Lives up to the Hype and Then Some
*Know what you're getting into: This is going to be a long piece*
This review will only discuss the single-player campaign, as I don't think speculating about the multiplayer is worth your while and this piece is long to begin with.
By the time you are reading this review, you most likely have known the existence of The Last of Us, an action adventure, survival-horror PS3 exclusive by acclaimed video game developer Naughty Dog. You might have also noticed the tremendous hoopla that this game has created. After all, 42 perfect scores from video gaming websites do not happen by accident. Ditto to selling 3.4 million copies in a span of 3 weeks. Throw in phrases that describe this game such as "a Citizen Kane moment" [Empire Magazine] or "masterpiece" [IGN, among others], and you get the sense that this game is something special.
But I want to give some nuance to the game and how it's perceived, make it more than 'the big budget game from Naughty Dog getting perfect scores yawn soooooooooooooooo expected'. For one thing, with one glance of said perfect score we assume perfection, that there is nothing wrong with this game. The Last of Us is anything but perfect. Character models can clip into the scenery, grabbing enemies can be hit and miss, and melee attacks of similar distance can either make contact or hit nothing but air. There's even a sequence when my character gets grabbed by two enemies; at one point the character is in one foe's stranglehold, then 3 seconds later said character glitches into the clutches of another.
Technically speaking, Naughty Dog's product could use a little more refining to clean up those rough edges. I also argue that the premise of The Last of Us is also remarkably un-groundbreaking. I mean, come on [pffff], a commentary on post-apocalypse humanity? Oh puh-leeze. I got Advance Wars: Days of Ruin, thank you very much, not to mention other forms of media besides games that tackle this fictional scenario on a VERY regular basis [Walking Dead *cough*]. One review even asserted that the plot can be predicted every step of the way. So it's sort of buggy, premise-generic, and predictable, you say? Why care about The Last of Us?
The answer is actually pretty simple: This kinda glitchy, premise-generic and predictable game still is the best executed game of its time, if ever. It's not about WHAT is done in this game; it's about HOW it's done. We might never see a game that's this well carried out in our lifetime. That's the standard answer. On a personal level, I haven't cared more about the story and its main characters since Fire Emblem on the Gameboy Advance over half a decade ago. Now let's get into the meat of this review.
As stated earlier, The Last of Us takes a stab at depicting a post-apocalyptic world. Human civilization has collapsed altogether from an incurable and highly transmittable fungal disease that turns people into mindless creatures who feed on human flesh. Humanity, in turn, is reduced to living in a dog-eat-dog world. Gamespot Reviewer Tom McShea said it best [and most poetically, I might add] in regards to the hopelessness of it all:
The downfall of civilization redefines moral boundaries. No longer do labels like thief and murderer mark you as a criminal; everyone must steal, must kill, must do whatever it takes to survive. Humans roam in packs like feral dogs, claiming their territory and killing anyone who encroaches on their turf. Paper-thin alliances link individuals together for mere flashes, their connections severed once their mutual needs are met. Life is bleak, brutal, and exhausting. Tomorrow doesn't exist when the stench of death lingers like a fog and hope was extinguished years ago. There is only today; there is only right now. Morals? Morals won't put food in your mouth or a roof over your head. Morals are for the weak...
The outbreak happened so quickly that there was no quarantine plan in effect. Infected monsters crashed through their neighbors' windows, smashed the doors to splinters. Husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, dead before they could react, or worse. Maybe they became one of the infected. The virus spread through major cities and suburbs, and the military, with all of its training and weapons, was powerless to stop the epidemic.Credit: Tom McShea, Gamespot Editor
In sum, life after this pandemic is nasty, brutish and short. It is a brutal, depressing portrayal of mankind after the apocalypse, but not one so outlandish that it borders on the unbelievable. There is no black and white; everyone is out for themselves and fighting over a scarce number of resources. They are willing to take the lives of others to grab a larger share of said resources/supplies, because the danger of running low on food and other vital items is real at all times, not just to survive against other humans but the now-mindless infected humans brought on by the disease.
The story largely takes the perspective of Joel. The game goes off to a roaring start as you play as this man on the eve of the outbreak. The panic is palpable as Joel and company try to escape their homes, not helped by the tragic death of his daughter, Sarah. Fast forward two decades later and we see Joel but as a different man. Any sort of light and compassion he had before the outbreak is gone. He's now an embittered, rough and tumble middle-aged man with a kill-or-be-killed attitude. He can and will kill on sight because the alternative, peaceful negotiation or just talking things through, is impossible since the other person/group have the same zero-sum mentality.
