Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Review - "The Last of Us"

This is going to be a rehash of some Facebook ranting, but I intend to flesh this out a bit from a much deeper review than what the limited format of social media allows.

So, at the behest - alright, stunned silence - of one of the PhD's here at UTD, I picked up a PS3 with "Arkham Origins" and "The Last of Us" bundled together.  Seeing as how there are some games on the PS3 I wanted to play, and that a Blu-Ray player is always appreciated, I set it up in the bedroom and got everything hooked up and running.

With all of the accolades the game received, I decided I'd fire up "The Last of Us" first and leave "Arkham" for another time.  I knew what "Arkham" entailed in terms of gameplay, and as delicious as it sounded, I knew I had to invest in what many consider the pinnacle of the PS3 game library.

I've played a couple of hours into the game and in that time, I grew increasingly frustrated with the game.  While there was a lot to enjoy in what would be considered the fringe elements of the game, what frustrated me strikes at the core of the gameplay experience.  From the core of the universe as created by Naughty Dog to the initial training and subsequent combat system and the resulting feedback, I found myself restarting sections of the game because unintended controller input, unexpected weapon response, or unexpectedly being spotted by Infected while hiding mean I got my face eaten for seemingly no reason, or for reasons related directly to flaws presented by the developers.

Naughty Dog did a great job of world building.  The universe seems fleshed out, consistent, and the characters all felt grounded and real.  The details of a fallen world that is an apocalypse of humanity is compelling, and it creates fantastic vistas and backdrops for encounters.  But, being someone who enjoys world building, one thing stood out and it lies central to the core of the game universe.  That is, the comparative power of the infected vs. humanity.  In the game, the world is presented as being overrun, the power of the Infected far exceeds the power of the 

I don't really get a sense of the comparative power of the infected vs. the remaining security forces of the Government.  The fallen world that is portrayed implies that the infection and its transmission vectors have sufficient power to overwhelm the medical and physical capabilities of humanity, but the forms experienced of the Infected seem to go counter to this.  

To illustrate this comparison, I'm going to use the novel World War Z by Max Brooks and how the Zombies, or Zeds, overcome humanity.  The Zeds of World War Z are slow, lumbering beasts that rely on ambush, near immunity to damage and overwhelming numbers to attack and kill or create new Zombies.

In essence, the Zed threat is broken down thusly:

1) Transmission of the virus that creates a Zed is easy.  Saliva, not usually a hardy media, will transmit the bug.
2) Multiple transmission vectors means there are multiple ways to get people infected.  It is hard to contain.
3) Killing an infected zombie is surprisingly difficult.  The weapons of humanity are designed to mutilate and incapacitate a target as much as it is to kill a target.  Shrapnel can incapacitate multiple soldiers, but does nothing to a Zed.  This required retraining soldiers.   Zed overwhelms Humans because killing a Zed requires relative precision and our weapons are designed to kill by maiming.

By comparison, the Infected in "The Last of Us", there is one similarity:

Multiple transmission vectors means there are multiple ways to get people infected.  Whether bitten or inhaled (at proper concentrations), you can be infected in a variety of ways

But here is where things are broken:

Transmission of the fungal infection is not particularly easy.  Unless spores reach a critical PPM (parts per million) in the air, someone cannot be infected.  This is something that Naughty Dog admits to.  Fair enough - it explains why there are places that the spores won't infect you immediately.  

Killing an infected zombie seems to be very easy.  Early infected - even up to the Clickers - seem just as susceptible to injury as the Uninfected/normal people.  If they are, as illustrated in the game, that susceptible to injury, why weren't the wealth of conventional arms available in any military inventory proof against the Fungal hordes?  Mine fields and barbed wire would slow down the Fungi.  Assuming the militaries could have had time to establish any sort of defense, killing the Fungi would have made the First Battle of the Marne seem elegant by contrast.  

Humanity falls in World War Z because of faulty training and imperfect killing machines.  Existing training and imperfect killing machines are just as well suited for killing the infected as it would be the uninfected.  Given their universal weakness against fire, man-portable flamethrower teams would have burned down the infected and, based on their responses to the flames, caused the others to flee in panic.

Ok, so, for all of the strains of its great writing - and it is well crafted - key planks of the universe are built on a shaky foundation.  I've consistently had a hard time believing that the Infected I've seen thus far would have brought down global civilization.

The dialog is better than most games, and what I've dealt with in the story, it is seemingly well written.  I'll admit that I haven't played the game all that long.  The only real niggle I have with the story, thus far, is this:

When, exactly, did Tess get bitten?  How did I miss it?  The revelation seemed to drop out of nowhere and felt very deus ex machina.

The character art sits firmly within the uncanny valley, which is an ongoing issue for realistic game worlds.

As a designer, though, I tend to notice things like world consistency because it directly relates to gameplay.  The hordes brought down civilization, so I am rightly afraid of them.  
The game has taught me, from the start, to flee the Infected.  The infected have few weaknesses and so, to survive, I need to evade.

Message received.

But did Naughty Dog remain consistent in this message?




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