As usual, my reviews are pretty spoiler-heavy, but I've cordoned them off after the end of the review for people who don't want to be... y'know, spoiled.
It's very heartening to me that the three video games that have provoked the most discussion in the last year are story-heavy games that center around a relationship between two people. This generation of gaming is rapidly coming to a close and we've gone from a situation where having a good story is a pleasant surprise or a bonus to an actual selling point. Telltale's The Walking Dead went for huge dramatic crescendos, Bioshock: Infinite went for more of a headfuck, and now we have Naughty Dog, already proven in cinematic game experiences, trying their hand at the post-apocalyptic action/stealth/survival horror genres.
The Last Of Us and The Walking Dead do share a lot of the same DNA, to the point that I was worried that Naughty Dog's offering would suffer from over-familiarity. "Older man with a violent past tries to escort an innocent young girl to safety during a pandemic/zombie apocalypse" is a pretty well-worn genre at this point. We know how it ends: "I can teach you no more, son." "Nooooo! You're like the Dad I lost/never had or whatever!" "You'll be okay, kiddo. I'm gonna die now." "Nooooo!" *fade out*
The Walking Dead played these genre conventions to the hilt but was saved by giving us a sense of choice in how we survived the world and a young charge we actually felt invested in saving. The Last Of Us, it turns out, follows the same basic story beats but ends up in a different place by the end. Telltale's episodic series is, by comparison, a celebration of the human spirit in comparison to Naughty Dog's bleak, hopeless, uncompromising world.
It's a world that is being slowly reclaimed by nature. Buildings, unused and unmaintained for two decades, have decayed, fallen apart, sprouted grass, and attracted wildlife. It's a kind of sad, frightening beauty that even extends to the areas taken over by the plants that spawn the cordyceps spores, which look almost like human beings turned inside out: petals that resemble skin and stigma, anthers, and filament that almost resemble human organs. It's a world that's devolved, slowly erasing or reclaiming every inch of human advancement. Whatever the world is now, it's not ours. Human beings have, naturally, devolved right along with it.
What were originally conceived as quarantine zones have becoming permanent city-states ruled over by fascist thugs. We see their handiwork right away, murdering anyone for any infraction they feel warrants it. It's a brutal utilitarianism that has no time for due process or empathy. In the wilds, you're constantly on the run from nearly feral hunters who have zero qualms about killing and possibly eating any unlucky travelers who wind up in their crosshairs. We occasionally hear bits of conversation that hints that these people are just trying to survive in a world that's actively trying to kill them, but the fact that they immediately default to remorseless killers whenever you're spotted makes them ideal cannon fodder as we shoot, stab and strangle our way through waves of them later on. There's a bit of every reviewers favorite new vocabulary term "ludonarrative dissonance" in that they never try to negotiate or surrender but that's still, to me, within acceptable levels.
Our protagonist, Joel, has no moral high ground to stand on himself. After the events of the heartbreaking intro sequence, he's been whatever he needed to be to survive: a murderer, thief and smuggler. He's a survivor but his loss and his subsequent experiences have turned him into a cold, selfish, stubborn, and largely unlikable man. He's very much the "grizzled hero" archetype but without anything resembling a heart of gold underneath it. I got the impression that if it weren't for his partner (and presumably his lover) Tess, he wouldn't be doing much of anything at all. She's the driving force of their smuggling operation while Joel seems to mostly just go through whatever motions are called for. Though the motions usually seem to involve killing someone.
The game proper kicks off when, after confronting a double crossing colleague, they get roped into escorting a young girl, Ellie, to the militant freedom fighter faction, The Fireflies, where they hope to use Ellie's seeming immunity to the cordyceps to come up with a vaccine. Joel, unwilling to invest in a quixotic cross country trip for some pipe dream, is ultimately forced into it. The notion of hope has apparently become so alien to the man that even the risk of believing in something is enough scare him off. Throughout the game, I never so much liked Joel as understood him.
Ellie, on the other hand, is immediately likeable. The "perky teenager" thing could have easily rubbed me the wrong way but as the only real bright spot in a cruel and fucked up world, she became a pressure valve. The foul mouth, bad jokes and general know-it-all teenager-ness of the character is usually the only thing to look forward to. You're playing as Joel but Ellie is clearly our point of view character. The first time she tried to help me take down an infected runner, I cheered. I had been busy trying to find cover to desperately flip through my weapons to find one that had more than a bullet or two and out of the corner of my eye I see her leap on the thing's back and start stabbing it with her pen knife. The little brat just saved my life and I loved her for it.
