the first few hours: The Last of Us

Before I start talking about The Last of Us in earnest, I want to mention two interesting things that won’t necessarily fit in the context of the discussion, but are still related to my personal experience with the game:

1.  Slight spoilers – a few hours into the game, you’ll meet two characters named Henry and Sam.  As it happens, Henry is the name of my son, and Sam was the name of my grandfather.   My grandfather died when I was in high school, so Henry never got to meet him.  But there they were, dodging zombies and armed maniacs along with our heroes, Joel and Ellie.

2.  One of the game’s many strengths is how well it conveys atmosphere, especially when you’re in dark basements.  In addition to the sheer visuals, there’s lots of ambient noises and sonic textures that make you feel really claustrophobic and creeped out.  This is doubly effective when there’s an actual mouse in your actual apartment, scratching and squeaking behind the walls, and you’re alone in your living room with a sleeping baby behind a thin wooden door just a few feet away and the lights turned down low.

*     *     *

While I’ve more or less conceded that my desire to be a full-time game journalist is hopelessly impractical at this point in my life, I still occasionally think about getting into the freelance game-review business.  Especially now, given my earlier post about being short on cash.  I mean, I know that reviews don’t necessarily bring in a ton of money, and I wouldn’t always be playing stuff that’s good, but surely there are less pleasant ways to supplement one’s income.

And yet I can’t help but feel that I’d be terrible at it.

For example:  sometimes I feel like it can be a cop-out or a crutch (or, more likely, a habit of laziness) to compare someone’s new work to their old work.   Like:  if you can’t assess a thing for what it actually is without comparing to something that it never tried to be, then you’re probably a shitty critic.

Which is to say, I know that comparing The Last of Us to the Uncharted franchise isn’t fair, because they’re completely different experiences and want to evoke radically different reactions from the player, even if they appear to share a lot of common factors:  the same jaw-droppingly amazing graphics engine, some of the best digital acting in the business (to go along with a very well-written script), a meticulous attention to detail (both in art design and character work), and a relatively even gameplay balance of exploration and combat.

As to that last point, I feel obliged to point out that The Last of Us and Uncharted also share another, more disconcerting feature, and one which is relevant to my attempt at criticism:  when it comes to Naughty Dog’s games, I hate the combat.  I am willing to concede that I might hate it because I suck at it; but it should also be noted that – at least in my opinion – there is always too much of it, and it gets in the way of all of the non-combat stuff which is infinitely more enjoyable.  Maybe it’s just that I’ve never liked the PS3’s controller, especially when it comes to action games, but I always feel ham-fisted and clumsy in combat situations, and even on Easy I die a lot.

I ended up finishing Uncharted 3 on Easy because I wanted to see the end of the game, and shooting bulletproof soldiers had stopped being fun after the 300th kill.  While The Last of Us has a much different combat feel – indeed, the game implies that you can (and should) sneak your way around combat rather than rushing headlong into it – I also am playing it on Easy (after an earlier combat scenario took me 30 deaths and around an hour of frustration to complete), because while I try to sneak around, I always get found, and because I don’t find the combat all that fun (possibly because, as I said, I’m terrible at it), I just want to get it over with as quickly as possible so as to keep the story moving forward.

*     *     *

Tangent #1:  My complaints about the combat in Naughty Dog’s games (and The Last of Us specifically) remind me of my complaints of another of 2013’s major releases – Bioshock Infinite – in that both games feature incredible worlds that you can’t help but want to explore, except for all the crazy people who want to murder you.  I am far more interested in exploring and scavenging and crafting than I am in the combat.  But if there were ever two companies that could actually make the game that I truly want to play in this coming generation – games with fantastic visuals, well-crafted stories and interesting characters  and worlds that beg for exploration and interesting puzzles instead of  combat as the “filler” to get you from point A to point B – I just know that Naughty Dog and/or Irrational could pull it off.

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Tangent #2:  I would love it if this new generation of consoles made it possible to invent a new kind of gameplay “filler”.  I suggested “puzzles” in the paragraph above because it was the first thing that came to mind (and because Portal 2 proved that you can make an amazing, full retail product without having to fire a single bullet) but surely there must be something else that can be done.  As I am not a gameplay designer, I have no idea what that might be.  But I would be VERY EXCITED to find out.

