Friday, January 10, 2014

By Jamaal Ryan

The Last of Us has won sweeping Game of the Year awards from multiple outlets including Giant Bomb, Joystiq, Kotaku, and today, IGN.

The Last of Us firmly established itself on the top of my list with even the excellent Super Mario 3D World coming at a very distant second. It’s memorable. It’s bold. It’s different. It’s pioneering. As IGN’s Greg Miller and Colin Moriarty’s review states, it’s a masterpiece.

The Last of Us opens with one of the most powerful gut punches anyone has ever seen in this medium, something that stuck out in Giant Bomb’s discussion. A panicked younger Joel and his brother flee their homes as the player watches the world around them engulfed in the flames of fire, disease, cannibalism, and relentless military men. The quivering painful yelps of Sarah after she’s shot and slowly dies is haunting; and even those of us who aren’t parents yet cannot pull ourselves away from the pain.

The Last of Us’ gameplay was divisive, but deliberate. Its level and encounter design broadcasted well enough for players like me to understand and snake our way through with little blemishes. Others read it differently, or might not have caught it at all within the first few hours as the game’s intened or unintended placement of the player in high stakes situations with little advantage didn’t sit well with many. I disagree with them, strongly at that, but that’s the interesting thing about this mechanical and somewhat scientific medium.

What the design cannot be discredited of is its infusion with the thematic curtain, an accomplishment that was achieved by bending the mechanics a bit. Though The Last of Us’ much of better side was casted upon me, the shooting controls were impossible to ignore, and at a time, was my biggest beef with it. But the rush of exchanging bullets, and often MISSING, with enemy AI was exhilarating; it felt desperate, and stands as a prime example of fudging mechanics done right.

What Naughty Dog calls “Item Starving” was heavily effective, even though it was simply an illusion to some. But one way this was highly effective, as mentioned by both Kotaku and Joystiq, was designing a game where every item had its purpose. All of them. At the intro to my review, I illustrated my encounter with a pack of Runners as I used multiple items to fend them off. There were even occasions where I’ve had to use smoke bombs. I don’t know about you, but I NEVER use fucking smoke bombs. Ever. And The Last of Us managed to be the first game I’ve played that allowed it to find its purpose for me. The Last of Us might not stand as one of the best stealth games of this generation, however very few games in the genre manage to offer meaningful dynamic tool purpose.

The item starvation and stiff shooting controls all served to enhance The Last of Us’ experience tremendously. The exceptional grimy production value, the very much justified violence (some state that it was unnecessarily violent. I say to them, ‘Clearly you must physically experience the apocalypse to understand’), both had an equally impactful effect on the message that this game is trying to sell. But the hopelessness that’s scripted by the narrative is what the story will be remembered by.

From the collective story about Ish, to the tragic end of two brothers, to Ellie’s come to form chapter beginning with my favorite quote “The fucking walk!”, and finally, to Joel’s selfish paternal lies before the game cuts to a brutal black, The Last of Us’ writing is exceptional. Its bold and brutal story telling lifts it up from being another “zombie” apocalypse tale. No action exists in left field, not even Joel’s tragic fall as a character, or David’s skin crawling advances on Ellie. It is the video game reminder of what will become of humanity given such circumstances, the pain it could cause, and the monsters it could turn us to.

The Last of Us did what it did best, and that’s why I, and so many others, awarded it Game of The Year in 2013.

Sources: IGN, Joystiq, Giant Bomb

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