Naughty Dog is an outstanding developer, having spent the last several years making the phenomenal Uncharted titles for Sony’s PlayStation 3. Ever since The Last of Us was announced a couple of years ago, the gaming world took notice and followed its development very closely. A developer of Naughty Dog’s pedigree was now trying their hand with a survival action title, and expectations grew understandably high. Gone are the explorations of beautiful ancient architecture and fun-filled romps through exotic locales. Naughty Dog has instead made The Last of Us an unnerving portrayal of a post-apocalyptic future where there is no joy in exploring, only the persistent need to survive.
The Last of Us begins as most post-apocalyptic stories do, with quite times. Joel arrives home, late from work as usual, to his daughter Sarah. They spend time watching TV, Sarah falling asleep on the couch, later being put to bed by her father. Upon waking in the middle of the night, Sarah calls out for her dad with no response. Joel crashes through the house in a panic, startling Sarah and grabbing her as they flee their house with Joel’s brother Tommy. As they drive away from their home, the chaos surrounds them. Zombie-like infected humans chase after their car. They make it to town only to find the streets on fire, bodies burning as the horde pushes people into them. Joel, carrying his daughter, can only run after Tommy who leads the way to unknown safety.
Fast forward 20 years, and the tolls of age paint Joel’s face with every wrinkle. His beard flecked with grey and his eyes cold, he’s a man changed by having lost everything and unable to keep anything. Simply surviving with his partner Tess is all he has left. In order for the two to keep surviving, they need guns and having lost their stock to a rebel fighter group called the Fireflies, they have to track them down and reclaim their property. When Joel and Tess confront them, the Fireflies say they’ll give them their weapons back, but Joel and Tess need to do something first. They need to smuggle a girl across the country, from Boston to Salt Lake City. A young girl by the name of Ellie is introduced, and the Last of Us truly begins.
A word of warning: The Last of Us might be a very hard game to enjoy. It’s filled with desperation, hopelessness, uncertainty, bleakness and will have you questioning the validity of fighting to keep humanity alive. Even though Joel does some unspeakable things, you understand why, but you might end up hating him when the game is over. Other characters are introduced and just when things begin to look up, they’re ripped from you, gut-punching you and reminding you that you’re stuck in a desolate Hell on Earth. Whatever joyous moments you have, the game will not let you keep them. The Last of Us is exhausting.
The gameplay is split into two different alternating aspects: exploring and combat. When you aren’t fighting infected or humans, you’re walking down abandoned streets, scavenging destroyed storefronts, investigating vacant homes, and trekking across tranquil mountain paths. As you’re taking in the sights, you’ll be looking for supplies. You can pick up rags, alcohol, sharp objects, explosives and many other things to craft items. Health kits, Molotov cocktails, shivs and shrapnel bombs are some of the many things you can craft.
Unfortunately, exploring desolate areas, as beautiful as they may be, doesn’t remain interesting for long. It’s not helped by the fact that the puzzle solving elements are so simple. Can’t reach a ledge? Look for a ladder or a dumpster. Ellie can’t swim? Find a wooden pallet and float her across. Switch has no power? Seek out the generator. Also, enclosed areas begin to look the same. Houses, shops, hotels, universities; nothing more than dilapidated structures covered in trash and debris. Too often as well, other buildings will be boarded off and stairs will be obstructed with bookcases limiting your exploration options.
Combat comes in four varieties. You have human guards and other faction members. These enemies will see and hear you, investigating your last known location and will fire on you or use melee weapons. The basic forms of infected, called Runners, will alert the rest of the horde when they spot you. Next, there’s the advanced infected, known as Clickers. These ghastly grotesque creatures have lost their sight, so they rely on their heightened sense of hearing and are very difficult to sneak up on. Lastly, there’s the Bloaters. These monstrous enemies resemble walking coral reefs and maintain both their sight and hearing. Upon detection, they’ll lob bombs of deadly spores your way and like the Clickers, they’ll kill you instantly if they grab you. Also, fighting these Bloaters makes you wonder why more boss-type enemies weren’t introduced.
Surviving in The Last of Us is all about playing cat and mouse. You can enter just about any situation without being detected, slinking around counters or behind fallen concrete columns or any other form of cover. The level designs in general are very accommodating, providing you with many different paths to maneuver about. You can pick up bottles and bricks to use as weapons to stun them, or you can throw them to create a distraction and slip past your enemies. You can use Focused Hearing to “see” enemies behind walls, making it easier for you to creep up behind and strangle them or put a shiv to their neck. If you get spotted, it’s fight or flight. If you choose to flee and break their line of sight, they’ll begin looking for you. These moments are tense, but there are many times where your allies will run right out in the open or even into Clickers and the enemies will be none the wiser. Although you’ll be thankful they didn’t set off the alarms, you’ll still view it as a broken mechanic.
