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The Last of Us Day#1: Something in the Air

Well, why not start back up big? After a few months of insane travel, I’m now back to gaming for realz and getting back on track with Naughty Dog’s newest, The Last of Us. There has been much hype about this game in terms of its narrative, so I begin cautiously optimistic. And my impressions so far? Honestly, underwhelmed. It’s basically Uncharted with a different story at this point, so the gameplay is very cinema-based and the everything else rests on the quality of the narrative. That hasn’t impressed me yet. The beginning is too standard for the genre to impress me, and then I’m honestly a bit turned off by the violence up to this point. If there’s emotional power in this story, I haven’t seen it yet. Still, there’s enough quality that I’m curious to see if it gets better. Spoilers follow.

You can always tell how long you’ve been away from the PS3 by the loading time at start — about 10 minutes this time. The game begins very simply — black screen with the title shaking is in the right corner. I can’t tell if this is loading or not, so I hit the button and the game either coincidentally or causally advances. Standard seizure warning, Sony presents, and Naughty Dog screens follow. Bird noises sound as the title appears in big white blocking letters on a flat black screen.We cut  to a full screen of a window broken with tree branches coming through, billowing softly, with a start button command. I’m not sure what this image means at this point, but it’s a nice image accompanied by simple soft music. I start a new game from the start menu which includes Factions(?) as an option, and I play on normal for the hell of it, having no idea how hard this game is. After picking a new saved game slot for my game,  sparkle effect spreads across screen for a while. A long while actually. It’s seems a bit like a frozen screen with a particle effect. Ah, it’s loading screen, and apparently a big one given that the load percentage in listed to the hundredth decimal place. Kind of incredible how long this game takes to get started.

The game begins finally as we see young girl lying on a sofa as her dad comes in the door and talks on the phone about a contractor. She wakes as he hangs up and gives him a birthday present in a white box. He opens it and it’s a watch. He makes a joke about the watch being broken, and she jokes she earned it selling drugs. I’m not stunned by this writing, but I appreciate very much that it’s not generic. The girl falls back asleep and the dad carries her to bed. These are very very rich graphics in terms of the models and backgrounds, and nothing seems creepy at all at this point.  We cut to black, and return to her still in bed as her phone rings. She answers it. Uncle Tom wants to talk to her dad urgently but then hangs up. The girl gets up, and when she stands, I get control seamlessly. The controls are pretty much Uncharted in terms of my ability to move. Interactive objects are indicated by a circle that turns to a command button (triangle) as I approach them. I pick up a card on a table with a snarky but heart-felt message to her dad. I walk out into hallway as she calls out to her father automatically. As I wander, I find a newspaper with news about hospital spikes, and here begins the zombie-end-of-the-world narrative. I go into what is clearly the dad’s room and he’s not there, but I see a reporter on TV saying that Austin is overrun before the screen goes out. An explosion goes out the window and I’m directed to hit L3, but it doesn’t seem to do anything. I go downstairs as she keeps shouting for Dad. Oh, it seems the L3 directs the camera to point at the important thing going on at the moment. When I do it, I see a cell phone buzzing. Picking up the phone, I see text messages saying that Tommy is on his way. I go into the office, also empty, but suddenly,  dad runs in from a glass door to the outside and shuts it. He asks if Sara (me) is ok, and I CS say yes. He’s loading a gun as he talks and he says I should stay away from the doors. As they talk, a strange guy starts banging into the glass door with his body and breaks through. As he charges us,  dad shoots him and kills him. Sara CS says that it was jimmy, and that she knew him. The dad takes her by the hand and says something bad is going on and they need to go.

The dad takes me by the hand and leads me outside, and I seemingly have no control in this scene, but I really don’t try to do anything anyway. Tommy’s outside with his truck. He says there’s some sort of parasite infecting people. Dad says he has some idea what’s going on. Tommy observes that there’s now no cell phone or radio communication, but the car radio works and says the army has put road blocks on highway. Tommy keeps driving, and I have camera control to look around the back seat and out the windows. Tommy has no clue how this happened, and Tommy and dad talk about how it’s not just the south but most of the country. We drive by a farm on fire. Dad mentions that people in the city got sick too. The car approaches a group of people looking for a ride, but Tommy decides to keep driving past them. The car debates helping them as they leave with Sara saying they should stop and dad saying they shouldn’t. We reach the highway to find traffic blocked, and as we sit in traffic, the man in the car in front of us is attacked by some zom… I mean, infected people. Tommy pulls the car back and drives back into town. People scattering around stopped vehicles and we’re driving around them. As we pull into a square, another car plows into our car and the screen cuts to black.