*     *     *

Wow.  This was supposed to be a post about my overall impressions of The Last of Us, and I’ve already spent 900 words horsing around, so let’s get to it.

I am around 10.5 hours into TLOU, Naughty Dog’s swansong on the PS3, and judging from the chapter listings in various walkthroughs (not that I’m using walkthroughs – I honestly just wanted to see how much was left), I’m just over the halfway mark.   (I keep feeling like I should defend my using a walkthrough with the express purpose of determining length, even though nobody cares; it’s just that unlike books, music and film, it’s impossible to judge a game’s length while you’re playing it – and this doesn’t even take into account personal play style.  If I weren’t so interested in exploring every single nook and cranny in TLOU, I suspect I’d have arrived at this halfway point after only 5-6 hours, as opposed to 10.)

Leaving aside my personal displeasure at Naughty Dog’s combat system, and my weariness with zombies and the end of the world as a storytelling trope, it is immediately apparent that TLOU is a staggering technical achievement, and deserves all the respect you can give it.  But it is also – at least for me – a difficult game to enjoy.  TLOU is relentlessly dark and grim, with horrific, gruesome violence at almost every turn, and where terrible things happen to good people pretty much non-stop.  (My wife watched me play a little bit yesterday, and she said it felt like a combination of The Walking Dead and I Am Legend – which is pretty much spot-on.)  It is a game that probably shouldn’t be played in long marathon sessions, which is what I usually do with games like this; instead, I’ve been getting little hour-sized chunks here and there for the past week or so and that’s pretty much all I can take before I need to switch over to something a little less gloomy.

I’m not quite sure where the story is going, but I have a pretty good feeling about certain upcoming plot points.  I’m normally not all that quick in terms of picking up that sort of stuff, but I knew what was going to happen to a number of characters long before their fates were inevitably decided.  Of course, this is what happens when you set your story in a gloomy post-apocalypse and you establish early on that anybody, no matter how “innocent”, can die at any moment; you stop being surprised when the plot twists, and instead you find yourself simply wondering how the plot will twist, which (to me) isn’t nearly as interesting a question.

That being said, now that I think about it, I’m starting to think that this is deliberate; the game is trying to evoke a sense of dread, and since the inevitability of death hangs over every scene and character and action, you can’t help but feel a little terrible.  You know that bad things are going to happen; the best you can do is to make sure you have as much ammo and supplies as you can find and hope that you can press on long enough to get to the next cutscene.  This is very much like real life.

Like I said above, I’m playing the game on Easy after struggling for a bit on Normal because the story and the characters are far more interesting to me than the combat, and as such I’m having about as good a time as I can stomach.  I’m still dying, a lot, but I’m still able to press ahead.  I’m finding the core relationship between Joel and Ellie to be authentic, even if it’s maddeningly obvious why Joel acts the way he does and it’s incredibly frustrating that he won’t admit it to himself.   (This Guardian article, which has been linked to a lot on Twitter and which I haven’t yet read all the way through, has a different take on their relationship.)  Still, the digital performances are quite powerful and moving and real, and even if the Guardian is right and the game’s central relationship of an older man taking care of a helpless girl in the face of the apocalypse is yet one more entry on the ever-growing pile of stories featuring male dominance over subservient, weak females – or even if the core problem is simply that the game is being told from the man’s point of view, LIKE IT ALWAYS IS, I still find that, at the very least, TLOU has its heart in the place.

I find myself compelled to press on, even if I don’t really want to.

*     *     *

Amazon is having a gigantic Digital Games Summer Sale, and at the prodding of a friend I ended up buying Need For Speed Most Wanted for $15.  I’d previously been rather sour on the game (1, 2), but the PC version seems to be a completely different beast.  It looks far better than the 360 version, and it also seems to be playing a bit more fairly, too – the AI still rubberbands from time to time but it’s not freakish and unfair, and what constitutes a crash seems to be a lot more consistent.  If you have it and need some Autolog friends, my username (as it is everywhere else) is JervoNYC.



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