It’s nigh on impossible to miss the hype that’s been surrounding The Last of Us, the latest game to come out of Naughty Dog studios who’s been responsible for other PlayStation 3 exclusive hits like the Uncharted series. I tried my best but it the sentiment among the reviewer crowd was hard to miss: this game was shaping up to be everyone’s game of the year. However the interesting part about it was that it wasn’t something like revolutionary game play or top end graphics that was sending the review scores northward, it was the confronting story. I had been sold on the game since I saw the short gameplay demo that was released last year and had already lined myself up to play it despite it being a survival horror so all that was left was to fire it up and see if my impressions of it lined up with the hype that surrounded it.
You play as Joel, a single father who’s been working hard to provide for his daughter Sarah. Everything seems to be good in your world, heck she even manages to scrounge up enough cash to buy you a watch for your birthday, but soon an epidemic starts to sweep the nation, one that enrages people and turns them into vicious beings that attack anything when sighted. Tragedy befalls Joel, turning him into a bitter person and he then spends the next 20 years in a quarantine camp, finding work as a smuggler who gets things into and out of his camp. His world is shaken up after he seeks revenge against someone who’s wronged him only to find himself tangled up with a rebel group who’s only request is that he smuggle a girl to one of their camps.
Her name is Ellie.
With this current console generation coming to the end of its life the games are taking full advantage of the hardware platform that’s available to them and Naughty Dog’s expertise on the PlayStation 3 shines through in The Last of Us. All the environments you’ll explore are incredibly detailed, showing the world in glorious ruins. It’s a testament to Naughty Dog’s skill that all of this runs without a hitch as well with the game remaining buttery smooth even during intense action scenes. What I did like though was the distinct lack of environment porn, I.E. scenes that were deliberately designed to make you gawk at the rendering engine. Sure there were a lot of impressive moments but I never felt like any of them were created specifically as screenshot bait, they were just emergent based on the great level design and detailed environments.
The Last of Us is a survival horror game where resources are scarce and death almost certain should you not play your cards right. Now traditionally I’m not a big fan of these titles as they tend to do things that violate my rules for being a good (but also challenging game) and The Last of Us is no exception to this. It’s made up for somewhat by the inclusion of other mechanics that allow you to negate some of the more annoying aspects of survival horror game play through the use of skill and simple curiosity but there are still some issues that remain unresolved that I will take the game to task for. However I do understand that this is part of the survival horror schtick and is probably considered a great example of the genre so I’m more just trying to make my biases known so you don’t feel the need to lambast me in the comments.
There’s 3 main mechanics that drive the game play of The Last of Us. The first is good old fashioned 3rd person combat which has been tweaked with a stealth mechanic that you’ll make good use of if you don’t want to be reloading the game every 5 seconds. The second is a form of simplistic puzzler/platformer where you’ll have to solve a puzzle in order to progress to the next stage. Lastly there’s a customized RPG like system of crafting, upgrades and upgrades that allows you to improve your character and create consumables that you’ll undoubtedly being making heavy use of throughout your play through. None of these are particularly unique, and indeed I’d argue that the the gameplay isn’t the strongest characteristic of The Last of Us, but they do make for a challenging game.
You’ll spend the vast majority of your time exploring the environments that you’re in for bits and pieces that you can use to craft items to help you along. You don’t have to do this but the less you do it the harder the game will get for you as, no joke, that piece of rag you picked up 2 hours ago could be the very thing that saves your ass. It can get a little laborious though as pretty much every section you go through has to be inspected with a fine tooth comb to make sure you didn’t miss everything and, once you get past a certain point, you might stop doing it because you’ve managed to max out your inventory. However even if you do manage that there’s still another reason for you to keep searching: for the other upgrades.
There’s 2 ways to upgrade your character with the first being through “supplements” that affect Joel. For the most part they just make the game easier, giving you more health or decreasing the time it takes to heal for instance, but some of them can make the difference between life or death like the ability to save yourself from a clicker attack with a shiv. If I’m honest most of them apart from the Shiv Master one didn’t really impact on the game that much, usually just giving you a little more leeway with which to accomplish the same things. I also found that the supplements were scarce enough that I could just drop them into skills to max them out so the choice is usually based around your play style and what seems to be hampering your progress the most.
