On June 14th, software developer, Naughty Dog released The Last of Us to huge critical success. The game re-wrote the rules of quality single player experiences. Critic after critic praised its perfect pacing, story telling and superb characterisation. The gameplay mechanics, that added to the realism, were highly regarded – as well as the first rate voice acting from the whole cast of characters. It was, and still is, one of the fastest selling and most successful launches of a new franchise on PS3, ever. Through a lot of the reviews we read, one thing was notably absent in some reviews – briefly mentioned in others, but rarely covered properly. The Last of Us (TLoU) multiplayer element, known within the game as Factions.
My initial worry with Factions in TLoU, was that it might seem a little tacked on – especially with how beautifully realised the single player story is. My experience with multiplayer online gaming has taken me through a variety of ‘tacked on’ experiences, though not necessarily bad experiences, they always felt a little too separate or unnecessary. For instance, Metal Gear Online, was great fun – but didn’t make sense narratively speaking. Especially not when it was initially released as part of MGS3. (Rival militia doing battle made a little more sense in the context of MGS4 – though why the militia would suddenly choose to relocate to 1960s Groznyj Grad needed us to suspend our disbelief just a little more). Likewise with the Uncharted multiplayer (also from Naughty Dog), definitely fun and frenetic action – with innovative boosters and ‘perks’ systems to boot, but tricky to get into and didn’t fit the narrative of the main game. There’s nothing wrong with games not fitting the narrative of the main game, but it does help with the immersion if they do fit – to some extent. Call of Duty developed the opposite problem over time. While the original Call of Duty: Modern Warfare had a fun, enthralling and varied single player to compliment its outstanding multiplayer. It was clear a few games down the line that multiplayer was king – and by Call of Duty: Black Ops II, I had sunk considerable time into the multiplayer (prestiging 3 or 4 times ), but barely touched the lifeless single player campaign, which just didn’t keep me interested and felt entirely superfluous to the Call of Duty experience for which I was looking.
The good news is, narratively speaking, Factions fits in perfectly with the main game. You can imagine Joel and Ellie peering over a wall at some point in the game and seeing the multiplayer action (battles between rival factions over scarce resources) unfold as they creep by unnoticed.
At Twinstick, we have spent a great deal of time with Factions, we’ve weighed the pros and cons. We’ve tried it as a single player joining a team and as a party, pitting our Twinstick skills against highly skilled players from around the world. This puts us in a strong position to give you a full view of what you’ll be getting into – and deliver our verdict of the innovative and unusual multiplayer experience found in The Last of Us.
Firstly, let’s look at the familiar. For all it’s innovation, Factions is happy to deliver an initial setup we’re accustomed to. Which is a good thing, as it allows you to jump straight in and start working out who is who and what is what from within the game. There are 2 team based modes to choose from – the first, a fairly straightforward team deathmatch scenario called ‘Supply raid’. You battle in teams of 4 to rack up kills and be the last team standing. The other mode is called ‘Survivors’ and is similar apart from – there are no re-spawns. Once you’re dead – you become an observer until the start of the next round – the winning team is decided by the amount of rounds in which your team is victorious. You can shoot, bomb, molotov and melee your opponents into a ‘downed’ state (i.e. crawling around on the floor, unable to attack – hoping to be revived by a team mate), from here you can either execute, or if close enough, perform a ‘special execution’ – complete with gruesome animation and extra experience! Experience is collected in the form of acquiring ‘parts’ – all actions net you different amounts of ‘parts’ – from downing enemies, to reviving and healing team mates or marking opponents. So far, so familiar.
There are many other aspects that, as an online action gamer, you’ll find conventional. You can select a ‘loadout’ for your character, choosing weapons and ‘survivor skills’ (read: perks). Initially selecting from presets that include: assault, stealth, sniper, etc, as you progress, you’ll be able to unlock custom loadouts. As with other games of this ilk, progression brings you experience, which in turn brings you a greater array of options for your loadout. Each loadout item (weapons or survivor skills) has a skill points value. You can spend these points however you wish. Loadouts vary massively depending on what you have unlocked, how many ‘points’ are available to you and how you want to play. For instance, on an early level, you might select a 9mm Pistol as a short range weapon, a hunting rifle as a long range and have a couple of survivor skills like ‘Reviver level 1’ (which allows you to heal your team mates a little quicker) or ‘Pistol Auto Zoom’ which allows you to zoom in a little with a handheld weapon.
