Published on June 6th, 2013 | by Paul Tassi0
The Last of Us – Review
A visual masterpiece that somehow manages to make shooter combat feel fresh again, The Last of Us is a fantastic closing number for the Playstation 3.
As this console generation draws to a close, it stands to reason that most developers might be putting much of their efforts into crafting next-gen titles, rather than attempting to fashion something entirely new and original for an aging system.
Naughty Dog isn’t most developers.
Not merely content with spitting out something like Uncharted 3.5: Drake Goes to Atlantis, they went back to the drawing board and created an entirely new IP, a true rarity in the current video game landscape. The Last of Us is like nothing we’ve seen from the studio before, and though it does indeed have Uncharted’s core concept of third person shooting, the games couldn’t be more different.
To use the genre of the game as a comparison, the apocalypse, Uncharted would be Independence Day, loud, flashy and directed by Roland Emmerich who loves destroying buildings and cities to a worrying degree. The Last of Us is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Quiet, haunting and harrowing.
We play as Joel (Troy Baker), a grizzled man barely scraping by twenty years after the world ends. The planet fell victim to (surprise!) zombies, but not exactly the type we’re used to. Though the origin of the plague remains a mystery, the symptoms are obvious enough. Humans are infected either through bites or airborne spores. They grow fungus on their bodies and quickly lose their minds as they attack and attempt to convert or kill others. Most traditional zombie rules apply in terms of infection transfer, turning time and intelligence levels, but these aren’t “the living dead,” so if you fill them full of enough holes, they’ll go down even without direct brain trauma.
Joel resides in a City 17-esque quarantine zone where food is scarce and the military is unsurprisingly abusing their power. Using what skills he has, Joel works as a smuggler, a job he likes just fine until he’s tasked with sneaking a teenage girl out of the city and across the country.
Her name is Ellie (Ashley Johnson), and she’s wanted for unknown reasons by a resistance group called the Fireflies. They’re known for spray painting revolutionary messages on walls and blowing things up when it suits them. Joel doesn’t care much for kids or the Fireflies, but a job’s a job, and this one pays a hell of a lot.
Naturally, things go awry, and Joel and Ellie find themselves on a journey where the destination keeps shifting as nothing goes as planned. They must survive the endless onslaught of the Infected, but also must contend with the non-fungal monsters that the rest of humanity has become. Bloodthirsty bandits hound them at every turn as they make their way through a ravaged nation that’s almost unrecognizable.
The Last of Us (Credit: Sony)
First and foremost, it should be stated that this is without a doubt one of the most visually stunning games I’ve ever played on a console, perhaps the most. I have no idea how developers manage to keep squeezing extra bits of power out of these seven year old systems, but I have never seen a title on the PS3 look this good, including Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series which is always being given beauty pageant ribbons.
The environments are jaw droppingly gorgeous, and though Fallout might be everyone’s favorite post-apocalyptic gaming landscape, we’ve never seen urban decay quite like this before. The level design here is incredible, making a linear game feel much larger than it is, and nothing ever feels clone-stamped. The amount of detail poured into neighborhoods and downtowns and forests and college campuses is astonishing, and you’ll wish that a camera was one of the items in your bottomless rucksack.
But it’s not just the environments, the character animation is top-notch as well. Naughty Dog has utilized motion capture exceptionally well here, far better than in their previous games, and Joel, Ellie and their compatriots reach nearly Quantic Dream-level realism which really helps with the story experience. The textures and animation are fantastic both in the game itself and in cutscenes which are graphically a notch above gameplay, but not enough to be distracting in terms of the jump between the two.
After you’re done staring at the game’s beauty for a while, you’ll probably want to actually play it. Gameplay is a stripped down version of third person shooters like Uncharted and Tomb Raider, but far more realistic than either. The game advises you to take down your enemies in a variety of ways, namely stealth or open combat. Obviously this isn’t the first game to suggest this, but it does it in a way that’s better than nearly any other I’ve seen.
