The Last of Us Review
One for the Ages
Some video games on the market today have charming, dynamic, and brutally realistic characters. Some have well-crafted, intriguing plots. Some have gameplay that’s impossible to put down, and some have art direction that will make your jaw drop.
The Last of Us, then, is a rare game; it not only has every one of those things, but it does them better than anything I’ve ever experienced. Naughty Dog has crafted something so real, so brave, and so uncanny that it’ll leave an empty feeling at the pit of your stomach once the credits roll. In an age when zombie apocalypses are lifeless, decaying clichés and a morally incorruptible, superhuman protagonist is a dime a dozen, The Last of Us has found a way to breathe hope into the hearts of gamers, and bring this generation to a satisfying end.
I knew I was in for a gut-wrenching, tear-filled journey after the fifteen minute introduction. Joel’s indefinite uphill struggle is felt from the beginning, and it immediately invests the player. No matter what Joel goes through – triumphs, tragedies, hatred, or love – you will feel it too. It’s one thing for a developer to make a character that you can personally relate to, but to actually connect with a protagonist on a deep, emotional level is a payoff that happens far too little in video games.
Most of the stimulating story comes from the fact that Naughty Dog knows this is a character-driven narrative. You won’t be holding your breath waiting for a big reveal, a desperate plot twist, or a complete shift in a character’s ethics. No, you’ll be inspired to complete the game because you need to know if Joel and Ellie fail or prevail. Their constant struggle to survive at any cost creates hands-down the most tense and rewarding single-player I’ve ever had the pleasure to go through. I’d play hours on end to see just where the unpredictable twists and turns would lead me next. The narrative takes bold, nontraditional paths to reach the end, and it couldn’t be more sobering.
The plot and the characters within it are two completely different things, though; the story itself is fantastic, but the characters are way too damn good for a video game. For being virtual characters, Joel and Ellie are two of the most realistic people I’ve met in my life. Neither is perfect, and they don’t pretend to be. They have cringe-worthy flaws, deep internal conflicts, self-doubts, relationship issues, short tempers, big hearts, and everything in between.
The other survivors that Joel and Ellie meet along the way are no different, whether they’re trying to help or hinder the duo. Every single person that enters the spotlight is memorable in his/her own distinct way, with personality flowing from every cutscene and line of dialogue they have. Heck, by the end, I cared more about the well-being of some characters than I have for real people. And that’s not to say I’m a narcissistic ne’er do well; it just shows how effective proper story-telling can really be.
It’s been said before, and for good reason: no matter how good a campaign may be, people will often avoid it if it’s a chore to play. Luckily, that is far from the case with The Last of Us. While there may be traditional third-person shooter gameplay layered on the top, don’t be fooled. The gameplay mirrors the narrative in a multitude of ways – specifically, it’s focused on survival by any means necessary.
The basic combat mechanics work fluidly, and require you to quietly take down as many threats as possible. Sneaking up and shanking enemies is gruesome, but it’s a necessary evil if you want to avoid conflict. For extra help, Joel has a ‘listen mode’ that gives away the positions of his enemies, and is a great help on higher difficulties. But, even though there’s a definite emphasis on stealth, it’s really just a jumping off point. Choking out a few enemies was often my first priority, but it’s very likely they’ll discover you at some point. The already nerve-wracking tension increases from there, as I’d have no choice but to engage in a pure bloodbath.
For these moments, you have access to a huge arsenal of killer weaponry (such as pistols, shotguns, rifles, and bombs), but ammo is still a rarity. Every shot taken during combat has to be carefully considered, or you risk leaving yourself vastly unprepared for the next battle. Improvisation during combat isn’t just an option – it’s a requirement. Running out of ammo might call for the need to whip a brick at an unsuspecting enemy, stunning him long enough for Joel to bash his head with a lead pipe. Sometimes, your only option is to drop a smoke bomb and retreat, just to scavenge the area for crafting materials.
The crafting in The Last of Us may seem dumbed down – materials are separated into just a few categories like Rags, Blades, or Bindings – but it presents interesting micromanagement. For instance, Molotovs require the same resources as health kits. Making a shiv might mean you don’t have the materials to craft a bomb. How you choose to spend these resources can come back to haunt you in combat if you made a bad decision, which is exactly how a survival game should feel.
