You gotta have faith
I have no idea where to even begin in reviewing The Last of Us.
Sometimes, reviews are easy: You start with the basic introduction of what the game is, you hit on its good and bad points— maybe the story was good, the gameplay fun yet also flawed, the characters interesting but not fully developed—and then you wrap things up with a neat little bow in your final paragraph. There’s typically some level of conflict here or there, but for the most part, by the time the credits roll, you’ve got a solid idea of how you felt about the game not just as a game, but also as an experience. Maybe you’re not exactly sure if the score should end in a “.0” or a “.5,” but that’ll come once you’re committed your thoughts to paper. (Or, I suppose I should say “screen,” in this digital age.)
What makes it hard for me to truly express my feelings about The Last of Us isn’t an issue with the quality of Naughty Dog’s latest entertainment project. This game is good—very good. It’s just that it’s also complex—in a way that makes boiling down my exact postgame emotions to easy-to-digest blocks of text a very challenging endeavor.
So, let’s start at the beginning. The Last of Us’ prologue is as fantastic as it is unexpected. There’s no way I can even begin to get into what happens at this point in the game, because anything I could say would ruin the experience you’ll have seeing it for the first time. What I can say is that the events that transpire aren’t just there to set up what’s to come in the remainder of the game—they’re also there to establish an emotional connection between the player, the world, and its inhabitants. Not even a half an hour in, I already found myself having legitimate feelings for the fate of these people. Thankfully, this was all done without any cheap tugging at heartstrings or forced “you’re going to like these characters because we tell you to” moments.
Without question, the opening of The Last of Us is far and away one of the strongest a game has had in some time. A few hours later, however, I’d be a bit more mixed in my opinions.
As the game proper starts up, we get a glimpse into the lives of Joel and Tess, a pair of survivors who make a living as smugglers in the remains of a post-pandemic United States. While trying to get revenge on a rival who causes a particularly big score of theirs to go bad, the due comes up against a woman named Marlene. Joel and Tess are told that the Fireflies—a rogue militia organization that Marlene heads up—currently have possession of the weapons the pair are trying to recover, and that the cache of arms will be returned to them if they can complete a job. A job which, initially, seems simple: Smuggle an important item beyond the walls of the locked-down Boston quarantine zone and into the waiting hands of a team of Fireflies waiting just outside the city.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a proper story if things were that simple, and the first hitch in the job comes when Joel and Tess are told what the cargo is: Ellie, a 14-year-old girl. While neither of them knows why they’ve been asked to get Ellie out of Boston, neither of them really cares; completing the job will get them their guns back, and that’s all that matters.
Escaping from Boston is no easy feat as the military units that make sure no unwanted guests get in also seem keen on keeping anyone from getting out. Here, we get our first taste of hiding from—or stealthily taking out—human opponents. Soon, our trio’s pursuers are given the slip, and we’re introduced to the ruined remains that now litter most of the uninhabited portions of the country. This is where you’ll start to get a sense for just how beautiful The Last of Us is. As crumbling buildings rise from organic overgrowth in the distance, light breaks through cloud cover that threatens summer storms, or open doors invite you to explore long-uninhabited homes, there’s never a moment where you can’t stop and be amazed by the skills Naughty Dog has for pushing the PlayStation 3’s hardware. Hyperbolic statements like “best visuals of this generation” are exclamations I’m usually a bit nervous about making, but The Last of Us really will stand out as one of the most graphically impressive releases from this console cycle.
The thing is, what’s impressive about how The Last of Us looks isn’t found simply in the technological prowess of the game’s visuals—it’s also in design. Crafting how the world would look after an apocalyptic event is a unique mixture of fact and fiction; you have to blend what you know would have existed together with the possible scenarios of what could happen after we’re gone. Every location you’ll travel to throughout your journey is brimming with interest and personality, and even the smallest of details scattered throughout the rubble are worth giving your attention to.
All of that beauty felt a little hollow to me a short ways into the game, however. I’d expected an epic tale of struggle and survival in this new mythos Naughty Dog had created, but as much struggle as I encountered as I battled the various infected and non-infected foes that were put into my path, survival seemed to be forgotten.
