Playing catch-up with Uncharted and The Last of Us

I feel like its important to note that I’m nearly as much of a gamer as I am a movie buff, so I am mostly blowing smoke here. When deciding between the PS4 and Xbox One, one big deciding factor was back catalog. I had a 360, which I liked a lot, but I felt like I missed out on two PS3 titles in particular: Uncharted and The Last of Us, both from developer Naughty Dog. Fortuitously, both of these games were released in updated versions for the PS4, as Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection and The Last of Us Remastered. There are many similarities and differences between the two, but having spent time with the first two Uncharted games and the main storyline of The Last of Us, only one is essential enough to go back to.

Both games are highly cinematic, with gorgeous cutscenes and well-developed characters through scripted dialogue. Games like Mass Effect and Grand Theft Auto often deservedly are called cinematic as well, but unlike those games, both of these play linearly like a movie, forcing you into one perspective with no independent choices to be made. In that sense, the role-playing is kept to a minimum, but they both remain engaging by creating characters worth watching. Uncharted’s Nathan Drake is a swaggering treasure hunter who would definitely feel at home in a multiplex, spouting one liners while performing daring acrobatic feats, while The Last of Us’ Joel and Ellie are deeply tragic characters exploring a world where humans are everywhere but humanity is rare. You never feel like you are these characters, but you definitely want them to succeed, and are more than happy to help out however your controller will allow.

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The difference between the two, as you could probably tell by the character descriptions, is what kind of movie each is. Uncharted is a fun summer blockbuster, full of high-wire stunts, explosions, romance, and good old-fashioned map-checking. In each, Nathan Drake is on the hunt for a treasure following clues from a classic explorer (Francis Drake and Marco Polo), with a bad guy on his tail who looks to use the treasures magic for nefarious means. Comparisons with Indiana Jones are valid, and the whole flow of Uncharted is refreshingly throwback as opposed to high-octane; stuff happens on trains and jeeps rather than fighter jets. Outside of the main action, Drake also has flirty interactions with reporter Elena Fisher, who is great, and fellow treasure hunter Chloe Frazer, who is OK I guess, while putting up with questionable allies Victor Sullivan, who curmudgeonly cigar chomping puts everything in perspective, and dashing Harry Flynn, who is just the worst character in the world. Its all in good fun, and would be great for two hours, but stretches a bit thin at ten.

The Last of Us is much less action based and more of a survival thriller (not quite survival horror, but related), with a tension that leaves a pit in your stomach and an episodic structure based on seasons that feels well suited to a miniseries. From the first loading screen, with spores swirling around over sparse strings, the game establishes mood in a way that most movies don’t. While ostensibly a zombie game, the real enemy is other people, whether the martial-law rulers of the cities or the raiders and cannibals of the uncontrolled areas. This puts it much more in line with The Walking Dead than Resident Evil, but through the way it carefully paints every corner of its torn down world, The Last of Us still finds something new to do with a tired genre. Most of that has to do with the interaction between the main characters, aged smuggler Joel and fiery young Ellie. The game presents itself as an examination of the father-daughter dynamic, but also explores loss and survivor’s guilt in non-trivialized ways. As the two travel across the country, they meet new characters at every stop who are every bit as interesting, particularly Joel’s partner Tess and hungry hunter David (played by Nathan Drake himself, Nolan North). It moves at a fast clip, always leaving you wanting more of each location but providing a complete picture of a world in chaos, and ends on a morally confusing note that doesn’t betray the characters in the slightest.

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But what matters most to many is the gameplay, and even here, the drama wins. Uncharted does have its share of fantastically fun set pieces (a train and convoy chapter late in Among Thieves stands out), but is usually split half-and-half between platformer climbing sequences and shootouts. The platformer elements are fun for a while, but can be incredibly annoying, often reducing to jumping at a wall until Drake grabs something or looking around like a moron for a ledge. The shootouts are not varied enough to keep interesting throughout the entire runtime, although a gameplay shift in the form of new enemies late in the first Uncharted brings some much-needed spark (a minor similar attempt in Among Thieves falls flat). Among Thieves introduces some minor stealth mechanics, which are fun to use but usually irrelevant. Sporadic puzzles are also fairly uninvolving. It adds up to a game that’s fun for a while but becomes a bit of a chore, even though the story keeps the player invested enough to see it through.

The Last of Us still has plenty of shooting, but is gives you a much wider variety of ways to deal with situations. Running and gunning isn’t an option, but straightforwardly playing the game as a cover-shooter like Gears of War is possible. For ammo conservationists like myself, a stealth playthrough is fantastically fun, with a neat listen-mode mechanic that lets you map out the enemy locations from a distance. It’s also often possible to skip combat altogether. Switching between human and zombie encounters keeps things fresh, even though it stops bringing out zombie variants early, and a mid-game switch to Ellie’s perspective changes the strategy yet again. That praise being said, there are some swimming sections which stop the game dead, and puzzles involving ladders and planks that serve little to no purpose.

One stark distinction between the two is their treatment of violence, summarized in the Last of Us review at the great Giant Bomb. At one point in Uncharted 2, the bad guy notes how many men Drake has killed as an off-hand comment. Drake shrugs it off, but he’s not wrong; hundreds of faceless grunts get offed by Drake with no real comment, creating a weird narrative dissonance that never quite gels. Sure, Indiana Jones killed some Nazis, but never an entire battalion. The brutal mechanics of The Last of Us make each kill feel like it has some weight, even if that fades after many hours in the game. Eventually, Joel and Ellie’s kill-first-ask-questions-later approach comes back to bite them in a terrifying way, and comrades are lost in ways that make the stakes feel very real. One of the bigger questions the game asks is whether Joel is a good person and if his actions are justified, in addition to how growing up in a brutal world will shape Ellie, and the violence serves the arcs of both characters as well as the demands of gameplay. Rather than act in contrast to the narrative, it directly reinforces it. Despite the fact that The Last of Us is much bloodier than Uncharted, it feels much less gratuitous.

The Last of Us and Uncharted are both short games with no exploratory value, which makes them easy sells for those of us with time restraints that are more strict than our budget. Uncharted is decent popcorn entertainment, with some good setpieces (particularly in Among Thieves) but ultimately less value than its time investment due to frustrating gameplay mechanics. The Last of Us, on the other hand, is as engaging as entertainment gets, not so much breathing fresh air into the tired zombie genre but perhaps acting as the definitive take on the subject. It’s a complete experience (a sequel seems ludicrous), and as tender and terrifying as any movie could hope to be.

Uncharted (2007) C
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (2009) C+
The Last of Us (2014) A

 

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Playing catch-up with Uncharted and The Last of Us

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