lauantai 6. heinäkuuta 2013

REVIEW - The Last of Us | PS3 | 2013

GENRE(S): Action / Survival horror
RELEASED: June 14, 2013
DEVELOPER(S): Naughty Dog
PUBLISHER(S): Sony Computer Entertainment

In the beginning, there was Crash Bandicoot. After that, Jak and Daxter. Two franchises that brought Naughty Dog to the map - but also two franchises that solidified their reputation as a family-friendly developer. That was to change with the launch of the PlayStation 3; at E3 2006, Naughty Dog announced the development of Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. This epic adventure in the spiritual vein of Indiana Jones - but much more gritty and visceral - was released in 2007, and became a surprise hit for the ages, and its sequels Among Thieves (2009) and Drake's Deception (2011) went on to become this console generation's most critically acclaimed titles, and some of Sony's most important hooks in the console war. A month after the release of Uncharted 3, Naughty Dog announced the development of a whole new IP, cryptically named The Last of Us. What could be gathered back then was that The Last of Us was going to be a post-apocalyptic action-adventure, starring a middle-aged man and a teenage girl on a journey through the United States some years after a massive viral outbreak, which mutated the absolute majority of the world's population into raging freaks. During these last 19 months, the basics haven't changed, but the game has taken shape into something much more than just your everyday story about the end of the world and its consequences. If you liked last year's The Walking Dead, you are going to LOVE The Last of Us. If you ever liked good stories in general, you're going to LOVE The Last of Us. In fact, if you ever liked much of anything, you are going to LOVE The Last of Us. Believe the hype - The Last of Us is a masterpiece.

When Joel met Ellie

Troy Baker : Joel
Ashley Johnson : Ellie
Annie Wersching : Tess
Jeffrey Pierce : Tommy
Merle Dandridge : Marlene
Nolan North : David
Hana Hayes : Sarah
W. Earl Brown : Bill
Brandon Scott : Henry
Ashley Scott : Maria

20 years ago, Joel was a young, overworked single father. Now he's a ruthless, brutal smuggler, just as desperate to survive as the rest of civilization, in a world overrun by a deadly infection that turns its hosts into mindless killers. As part of a lucrative weapons deal with a private military group called the Fireflies, Joel and his quick-tempered partner Tess agree to smuggle a 14-year old girl named Ellie outside of the quarantine zone, to a small band of Fireflies hiding in the heart of Boston. For some reason, Ellie is immune to the infection that has completely ravaged the country, and is therefore invaluable to anyone who can get their hands on her. After their original plan fails miserably, Joel reluctantly vows to protect Ellie and deliver her to the Fireflies, even if it means travelling across the whole country by any means necessary.

"Could the title of The Last of Us be an ill omen: could it be the last of this console generation's masterpieces?" asked a local video game magazine in a preview. Although I had already pre-ordered the game months prior to this preview, I was a bit more reserved about the game, as I always am about a new game, not to mention a whole new franchise. I never took the game for granted - it could disappoint. Almost everyone gave a perfect ten to Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, and the game, as glorious as it absolutely was, turned out a disappointment after the near-perfect Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. The Last of Us was made by many of the same people as the Uncharted trilogy, and even when the tens in The Last of Us' favour started pouring in, I still had suspicions about it. What if it's just Naughty Dog's karma? Let's wait a few months - maybe just weeks - the reviews will surely start to tone down and we'll see the game for what it truly is. Well... I was right about one thing. I see what the game for what it truly is. But, I was wrong about a lot more things. Fortunately so. Let's put it this way: if the first 15 minutes of a game are the most awesome and emotional moments than I've seen through the course of a whole full-length game in three years, I can pretty much rest assured that what I hold in my hands is truly a masterpiece.

I told you: you do NOT touch the girl.
The Last of Us has perhaps the best damn prologue in video game history. The voiceover work is beyond perfect - and the storytelling, the characters, everything is just so realistic and close to home that it hurts. Literally. I'll admit it, I was devastated by the time the title screen turned up, and there were a few tears in my eyes. 15 minutes of playing (tops) and I had already fallen in love with the characters. Unfortunately, one of The Last of Us' biggest - but also only - flaws is a somewhat awkward pace, which is arguably typical to a Naughty Dog game. It starts with an emotional bang that sets a good mood and tempo, but then falls "flat" (term used VERY loosely) for a few hours, before picking up on what was promised in the beginning. Although there's a certain Uncharted-like feel to the look of the game - such as the very realistic characters right down to how they speak with their eyes - The Last of Us is a much more open game, and it might be your own will to explore which takes away from a tight pace as well, so let's not criticize the game any further.

