In a world full of danger, those who’ve survived have been as smart as they have been lucky, but have paid the price of presumed safety by being forced to live in below poverty level conditions within decaying pieces of manmade construction. This is the setting of The Last of Us, the PlayStation 3 exclusive third-person survival shooter from the masters at Naughty Dog, and it’s not a pretty one. Not only that, but danger lurks everywhere, and things can change for the worse within the blink of an eye due to a threat of infection. That is, the plot’s cordyceps-like fungus, which infects one’s brain and can quickly turn an individual into a frenzied biter.
Set in the United States of America, and beginning its primary quest line within a cordoned off section of Boston that possesses a strong military presence, the much-anticipated and brand new IP focuses its sights on a grizzled and determined man named Joel. A smuggler by trade, he and his female partner have been given a high profile job by a resistance group dubbed the Fireflies. Their task is to safely transport a young, fourteen year-old girl named Ellie to one of the group’s hideouts, and it comes with an offer of payment: guns that were once owed to the pair, but were sold to pay off a debt.
After reluctantly agreeing to the dangerous and life-threatening quest, the pair set off towards their destination with the young lady in tow, making sure to use smugglers’ tunnels in order to avoid being caught. However, as per usual with post-apocalyptic tales, the group is forced to change its course after an unsettling discovery. Their new direction will hopefully take them towards a safe zone, but nothing is for certain, as the world is filled with contagious spores, crazed mutants and unlawful citizens.
The Last of Us is a third-person shooter featuring similarities to its studio’s behemoth Uncharted franchise, mainly due to its use of guns and cover during conflict. However, the games differ in a major way, as Joel and Ellie’s adventure places prominence on what is referred to as dynamic stealth. As a result, players are given a choice as to how they enter each conflict, with all out gun battles made available as a bad idea in comparison to stealth take outs. However, as you’d expect, there are times where gunplay is a must, and those segments work just fine, thanks to polished mechanics and a varied assortment of weapons that ranges from pistols to hunting rifles to a bow and arrow. Furthering the list is, unexpectedly, a flamethrower, and some gruesome grenade types. Still, nothing works better than using Joel’s sensitive ears to pinpoint the locations of nearby enemies before grabbing them from behind and choking the life out of them.
On the other hand, the stealth system that Naughty Dog put a lot of effort into creating works extremely well. Each of the in-game enemies featured above average artificial intelligence, but the presented conflict scenarios remained fair throughout the majority of the game. Furthermore, sneaking around cover objects and going in for a human (or mutated) shield was always an exhilarating experience, especially when coupled with the protagonists’ distraction-throwing ability.
Strewn throughout each environment were abandoned beer bottles and dislodged bricks, which could be used to throw an enemy off of its course and away from the two heroes. However, they didn’t always work, sending suspecting foes in for a closer look, providing a choice between stealth, gunplay or brutal melee attacks with bare fists, planks, pipes, machetes or baseball bats. More often than not, the stealth approach was the best option available, but each enemy type featured its own special abilities that had to be taken into consideration. Examples included a fully mutated clicker type, which could kill with one hit, but could not see, utilizing echolocation to spot threats, as well as runners possessing weak sight and lots of agility.
Because of its stealth-based nature and heavy use of barren, dimly lit environments, The Last of Us comes equipped with a survival horror feel. That isn’t a bad thing, and should not be taken as so by those who prefer all-out action, as the action and stealth oriented mechanics blended together almost seamlessly. Plus, if you end up having an issue, the difficulty can always be changed with ease. That’s another positive, but this is the type of experience where difficulty is subjective and learning on the fly will lead to great improvement on the player’s end. As such, it won’t beat you down with an incredible amount of challenge on hard – at least not until its (frustrating) concluding choke points – presenting a slow ramp up and lots of med kit materials to those who look.
Being that it’s a post-apocalyptic version of the United States, the in-game world is shown as a decaying, overgrown and ransacked place. Looters have already been through many of the locations you’ll visit, but the developers left a good amount of tools, bottles of alcohol and other items, which can be picked up for use through the game’s crafting system. That mechanic, which plays heavily into the experience, along with a weapon upgrade station and an optional supplement menu that upgrades Joel’s abilities, allows the player to create special items. Medicinal kits are the most important of all of the available recipes, but door-unlocking and deadly shivs are also a priority. Additional recipes for things like nail bombs, Molotov cocktails and smoke bombs are also provided throughout the course of the fifteen hour-long campaign.
Although its gameplay is of high quality, and is tough to complain about, that department isn’t where Naughty Dog’s latest effort truly shines. Instead, the highlight of this rollercoaster ride is its storyline, which covers all ranges of the emotional spectrum. It’s rare that a video game truly makes me feel for its characters, and The Last of Us did so better than any of its peers. In fact, as things progressed, I got to watch a rocky introduction between two very different characters – one a grizzled and dangerous middle-aged man and the other a fourteen year-old girl who had lived all of her life behind concrete walls – evolve in a beautiful way. It all felt so realistic, and was both immersive and endearing at the same time, as a result of phenomenal voice acting, top-notch writing and jaw-dropping facial animations. Joel and Ellie truly felt alive, and their personalities made for a wonderful experience, especially with Ellie’s ability to bring innocence to such a troubling scenario. Plus, I’ll admit that I chuckled at her unexpectedly sailor-like vocabulary.
In fact, The Last of Us is so good at creating a believable and immersive world, full of human-like characters, that it provides great proof that many video games are art. Hollywood, with its lack of ideas and focus on money over quality, should take a page from Naughty Dog’s book, because this is a story for the ages, and one that will have non-gamers glued to the television as they watch a friend or loved one play. What I’m getting at here is that this is easily one of the best games ever created, offering an almost unprecedented form of storytelling that combines well with polished mechanics and incredibly rich visuals. It’s nearly perfect, but suffers from some texture pop in and the odd glitch. However, the pros outweigh the cons in such grand fashion that it’s tough to really knock the final product, especially since the cons can, and hopefully will be, patched.
To conclude, it pleases me to say that The Last of Us is a masterful work of art which lives up to all of its hype. Created from a combination of exemplary parts, it’s an absolute must-play and something that everyone interested in video games (and great storytelling) should experience. Do not hesitate on this one.
This review is based on the PS3 exclusive, which was provided to us. Its focus is on the game’s single player campaign, because the additional Factions multiplayer mode was not available during our review window.
The Last of Us is an incredible achievement in video game design, and serves as a perfect example of art within the medium.