The Last of Us Remastered
Platform: Playstation 4
There is a lot to be said for a game that compels you to physically imitate the motions your character. I instinctively held my breath as I snuck Joel, one of the main characters, mere inches past a clicker, a blind but incredibly dangerous enemy that wandered unpredictably. Any noticeable noise would betray my location causing it to zone in for the kill. I sat on the edge of my seat, fully focused on the screen, knees bent, head forward in copy cat position of my character on screen. As I crawled to the exit I had to resist every urge to break out into a run as it would have been almost certain death.
This is the kind of tension and dread that The last of US Remastered very effectively evokes.
The game starts strongly in this regard as the opening scene involves controlling a young girl who awakes in the middle of the night to an empty house. A creeping sense of dread begins to build as you proceed downstairs. There is no music or obvious queues of horror, just things out of place, and strange goings on outside. It’s incredibly effective at unsettling the player and gives a taste for what is to come.
The story fast forwards 20 years to the aftermath of a disease triggered apocalypse and is told mainly through the experiences of Joel, a middle aged main who has witness the horror of last 2 decades, and Ellie, a young girl who was born into the world as it had become.
Civilization survives in quarantined zones. A military presence exists to give some semblance of order but are not much more than thugs offering basic protection and are under the seemingly constant attack of the Fireflies, a resistance group that are trying restore a functioning government.
Joel and Ellie find themselves outside the safety of the quarantine zone trying to locate the Fireflies, journeying through area’s overrun by the infected and ruthless scavengers.
The environments help establish mood, increase tension and at the same time tell a story. Abandoned suburbs, hotels and streets are filled with corpses, smashed cars, boarded entrances, public messages, end of the world graffiti and final displays of humanity. Families and friends lay in their final resting place choosing to end life together as opposed to suffering the final horrific moments at the hands of the infected. Hopelessness radiates from every part of the world. Much of the music is slow lamenting acoustic guitar that even sounds lethargic, as if it too felt like giving up. The high fidelity graphics of the Remastered Edition portray the world in a deliberately chaotic, beautifully destroyed way. The rare moments of natural scenery are all the more inspiring and jaw dropping when transitioning from the chaos of urban decay.
Some stories are told told via diary entries, notes and signs that can be collected on the way. Sometimes these will reflect the environment in which they are found and one can piece together the events. One such combination of paper trial and environmental queues is that of the diary pages of ‘Ish’, collected page at a time while traversing a sewage processing plant. The pages recount the events, while the aftermath unfolds as you progress through the plant. The combination of bodies, environmental damage and wall scrawling invoked some truly disturbing feelings as you imagine the final moments of the bodies discovered.
The controls will be very familiar to anybody that has played a 3rd person game. You can avoid combat by crouching and sneaking behind walls/cars/objects, or engage in combat and use the same objects for cover.
Most of the tension comes from remaining hidden as you will usually be out numbered and likely low on ammo. Humans and infected can be killed stealthily by strangulation if crept up on undetected. The choke takedown is uncomfortably brutal; the enemy intensely struggles, generating a near panic as you pray that the frantic movements and muffled noises go unnoticed.
Almost all combat actions leave you vulnerable. Healing yourself takes a few seconds so finding cover is essential. Enemies will still bear down on you and you’ll find yourself mentally urging on the process. You can only fast switch between a limited amount of guns, so if the situation changes, or you run out of ammo, then time and cover is required to take another weapon from your backpack – adding another tense nail-biting moment to the combat as you pray to have the next weapon out and aimed before being shot or mauled.
Ammo is scarce and you really do try to make every shot count. Every miss is a potential death later. Enemy attacks take a considerable amount of your health and you soon learn to keep your head low.
Med-kits and temporary weapons can be crafted from picking up suitable materials throughout the world, so exploration is encouraged. As long as you give a brief once over each area you will generally have enough materials at all times.
What’s this about then?
Much of the games focus is on the personalities of, and relationship between, Joel and Ellie. You primarily play as Joel while Ellie follows. She has a
very real presence, and not just a tacked on NPC that follows. She will interact and help with combat, comment on the environment such as quipping over advertisements and commercials still being displayed in the wasteland, or just sit and take a breather while you are off scavenging for items.
Effort was put into giving them understandable personalities. Joel hardened and closed off due to a life time of loss and survival and Ellie (born into the devastated world) knowing nothing else, is able to defend herself from the most vicious of attacks in an equally vicious way. She is foul mouthed showing little fear as she would not have survived otherwise.
