Hot off the heels of their most recent Uncharted outing, developer Naughty Dog could have simply stuck to the tried and true, guns-blazin’, wall-clamorin’ formula of the iconic action/adventure series. Instead, the Sony-owned studio chose to go much darker with The Last of Us, a brooding tale of loss, redemption and survival. A mysterious fungal parasite has ravaged the country leaving countless victims in a zombie-like state of bloodlust and Joel, a smuggler with a mysterious past, is stuck in the center of it all. The nation’s state of decay is immeasurably large-scale as survivors are moved into ghetto-like quarantine zones run my the military. For reasons we won’t spoil here, Joel finds himself in a tricky situation, and must escort teenaged Ellie across the nation whilst contending with the viral outbreak, ruthless bandits and others just doing their best to get by and live another day.
If there’s one thing Naughty Dog is known for it is engaging and detailed stories, and the last of us takes these tenets to brilliant new heights. Joel is a man with a tortured past now working as a smuggler in a Boston quarantine zone. Need pills or guns? Joel is your guy. These military run ghettos might promise safety and security, but the sad fact is everyone is still struggling to get by using any means necessary—sometimes violent means. Food rations are scarce, trust is a thing of the past and many are forced to do things they might otherwise never have even thought of just to live another day. We join Joel and his partner Tess as a routine deal goes awry and they are forced to confront a fellow smuggler to retrieve stolen firearms. This sets into motion a chain of events whereby Joel finds himself escorting 14-year-old Ellie across the country as a means to retrieve the weapons from the Fireflies, an insurgent group of radicals attempting to wrestle control away from the military and put it in the hands of the people.
Joel is a reluctant hero and at first wants nothing to do with Ellie…the tension between the two is palpable. Ellie is, for the most part, a happy-go-lucky teenager as she has never known a world without the infected. In other words, this is the only life she has ever known. For Joel, who can remember a time before the outbreak, it’s a little harder to achieve any sort of happiness. Though she is feisty, Ellie is still naive, and it’s endearing to see her gasp with wide-eyed astonishment at things we take for granted…forests, wildlife, fresh air, etc., or tell bad jokes during downtime. Joel, on the other hand, is hardened by the horrifying events of his past, and struggles to look at the transport gig as a job and nothing more. Over the 15-20 hours of gameplay, however, the two begin to form a father daughter bond similar to that of Lee Everett and Clementine from Telltale Games’ brilliant Walking Dead series. Whereas Joel is gruff and curt with Ellie at first, he slowly grows to love her, and so do we. This gradually forming bond is the true star of the show, and the dynamic that develops between the two characters feels truly organic and showcases some of the best writing of this gaming generation. Early instances that find Joel impatiently bossing Ellie around evolve into more of a partnership, and we begin to care for Ellie as if she were our own daughter. The lengths to which Joel will go to in order to provide protection are mind blowing and sometimes heartbreaking.
In most games-let’s face it- the task of killing is an almost joyful event. In The Last of Us, however, each enemy you encounter and kill carries serious emotional weight. For the most part, those you fight are survivors just like you, and you being to see yourself in your enemies’ actions. Yes, some enemies are downright bad guys, but they are fundamentally trying to find another meal, more water, antibiotics, etc. You will begin to wonder who you are to decide who lives and dies; it never feels good to sneak up behind an enemy and strangle them to death as they fruitlessly try to cling to life. Naughty Dog’s different take on game violence is smart and sticks with you. The game even goes so far as to straight up point out that the very people you’ve been fighting and killing are no different than you in terms of situation and motivation.
Gunplay is incrediby tight and fun and somewhat reminiscent of the Uncharted series and the varied arsenal is upgradeable via collectible parts scattered throughout each area. Firearm mechanics is where the similarities to Naughty Dog’s previous IP ends. Some gamers worried The Last of Us would be a re-skinned stab at revinventing Drake and Sully, but there are no over the top jump mechanics or goofy one-liners found here. And in case you aren’t convinced, try running into a roomful of infected with guns blazing and see how long you survive. In other words, less patient gamers may have a tough time with the methodical stealth sections found throughout the game, but those who can be patient will find it is immensely satisfying to clear a roomful of foes without so much as a single one noticing you were there.
