There are games and then there are experiences. With Naughty Dog’s recent step up in pedigree through its widely acclaimed Uncharted trilogy, I went into The Last of Us expecting quality, of course, but I came out the other side of its campaign unquestionably floored.
I really hadn’t anticipated to have my very emotions put through the ringer like this. Over the course of about ten hours, I went on a grueling, thoughtful, gorgeous, and almost tough to swallow adventure that echoed the sentiments of countless apocalyptic literature and film so effectively that, often, it transcends the works it set out to pay respects to.
Let’s cut the pretense and get down to brass tacks. The Last of Us is not just the best game to come out of Naughty Dog’s doors, and it’s not just the best exclusive title the PlayStation 3 has ever housed. And it’s not just the best original IP of the year (which it is, even with more than half a year left of 2013). No, no, that’s too small of scale to view this rarity of a game on. Believe you me, my next words are not ones I loose unto the world lightly nor often:
The Last of Us is easily one of the best video games ever made.
No Good Men Left
Following a harrowing and tragic introduction that hooks you (and never quite lets go from there on in), The Last of Us picks up twenty full years after an infectious fungi has annihilated the world’s population. Those unlucky enough to catch the disease instead of a bullet find their minds rotted, leaving them reduced to feral forms bent only on perpetuating the virus that’s destroyed them.
What remains of our civilization is found in either whatever remaining quarantine zones there are, run by what little semblance of a government entity there is, or out in the wilds of America’s decrepit and ruined cities – but those denizens are short on neighborly tidings, relying on pure survival instinct while committing heinous acts of murder, plundering, and even cannibalism.
In a Bostonian QZ, we meet our protagonist Joel. On the surface, he’s a curt Texan everyman “just tryin’ to get by." By the end of the tale, he’s a walking tug-o-war of compassion and morality versus a trigger clutching killer instinct that knows full well not acting first means dying first. He’s complicated, conflicted, and human.
Contrasting so heavily against Uncharted’s likably roguish Nathan Drake, a character whose moral gauge was cleverly hidden by his enemies always shooting first (conveniently putting Drake in the moral right when he went on hundred-man killing sprees), The Last of Us lays Joel bare as a person very early on, showing that his definition of "survivor” means no threat around him is allowed to claim the same. Riding shotgun through Joel’s morose and raw story is shockingly engaging – Troy Baker’s performance paired with Naughty Dog’s homerun script singularly bridges the gap between video games and Hollywood caliber work.
The Last Hope
One revelatory performance is more than enough, but this game owns another deeply interesting and irrefutably relatable character in Ashley Johnson’s Ellie. Ellie – just a fourteen-year-old girl that only knows of the old world through books and comics – has an unprecedented immunity to the deadly cordyceps virus. Wanted by a resistance group that may be able to make use of Ellie’s exemption, Joel is tasked with escorting her across bad country until they reach sanctuary (while sanctuary actively eludes them).
Ellie is inquisitive, sometimes headstrong, and often inspiring. She’s not a damsel nor a dead weight. Traveling with her, we’re treated to her down-to-Earth teenage girl persona (a precision point performance from Johnson) begin to chip away and reveal the person Joel used to be before he lost the will to be anything but a survivor. I have to stop and remind myself that I’m talking about video game characters here.
Over the course of the journey, the pair run into all manner of different personalities ranging from those barricading themselves against the world to those looking to change it. The Last of Us features a bevy of amazing supporting characters that speak acutely for themselves while also shoving a mirror in our heroes’ faced, making them question their own motives as they forge tough answers. Again, how the hell is it that I’m talking about a video game in the same way I’d dissect literature?
The Smart and the Dead Are Never the Same
This game’s brilliance resonates beyond its novel writing. The Last of Us is far from a slouch in the gameplay department. In fact, it controls like a dream, checking off all the important boxes: tight, functional, and intuitive. While a bare minimum of Uncharted’s DNA can be felt within its third-person combat, LoU comes closer to a modern revitalization of the survival horror genre. Shirking the genre’s unhealthy focus on gunplay as of late, Joel himself reinforces the notion that firearms are for “emergencies only.”
Whether you’re facing an armament of human hunters or a pack of blind, sound sensitive Tickers, going into a situation guns blazing is the surest goddamn way to get your head torn off. Not that “guns blazing” is ever an option given how little ammunition is scattered about the wastes. LoU’s brand of rabid infected rejects the tired zombie game convention that you can simply mow them down; instead, each infected encounter is a true ordeal forcing on-the-fly tactics and, failing that, luck,
Tact is always the best option and LoU employs a smartly polished stealth system that allows you take down your enemies without the hordes descending upon you…if you’re sneaky, anyway. A sort of echolocation button (reminiscent of Batman’s Detective Vision in the Arkham titles) lets you see noisy baddies in your immediate area. This seemingly superhuman sense of sound feels like an unfair advantage at first, but after the twentieth time witnessing Joel’s death animation when a Clicker gets wise to you, you’re thankful for even the narrowest edge.
Another survival horror standby rears itself in the form of supply gathering. The benefits of picking up gauze and loose scissors manifest as you concoct shivs, upgrade existing weapons (like taping a rusty blade to the end of a 2x4), creating DIY “nail-bombs,” and slapping together health kits. Such rewards make scavenging for supplies an almost compulsory second habit because, likely, you’ll never leave a brutal fight with excess goods. The extremely vicious AI – where bandits are able to coordinate as well as infected swarm – makes damn sure of that.
