12 August, 2014

Review – Surviving The Last of Us

Last year The Last of Us infected the PlayStation 3 with deadly effect, now Remastered for the PlayStation 4, it looks prettier and runs smoother than ever before. The fractured world of The Last of Us is a cruel one, twisting and toying with your emotions, as easily as it scars the people who attempt to live in it.

The Last of Us Remastered

The Last of Us confirmed my fears that I would never survive a world-warping apocalypse of the likes found here. I would be too weak, emotionally to survive, the question would force my hand – what is the purpose of living if there is no hope, your struggle for survival only increases with each day, each hour. Well Joel and Ellie have found a reason to survive, a purpose to struggle and despite first appearances, or what Joel might claim, that purpose is in fact each other.

That is the driving force in The Last of Us, the source of my fear of failure each time is entered a new area – explored the scattered remains of some long dead family, uprooted and broken by the infection. I didn’t care if the ‘mission’ was successful, it didn’t matter where we we’re or what we were doing, all that mattered to me, and to Joel and Ellie was that they survived, together. The main objective is a tool rather than itself, a compelling narrative, an excuse for Joel and Ellie to fall into terrifying situations and encounter the other scattered survivors. You’ll meander through the suburbs of a long overgrown city, hunt wild animals through snowy mountains and wander the ravaged, empty corridors of a high school, all are filled with their own brand of danger. The rich world is littered with other people's tales of suffering and death, told through the objects or scenes in the environment, as well as notes and audio recorders.

Graphical prowess and frame rate are the Remastered editions’ primary improvements, and they are by no means superficial, the visuals are a key factor that contributes to the effectiveness of The Last of Us. It’s not just the realistic lighting and high definition textures – though they’re certainly welcome – it’s the intonations and emotions conveyed in the faces, the eyes, that confer as much personality as the stellar voice acting, and writing. Ultimately, the fidelity helps to personify the characters of Joel and Ellie and convey emotion in a more human manner than dialog possibly can.

The Remastered version also comes packed with a photo mode, which allows you to pause time, move the camera and apply various filters and effects; vignettes, depth of field and of course, some dumb frames, to name just a few. Photo mode allows you to capture the brutality of the broken world in its rawest form; meat and tendon is torn out by the ravenous infected, a spray of gore and viscera erupt from shotgun victims, and skulls crack as they are pounded into walls and counters. You can find those very things in this gallery.

The Last of Us is a master-class example of a cinematic video game experience, it blurs gameplay and storytelling, to create something more. Initially, I was concerned that I would feel dissonance between the combat and crafting systems – the mere notion that there were ‘systems’ at all felt wrong somehow – yet I soon found myself thanking the game out loud whenever I spotted a pile of lightly flashing objects, and holding my breath as I crept through rooms of Clickers (infected that track by sound) using only bottles and my excellent hearing.

It took me hours to accept that I had to sneak, I was playing it like I play Splinter Cell – stealth kill a couple of enemies then open fire on the rest. Sure enough I died, I died a lot. In The Last of Us you’re not just concerned with surviving that current battle, you have to survive the next, and the one after that, and there’s rarely enough ammunition to let you walk through with confidence. I had to learn to restrain myself, I couldn’t fight every battle, often I would dispatch a small group of enemies only to find myself surrounded by their reinforcements, struggling to find enough cover to craft a health kit.

A man begged for his life, hand raised to shield himself  – so I shot him in the head with an arrow, rather than finish him off with a 2X4. A small mercy.

Combat and moment-to-moment gameplay excels because it complements the game’s cinematic approach perfectly, the tension in the encounters is palpable. Each door I opened was met with a sigh of relieve when nothing jumped at me – there are almost no jump-scares in the game either – I spent minutes positioning myself for the optimal arrow shot, or luring individual Clickers away from the main pact. Yet in comparison, the resulting combat would last maybe only thirty seconds. Clashes are frantic, bloody, and brutal, its kill or be killed, and despite your best laid plans and traps, you’ll still often find yourself at the centre of a whirling melee of teeth, makeshift clubs and shivs.

Each environment you journey through is unique, with its own art assets, and its own tales of human suffering, resulting in a world far more realistic – my home looks nothing like the houses down the road, neither do the homes in The Last of Us – it feels lived in, at least it was twenty years ago. Now all that remains are whispers of a time before the infection.

Joel – “Things happen, we move on…”

The Last of Us subverts expectations, I’d see the beginning of a zombie story trope, only to have it backfire and play out in a wildly different, and eminently worse way. You don’t have to spend much time around characters to establish strong emotions towards them, thanks to the exceptional voice acting, writing, perhaps most crucially the lifelike facial performance. A sneer, tensing of the jaw, a flex in the eyes, sentiment and emotion can be conveyed without the character overtly telling you, you know like real human beings.

It is hard to like Joel, but it’s easy to sympathise with him, he’s broken; years of loss, and refusing to accept it, have shaped him into a merciless killer, a survivor, and Ellie’s protector. Ellie is a source of some fleeting levity, in contrast to Joel’s debilitating pragmatism, but it soon because obvious that the fourteen year old is also in her own way broken. Born after the outbreak, Ellie knows nothing of a typical teenage life, what little she had – the people she had – have all been snatched away by the cruel fate so prevalent in this world. Joel and Ellie both, are shaped and changed by the events they witness and partake, this character development is natural, believable and a large part of why The Last of Us only draws you further into its web. It never lets go, it only pulls stronger.

This is the crux of Left Behind, downloadable content for the PlayStation 3 release, included in the Remastered edition. Left Behind is set in a very specific part of the main story and features flashbacks to an earlier part of Ellie’s life, eluded to as the main game draws to a close. Experiencing this before finishing the main story is tantamount to criminal! The relationship between the young girls Ellie and Riley is told just as deftly as the main story, and gameplay is manipulated in some intriguing ways. Left Behind is tight story, told in about three hours, you’ll experience humour and fun, as well as the inevitable heartbreak.

The multiplayer is surprisingly effective and is certainly a welcome addition to the game. I had assumed that the multiplayer would simple be a somewhat mindless death match game that just happened to control the same as The Last of Us. When in actuality, it achieves much more – it succeeds in integrating the survival elements; scavenging, crafting, stealth, into a quite unique multiplayer experience.  Just like the single player, it is best when quiet – the tension soars – when gunshots ring out it can be either relieving or panic inducing, depending if you struck first. Of course, there will be matches that move faster, more active, but the nature of the movement, extremely limited resources (ammo mostly) and the impact that being shot can have, ensures that slower, more fraught experience is more prevalent than you might expect.

The Last of Us weaves a harrowing narrative, from the moment the game starts, the first scene, the game sets a pace and sends a message - this is the kind of story we're telling. It does not waver; there are no dull scenes, no sections that slow, no encounters that feel like grinds. The characters, Ellie and Joel, as well the diverse supporting cast, grab hold of you and never let go. It’s painfully clear from the beginning that there is going to be no true happy ending, there is no way that a world so warped would show any kind of compassion for the people who live there. Nonetheless, the strength of Joel and Ellie, the moments they share together and the way develop throughout the course of the story, ensures that it's impossible to put down until you've seen it through. 

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