The Last of Us has me confused. I'll be the first to admit that I'm not the biggest zombie fan in the world - but nor do I feel the industry is overly obsessed with them either - but there's certainly a pattern as to what intrigues me in a game that features the undead. As excellent as it is to smack a zombie in the jaw with a shovel, titles such as Left 4 Dead and The Walking Dead are fascinating, namely because they focus on the survivors and how they respond when faced with such a hopeless predicament. To that end, I have no doubt that Naughty Dog's latest will succeed.
Standing as almost Uncharted's direct opposite, The Last of Us is a bleak affair. Be it the world that stands in front of you, the situation you find yourself in or the characters themselves, it's a dark, intense situation to experience. If Nathan Drake turned up and made a wisecrack, someone would probably kick him in the shin. Unlike, say, a Dead Rising where you have the suspicion everything is actually going to be alright, here the opposite is true. Alongside a vicious zombie horde, your fellow man has also turned, made no more evident than when Joel and Ellie's car is ambushed by an awaiting gang. There's certainly no camaraderie to be found between the human race. Instead, deception is used to slow a vehicle down before attempting to murder those on-board and salvage what they can.
There's a far more interesting twist here too, as the character you're put in charge of can't take the moral high ground. There's numerous references to Joel acting in a similar manner, opening up a fair amount of intrigue as to what lies in the man's past. Much like Uncharted, the cast appear to have a genuine depth, the same of which can be said for Ellie. Despite the excellent reputation Naughty Dog has built up when it comes to motion capture and acting, there's always an element of fear when a child is involved (Example 1a: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YnwkE4trA48).
This isn't the case at all with The Last of Us. In the face of yet another challenge - Ellie, after all, assumes the role of a hardened youngster forced to grow up due to the adversity in front of her - Joel's ally comes across as genuine and worn down. It doesn't feel overplayed or needlessly emotional. It's an excellent job in conveying the bond the two leads have.
This atmosphere exists where the setting is concerned as well. Rather than hurl zombies at you constantly, Naughty Dog is keen for you to explore the world it has created - at times it's so quiet the sense of impending doom is almost unnerving. There's never a restriction to stop you going off the beaten track either. Stumbling across an abandoned record store may not scream 'Gaming Moment Of The Year 2013!' but it's a window into a populated environment that once was, as well as staying true to the idea that there's something greater here than beheading zombies for 12 hours.
However, with all this said, when you actually try and interact with The Last of Us eyebrows begin to raise. As fascinating as it manages to be, the immersion fades a touch when hurdles are put in your way. A few years ago Resident Evil 5 came under a wave of scrutiny for, apparently, not bothering to 'get with the times' and give its players the opportunity to both move and shoot. The scoundrels. There was logic to such a debate, namely that the scares and tension needn't come solely from cumbersome controls.
While The Last of Us certainly isn't as archaic as this, it's bizarre that trying to use your inventory is so fiddly. I wouldn't want to put words in Naughty Dog's mouth, but having to press multiple buttons to achieve a rather basic function does seem to be falling into Capcom territory. Furthermore, rather than work in increasing the tension, it just made me frustrated as I struggled to achieve what I originally set out to do. Could I be the problem? Most certainly, but I still walked away from The Last of Us feeling like it wasn't as comfortable as I had hoped.
This also spilled over into the combat. As much as I enjoy and respect the Uncharted series, I felt the third went off course when it came to gunplay. Nowhere near as satisfying or, seemingly, accurate as its predecessor, it was a blemish on a game that was immensely entertaining. Given that the demo here was rather short, I'd like to think it won't be a problem that casts a cloud over the entire game, but the same criticisms were definitely there; the aiming in particular feeling loose. This was no more apparent than when Joel found himself strung up in the air, dangling by a rope attached to his leg. Very reminiscent of a set piece in the recently released Tomb Raider, it wasn't as satisfying simply due to how unwieldy it was to try and plant a bullet into a zombie's skull. Such frustrations are only multiplied when, at the same time, you're trying to save Ellie.
Stealth also creates a similar impression. After the aforementioned attempted grand theft auto you're tasked with getting out of harms way, despite a group of thugs, who are vying for your blood, providing a solid barrier. It's a testament to the brains putting this together that enemies are constantly aggressive and direct - only in James Bond movies do foes attack one-by-one - but the situation is overwhelmingly tricky to work your way out of due to how confusing all your options appear to be. Again, this may have been implemented to raise one's nerves, but it just made trying to escape far harder than was necessary.
Ultimately, I think the concept and foundations of what Naughty Dog has here are excellent, and it remains a game that could be significant on its release. Unfortunately, there is a side to it which leads me to believe that a few issues, which have reared their head before, may just do so again.
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