Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Last of Us Remastered (2014, PS4) - Family and Fatherhood at the World's End

When Naughty Dog's The Last of Us released on the PS3 in June of 2013, it was an immediate hit with critics and audiences alike and would go on to end up on numerous Game of the Year lists. It's a typical story told unusually well, with gameplay that never betrays the actions of its characters. It's a wonderful audio/visual experience with great pacing and only a single part that kind of drags. A little over a year later, the Remastered edition was released on PS4, offering a smoother, prettier game that shouldn't be missed.

The first half of this review is mostly spoiler free, aside from naming some of the game's locations and saying what happens in its opening scene. The second half is a more in depth analysis, and will be spoiler filled. The division will be marked, but read at your own caution if that concerns you.

I took a ton of pictures in the new Photo Mode while playing this edition of the game. Click here to view them all.

Last year, I missed out on the initial hype for Last of Us. Naughty Dog's previous blockbusters, the Uncharted series, didn't do a whole lot for me; I only played an hour or two of the original Uncharted and only played the demo for the second game, and neither experience caught my interest. I didn't enjoy the combat or the writing in the little time I spent with those games, so I put Last of Us kind of far down on the "list of games to play" back burner. I finally picked it up in March of 2014, and from the gut-wrenching opening scene was immediately hooked. This one actually deserved the hype.

The Beginning of the End

The Last of Us opens in a suburban town in Texas at the beginning of an infectious outbreak caused by a new type of fungus that turns people into zombies, slowly removing more and more of their humanity. Players take the roles of a thity-something single father, Joel, and his young daughter Sarah during this opening scene. The opening is mostly a series of flashy set pieces with players going from area to area dodging the infected, with little control over where to go or what to do.

The lack of input would feel like the player was being railroaded into making decisions in some games, but here the lack of control actually fits what's going on. It's a mad, desperate run through crowds of victims and survivors, and in the end Sarah dies and Joel is left broken. The game then abruptly cuts to its title, followed by "Twenty Years Later."

This first act isn't anything new from a storytelling perspective, and everyone knows zombies have oversaturated pop culture, but it's done so well that it's up there with the very best of the genre. Even knowing exactly what happens with Joel's daughter (and there's no point in calling it a spoiler; it's the fundamental plot moment that his entire story is driven by) doesn't dull its brutal impact. Naughty Dog displays a sense of cinematography and cinematic language and pacing that most game companies, even ones with cutscene-heavy titles, seem mostly ignorant of. This continues throughout the game; there are some really nice match cuts and smash cuts, nicely designed blocking, and good set designs. Last of Us is one of the few games that attempts to blend game and cinema and actually nails it 100%.

My Hometown Horror

After the opening scene, Joel ends up in Boston, where he and another survivor, Tess, have their daily routine of gang violence and salvaging for trash interrupted by the appearance of Ellie, a fourteen year old girl who has a natural immunity to the fungal zombie virus, discovered once bitten. She's under the protection of Marleen, the leader of the Fireflies, a group in constant, violent conflict with what remains of the police/military. After initial grumbling, Joel agrees to escort Ellie to a nearby Fireflies safehouse, as Marleen is injured and needs time to recover. Many, many things go wrong, and thus begins a year long, cross-county odyssey in search of answers, hope, and something that can resemble a normal life.

Joel and Ellie visit several cities along the way, but Boston was my favorite location, simply because it's my local Big City. It was awesome and haunting to see locations I recognized turned into apocalyptic ruins, even if the geography was never quite right. That didn't matter; it still gave me some crazy spooky vibes to venture into the dead digital husk of the Park Street T Station that I've spent way too many hours of my life in. I'm curious how people in Pittsburgh and Salt Lake City felt when they got a chance to see their own respective cities pop up in the game. Dead Boston certainly did a number on me.

This is a Sneaking Mission

It took me a while to warm up to the gameplay in The Last of Us. My first playthrough probably saw me killed by zombies/police/looters a good hundred times. As time went on, I really started to learn its pacing and figure out the best way to play. Part of it's just knowing how to approach it; at its core, the game's a third-person shooter with heavy stealth elements. At first, I tried sneaking by enemies, and then getting into gun fights when I'd fail. I'd usually die fast, get annoyed, and not have a great time.

I kept playing, started learning how enemies reacted to sight and sound, and spent way more time slowly sneaking around, only shooting as a last resort. You can craft explosives and smoke grenades from scrap you find, and I began to rely more and more heavily on these, no longer worrying about wasting resources. Unless you're playing the hardest difficulties, there's plenty more items to be found, so there's no need to be stingy. I started reloading encounters if my stealth attempt failed and I was completely outnumbered. I'd still fight it out when caught if the enemy count was reasonable, but would start using fists and fragile melee weapons more than guns. Suddenly, the game became significantly more fun.

A large part of The Last of Us revolves around simply walking around, listening to banter, and digging through trash for items. I could see this becoming tedious for some players, but I was completely immersed in it. Throughout the game there are notes from previous survivors, some of which form their own complete story arcs for characters you never even get to meet. It gives the world a truly real, lived-in feel. I would have been happy with even less combat and even more scavenging.

