I very rarely ever preorder games. (In fact, I intend to start a recurring blog focus on budget gaming, which more or less excludes such frivolities in most situations.) In fact, of the few times I have preordered games, I can’t really think of an instance where I reserved a title that wasn’t the next installment of an established series I love. (For example, I am a big fan of DC comics, but I never could quite get myself to preorder Injustice.)
I did, however, break precedent and preordered a copy of Last of Us. I very nearly didn’t. I figured I would do as I normally do; keep an eyeball on it, and once it hit the sweet spot of < $30, snag a copy. It looked solid, like Uncharted meets Resident Evil, but it really wasn’t until I watched IGN’s video review that I decided the investment was warranted. Colin Moriarty has never struck me as the type to frivolously give away perfect 10s in his reviews, and it seemed like a beautiful and visceral experience, a journey worth paying a bit extra to experience early.
And, perhaps this is a bit of sentimentality, but with the exhausting discussions of the next gen consoles hitting this holiday season (which I will be avoiding for as long as I can, expect that rant soon), I think I just wanted to experience what could possibly be one of PS3’s last great games while it was still fresh. This probably would not have been, for example, a mid-console life preorder purchase for me.
So at roughly the 50% point in my initial story run, I thought I would share a few of my thoughts on it, in no particular order. Oh, and spoiler free.
The story is the real gem here. I will have to be purposefully vague, in interests of avoiding spoilers, but it should be no surprise that this is about a world post apocalypse, given the trailers, the press and the title, and man… the situation is appropriately bleak. The remaining humans have been locked away in quarantine zones, and the outside world is overrun with the Infested. Joel is the constant center of this story, and he’s an unusual protagonist for a game in that he’s not former special ops, no superhero, just a normal guy that’s had to survive in a harsh environment. You have this one ray of hope, and it falls on the shoulders of an otherwise unassuming guy to see it through. Ellie soon becomes your constant sidekick, in terms of gameplay and her contribution to the story, and it’s a real breath of fresh air to what could have been just another zombie-style game.
This is hands down one of the best looking games of this generation. But then, at this point of the console cycle, I would expect nothing less. It’s actually kind of amazing how far we’ve come since early PS3 / 360 era. If you go back and play the original Mass Effect or Uncharted, two games that were arguably top of their class on launch, the gleam has been lost a bit, as the standard is so much higher than it used to be. It’s almost as if we progressed a generation of presentation quality before we ever changed hardware.
I digress. But then I tend to do that.
The cutscenes are pretty amazing. I won’t go as far to say that it isn’t anything we haven’t seen before, but it certainly doesn’t hurt the experience any. Our lead characters, in particular, are crafted with special care and, occasionally, I forget I’m playing a game and not watching a film… though perhaps not as frequently as other reviews may imply. The environments are incredibly detailed, and for the most part, the game avoids what I think of “map editor redundancy”. (Whenever I see a game with areas that look like carbon copies of other areas or the same debris scattered everywhere, it breaks immersion for me because I realize some mook designer used his limited palette of options and just slapped things about all willy nilly with no care or thought.)
I have to say there is a certain redundancy to the gameplay, both in appearance and mechanics, that is just a little bit exhausting in a few places. At least on my journey so far, the bulk of your encounters are against The Infected, which are pretty much just zombies. You have your standard drones, laughably easy to dispatch individually (slightly scary in larger packs), and “Clickers”, which are significantly more difficult to dispatch. (In fact, before any kind of upgrades, if one catches you, it’s insta-death for you, and death by Clicker is NOT pretty.) It kind of reminds me of the Arkham games, in a sense; the environments change, your gear changes, but you’re still taking out the same enemies who possess only so many variations of behavior and appearance. For example, you may have upgraded your shivs and grabbed a shotgun, but you’re still going to have to slow creep over to that lumpy headed Clicker and shank him before he hears you. It isn’t completely monotonous by any means, but so far, I feel like there could have been more human enemies to contend with to break it up a bit.
And since I already mentioned them, the Batman Arkham games are probably a good example of the gameplay here, but with more of a survival element. In fact, there is even a “focused listening” mode in Last of Us that reminds me of “detective mode” in Arkham. Stealth here is of the utmost importance, not because being spotted swinging from vantage points in a Bat-suit will get you shot but because you have an ever present lack of supplies, as is appropriate for the story. You pick up ammo and the tools you need to survive during your travels, but neither are ever in abundance and the best way to conserve resources is to stay out of sight and avoid using anything more than a chokehold or a shiv.
It’s important to note that there are absolutely no combat heals here. You can craft the things you need from odds and ends you find along the way, including health kits, but crafting takes time and using the health pack takes time. If you get hit while using your health pack, you’re done healing and the pack is gone. No insta-healing sodas or potions here; either you heal strategically between fights and minimize your damage mid-fight or you’re in trouble. In addition, there are no mid-checkpoint saves either. You may save your game whenever you like, but it will load at the beginning of whatever encounter you’re presently in. If, while clearing out a room, you do brilliantly with the first 75% and totally flub against the last Clicker in the area (I mean, theoretically you may not have seen it at all, then squealed like a little girl and suddenly can’t shoot for crap when it bum-rushes you because you just soiled your trousers), you’re going to do it all over again. The checkpoints are pretty generous, but there aren’t any easy ways out. And, honestly, that’s okay with me.
While I haven’t finished the main story yet and with a “New Game Plus” after that, I can already see the signs of one of the best game experiences I have had on the console, perhaps of all time, and for a 30 something casual gamer, those just don’t come very often. The future of the PS3, for now, is unclear, but Last of Us is proof that it’s still got some life left in it.