Version tested: PlayStation 3
Do we have a name for this genre? I can't remember. "Escort game" probably sends the wrong signal. Oh well, beggars can't be choosers - and The Last Guy, in which you dodge monsters and escort frightened civilians across satellite images of famous cities, can't be easily pigeonholed.
The satellite images - of London, San Francisco and other cities - are the basis for elaborate Pac-Man-style mazes, which are revealed when you press the X button to show navigable routes and heat signatures for clusters of sheltering refugees. Each level gives you a set amount of time to manoeuvre your character - the last guy, a tiny bundle of pixels wearing a cape - towards these buildings, trees and other shelters, whereupon their human occupants empty into the streets and form a conga line, which you then have to lead to escape zones.
The reason everyone's hiding is because the world has been invaded by some sort of zombie monster species from outer space. Said zombies kill you on contact, forcing you to restart the level, but if they touch the conga line they also send everyone behind the point of contact scurrying into a nearby building. Since the civs follow you step for step without cutting corners, this means you have to measure your movements around the cities not only to evade enemies, but to make sure the whole of the line evades them too.
With tight time limits, you can expect to be leading hundreds of them around pretty quickly, so it's an important consideration. Fortunately, you can also speed up a bit and draw the little men and women into a tight cluster around you, as long as you're prepared to expend a bit of your stamina bar. When you get close to the rescue zone, it's also possible to dart between enemies to reach it without too much fear, because refugees scamper quickly into its protective embrace as soon as you cross the threshold at the line's head.
One potential problem is that the satellite maps are, well, satellite maps, and while certain borders were going to be obvious - massive concrete walls, for instance - other elements like parks full of trees and cluttered streets raise questions about what you run through and what you can't. But the X-button thermo map with its clear and shaded areas settles the question every time, and the fact you can't see zombies while holding X, and can't easily work out which buildings are empty and which are full when you're not, turns a negative into a positive.
You have to swap strategically between both maps, and certain enemy attacks and level layouts stress this further. A very narrow, tall level might be light on civilians around the escape zone where you start out, and require you to burrow down past bubonic sprawls of patrolling extra-terrestrial death to reach the humans you can only identify by examining the map. Being able to zoom in and out - and play from whatever magnification you like - enables further strategy, and as you get better you learn to handle all this without pause.
The changing level design and enemies are important to reduce the feeling of repetition, as is the inclusion of hidden VIP civilians who - if you gather them all - unlock a hidden stage for each four you complete. Shambling zombies chase you down, while scuttling insectoid monsters race predetermined routes along highways, and spore enemies fog the area so you can only make out pathways using the X-map, and can't see any other enemies for a good few seconds. There are also power-ups to consider - some pause enemy movement, others teleport you back to the rescue zone, others still boost your stamina - and deciding if and when to use these is important.
It all affects your approach, and the inclusion of leaderboards for each level adds another layer of replay value. There's an early inkling that this could be a good high-scores game, albeit the sort of thing you dip into every now and then rather than a full-on Super Stardust HD-style obsession.
For all that though, the game is let down by a couple of things. The main one is the one-hit-kill for every enemy contact. Anyone who's ever browsed Google Maps' satellite photos knows about slanty skyscrapers and other quirks, and these are absorbed into the gameplay, shielding you from view every now and then - but also shielding enemies, which can be a little unfair. And while some enemy variations are quite smart, forcing you to lure them out of position for instance, others are more frustrating and just wind you up.
It's also jarring that you can reach the required total of refugees, dive back into the danger zone to collect a few more, die by mistake and then have to redo the last ten minutes of action despite having technically won already. On your first playthrough, you might just as well hit the total and spend the remaining time lingering in the escape zone to run the clock down rather than risk having to replay.
All of which undoes a bit of The Last Guy's good work, and it's easy to play it for a few hours straight and come away very down on it as a result.
Persist, though, or play it in smaller doses, and the game's inherent charm wins through. The jabbering voice-overs, mutant yelps and comical screams plant a smile, and the generally thoughtful mechanics and strategic under-wiring reinforce it over time, and do just about enough to push the score back up.
Were it any more expensive, we'd probably start dropping points, but GBP 4.99 is about right. The Last Guy's another decent example of a simple, slightly risky game perfect for PSN, even if it seldom feels particularly essential.
7 / 10