As the console generation winds down everyone is anticipating the new technology to hit the market, it’s easy to forget that there are still games coming out now. With The Last of Us, Naughty Dog delivers one last hurrah for the PS3. A step away from the Uncharted series, the Last of Us deals with more serious themes and address some of the problems with the Nathan Drake saga (there weren’t too many problems to begin with). Is The Last of Us a worthy sending off to Sony’s current generation console?
[Disclaimer: I apologize for the delayed review. I didn’t want to write one until I let the dust settle and I wanted to give this review due diligence. This game deserves it]
Naughty Dog has become a master storyteller when it comes to gaming. If you ask me, there are only two companies that have mastered this level of interplay between gameplay and story. It shows here, there is a mature tale in place that doesn’t hold back and it will take you on an emotional roller coaster. The characters feel real, and the setting is breathtakingly realized. In part, it’s due to great visual work, but in many ways it’s also thanks to a well crafted plot.
You play as Joel, a gritty survivor. The world has turned on it’s heels due to a fungal infection that turned most of the population into brain dead zombies. That was 20 years ago. Now, you are a smuggler in a society that is ruled by the military, and the settlements that are not have to put up with bandits and other threats. It’s a tough world. Food is short, military control is strong and survival is the only motive.
As Joel, you get to escort Ellie, a 14 year old survivor, and hand her over to a rebel group know as the Fireflys. The group is against the military control and is the active resistance to the soldiers. You start of a reluctant guide, but as the game progresses, Joel and Ellie grow stronger together.
It’s hard for me to say much more without spoiling the game. This is the kind of title that has to be experienced start to finish. The story throws so much together and at you that you really have to take it all in at your own pace. What makes this game so compelling however is the relationship between Ellie and Joel. It is fantastically written and you will root for them, even when you don’t want to.
Joel is not a good man, that much is clear. He is violent, devoid of any reason to live. He is harsh because the world made him so, and yet there is a glimmer of him that remembers what it used to be like. And Ellie brings that out. She, on the other hand, has never known the world different than the one ruled by the infection. She never got to see what we all know.
The plot has excellent pacing, ratcheting up and relaxing when necessary. Ellie and Joel go through a lot together and sometimes it’s too tough to handle. Yet there is something so very human to how they act, how they behave and how they change. The game lets you unpack as much of that relationship as you want, with many optional dialogue options throughout the story.
The voice acting is really remendous. It holds up the story well and you feel the strain that the journey puts on these characters with every word. The script does a great job creating dynamic personalities, but the voice-work infuses the characters with them, it really makes them sound like real people. Down to the last detail.
The soundtrack is great is well. It is intentionally dark, with a few glimpses of truly captivating tones. It manages to capture the mood of what you’re going through with every scene. Similarly, there is a lot of reliance on the in game sound. Every thump, every gunshot, ever punch resonates.
From a visual perspective, it might be the most gorgeous looking game on the current generation of consoles. The team takes pride in their craft. The environments vary, but each seem real. While the strong narration guides the plot, it is easy to believe that these are real places, so much does the theme transfer into the visual. The cities that were once crowded are now overgrown with nature, taken back and abandoned at the same time. The game often shows it off with a few panning shots as you move forward.
Character design is great as well. They interact effectively with each other. The cutscenes are great, and the facial animations are spectacular. They really make you feel for these characters, something that is paramount in a title that depends on it’s personality so much. You feel every grin, every smirk, every frown. You feel like these are real people.
Sure, there are one or two small glitches. The combat animations often feel stiff (partially due to design of the game though) and there was one moment of clipping in the whole game.
Gameplay is well broken up and balanced. You will do an equal share of environmental traversing and combat. There are even slow moments in the gameplay that advance the story where you do very little but walk. In other games that would kill the pacing but in the Last of Us you wish there were more of these serene pieces of time for Joel and Ellie to enjoy and talk about.
