Monday, May 22, 2023

First Play Review - The Last of Us Part I [2023]

Much like as I wrote for God of War, similarly The Last of Us also wasn't the first title that peaked my interest when Sony PlayStation announced it's push into the PC game market in 2020. It was something that I saw a lot of media about especially it's high standard of plot, but it was the push of a very well received live action HBO series that prompted me not only to obtain it, but to do something I had never done for a game in the digital-distribution era before: I pre-ordered it!

I've heard of, or seen for myself the recent substandard live-action movie projects that are usually created from video-game lore such as Assassins Creed, Warcraft, Uncharted, Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City. Halo's TV outing is polished but would be better if it wasn't supposed to be a representation of the franchise. When I heard that The Last of Us had broken the trend and was considered great, I was left with a choice of playing the game or watching the show first.

After some deliberations I had to regard the "primary media" in this case as the video game. This is partly because it came first and also more importantly because a game experience, even a linear game is still partly a product of your input. You are not responsible for creating the game, just as you are not for a movie or a TV show, but you and your choices, your actions or inactions are part of your journey and interaction with the story. No TV or movie can replace that feelings and emotion of these interactions so for this reason, to prevent a "lesser" game experience by watching the show first, it was necessary to experience the game before the show.

I recently posted a thorough account of my pre-ordering experience and included data about the substandard state the game was released in. So other than that I will say that the first month of the game's release extensive patching was necessary to get the game to run and I even used it as an excuse to upgrade hardware. However, the game works flawlessly at time of writing so the current impression is the basis for this review.

The Last of Us is set some 20 years after a mutated Cordyceps fungus jumps to and infects humanity. The infection takes control of the brain them turning the infected into crazed, warped and relatively mindless individuals whose only purpose is to spread the infection by biting healthy uninfected humans. You are Joel, a man who has survived through this apocalypse by doing some questionable things and now reluctantly accepts the job of escorting Ellie, a young girl who may hold the key to a cure, across the mutant infested and raider occupied wasteland to her destiny. Much like God of War, you have a young companion who follows you around. At first Ellie aids you by tagging enemies you may have missed, but later she becomes armed and thus useful, not to Atraeus levels or anything but more than just a second health bar you have to keep an eye on when stealth fails.

The game is a third-person action/adventure, wandering through the post-apocalyptic terrain of both rural and urban United States. You employ upgradable ranged and melee weapons to engage gangs of lawless humans and hordes of Cordyceps infected mutants. Now while you can shoot and kill most enemies from a safe range, you have to be thorough enough at exploration to find enough ammo to do so. I'd not call this typical survival horror as you do collect (and can carry at once) about a dozen weapons and ammo, but if you try to Rambo it too often you'll likely fail and die. I found it much more satisfactory to take the Splinter Cell approach and use Joel's almost inhuman sonar-like hearing ability to pinpoint enemies, sneak up on them and take them out silently with either a shiv to the neck or a choke-hold. There was something truly wonderful about choking out a man armed with a shotgun who would kill you without hesitation with your bare hands and listen to him pathetically beg for his life before his life ends with a final breath.

The AI is different depending on the enemy type. Human raiders will take cover and take potshots at you, waiting until you're in the middle of reloading to assault while mutants will either instantly rush you in a frenzy or wait until you make a sound - then you better be prepared for them! You can also employ cover to hide by losing line of sight, throw objects to distract enemies or can set traps. I applaud that there are many solutions to a situation and it's entirely up to you to proceed as you wish.

As great as the story and as intense as the gameplay is here I think what cannot be overstated is how beautiful and extraordinary this world looks in its total decrepitude. The design work into realising a world that has lost the ability to properly care for it and has left it to rack and run for years comes through in every unique new area. Abandoned buildings, vehicles and artefacts of a world familiar to us now lie forgotten and unused. Joel 'collects' some books and notes from people who most likely met a horrible end and pieces together stories of their final days wheather it's diaries from when the infection was spreading to the fall of the quarantine zones where most of the uninfected human population of the world now reside. The detail of the world is staggering and tells its own story parallell to to the the one we take part in but it's no less an extraordinary part of the game.

DLC: The DLC "Left Behind" here is included with the game. It's a short story framed in the middle of the main game's journey but a lot of the narrative takes place just prior to the main game. In the DLC you take control of Ellie who wanders through an abandoned mall to locate medicine for Joel and flashes back to a previously visited abandoned mall with her BFF Riley. While not integral to the main game, it does fill in a notable gap in the narrative and is well worth playing to experience the whole story.

Final Verdict: This is truly a work of art which I believe will resonate as more frightening now in a post Covid19 pandemic world than it could ever have before. The story is compelling, emotional and at times tragic. It's gun-play and gameplay is well designed allowing multiple approaches to situations and some of the best stealth mechanics I've ever played. While it had a rocky technical start, provided you have good enough hardware you will enjoy this most welcome addition to Sony's PC gaming catalogue. I hope there will be more.

Technicals:  RTX3070Ti managed <60FPS @ 3440x1440 with High preset with medium textures with DLSS quality setting.  RTX4070Ti delivered 75+FPS @ 3440x1440 with Ultra Preset and with high textures. No resolution scaling. In game HDR on producing exceptional range.

Bugs: Daily crashes before patching to v1.0.4. Afterwards, no bugs to report.

Availability: The Last of Us Part I is available from Steam for €59.99. Review copy pre-purchased from Green Man Gaming for €49.19 on 25th Jan 2023.

The Last of Us releases:

The Last of Us [PS3] (2013)
- The Last of Us: Left Behind [PS3] (2014)
The Last of Us Remastered [PS4] (2014)
The Last of Us Part II [PS4] (2020)
The Last of Us Part I [PS5] (2022)
The Last of Us Part I [PC] (2023)

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