Further up the levels, you’ll have unlocked more weapons and skills – and have more loadout points to spend. So now, your loadout might include a revolver, a bow or silenced rifle (for silent kills), skills like ‘Reviver level 3’ (which allows you to revive fallen team mates very quickly, gives them more health when revived and gets you more experience for the revive – more on that later), or ‘Sharpshooter level 2’ which massively reduces weapon sway. There are hundreds of possible combinations and a good variety of survivor skills to suit any play style (Brawler, Covert Training, Marathon runner are all fairly self explanatory – there are other, more unusual skills too).
Though play styles are diverse, stealth and patience will be at the heart of a lot of your movement around the different maps (all taken and adapted from the main game). Your actions generate noise. This works at different levels. Even crouch walking generates a small amount of noise, making you visible if you’re opponents are using ‘listen mode’. Shooting an unsilenced weapon or sprinting instantly makes you visible on the mini-map – so all enemies know your approximate location. On top of this, if you are seen (or conversely, if you spot an enemy) – you can be ‘marked’. This means that regardless of movement or sound, all enemies can see you highlighted in red with a big arrow over your head – it only lasts a few seconds (though this can be upgraded), but can spell certain death if you are creeping up on someone and don’t realise you’ve been spotted and marked (one of the survivor skills lets you know when you’ve been marked).
This is where things get interesting, as for all its familiarity – it is the innovation and originality where Factions really shines and is elevated to the heights of something special.
Right from the get-go, you can tell something is different as when you load up Factions, you are asked to select a faction or team of survivors whose story you will play out. You can select either Fireflies or Hunters (these are the human antagonists Joel and Ellie face in the main story). From there you are given a simple challenge: survive for 12 weeks. Now, this doesn’t mean you as an individual, rather your clan of survivors (or faction) must survive for the 12 weeks. Your clan starts out tiny but can be built up by performing well in games. Each game online accounts for one ‘day’ for your clan. At the end of each ‘day’ (or game), the amount of resources (or ‘parts’ as they’re known in game) are divided up among your clan. If you have more resources than clan members, new members will be attracted to the clan. However, if you come up short – clan members will become sick and eventually die. The number in your clan will fluctuate from ‘day’ to ‘day’ as you play – there are unlocks tied to your clan size (all of which are purely cosmetic – you can still acquire all weapons and skills without ever growing a clan over 50 people). The idea here is the bigger your clan, the better chances of survival.
Running alongside the general, everyday parts collection to ensure your clan’s survival – there are random events and missions.These are challenges that appear periodically throughout the 12 weeks. They can either help you increase your clan by attracting bonus members. Or, they can put your clan at risk (early events put up to 60% of your clan at risk of immediate death – later this increases to 100%).
The challenges themselves all take place over 3 days (or 3 games) and you get to select from quite a wide range of missions, including: downing enemies, downing enemies with a specific weapon, marking enemies, reviving or healing teammates and more.
What I particularly like about the events and missions system is that it encourages you to try different things. You can select something simple like ‘downing enemies’ and the challenge might be, to reduce clan losses to 40% you need to down 4 enemies over 3 days, or to reduce it to only 10%, down 8 enemies over 3 days etc. Next time you select that same mission – the parameters change. Now you need to down 6 enemies to bring losses down to 40% and 16 to reduce it to 10% etc. Yes, you CAN keep setting yourself the same challenge type, but it gets harder and harder, so you have to switch weapons or play styles to give yourself a better chance.
As a fun side note, Naughty Dog gives you the option to link the members of your developing clan to your facebook account. The game doesn’t post anything to facebook, it is simply for cosmetic fun! In between games, you get updates on what your clan have been up to – these random names will be switched to your facebook friends and their profile pictures. So when you are performing well – you get news like ‘Samantha Bobkins is learning to play guitar.’ Or ‘Dean Jespenson is repairing fishing nets.’ Complete with their current profile pic. Fail a challenge and you may get news that friends are sick – or worse. Sometimes you are given the choice between saving one friend over another! It’s not quite Sophie’s Choice but it is an enjoyable addition!