Adding to the strategical aspects is the ability to craft support items like shivs, Molotov cocktails, nail bombs and first aid kits. These items serve to deepen tactical/strategical encounters. Is that lousy bandit hiding behind cover? Throw over a Molotov and set him on fire! Everything happens in real time, though, so you’ll need to take cover or wait for a lull in the action before you set to crafting items. In other words, make sure you stock up on what you need before heading into the fray.
Voice acting in the last of us is the best since Andy Serkis killed it in Enslaved thanks to the talents of actors like Troy Baker (Joel) Ashley Johnson (Ellie) and the iconic Nolan North (in a decidedly different role than his starmaking turn as Nathan drake). Baker especially shines as Joel. There is true emotional depth as he transforms from an angry loner to loving father type. It is through these stellar performances that the last of us surpasses traditional gaming and breaches cinematic quality.
Despite the current transition into next-gen consoles, Naughty Dog has pushed the ps3’s graphical quality to the very limits to produce one of the best—if not THE best-looking game currently available. The last of us is gorgeous and more detailed than just about anything you’ve seen. Each area seems larger than the last, and gameplay hours begin to skyrocket should you choose to explore. Curious gamers will find plenty of reasons to be thorough in the form of hidden parts caches and ammo drops. Seriously, nerds, there’s a ton of value here.
With only two modes (Supply Raid and survivors), The Last of Us‘ multiplayer options may seem lacking, but both are tied into a meta game/stripped-down story in which you recruit and care for a clan of fellow survivors. Gamers who link to their Facebook account will even be able to induct their real-life friends into their clan, and between matches you’ll be given updates as to the general health of your buddies. It’s pretty funny to see messages like, “So-and So is considering eating the cat.” You’ll be given mini-objectives and challenges to keep your clan fed and healthy such as collecting a certain number of supplies or spotting or executing a certain number of enemies within a set number of matches. This extra layer provides more incentive to perform well and deepens the overall experience, even if the “story” found within the multiplayer suite isn’t exactly fleshed-out. Ammo is in limited supply at the beginning of each match which does wonders for the bleak tone of the post-outbreak setting. Don’t worry, though, as you can scavenge ammo from supply drops, defeated enemies or via the mid-match store. One-use boosters can also be earned and applied for anything from extra speed, ammo or more.
If you read Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” played Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead: The Game or experienced countless other post-apocalyptic films, books or games, The Last of Us can feel a bit tired from a setting aspect. We have seen the end of the world represented in so many ways so many times before that its easy to suffer from apocalypse fatigue. And no matter how much Naughty Dog would like for the infected to seem like victims of a viral outbreak, they are, for all intents and purposes, zombies. Zombies are everywhere these days, man…everywhere. Besides, the truly exceptional content comes in the encounters with survivors and the strained or new relationships between the “good guys.”
The Bottom Line
The Last of Us is just about the best game the PS3 has to offer and a brilliant experience for anyone looking for exciting single player and/or robust multiplayer. If video games are slowly becoming interactive films, this is the closest any title has come to blurring those lines. With relatable characters, an intelligent and well-planned story and some of the best mechanics of the current generation, this will be the game to beat once year-end “Best Of 2013” lists start popping up. Sony has once again proven to be the publisher to beat in terms of console exclusives, and you have no right to call yourself a gamer if you don’t pick this up immediately.
9.5 out of 10
Killer story, voice acting, graphics. Fantastic multiplayer. Memorable characters.
Yet another apocalypse? Zombies, zombies, zombies! Sometimes a tad “gamey.”
The Last of Us
Developer: Naughty Dog
Rating: M (You’ll be strangling everybody)