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Slick’s Nit-Picks: The Last of Us

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It does not matter how much you love it, the simple fact is that the zombie genre has been extremely overdone. From books to movies, music to television, comics and even video games, the shambling, brain-eating undead have pervaded every facet of modern entertainment. One would think that the phase had passed, but the near seventy year old trend (Romero-style zombies) is stronger than ever. Lately, we are starting to see new takes on the lore – stories like Resident Evil and The Walking Dead, where a mysterious virus causes the dead to live again and in some cases mutate into other forms. The backstory of the Dead Island series uses a virus that exists in the real world as its base, making the story that much more relatable. Popular video game developer Naughty Dog,  give us their take on the undead and once again, a real world organism is the cause of a global pandemic. Will this be the making of another PlayStation-exclusive classic? Only time will tell, but fan hype leading up to the release of The Last of Us has been huge.

The story here is pretty deep; I wish Hollywood would hire some of these writers to be honest. As much as I am going to break it down for you, I am giving you less than an hour’s worth of actual gameplay so don’t feel like I am spoiling anything for you.

WORST BIRTHDAY EVER The game opens with a playable prologue where you are Sarah, Joel’s fourteen-year old daughter. It is her dad’s birthday and she patiently waits for him to get home from work. later on that night you are awakened by a phone call from your Uncle Tommy, who is desperately trying to reach Joel. You search the house for your father, who comes into the den frantic and panting. After shooting a crazed neighbor dead right in front of you, the two of you run outside and meet Tommy who has just pulled up. The whole town is going to hell your car takes a hard hit, the trio are on foot. (Sarah has possible broken her leg in the crash, so you assume control of Joel and carry her). As you try to shield your daughter from horrific sights, you run into a soldier on the outskirts of town who has been ordered to shoot you and Sarah. Tommy puts one in his brain in time to save you, but the soldier’s bullets have hit Sarah in the stomach. Happy birthday, Joel, there’s your present….

MADNESS? THIS AIN’T SPARTA No one seems to know how or why it has happened, but a mutant strain of the Cordyceps genus of fungi is infecting people worldwide. As the parasite grows throughout the host body, it turns its victim into a vicious, rampaging monster that will tear apart and eat normal people. This is probably the most horrible form of zombification to date. The person dies a slow and horrible death as the fungus eats them from the inside out. Blood gushes from every orifice and all reason is lost to the fungus as the host is compelled to hunt and kill until the fungus explodes out of the body, releasing spores that will infect new host bodies. The same fate awaits anyone bitten by a “runner,” the name given to a first-stage infected. The world as it is in this game is anything but picnics and rainbows.

TIME HEALS NOTHING Twenty years have passed since Joel watched Sarah die in his arms. The hard-working, loving Texan father is now a hardened survivor living in a Quarantine Zone in what was Boston under martial law. Government as it was is gone. Monsters roam the areas outside the “safe” quarantine zones and people are dragged out into the street and shot if there is even a hint of fungal infection in them. The human spirit, what you and I would consider hope, is long dead. Joel describes himself as being scum and being lucky. He also says that he knows his luck will run out someday. He and his partner Tess have taken on a mission to escort the fourteen-year old girl Ellie to a group of resistance members called Fireflies at the capitol building. This of course, is outside the relative safety of the QZ and this is where the adventure truly begins. Survival is everything; your choices determine whether you will see another day.

NO TAP, JUST SNAP Joel may be self proclaimed scum, but he is damn good at what he does. Having lived through twenty years of devolving madness means you either hide really well, or you kick a whole lotta ass and Joel doesn’t hide. Well, honestly, he does, but it is usually only long enough to bash someone or something’s face in. The Last of Us basically puts you in control of an amalgam of MacGyver, Han Solo and Michael Westen. Joel has to be good because protecting Ellie puts you at a disadvantage in an already disadvantaged situation. You are outnumbered, often outgunned and backup is coming never. Granted, Ellie is capable of both defending herself and helping you out, but all that means is that she is not dead weight. Controlling Joel is like a high stakes poker game – you literally have to know when to hold ‘em and fold ‘em. Oddly, heavily armed human enemies are usually a sigh of relief. With humans, you have the choice of using stealth or trying to be a badass. The latter will get you killed often, but if you are quick, you can probably get out of a situation and heal yourself (if you have a medkit). When you deal with the infected, you mostly will want to run because if you try to be Leroy Jenkins, you will die every time. Runners will chase you down and beat you to death. Clickers will straight up eat you; Stalkers will hunt you strategically and then eat you. Bloaters will literally rip you apart (and then probably eat you). Even if you kill one, you have to be careful because the bodies may release spores. To combat these monsters, Joel must hide and strategically kill them when necessary. Since clickers and bloaters are blind (they literally have no eyes), they should be avoided whenever possible by moving very slowly past them. Stalkers can be shot, stabbed or beaten with weapons and runners can be fought hand to hand (not saying that you should though). Bloaters need to either be set on fire with Molotov cocktails or shot with armor piercing rounds. Handling Joel can be frustrating at times because he has so many different control options on the Dualshock. Fortunately, once you familiarize with the scheme,  the controls are very responsive. The R2 button is your best friend in this game world as it makes Joel crouch down and listen hard. By doing this, you can “see” where enemies are and plan accordingly. The echolocation ability of the advanced infected is extremely sensitive; if one of them finds you and there are more around, run unless you plan on getting sent back to your last checkpoint. The biggest beef with the controls is that aiming the gun is frustrating early on. This can be fixed by upgrading your aim ability, but I still hate that you have to. Recalling again that Joel has lived in this world for twenty years now, the concept of him needing to learn to aim better is ridiculous.

