You Got Carved's The Last of Us Review
- Incredibly innovative and engaging AI
- Very fun combat gameplay
- Awesome presentation/production values
- Top notch voice acting and facial animation
- Poor/incoherent characterization of numerous characters
- Lack of emotional impact of post-apocalyptic scenario
- Boring puzzle gameplay
- Unsatisfactory plot
Could this be The First of Them?
So as I'm sure we all know, this game has been reviewed and rated as "The first of the new paradigm of gaming", "The best game of this generation" and a "Masterpiece". High praise indeed! Unfortunately I don't agree with them - no doubt this is an excellent game but for me it misses the mark of masterpiece by quite a while. Oddly enough, my preconception of what would stand out in this game (story, characters, general atmosphere etc) fell flat of the mark in many respects and the aspects I thought would be secondary (gameplay, AI) really shone through.
Now, without further ado, the review!
Let's start with the good..no, the great! I've heard the gameplay of this game criticised as being nothing special, you shoot, you stab, you throw (you save). Whilst it's true, Joel's abilities as a player character are nothing particularly special, this is ignoring the flipside of gameplay: the enemies abilities. More specifically, the bandit enemies.
The bandits in this game are smart in all the right ways. They hear the click if you fire a gun without bullets in the chamber, and start rushing you given you have no ammo. They try and flank you to great effect, if there are two enemies and hear a noise behind an object they will approach from both sides rather than follow each other round. They will rush you if you're holding your melee weapon out, but as soon as you whip your gun out the holster and fire a round they cower and dash to cover.
One of my favourite AI encounters I had that shows how smart they are was when I was trying to stealth an area and didn't check my corners carefully enough, and managed to walk straight past a concealed bandit. Instead of the bandit doing the usual "Huh? Whose that? An enemy! Hey guys its an enemy!!" he remained totally silent, stalked me from behind, and the first I heard of him was when it transitioned smoothly to a pants-crapping in-game cinematic of him coming out of nowhere screaming, knife already halfway towards my face. These awesome enemies led me to play combat on a whole new level, playing confidence games with my enemies..never letting them hear the click of an empty gun, intimidating them into playing defensively then rushing them, etc.
The friendly AI was brilliant too, with Ellie very intelligently timing her attacks. She generally keeps back, taking pot shots from range, but on a few occasions I found myself in trouble and she really came in handy in a very organic way. Once I found myself on low health with an enemy grappling me, and she comes yelling like a banshee jumping onto the enemies back and stabbing him with her knife. Another time, I broke my golden rule and accidentally let an enemy hear my gun click empty. Realising I had no ammo, the enemy came out of cover and started to line up his shotgun with my face. With no other option and resigned to a game over screen, I started to rush him, hoping to be able to melee him out. There was no way I'd close on him before he fired. However the guardian angel Ellie let out a sassy "Hey asshole!" before throwing a brick in his face, stunning him just long enough for me to close on him and give him a good beasting.
So far I've talked mainly about full on combat. The stealth is fun too, but nothing very imaginative. Interestingly I always consider being discovered as a failure in games (hardcore Metal Gear player here) but honestly, the stealth serves best as a prelude to full out combat, taking out as many enemies as you can silently, tension increasing all the while, before releasing the pent up stress in a graceful battle of confidence, intelligence and firepower.
Also, I haven't yet mentioned The Infected, or the "zombie" enemies of this game. Honestly, I didn't find fighting them anything special, for the most part it was a very similar feel to any other zombie game so nothing groundbreaking, but served as a nice change of pace to bandit encounters and provided for a couple of amazing atmospheric and fearful moments. However I don't think they made the most of these, when I say a couple I mean literally two occasions where they used The Infected enemies to great effect. But they were not gameplay moments, more presentation and atmosphere so I will elaborate on those later.
The graphics in general are top notch Naughty Dog quality, again nothing groundbreaking but definitely feels like a nicely presented big budget game. The lighting in particular stood out, which worked very well in the creepy dark spore filled sections of the game.