New Edition

To talk a little bit about what's new in the Remastered edition: There's now a director's commentary option for all of the game's cutscenes, there's a photo mode that I absolutely love, which allows you to pause the action and freely move, zoom, and alter the game's camera to your liking to set up dramatic/funny/stupid pictures, and all of the important DLC is included. The biggest is Left Behind, a two to three hour sidestory about the Ellie's life-shattering events prior to meeting Joel whose narrative intertwines with the events of the main game's Winter segment. It's not meant to be played first, and it would have been nice to have an option to directly integrate it into the main game rather than have it be off to the side as its own thing. Either way, it's a really great little story with plenty of heartbreak of its own.

The PS4 version of Last of Us obviously offers higher picture and sound quality. In addition, it ups the game's framerate from mostly 30 frames per second in the PS3 version (some areas in the original version struggled to keep this stable) to a mostly consistent 60 frames per second. Players who prefer the original look can switch back to 30 FPS in the game's options menu. 60 FPS mode has far more fluid animation, while 30 FPS mode has slightly better anti-aliasing, especially on shadows.

Remastered also includes Grounded, a new difficulty level that was also added to the original game as DLC. This mode removes all HUD elements, makes enemies tougher, and further limits you resources, while also removing the ability to sense where enemies are based on their sounds. It's a more "real" experience, and is only meant for players who are interested in a brutally hard experience. This isn't the kind of game where I'm interested in that sort of thing, but it's a very nice option to have.

The final inclusion is two packages of multiplayer maps, originally sold as DLC. I played a few hours of multiplayer, but it never really caught my interest. The game's combat is fine for what it is, but it's not the kind of thing I want to spend days on without the setting and story to back it up. I DID like that players don't get to design an avatar, and that every time you die in a multiplayer match you respawn as someone new. It definitely adds to the miserable "eveyrone's dying one after another just to get some scrap" aesthetic.

From here on, I'll be going into some of the game's themes and major plot points. Don't read on if you haven't played through the game yet or if spoilers upset you.

Forsaken Fatherhood

Last of Us' most obvious theme is Joel coming to terms with the loss of his daughter and learning to care about another human being again. After the initial twenty year jump, we're reintroduced to Joel as an emotionally distant man who lives entirely in the moment, fighting violently to survive with no real concern for the future. He rejects the cultist philosophy of the Fireflies, opposes the fascist government of the Quarantine Zone, and has no real posse the way the survivalist Hunters do. He's not a pure nihilist and can function well enough around other people (as long as they don't pose any potential for a threat), but outside of Tess, he's completely alone.

Though always protective, Joel rejects any emotional bond with Ellie until late in the game. She's a surrogate daughter figure standing in for Sarah, and Joel knows that in this world, the likelihood of anyone surviving is low and getting lower. He doesn't want to relive that loss and pushes her away. Ellie, of course, sees exactly what's going on in his head and calls him out on it, but it takes a lot of time and tragedy before they can really come together as a misfit family unit.

His initial rejection of Ellie isn't Joel's only emotional wall; he also completely refuses to discuss, or even acknowledge, the people they lose along the way. Someone's there one day and gone the next, and you move on. Ellie tries her best to uphold his stoicism, but can't reach his level of detachment. For all the horrible things she goes through, she remains human, and Joel's refusal to talk about what happened just further strains their relationship.

There's also an interesting parallel between Joel and Ellie, in regards to "live only for today." Joel refuses to talk about the people they've lost, and Ellie rejects this. However, Ellie herself does the same thing in regards to the worst loss she's suffered. When explaining how she was first bitten by one of the infected, Ellie tells Joel that she was alone in a mall. Until late in the game, she sticks to her story, and never goes into explicit detail, denying just how badly she was crushed by what really happened. She later tells Joel about Riley, a girl who was with her when the bite happened. Their relationship and the events leading up to the game are examined in great detail in the Left Behind chapter, so it's a shame that that part of the game was originally gated off as DLC.

By the end, Ellie is able to accept what happened and move on from Riley, just as Joel must move on from Sarah and, later, Tess. While the story of Last of Us is largely about Joel learning to make life worth living again, it's really a story of mutual therapy, with Joel and Ellie playing off each other's strengths and weaknesses in order to heal one another.

Men and Monsters

A big part of the world of The Last of Us is the fact that there are no heroes, and that no one's hands are clean. Joel certainly isn't the villain of the game by any means, but neither is he a shining knight or even a flawed but kindly man. He has done, and continues to do, some rather horrifying things, even if they're in the name of survival and, later, love. His final act in the game (addressed in the next section) can be easily debated as either a morally justified action or a completely selfish one, and it's easy to make the case in both directions.

