The Least of Us

It was a bittersweet moment earlier this year when I received God of War: Ascension as a birthday gift. It was a very considerate gift, and I was extremely grateful for it, but just earlier the same day I’d been listening to the Giant Bombcast as they ripped the game a new asshole for being generic, boring, and by-the-numbers. I hadn’t been a big God of War fan in a while, either- I enjoyed the first one a lot, but in my opinion, it just went downhill from there. Still, the gift was very generous, and I was quite thankful. At the very least, I reasoned, it was a ticket into the The Last of Us early access demo, which I was most certainly interested in.

Last weekend, that demo finally went live, and wow. I have had Tic Tacs that lasted longer than that experience.

That’s not to say it was bad. In that brief glimpse, I saw a game that I absolutely have to play. The world it presents is terrifyingly believable, from the cause of the zombie infection (the cordyceps fungus, which actually does basically mind control some animals), to the necessity of scavenging for the most essential tools of survival. No Halo health here- if you want to recover, you’re going to need to find the parts to make a medkit, sit down, and patch yourself up. But does that game really exist? Demos are supposed to be a vertical slice of the game- a piece taken cleanly out to represent the full product. When they’re so brief, what does that tell you? That they’re not confident in the rest of the game, so they won’t show you more? That the part they are showing you has been polished to the point that the rest of the game is nowhere near as good?

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What’s more, the demo was heavily scripted, and the one fight that it contains was full of so much canned animation that it was essentially a quicktime event. They were exceptional, high-quality animations, and I’m a sucker for that, but how can you trust something that feels so staged? Mashing square to punch a guy who’s grabbing me is fine, I guess, but was there ever a chance for me to avoid getting grabbed in the first place? I’m really not sure.

Demos are a long tradition in video games, and certainly, they vary in quality. The best of them sell you on the game they’re for- demos for King of Fighters XIII, Metroid Prime, and Devil May Cry 3 ensured I would pick them up. Those were games I had some interest in, and confirmed their quality via a demo, but I can think of one occasion where a demo sold me on a game I’d never heard of- back when I was just getting into video games, I played the Metal Gear Solid 2 demo that came with Zone of Enders, and was blown away.

It’s also not uncommon for games to pack in a promotion for another upcoming game- sometimes even using that as a major selling point. Plenty of people bought Crackdown for the Halo 3 multiplayer beta, some bought Brave Fencer Musashi on the PS1 for an early look at Final Fantasy VIII, and as mentioned, Metal Gear fans came out in droves to check out Metal Gear Solid 2 (and maybe peek at the actual game that came with it, Zone of Enders). I should hate to think anyone bought God of War for the The Last of Us demo, because it’s hardly a value add at all. Demos can be of varying lengths, but if you’re going to advertise it as a selling point of a title, it’s not free anymore. You’re paying money for a product, and that product in this case is subpar.

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From reviews and other journalist impressions I’ve read, it appears to be, mostly, the exceptional product that the demo puts it forward as. It just makes me uncomfortable to see the game so blatantly trying to bamboozle me. If your game is good, show me that, and I will buy it. Don’t try to trick me, lie to me, misrepresent to me. That’s not the way to get me on your side. If I feel like I’m being jerked around, I will skip even what appears to be a quality product.

And it does appear to be a quality product. It is rocking a 96 on Metacritic, it won dozens of awards at E3 2012- including numerous “Best of Show” awards, and it comes from Naughty Dog, a studio whose hits have been a reason to buy a PS3 for years now. As we near the shift to a new generation of consoles, there are fewer and fewer big budget titles to get excited about, and even fewer new IPs with blockbuster appeal.

This is the last title Naughty Dog will release before the new generation of consoles launch, and the game needs to be a hit. It’s almost a foregone conclusion that it will be a huge seller, with excitement for it reaching a fever pitch. It’s distasteful that they would be so abusive in their treatment of eager fans, willing to overlook the quality of the demo, by selling them this bill of shoddy goods.

Will I end up grabbing The Last of Us? I’m thinking about it. But that demo provided me with more reasons to avoid it than buy it, as astonishing as it was.