This stealth vs. brawling choice is present in titles like Uncharted or Tomb Raider, but both of those games eventually devolve into popping out of cover with machine guns. Deus Ex was a third person game which highlighted your ability to use both open combat and stealth, but it’s not the same here. You’re not silently killing people to get bonus XP points. You’re doing it not to die. And this is perhaps the most important distinction in gameplay between The Last of Us and anything else in its genre.
This is the first survival game in a long while that truly feels like a survival game. You have such limited ammo with your relatively underpowered weapons, that you must strategically plan out each encounter in order to survive. Most games suggest that you explore the environments, but The Last of Us actually forces you to. Without the necessary scavenged crafting supplies used to make health kits, upgraded weapons or booby traps, you simply won’t live through upcoming encounters.
Unlike other games, it’s just not an option to run out into a courtyard like Tony Montana and gun down everyone with your assault rifle, and the game will punish you if you try traditional shooter tactics like that. Rather, you’ll want to use stealth as much as possible and open combat as a last resort. Usually you’ll sneak and assassinate until you’re spotted by the surprisingly clever AI, then shoot your way out as you head for the hills. With enemies not locked into specific linear patrol patterns like in most games, you’ll find yourself discovered more often than not.
As you soon learn, when facing the Infected, it’s usually better not to fight at all. There are entire segments where you try to creep outside the line of sight of Runners (recently infected who still have their sight) and outside of the audible range of Clickers (older infected that are more dangerous, but must rely on sound to track prey). Most games would give you a shotgun and tell you to simply blow them all away. But when a game gives you a shotgun with two shells in it and a melee weapon that breaks after one kill, you have to plan accordingly. In these segments, the game shifts into pure survival horror mode as you attempt to creep past Clickers in pitch black rooms where one wrong step means certain death.
Combat with armed foes is even more intense, and finally does something I’ve been wanting from a game for a long time. It’s not mowing down hundreds of enemies like Nathan Drake, but rather it’s creeping around to take out dozens in a way that’s somewhat closer to real life. At least by video game standards.
The way encounters play out in this game are just so much more interesting than in any other shooter. Take this sample exchange I had midway through the game:
A bandit patrol is on the lookout for me as I hide in a half destroyed subdivision. Normally, there would be some chest high walls in the street with AK-47s leaning against them, and we’d have ourselves a good old fashioned game of whack-a-mole as we pop in and out of cover. But things don’t work this way in The Last of Us.
Rather, having exactly two shotgun shells and a half broken shiv to my name, I strangle the first guy who creeps into the house I’m hiding inside. His cries attract his nearest bandit friend who sprints through the door wielding a metal pipe. I pick up a nearby bottle and throw it at his face, then as he’s stunned, slam his head into the wall. Through the window, I can see another unaware bandit searching a nearby house, so I spear him with an arrow and he crumples in a heap. I think I’ve been quite stealthy, but when Ellie cries “behind you!” I turn and am struck in the face with a bat. I try to whip out my shotgun as I stagger backward, but Ellie is already on his back jabbing him full of holes with her knife. All that screaming attracts two more bandits. I pick up the dropped bat on the ground and level the first one through the door. The bat shatters and the second one unloads a pistol round into my side. Even one bullet is enough to take half my health and propel me off my feet. I recover and finally manage to get my shotgun out and blow through his kevlar. One last straggler is sprinting toward the gunfire, but I switch to my scoped magnum and drop him before he becomes an issue. Ellie breathes a sigh of relief, I patch up my wounds with a med kit, and it’s on to the next area to do it all over again.
The Last of Us (Credit: Sony)
It’s one of the most organic, realistic combat systems I’ve experienced in a game. It’s not always this cinematic, but the game tries to reward you for creating interesting scenarios like this one. Staying behind the same bit of cover will almost certainly get you killed by flanking enemies. Running into the open will have you dropped before you take down more than one of them. You must you some semblance of strategy to survive most encounters. In that way it is similar to Uncharted, but the styles of gameplay are completely different and neither game really ever feels like the other. I will say the bandit fights are more enjoyable than battling the Infected, who you pretty much never want to directly engage lest they consume you in a zombie swarm. Trading punches with Infected and missing point blank pistols shots is where the controls get muddy and combat can be frustrating.