One of the best elements of Factions (and incidentally another great way to complete missions) is through crafting. Crafting is carried over from the main game beautifully into the multiplayer. Just as when you play as Joel, you have to craft on the fly – the game continues around you – and you can’t move or attack as you craft. The sense of vulnerability really adds to the suspense and tension of the game – but if you want to have molotov cocktails, bombs, shivs or med kits, you’re going to have to take that risk (none are available weapons for your loadout apart from a single shiv as part of the ‘Covert training’ Survivor skill). Simply crafting any item also gets you more parts – so there are plenty of benefits to crafting, it certainly isn’t a gimmick and actually makes for one of the fundamental and most successful parts of game play.
Crafting also plays into one of the unusual survivor skills (or perks), you can set a perk that will improve the speed of your crafting – which can be a life saver. This, in turn, can be developed so that every 2 or 3 items crafted also nets you a bonus item that can be gifted to a team mate (this is also a selectable mission for random events: gift 4 items to teammates in 3 days to save your clan or attract new members). Other unusual perks include: Strategist, that lets you know when you’ve been marked by an opponent; Collector, which increases the number of parts you receive for your actions by up to 20%; and Sharp Ears, which increases the use and recovery speed of ‘Listen mode’ which has also been carried over from the main game – allowing you to ‘sense’ enemies locations when they are moving (the main difference being that in Factions there is a limit to the time you can use before it has to ‘recharge’).
One of the few questions that have been asked of Factions since the release of TLoU is Naughty Dog’s decision to include only 2 play modes and whilst I won’t disagree that there is scope for expansion – I will state that Factions is very much a team game. A ‘Free for all’ or ‘Every man for himself’ mode just wouldn’t work. The whole game is based on the premise of team work, co-operation and force in numbers. The game actively promotes teamwork through the missions, survivor skills and, of course, the exception that proves the rule: if you run off to be a one man army – you WILL die. What’s worse is, because of the nature of ‘Supply Raid’ mode – your one man army behavior gets your team killed too.
How does this work? Well, another interesting and innovative aspect of multiplayer – and way of promoting teamwork is that at the start of a ‘Supply Raid’ matchup, each team is given a ‘pool’ of 20 lives. These are depleted as members of the rival teams are executed (being ‘downed’ doesn’t affect this total, only deaths count) until there are zero remaining and your team enters ‘sudden death’ mode – which basically means, your next death is your final one for that ‘day’. What this means for the team is that if 3 of you collect resources, craft proximity bombs, purchase armor (using parts and the in game shop – like crafting, this happens on the fly), stock pile molotov cocktails and try to hold position in a building – allowing the enemy to come to you… it’s all for nothing if the fourth member of your team decides he’s John MClain and runs into certain death 20 times (though getting rarer, this does happen from time to time – I’m not criticising, I did it at first too)!
The great thing about this is teamwork functions brilliantly. You can take on pretty much any role in the team – and by working together you’ll be able to rack up ‘parts’ even if you’re not doing the killing. Once of my loadouts is focused entirely on support. I can revive teammates quickly and heal them. If my buddy gets into a straight fire fight, I can heal him as he fights and we both survive! This loadout also comes equipped with a bow and revolver for if I DO get into a sticky situation, or find myself with an opportunity to take down an enemy from distance (the bow is a silent weapon, meaning I won’t give away my position on the mini-map).
The best thing about this game is that it is a truly organic experience, with maps kept relatively small, you quickly learn the layout – but you are constantly forced to approach the map in different ways. It can be incredibly hard to hold a position, because really – the last thing you want is for the enemy to know your location. So you have to move around and always be aware of where your team are and what kind of trouble they’re in.