Not a likable character by any stretch, but his disposition is more than understandable. So in the middle of one of Joel's many smuggling jobs he is tasked to escort and protect a young 14-year-old girl, Ellie, to Washington DC to be taken in by a militia. He learns that Ellie might be the answer to the pandemic because of her immunity to the spores. But the DC trip goes awry, and Joel and Ellie end up traversing through the desolate American landscape and proceed with the original plan of taking Ellie to other groups affiliated with the militia. Along the way the twosome, who cannot stand each other initially, gradually bond, break occasionally and re-bond over the course of their yearlong adventure.
I would be doing a major disservice to examine this game and NOT discuss Ellie, the other half of the duo. She is quite the counterweight to her escort. Post-apocalypse Joel is pretty gruff and one-note early in the game. Ellie is varied when it comes to the moods she put on. Yeah, at times she can be just as cruel and merciless as Joel, the byproduct of her needing to act above her age to survive in the cruel world she was born into. Her nonchalant attitude to death and killing further reveal her mature side. Hell, she swears like a sailor and can operate weaponry like no one's business.
But she is also relatable; I cannot overstate this important quality. There are many flashes of her acting exactly her age, specifically showing her curiosity and awe at many junctures. She would lose herself for a moment when staring at a broken arcade machine and talk about how a friend of hers will ramble on and on about said game. Ditto to the many comic books she and Joel scavenge throughout their time together. After a brutal takedown on Joel's part, a "Holy shit, Joel!" from Ellie is not far behind. She remains curious about life before the pandemic, asking questions to Joel about ice-cream trucks, baseball and movies.
In sum, Ellie is a wonderful character with many layers. She is tough and vulnerable, mature and naïve in equal measure. In two words, she is very human. Possibly the most realized female lead since Alyx Vance of Half-Life close to a decade ago.
The plot is at its best when Joel and Ellie interact with one another during the course of their trek. These are two people from different perspectives and both have unresolved anger and frustration. They clash often, with Joel originally telling Ellie to stay out of sight and let him deal with the baddies, while Ellie asserts that she can [and later proves] that she can handle herself and help Joel in turn. Their confrontations also really show why they are who they are. Joel is still embittered with his daughter's death decades ago. Ellie is filled with survivor's guilt, as many died protecting her and she [as capable as she is] cannot do anything because the escorts do not will it.
Throughout the journey, the two get closer. The relationship building feels subtle and gradual, but also sublime and believable. It may be through cutscenes, but it can also be through shorter dialogue when walking through desolate cityscapes, or even during interactions when Ellie is staring at what's in front of her. Joel's heart defrosts after spending many months with the young girl. What was originally deemed off limits - such of Joel's life before the pandemic - could be discussed frequently and with ease. Contrary to what Joel claims early on, he become Ellie's father figure, and Ellie his surrogate daughter. Later on, Joel even makes a passing remark to Ellie that he dreamed to be a singer early on in his life.
The story in both the macro level [end of human society as we know it] and the micro level [Joel and Ellie's evolving relationship] may not be the most original piece of work, but it shows a lot of thoughtful preparation and execution. Bottom line? The Last of Us will go down as a game with a fantastic plot that partners a sobering setting with the best character duo I've been around. I
t will make you care You will care about Joel and Ellie and where they might end up in the world they live in.
The world the two explore include DC, Pittsburgh, Colorado and Salt Lake City [with other stops along the way]. There will be the banter between Joel and Ellie over a variety of subjects. Though a good of time is spent on walking easily traversable terrain, eventually you'll run into some areas ,like sewers, where you'll need to manipulate the environment to continue the journey. Usually the process includes getting a wooden raft for Ellie [as she can't swim], or moving a ladder around to be climb on or walk over towards the next destination. Or the ordeal could have Joel boost Ellie up to a higher platform so she can drop down the ladder for Joel to climb on.
But then there are certain stages of the game where Joel and Ellie run into a group of enemies, be it human hunters/soldiers or infected humans who want to make the two their supper. This is where The Last of Us puts you, the player, in the driver's seat as to what you want to do with these obstacles. You have a 'listening' ability that surveys the scene, counts enemy numbers and see how they are positioned. So, do you want to sneak around them and avoid fighting? Or take a more Rambo-inspired approach and go in guns blazing? Or maybe go a quazi-middle route - stealth killing some foes and gun down a couple down, and leave the rest?