And sure, it can be annoying when things you’re used to in other titles simply don’t exist in this game. Enemies barely drop ammo, even when you’re staring directly at their fallen weapon, and it’s hard to fathom why every bat breaks after five swings, but it all serves to make each encounter a puzzle. How best do you use your array of traps, weapons and hand-to-hand combat skills in order to survive an area crawling with enemies? In many games, diversifying combat is just done for style points, but not here. You literally have to do these sorts of crazy things in order to continue living. There is no “overpowered gun” you can simply use to blow everything away, and if there is, you’ll only have two or three shots with it until you’re forced to figure out what to do next. Adaptability and improvisation are a huge part of gameplay, and stealth and open combat are balanced incredibly well. Every encounter should be a mix of both, but if your quiet kill plan goes awry, you usually have enough tools to fight your way out of most situations by the skin of your teeth, and the results in my playthrough were some of the most exciting encounters I’ve experienced in a game.
Combat can be clunky at first. Your reticule weaves around like you’re drunk and enemy shots seem to instantly floor you. It’s an odd feeling, but most of the awkwardness comes from the fact that we’ve simply been trained to play these sorts of games a different way. The same rules don’t apply in this world, and you have to adapt to not being a bullet-reflecting, head-shotting superhero like in most shooters.
The story of The Last of Us isn’t anything revolutionary, and has more than a few parallels with The Walking Dead and many other pieces of survivor fiction. Joel and Ellie trudge place to place in search of an elusive thing called “hope,” but never seem to find it. The Infected may be plant-zombies instead of regular zombies, but there’s nothing in the core story that’s too terribly creative from the world building perspective. Fortunately the world is so gorgeous, it doesn’t matter all that much.
Rather, the powerful part of the story is drawn instead from the character relationships, also like The Walking Dead. Joel and Ellie start out as wary allies, but over time form a powerful bond. In truth, the player actually experiences this same, slow process. Ellie starts out as an annoyance, always running off and cursing to try and sound cool. But over time, you’ll grow to want to protect her no matter the cost, and it’s hard to not think of her as your own little sister/daughter as you become more immersed in the story. She grows on Joel the same way she grows on you. Like zombie fungus! Okay, bad example.
The Last of Us (Credit: Sony)
Joel and Ellie’s interaction with each other and those they encounter on the road is what makes the story compelling, rather than the universe they inhabit. Much of this is thanks to phenomenal voice acting from the two leads Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson, the aforementioned incredible character animation and a heartwrenching soundtrack from Gustavo Santaolalla that would be perfectly at home in an Oscar-winning film. It’s pervasive, painful and never fails to set the mood throughout the game.
This is an incredible game. It’s the answer to so many of my most common complaints about the repetitiveness of shooters in this era, and in many ways, it’s an undeniable work of art. It’s visually astonishing, beautifully acted and exciting to play. Those who are expecting Uncharted, Fallout or Call of Duty might deem it to be rather dull and slow in parts, but it’s those quiet moments that made the most impact on me. I was touched by small moments like Joel walking through a college campus trying to explain to Ellie what a football game is, and trying to make her understand that a university was where people went to simply study and learn. Or hearing Ellie flip through an old discarded diary wondering if “boys and skirts” were all girls had to worry about in ages past. There’s just so much to love here both in and out of combat, I’d be hard pressed to imagine most won’t enjoy this game.
The Last of Us shows us a side of Naughty Dog we may not have realized was there. They’ve made good looking games before, but not like this. We’ve enjoyed their characters before, but none were this deep. Their games were always fun to play, but this is a combat system that’s truly refreshing in many ways. It’s great to see that perhaps the last memorable PS3 exclusive didn’t need to be a God of War or Uncharted, but rather something entirely new. Go out and experience it for yourself.
Summary: The last memorable PS3 exclusive