We cut to them in the destroyed car. In CS, the girl gets up. Now I have control of the dad, slumped in the front seat of the overturned car. I have to hit square to kick through window, and do so to exit the car. I see people running around me, when a guy attacks me, but then an NPC hits him with brick. I guess that’s Tommy, although he looks different up close. Dad CS gets her out of the car, and she says her leg hurts. Tommy says they need to run. Dad CS gives Tommy the gun and get control to run while carrying her. There are lots of people running all around us, and I have navigate through streets as gas stations explode, cars crash around us, and buildings steadily burn.  I follow Tommy as he leads us into an alley. When we enter, I get attacked and use square to hold the guy off (does that do anything? would this be different if I didn’t hit the button?) until Tommy comes over to knock him down and shoot him. We run more as Sara slips into shock and talks about all of the bodies on fire. We come around a corner to a bar with outdoor seating, and I have to navigate around tables to get to a door. I take too long and see a CS of some guy biting me. The game freezes on that frame and then restarts with me navigating back into house. I get to the door on time the second time and Tommy holds it shut. He says he’ll hold the door and meet us on the highway, since he can outrun the infected.  I run and pass by various horrors as I continue on a dirt road. The game cuts to CS and the dad comes to an open road chased by infected. The people behind the dad are shot and killed, and a soldier appears in front of the dad. He holds them at distance as he radios his commander. The dad pleads with them to let him by, but turns to run and the soldier shoots at them. The dad and Sara roll down hill and fall to a stop as the soldier approaches. Tommy appears behind the soldier and shoots them. The dad reaches Sara to find that she is shot. He picks her and pleads with her, but she dies in his arms. He cries over her body, and we cut to the formal title card.

I haven’t commented very much through this section. It’s not that this wasn’t well constructed. It’s just kind of old hat. In terms of controls, I didn’t really get to do much except run, and there wasn’t any important moment of control. I saw a bunch of stuff, but it was definitely not interesting in terms of interactivity. And in terms of narrative, it’s a zombie story. I mean, the buildings on fire and the people panicking are not failing to be immersive, but I’ve seen all of this before. Infected people, random attacks, neighbors becoming inhuman, chaos erupting, close relations dying. Sigh. Nothing original happens. I want to like the game for the quality of the production, but the concept is just so played that all I can do is yawn.

We’re now in the credits, and white veins grow across the screen as news reports about the infection play in the background. These reports mention something about fireflies calling for return of government, and they are vilified by the media. I have a feeling that this is going to be an important group in the game. A title card says that it’s summer, and the game CS begins to a scene 20 years later. It begins in darkness, and as light comes up, we see that the dad is older and pretty wrecked. Someone is knocking on his door, and woman enters and pours herself a drink. She asks the dad (named Joel) about his morning, and he asks where she (Tess) was. She says she was in west end district and made the drop. He’s cynical about it, but she says the deal went off and she got rations, but she got jumped on way back. Tess fought off the attackers successfully. She says Robert sent the thugs, and both Joel and Tess  want to go deal with Roberts now. Tess says that he’s at a warehouse. We cut to a street with a few hours left until curfew, and I have control of Joel to follow Tess.

Man, is this game Uncharted like. We walk through a wrecked but functional city. We see a ration store with no line; Tess says it must be running low again. An armored vehicle goes by. We see wanted posters, and a group of haz-mat suited officials lead seemingly infected people out of a house. In CS, we approach a gate to get into a complex — Tess says their papers are in order. In CS, the guards check the papers and Joel says we’re visiting a friend when a truck explodes behind the fence. The guards shut the gate, and the game tells me to hit the x button and L1 to turn quickly. I do so and another command tell me to hit L2 to sprint (finally I can do something besides walk). We run into a building back in the street. I find a health kit in the entryway, and an overlay tells me to equip it with digital controller and Hold R1 to bind myself. I do it and heal some damage. We walk down the hallway, and Tess talks to an NPC we pass who says that east tunnel is clear. He also says Marlene, a firefly, is looking for Robert too, but he has no idea why. We leave the NPC and wander through this big abandoned house. We find another NPC, Gus, who says there’s no sign of the military. A triangle command appears and when I hit it, I hold on to a TV stand and  pull it aside to reveal hole entrance to a tunnel. I jump down into the dark.

