Saturday, 28 December 2013

Best of 2013- The Last of Us

So I caved in a bought a Playstation 3 back in September. After sticking with the Xbox 360 and suffering two bouts of the “Red Rings of Death”, I came to the realisation that it was probably the best time to experience what Sony had to offer. With the “next-generation” of consoles around the corner, they perfectly ended with The Last of Us. I’d always been jealous of Sony’s lineup and its exclusives. The likes of Gears of War and Halo had originally attracted me to Microsoft’s console, but their exclusives had steadily been in decline over the last 3 years. My jealousy spawned from one studio in particular, Naughty Dog. 

Naughty Dog has always shown a creative and impressive side to every element of their games. Whether it be story, characters, environments, graphics or gameplay, there’s a distinct attention to detail that remains consistent throughout. From Crash Bandicoot back on the Playstation to Uncharted 3, they have remained at the forefront of both Sony and the gaming industry in general. The Last of Us represented a thematic departure as they ventured into a more mature and horror orientated project. Set in a post-apocalyptic USA that has been devastated by a fungal virus, the game follows Joel, a gruff and tragedy stricken soul as he has to escort Ellie, a 14-year old orphan who may hold the key to a cure, to a resistance group known as the Fireflies.

This isn’t necessarily a complex story, but one that focuses on the development of characters, both between their interactions with others and within dynamic changes in circumstances and the environment . The game doesn’t feel the need to drown the player with exposition about the cause of the disease, or the immediate stages of the apocalypse, instead it paints its picture through Joel and Ellie eyes and the remnants and testimonies of other survivors. The story’s pacing is immaculate, understanding when a certain atmosphere or “scene” should linger. Every chapter isn’t seen as a desperate need to impress with constant action and twists and turns. Subtly is key and Naughty Dog handles it perfectly while providing some of the most emotionally powerful scenes I’ve experienced both in film and the gaming industry for a long time. 

While the story is superbly well-written, it’s the characters that really stand out. 2013 really demonstrated both the importance and rewards of having strong characters. Bioshock Infinite, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, and Tomb Raider all portrayed their games specifically through the eyes of the protagonists, and managed to build a real emotional connection with the player. Having spent all her life amidst the apocalypse, Ellie’s character is alien to the concept of human life before the infection. Whether it be the sight of an ice-cream truck or an arcade machine, there’s an innocence but underlying tragedy as she tries to imagine a former civilisation. She’s a believable and endearing personality, not one that needs their hand to be held, but not someone oblivious to the horrors and acts that are occurring around her. It’s a perfect balance that works well in connection with Joel, and in the context of the story. 

As an actual game, The Last of Us continues Naughty Dog’s strict attention to detail. Uncharted 2 set the bar on “next-gen” graphics, and still remains impressive 4 years after its release. Since then the studio has embarked on a mission to further showcase the limits of Playstation hardware, and it’s fair to say they have succeeded. Like the game’s refreshing approach to the apocalypse setting, Last of Us’s colour palette is vivid and expansive. The emphasis on the overgrowth vegetation, the changing seasons and the sense of abandonment encapsulates the studio’s philosophy of visually telling a story and creating an distinct atmosphere. The A.I., while spotty for Ellie, is unflinching in its portrayal of a desperate and hostile society. Enemies regularly flank, and realistically react to changing situations causing firefights to be a test of anxious conservation of ammo and tactical awareness. The combat is visceral, violent and uncompromising. While crowds cheered at the Sony Press Conference in 2012 as Joel slammed a guy’s head into a desk and shotgunned another’s face off, the game is unrelenting in it’s depiction of survival and demise. Whether it be escaping the clutches of a ‘clicker’ or witnessing a public execution, The Last of Us paints a fearful image of humanity’s descent into violence and remorselessness.  

The Last of Us provided a fine end to the Playstation 3’s cycle.  As a film fan, it’s a visually stunning and incredible piece of storytelling, a persistent area of criticism by those of don’t truly understand the merits of the gaming industry. As a game, it’s an intense and gripping culmination of versatile mechanics and an unbelievable sense of immersion. Naughty Dog has created something that will undoubtably be remembered for decades to come, and has provided an experience that, while sounding cheesy, truly accentuates our “take for granted” lifestyles. 

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