One of my finest moments in the game actually came from being in a supportive role. I saw on the mini-map that a teammate had been downed – as I cautiously, but swiftly made my way to his location before he bled out, I saw that his assailant was still standing over him, poised to make a ‘special execution’ – I switched to my bow and shot 3 arrows in quick succession (2 hit, 1 missed). This downed my opponent, but left him alive. More importantly, my teammate was still alive and my position had not been compromised. I continued on my way toward my teammate, when suddenly 2 more enemies appeared to revive their fallen teammate. As luck would have it I had a molotov cocktail in my pack. This was hurled into the crowd killing all 3 of them instantly – at which point I broke cover and ran to my teammate and was able to revive him just in time. 3 kills, no losses – and using a supportive loadout! Every game you play is full of these and similar moments (although, if you play like me – you’ll be on the receiving end just as often) – as teamwork, tactics and random encounters combine into one of the most visceral, exciting and unpredictable multiplayer experiences I have ever engaged in.
It would be remiss of me to avoid the talking about the negatives. Even in a multi-player experience as rich and immersive as this, there are some downsides. The good news is that Naughty Dog are constantly working to improve player experience – and one massive niggle I would have had has now vanished entirely (upon release, there was a situation that could arise where if your connection dropped out, the game technically punished you for quitting -rightly so, if I’d quit – and you would lose that ‘day’ of the story. Often, this wouldn’t matter, but if you are in day 3 of one of the events or missions – it could be very costly! Now, if you lose connection – you have to replay the day. Annoying if you were doing well, but not punishing).
However, other niggles still remain. One particularly frustrating one is when the servers are trying to find you a game to join and somewhere out there Jonny Tryhard is getting his ass whooped by a team of pros. His own team have abandoned him, because they realise they are totally outmatched and have zero loyalty or backbone. But that’s ok, because Naughty Dog’s servers have a solution! You’re looking for a match, Jonny Tryhard is looking for a team. Bingo! The result of which is, you get dropped into a ‘team’ with 7 or 8 lives in the remaining pool, battling a team who has preserved all 20, there are only 2 or 3 of you on the team and you have next to no time to gather precious resources before the ensuing onslaught leaves you bleeding in the gutter. In most online games this would simply result in less ‘Experience’ for your character. In The Last of Us: Factions this can lead to anything from making a handful of your survivors ill due to lack of resources – right up to wiping out your entire group because you were on day 3/3 of a 100% at risk Malaria outbreak and hadn’t finished the first step of the challenge yet.
These occurrences are few and far between – and as yet, I haven’t lost 100% of my survivors because of it – I’m just aware of the potential. However, as mentioned, chances are Naughty Dog will be looking for ways to either cut down on the amount of matches you join part way through – or even a way of compensating players that are dropped into these situations? Either way, this is far from a deal breaker. There is still far too much good to out weigh the bad.
Finally I’d like to just take a breath and throw some thoughts out there. These are ideas for how the multiplayer could be developed or tweaked, but this is purely to my taste. Some of you may agree with me, others may think me fanciful? At the end of the day, I will be playing Factions right through the ‘Season’ Naughty Dog are offering in their DLC and beyond. An announcement regarding the first of three planned downloadable content releases is due later this month. Exactly what we’ll see we don’t know. Typically, we’re sure to see some additional maps in multiplayer, but we know extra single player content is in the works too.
Though it’s unlikely any of this will make up part of the new content to be announced inthe very near future, here is a short list of what I’d LOVE to see introduced through their DLC: Use of bricks and bottles. It took me long enough to see their true worth in the single player, now I want to smash some glass in the face of an online opponent! Introduce the infected. I don’t mean as playable characters, that would be quite dull (especially playing as a ‘clicker’!??!) but as an added element or event to a Faction battle, throw some infected into the mix! It forces stealth and introduces new tactics. Imagine throwing a glass bottle into an opponents location – and see the clicker running inside after it! Awesome! Human Shield.A good way of giving that last survivor a fighting chance when being hunted by a team of 4. If he could take a hostage and try to shoot his way out, he might stand half a chance. No? Ok, so the hostage’s team would probably just shoot them both to death, but something to think about non-the-less!
Watch the original reveal trailer to get a flavour of the action you may have missed!
Richard is a father, teacher, gamer and writer. He believes that The Last of Us and Olli Olli 2 are the finest games ever made, feels that the StarWars Saga should only be watched in ‘the Machete order’ and once cleared Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time in one sitting. Took him 20 hours, four cups of tea and a sausage roll. You can follow him on twitter @TLOUFactionsMP or @VigilanteSanta and view his occasional twitch outbursts on twitch.tv/spooklebeans.