There’s also the upgrades to your weapons which can improve things like reload speed, clip size and fire rate. There’s unfortunately no way to upgrade the damage of any particular weapon which means they’re just as effective when you first get them as when you last fire them which, honestly, gave me the shits. The awful aiming coupled with the relative ineffectiveness of shots that hit anywhere but the head means that most of your weapons feel like they’re having no impact whatsoever with the exception of the shotgun and shorty (which are only close range, not so great for things that want to bite you). The upgrades make up for this somewhat by allowing you to fire and reload more rapidly but when you don’t have a lot of ammo (and you can’t carry that much even if you save every bullet) it’s kind of a moot point. Even upgrading the bow, something which is typically super bad ass in any survival game, doesn’t increase its usefulness that much, especially against moving targets.
Which brings me to the combat of The Last of Us which is quite typical of the survival horror genre. There’s 2 modes that you’ll be playing in: stealth and out and out firefights. Now the former is actually quite well done as the environments are strewn with little nooks for you to hide in and wait patiently for your prey to walk by so you can snag them and choke them out silently. You also have the rather awesome ability to “concentrate your hearing” which essentially enables a wall hack that allows you to see where enemies are. They have to be walking or talking for it to work, which becomes something of an issue later on, but it’s enough so that you can get a feeling for where they all are before you strike. Of course one mistake means that your prey will alert everyone else and then you’ve got two choices: run or start shooting.
This is where I feel The Last of Us starts to fall down a bit as the guns don’t feel effective at all unless you get a headshot and lining one of those up while under fire is nigh on impossible. The human AI is smart enough to not run blindly around corners where it knows you’re hiding (and it will try to flank you) so you can’t do the usual rounding up and then gunning them all down sort of thing that’s possible in other 1st/3rd person shooters. With the wonky controls of the PlayStation3 the only effective guns I found were the two I mentioned earlier although they still suffer if not aimed somewhere near the head. Of course the stealth aspect of The Last of Us means that there’s opportunity to flank people out although the AI has a rather terrible habit of suddenly figuring out where you are when you pop your head out to start shooting at them.
The same applies to the infected as the AI behaves very differently when you’re near them, to the point where sometimes they’ll make a beeline straight for you even when they’re not supposed to be aware of your position. There’s ways to counteract this, of course, but I don’t like the feeling that I’m making up for the shortcomings of the AI by bugging it out with other game mechanics. I remember one particular challenge (starting the generator in the basement so you can use the card reader door) where after causing a ruckus I’d run to a dark area to hide so I could then plan my escape. Should I not place a bomb somewhere else that then gets triggered by an infected a bloater would then, inexplicably, find me even though I was nowhere near that particular spot. The bloaters also appear to have eyes despite them apparently not being able to see and don’t get me started on the one-hit-kill nature of the clickers which requires 75 supplements to avoid.
The Last of Us is also not bug free either as I had several times when triggers simply failed to load, locking me in the current section being unable to progress until I reloaded from the checkpoint. Additionally the checkpoint behaviour isn’t reliable as manually restarting it often means restarting from a point faaaaaaaaaar behind your current checkpoint, meaning it’s better to just die rather than try to reload it. There’s also the rather irritating feature of spawning enemies in rooms that you’ve already looked in and cleared, ones that don’t have any entrance path to them (like on the second story of a house). For the most part they’re manageable but when you’re dealing with the 100 other stressful things the game throws at you this can be enough to stop you playing.
But the thing that Last of Us is receiving so much praise for isn’t it’s gameplay it’s the detailed and very confronting story that drives you through it. Credit where it’s due for the voice and motion capture actors for portraying it so well as I’m quite intolerant of bad performances in either aspect but the people behind The Last of Us do a top notch job. Whilst I won’t put a plot analysis here (that’s something for the spoiler section below) suffice to say that the story evokes heavy feelings of empathy, sorrow and strong cognitive dissonance over how your characters play out. The Last of Us is one of the few modern games where you have absolutely no control over how the story plays out, something that I enjoy but may frustrate some players.
MAJOR PLOT SPOILERS FOLLOW
I felt a deep sense of empathy for Joel, despite his obvious character flaw of not wanting to care about anyone (from fear of getting hurt). With that in mind the ending felt like the one that I wanted to happen, because fuck anyone trying to hurt Ellie, however in doing so I had to bear the costs associated with doing that. The final scene between Joel and Ellie was probably one of the most painful things I’ve ever had to watch as it’s clear that Ellie knows Joel is lying, as evidenced by her simple reply that echoes her initial character before it’s developed over the course of the game, but she’s accepted he has his reasons for doing so. Whether he’ll ever reveal them to her is something that’ll be left up for discussion (or possibly a sequel, although bonus points to Naughty Dog for not leaving us dangling) but it’s almost at the point where it doesn’t matter.