There’s always some hesitation in directly comparing one game with another, yet I feel that I have to at least bring up the conversation here. While the game was obviously a shadow of its original ambitious self—and plenty of things that it tried to do it didn’t do well—I couldn’t help but think back to Ubisoft’s I Am Alive. One fascinating side of that title was how well it brought together the more action-oriented gameplay elements with the more human side of survival. Supplies were scarce to the point that your gun would almost never have more than a few rounds in it, and if you pointed it at another human being, they’d take great concern in that threat. Firing that gun was a big deal, not only in what it’d mean for your remaining ammo, but also in the escalation that it’d cause. You could feign surrender to get a jump on those threatening you, or you could back off with your hands up to avoid trouble all together. At various times, you’d come across others whose continued survival would depend on you—and it was your choice on whether you helped them out or not.
It wasn’t that I was demanding that The Last of Us include those exact features—I just found myself wishing that it had offered more aspects that played with the unique dynamics of trying to survive, beyond typical gaming tropes. Over the years, I’ve played a number of games that dealt with the theme of surviving the fall of man, and up to The Last of Us, I’d never found one that really satisfied me in the ways that I’d been hoping. This was going to be that game—that game that would combine fantastic narrative and fantastic characters and fantastic gameplay and have them all exhibit a fantastic level of polish.
The Last of Us is not a game about always only having fewer than six bullets in your gun, or having to scrounge up food to satiate a hunger meter, or helping others survive the harsh conditions of a fallen society along your way. It took a while, but I came to fully accept that fact—and, soon, I was OK with it. As much as that was the kind of game I’d been hoping to find when picking up my PlayStation controller, Naughty Dog had other plans for their newest protagonists.
It’s those characters, specifically, that turned my disappointment around. I could find ways in which the gameplay wasn’t living up to expectations I’d crafted in my head; there was no way I could say the same about Joel and Ellie. Given that Nathan Drake is one of my favorite characters of this console generation, I already knew that the folks behind Uncharted knew how to write characters. As much as I may love the wisecracking, larger-than-life treasure hunter, the cast here is on another level in terms of being able to carry a story.
Really, The Last of Us hits a number of beats that you’d expect in these kinds of “end of the world” stories—but you never really care, because you become so invested in Joel and Ellie as people that you’re simply glad to be along for the ride to see what happens to them. Even as their journey is infected with heartbreak, conflict, and loss, our heroes are still able to fill us with hope for their futures. Even as fungus-infected, zombie-like mutants are chasing them down, they’re still able to ground the story with a sense of reality. It is impossible to dislike either Joel or Ellie—not because they’re perfect, but because we so connect with their humanity and personalities.
It’d be easy to say that the cast of The Last of Us would be at home in a big-budget movie or television drama, but we shouldn’t sabotage the medium of games in that way. Our characters are getting better, and this is proof of that fact.
At that point—when I’d grown fully attached to Joel, Ellie, and the rest of the cast—I was able to better appreciate The Last of Us as a game. And that it is: a game. I brought up the argument that some of Tomb Raider’s failings were because it did have to remember to be a piece of interactive entertainment that conforms to some preexisting assumptions, and I think the same could be said here. Would I have loved to have seen far fewer enemies to dispatch? Absolutely. Would I have loved to have seen a larger amount of quieter moments featuring nothing more than experiencing the world that’s been built here? Definitely.
Yet, even with that said, Naughty Dog has taken a number of risks in The Last of Us. Sure, combat is still there—but your final death count will probably be much lower than other games you’ve played in recent years. Bosses, in the traditional sense, are nearly non-existent, and the threat posed by the infected feels far less videogame-y than it could have. The game also includes much longer stretches of “nothing” between action scenes than you’d expect from a big-budget title, and those moments rarely feel the need to break down into puzzle-solving simply to find the excuse to give the player some sort of challenge.
When it comes time to pull out a weapon and down some not-so-friendly survivors—or, conversely, sneak up behind them and take them out in a quieter fashion—the gameplay is mostly great. It’s very clear the lessons Naughty Dog has learned about the third-person shooter genre from their work on Uncharted, and that great control and solid shooting are present here. The game also features some nice evolutions in that area as well, such as a cover system that requires no button to slip in and out of. Players are often given the option of how they want to handle a situation—stealthily or guns blazing—and I got the feeling that either method was considered equally valid in a majority of situations.
There’s also a very visceral, brutal quality to the action in The Last of Us. You see this aspect quite a bit in the game’s dynamic melee fight engine, but it also comes into play when using long-range weapons, or even just in how characters act toward one another. Typically, I’m not one who enjoys this style of violence in games, but it seems completely fitting here. Surviving in the world, as it exists at this point wouldn’t be a pretty situation, and I also came to accept—as well as appreciate—Joel as a character who isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty if that’s what needs to happen.
