Why ‘The Last of Us’ is Game of the Year 2013
Let’s close the books on this one early – The Last of Us is the best game of 2013. It is only August and we have some fantastic titles in the works for the remaining months, but I’m confident that gaming has reached its peak for the year. Although there are new entries in the ongoing Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty, Battlefield, Grand Theft Auto, Pokemon, Saints Row, X-Com, Final Fantasy and Need for Speed franchises due on shelves soon. Hell, even the third entry into the Batman Arkham series is coming out and that ranks as one of the best series in video game history. But that’s part of the problem – franchise fatigue. There’s precious few original productions on the shelves, with developers relying on well trodden material until the new generation gets it’s feet on the ground. Sure, we have Watchdogs, which is the only reason that I may be wrong on this one, but I’m fairly confident this is on the money.
So…why is The Last of Us the game of the year? Here’s ten reasons why:
#10 – The Graphics
In this day and age commenting on the graphics being good in a triple-A title such as this seems like a moot point. Of course they are jaw droppingly amazing, you’d expect nothing less. Naughty Dog have outdone themselves here though, and there’s plenty of moments where the player will find themselves stopping to look at the scenery. The water effects and the details on the Clickers are all brilliant, and the realistic plant life taking over deserted buildings is a marvel. Fantastic effort.
#9 – It Makes Routine Feel Fresh
There are many set pieces in this game that we have seen time and time again. Being trapped in a room holding the enemy back until a randomly imposed time limit is met has been done before. Outrunning an enemy, finding material to construct a bridge, imposed stealth sections, it’s all here. What makes the game so playable is that these cliches are done well. Even the mandatory sewer level is exciting – and that was a surprise.
#8 – Fear
Man, survival horror used to be great. Although we hear people lamenting the sub-genre fading away we rarely get anything that fits the bill. The pioneer franchise, Resident Evil, has gone all Michael Bay, leaving it mostly up to the indie crowd to deliver the goods. This game frequently delivers tense moments. Scrounging around for enough bits of scrap to create a weapon is essential to survival, being trapped in a spore ridden tunnel while Clickers and Infected lurk around every corner is as tense as it gets.
#7 – The Environment
Often the most memorable environments and fictional worlds created by game developers are the highly unusual ones (Rapture and Columbia spring readily to mind). What makes this environment work is the realism and the possibility of it being something that may yet happen. The ruined cityscapes being reclaimed by the wild is something that begs the player to pause and take in the details. Grass and trees breaking free of the pavement, pools of water gathering in the lobbies of skyscrapers and vines working its way through the brickwork of suburban homes – every detail is brilliant. The game features such a massive range of different environments across the cities and rural areas it means that every step feels different to the previous one.
#6 – The Enemy
For the most part we have the bandits armed with sticks and guns, then the infected who run around trying to bite you. Enough variation to keep things lively even if they are not especially ground breaking. Then there are the Clickers. Fast, unpredictable and downright dangerous, this fungus headed horrors are never approached lightly. Completely blind, to the point that you can walk up to one and shine a torch in their face, they are very responsive to sound. They are a fresh challenge in the gaming world, and when paired with normal infected they required all the more care in approaching.
#5 – Combat and Stealth
It’s becoming increasingly common place for developers to try and marry knuckle-cracking punch ups and sneaky bollocks stealth in the one game. Arkham City did it very well, but it was often the case of being one or the other. In The Last of Us you can switch between a guns blazing frontal assault or a pick-em-off-one-by-one subversive approach during the one encounter, even switching multiple times as required. It makes the player feel much more in control of their experience when you have the options open to them, and it always feels natural. A memorable encounter for me was sneaking into the top floor of a building, quietly sneaking past many enemies on the way, and using a bow to dispatch as many of their men as possible before being spotted and changing to a literally explosive shoot out. When the enemies were closing in we slipped away from our defending position and began separating them out for individual attacks.
#4 – The Pacing
This can be one of the biggest stumbling blocks for games. Even a solid gold franchise like Metal Gear Solid splits it’s shins on this, spreading the action out over excruciating long cut-scenes. Even Naughty Dogs’ (developers of The Last of Us) flagship franchise, Uncharted, is often a smooth as Napoleon Dynamite, with gunfights plodding on and on to the point of boredom, leaving players pining for another bout of platforming. The Last of Us couldn’t be better paced, shifting from exploration to combat to story at regular intervals with barely a change in gear. The first time I put it on I planned on an hour of gameplay to get a sense of it and suddenly found that five hours at passed and it was 3am. It felt like thirty minutes.
#3 – The Characters
Whoever created the character of Ellie deserves a medal for awesomeness. Very rarely do we see a realistically created 14 year old in mainstream media, even more extraordinary that this one exists in the realm of video games, the medium best known for sexist portrayals of the fairer sex. She is layered, complex and develops based on what happens to her over the course of the story. It almost seemed like a shame when a trusted companion turned out to be a pervert because it was such an obvious plot point, but the way Ellie’s character changes as a result of the encounter makes it all the more effective in the wider context.
Joel is equally impressive, even if he isn’t as outwardly expressive as Ellie. He holds his emotion and pain close to the chest but it makes him no less compelling. We know what his motivations and backstory are, but he doesn’t spend the entire adventure reiterating it. When the revelations come, usually due to prodding by Ellie, they feel like a natural moment for the character to explain himself. Although the story ends on a grey note for the characters they feel as though they completed a very real journey.
#2 – The Story
I’m often one to say that I prefer a game with a good story. It doesn’t have to a be great story because, let’s face it, video games are not well suited to in-depth story telling. Most games with ‘good’ stories rely on familiar tropes and plot twists to keep people interest. The Last of Us is a good story. No, it’s a great story. Unlike many games the experience hinges on the story and characters regardless of the player’s approach to the game. There’s no hokey moral choice system or long winded cutscenes to explain everything. Watching Joel and Ellie change and be challenged is enough.
#1 – Emotion
Some famous art critics, including Roger Ebert, have dismissed video games as not being art. It’s hard to mount that argument against something that can create a strong emotional response from subtle, virtual interactions. The Last of Us is an emotional experience. There are some big moments, which I won’t list here for fear of diminishing the experience for those yet to play for themselves, but there are some small moments as well. The encounter outside of the Salt Lake City subway station is surprisingly and bittersweet. Using Ellie to hunt and kill a deer in a snow covered winter landscape is evocative of deeper and primal ideas. This is a story in the sense that it relies on a response from the reader, and it is brilliantly effective.