The Last of Us is an amazing achievement and one that shows that Naughty Dog has the ability to adapt with aplomb.
(Note: I only played through the single-player so the review is solely focused on that.)
Not too many games come with higher expectations nowadays. Naughty Dogs’ flagship PS3 series Uncharted has garnered critical and commercial praise across the board. With that series mainly focusing on Indiana Jones-like thrills, one would not be totally wrong in thinking that The Last of Us was just Uncharted with zombies. Luckily for us, it’s far more than that. The Last of Us brings true terror and a weightier feel to the combat while also making the player think on their toes. Add this to the brilliant story and characters and you’ve got the makings of a true gem.
The story follows a smuggler in the post-apocalyptic mid-west named Joel. He’s a rough and tumble kind of guy that will do whatever it takes to survive. Twenty years after a fungal virus outbreak wreaks havoc on the planet, creating lunatics deemed “infected” that attack people on site (or sound in most cases), it’s pretty easy to understand why Joel is the way he is. He’s seen the worst that the world has to offer. People don’t often offer a helping hand in this dreary world. They’re quicker to shoot you and loot what your corpse holds. Early on in the game Joel has Ellie placed into his care. She’s a 14 year old with a bit of an attitude and the mouth of sailor to boot. She also happens to be a key figure in the fight against the fungal virus that’s got its grip on the world’s throat. This fact alone sends the pair on a harrowing journey through the death laden landscape that is now the U.S.
The setup for The Last of Us isn’t the most original I’ve ever heard, but it does a good job of setting up the dreary world and the relationship between Joel and Ellie. And what a fantastic depiction of a relationship it is. The stand out performances from Troy Baker (Joel) and Ashley Johnson (Ellie) do a great job in bringing raw emotion to the proceedings. Naughty Dog has clearly gone above and beyond in creating these characters. What starts as a burden being dropped into your lap, Ellie becomes someone that you truly care about over the course of the 12 to 15 hour story.
Joel and Ellie start off in a rocky fashion. Neither seems to want to have anything to do with the other. Through the many trials and tribulations that they encounter, however, they begin to form an unbreakable bond. Some of the games’ best moments come when the two have conversations about what they’ve gone through or what the “old world” was like. The reason so much of the dialogue works is because it plays off of the fact that Ellie was born into this hellish world with no knowledge of what it was like before everyone was killing each other. For her, people killing people is just an everyday occurrence. She has no concept of school, movies, or anything that you or I see all the time. It’s an interesting dynamic seeing how Joel tries to explain why models were so skinny or what college life was like. Ellie’s reactions come off as sweet and honest with a hint of naivety. It works so well that I found myself searching for these moments that pop up occasionally while exploring new areas. You can decide to skip the conversations altogether, but doing so would be a disservice to yourself.
Naughty Dog made a bold decision in taking the gameplay in a completely different direction from their previous outings. The games’ mix of fist clenching stealth and brutal action are a welcome change of pace. Most of the encounters you come up against will have you sneaking around, stalking your pursuers, with sound playing a vital role. Holding down the R2 button gives Joel a sort of Daredevil-like framing around the world. With every noise an enemy makes it outlines them to give you a sense of where they are. If they’re being quiet though, you’ll have to get them in your field of view or draw them out by throwing a brick or bottle. Going in guns blazing isn’t usually a viable or smart option. With limited resources, it’s almost always best to silently take down foes or just outright run. Facing off against the human adversaries or the “infected” is often an excruciatingly tense predicament. Choosing whether or not to take down an enemy in fear of not having enough resources is also a decision that comes up throughout. Changing up your strategy makes each instance feel unique and gives your choices far more meaning. Later on in the campaign this is somewhat diminished. By the end you’ll be coming across ammo fairly frequently. It’s a shame because the constant threat of running out of supplies and/or ammo was a truly terrifying feeling that made The Last of Us stand out. Giving the game a bit of replay value is the option of a New Game Plus. If you were tired of getting your ass handed to you in the beginning, taking your beefed up character back in for a second go might sound great. To me, the scarcity of supplies and fragility of Joel was what made a lot of the game so special.
Though it’s not really considered a survival-horror game, there’s plenty of terror to go around. Being caught in the middle of a dark underground lobby teeming with “infected” has been stuck in my mind long after finishing the game. Often times I found myself holding my breath as I had to pass by the blind “clicker” as it scoured the area, letting out its disturbing screeches. Running into these not-so-delightful fellows left me feeling appropriately drained after each encounter. The fact that some two types of enemies are a one-hit kill further enforces the notion that you are fragile and can be taken down at a moments’ notice.
When you do have to reach for the firearms, it feels pitch perfect. Joel isn’t going to be popping off headshots left and right. Whenever you aim there’s a sway that makes it difficult to be accurate. This lends itself well to the frantic battles when you have enemies taking potshots behind cover, while another is rushing at you with a machete. Each impact of a bullet or melee weapon leaves foes staggering, giving you a chance to get up close and end it. Smashing a bat into an enemies’ skull was enough to leave me wincing every time. Even more sweat inducing is the inclusion of a real-time crafting system. Items to be made range from med-kits, to shivs, all the way to homemade nail grenades. More often than not there won’t be med-kits lying around the environment. Instead, you’ll have to make your own from supplies you’ve scavenged. Finding yourself in the heat of a gun fight while having to slap together a med-kit is a rush I’ll never forget.
AI companions will be following you during most of these situations. This could have been disastrous, but thankfully you don’t have to worry about them. They can handle themselves when it comes to a gunfight and they won’t be spotted by enemies when you’re skulking around. Although it was a good idea to make it so the AI doesn’t get you into any unfair trouble, it can detract from the experience. Seeing a buddy run directly in front of an enemy and not having them react was always enough to pull me out of the game a bit. It’s not the most elegant way of handling the problem, but neither is having dumb AI cause a game over screen so I can’t fault the developers too much. Enemy AI, while working most of the time, also has its fair share of issues. On more than one occasion I would come across an enemy that was in attack mode, but they were just running back and forth. This happened to the final enemy at one point during a heated battle leaving me to just run up and bash them with a two-by-four. Needless to say, it was a bit anticlimactic. These problems only showed up a few times during the game, but it was enough to impact the immersion.
Not surprisingly, Naughty Dog has brought their A-game on the graphical front. The PS3 is really being pushed to its limits here.The locales you’re visiting aren’t necessarily of the exotic variety, but they all have a completely foreign feeling to them. The striking contrast of crumbling cities covered with lush greenery is amazing. Traveling on foot through a forest is a beautiful, but somber experience. Each area has its own character that feels different and at the same time reminds you of the past. Small details in character animations, such as the way Ellie squints down and away if you’re shining your flashlight in her face, are another of the games’ many delights. Sometimes it seems as if the system is getting pushed a little too far though. There was a fair amount of texture pop-in and other minor graphical hitches. Every so often a character might get warped as they were clambering over a wall. These are all minor when everything surrounding it is of such a high quality. All in all, the game looks absolutely phenomenal.
Naughty Dog has again proven what great work they can create. The Last of Us is a truly remarkable adventure. Its brutal portrayal of a post-apocalyptic world is lifted even higher by incredible visuals and a strong cast of relatable characters that you grow to care about. The stirring mix of stealth gameplay and frenzied combat are a testament to Naughty Dog’s ability to flip their own script and that has me itching for what they have in store for their next installment.