clichés such as targeting reticules, catch all med-kits and ammo counters further negate atmospheric integrity.
It seems for each consequent vault, masterfully landed, The Last of Us fumbles with an ill-conceived misstep.
HUD and seek
HUD and seekEnlarge Enlarge

Delight: Unarmed Ellie will scavenge makeshift weapons where she can, in one instance ominously snatching a brick from the ground.
Disdain: Joel shrugs off gunfire, blood spattering the camera as, stamina inexhaustible, he ducks into cover, sprints through doorways and lays a considerable smack down on a pipe-wielding jerkwad.

Human shields are a great new mechanic, and the fact your prisoner’s desperate struggles can throw off your aim is further evidence of ND’s charm and thoughtfulness. Similarly, enemies will react to the distinctive clang of spent clips and empty champers, presuming it safe to emerge from cover. And brain you.

Another inspired invention spoiled by carelessness elsewhere!
Why fire a depleted firearm when you have an ammo counter right there, constantly reminding you of impending vulnerability!
Why not just count the rounds ourselves, like in that other thing, REALITY!!!

True to form, The Last of Us calms me right down, redeeming itself as Ellie bricks the swarming foe in the side of his brain while Joel rams the sorry bugger for some context sensitive brutality!
Right in his beak!
Right in his beak!Enlarge Enlarge

Joel can even check his backpack mid fire-fight and craft useful tools to better his escape, namely Molotov Cocktails! The game cleverly continues in real-time as you rummage away, infusing gameplay depth and narrative tension.

Joel’s more desperate brawler than trained assassin and his scenes of bare-knuckle fisticuffs often become extended affairs. Assuredly not Quick-Time Events, their length and exclusivity of animation suggests minimal (if any) player interaction during these life or death struggles.

Is this a case of ND trusting only themselves, not the player, to render a dynamic, exciting sequence?

That’s the real beef, isn’t it? While I’ll happily let nonsense-engine Asura’s Wrath off the hook when it comes to half-hearted agency, The Last of Us earns no such reprieve, especially when positioned as the salvation of interactive entertainment.

I don’t mean to rain on The Last of Us’ well earned parade. But with this stratospheric hype and Druckmann’s masked superiority, it’s hard to still root for Naught Dog as the punchy can-do underdog.

That said, given their level of expertise, let alone competence, I fully expect to chow down on a side salad of these very words at some stage in 2013!

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