…the game to beat for Game of the Year 2013.” – IGN
“…a terrific feat of storytelling, design, art direction, and performance.” – Kotaku
“…looks the downfall of humanity in the eyes and doesn’t blink.” – Gamespot
Developer: Naughty Dog
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Genre: Action-adventure, survival horror
Platform(s): PlayStation 3
Praise comes from every corner for Naughty Dog’s new cinematic survival action game, The Last of US. It’s being howled about as a masterpiece of a gaming generation and as an artistic achievement. Personally, I beg to differ; however, before I follow that road to its end, let’s just look at the usual review. Without spoiling any of the fun for you, The Last of Us follows what you’d expect from zombie fiction – post-apocalyptic world, refugee camps, wandering bandits, complete governmental collapse, and desperate survivors doing what we expect them to do; survive. IGN’s review called it “a near-perfect analog for The Road, a literary masterpiece written by Cormac McCarthy” and I’m not sure that could be a more fitting description.
The narrative, itself, brings nothing new to the table. It borrows off Alfonso Cuaron’s adaptation of P.D. James’ The Children of Men and Cormac McCarthy’s novel, The Road and uses them for much of the games inspiration. The game essentially uses the post-apocalyptic environment to force gamers to see the contrast of the human desire to forge connections with the will to survive. It also brings players a more intimate, human story, you know? Like every other post-apocalyptic piece. So, if this game brings nothing new to the table, why is it so critically acclaimed?
Well, Naughty Dog managed to design a game that not only looks beautiful but plays beautifully too. They weaved strong characters and slowed the pace down (in comparison to their Uncharted series) to bring gamers a more realistic experience with a more down-to-earth profile. In essence, they took what we expect from the zombie genre and a damn good job at presenting it. Alongside Naughty Dog’s impressive storytelling abilities, the game design fits rather well with the narrative. With their new AI system, enemies react more realistically to player actions. Enemies will drop to cover after spotting a player, call for backup if they find themselves overwhelmed or use player weaknesses to their advantage, such as low ammunition or using their fellow AI to distract the player. Enemies are often ruthless and the combat seemingly unforgiving. The chaotic and sloppy firefights often lead to almost savage conclusions. In many instances, I cringed during some of the combat executions but with the scarcity of ammunition, and supplies, a small amount of carrying space and numerous combat scenarios, The Last of Us never fails to create unique experience in every encounter.
Now Naughty Dog managed to create a stellar form of a cinematic blockbuster within the constraints of a linear film-like video game experience. They got the graphical detail down in every aspect, put together a musical score that fit eerily well with the savage nature of the game and, all in all, they gave us one hell of a good story. I admit that it is one of the most well designed games to date but it fails to constitute as an artistic achievement. The Last of Us, at most, is an example of a product perfected in a popular formula. It’s as Matt Sainsbury’s said in his review when he called the game, “popcorn entertainment.” It may be acquiring seemingly unanimous praise but that doesn’t make it a marvel in the industry. The Avengers received similar unanimous praise but it’s definitely not considered to be on the same level as Citizen Kane. Unlike McCarthy or P.D. James works, the Last of Us doesn’t hold that deeper and mysterious meaning commonly associated with an artistic masterpiece. Each and any potential meaning in the game is spelled out for gamers within those blockbuster constraints. Like the Avengers, the Last of Us is a fun experience, not an intellectual one.
As gamers, our emotions, actions, and decisions were guided along that linear platform without leaving any room for any other messages. The combat, crafting, and stealth mechanics gave players that sense of freedom but were merely there to guide them down that one linear path. Sure, certain events will occur, locations will be seen, and details will be given to them but a player cannot interact with them. Those events, locations, and details are there because they should be, because they are expected to be. They’re not there to incorporate a subtle philosophy or broaden an overall message. They’re there to improve production value, nothing more and nothing less. The Last of Us merely borrows from the giants of zombie and post-apocalyptic fiction and formatted it perfectly into a popular platform (aka video games). Needless to say, The Last of Us does manage to weave together the growth of two characters and pit them against dark and desperate odds extraordinarily well. The game may start off with an overly familiar setting but it does manage to end on a surprisingly shocking note. In between some challenging and savage combat, the world Joel and Ellie is riddled with artistic ingenuity and impressive realism. Naughty Dog did an excellent job at creating a strong story-driven experience but they failed to challenge our morality or raise any underlying social, economic, or political issues with their design. In the end, it’s a damn good game with a damn good story made by some pretty damn good developers but it’s certainly no Citizen Kane. I highly recommend it to any gamer.
- Strong immersive narrative
- Fluid/challenging gameplay
- Slow paced singleplayer/ multiplayer
- Impressive graphical design, musical score, and game design
- Combat elements break immersion (i.e. Ellie going unnoticed in plain site)
- Strictly linear experience