E3 ’08 had its fair share of excitement, but under the piles of spin and surprises emerged a previously unknown gem of a game from Sony Japan. The Last Guy’s debut did exactly what was necessary — get people, including the press, talking — and only two months later, the game was released on the Playstation Network. The game’s short gestation period is little cause for worry, as its fresh take on a familiar game mechanic and difficulty that wavers between challenging and frustrating makes it a worthy addition to any PS3’s hard drive.
In The Last Guy, a strange purple ray has turned much of the world’s population into one of several types of zombies, and those lucky enough to be indoors during the event are now trapped in whatever building they were last in. It’s up to the player to globe hop from city to city and wrangle these scared citizens to designated rescue zones where they can be rescued. The player character, the Last Guy himself, is a zombie as well, according to the Playstation.Blog, and has traveled down from the Himalayan mountains to be humanity’s savior.
Each of the game’s 15 stages are set in real-world cities, constructed atop Google Maps images of cities like San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Tokyo, and populated with trapped citizens and an array of different zombies. As the player zooms around town, utilizing a number of special powers like extra speed, infrared vision, and invisibility, the Last Guy’s presence brings people out onto the streets; by simply running through a crowd or standing outside a building exit, the player collects people into a long train.
Like the timeless game Snake, the train will follow the character around the map, but using the train to surround a large crowd or packed building instantly adds the encircled company to your train. Managing a long train can be taxing: should a zombie manage to touch a part of it, the survivors in line behind the attack will scatter like ants without a queue to follow. Holding the Circle button will pull the train into a more compact line, but use is restricted by frustratingly limited stamina bar that is depleted also by sprinting around the map. Amassing a long train rewards the player with a larger stamina bar, useful in some of the later stages, and bringing it to safety awards the player with a higher score.
Using satellite imagery of real locations adds a nice touch to what amounts to a glorified game of Snake, but the problems lie in the details. The developers chose to add in a number of alleyways, nooks, and crannies, and then block off many of the more obvious-looking passageways. Without frequent use of the Last Guy’s infrared vision, which shows survivors in bright green and impassable terrain in black, it can be difficult to work your train out of a tight spot. Most of the game’s zombies, however, are invisible in infrared, so this frustrating necessity required some finesse to use properly.
When you’re not maneuvering your ship by infrared, the game is a simple joy to look at. Regardless of what challenges they presented in level design, the satellite imagery is bright and impressively detailed, though lacking in color. It could be argued that cities from above tend to wash out into cement gray by default, but it’s also likely that the game’s designers used the simple color palette of the game’s backdrops to accentuate the real meat-and-potatoes of the game: its zombies. Each are drawn in bright colors and stand out very well (except for when a small, lone zombie is inexplicably hidden by a tree), and for the most part, removes any necessity of zooming the camera in and out to see stereotypically colored zombies hiding around a corner.
There’s little to be said about the game’s musical score, aside from its terrible ability to settle firmly in your head and repeat for hours, but The Last Guy’s in-game sound brings some interesting flavor. The march of your train grows with its length, and should a zombie be spotted nearby, they will begin screaming hysterically. Most of the zombies voice their desire for ’braaains’ in a fashion fitting their type, with Normal zombies moaning lazily and Bug zombies skittering by.
Each of the game’s 15 stages centers around a certain type of zombie infestation, whether it be a long train of slow Normal zombies or a pair of fast Giant Bug zombies racing back and forth along a major road, and reaching your quota of saved survivors. Learning how to overcome these obstacles takes a combination of planning, creative execution, and just plain ol’ luck; though most of the game’s enemies follow predictable paths, should that lava flow turn the corner at First and Main, you need to be able to pull your train across the street and pray there isn’t another zombie in the parking lot. These designs are often dangerously close to being hard instead of challenging, so patience is in order.
Mastering a stage requires practice, and the ability to maximize your points. Bringing a lot of small trains to safety is not only inefficient in terms of time spent, but a bonus equal to the largest train sent in is added to the final score. Four "VIPs" can be found in each level, and bringing them in also adds to the final tally, though initially finding them is more luck than skill; until they leave the safety of their building, they are indistinguishable from the other survivors. These scores can be uploaded onto a worldwide leaderboard and ranked individually or as a player total, so those who dream of taking a screenshot with them at the number 1 position can take heart that The Last Guy abides.
What most struck me about The Last Guy was its penchant for adding a strong sense of intensity to its simple mechanics. Harnessing such emotion to supplement an old standard, and throwing in zombies for good measure, is a fine tribute to the early days of gaming that tend to get overlooked by buzzwords like "Unreal Engine" and "innovation." It isn’t without its frustrations, but value is everywhere with this title, and an Alexander Hamilton would be well spent on The Last Guy.