If there is only one thing that strikes me about The Last of Us (there isn’t, but humour me for a moment), it’s the sense of authenticity that the entire experience exudes. An America that spans intimate rural towns to opulent cities, wonderfully rendered in advanced decay. I have never been particularly partial to the zombie genre, but any attempt to demonstrate the aftermath of a supposed attack always piques my interest.
While The Last of Us is categorically an action game in a similar league to the Uncharted series, its moments of quiet, unencumbered exploration through deserted areas are utterly enthralling. Once thriving towns are subjected to nature’s uninterrupted march over the land, with the brick and wood veneers of homes slowly swallowed by foliage. The atmosphere see-saws between serene, beautiful displays of sunsets and the gentle twittering of birds, to bone-chilling tenseness as the communicative clicks of a particular enemy alerts the player to their presence.
Fortunately, it is not a game that rotates solely around visual spectacle. The story and characterisation are, at least for video game standards, top class. We have harped on many times about the importance of story and story telling in video games: they are as viable a medium as any other for rich stories to be told. If The Last of Us can offer something, however, it’s an indictment against mundane and generic storytelling. The connection that I feel with Ellie and Joel and their substantial character development mirrors my first experience playing Half-Life 2 back in 2003: that of utter devotion. The Last of Us’ main, overarching plot is, at its simplest form, not particularly original: two characters overcoming odds to the reach a safe destination. It is, as cliché as this sounds, the journey itself that provides the superb richness to the canvas, as Ellie and Joel reveal more about themselves as they progress.
While I have yet to finish the game, developer Naughty Dog has clearly produced another winner. It’s a marked divergence from their Uncharted series and its merits as the quintessential playful summer adventure story. The Last of Us displays a skilful wrangling of true, character-based drama in addition to Naughty’s Dog penchant for imaginative, dynamic action set-pieces.
Games have the potential advantage of being able to harness emotional resonance in characters while taking the audience to exotic locales. The practicality and price of producing a film can sometimes curb a vision, but games aren’t shackled by the exact same limitations. The Last of Us is potentially one of the better examples I’ve seen where, hypothetically, a film version of it would really not do it any sort of justice. Aside from the obvious dichotomy between the running times of each version, the game runs rampant with set-pieces and experiences that would be impractical to commit to celluloid, as a result of their frequency and complexity. The Last of Us relishes its extended run-time to beautifully contrast the quiet to the loud, all of which is orchestrated at the player’s pace. It is a masterful game, if only for this reason.
While everybody in the gaming press is drooling over the gameplay, story, and environment in The Last of Us (and deservedly so), I want to focus on a feature that should be included in a whole lot of games: New Game Plus.
NGP lets you replay a game from the beginning while retaining many or all of the unlockables and upgrades from the first playthrough. In the case of The Last of Us, you keep your player upgrades and weapon enhancements. There are many more upgrades than you can possibly unlock in a single playthrough, so the only way to experience possessing all these upgrades is through the New Game Plus.
NGP is especially important for story-driven games that feature solid gameplay mechanics like The Last of Us and many RPGs or games with RPG elements. Many of these games make you want to replay them after finishing, so you can experience the full weight of the story, experiment with gameplay combinations, and explore in areas that might have been previously missed.
A good example is Final Fantasy XIII. While many long-time fans of the series weren’t impressed by the game, I quite enjoyed it. The two most important parts of the game for me were the story and the levelling system. The game’s large overworld area has a bunch of very high-level enemies that would be impossible to kill when you first arrive there in the game, however, the amount of grinding you would have to perform to defeat them is just ridiculous.
I’m sure I’m not the only person who wanted to complete missions, explore areas, and beat monsters, but couldn’t because grinding levels is just a tedious affair. Playing the game on NGP (a feature which FF13 does not have), however, would prevent that – though a bit of careful game design would need to be implemented to prevent the start of the game from being super easy. Perhaps a staggered upgrade unlock system, or a selective level increase of certain enemies would keep the replay challenging, while at the same time allowing players to unlock upgrades, explore areas, defeat enemies, and complete missions that they weren’t able to achieve in their first play-through.
The small amount of work involved in creating a New Game Plus feature, is, in my opinion, completely worth the effort for the developer. Not only do they get more people playing their games for longer (therefore generating more social advertising), they also have a longer tail on purchases of downloadable content, expansions, cosmetic upgrades, and the like. Not only that, but it increases the likelihood of a game being fresher in the minds of customers when a sequel comes out, which would surely increase sales.
The Last of Us is a good example of a game that benefits from NGP: it is specifically designed to prevent players from unlocking everything in a single play-through, and it allows for quite a bit of variation in how battles are approached. I know in many arenas in the game, I saw many different approaches to attack enemies, but was only able to choose one. Replaying the game in New Game Plus not only allows me to make different decisions, but it avoids the tedious feeling of repetition that happens when you unlock the same upgrades over and over.
I hope that as more and more games integrate RPG-type elements like levelling, upgrades, and unlocks, they’re also comfortable enough with their balance and gameplay design to also offer New Game Plus as an option. It’s a feature that I would love to see in many more games in the future.