Quite possibly, the best game of this generation. The first AAA game to live up to its 10/10, 5* reviews in years
Nowadays, gaming review sites are handing out 10/10 and 5/5 scores like they are candy. It is a shame, because this scoring inflation leaves no room for truly excellent games like The Last of Us to differentiate themselves. The Last of Us is, quite possibly, the best game that has come out this generation. It combines survival horror elements, stealth, and third-person shooting into an experience that is unlike any other. It manages to stand out despite being a member of the overcrowded post-apocalypse/zombie genre, and it looks beautiful too. The swan song of the PS3 will be remembered ten years from now as one of the best games ever made.
It is hard to explain what makes The Last of Us such a great game, other than one simple word – design. The Last of Us has a level of polish and attention to detail that is almost unheard of outside of a game by Valve or Blizzard. Speaking of Valve, The Last of Us is somewhat reminiscent of Half-Life 2 – an epic journey through a devastated world across a variety of landscapes where you fight a variety of enemies – a game where there is not one boring moment and every level feels like it would have been the best level in an ordinary action game.
Although it features a lot of elements, The Last of Us is ultimately a stealth game, and the rest of the gameplay either supports it or branches off from it. It is a really good one too – it is easily the best stealth experience of this generation, because it does what almost no stealth game has done for over a decade – give you a gameplay reason to be stealthy. The stealth genre has been ruined by developers (and publishers) who are afraid to challenge you or let you fail. So, they give you the power to become a one man killing machine if you get detected. Stealth then becomes a purely aesthetic or metagaming choice. You stay stealthy, but then when you screw up, you shrug your shoulders and just shoot everyone in the face. All that is lost is some achievement points or a trophy.
The Last of Us is different, because the shooting is hard in this game. It feels like it was legitimately designed to be a last resort. You move and aim like you do in Dead Space or Resident Evil, but the enemies all run like normal people. The result is that you find yourself facing a lot of moving targets that are hard to hit. You can’t take many hits yourself, and your health doesn’t regenerate. Enemy bullets stun you, knocking you out of your aim. Headshots take a lot of time to line up, and during that time you are dangerously exposing yourself. The result is that you can chew through all of your limited ammunition in a pitched battle with just five or six enemies. With these restrictions, stealth becomes an essential tool for resource management and survival. It is much more satisfying that way.
The Last of Us is a great stealth game not just because it requires you to use stealth, but also because it gives you adequate tools for staying hidden while you plan a strategy. The levels have plenty of space and lots of places to take cover, which allows you the opportunity to move around the environments to avoid patrol routes. You can carry a bottle or a brick and throw it to either distract enemies or stun them with a blow to the head. Smoke bombs obscure the battlefield if you need to get away in a pinch, and the game has a listening mode that allows you to detect enemies through walls. You can one-hit kill enemies slowly from behind by strangling them, or quickly by stabling them with a shiv. The shivs, like bullets, are limited in number. Stealth is necessary, but it is not a panacea. You will find yourself using it to thin out enemies, but you will have to shoot some of them too.
The Last of Us also features a simple crafting system, with which you can make a few powerful items like Molotov cocktails or nail bombs. In addition, you can upgrade your weapons and your abilities. The crafting system is another example of the game’s simple but polished, elegant design. There are enough items to provide some variety in what you can do with them, but not so much that it feels like boring spreadsheet management. As with ammunition, Naughty Dog erred on the side of making resources scarce to keep the game challenging. You will frequently find yourself scouring the environments for the occasional bottle of alcohol or rag so that you can make a health kit when you are one health bar away from death. Resource scarcity gives you incentive to engage or eliminate enemies if you are trying to scrounge up supplies, because it is virtually impossible to search the nooks and crannies of the levels with enemies roaming around. Over and over again, The Last of Us confronts you with meaningful little choices. Should you shiv this guy or save the shiv and sneak past him? Should you let a guy get close to you and use shotgun ammo on him, or try and get him from a distance with the pistol? The combination of gathering scarce resources and then choosing how to consume them in challenging encounters makes for an incredibly addictive cycle. The Last of Us is a long game by today’s standards (15-20 hours, at least) but it never gets monotonous or boring.
Combat is not only challenging, but very intense. A major reason for this intensity is the game’s fantastic presentation. The audio during firefights, in particular, is excellent. Guns feature a loud, resounding boom or crack the makes every shot sound deadly. Missed shots ricochet loudly off of walls and cover objects. Enemies yell out all kinds of barks and taunts in a manner that somehow makes the battle feel more desperate while painting them as scum of the earth. Often, they will hint at the tactics that they are going to take and give you feedback about how they perceive your condition (such as when one of them alerts his buddies that you have run out of ammunition). All of the voice acting is top notch.
Great animations are also a key factor in making The Last of Us so immersive. The only set of games on the market that might have a better library of animations is the Assassins Creed series. Like that series, the animations in The Last of Us give everything a realistic sense of weight and momentum. The reloading animations are slower and more realistic than those in most other games. Joel and his enemies recoil in pain when they are struck by a bullet (as opposed to the lame bullet sponges in games like Bioshock: Infinite). The attention to detail present in this department is astonishing. For example, even though there is no cover button, Joel will make some subtle movements with his hands when he is up against a wall or crouched behind an object, as if he were clinging to it. Brief scripted sequences, like when Ellie has to jump onto an object that you have placed in the environment, are animated perfectly. By-and-large, The Last of Us looks gorgeous. It is arguably the king of the hill on the PS3 when it comes to how impressive it is technologically, and the game is loaded with beautiful art assets. It looks incredible, whether it is showing you dark, dusty basements and subway tunnels or sunny, serene-looking outdoor environments. There are some impressive vistas too where you get to see the skyline of a decaying city or some landmark that represents your next goes.
Does The Last of Us have any flaws? It does, in fact, have a few. You can find some nitpicks in this game, like how your allies are invisible to enemies during stealth sequences. This leads to more than a few immersion-breaking moments where your allies will be right in front of an enemy’s face and he won’t initial combat. This problem is easy to ignore, however. One problem that isn’t easy to ignore is that if you have consumed a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction lately, you will be able to predict a lot of the game’s plot points. There are only so many twists and turns that you can put into a story, and by now, the zombie/apocalypse genre has pretty much seen them all. Fortunately, The Last of Us is more about the people than the plot. Figuring out what is going to happen ahead of time doesn’t spoil the emotional connection that you form with Joel and Ellie. Even if the story doesn’t surprise you, it will probably impress you with its well-written dialog and how much empathy it invokes for its characters.
The Last of Us is a masterpiece when it comes to atmosphere, visuals, and gameplay. It is one of the rare triple-A games that actually lives up to all of its pre-release hype and 10/10 scores. In some ways, this is the God of War of the PS3 generation – the superb game that shows up late in the console cycle when everyone is already looking forward to the next cycle. This game is one of the best ever made. Does it deserve to be up in the Pantheon of greats along with Half-Life 2, Deus Ex, and Civilization? It will take some time to provide some perspective, but I believe that in ten years, people will look back upon The Last of Us with that same level of reverence. This type of greatness withstands the test of time.