You’ll collect a variety of weapons through the course of the game, such as hunting rifles, sawed off shotguns, revolvers and a bow, but ammo will very limited. It also doesn’t help matters that the majority of armed men don’t drop guns or ammo when killed. Shooting doesn’t start off very precise, exacerbated by the jitteriness of the infected’s movements, reducing the desire to use your firearms. Therefore, you’ll be spending more time taking out each individual enemy by stealth to save ammo to fight them when they rush you. Even with the upgraded weapons and items, combat never really evolves past running around and hiding, letting off a few rounds or sneaking up behind people and strangling them.
The Last of Us also has multiplayer, called Factions. In Factions, you choose a side, either the Hunters or the Fireflies. There are two modes, Supply Raid and Survivors. Supply Raid has teams fighting for supplies with a finite amount of respawns, while Survivor has no respawns, and matches end when the last opponent is killed. Players utilize Listen mode which acts the same as Joe’s Focused Hearing, but they have to wait for it to recharge and they can be immune when their opponents use Listen by staying stationary. Teamwork is vital to excel in this mode but as with all multiplayer games of this nature, it’s punishing for newcomers who have no established sets of perks.
It would be impossible to tell a story, as derivative as it is, this well without the exceptional graphics. The environments are so expertly detailed, you can smell the dust coming off the ground as you walk on it. You feel the rust rub against you as brush against a metal girder. Lighting and particle effects are simply beautiful, and there are even lens effects such as it frosting over when out in the bitter cold. Dirty windows don’t look quite as good as the rest of the buildings they’re in, and although water crashes against rocks, the rivers themselves just pass right under their banks. Overall, the environments look just as stunning as any Uncharted game Naughty Dog’s put out.
It’s the characters that steal the spotlight, though. The detail on Joel’s beard is immaculate, with every whisker clearly visible. The way Ellie’s sparkling eyes glisten up during an emotional moment will produce that same effect in you. In fact, the attention to detail regarding these characters is so fantastic, it becomes its own narrative. Their animations have captured every single subtly and nuance to make them perfectly believable. Even when they animate in-game, putting their hand up against objects as they’re crouching next to it, it’s very impressive. The game’s brutality also comes to life, seeing Joel bury a machete in the neck of an infected, or watching Ellie repeatedly stab a guard in the neck. It punctuates their necessity to survive by becoming brutal, efficient killers.
The audio presentation is just as much a work of art as the visuals. The sound effects generate every footfall and snapped twig and fallen bar stool. Gunshot reports are a stark contrast to the eerie quietness that accompanies you between cities. Infected mumble and groan and scream, but it’s the Clickers with their incessant clicking that get your hair to stand on end. Walking very slowly by them, freezing when you think they may have heard you, are some of the most tense moments in the game. The soundtrack is composed wonderfully, with sorrowful melodies to accentuate the sense of desolation and isolation, and powerful orchestrated tracks when the action gets going. Voice acting is also incredibly well done, every performance as stellar as the next. Although Troy Baker does a terrific job voicing Joel, he sounds a bit too similar to Nolan North, who also voices a character in the game.
The Last of Us is a tough game to classify. It takes elements from stealth, action and horror games, but it never uses any of them exceptionally well. Instead, the game relies on its atmospheric experience for its strength. It uses the dynamic of Joel and Ellie to burrow into your psyche, so when something happens to one, you feel it more than anything you’ve felt from the game itself. You become lost in the world it creates, which is why it’s such a shame that the gameplay can’t match its caliber; the flaws bring you back down to Earth. Despite its shortcomings, however, The Last of Us is a game that must be experienced by any PlayStation 3 owner.
Absolutely stunning presentation | Moving through a room full of Clickers is intense | Strikingly real characters
AI quirks interrupt immersion | Exploration-based puzzle solving is too simplistic | Lack of bosses
Born and raised in Denver, CO in 1979, I've been playing games since I was old enough to hold a controller. I was weened on Atari, then Nintendo and Sega, and currently own just about every console and handheld made. I'm an avid hip hop fan and I love to read books. Favorite authors include Dean Koontz, Stephen Hunter, and Christopher Moore. I'm also an avid movie watcher and I try to collect as many Blu-Rays as I can.
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