Uncharted Territory

Is The Last Of Us the last great game of this generation?
Author: Aram Lecis
Published: July 9, 2013
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For some reason there is always a great rush to compare great works with great works from other media. If I had a dollar for everything that has been compared to Citizen Kane I’d probably have an awful lot of dollars. By now you’ve probably seen the latest Naughty Dog creation The Last of Us compared to the Orson Welles masterpiece someplace or other. While it’s not an entirely invalid analogy, it’s certainly a bit of a trite one.

If we indulge in that comparison a bit further, I’d like to point out that if The Last of Us is Citizen Kane then thatgamecompany’s Journey is 2001: A Space Odyssey. Much like to Kubrick film, Journey doesn’t throw its narrative in your face while you play, and also like the film it doesn’t feel constrained to “traditional” methods of presenting itself to the viewer/player. Whenever the hackneyed discussion of “games as art” comes up, Journey is a valid discussion point if only because there is so much onus on the player to “solve” the narrative for himself from observing and empathizing with what they are seeing on the screen.

The Last of Us resets the bar for well-developed narratives that Naughty Dog themselves set with the Uncharted series. The tale of Joel and Ellie on a post-apocalyptic journey across the country has more powerful and resonant moments than any game in recent memory, in no small part because of the amazing strides ND is always making in matching up emotive voice acting with top-of-the-line graphics and stunning set design. It’s easy to get lost in the universe during some of the quieter moments of the game, yet there are plenty of moments where it hits you right in the face that you are playing a video game. That’s where it diverges from “art’ projects like Journey and Limbo. The Last Of Us is still a mainstream “video game”, it just happens to be one of the most refined ones we’ve ever seen.

I have a policy of keeping a “media blackout” for games that I am looking forward to. Obviously given how much I write about games it’s impossible to remain totally in the dark but you can stay in some dim light if you try. After hearing the initial information about the TLoU I put that one on the blackout list and hoped that this was the big step where we were finally getting a triple-A game that was putting killing on the back burner and actively encouraging you to find alternate solutions to problems. Once I spent some time with an early demo I realized I might have to temper my expectations and once I played through the game once I was kicking myself for thinking that Naughty Dog would stray THAT far from the old formula.

So yes, this is a video game, and the video game parts are certainly nothing to look down on. You’re looking at a scaled-down version of classic Uncharted action here with a bit more focus on the melee side of things and a much-reduced (but still sizable) enemy count. The action tends to take place a lot more close-up, especially early on when weapons are scarce. Combat is more visceral, and at time the gore even feels a little gratuitous. Shit’s a bit more real too, as Joel doesn’t have the constitution of a guy like Drake and getting outnumbered in an encounter is generally a fatal mistake. Thankfully Joel is a pretty stealthy guy and there are a plethora of bricks and bottle strewn about to distract your enemies. There are occasional moments where “kill them all” is the only way to go forward but more often than not you can avoid most fights if you really take your time and use your environment.

While the gameplay is fine, the real star of the show is the story. Obviously it’s something you have to experience for yourself though I will say that the opening scene works as well as could possibly be expected in terms of getting you invested in what is happening. The first time through I had to stop and take it all in, and my second time around I had an audience all of whom had their eyes riveted to the screen the entire time. No game could be expected to maintain an intensity like that, yet TLoU has a dozen more moments that give you that shiver in your spine you get when your emotions are tapped deeply. It’s not just in the cutscenes either. Joel and Ellie share their thoughts and get to know each through ambient conversation that come up organically during their explorations. Other bits are found in handwritten notes that often reveal more backstory and sidestories that further lend credence to the reality of this world.
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