This week, Zero Punctuation reviews The Last of Us.
Popular culture in recent years has handled zombie apocalypse the way Kurt Cobain handled the smack. I can see the appeal: why bother coming up with ways to make us sympathize with the characters’ personal struggles and motivations when you can just burn all their stuff in the first 5 minutes? And that’s fine, I suppose, but I’d wish they’d stop dancing around it. “Oh, no, these aren’t zombies, they’re 'Infected.' There’s a difference; they’re created by breathing in these mind-altering fungal spores which can also be transmitted by bites because of reasons.” And you just want to grab popular culture by the lapels and scream “Will you and zombie apocalypses just fuck already?! Either let it plug your every available orifice, or start making moony eyes at something else for a change! It’s like watching a pair of wallflowers on prom night."
Hey, here’s a fun game: who do you think the title "The Last of Us" means by "us?" ‘Coz I’ll tell you who it doesn’t mean: human beings; there’s shit loads of those. It could refer to psychopaths ‘coz by the end of the game, the main characters have laboriously reduced the world’s psychopathic bastard population down to pretty much just themselves.
The rather effective prologue chapter for The Last of Us starts with a little girl waking up alone in a house at night and transitions naturally to full-on zombie Mardi Gras by the end. Sorry, "simultaneous, respiratory and blood-born encephalitic fungus-infected" Mardi Gras. The next 20 years are too depressing to show us, but afterwards leading man Joel is middle-aged and getting by as a smuggler in a safe zone controlled by soldiers. But the definitions of the word "smuggler" and "soldier" both seem to have drifted over to "murderer"; you’d think, with population reduction, human life would carry a bit more value these days, but apparently not. Yes, life in the future is cheaper than a Christmas cake in mid-January. Even the people we’re asked to support will cap a motherfucker whenever they can’t think of snappy comeback quickly enough. While out murdering people one day, Joel runs into a resistance group who are trying to murder some soldiers in retaliation for them murdering too much and ended up getting murdered right back, and Joel is tasked with escorting a mysterious young girl to a less-murdered segment of the resistance.
Astonishingly, Naughty Dog have actually started a new IP without waiting for a new console for once, and perhaps the high profile achieved by the Uncharted games has led them to feel they have to make whatever the video game equivalent of Oscar bait is. So it wants to be this big serious exercise in character development, but it’s also very very safe: For a start, it’s zombie apocalypse, which, as I said, is to most people already a more familiar setting than the 1980s; and in gameplay terms it’s mostly that basically functional hodgepodge of stealth, cover shooting and scripted set pieces that a lot of big AAA releases have gone for lately while wearing the ever-vague "action-adventure" t-shirt. Like Uncharted but without the climbing and with the shooting rolled back in favor of stealth and the inexplicably functional ancient puzzle mechanisms replaced by finding the right bit of wall to prop a ladder against. All right, not hugely like Uncharted.
I liked the lack of objective markers, necessitating exploration of the semi-linear environments, although this did lead me at one point using half my inventory to bypass a bunch of super zombies in order to access a room that turned out to contain only a dead end, a smoke bomb and a tin of apricots in syrup. And incidentally, if I had to pick one of those three things to throw at the enemy I’d start with the apricots and then see if I could wangle enough earth moving equipment to give dead end a try because smoke bombs are useless. What’s the point in temporarily distracting enemies when you’re carrying 19 other things that could permanently remove the problem? You don’t bring pepper spray to a murder fight.
The enemies go back and forth between swarms of Infected and what must surely be the most densely populated bandit communities in the history of fictional apocalypse; and while I died quite a few times, roughly 99% of those were because of the bloody super zombies and their delightful instant kill attack. I get that we’re supposed to be careful, but I didn’t think having my jugular vein nuzzled out by the human cauliflower was appropriate punishment for the sin of using an attack that the human cauliflower has arbitrarily decided doesn’t work, like a schoolboy calling upon his everything-proof shield, or the sin of moving faster than a beached whale, because this is my 5th go and I’ve got shit to do.
Meanwhile, the human enemies all went to the same school as the Uncharted enemies where they’re taught that being an arsehole makes you bulletproof, and to attack with self-preservation instinct of a chocolate biscuit on a coffee cup scuba diving holiday. But in fairness, most of the friendly NPCs you fight alongside you went to equivalent school and their AI makes about as much sense. In one firefight, I saw a bloke on my side glide randomly around the combat arena with his gun outstretched occasionally turning to look at me as if daring me would suggest a more effective strategy.
Fortunately, while in stealthy mode, enemies seem to be hard-coded not to notice anyone other than the player. So Ellie, the plot-vital sidekick escort girl, can motorboat all the hostile buttocks she desires without ruining your tactics. But while the alternative would’ve been annoying, if monsters look straight past her like she’s selling The Big Issue, then she isn’t a factor in gameplay; neither significant benefit nor additional challenge. So why is she even here? For the story, yes, but story should inform gameplay. Personally, I would’ve gone the Resident Evil 4 route: enemies can affect her, but you can make her hide in a dumpster with a bag of crisps, while you sort out the grown-up stuff.
I guess the story is the selling point, but while it is well-presented, it’s also fairly predictable, and, depending on how your mind works, the ending may completely lose you ‘coz it did me. Naughty Dog games have a bad habit of dehumanizing every character except the leads for no particular reasons besides "fuck you, got mine." SPOILER WARNING I suppose before you all jump up my butt like my colon is a waterslide: By the end, Joel and Ellie have both done things that make even the murdering seem like a single skid mark on a sewage outflow pipe, and I just stopped sympathizing. Maybe that was the point, fight-ye-not monsters and all that, but them just getting away with it at the end felt anti-climactic. It really seemed like "fuck you, got mine" is the only message we take away from the story and come to think of it, that might as well have been the tagline for the Uncharted series. Well, I know which developer I wouldn’t want to be stuck on a desert island with; EA might charge me for use of the fishing rod but at least they won’t bash my skull in and have sassy dialogues about how my brain looks.
Maybe this is one of those things you need a soul for: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
You'd think a man of such resources would understand the principle of removing your knife from someone after you've stabbed them with it.
The fungus zombies are just envious of the beard I think.