The main bulk of the game will be spent dispatching enemies, human or otherwise. The game draws a fine balance on how you approach every situation. The infected are feral, they rush in and do not hesitate. Some of them can see and will alert everyone to your position while attacking on site. The more dangerous ones are Clickers. These are blind but use a keen sense of sound to track you.
Clickers can kill you with one punch early in the game and are extremely dangerous. Each approach must be planned carefully to make sure you don’t alert them. Sometimes, you can make your way through areas without having to kill the infected, but that is just as hard as fighting them. There is a real sense of urgency when you know you’ve been discovered and must retreat with a clicker on your toes.
Humans on the other hand are more calculated, slow, and in many cases are just as scared as you. They will flank, retreat and close in on your last known position if you break the line of sight. This creates interesting cat and mouse moments in the game. Joel is not a bullet sponge and a few well placed shots will kill him, so planning out each encounter is a must if you want to make it out alive. Each moment is challenging and it really infuses that sense of survival as you go along.
That goes for supplies as well. Bullets are scarce and every encounter can leave you high and dry for the next enemies. Before each battle, I found myself checking my reserves and if I had enough ammo to survive. You can craft additional supplies such as shivs, medkits or bombs, but those take resources. The game emphasizes scavanging a lot, once again mirroring the gloom of a post-apocalyptic world.
You will often find yourself searching room after room just to make that last medkit. Additionally, a lot of things reuse the same materials so you will also have to chose between a molotov or a medkit, which one do you need more? An important gameplay element, your supply level is constantly on your mind, and you have to carefully plan for all eventualities.
Crafting and healing are also done in real time, meaning you have to access your inventory and perform the action while the world around you doesn’t stop. This also contributes to the element of urgency and survival. A few times I was on my last leg and needed a moment to heal just to get hit over the head by a bat from an assailant who tracked me. It gets very hectic out there in the Last of Us, and you must always be prepared.
The combat is gritty and at times stiff, but it’s supposed to be that way. The game explores violence with a big close up. Every hand to hand encounter is brutal and full of gore. Yes, it feels stiff, but Joel is a regular man, he is not a martial artist and as such he must go for brawn. Unlike Uncharted, the Last of Us acknowledges this level of violence as it explores it. You are constantly reminded of what you must do to survive and the performances make you believe it’s constantly in the back of Joel’s mind as well.
One particular twist that the game inserts is that your AI companions are invisible by your enemies. This eliminates the frustration of being discovered due to a clipping issue or a lag in response. Sure, it takes away from immersion a little bit, but it’s a clever solution to an issue that bogs down a lot of companion games that include escort missions.
Your allies aren’t useless either. They will take cover, attack and retreat just like the enemy. Ellie will throw bricks or stab anyone who attacks you while you’re in a brawl. And while she’s just a girl, she can definitely hold her own.
As you progress, you will also get to raise your skills (RPG element) with collecting pills and vitamins. This is an important part if you want to survive and you have to choose carefully depending on where you struggle.
Every detail is thought of in this game and every element of gameplay serves to support the story and the setting, so carefully realized is the plot. Everything you do you can imagine a real survivor doing, and every struggle represents how hard it is to stay alive.
Like in their other games, Naughty Dog brings in a multiplayer component, and instead of your basic deathmatch option, you get a great infusion with the game world. You’re split into two warring factions and you battle it out for supplies to support your camp. It carries over most of the single player elements such as fast depleting health and real time crafting. You feel like it belongs in this world. The supplies are just as scarce and sneaking around is often the better option.
The highlight without a doubt is still the single player. It’s hard to take your foot of the gas while playing this, but you’ll have to. There are moments that are just THAT emotionally heavy. And sure, it wears down on you towards the end, where the violence doesn’t feel as resonant as it did in the beginning, but this is one journey worth taking.
I said this about many games, but without a doubt, I will accept that the Last of Us was the best game I have played this generation. From the breathtaking story, to how every element of gameplay comes in to support it, and to how mesmerizing the visuals are. There is no game like it out there. I can’t wait to see what Naughty Dog can do on the PS4.