Heavily factoring into these important decisions is what's available, both in your backpack and in the environment. Early on, The Last of Us is a game of scarcity. When you get your first gun - a pistol - you are given a grand total of 4 bullets. Even the greatest action hero cannot take down an army with that kind of ammo, so you need to use what's around you to get ahead. There are bricks and bottles that you throw at them [for an easy kill] or at somewhere else to distract them [to escape]. There are pipes and wooden bats for effective melee weapons. As most places have abandoned cars and what not, you can also use them to hide from enemy sight.
But there are also collectables that could be used to build items as well. As time goes on Joel will be able to construct things like Molotov cocktails and nail bombs, weapons that can greatly help you clear waves of enemies. But to build these items you have to collect parts like alcohol, bindings and cloth that are scattered throughout the game. There is a small number of these parts and again you have to make a choice: Smoke bombs or nail bombs? Molotov cocktails or health kits [this is the usual debate, as you can't regenerate health]? How about a one-shot shiv to conduct swift stealth kills? There is no right answer. All that matters is that you get to the next area.
Other collectables worth noting include medicine [don't mistake that for health kits] that allow you to upgrade some of Joel's skills, like increasing maximum health, increasing the speed of crafting items, or bettering the range of your listening skill to survey more of the potential battlefield. There are manuals to collect as well that can better your items, like a survival manual allow your shivs to be more durable, breaking after 2 uses instead of 1. Not to say that they are necessary, but they really help the duo in their journey.
Regardless of your decision of what to do in these segments, tension is high. For one thing you cannot afford to miss that often on your guns or other weaponry [reminder: not a lot of bullets]. Same goes to missing your targets when throwing a glass bottle, brick, or bomb. The margin of error when sneaking around is very low, not helped by the many eyes and ears you have to get past. However the source of the tension is the fact that at some point something will be horribly wrong. Maybe the enemy spotted you and it led to a small gunfight and alerted everyone else in the room. All of a sudden Plan A turns into an improvise-heavy Plan B.
Plan B is when the powder keg explodes, and an already-tense situation just gets more stressful. Now you really can't afford to miss your gunshots because that leaves you open to a shot from an enemy. A calm sneak-around becomes an all-out scramble to the exit. I remember being in a fight with the infected. At first I was doing alright and my HP bar is full until a normal infected human [Runner] came from behind and grabbed me. I also saw that a Clicker [more infected human] is nearby running towards me. If that Clicker grabs me he can instakill me, forcing a restart.
I frantically spammed the square button to get free from the infected, then immediately aimed my revolver to the Clicker, ignoring the other 5 infected humans hurdling towards myself [Joel], Ellie, and an AI friend. I popped 3 shots at the Clicker to bring it down before going into a full-on fistfight with the remaining Runners. I'm at dangerously low health. I frantically run behind a concrete car stop and apply a health kit to myself in real time. Right after my health bar zipped back to 3/4 health a Runner hits me before I grabbed the SOB and smacked its head onto the car stop, blowing its face off and spewing blood everywhere.
Had the Runner hit me just a half second early, it would have canceled my application of the health kit, I would have remained at very low health, and I would have died fighting the other Runners at melee range. And this is just 3 hours into the game out of the 15 or so hours in the main campaign. The game could get really, really intense. Expect the same intensity from start to finish.
I've already said that Naughty Dog could have spent some time de-bugging the gameplay. Specifically, melee combat needs to be more consistent. At times Joel [or Ellie] can reach an enemy with a melee attack or a grab and other times they fail to connect at the same distance. Thankfully, these types of issues rarely happen and don't break the game.
There is also a question of friendly AI. Once in a while you get an armed character joining Joel and Ellie for a while. They do their job well, defending themselves from enemies. Too well, in my opinion. In fact, when I do get an ally of that sort I usually just let the guy become a meat shield while I open fire from a friendly distance. Occasionally a timer would come up to force you to help them [or else it's game over], but they happen rarely; only once did I have to start over for failing to save the ally. Again, this part is not a game-breaker, but it does make the game a bit too easy at those stages.