I spoke about awesome and emotional moments, the best ones I've experienced with any game in three years - and the game I'm speaking of in particular is Red Dead Redemption. Ever since that game came out in the summer of 2010, I've firmly believed there will never be a single video game as rich in emotion and immersion as Rockstar's centerpiece. The Mass Effect trilogy is a different thing, since it's a role-playing trilogy - doing just one action game is a whole different thing, and to be frank, I don't believe there'll ever be a direct sequel to Red Dead Redemption. It really wouldn't make much sense - or a direct sequel to The Last of Us, at that. I think Red Dead Redemption would've managed even without such a compelling story, since it was an open-world game set in the Wild West. The Last of Us is yet another post-apocalyptic game, and when we're talking post-apocalyptic, we have plenty of open-world games to choose from, starting from, but not stopping at, the almighty Fallout. As awesome as The Last of Us is as a game, it's a relatively linear action-adventure at its core - it wouldn't survive without a great story. No, a magnificent story - something extraordinary. Luckily it's got one, with magnificent, extraordinary characters.

The main influence, I think, is Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead - the whole franchise, not just the comic book, or the TV show, or even last year's fabulous game which will soon have an expansion pack and a sequel (it's a good time to be a fan of post-apocalyptic stuff). The state of the world, the characters and the bond(s) between them, the behaviour of the "infected", it's all very much the same. The basic ranks of the infected are referred to as "runners", just as zombies are referred to as "walkers" in The Walking Dead. Perhaps the world is not _quite_ as fucked up as it is in The Walking Dead universe, but still extremely impossible for just one single person to survive. The Walking Dead has always had a large group of survivors watching each other's backs in its lead - what we have here, most of the time, is just one man, doing everything (EVERYTHING) he can to save a teenage girl's life. On this side, we've got the infected - intelligent and agile creatures with the primitive urge to spread the disease they can no longer be saved from. On the other, we've got the U.S. Army, tasked with getting Ellie back in their hands by any means necessary. In the middle, we've got bandits struggling to survive the new world disorder. Small step from the middle, we've got everyone else after our dynamic duo. And finally, in this game, ammo isn't just conveniently found lying on just about every corner table. Guns are pretty much a last resort. You will have to familiarize yourself with makeshift shanks, 2 x 4's, steel pipes, baseball bats (with scissors taped to the end, ouch) and very often, your pair of running feet, to survive this ordeal. If you haven't figured it out already, The Last of Us is the first true survival horror game in years - and it has never really been promoted as such. Go figure.

Yep, the world sure is fucked up.
Gustavo Santaolalla's (of Brokeback Mountain fame) musical score is impeccable, and the one element in this game that isn't even remotely linked to survival horror. Instead of constant dark ambience to haunt the shit out of the player, or tense action music to go with enemy encounters, Santaolalla spikes the already emotional cutscenes with a highly emotional score - there's hardly any in-game music at all, and it's a nice, very functional change. Doubled with the perfect (sorry, beyond that) voiceover work, I'd say Rockstar North has got one hell of a job on their hands if they're planning to beat The Last of Us for best sound this year. Once more, creating good video game drama is something Naughty Dog never fails at, and having finally been given the chance to play and complete this magnificent game - which I have already done twice - I think I'm up for returning to the Uncharted trilogy. Naughty Dog's knack for visually stunning games with perfectly directed and acted cutscenes/random dialogue is something you very easily get addicted to. In a long-anticipated nutshell, The Last of Us is probably the last of truly stunning PlayStation 3 games when it comes to the audiovisuals. I sincerely don't think the envelope could be pushed any further. If I still used the old rating system, on a scale of 1-10, both the graphics and sound would easily be worth an 11.

