On The Last of Us…

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Trust and survival are mortal enemies. In a world torn asunder by disease and strife, inviting one into the world of the other undoubtedly means death. When one is forced to live day by day, ration by ration, and bullet by bullet, trusting your fellow man can often be the siren luring you into a false comfort. This kind of dance has been done many times before in other popular movies, TV series and games, but the Last of Us is something much more. Smartly avoiding simple plot structures such as finding a cure or massacring hundreds of infected in blood-soaked fervor, Naughty Dog’s latest title strips down a standard survival-horror game and infuses heart and sorrow into every corner. Complete with intensely gripping character performances and an almost-perfect stealth and combat system, The Last of Us is a visceral, graphic, and moving story about some of our most intense emotional experiences.

Many years after mankind has been ravaged by Cordyceps–a real fungus that infects several species of insects–those that are left are quarantined and monitored. Joel, a grizzled and by-the-numbers survivor, takes on jobs as they come and doesn’t look back. But when a certain job goes south, he is entrusted to protect and transport Ellie, a 14-year old teenager, to a group of rebels for unknown reasons. While the various narrative twists and turns bring more depth to what is really going on involving Ellie, Naughty Dog went to great lengths to ensure such details do not occlude the primary story they meant to tell. The Last of Us is, first and foremost, about Ellie and Joel. Pitted against a world of lawless marauders and ravenous infected, their journey is as much emotional as it is physical. Drawing several comparisons to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the pair will face the harshness of reality in the darkest of ways. And yet, in such times of darkness and sadness, they also remember parts of humanity they had both given up on.

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Rooted in the survival-horror genre, The Last of Us is just that–surviving the horrors of a world that has long since fallen apart. Switching frequently between fighting humans and the infected, you quickly adopt two styles of play that take up most of the game. While there are portions of the story that make combat and gun play the best means of moving forward, the key of The Last of Us is patience. Huddled in dark corners and hiding behind debris, Joel’s best offense is knowing when and when not to strike. When faced with several infected creatures and only six bullets at hand, you quickly start to understand the kind of desperation Naughty Dog wanted you to experience. Although crafty and quick-thinking, Joel is no hero, and he can die very easily and very quickly.

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Joel is no stranger to death, however, and knows how to deal it out. It is important to understand that although The Last of Us is very graphic and violent, it does not abuse the use of it. Having become accustomed to a world of “him or me”, Joel’s kill animations are graphic, but necessarily so. Unlike other stealth games that strive for the silent kill, Naughty Dog ensured The Last of Us was up-front about what they wanted you to see; strangling someone is not quick and silent, but long, guttural and awkward. Makeshift weapons you craft do not last long, but leave a very fatal mark on whomever you use it on. No matter the victim or fashion, choosing to kill is, in this game, brutal and hard to watch. It is in this manner that I applaud Naughty Dog for handling violent scenes in such a mature way, opting to contextualize the necessity for such violence instead of making it so gratuitous.

On a visual level, The Last of Us might be the PS3’s swan song. Whether it’s wading through a jungle of metal and vegetation or slowly creeping down a pitch-black corridor lit only by your flashlight, nearly every detail of the world is beautiful and lush. Even more impressive are the characters themselves, who convey some of the most impressive emotional performances I have ever seen. Over the course of the journey, Joel and Ellie not only experience a gamut of emotions, but they express them convincingly with amazing facial fluidity and expression and tight script writing. By the game’s conclusion, you will firmly believe these people are quite human.

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In the oft moment you are not hiding from your enemies, much of your time is spent searching the nooks and crannies for ingredients used to fashion supplies. Certain items such as pills or tools are used for upgrades such as health or weapon improvements, but the majority are shared between more common concoctions that are equally important. Because of their rarity (at least in the harder difficulties), you will still be making tough choices about which supply might be more important in the near future. Do you use your last bottle of alcohol to create a med kit, or a molotov cocktail? You’ll find yourself weighing this decision more times than you can count, and it’s yet another welcome detail that helps cement the feelings of desperation and survival.

The game’s greatest flaw, like most games that incorporate an AI partner, comes in Ellie. While her vocal performance is spot on and her interactions with Joel are organic and believable, her actions during stealth are not. Since the enemy is programmed to react to your movements and actions, Ellie is left to her own devices as she follows you. While she is competent for the most part, there are times when you will see her move and act right in front of enemies that would normally see or hear her. Seeing her get away with such liberal acts of movement take you out of the intended experience only for a moment, but the occurrence is far too frequent to not be noticed. It is a minor grievance compared to the rest of the game, but it is still worth noting.

