Thursday, May 24, 2018

Console Corner: Review of The Last of Us

I have been putting off writing this review for some time, primarily because I don’t feel that any words I put down can do the experience that is The Last of Us, justice.  In short, it’s the only game in my life I finished with jaw literally dropped—not because of an epic final showdown, but precisely for how emotionally powerful the simple yet well-escalated the story drives into the climactic scene, then lays the player’s emotions bare.  I made a moral decision that in most other circumstances would have gone the other way.  I cared about the characters and thus went against my standard philosophies, which is not something I can say about any other game.  And I feel strange saying that (it’s just a game after all), which is why I believe there really is something about The Last of Us that makes it as powerful as some of my best reading experiences.  Zombie cliche, this is not...

One of the few survivors of an epidemic that has wiped out most of humanity, at the start of The Last of Us the player controls Joel, a gun smuggler living in a quarantine zone in Boston.  Caught sideways in a deal with another gunrunner and an underground rebel group called the Fireflies, Joel and his business partner Tess have no choice but to smuggle a young girl named Ellie to a point outside the quarantine zone.  Fate intervening in a dramatic way, Joel and Ellie find themselves on the run, trying to stay one step ahead of infected people and government forces, while getting themselves to safety. That is, until Ellie reveals her secret.   From a road trip to Pittsburgh to the mountains of Colorado and beyond, the pair’s relationship and will to survive are put to the test at every step as they try to make good on Ellie’s secret.

Largely a cinematic-rpg experience, The Last of Us is not an open world game.  The storyline the guiding hand, it is integrated with action scenes—by turns stealthy and frantic—that require the player to navigate and survive in order to reach the next point in the story, all while they upgrade their characters by collecting experience and collectible throughout the environments.  And each scene/chapter has been carefully crafted to be its own unique experience.  Walking through the blizzard streets of Colorado is a very different experience than the subways of Boston, just as the highways of Utah force the player to think differently than at Joel and Ellie’s raid on the university.  By limiting the scope of the settings away from open world toward linear set pieces, developers were able to tailor each to offer a specific nuance that helps singularize the sections of story.  In short, the game is masterfully laid out in a manner that complements both gameplay and story to provide the gamer a rich, full experience.  And the music is just superb—but I digress.

From scale to graphics, emotional depth to character building, music to gameplay, dialogue to philosophically meaningful climax—everything about The Last of Us fits like a glove, even if the overall storyline is a touch generic.  It was obviously an affair of love for the developers.  They wanted to make the game as good as can be, and the player gets to experience every last drop.  I played the majority of the game with the hairs on my arms standing on end, but never because I thought Freddy Kreuger or Jason was going to walk around a corner.  It was due to mood, lighting, music, unpredictable storyline, and the strong responsibility I felt to keep Joel and Ellie alive in the midst of the infected breakout.  Completing the game I was floored, emotionally drained.  Guiding the unlikely pair through the rigors of the storyline is an experience harrowing, affective, scary, and poignant.  The events building to the climax and the choice the player must make at the end is one that on paper would likely turn out very differently than it does in the game.  A Jonathan Bentham nightmare, I assume most players choose selfishly compared to the more altruistic possibilities.  And it’s surprising, comforting, and disturbing, all at once.

In the end, whenever the history of video games is written, The Last of Us will undoubtedly go down as one of the best, ever.  And for me personally, it is the game that has had the strongest emotional impact.  There are clear problems with the game (one example, Ellie runs around in plain sight yet the baddies magically don’t see her, which is immersion breaking), but I don’t think I will ever be able to forget Joel and Ellie.  There are games which go in one thumb and out the other (Bioshock, Firewatch, etc.) and there are games which have scenes that will stick in memory forever (Geralt’s confrontation with Olgierd in Witcher 3 “Hearts of Stone”, the big reveal in Soma, etc..).  But with The Last of Us it’s the whole experience, beginning to end.  When it comes to blending storytelling and gameplay, this is the perfect mix that all other game designers who want to create such games should be looking to for inspiration.   Can’t wait for The Last of Us Part 2.

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