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Naughty Dog’s The Last Of Us “Ellievates” Above the Rest [REVIEW]

Posted on July 17, 2013 AT 09:05am

Riveting. Captivating. An insightful piece of living art.

If any genre of video game entertainment DESERVED a revival, it is the wasteland genre. When executed well, the genre can generate deep introspection within the player. The Last of Us while largely criticized for its ending [Insert ME 3 flashbacks here] was equally praised for the exact same thing.

The Last of Us takes the player through the life of Joel, a hard working man who lives by his own morality. (If you can call it that.) He has learned that in life things do not always balance out –things do not always end in the best of ways. Life is a play with no rehearsals – either you do what you MUST to survive, or you die trying to figure it out. To live is to survive. To survive is to abandon the old standards of reasoning and logic. Logic and reasoning are purely subjective now.

It is US against THEM.
It is US against US.

We get to experience –almost immediately – the moment Joel’s predisposed humanity bleeds out of him. “The outbreak” has just happened. Nothing is truly known by the masses, the casualties are multiplying. Governmental protection becomes a threat, and his daughter is killed. Many players felt the game was purposely manipulating them, to make them sympathize with Joel, and they may have been right. But if it took this scene to drive that home for you, then you weren’t paying attention from the start.

Cut forward twenty years into the future. An airborne, spore-spread infection is running wild. Humanity is in shambles and is “playing house” with itself. Government and society are trying to re-establish social order while overtly taking advantage of what little community is left. During this time an anti-establishment group known as the Fireflies has formed, and they have resorted to desperate extremes seeking a cure to the outbreak.

Joel has done well enough for himself, surviving as a smuggler with his partner Tess. A deal with a man named Robert goes to hell, leaving our protagonist to embark cross country with a type of shipment he never would have agreed to move – a fourteen year old girl named Ellie.

Throughout the game, Joel is conflicted about this “cargo.” What she could mean to the rest of humanity, the oppressive danger involved in getting her from Boston to the Fireflies facility, and ultimately growing closer and closer to feelings he doesn’t want to feel anymore – a past that continues to haunts him.

The Last of Us bravely sets out to take the player on Joel’s journey, whether they are emotionally ready for it or not.

Assume that you never heard anything about The Last of Us. Going with what you already know about Naughty Dog(And you have heard about Naughty Dog before, right?) The most generic assumptions you would make would be accurate. The Last of Us is a third-person shooter for the majority of the game sprinkled with a stealth/cover system for good measure. While you primarily control Joel, there are some key points where your control shifts to Ellie. It would be easy to assume the The Last of Us is an “Uncharted with Zombies” featuring an older Nathan Drake. Even the multiplayer format is eerily similar to the last Uncharted game with only one slight difference.

(See what I mean?)

But how does that saying go…”When you assume…you…do something…something.” I’ll google the rest later.

If you suck at “stealthing” around or are the type of player to shoot first and ask questions later, The Last of Us will clearly show you the error of your ways. You will be punished. If you excel at stealth or are just cautious in your gameplay, The Last of Us will clearly show you the righteousness of your ways. You will be rewarded. In-game combat provides a variety of choices for ranged and melee attacks, hinting that there is balance in the game. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. You can go in guns blazing, but you’ll come to regret your actions further down the long, long road. Stealth, crouch, and strategy will be your best friends from now on. Get used to em. Take them out to lunch. Show them a good time. You need them.

The Last of Us wouldn’t be much of a survivalist game if you didn’t have to scrounge around for ammo, health, or craft your own weapons. The details that Naughty Dog added into the crafting mechanic are very realistic. Just having the pieces needed to craft an item plus a quick press of the “X” button, does not instantly result in the item being made. Crafting items takes time. So smart players should constantly be restocking once an area is clear of enemies. Breakable weapons make an appearance as well.

There are upgrades to beef up Joel–stat points and crafting skills – as well as weapons. Constantly scavenging areas to find doors that require a shiv to open will reward the player with the pill points needed to kit Joel out. Getting all of the power-ups isn’t entirely necessary in order to complete the game, but it most certainly wouldn’t hurt.

While there aren’t any NPC’s asking Joel to help them find food, there is a cornucopia of collectibles to, you know, collect – firefly pendants, logs, notes, and even audio recorders. All of which are hidden in plain sight if you take the time to notice them. A massive chunk of playtime can be devoted to exploration as well as character development, and it should be. Taking these opportunities for granted regardless of the end result would be a mistake. Having every conversation is better than no conversations.

The Last of Us includes a component called “Factions.” It is a mode that adds value to the already established story. The player is allowed to pick a faction – Hunters or Fireflies. They then have 12 weeks to hold out by keeping their clan alive through collecting supplies, which happens during matches. Each match equals out to about a day. By surviving to the end, the player completes the journey, and then is then allowed to chose their faction again. Rinse and repeat.
Additionally the multiplayer houses two game modes designed for up to eight players. First, there is “Supply Raid” – a standard death match game where the team who runs out of respawns loses. Then there is “Survivors” – a no respawn mode where teams win rounds by killing off the enemy’s entire team. Four wins seals the deal.

While many will point out the haunting, and chilling vacantness that the soundtrack delivers (rather beautifully) I was drawn to the minimalistic qualities of the soundscape. The fear and unsettling vibe is amplified through the amazing work of Gustavo Santaolalla (The game’s composer), but the true origins of that unsettling feeling comes from the disconnect created by the whole wasteland setting. A world that was once filled to the brim with sound – more specifically the sound of life – is at times utterly silent. Silence is now the new safe and sound can lead to death. Make too much noise and you’ll attract clickers, infected beings with one hit kills. Unlike other survivalist games where the audio is loud, oppressive, and relentless in its attempt to heighten the sense of fear in the player, Santaolalla has put together a soundscape that at times is both terrifying and tranquil without resorting to those other tactics.

Of course there were some flaws, but they pale in comparison to the overall success of Naughty Dog’s game. The game’s theme centered around the premise of not being safe at all times. However, the player is constantly being coddled by automatic saves. Normally, automatic saves is something the community begs a developer to include in their game, but for a game in this genre one would expect to not have that security. It is surprising, at least to me, that the player is not forced to scrounge for checkpoints like they have to scrounge for everything else in this game.

During my second play through of the game,I padded myself on the back for eliminating all of the hunters patrolling a particular building. Just to be on the safe side, I used my super sonic hearing and discovered that one hunter was still walking around below me. Shiv in hand, I made my way to the bottom floor. I never saw an enemy walking around nor did my efforts to distract him via glass bottle or brick lead to his emergence. It was obvious that the outlined character was not glitched and moved naturally. I suffered light frame rate issues. They did not hurt me, but in stead would result in several infected stalkers to being glitched in place. Easy target practice for me. (Thank you glitches.)

The Last of Us is a solid contender for Game of The Year. This game will spark something in each and every gamer that plays it. Naughty Dog’s passion and hard work shines through effortlessly in this game. It doesn’t bash the player over the head with the ideals of right versus wrong. It in itself is a cautionary tale, one that society as it is right now should heed.

Some stories can be told in cycles. Some are giant novels, while other are vignettes. Sometimes short one-offs can hold the same insightfulness as a multi-book series. For me to expound on The Last of Us anymore would only water down the story it tells. The story you need to experience.

The Last of Us gets ESH’s “buy this game” rating. It also gets our “wouldn’t suck as a gift” rating. It needs to be a part of your Playstation 3 library. The Last of Us is available at your local Walmart, Target, and video game store. Digitally it can also be found on the Playstation Store.

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