While the game is thankfully designed to not be an escort mission where you need to hold Ellie's hand the entire time, it was the thing that kept continuously breaking my immersion. Ellie is effectively invincible and invisible so there were many, many occasions where I'd be creeping around and trying to find an angle on an enemy and Ellie (or another partner) would literally walk right in front on them to huddle next to me. In a world designed to be so engrossing and intense, something like that makes it impossible to suspend disbelief. Frankly, I would have preferred if Joel just kept continually insisting that Ellie hang back in combat situations and she rejoins you when you've cleared the area out. Neither is a perfect option but to have my immersion interrupted repeatedly like that was the biggest obstacle in maintaining the experience Naughty Dog tried so hard to create.
Other reviews and comments I've read have complained here and there about the scavenging you have to do, but I loved it. Not only did it give me a chance to explore and admire the amazing art design of the game, it provided an opportunity to interact with it as well. What you see usually isn't just some background on your way to another combat scenario. Houses aren't just empty, they're abandoned. You can still see family photos on dressers and toys littering the floor in some child's room. They're interrupted lives rather than just some empty space that exists in the game. Finding some scissors or bandages or bullets was just a bonus for me.
The violence in the game is particularly noteworthy in that it fits the world perfectly. When Joel strangles someone, he actually strangles them. No Schwarzenegger-esque instant neck snaps. If you linger at enemies you've head shot, sometimes it looks like you can see the entrance and exit wounds. Other enemies, depending on the gun you use, will have their heads explode when you hit them. As in little tiny chunks of skull debris around their body. This game is definitely not pulling any punches. Occasionally Ellie will make a surprised exclamation when you brutally murder someone and I'd be lying if I didn't say that I didn't occasionally share the sentiment.
My only other major criticism of the game stems from the combat. Frankly, I was fine with the infected taking multiple headshots to kill, but when it came to the human enemies, things got very frustrating very fast. There are a couple of weapons that offer armor piercing upgrades but ammo is so scarce that you can't be guaranteed to have any when you need it. While I like the scarcity of the ammo as far as giving things a survival horror feel, the way that the ammo is parceled out made sure that there were long sequences where we are never given any hunting rifle or shotgun ammo, etc... so if you didn't save any from the section where it was more plentiful, you're just out of luck.
This lead to multiple situations like this: I'm in a firefight. I'm behind cover. I poke my head up and headshot a guy wearing a helmet. The guy falls down and pops back up again sans helmet. I pop up again and headshot him again. He falls down again. Assuming he's dead, I try to move to the next bit of cover only to get knocked on my ass by the same guy who is still shooting at me. I understand that this is a game where you're not supposed to feel like a superhero and many gamers would likely breeze through the combat if a headshot meant an instant kill but nothing breaks the spell of the game faster than an enemy surviving multiple headshots. It's one of two imperfect options but, like with Ellie's invisibility, I would have preferred the option that didn't take me out of the game.
That said, the scarcity of ammo and the strength of the enemies, especially the infected Clickers, make for some wild sequences. Shivs become mandatory in not only stealth killing them but saving you from their insta-kill attacks. Runners are easier to deal with but are big trouble in packs and Bloaters need to be shot in specific areas to be killed efficiently. On Hard difficulty, I rarely had more than ten bullets for any gun at any given time and every missed shot was enough to make me wince. Even scavenging as much as I could there would be lengthy sequences in which I was missing a specific ingredient for a much needed shiv or med kit. Every combat situation seemed to dissolve into panic by the end of it. Only a couple of times was I able to successfully navigate a sequence without being spotted and it felt goddamn triumphant when it happened.
The game is broken up into seasons which take place during specific locations including my hometown of Pittsburgh (it looks pretty much like I left it, to be honest). Each section has it's own unique vibe to it, which keeps things from getting stale, and the games take care to break up the style of play, so you may find yourself on horseback or hunting deer to change things up. Much like the Uncharted games, though, when you see oddly placed cover, prepare to start shooting.
After a blockbuster sequence during winter, we move onto the real finale which feels oddly like anti-climax. And I'm fine with that. Actually, I was oddly tense and keyed up for the final section the game because I kept expecting the writers to go for the obvious and easy ending but they never did. After an occasionally frustrating fight against some armored enemies, everything gets wrapped up in an intriguing ambiguity. You don't have to worry about the game leaving an important questions unanswered but it does leave you with a final scene that allows you to draw your own conclusions.