Conversations have casual and quirky conversation queues that are very human like, indicative of the character’s personalities and how comfortable (or uncomfortable) they are with one another. I really appreciated the subtlety, as other games tend to have the characters just angrily or sarcastically vomit their lines at each other.
It gives weight to the more serious and tragic moments that occur. I found myself genuinely interested to see how characters would respond.
My biggest issue with The Last of Us is that at lot of the tension comes from a seemingly deliberate crippling of the mechanics. Cheap ways of building tension that can be very frustrating.
The aforementioned clickers are dangerous and tense to avoid because it’s instant death if they grab you. Whereas the standard infected can be grappled and pushed away. There’s no practical reason given – it’s mentioned that they have been infected for longer, but this is akin to saying ‘magic’. They are similar in appearance to normal infected so it can be unreasonably difficult to spot and prioritize them among a charging horde. This resulted in many cheap, frustrating deaths. For example, in one of the few ‘hold them off’ encounters I was only able to survive by whether or not the clickers came ahead of the horde (where they were easier to identify) as opposed to the main attack where spotting and killing them became much more difficult.
The gunplay is designed to induce panic to an almost unfair degree. Guns hold very few bullets and need constant reloading, a time consuming process requiring cover to complete unscathed. Swapping out weapons in your bag is also time consuming and requires more button presses than it should, leaving you vulnerable for every moment. Other combat mechanics are confusing and fall into the ‘Computer Game Logic’ category – such as melee weapons being quite more powerful than guns in certain situations. A standard plank of wood provides more stopping power and damage than a pistol. In one my first encounters with a room full of infected I tried to stealth take down the standard infected to allow room and safety to kill the clicker. Every attempt failed as eventually the clicker would become alert and kill me quicker than I shoot it. On about the eight attempt I just ran into the room beat the clicker to death with a pipe, picked up a wooden stick and battered a few more infected and shot the remaining. The situation was screaming ‘stealth’ (enemies on patrol, facing away etc…) but it turned out to be much easier to just beat them to death.
On detection by one enemy, all enemies in the area become alerted and there is no return to a stealth mode. It doesn’t matter if they are in a different room, floor or building – once one detects you the others are triggered and become aware of your location. As mentioned the combat is designed to be difficult and risky – especially with armed enemies, so you will be concentrating intensely to sneak and kill stealthily. Admittedly very tense, but cheapened by arbitrary rules.
Over the cuckoo’s nest
Other than the two main characters, the people in the world of The Last of Us are almost universally psychotic. Consider this subjective, but I don’t believe that humanity would have survived the apocalypse for 20 years had they been even partially this murderous. One could argue that they need to kill to survive (which is also stated by a character) but the sheer eagerness for murder is slightly suspect. Even before the apocalypse, during the opening, where hell is breaking loose and people are trying to escape the city – the military are already gunning down non-infected and children with
little or no hesitation.
It’s cartoonishly evil and out of place as the two main characters have depth and show at least some value to human life. Though they also act out some very brutal acts of violence and killing, there is at least an aspect of immediate danger or very real treat.
While sneaking through a city Joel and Ellie witness bandits chase and gun down an unarmed couple. They examine the corpses, claim that they ‘Got nuttin’ and move on. What exactly did they expect to find on two other scavengers that warranted gunning them down? One may have been a doctor, mechanic, plumber, literally ANY secondary expertise would almost certainly be more valuable than what they may have been carrying.
There are genuine cooperative survivors such as a group in the Hydroelectric dam but the murderous/shoot on sight aspect far outweighed the cooperative survival aspect – which is a bit hard to swallow as eventually we would just all be murdered out.
The Last of Us (Remastered) is thoroughly engaging. The aforementioned criticisms did not stop me from wanting to play to the end. It is not overly long, 20 hours or so for my own play through which was a suitable length as by the end you have become accustomed to the controls and combat, upgraded your favourite weapons and are comfortable enough with the mechanics that you can confidently get through any situation. Any longer and the tension would decline and anything further wouldn’t have been able to sustain the same weight, so the game ends appropriately.
Ultimately The Last of Us is a better story than a game. For the most part game play is functional. Combat and sneaking is intense, but suffers somewhat from computer game logic – in that there are seemingly arbitrary rules on how effective some actions are.
The joy of this game is in the characters Ellie and Joel, their personal development, their relationship with each other and the world in which they inhabit. You want to see them survive.
The violence is deliberately brutal, the world intimidating and you will want to see it through to the end. It isn’t the most original story but it is one that is exceptionally well told.