Welcome to a post-pandemic world where people struggle for survival day to day like many of us live paycheck to paycheck. Only in the Quarantine Zones, currency comes in many forms and limited quantities; such as ration cards and weapons. But out there, out there in the wide open world where the infection has taken hold those who must survive take what they must by any means necessary. Humans struggle and perish, mutated spore infected wander aimlessly while attacking anything in close proximity, and our main protagonist Joel remembers the world before and braves the harsh one after the turning point of humanity’s fate. This is the setting and core of The Last of Us in a nutshell, but a nutshell could never truly contain the amount of intensity, emotion, and personality the game exudes. Because of popular word going around however, it appears necessary to clarify that The Last of Us nails many aspects of its make-up perfectly…but it’s not quite a perfect game.
Coming out of the studio that brought us the very standard in combining narrative and gameplay, there would still be a tremendous amount of hype even had not one single commercial been aired nor a single demo made available to play. The history of games falling far short of their high expectations is well noted, but thankfully while The Last of Us only truly falters in few key areas it is ultimately up to the challenge.
Players will meet Joel and his daughter Sarah as the game starts, right away you can tell they have a special kind of bond; one forged by Joel’s years of living as a single father. The witty and relatable dialogue begins early, a trademark in the Uncharted games and now one here as well. Soon enough the first taste of frantic fear fills the air as the beginning stages of the epidemic that will take full form during the game’s main stay timeframe is thrust upon us in an explosive flash. Without spoiling too much, tragedy ensues and we fast forward 20 years to a much more hardened and world-weary Joel in an almost unrecognizable Boston. The transformation from the present day re-creation of a modern American city to a martial law enforced quarantine zone tells an entire story all its own and is realized quite impressively. In fact every opportunity to explore around the areas you’ll journey through is worth seizing just for how beautifully each tree, building, and giraffe is rendered. Yes, I said giraffe…well you’ll see.
When you aren’t spending time gazing upon at the world around you, you’ll be fighting for survival against human and inhuman alike. Encounters with other survivors of this twisted apocalypse, or “Hunters”, are pretty straight forward yet they lack the realistic edge Naughty Dog had promised we would see. Killing another human from the first time you do so with Joel seems little different from doing so in any other game. Even after a few close-ups on a victim’s face while being choked out doesn’t make me feel any worse than I should from having a jaded sense of morality from torturing my foes in other games like Metal Gear Solid or Infamous. Too little is done to instill a sense of guilt or to make me contemplate that I have just taken a man just like Joel away from any family or friends he might have had. The robotic script-reading like commentary by friend and foe alike do not help the matter seem any more genuine. This however doesn’t mean that killing group after group of human cronies is any less fun. It can even be quite challenging depending on just how ammo and supplies you may be short on at the time.
After about 5 hours, killing Hunters seems like a joyous vacation from the other type of foe Joel will come across. The infected play a very relevant role in The Last of Us, as they represent the survival portion of the game better than anything else. Showdowns with a group of runners or clickers does a brilliant job of making you feel threatened enough to throw everything in your arsenal into killing them each and every time. Resources throughout the game used for crafting things like bombs and health kits are fairly scarce to the point where most gamers will want to save them up. It isn’t long before the realization that each encounter is the one you’ve been saving up for embeds itself into your mind; hence why I refer to combat with humans as a vacation as some infected cannot be killed by the same conventional means. Being low on supplies at all times and constantly trying to evade or defeat inhuman foes with superior core abilities like speed and strength always sets the stage for exhilarating moments. The Last of Us has nailed the formula that other games such as Resident Evil and Dead Space have lost long ago, and is by far the best version to date.
Gamers will instantly recognize the gameplay style as it follows the very third-person rubric ND has developed for their Uncharted series, of course with minor additions to suit The Last of Us. For the most part navigation from place to place is smooth and traversing ledges and uneven terrain is a simple task. Only in combat do controls begin showing signs of inconsistency; mix these with TLOU’s share of glitches and there have been more than a few frustrating points in battle. More than once has my perspective been abruptly shifted or been the victim of wild camera angles when using melee tactics against groups of enemies, which was easily fatal against a pack of runners or a single clicker. Most puzzling is when using an upgraded melee weapon I sometimes swung clear through opponents and was penalized a usage despite doing no damage. I wouldn’t say the amount of such incidents is discouraging to the game’s completion; when everything does work as it is meant to both stealth and face to face combat is exceptionally enjoyable.