As a game, Naughty Dog is still perfecting it's cinematic experience. They're still not quite there in terms of making everything perfectly seamless from a gameplay perspective but it is a very well told story, even if it hews very close to what we'd expect up until the end. It's certainly a step up from Uncharted 3, which fell a little bit too in love with it's own characters. As a capper for this generation of gaming, it's a fantastic send-off. It's uncompromisingly bleak and gorgeous to look at. If you're open to the experience, it will take an emotional toll on you. Here's to a new generation of games that hopefully follow suit.
SPOILER WARNING! Here's where I start talking specifics about what I thought of the story, so back out now if you haven't played yet!
Joel is a dick. He's the character you control through most of the game but, as I mentioned in the review, I never liked him. Understood him, but never liked him. The loss of his daughter, calcified by twenty years of murder and robbery, had made him into a hollow shell. It isn't until Utah that he feels comfortable enough with Ellie to joke with her (having the shared experience of killing people who want to eat them is a pretty good bonding experience, it turns out) but by then she's lost in a melancholy of her own.
What makes Joel's decision at the end, and our complicity in it, work is that we know that Ellie is more mature than just about every character in the game, so when the Fireflies decide to operate on her without her consent, they've essentially compromised themselves into being the villains. As much as Joel's decision is driven by selfishness, he's not wrong to do it.
The irony is that if Marlene had taken the time to talk to Ellie instead of treating her like a non-human, something she felt she likely had to do in order to make what she felt was the "right" decision, there's a good chance Ellie would have agreed to the surgery anyway.
Ellie's melancholy at the beginning of the Utah sequence, I thought, was originally just her coming to grips with the events in David's camp. Until she has that conversation with Joel about what he thinks the Fireflies need to do in order to get vaccine. Joel, re-energized and hopeful, dismisses it as just doing some tests and taking blood samples... but Ellie isn't convinced. I think she was preparing for the fact that she was going to have to sacrifice herself to save the world. And was trying to be okay with it.
Marlene isn't evil, she's just lost herself. She got the means and the ends all mixed up. She knew that there was no guarantee the surgery would provide a vaccine. She was willing to kill a child she was tasked to care for on the off chance it provided something useful. Ultimately, she was just using Ellie to her own ends. Joel is precisely the opposite. As much as he wants to save this child the way he couldn't save his own, he's also doing it for her benefit. That's what makes Joel's actions ultimately heroic to me.
I get the argument that he is essentially damning the world but I don't agree with that either. There's no supporting evidence for this, but I think Ellie isn't just a genetic aberration, she's the next stage in human evolution. There's no way of knowing how many kids born post-cordyceps have developed an immunity until they get bit. But the chances of surviving an attack with just a bite are slim let alone other people letting you stay alive long enough to prove you won't turn. And considering you have as much chance being killed by hunters or dying from starvation or disease, there's no telling how many kids being born are just like her. But that's all supposition.
Ellie is "The Last Of Us" because she represents everything that's still good about humanity. She's the only character who doesn't act from a place of selfishness. Joel is Joel. Tess is out for herself and only sees the light when it's too late. Marlene cares only for her mission. Bill is a solipsist. Sam puts everyone at risk by not telling anyone of his infection. Henry blames Joel and then kills himself because he can't take responsibility for himself. Ellie is the only character who remains true, even after her run in with David who is arguably the worst humanity has to offer.
Joel represents all the bad decisions, selfishness and shitty, violent impulses that were ingrained in Humanity Mark 1. Protecting Ellie from those who wanted to harm her, even if she was prepared to sacrifice herself had anyone bothered to ask, and then lying to her afterwards are proof of it. Joel is not a redeemable character but neither is he truly villainous, just sadly human.
The question at the last scene is, to me, can Ellie believe the lie? She says "okay" but there's nothing in her face that particularly sells it one way or the other. And if she can, what does that say about her? Has she had enough of being the Golden Child and wants to get on with what passes as a normal life? If so, is that okay given what she's capable of? (Personally, I don't think the lie is sustainable.) The fact that they switch Ellie to your control in the lead up is a nice touch too, making it more like Joel is lying directly to you. Not only do I like that they left it pretty ambiguous, I like that they had the balls to not go with the dramatic-strings-and-weepy-send-off ending. It's ultimately a very personal story.
Like I said in the review proper, I really liked the game despite some flaws. I just hope more people follow Naughty Dog's lead and make more story-driven games that don't revolve around easy, smug horseshit like Far Cry 3's whole "you're a terrible person for enjoying all this carnage we lovingly provided for you." This game is a great example of meaningful violence. I'm definitely interested in whatever Naughty Dog does next.