When Ellie and Joel first arrive in Pittsburgh, they're ambushed by a pack of Hunters and forced to kill their way through a crowd of armed men to get to safety. The Hunters are shown as complete monsters, but shortly after the first encounter with them, Joel tells Ellie that he's been on both sides of ambushes like this. When asked if he killed any innocent people, Joel gives a non-answer. Though the enemies Joel kills throughout the game are nearly all actively trying to kill him, it's clear that he's also taken lives for his own survival from people who didn't ask for violence.

Late in the game, Ellie is kidnapped by David, the leader of a small settlement that survives on brutal tactics including cannibalizing the dead bodies of their enemies. David is the clearest monster in the game; his men assault Joel and Ellie unprovoked, he leads a town that eats people, and he tries, in more than one way, to take Ellie as his lover. There's no argument that he's a terrible man, and no one sheds tears for him when he finally gets killed, though it's reasonable to shed tears for the humanity Ellie discards when she brutally slaughters him.

It's established that David and his closest associate are monsters, but while sneaking around his encampment, you get to overhear two guards discussing what to do about him. This one small glance into the opinions of his followers shows that some of them are horrified by the path he's taking them down, and vow to oust him democratically. David is a monster, but not all his town is. That makes things a lot darker when Joel captures two of his soldiers and tortures them into telling him where Ellie's been taken. Yes, these men were actively shooting at him; no, it's not heroic to torture and kill prisoners, especially after they've already given you the information you wanted. Joel is no David, but he's still a monster in his own right.

This isn't a criticism of the game; rather, I think it's what makes it work so well. Joel is a normal guy who's been turned into an animal by the world he's living in. Everyone turns into an animal eventually, whether it's physically, from an infected bite, or mentally, from a desperate struggle for survival. His relentless killings in a few cutscenes mesh perfectly with the horrible ways he executes enemies via game play, making Last of Us a title where violent game play enhances the story's themes, rather than create a weird disconnect. It's completely unpleasant to watch, but essential to the man that Joel is. His brother, Tommy, is among the most innocent characters we meet, and he recoils in horror at the things Joel made him do in order to survive in the years following the outbreak.

While everyone becomes a monster one way or another, it's worth noting that the infected, even with their humanity gone, treat each other better than humans do. This is true of most zombie fiction, but it's especially noticeable here, where you actually get to spend time observing them but spend much more time around other, violent people. Packs of infected roam mostly docile, though twitchy. They attack humans on sight/sound, but are content among each other. The humans, meanwhile, attempt to kill each other in tribal wars almost every time they cross paths. The infected don't need the resources humans do, showing that the ultimate root of this warfare is the hunger for material possession. There's an element of class warfare there that while not a major theme is still a welcome one.

Salvation Denied

At the end of the game, Joel and an unconscious Ellie are finally found by the Fireflies and taken to a hospital where they hope to create a vaccine using Ellie's body. Joel is reunited with Marlene, and through journals and recorders found throughout the hospital we learn that Marlene absolutely thought of Ellie as part of her own family. It's to Joel's horror, then, that he learns that Ellie will die during the operation, as the infection takes place inside the brain.

If the operation takes place, Ellie dies, but a potential, not guaranteed, vaccine for this world-ending illness is found. In order for her to live, Joel must take the lives of several soldiers and an unarmed doctor and end their research into a cure. It's not as black and white as the morality in most big budget games, though for Joel, who has finally learned to feel love again, saving Ellie is the only logical choice. He fights to free her, and executes a wounded Marlene as she pleads for her life, saying "you'll just try to come after her again." Again, letting his monster side come out.

Ellie functions in the final act as a sort of Christ figure to the Fireflies. Her death and her blood would redeem mankind, creating a way to purge the infection (sin) from their children and give the world a second chance. As she doesn't regain consciousness until after leaving the hospital, Ellie has no choice in this decision one way or another. She gives her blessing to neither Joel nor the Fireflies, and is in a way betrayed by both, as they rob her of her personal agency. There's a chance that after talking to the doctors, she would have been willing to play the role of Christ, but she's never given the chance. It's more likely that she would reject them, but she never got a chance to decide.

Joel looks at this salvation and violently rejects it. In saving Ellie, he looks at this secular yet cultish group, looks at what their salvation will cost, and says "no." He's not interested in the spiritual recovery of the human race; if it comes at the expense of killing the one he loves, it's too high a price to ask. The human race has tried to kill and torture him at every turn; what's worth saving but Ellie? Early on in the game, Ellie and Sam talk about Heaven, and whether they believe. Ellie says she doesn't, but she wishes she could. Joel doesn't care whether there is a Heaven or not, and instead chooses to create his own happiness on Earth by keeping his new family together, no matter the cost. It is a selfish decision, but it's hard to argue that it doesn't have a moral basis.

The Last of Us is one of the most compelling modern games I've played. It takes what appears to be a simple, well-trodden story and tells it so exceptionally well that it feels fresh and alive, and does so with more professional technique than most games ever attempt. It blends story and game play wonderfully, even if the game play isn't the world's best. If you've got a PS3 or 4 and can stomach a violent game with lots of average combat, Last of Us should not be missed.

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