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The game’s climax is a melting pot of questions and emotions, neither of which are less important than the other. Naughty Dog was very deliberate to leave us with such feelings because it is the very philosophy that The Last of Us wanted to follow. In times of desperation, anger and uncertainty, the most human reaction is precisely how Joel and Ellie have acted the entire story. Do we rely on our instinct to survive, or do we open ourselves up to the potential pitfalls of trust and reliability? After such a journey that couldn’t be possible without trusting another, how do we grapple with our humanity in a world that is without it? These questions, and many others, remain the crux of the story that The Last of Us wanted to tell, and I don’t think there is a better example of it.

See you in the next level,

Gray

On Uncharted 3…

***NOTE: This was originally written for the video game blog on the SA Current website titled “people’s gamer”, I am reposting it here to keep it bundled with my other work. If you enjoy it, feel free to check out the rest of this site, or my work over on the Current. Enjoy!

The times when people look back over the years to utter something like, “Now that’s how it’s done!” are admittedly few and far between. In video game debates, they’re even fewer. But once in a while there comes a time — stars align, lightning in a bottle, Rick Perry says something intelligent, whichever you prefer — when everything just clicks. The Uncharted series has been nothing but outstanding since the original title debuted back in 2007, but the boys at Naughty Dog have done the near-impossible. Roger Ebert can take his anti-game diatribe and suck it, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception is both a video game and cinematic masterpiece.

For those who haven’t had the pleasure of playing any of the Uncharted games yet, a quick summary: Nathan Drake, a descendant of the famous explorer Sir Francis Drake, is a wily, charming, yet somewhat lackadaisical thrill seeker and treasure hunter. All games of the franchise have revolved around some kind of plot regarding a lost city or unimaginable ancient wealth. Uncharted 3 is no different in that way, Naughty Dog obviously didn’t want to tread the same terrain again. This time, designers take a proven plot-line as a background to tell a much richer character-driven story about Drake and his mentor/partner Sully. While the earlier games revolved around Drake platforming and gunning his way to stop the bad guys just in the nick of time, Drake and Sully are in this together nearly the entire way, which adds a more compelling nature to the intensity. Not only is Drake getting himself into trouble, but he’s also putting Sully’s life in danger as well and, let’s face it, he ain’t exactly in the prime of life either.

To most, platforming can sometimes be a mixed-bag. Hell, anyone who’s ever played Mario or Mega Man knows about that, but the Uncharted series takes it a step further with some fantastic set pieces. Uncharted 3 just about goes for broke with Drake facing a capsizing ship one minute and falling out of a cargo plane at 20,000 feet the next. There are times when the platforming seems a tad bit out of place (particularly when Drake is climbing the side of buildings in the middle of the day,  in the middle of town, for example) but these are rare enough that they never feel repetitive. The true magic behind Uncharted 3 is how much the formula has been mixed up, in a good way. From one corner to another, Uncharted 3 keeps you guessing about what’s going to happen next. Just when you’re about to guess the next huge escape or next gunfight, Naughty Dog throws something out of left field and changes the sequence entirely.

The cinematic quality of Uncharted 3 is just as stellar, if not more so, than ever before. I’m not sure how Naughty Dog has learned to write such fleshed-out characters or such a tight and entertaining script, but I wish they could give seminars to other developers to show them how it’s done. From the beginning, one of the best features of the Uncharted series has been the characters because they stay so true to themselves. No matter how major or minor the person’s role, Naughty Dog clearly shows the highest attention to detail not just to the environment or the combat, but to the people we are supposed to connect with and feel for. We know Drake is a wise-cracking everyman without too much care in the world, but it’s in his friendship with Sully that we see an entirely new part of him emerge. It’s a wonderfully fresh detail given how many ladies Drake has saved in his day.

I could go on and on, but there’s really nothing I can say without rambling over the same point again and again. From start to end, Drake’s Deception is nothing but a thrill-ride of adventure and emotion brimming with tight gunplay and a wildly entertaining script and story. If there were ever a game to put on your Christmas list, this is it.

 

See you in the next level,

Gray

On Uncharted 2…

I call it “the pause”.

I don’t mean the center button on most controllers that halts gameplay. I mean the moment the players gives themselves during play to stop and try to mentally grasp these strange feelings they’re having. Is it joy, satisfaction, scorn, frustration, maybe even love? Depends on the person I think. It can happen soon after the beginning, when players need to let loose that joy of returning to the world of their favorite adventure. Maybe later on, when people need to emotionally catch up after the love interest died a foul, undeserved death. Or then there’s the end, perhaps when most players just need to take a step back and reflect on the spectacle that was “a great game” by their standards.