The cuts-scenes that weave the story together are the game’s finest feature. Voice acting and character design details are exemplary and is one of the very few areas Naught Dog has bested their breadwinning franchise. The game’s writing meshed well with the voices which conveyed it and there was never a moment when I didn’t feel as if I was watching an engaging movie. Some characters played their parts better than others, and while there weren’t any real failures there could not have been a more profound dichotomy between the two main characters.
Joel is a clearly emotionally tormented middle aged man who is easy to feel sympathy for, yet never begs for it. He believably lives in this new world as a survivor and yet you can’t help but feel that he would welcome death if it ever managed to sneak passed his gun and his instincts. He is the dangerous and admirable combination of a time-tested veteran of both worlds with nothing left to lose. Joel is not a witty adventurer like Nathan Drake or a heralded hero like Commander Sheppard, he’s your average Joe who does what he has to and this creates a much more intimate connection between player and protagonist.
Ellie on the other hand is terribly mishandled at key points in the game. While a more detailed explanation as to why this is can be found here, the short version is she’s much more robotic and bland than I am sure Naughty dog intended. I find it rather poetic that another realism-stripping programming oversight involves Ellie (and any other ally) being essentially invisible to detection. I even took a 10 second video during my gameplay progress of a human attacker walking continuously into a crouching Ellie blocking a doorway while I hid beside her; he barely noticed a person let alone something was impeding his path. This is virtually how I felt about Ellie overall; perhaps not invisible but certainly lacking in substance. Not devoid, but lacking. From a gameplay perspective however she is excellently incorporated. She’s quick with a bottle, brick, or fire support when she has the resources available and it has saved my quite a bit of headache. Every now and then she’ll gift a little something to Joel, albeit not as often as Elizabeth from Bioshock Infinite but the scarcity in this is also quite conducive to the overall survival aspect.
Now on to something I did not expect to write in my review during my anticipatory stages of The Last of Us, but here goes: The multiplayer is one of the absolute best features of the game. What major games with multiplayer dynasties have slowly begun losing hold on, The Last of Us has forged in its simplicity and unique concept. There are only 2 game modes in which you fight for the cause of 1 of 2 factions; it may seem limited but execution wise the gameplay is flawless and fun.
The first playlist is essentially your team deathmatch style mode where you whittle down the amount of respawns the other team has while collecting supplies and other bonuses toward the flourishing of your personal camp. The other is the same basic concept only without respawns, think Search and Destroy from Call of Duty only without setting bombs. It’s the idea of building your own survivor camp as a pride mechanism that brilliantly maintains interest in always doing your best. While there is no detailed return on seeing the fruits of your efforts (your survivors are literally blips on a map), it is a much more unique way of measuring your success as opposed to a kill/death ratio or even a numeric point value. It has been a while since I’ve played a non FPS online multiplayer simply because I enjoyed it, and not for the sake of being a completionist. Ultimately it flows excellently with how the single player campaign plays.
The Last of Us is undoubtedly one of the best games of the year, but it does fall short of perfection noticeably. This does not necessarily have to be perceived as negative, because it truly isn’t. It seems to have quickly become an insulting stigma amongst the internet to say The Last of Us is anything but absolute perfection. My interests lie within honesty and the idea that perfection only belongs to titles that not only do what is necessary to present a memorable experience in every aspect from technical perfection to captivating story and every single point in between, but goes far above and beyond what even the developers believe is important. It is not an insult to say that even the best games created deserve a nine out of ten, an A out of A+, or a 90 out of 100; however you like to grade your experiences. Too often the only facet of a video game that deserves a perfect score is the hype surrounding its release.
Fun Factor: Every part of The Last of Us is fun, from the combat to just sitting back and watching the story play out. This is as beautiful a blend of gaming and cinema there is, and it's awesome.
Length: Single player campaign can be completed between 15-20 hours. Roughly the amount of time it would take to play through the Uncharted trilogy with no breaks.
Difficulty: Not inherently difficult, but glitches and awkwardness in combat can rough things up a little. A hard mode play through is a must however, as normal poses virtually no challenge.
On the Negative Side: Delivery on promise of realism a little lacking, combat glitches and camera angle oddities, Ellie.
Bang for your Buck: Buy The Last of Us. The story is one of the best of the generation, the multiplayer remains fun for quite some time, and the ending will keep you connected to the experience long after you beat it. Buy The Last of Us.