In spite of the problems I have indicated, the gameplay of The Last of Us is still very enjoyable. It puts an onus on the player to make choices, both on the fly and before a potential action sequence. What is especially unique about playing the game is that the choices have a lot of weight to them, especially early in the game, because helpful items are scarce and there is no regenerating health. Action segments are full of tension, because there is a good chance of producing "all hell breaks loose" moments, be it from stealthily fleeing from foes or blowing their faces off. The difficulty does not drop one bit even late in the game, when you have more items at your disposal.
Another part of the game that has the "great, not perfect" tag has to be the presentation. Naughty Dog has always tried to push the limits of the PS3 on the graphical front, and they have again ended up with a fantastic result. Their in-house engine produces highly realistic settings of all varieties, from sewers to abandoned quarantine zones and run-down office buildings. The shadows and lights are where they need to be, and textures are highly defined; sometimes you just want to stop yourself a take in the sites. Aside from the clipping issues, there really is nothing quite like taking in the sights in this game, and the screenshots don't do the game enough justice.
Where the game really looks beautiful has to be when Joel and Ellie walk through various woods. The natural scenery just took my breath away; every shrub or grass is finely detailed. Taking in the now-abondoned urban centers was also a bonus. There really is a quiet beauty in those moments, when I was looking at how Mother Nature has crept back into the quarantine zones, its ivy and vines hanging loosely around broken-down structures.
Cutscenes are done through performance capture [as is most of the game], and the results speak for themselves. Movements are extremely lifelike, both in body language and facial expressions. Credit goes to both the actors and the direction team they are drawing their orders from, not to mention the guys behind the scenes who animate all the material they capture. There is no dip in graphical performance when transitioning from cutscene to game and vice versa, and there are no long load screens save for one giant loadscreen every time you start the game or continue from where you left off. Given how much hardware this game is pushing, however, I will let that oversight slide.
Since I am talking about the cutscenes it is probably best to talk about the other parts of the presentation, namely the voice acting and the soundtrack. No matter who you are talking about, Troy Baker or Ashley Johnson [Joel and Ellie respectively], the believable voices complement the incredibly well written dialogue. Not a big surprise, because both Baker and Johnson have extensive experience as voice actors. Most human foes also get their share of voices to tell their comrades to search the place. The groans from the infected humans, meanwhile, are genuinely fear-inducing and decidedly inhuman. The same goes for the Clickers with their clicks and clacks to highlight their lethality. There is nothing to criticize in regards to the voice acting.
The music is very beautiful. It's not dark and depressing like you would expect from a post-apocalypse setting; it's more akin to hopeless , empty and lonely when portraying the world as it is. Composer Gustavo Santaolalla [2 time Academy Award Winner for Best Musical Score] has assigned a lot of quiet, subtle tunes to complement the mood of the game. What I especially like is that the music is just "there", allowing me to take in what's in front of us, as opposed to shoving itself into the limelight and demanding me to acknowledge its existence. I prefer the guitar tunes as they fit with the scenery more often than not, but the scores with orchestral instruments are also just as impressive and subtle.
That being said I think it's better if you listen to the whole score yourself and make your own judgments, because I am not a musical expert, and describing music with words is a something I'm not that capable of, especially with the music this subtle.
The verdict this review will give The Last of Us should be pretty clear by now. Aside from some minor hiccups Naughty Dog's latest work has excelled from all angles. The presentation is the envy of its contemporaries, and the gameplay is brilliantly executed and keeps players on the edge of their seats from start to finish. That much you expect from a video game developer that already had extensive success with the Uncharted series. But what puts The Last of Us into an elite tier of games has to be its incredible storytelling.
I cannot overstate just how much the story is something you should take in though playing, not checking up on YouTube. Whether the moment is big or small, in the game or within the cutscenes, the plot is fleshed out with the subtlety and delicacy found more often in highly regarded written works than in the video game medium. Most importantly, the duo of Joel and Ellie is well realized on many levels. Certainly their voices are ably given by their actors, but its their humanity - that je ne sais quoi of video games - that have me cheer [out loud], worry [Joel!], contemplate and care deeply for them both now and in the future.
When this video game can pull my heartstrings this legitimately, on top of being a product worth its salt in presentation and gameplay [for the most part], that is enough reason for me to assert that it is not just another excellent game by Naughty Dog raking in the perfect scores. The Last of Us is a game that makes me prouder than ever to be a video gamer, an observer and fan of the medium. Given the cheese, criticism, and issues associated with the video game industry nowadays, it's the first time I can really say that with a straight face.