Tess turns the lights on. It’s a basement tunnel. I jump over a pipe (left stick forward and x), and enter a different room and find a backpack with gun, gas mask, and flashlight. We continue down the hallway to find a wall we have to climb. This uses the boost mechanic (triangle) from Uncharted. We climb up in a new room from under fallen door, and replace door as we enter another  abandoned building and walk out. I see a weird icon with triangle, and when I hit it, they talk (I guess?). Did THAT do anything? We come to another part where we need to climb, and we need to find ladder to reach the entrance. I find it and pick it up with triangle. This causes a tutorial unlocked, and it looks like a have a number of tutorials I can watch. I got back to the game. As for the ladder, I can place it against a wall or over a ledge. I find the wall I need to put the ladder on, put it down and hit x to climb it. I then hit R3 to turn on my flashlight. Tess and Joel talk about recent news about the sickness. They round a corner and Tess shouts that she sees spores. Joel immediately CS puts on a gas mask. The circle button is used to crouch so that we can crawl through a hole. That weird symbol again appears again and hitting it causes the two of them to talk. I guess that button causes me to hear optional conversations? We find the body that released the spores and as we continue walking, we see a guy trapped under cabinet. There’s no command to free him, and he asks to be killed so that he’s not left to die. This is weird but I do it because I’m not sure if the game is going to let me continue if I don’t. It’s the old L1 to aim and R1 to shoot. I kill the guy and Tess says “poor bastard.”

We wander a bit but then find a hole to crawl through. In CS, Joel stops Tess before moving forward because he hears something. I get control back with the command to hit R2 to focus hearing. I do so and I see silhouettes of enemies in the enemies in the next room. It’s a different version of the detective mode in Batman. Now that I know where the enemy is, I  sneak up (crouch) on the first infected, hit triangle to grab him, and then square to strangle him. I hear two more in the next room, but they spot me. I try to shot one but I can’t aim fast enough and waste a shot. That feels quite right. I then punch (square) the two remaining infected to death. I wander around more finding ammo and a note to a brother that explains how the three people here got infected. Again, it’s kind of hackneyed, because it’s so reminiscent of zombie stories.  In a more interesting conversation, Tess mentions how much everyone wants to get inside, so much that they will die trying.

We jump out of a hole into an overgrown city. Tess mentions how much she loves the air here away from the bustle for a moment. We go through a wooden hidden gate into a wall and Tess says that they are there, although it just looks like another abandoned building to me. We come to a place with a large gap, and Tess says that the plank that bridged it fell. I climb down into the gap to get it, and then pass it back up. Once she has the plank, Tess says I should get my ass up there but I have no idea how to do that. It takes me a while, but I find a way up after exploring for a couple of minutes. We wander through more ruins (no soldiers)  and get to a lookout. Tess asks him to check for patrols, and then a kid outside bangs on the glass to indicate its safe. We go outside and start moving through a makeshift market.  The market is hostile, and at one point, a random guy stops and threatens me, but when he sees Tess he backs off. I guess she’s an important person. We continue to walk until we see another NPC hanging out in front of an alley, and then in CS they get intel from him for rations. The guy tells Tess where Robert is, and on his tip, we walk down the alley and into an obvious battle scene (there are cover crates everywhere). Three guys approach us and one of them threatens Tess. They go back and forth a couple of times and she shoots him dead. This leads to a gunfight where she kills most of them because of my terrible shooting skill right now. I have to confess that I’m a bit horrified by the casual way we just killed a three guys who are among the few survivors of an apocalypse.

We move forward to see another building that has four guards in it. We’re pretty slick this time and stealth kill all of them. On one of the dead guards, we get the necessary key to unlock a necessary door, and I’m going to assume that this was to teach me a key mechanic because otherwise it was completely pointless to have the locked door in the first place. We keep going and enter another warehouse area. There are a bunch more guys here, and I kill five more guys in very predator-mode Batman scene, with lots of listening and stealth kills and some decent shooting by me. The second to last kill was one guy Tess just stands in front of while he shoots me, so nice AI there. When we finish them, we exit the warehouse through a garage door, which I open by holding down triangle to pull a chain – dumb interaction to do that. Once the door is open, we cut to CS to see Joel and Tess duck behind cover in order to hide outside from like a dozen guards,. They spot Robert in the crowd and get ready to assault this crowd. This is going to be a long one, so I call it a night before we take this big battle.

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