What did really wow me were the facial animations..somehow they felt even better than the L.A. Noire animations, a game that must have put half its budget into its innovative facial capturing system. The faces conveyed every nuance of the emotion behind them, and really helped contribute to the emotional bond with the characters.
I would also praise the environments, they were very richly detailed. You can see weeds and plants growing through cracked paving stones, snowstorms feel visceral and..refreshing in their crispness. Every brick and stone feels like it has a story behind the wear and tear on it. Really top notch work once again.
A criticism I would have is that the framerate can drop pretty low at times, I think partially me noticing this was a symptom of me being used to gaming on a top end PC but it did annoy me a few times. However it is a relatively minor issue and I can't imagine it bothering many others.
Not much to say here, decent minimalistic score, though sometimes feels a little more "nothing" than "minimalistic". But whatever, it seems like a design choice and it does accentuate things when it kicks in so fair play. Can't criticize it, it could have been a lot worse if there was too much music, but doesn't add much.
The voice acting however is almost flawless, on almost all counts. Combined with the brilliant facial animation, the characters really come alive to film quality standard. It's an absolutely amazing effect and could really have propelled this game into new territory if it weren't for...
Character Development & Story - MAJOR STORY SPOILERS!
Now here's where the supposed magnum opus begins to unravel for me. I thought the character development in this game was, for the most part, downright shoddy. Now let me say up front - I understand what they were going for. The concept of these two people with nothing in common growing together in a horrific world and become like father and daughter through their shared experience and tragedy. I get that. It sounds beautiful on paper. Unfortunately I think Naughty Dog really messed up the execution. The thing about a great story and great characters is that you have to SHOW the development, not just TELL us that development has happened. I feel like ND had a starting point for the characters, an end point, and a few "events" that they hoped would connect the dots but just didn't.
Preliminary example of what I'm talking about: Tess. She starts off as a coldhearted survivalist, and before her death she becomes all noble and "lets fight for a cure". There is very little development in between other than her getting bitten, but again this is us being told that development happens rather than being shown the development. It's like ND are just ticking boxes on a questionnaire: "What exciting incident changes Tess' perspective?" "I know! She gets bitten! Character development done for the day!". They had a start point and an end point, and just explained what changed her mind. We don't see a shift in viewpoint, we don't see her struggling with her circumstance (apart from the obligatory pre-death soliloquy) and we don't see the journey, just the start and the end. This is not good character development. This is an illusion of character development which in my view is a lazy way of churning some emotion out without actually putting in the work to get us invested in the character.
The main, important case: Joel and Ellie's relationship. A big turning point of Jellie's (yes that's my shorthand for Joel and Ellie) relationship was that argument they had where Joel said "You're not my daughter". Then they fight through bandits, something they've done a bajillion times before, then suddenly after that run-of-the-mill experience Joel suddenly changes his mind about leaving Ellie, then we're treated to a "a few days later" fade out/fade in and suddenly their relationship has become a lot better. There are a few such events and it just feels quite forced and another example of that Point A => Exciting incident => Point B without showing true development in between, just glossing over it with some form of trial/tribulation to explain the changing viewpoint. That's not how real people interact, watch any good movie and you can see those shared experiences/trials are the seed for character development, which should be expanded upon with further conversation and interaction but its not just that an experience gives you +50 points of "relationship" with someone, which is what this game makes it feel like. The fade outs between seasons, whilst overall a wise design move, don't help this issue much. It would be fine to advance the characters on autopilot to an extent but I think given the weak development in the first place it only serves to exacerbate the problem.
Oh, and I thought Joel was a wasted opportunity. Great character on paper, but in execution became pretty dull to me.
However it wasn't all bad news; I really enjoyed the characters of Bill and David, and quite frankly towards the end I very much cared about Ellie as a character. As I said the development along the way was very rocky but I really wanted to get emotionally involved and they gave me enough opportunity and cute childish dialogue to make me care about her as a little sister/daughter role. The final chapter was actually pretty amazing in that respect since I intellectually would disagree with Joel's decision to abandon the cure but wanted Ellie to live so much that I didn't hesitate to totally gun down all the Fireflies in my path with relish. This part did actually approach levels of perfection, but unfortunately a flash of brilliance towards the end does not excuse some really dodgy stuff earlier on.
