moseleymoles on The Last of Us – let’s post more gaming reviews
Not being either 17 or a professional games reviewer, it takes rather longer for us middle-aged gamers to post our thoughts on today’s consoles/pc games than on the latest Steven Wilson album. Not so much a Night In as six months of snatched half-hours in my case. Yet games importance in modern culture – easily the equal of Hollywood and perhaps more important than music if you are under forty – should see them feature on The Afterword more. I guess I am saying that those of us who do game should try and post our reviews more regularly, even if we are only now catching up with GTA V. Admins – any chance of a separate category in Nights In. Happy to suggest what the categories should be.
If it took Bingo Little some time to play Bloodborne, it’s taken me far longer to play through what was universally agreed to be 2014’s Game of the Year – The Last of Us.
This is not a game based on a franchise or a sequel. I think that there’s less wider interest in posting a review of Fifa 2016: a slightly better rendered Messi and some tweaks to the gameplay and transfer systems. A new Call of Duty likewise offers generally little in the way of surprise.
TLOU takes one of the founding genres of gaming: survival horror. The world has been devastated by a plague that turns the infected into several different types of zombies – your standard rushers who run towards you, clickers who home in on sound, and bio-bomb throwing bloaters. You start the game in a heavily militarised quarantine zone playing Joel – a grizzled survivor, black-market hustler and all round grumpy middle-aged man. In the course of a botched weapons deal he is persuaded to escort a teenage girl, Ellie, across open country to a rebel group, the Fireflies.
Now to write much more about the plot would start the spoilers, and narrative twists and suspenses are very much part of the game’s impact. In a Call of Duty you know that whatever the situation, killing all the people who are shooting at you and blowing things up or stopping someone blowing things up will generally be the answer. The Last of Us, despite you spending almost all of the game with a backpack full of weapons (many improvised with gaffer tape, scissors and sugar), at least creates situations where this doesn’t turn out always to be the case.
The game-play is fluid and runs beautifully on the PS4, with a real sense of the limitations of the physical world. Walls must be scaled with ladders that need finding, and as one character can’t swim you have to find ways around or over deep water.
The restricted ammo combat, with the importance of collecting every dropped cog and ammo clip, comes straight from the daddy of all survival horrors, Resident Evil. I remember getting as far as -ooh – the dogs in the corridor on the original PS2 game before my ammo ran out every time. It’s not so crushingly difficult, but it makes you weigh up your options each time you can hear or see the undead. It also borrows the ‘stealth-em-up’ from Metal Gear, with using cover and creeping past enemies as important as going in with both barrels.
So what makes it so special?
It looks constantly amazing – sunsets, ruined buildings, wildlife (one brief but brilliant section has you stalking a deer in the snow). The standard visual tropes of survival horror – burnt-out cars, abandoned homes, notes from survivors, barbed wire-surrounded enclaves and desperate hiding holes in the ruins – have never looked better. The lighting, from overhead bulbs and flickering fires to sunlit corridors, is a constant thing of wonder.
The sound design is – I would say – the best every in a game I’ve played. The music is sparse, melancholy and has more in common with that of The Revenant than something like Call of Duty. The aforementioned clickers, the crunch of glass or twig underfoot, whispered words from bandits – the need to constantly listen as watch is one of this game’s real innovations and pleasures.
The game’s depiction of a society twenty years after the apocalypse is adult, layered and complex. It doesn’t shy away from the grimmest sides of human nature – and assaults on Joel and Ellie by other humans are far more visceral and troubling than the zombie attacks. Comparisons with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road are spot-on and it most definitely an 18. Particularly, a layer of characters that populate the journey: from Joel’s smuggler buddy to his estranged brother and finally the rebel leader Marlene are vividly realised. Crucially, characters do not always reveal their motives on first encounter and are open to argument, moods and changes of heart – giving these encounters far more life than the usual scripted cut scene characters of a COD. Many reviews have picked out how refreshing it is to see female characters not defined by victimhood or sex (their two chief roles in too many games).
Ultimately this is a game that stands out through its script – and the extra-ordinary care taken to draw its two central characters Joel and Ellie. Both are introduced with some fairly stock character traits – Joel the grizzled loner survivor, taciturn and suspicious of all, Ellie the teenage ‘not doing that’ brat all attitude and pout. Their journey – paced like a film, with a real sense of the passage of time – allows them to develop as characters you care about, and who reveal unexpected resources, emotions and reactions. From Hollywood TLOU borrows the ‘coming of age’ movie brilliantly with Ellie inevitably losing her innocence and wonder as experience forces her to grow up all to quickly. One more sharp script trick is of course the generation gap: Joel is constantly harking back to society before the apocalypse, for Ellie this is all she knows.
I hope I’ve persuaded you without giving away its secrets. Its start – like Saving Private Ryan – is astonishing, it’s ending will leave you with a whole parcel of mixed emotions as again, it doesn’t let you off with a neat ‘saving the world’ ending. Play The Resistance: Fall of Man games on the ps3 for a far more conventional and less complex take on the zombie apocalypse – blowing things up really does save the world (spoiler!). Play The Last of Us to see how games can be about scripts, characters and storytelling.