Whilst Ellie’s fate was somewhat expected (although I question its validity, it’s not like we can’t do brain surgery without killing people) I had more expected Joel to be the tragic hero, especially considering the origin story of the first couple hours. His survival was somewhat counter to what I expected which I was glad for and ultimately it enabled the hollow hollywood ending which is what The Last of Us is being widely acclaimed for. With that in mind the lack of a choice system, one with a lot of games shoehorn in at the end to give the player some sense of control over the ultimate ending, is a smart move by Naughty Dog and something I commend them for.
PLOT SPOILERS OVER
The Last of Us is an exhausting experience physically, mentally and emotionally. It’s one that will test your limits of what you think is right and wrong, making you question what ideals you would compromise when faced with the same situation. Whilst I might not enjoy some of the gameplay mechanics due to their survival horror roots I can’t deny the gripping story that’s well portrayed by the actors involved. Whilst there are many that would recommend getting a PS3 just to play it I won’t count myself among them however should you already have one it’s certainly one of the exclusives that shouldn’t be missed, no matter what kind of gamer you are.
Rating: 9.5/10 (includes +1.0 reviewer’s bias to counteract for the fact that I routinely rate survival horror badly)
The Last of Us is available right now on PlayStation 3 for $78. Game was played on the Hard difficulty with around 17 hours of total play time and 7% of the achievements unlocked.
Open world games and I have a very sorted history. More often than not I’ll find myself bored with the wide open world long before I’ve exhausted the main story missions which usually results in me spending a few more hours being a total jerk to everyone before I give up on the game for a week or two. Strangely enough the prospect of being able to wander around and do the missions whenever I feel like it doesn’t appeal to me that much although there have been several open world games (Red Dead Redemption, Batman: Arkham City) that have captivated me, usually due to their heavy focus on story. Prototype 2 comes 3 years after its predecessor and whilst the news of Radical Entertainment’s demise might not bode well for it I really did enjoy the original and figured the sequel would be worth a look in.
Prototype 2 puts you right back where the original started: New York City, New York. After the infection being dealt with in the original it appears that it has returned with a vengeance, spreading like wildfire in much the same manner as it did before. Alex Mercer, the character you play as in the original, is again being blamed for the whole thing and you, James Heller, are sent in to take him down. Your brief confrontation with him ends with you being defeated and Mercer gifting you with much the same powers that he has and attempts to recruit you into his plans. What follows is a story of multiple betrayals, conspiracies and open warfare that should be quite familiar to those who played the original.
Whilst my memory might be foggy from 3 years ago Prototype 2 doesn’t appear to be a massive graphical jump up from its predecessor. As far as I can figure there are 2 main reasons as to why this is. Firstly the primary audience for this game is consoles and there has been no improvement in that department since the original Prototype was released. Additionally, much like MMORPGs, there tends to be a lot of stuff on screen at any one point in time, putting a hard upper limit on how good you can make the environment look before performance takes a massive dive. That being said it’s definitely up to par with other console-first games of this era but when you’re playing it on PC you can’t help but feel that it should be looking a lot better.
What I’m more certain about is the similarity between the core game play of Prototype 2 and its predecessor. Cutting right to the chase here it’s basically identical to the almost all of the same weapons, abilities and missions. There are differences of course such as the addition of the hunt ability, changes to the devastator attacks and reworked upgrade system. With that in mind Prototype 2 plays much like the original with you leaping around New York and unleashing all sorts of carnage with the new abilities providing some, but not a whole lot, differentiation to keep you interested.
Like nearly all open world games Prototype 2 takes the typical structure of giving you way points on your map to go to where you’ll begin a mission. Along the way you’ll pass by various collectibles, encounters and side missions that you can take or leave at your leisure. At the beginning of the game it’s worth your time to deviate from the story missions as much as possible as those early upgrades will make the rest of the game a hell of a lot easier. As you start to get towards the end where levels start coming thick and fast the side missions start to mean less and less, to the point where you really don’t need to stray that often because you’re so powerful that really nothing will get in your way.
I felt that the Hunt ability was a really great addition in Prototype 2. Essentially its a tracking mechanism where you send out an orb of red that, upon reaching your target, bounces back to you like a kind of sonar pulse. Most missions will start off with you being given a target and then told to hunt them which will involve you sending out multiple hunting signals as you track them down. It’s a pretty cool mechanic and it really fits in with the whole Prototype idea, being an amalgam of DNA from all sorts of creatures.