That brings me to the RPG aspects of the game. While I would not call it similar to either, The Last of Us has weapon crafting and skill upgrade systems reminiscent of Dead Island and Resident Evil games. As you pick up items on your travels, you are able to upgrade your weapons, total health and abilities. You can also use items to make medkits or tools/weapons. To keep the tension level high, Naughty Dog has made it so that the action around you does not stop when you go into these menus. You have to be selective about when you upgrade or craft because you will get attacked if you are out in the open. Everything about the way this game plays is about timing. Determining if any instant is the right time to use a certain item or tactic is crucial to your survival and that is what makes the game such a welcome addition to the genre.

ATTACK OF THE BLUE WAFFLE GANG If you have no idea what that title is referring to, I suggest that you do not try to find out, especially if you are eating. The Last of Us is set in a post-pandemic future where much of the scenery is bombed out, overgrown and flooded. Regardless, it has some of the best visuals the PlayStation 3 has ever produced. The attention paid to detail should be an example to all game developers. The framerate does not waver, the motion capture for facial expressions and matching of voices to mouth animation is just incredible. The particulate effects are noticeable almost everywhere you go. You can see the fungal spores floating about as rays of light shine through a window. Fire and water effects are fantastic, but for some reason, the foggy areas just felt unfinished. This is not a huge drawback to the game, but it is worth mentioning. You will see small banks of fog in the outdoor areas and that looks perfectly fine; when you are in underground areas like the subway however, things look nasty in an otherwise beautiful game. Joel becomes somewhat pixelated and the entire area just looks muddy. Strangely, this actually adds to the suspense because you find a note next to a mutilated body stating that there are Clickers and Stalkers in the area. That is really my only graphical gripe because the system smoothly loads the next area as you approach so that there is no noticeable load time outside of the initial screen. The Last of Us gives players a good glimpse into what they can expect on the console’s successor and it is something that all PlayStation 3 owners need to experience.

SOUNDS OF DESPERATION I hate making comparisons, but when you hear the music of The Last of Us, you have to think of the music in The Walking Dead television series. Both contain well composed pieces that expertly convey that glimmer of hope amidst a dark sea of hopelessness. My hat is off to composer Gustavo Santaolalla who had the daunting task of making that big distinction. In the TV show, the survivors only have to stay one step ahead of the zombies (and crazed humans). They often find shelter that lasts them for months. In this game however, even if you manage to find a place where neither infected nor human can find you, you have to worry about spores. That glimmer of hope is that much smaller. Every monster you kill is only going to spread the fungal infection unless you burn it. Santaolalla’s pieces for the game convey the sadness, desperation and often vicious nature of this world. If you woke up one day and this were the soundtrack to your life you would be begging for a do over. This is part of what good storytelling is when you are making a video game. The musical cues in the game are the closest players are going to get to having “Spidey sense.” The pieces that play during cutscenes help connect you to the characters and care about what happens to them. If you are into good set pieces, especially from video games, pick up the soundtrack or the season pass, which gives you a digital download of the OST.

WHY ASK WHY? While it is definitely a good thing that people are enjoying it and that it is not suffering the same fate as Tomb Raider’s multiplayer, I have to make the same complaint. The Last of Us is an excellent, self contained story that does not need a multiplayer component. To me, it is just a cash grab as I am sure that additional maps and modes will be released to make more money on the game. I am quick to admit that I have not played the multiplayer modes and probably will not. If you enjoy it, then more power to you, but this is the type of game that (in my personal opinion) is meant to be enjoyed solo.

The Last of Us is not a genre defining game. It is an excellent survival horror story and a fantastic gaming experience, but there are so many other games out there in this category. The biggest thing that sets it apart is the way in which this story’s “zombies” are created. That said, I am not trying to put this game down at all. It is one of the PlayStation 3’s console defining games. Production value abounds from start to finish and even the mutiplayer (which I feel is tacked on to make a buck) is enjoyed by fans. Joel, Ellie and even Tess have a movie quality chemistry that begs to be seen. While we know that the PS3 is not going anywhere just yet, the first party companies like Naughty Dog are probably going to make their next games for the PS4. This is very possibly the last big hurrah for this console and if you own one, you are doing yourself a disservice by not owning this game. And I just want to close by applauding the writers for presenting a complete story that does not need a sequel. The main characters of this game have finished their tale. Any future titles in this world will feature a different cast. That is another aspect of the game that will set it apart as a classic. This game is definitely going to be a game of the year candidate.

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