Note, I make the distinction between story and plot as: plot is the series of events that happen in the game that serve to propel the characters from situation to situation. The story is the rest of the flesh, the character interaction, development, and how they react to the events.
In a game like this I see that the plot is less important than the story. What happens isn't as important as how the characters develop round it, seeing as this is a character based story rather than a plot based story - this isn't the Matrix, it's more 12 Angry Men. But the plot is still important as a framing device, to move the characters around, and unfortunately I feel it falls flat. The way you chase the Fireflies around the country feels very "Mario, the Princess is in another castle!" in a way that really sticks in my craw. Even more than this, the reason that Joel embarks upon his quest across the country is really flimsy. It's not for the cure - he made it clear to Tess that's "not his crusade". It's not for the guns - before Tess dies he basically says it's not worth the risk lets give up and go home. The only reason that they indicate is out of obligation to Tess, but honestly they didn't build the relationship between him and Tess NEARLY enough for this to be convincing and to go against his strong characterization as somebody who places survival above all else. I feel ND could have put a LOT more effort into a convincing framing device, it just breaks the illusion when the plot and motivations are so incoherent and poor.
END OF MAJOR STORY SPOILERS!
I gave this its own section because looking at the trailers, I honestly thought one of the strongest point of this game would be seeing a ruined society, everyone scratching a meagre living, seeing people suffering, and generally "feeling all the feels". This was the biggest let down for me. I felt the world-building was just so clumsily done. They would just blatantly stick the bodies of a family down somewhere and scrawl a note on the wall saying "forgive us". That would be the height of the emotional impact of this post apocalyptic world. Sticking bodies of children and their parents everywhere =/= good emotional directing. It was absolutely laughable when I found a bunch of kids bodies in the sewer with a note scrawled in blood "they didn't suffer". It's so heavy handed and lacks any subtlety. Compare this to games like The Walking Dead where:
You actually see Clems parents as Zombies. Or having to choose yourself which survivors get food, thereby using gameplay to reinforce the dire situation. Or when you find the boy walker in the attic with Kenny. Or the totally unexpected suicide of Katjaa. Or when Kenny kills Larry
THAT's how you do post apocalyptic world-building. Not only are the moments horrifying shocking, they often happen to people we actually care about rather than "skeleton texture number 2", they are reinforced by gameplay, and they often take you completely by surprise.
Or to go another tack, compare to some moments in Fallout. For example, I remember one time I walked into a shack and there was a skeleton with whiskey bottles lying all around, and a knife with a human thumb stuck on the end. Now I have no idea what happened to get this weird situation but not knowing creeped the shit out of me. And it was not on display, it was just presented as par the course in this bleak world. Not like the Last of Us where every skeleton is presented like a trophy with a big "TRAGEDY HAPPENED HERE" sign. There's nothing wrong with the random bodies in The Last of Us but that is not enough to get you the great quality world-building seal of approval.
At the end of the day I know I've had a lot of gripes, but the game was an absolute blast to play and had some great moments and therefore there's no way I can say this game is anything other than excellent. Looking at the sum of the parts I could even say that it is a classic with a few flaws..but the thing stopping me from giving it that label is that the flaws are unfortunately placed so that they knock down a lot of the good points of the game:
The average character development => Mitigates the amazing voice acting/facial animation
The average emotional impact of the post apocalyptic world => Mitigates the amazing attention to detail
The average story => Mitigates the good dialogue
So yes this is no masterpiece, but a freaking excellent game. It has incredible mechanics and so much of it was a masterpiece on paper, but just flawed in the execution. I truly believe we will look back on this game as what seeded many many future masterpieces, and as such, this game is too important not to buy and play.
Plus, it has the best rendered bunny rabbit in gaming history.
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