There are downsides, though—things that, while they don’t break the game, mar what’s otherwise a completely amazing experience. Non-player character AI can easily break your immersion into The Last of Us’ world, as enemies act (or react) in ways that take away from some of the tension, while Ellie will walk right past a patrolling soldier without even a hint of being spotted. I get that having AI-controlled partners not raising detection can be a good thing when trying to be stealthy, but those characters could have been programmed to better stay out of the way and in hiding. (The game knows exactly where both sets of characters are at—it can figure out where each should realistically be at any given point.) For foes? I’d love to have seen more dynamic, unpredictable decisions on their part. In a game about survival, I favor the idea of fewer people to fight and having those I do encounter be serious threats.
Really, there was only one place in The Last of Us where I was legitimately disappointed with the effort from the men and women of Naughty Dog: multiplayer. On the single-player side, I would’ve loved to see certain elements, but what I got was more than enough to keep me satisfied. Multiplayer, however, felt like a serious wasted opportunity in terms of all of the creative competitive and cooperative ideas that could have been tied to what’s seen in the game’s storyline. Initially, the premise is interesting: Pick one of two factions, and then build and maintain a colony of survivors as a fancy means of portraying character advancement and leveling.
The problem is, there are only two real gameplay modes offered: a team deathmatch-based mode where players can respawn as long as their side has ticks remaining in their “reinforcement” counter, and…a team deathmatch-type mode where each side only gets one life per player—and, once one team is wiped out, their opponents get a point. So much more could have been done here! Why not a mode where one team has to defend their cache of supplies and food, and the other team is trying to break in and take it? Why not a mode where one team plays as the audio-focused Clickers, and they have to use sound cues and sonar-like vision to track down their prey? Or, heck, why not a team deathmatch mode where the two teams also have to deal with pesky hordes of infected constantly getting in the way?
I might not be so sore about The Last of Us’ multiplayer mode if it didn’t then also commit something that’s an absolute sin to me: the inability to pick your player-character model. While you can customize clothing accessories or personal symbols, you’ll be given a randomized character every time you start up a new match—a downright bizarre decision, given that both Uncharted 2 and 3 understood the importance of letting players choose their favorite character in an environment where not only will other people be constantly seeing your virtual avatar, but you’ll be as well.
While I wasn’t impressed with the multiplayer offerings in The Last of Us, I did still have fun with them. I’m also very clear on something far more important: that no matter how good or bad that multiplayer may be, it’s merely the appetizer to the real main course. And while—being the proud American that I am—I might always think that I know what’s best as far as the toppings or cooking style used for my meal, sometimes you have to just sit back and trust that the chef knows better than you.
When the final credits rolled and I sat contemplating the 16 hours of playtime I’d just been through, I still wanted to find that game that fits my “post-apocalyptic adventure” checklist perfectly. At the same time, I also understood that Naughty Dog knew better than I what The Last of Us needed to be.
The truth is, this isn’t really a game about scrounging for supplies, or surviving a fungal infection that turns humans into monsters, or even the ways in which humans can and would treat one another once society completely breaks down. This is a game about two people—Joel and Ellie—and the relationship that forms between them because of all of those other elements. At the end of the day, what happens to those two people is more important and interesting than anything else that could have been done here, and as the vehicle via which such a story will be told, Naughty Dog has crafted what’s probably their best game yet—a game that serves as a fitting end to the generation that’s made projects such as The Last of Us realistically possible.
|Developer: Naughty Dog • Publisher: SCEA • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 06.14.2013|
It’s easy to initially expect The Last of Us to be a game about killing zombies, surviving in a post-apocalyptic world, and exploring for supplies. Instead, it’s a game about two people, and the bond that forms between them—and that journey is far more exciting than any amount of infected monsters or food scavenging could ever provide.
|The Good||A gripping tale of struggle and survival that’s engrossing to play, a joy to behold, and a pleasure to listen to.|
|The Bad||With so much of the game being as good as it is, the flaws are even more pronounced.|
|The Ugly||The splitting headache The Last of Us’ fungal infection gives those poor souls who succumb to it.|
|The Last of Us is available exclusively on PlayStation 3.|