There’s a hell of a learning curve to hurdle over; the game can be rather unforgiving. But be it a silent takedown amidst a room full of infected or nailing a hunter with an instant bow death, coming out on top is one of this game’s true delights. Makes me feel every bit the survivor Joel eventually curbs Ellie to be.
Joel’s survivability can be upped, however, as you’re able to allot foraged points into new and upgraded skills. Fair warning, though: You’re not going to max Joel out in one playthrough, which accounts for the addition of New Game+ (Thank you, ND – your GOTY competitor, Bioshock Infinite, could take a pointer or two).
“You Can’t Deny That View”
With the story taking you cross country, you’ll see Wyoming, you’ll brave Winter in Colorado, you’ll bask in the Spring air in Salt Lake City…Though you pass the decayed husks of fallen skyscrapers, moving on roads cracked and overtaken by nature, and though death stands at almost every corner along the way, the environments Naughty Dog have created are so utterly full of life, drenched in vivid color and lavish detail. Barring a nuclear holocaust the Earth will go on living with or without humans and LoU exemplifies that concept beautifully.
I’m stunned a home console is capable of the sheer graphical depth on display here. The game looks to have been crafted centimeter by centimeter. From the smoothest model animations I’ve seen in a game to crazy, minute details like the way Joel adjusts his balance behind cover to give Ellie room; The Last of Us is a visual achievement. With design and physics working in seamless tandem, the results are marvelously realistic.
The audio work also deserves a few hundred bows. The affecting, minimalistic score doesn’t just accent the game’s desperate and hopeful tone, it practically sets it. No surprise from me if the soundtrack recieves a Grammy nod. In-game, the illusion of life is completed by a comprehensive assortment of acoustics and sound effects. If you have yourself an expensive sound system, The Last of Us is the perfect audio experience to demonstrate that fact to the neighbors.
The Rest of Us
Past the thresholds of the campaign, those bitten by the competitive bug can take part in Factions – a multiplayer suite host to two modes: “Supply Raid” and “Survivor." Survivor is pretty standard versus fare except you’re not allowed any respawns (plan accordingly). I personally spent more time within Supply Raid. The big idea is that two factions of human players group together to wipe away the enemy team enough times to win the match.
Multiplayer teeters dangerously close to feeling tacked-on but saves itself through a few clever design choices. Just as in the campaign, there are supplies scattered throughout the multiplayer arenas. Finding them heralds the same rewards: health kits, molotovs, shivs, and the like. Alternatively, finding points or gaining them by downing opposing players lets you purchase more ammo, gun upgrades, body army (which, as you can guess, is super useful when someone’s made you six-chambered practice), and even ace weaponry in real-time.
It takes more than savvy inventory management to dominate a match, though. Cohesive teamwork and sharp awareness are the straightest roads to victory. Once the battle’s over, you can reap in unlocks in order to customize both your classes and character, and bolster your factions survivability by taking on challenges. It’s all very well thought out, complementing purely the gameplay aspects of the campaign if nothing else, and puts an extra set of legs on the game’s longevity for those who absolutely crave it, but if competition isn’t your bag – and I can empathize; grew up a Player One kind of kid, after all – the online package isn’t unique enough to change your mind. A purely co-op mode might’ve served the campaign’s ideals a bit more. Seems like there’s a lot of untapped potential in partnering with friends and fending off the infected.
When yours and Ellie’s lives are not in immediate danger (a rare thing), the game’s pace slows, giving you the chance to wander and explore. Light but solid platforming comes into play as well as some practical puzzle solving. Practical meaning that you’re often merely tasked with finding a way over or under something. Ellie and her unobtrusive AI helps you contend with ladder snatching or gate-opening.
Ellie, having lived her life in a quarantine zone, doesn’t know how to swim, so the obstacle you’re often presented with is just getting her across bodies of water. Usually, that’s as simple as finding a floating pallet and escorting her to safety. It’s such an innocuous task, and easy to boot, but it felt more than that.
Over time, I started to feel this growing bond to her knowing that she legitimately needed me to help her. Even when the story presses the brakes and has you quietly searching the world as Joel and Ellie throw small talk at each other – Ellie trying to gauge her would-be protector as Joel struggles to maintain his weathered stoicism – The Last of Us never feels like it wastes a moment. Everything is deliberate. Everything is purposefully there to illicit an emotion from you. And it’s remarkable.
Naughty Dog has blended gameplay, narrative, and visual artistry into an absolute triumph of a game. For a product manufactured from the ground up, its emotional impact is effortless; it feels utterly unaffected and just plain honest. I genuinely felt frightened when I was supposed to, felt pangs of dread when I heard that all too familiar clicking in the distance or when I knew I wasn’t alone. And I genuinely felt for Joel and Ellie, henceforth some of the very best characters in fiction (yes, not just gaming).
The Last of Us is that rare experience that will stick with you for a good, long while. It plunges into dark territory yet never feels heartless. It builds itself on the foundation of proven ideas yet seems altogether fresh. I wanted more and more of it yet I wouldn’t want a sequel to ruin how complete and satisfying this story is. The professional in me would say its a new benchmark in interactive storytelling and, without a doubt, an instant classic. But, if you’d be so kind as to excuse me while I let my hair down, the gamer in me just has this to impart: It’s fucking awesome. It’s really just so very fucking awesome.