Uncharted 2 does not assign just one of these moments; you will have them all, and then some.

Although I have been writing about video games for just a few years, I’ve been playing them for two full decades, so I’d like to say I’ve seen quite a bit in my time. In nearly every occasion, one will always find at least “elements” of a game that are done well, be it characters, action, and the like. Rarely, great games come along that are the product of interweaving these elements into a complex compound of gaming talent. These are your Chrono Triggers, your Fallouts or your Monkey Islands. Most will say these are the gems of our time and represent the greatest of video game design, and most of the time it’s hard to argue against them. But then, one day, suddenly and without warning, the gaming community is delivered a game of delicate beauty; an experience that cannot be conveyed in reviews or videos, it must only be played. In the year 2009, this day came garbed in torn sleeves and peppered with jocular humor. It was the return, and the perfection, of Nathan Drake.

Coming off the original Uncharted, Naughty Dog studios knew they had a good game on their hands, but like all first drafts it had a few kinks. The story drooped a bit in the middle and didn’t offer a lot of variety between crawling up tower after tower and taking on yet another squadron of foes, the combat felt sluggish at times and a little awkward to control in the heat of battle against multiple foes, and the ending sequences felt forced and didn’t mesh well with the slow unraveling of story the rest of the game did so expertly. This time around, however, the combat is quick; the set pieces are cleverly various and more exciting than the last; and the story is perhaps the most fluid, natural and satisfying tale I have ever had the privilege of playing.

From the very beginning, Naughty Dog pulls no punches. Nathan Drake is no invincible protagonist here to save the day—in fact he’s bleeding and on the edge of death, quite literally I will add. Drake may not be the right man to save the day, but the dialogue, voice acting (kudos to you Nolan North), and cut scenes all come together to create a character that is not only relatable to, but almost make me believe this Nathan Drake actually exists in real life. His one liners while under pressure aren’t catchy or clever, but their demeanour and execution perfectly convey that sense of “really? are you kidding me?” response that the gamer will feel when that tank comes barreling down the street again.

The combat retains the behind-the-shoulder style from the original title, but has been tightened up in all the right spots. The cover system is easier to manage when taking gunfire, and does not arbitrarily stick out from the setting like before. As I recall, most of the obstacles that saved my life during play were chunks of buildings that fell off while the fight was going on, or existed as large tree trunks from the jungle canopy or the rocky surfaces of the mountainous alps. Aiming is quicker and more liberal with the lock-on schematics this time around, giving the player a little more freedom to be creative with their gunplay. Speaking of creative, Naughty Dog even allowed the use of stealth this time around for the more shadow-minded players out there. In many instances, I had the opportunity to take out a few guards before being spotted which gave me the advantage of setting the battle conditions on my terms, even if I didn’t absolutely need to. Regardless of which path I chose, I was happy to know I had the option.

But among the countless things that Uncharted 2 does so well, it is the story. While the first game had a fascinating story supported by characters who interacted organically and with a zeal I hadn’t experienced before, Uncharted 2 is sheer perfection from start to finish. The arc of the grand scheme unfolds naturally as it starts with a simple thief job and gradually snowballs into an all out war for an object of unspeakable power. Each chapter is separated by key events that deliberately illustrate a truth about Drake we didn’t know before. It’s not always a good one, but it’s necessary to make him a flawed, yet real protagonist that I can care about, and more importantly, that Elena can care about. In between helicopter assaults, tank batteries and derailing trains, you can almost taste the level of understanding and appreciation these two characters have for one another, which doesn’t even happen in most films we see today. These two get each other, and because of that they can work together.

There is a point during the game which stood out as a moment of brilliance to me. Amidst the smoldering chaos of lobbing grenades and exploding environments, there is a small sequence of serenity where you’re allowed to just be Drake for a bit. I didn’t need to roll behind cover at a moment’s notice, I didn’t need to lean forward in my recliner and shut out the world around me to focus on the task at hand. I could just…be…for a time, and catch up on everything that just happened not minutes before. It finally struck me that this was my very own “pause” Naughty Dog was rewarding me with. I could finally lean back in my chair, take a breath, and savor the beautifully rendered mountains in the distance as Drake tried to play Soccer with the town children.  As he was busy, I took the time to recognize the moment for what it was—I smiled, gave a silent thanks to all those who helped make this game a masterpiece, and popped my neck a few times before diving back in.

Normally I’m one of the many gamers who awaits the words from on high before taking the financial leap, but in this case I must implore you to ignore this instinct and purchase this game immediately and without delay. No matter how much I rack my brain to think of a proper description for Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, there is only one word that fits best: Masterpiece.

See you in the next level,

Gray