Monday, January 13, 2014

The Last of Us: It's Pretty Good, But ...

Whenever a critically-hyped mainstream game receives nothing but unanimous praise from professional critics and ordinary gamers alike, I tend to become somewhat skeptical. It seems like more often than not, I tend to disagree with the masses; I've been burned too many times by games that just don't live up to their hype and end up disappointing me. On occasion, however, the masses are actually right and I'm left with no choice but to agree with them. Such is the case with The Last of Us, Naughty Dog's latest foray on the PS3 -- a post-apocalyptic survival game starring two characters, Joel and Ellie, trying to make it across the country with a cure to the fungal virus afflicting mankind.

I enjoyed The Last of Us. It's a pretty good game that understands how tension and survival mechanics are supposed to work in these types of games, and its story is genuinely interesting to see through to its conclusion. More appropriately, its characters are worth seeing through to the end. Joel and Ellie's journey is a very riveting one that kept me playing for long stretches at a time, not wanting to put it down. But for as good as The Last of Us is, it's also an imperfect game -- one that really irritated me at times, and which still isn't as good as it could have been.

Modern survival-horror games could stand to take a few lessons from The Last of Us. Despite not being a survival-horror game, The Last of Us features many of the same mechanics that would be appropriate for such a game -- notably, its emphasis on the actual survival component. While many recent survival-horror games have turned into mindless action games with tepid horror atmospheres, The Last of Us is as close to a true survival game as we've had in a long time, and that's such a refreshing feeling. This is a game where taking on three enemies at once is a challenge, and where facing five enemies seems almost impossible.

The skills upgrade window, requiring collectible supplements.

A large part of what makes The Last of Us such a successful survival game is its crafting system and the scarcity of resources. Healing items, ammunition, and weapons are extremely rare, requiring you to scavenge the environment in search of resources to craft these valuable items. In hard mode, at least, these resources are pretty hard to come by, which means any time you engage in combat, you have to weigh the costs versus the benefits -- do you spend your precious few bullets killing enemies from a safe range so you can preserve your healing kits, or do you try to go in for melee kills to save your bullets, but risk taking more damage? Do you even engage in combat at all, or do you try to sneak past your enemies?

The system encourages exploration, both during the calm downtime between encounters and during encounters themselves. You might be tempted to sneak past everyone and everything to avoid the risk of losing anything, but you also miss out on lots of valuable resources in the process, making you weigh the risks versus the rewards -- is it worth it to try exploring every room in this area, on the chance that I'll find some sweet loot? Every stage of the game requires you to make smart decisions in terms of how you manage your resources and how you decide to go about certain encounters, meaning the game rewards you for smart decisions and careful execution and punishes you for recklessness.

Combat is slow and methodical, but loaded to the brim with tension and just the right amount of thrilling action, which feels very appropriate for this type of game. With the scarcity of resources, getting through a fight is not just about surviving -- it's about surviving efficiently, getting through the fight while consuming the least amount of resources. The game is fairly open-ended in terms of letting you decide how you want to approach situations, either through pacifistic non-combat, stealth take-downs, run-and-gun action, or any combination thereof. Like the exploration, it encourages you to make smart decisions, and the constant risk and tension of combat makes it incredibly thrilling to narrowly escape by the skin of your teeth, or satisfying to come away with a flawless execution.

Your head a'splode.

Enemies are pretty smart and react intelligently to your actions; pull a gun on them and they'll take cover, kill enough of their allies and they'll run and hide. With all the different options available to you, both in terms of your own arsenal and the ever-complex level design, encounters can end up being extremely dynamic. You can go into a fight, die, reload the save, and have the encounter play out very differently, either because of your dynamic change in strategy or because the enemies behave a little differently. Combined with the constant addition of new types of weaponry, new types of enemies, and different scripted scenarios, the combat rarely ever gets to feel repetitive. 