As it is with the story which is nothing exactly new, but it borrows from different sources and does it all so much better, gameplay elements can be tracked back to about a dozen stellar games of this generation - The Last of Us just presents most of them better. To my surprise, The Last of Us doesn't really feel all that much like Uncharted to me. Rather Resident Evil 5, the Batman: Arkham series, even Metal Gear Solid 4 and Mass Effect 2 come to mind. From even more recent games, I'm sensing some Tomb Raider influence. It's like an awesome collective of this generation, a nutshell, so to speak; this generation has been full of third-person shooters and I guess The Last of Us is partly out to save this subgenre's reputation, as not every gamer has appreciated this revolt. It's a fairly diverse game - there's a lot of killing going to happen, both in the style of stealth and all-guns-blazing; the initially strong survival horror elements tone down towards the end as the number of the infected decreases on the go. The combat mechanics and enemy A.I. are top of the bill. There are also some mild puzzles, item crafting and EXP-based development, a shitload of collectables (from comic books to memos left behind by other survivors), and constant optional interaction with your partners to make you truly bond with them. After the explosive start, The Last of Us turns out a relatively slow hook, but after just a couple of hours, you'll be hooked on the story and scavenging for junk so bad that you will lose track of time very easily.

You guys look like you could use a drink.
I think the greatest flaw of The Last of Us - although I can imagine it would've been extremely difficult to snuff it out of a game that was already this big - is that it has great ideas which are not deep enough. On the second time around, in particular, crafting the same few items from the few exact same types of junk gets quite boring. Imagine if it was like in Dead Rising, where you could craft just about anything from anything you found - one of that game's few strong traits. It seems that in the old world of The Last of Us, people had a lot of scissors, raw alcohol, bags of sugar and duct tape just lying around, 'cause these items can be found from around every corner and used to enforce your melee weapons, and craft blades, Molotov cocktails, nailbombs, first-aid kits and smoke bombs. Nothing else. The crafting is a stellar part of the game, but seeing how The Last of Us improves on just about every common element of a third-person shooter of this console generation, it feels a bit incomplete. Or, I've played too much Skyrim.

Also, the game has a lot of replay value - but playing it on New Game + doesn't really serve a purpose besides collecting a few missing Trophies. All the collectables are reset in the start of the game (I presume). All you get to keep are the upgrades to your weapons, and you don't even have all the weapons at the start of the game. You'll have to find the weapons again to keep upgrading them, and if the only weapon that isn't already upgraded to the max at the beginning of New Game + is the flamethrower, you'll have to play the game all the way to the end to be able to snatch the Trophy for upgrading all your weapons to the max. That's shit, 'cause the game is at least 15 hours long if you're out to complete it to the hilt (each time). Be the game as good as it may, I can't stand force feed. Never could.

I'm yet to experience the Faction Mode, I hear
it's a hoot.
The more optimistic gamer could say that The Last of Us restores belief in true gaming before the time of Trophies and Achievements, as The Last of Us only has 24 Trophies, only a few of which are even remotely possible to gain on the first playthrough - as I said, I've beaten the game twice, and have only six of them nailed down. On the first playthrough, whether you get Trophies for the game or not really doesn't fuckin' matter 'cause the story and gameplay form such a magnificent union rarely witnessed in this day and age - it doesn't need anything extra to keep you going. On the second time through, you might find yourself in want and need for a little more fruit. On the other hand, you might pick up a lot of stuff you missed on the first round, all the way from optional conversations to the obvious collectables, and depending on how much you appreciate such stuff, you might find the second playthrough just as rewarding as the first one. A third playthrough, though - you might want to take a breather before embarking on one. Instead of a whole playthrough, you might want to check out the Chapters bit from the main menu to find out what you've missed. Thank God for that.

It might sound like I'm doing all I can to bash what just about everyone else has dubbed sheer perfection... and maybe I'm doing just that, but do not get me all wrong; The Last of Us is a masterpiece, and the best Naughty Dog has presented us thus far. I thought no one could ever top the Uncharted trilogy when it comes to video game drama, but Naughty Dog went and did it themselves, improving on general gameplay in the process. The Last of Us isn't totally devoid of ugly spots within its storyline development (I mean how it translates to gameplay) or its array of advanced gameplay elements, but the whole experience is out of this world. If you own a PlayStation 3, you NEED to own The Last of Us.

+ Perfect telling of an age-old story
+ Immensely strong characters
+ Perfect audiovisuals
+ Fantastic, solid controls and great combat mechanics
+ Visceral, taboo-breaking violence
+ Makeshift weaponry...

- ...With comprehensible, but annoying limitations
- Awkward pacing, most evident in the beginning and the end
- Force feed of half a dozen playthroughs to truly complete the game

< 9.5 >

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