Thursday, 20 June 2013

Rant - Just how good a game is 'The Last of Us'?

These last few days I have been dedmyself into the PS3 gem that is 'The Last of Us'', a beautifully realised survival thriller from the guys responsible for the equally awesome Uncharted series. This game has had unanimous praise from critics and fans, all claiming it to be a solid gaming experience with action, emotion, thrills and suspense. Pretty much everything you wouldn't normally get in your average triple-A game.

But as the game progressed, numerous things began to happen to me that made me question if this is really a good game at all but rather just a mediocre game with an amazing story.

So the first thing. Bugs. Or glitches rather. I have currently experienced three of them that basically messed up my entire progress for an encounter. For those of you who don't know much about the game, each action segment is broken down into 'encounters' where if you screw up you can restart at the beginning of the segment. It's a nice mechanic that stops you from either restarting the whole level or from people saving after every kill, allowing them safe passage through the levels.

Each encounter has various ways to tackle them. You can either go in guns a-blazing, which is not recommended due to very limited ammo reserves and your character pretty much dies after 3 hits. You can evade the enemies by sneaking round them, or you can also stealth kill them. I opt for the stealth killing option due to my past experience playing the Hitman series.

Anyway, it is with my method of stealth killing the enemies that I have often found myself stuck in the game environment. And I mean proper stuck, in that the character loses control of his basic movements and spazzes out. This has happened to me three times, and each time I have cursed the game, for I had been doing so well.

I know this is a basic game bug and the game has only just been released but you would have hoped that they might have picked up on something like this seeing as how stealth is one of the core combat mechanics. I know some games use a technique where the game automatically detects if your character is unable to move and discreetly repositions him to avoid further gameplay disruption. This is something I believe all games should have and  I am really annoyed that TLOU has screwed over my awesome stealth-kill abilities as a result of not implementing it.

And for what it's worth, the action isn't all that engaging. Sure there are moments of suspense and dread, plus the fact you can't aim well to begin with is a nice added mechanic, but the action is repetitive and predicable, something the Uncharted games also suffered from.
Takedown animations aren't exactly numerous and after seeing about 4 or 5 you've probably seen them all.
The enemies themselves, while intelligent enough to converge on your location, aren't intelligent enough to notice you sprinting back round behind them.
All in all, the action is fun but it doesn't really engage you very well. Disappointing given its potential.

Also, for the latest big release, the graphics are a real mixed bag. From a distance they look gorgeous and there's not denying this is a good great looking game, but some of the texture qualities are bad, as in pre-next-gen bad.
I understand you have to make compromises here and there but it was kinda sad to see blurry bricks or fuzzy trees.

The 'big event', as it were, that me question whether the game was any good was the big sequence near the middle where Joel has to take out a bunch of marauders with Ellie covering him from a balcony with a rifle. Now this encounter is set up to be a big action set-piece, given that you have someone giving you cover, however I thought I would try to take out as many of the enemies as possible with stealth first, to help conserve ammo.
But then, after taking out two of the bad guys, I realised I could easily do this section with just stealth alone, so I continued. Took out the last bad guys and...reinforcements. No worries, just do the same again...and...holy hell, that guy just spawned right in front of me!
Yes. I had an enemy spawn literally a foot in front of my guy. There was no other way for him to have entered the game. He just appeared right in front of me. And there goes my stealth. Oh, and six other guys also seem to have appeared from nowhere...oh a fire bomb...and I'm dead. God-freaking-dammit.

I almost quit the game there and then. The last time something like this had happened to me had been with The Thing, where a neat mechanic meant you had to test the members of your crew to make sure they were still who they said they were. The only problem was that pre-determined events meant people would become infected even after having been cleared moments ago, and this a huge failure on the part of the game.
TLOU promises us that there are various ways to go through different combat sequences, so why give me the option of stealth if the game was programmed to have enemies run at you in waves anyway? Have me engage in a gun-fight from the get-go or have me trigger a cut-scene after downing a certain amount of enemies. DON'T let me spend 45min (yes, that's how long I took carefully planning out the movement of each of my victims) using stealth only to find that you had other plans to begin with.

So like I said, I 'almost' gave up with the game. Why didn't I? The story.
My God is the story good. From the prologue you realise you are not in for a happy ride but as always, Naughty Dog have offered up a compelling story that's fully realised and instantly draws you in. Even when I stop playing, my mind fails to think of things other than 'what could happen next'. Few games, especially linear ones, have this alluring ability. If this wasn't a post-apocalyptic scenario (or a game) you could have convinced me this was a re-telling of true events. Amazing given the generic infection/all-hell-breaks-loose/Children of Men backdrop.

The characters are realistic to almost complete perfection that I forget at times I'm actually playing a game. The dynamic between Joel and Ellie is conflicted but ultimately endearing and this plays out very much like a love story between the two of them. The banter is fresh and dynamic and never once does it feel annoying or out of place. Ellie's dialogue in particular has the most impact as she is looking upon this new world with no knowledge of the last, so her ignorance and curiosity as to life pre-infection is always poignant. (My favourite bit was her reaction to seeing a poster of a size-zero model, to which she responded "I thought you guys had plenty of food back then." It's subtle but it has an edge of social commentary about it.)

So it's a shame that this story ended up in the form of a game. I find myself just wanting to sit back and watch the journey that the two embark on without the need to frustrate myself over annoying bugs or game mechanics. It adds immersion sure, and this is still going to be hands down one of the best games of the year, but I kinda wish this had ended up as a TV mini-series instead.

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