Stealth in The Last of Us is some of the best I've seen in a mainstream game like this. There's no overt stealth system requiring you to press a button to go into cover behind an obstacles and nothing measuring your visibility or anything like that -- it's all very natural and intuitive. If you want to stay hidden, you crouch low and just stay behind cover. When you approach cover, Joel will put his hand on it, cuing you that you're softly glued to that surface, and whenever you're ready to change locations you move away from it or vault over it. It's simple, it's elegant, and the level design gives you a lot of ways to plan a stealthy approach or escape.

The actual story is not all that complicated -- it's mostly a series of "we have to get from point A to point B" for various reasons, but the interactions between characters along the way are what make it such an engaging experience. Joel and Ellie and very well-written and well-acted characters that feel much more genuine than most video game characters. There are a lot of small moments between them, dialogues here and there, that are obviously scripted well in advance, but they come off feeling spontaneous and natural. Along the way, Joel and Ellie meet various other characters for brief amounts of time who add to the characterization of this post-apocalyptic world, offering different insights to how other survivors have fared and offering varying contrasts and conflicts for the two heroes.

Joel and Ellie, out exploring.

More than anything, The Last of Us has its pacing and momentum perfectly balanced. Gameplay flows smoothly, alternating slower-paced exploration, character development sequences, narrative cutscenes, and tense action/stealth sequences, such that you rarely get tired feeling like you're doing the same thing. Everything flows seamlessly into the next with constant objectives and threats demanding your immediate reaction. The pacing is so riveting that I'd play for three or four hours at a time and not even realize it, and then still want to continue playing even though I needed to get to sleep soon.

All of the game's core elements, then, are very good. The Last of Us is a well-realized game that deserves every bit of its praise, but there are some things in its design that absolutely piss me off and which hold it back from perfection.

Chief on my list of complaints is how often the game is apt to break its own rules, leaving the player to fail an encounter numerous times as he tries to deduce the idiosyncratic logic behind that encounter's mechanics. For example, you spend several hours familiarizing yourself with the stealth system -- how it works, how to take advantage of it -- and the game makes it clear that stealth, running away, and avoiding combat are always valid options for an encounter. After you've figured this out, you run into a scenario where you have to infiltrate a school and stealth seems like the most logical choice -- the characters even stress this -- but there comes a time in this encounter that enemies are forcibly scripted to detect you, no matter how careful and stealthy you are, from impossible distances, causing everything to swarm on you, simply to force a frantic fight-or-flight kind of situation on the player. 

I had to die a few times to realize that it was no fault of my own that they were detecting me, and that it was the developers forcing their hand on the storytelling. But even then, the game had already long established that you can just run away from an encounter if absolutely necessary -- the characters even yell to run when you hit that scripted threshold -- so after several attempts desperately trying to run past the encounter to reach the next "checkpoint," I learned that that option is suddenly not available to me and I have to kill every enemy in the area to progress. It was just so damn frustrating trying to do what the game has explicitly told me is a viable option and which seems totally appropriate for this situation, only to have that option inexplicably taken away from me.

Using Joel's listening ability to "hear" enemies through walls.

Later on, I escaped a hotel and was faced with an open area crawling with patrolling human enemies. Joel hands Ellie a bolt-action rifle and tells her to use it if he gets into trouble down there clearing a path. After I'd slowly and methodically picked off every guard from stealth, more spawned literally from out of nowhere -- behind corners I had just cleared moments ago -- patrolling the area aggressively with their weapons drawn, as if to force me into a desperate high-action combat scenario just to fulfill the story requirement of Ellie using the rifle to save me. It was supposed to a development in her character and the relationship between Joel and Ellie coming to trust and rely upon one another, and there was apparently no way for Naughty Dog to get that point across without punishing me for my diligent effort and forcing me into an arbitrarily bullshit combat situation.