Of course the mechanic starts to lose its lustre after you use it for the 50th time to track down yet another scientist/commander/whatever. Indeed this is the greatest weakness of Prototype 2 as whilst there’s tons of missions to keep you occupied they are unfortunately quite similar in the way they play out. It also doesn’t help that there’s a lot of asset reuse throughout the game with all lairs, bunkers and science places all being the same rudimentary shape just with different things sprinkled around the interior. This is not an uncommon problem for open world games but most do a lot better at hiding the repetition than Prototype 2 does.
It doesn’t get any better when the powers you get in Prototype 2 are exactly the same as the ones in the original. As the screenshot of the power wheel shows you the same 5 powers you had in the original are back again. Of course they needed a mechanic in order to reset these powers back to zero and that seems to be the only reason for a new main protagonist. Indeed, as I’ll touch on later, Heller’s inclusion in the story seems to function simply as a way for them to repeat the same power building mechanics they had in the first game without having to make up something about Mercer losing his powers.
This is not to say they’re any less fun than they were before hand though, far from it. Whilst some powers seem like they’re only in there for the token time when you need them (claws, whipfist) the combination of tentacles + anything else is awesome fun when you’re bashing lots of enemies around. The hammerfist also seems to be the weapon of choice for pretty much any occasion as you can simply leap into the air and then slam back down again and avoid pretty much any damage whilst devastating everything around you.
However there are some real brain farts of missions where you’re basically stripped of your powers and forced to make do with whatever the game gives you. The screenshot above is an example of one missions where you have to play nice and use regular weapons to take down all your foes. It’s a change of pace, done in order to break up the monotony of your unbridled chaos, but it is rather annoying to have all those awesome powers stripped away from you. Especially when you then have to do an escort mission, the worst possible kind of mission any game can have.
I would probably have forgotten about missions like these if I hadn’t had to play through them multiple times due to the game crashing at random places. Now I’m pretty sure it isn’t a problem with my PC as I’ve played countless hours of other games recently but I had Prototype crash out on me at least 6 times during my time with it. The trigger was random as it crashed after things like someone messaging me on steam or alt-tabbing but it would never consistently crash on those things. Most of the time it was simply during the middle of the mission which would then me back to before the mission started when I got back into the game. I lay the blame at this instability solely at the fact that it was a console first game with the porting process being less than stellar.
Whilst I might lament that the sections where you get your powers taken away from you are annoying the vehicle sections are actually quite fun, mostly because of how ridiculously power your vehicle seems to be in comparison to every other vehicle in the game. There are a few unfortunate escort missions among the vehicle sections but for the most part they’re simple “destroy all the things” type encounters, much in alignment with the rest of the game. The vehicles are also thankfully trouble free much unlike some of the other sections of the game.
The story of Prototype 2 is also above what I’ve come to expect of AAA titles these days although there’s this weird anti-intellectual/anti-military dichotomy going on in it that I don’t quite understand. Throughout the game it seems that pretty much every commander or scientist you meet is salivating at the chance to use their fellow man as test subjects for whatever horrible experiment they can think of. In the beginning I thought it was just a typical American anti-intellectual plot but Prototype 2 lumps all military in the same bucket not too long after.
Ultimately the story isn’t bad but it’s nothing particularly stellar either. Mercer’s motivations seem to have changed dramatically from the end of Prototype 1 and Heller’s character, who’s your typical badass for almost the entire game, starts to come apart towards the end. I felt it started out strongly but as the game progressed on and the same story repeated over and over just with different names it started to lose its lustre and the eventual conclusion did a good enough job to wrap it up that I didn’t feel cheated by the whole experience.
Prototype 2 seems to take the angle of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” as the game is essentially Prototype 1 with a few things polished up and a reworked plot that allows the game to start from square 1 again. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that idea, that’s how the Call of Duty franchise has stayed so profitable, but there really is barely anything new about this instalment in the Prototype series. With the closure of Radical Entertainment as well this might very well be the last time Prototype will grace our presence and it’s unfortunate that the opted for what amounts to a giant DLC pack rather than a new game that takes a fresh look at the Prototype idea. It’s still a fun game to play and I’m sure achievement junkies will love tracking down all the collectibles hidden around the place but it really feels like a game made for those who enjoyed the first or those who missed it initially.
Prototype 2 is available on PS3, Xbox360 and PC right now for $78, $78 and $49.99 respectively. Game was played entirely on PC on the Hard difficulty setting with around 10 hours of total play time and 58% of the achievements unlocked.