At other times, the game blatantly seems to defy logic, just for the sake of its mechanics and its storytelling. While exploring a suburban neighborhood, the characters come to a dead end and have to crawl through a doggie door instead of just climbing over an easily scale-able wooden privacy fence. While escaping from the school, they end up in a gymnasium, forced to climb up onto the retracted bleachers to escape out the window -- naturally, enemies spawn once I'm the last one left to go up, and instead of just taking the few seconds to pull me up, the game forces you to stay on the ground level and fend off an entire wave of enemies, just for the thrill of it. Then you get attacked by an entire group of guys with guns and you take them out before they even fire a shot, and they don't drop their weapons or any sort of ammunition just to force you to scrape by with minimal resources.

The bulk of the game is also detrimentally linear. When crafting a strong narrative-driven game, linearity is of course to be expected -- I'm not saying I need a sprawling open world or anything, but some more open spaces to explore, besides cramped, narrow corridors, would have been nice. The game is at its best when it places you in open spaces that can be explored at your leisure, while still funneling you down a linear path, but these areas are always broken up by long stretches of glorified corridor-crawling. It would have been really nice to have more open areas like the hotel, or the possibility of branching paths that re-converge on the main path of the developer's story line.

Joel and Tess infiltrating a wharf.

Throughout the course of the game, they change up the pacing by having you settle down into calm environments, exploring and solving environmental puzzles to advance to the next area -- there's a lot of potential for great gameplay within these elements, but the environmental puzzles are all the same lame, repeated affairs throughout the entire game. Ellie can't swim, so at numerous points in the game you're forced to take Joel swimming through an area to find a wooden shipping pallet, return to Ellie, and use it to float her over to the next area. Otherwise, you're looking for a ladder somewhere to climb up to a high ledge or you're looking for a wooden plank to walk across a gap -- it's literally the same damn stuff over and over again, and it would've been nice to have seen more variety in this part of the game's design, and/or some more puzzles that required some actual thought to solve.

The stealth system is fairly sophisticated, but it still falls victim to feeling exceedingly cheap and unfair at times. It's the classic case of spending seemingly forever studying patrol routes, hiding, waiting, and biding your time for the perfect take-down, only for the enemy to turn at the last possible second and put everyone into full alert. Then you have issues where the "grab" prompt doesn't pop up (the thing that allows you to perform the take-down) when it obviously should, or enemies seeing or hearing you when they realistically should not be able to, or having your cover blown because you couldn't vault over an obstacle that looked exactly like it was designed to be vaulted over, and so on. The system is generally good, but moments like these recurred throughout the entire game and managed to piss me off consistently.

Finally, there's the game's airlock checkpoint save system that prevents any sort of backtracking into previous areas -- you finish an encounter or open a door, and then you're stuck watching a cutscene as the game advances completely beyond your control. I absolutely hate it when games do this, and it was especially infuriating in this game how many times I inadvertently picked the "correct" path to advance the story and was forcibly prevented from exploring a side room or a small, alternate path. Considering how much of a role exploring for resources plays in this game as well as how much of a completionist I am when it comes to exploration, I felt like I was cheated out of game content that I had every intention to experience.

For as many complaints as I have, these are generally nitpicking blemishes. The inconsistency in how the game handles its own rules, the repetition of environmental puzzles, and extreme linearity are all legitimate problems that detract from the game's excellence, but The Last of Us is still one of the best games I played in 2013 and one of the best games on the PS3.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Nick, huge fan. Finally played this game and I was hoping you had written something about it. I agree with your praise of the characters and your criticisms of the mechanics. But I have to dissent when you refer to both gamers and critics as "the masses".

    Like you, I'm immediately skeptical when a game gets universally praised and immediately put on "best of all time" lists by reviewers, sometimes even before it's available to the public.

    But I wouldn't conflate industry consensus with the actual feelings of the ordinary people who just play games. In my experience, "average" players' tastes and opinions are often more complex and sophisticated than critics (and game designers) give them credit for. And touting the sales figures of heavily and expensively promoted games as proof that developers are "giving people what they want" amounts to little more than a marketing ploy.

    But that's a minor issue. In general I think you're one of the most perceptive and independent writers on gaming that we have. To me you fill a role similar to the movie critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. Hope to read your stuff for a long time to come.