You can also collect supplements that upgrade Joel’s overall effectiveness (like crafting speed or total health), and can visit workbenches to supply permanent upgrades to his weapons. Deciding the best approach to an encounter is tough and entertaining all the same, and even the quiet moments of gameplay (which you’ll use to hunt for collectibles and resources) present interesting challenges, puzzles, and a survival-of-the-fittest mentality.
If I had to pick my favorite part about the gameplay, though, it would have to be the realism. Just like how you get the vibe that Joel and Ellie are living, breathing people, The Last of Us makes it seem like this alternate world could exist. Joel can only hold so many weapons at one time; all spare items go right into his backpack, and must be retrieved to use. Crafting items happens in real time, meaning you need to find cover before you can throw together a Molotov. Collectible notes from survivors have all been meticulously handwritten by actual people, rather than just a handwriting font over a paper texture. Even health kits are far more realistic than the average instant-heal meds found in most games; it’s nothing more than a rag and alcohol, and it needs time to be applied to Joel’s wounds. Naughty Dog took the next step to ensure players felt immersed in the world, and it couldn’t have worked out better.
Graphics & Sound
Right from the opening screen, The Last of Us has a sort of unique, minimalist ambiance going for it. The user interface is nonexistent at times, button prompts are so small that they could easily be missed, the game hardly bogs you down with tutorials. And it all works really well, especially in stark contrast to the sheer scale and detail of the rest of the game.
Simply put, this is easily one of the best looking games you will ever be able to find. Environments are varied (you’ll go through sewers, forests, abandoned cities, and snowstorms, just to name a few) and each locale manages to leave their own distinct mark on your journey. The color palette is far beyond the normal greys and browns of a standard apocalypse, and I guarantee there’ll be more than a few moments that take your breath away.
Stealing the show, however, are the performances given by Ellie (voiced by Ashley Johnson) and Joel (voiced by Troy Baker, who could easily give Nolan North a run for his money). There’s never once a cringe-worthy, poorly spoken line of dialogue throughout the game. You can feel the struggle and anguish in every beautifully rendered cutscene, the painstakingly spot-on lines, and the best facial animation since LA Noire. If the writing makes you care for the characters, the graphical horsepower and immaculate performances make them pop off the screen.
The immediate focus of The Last of Us may be the singleplayer, but that doesn’t mean multiplayer is a tacked-on addition. In fact, it’s more engaging than the endless sea of generic shooters and, like the narrative, makes bold moves to separate it from its competitors.
You begin with aligning to a faction, whether it’s the Hunters or Fireflies. The actual choice isn’t all that important, but from there, you will embark on a journey over twelve weeks (each multiplayer battle is a single day). There is a ‘story’ to go along with, but it isn’t very deep. Instead, the real meat and potatoes of multiplayer comes building up a clan by doing well online.
There are only two main forms of play in multiplayer: Supply Raid and Survivors (both variations of a traditional team deathmatch). Whenever you kill an enemy, you will receive supplies, and they will drop extra to the ground. These supplies, in turn, go toward building up your clan and maintaining the health of your existing members (and it also act as XP, as it fuels your custom-class unlocks). It influences a constant drive to do well in order to sustain your own clan, and it actually provides some interesting decision-making a
The gameplay itself takes from the tense and tight campaign. You can find resources to craft weapons, buy armor, ammo, and weapon upgrades with currency acquired over the course of a match, and sneak around to stay off the radar. Ammo is scarce; going out guns-blazing will inevitably end in death. Playing cautiously and with teamwork is the only way to do well, and communication is vital to success. The tactical and edgy approach to multiplayer is a breath of fresh air indeed, and it makes the action much more intense than most popular shooters as well. For example, you might go off on your own and abandon your teammates to selfishly make sure your own personal quota of supplies is met.
I am quite disappointed I had to include this section. The praise and adulation fail to hide one flaw, and it lies in some unsettling AI. At times, your computer-controlled friendlies (usually Ellie) will follow you around as you sneak throughout a level. Often, though, they will be in plain sight of an enemy – in fact, I watched Ellie walk directly into an enemy several times – and the foe will nonchalantly meander about looking for Joel. The fact that it can happen several times in a single encounter is, unfortunately, enough to pull me out of the realism. Even though it’s a minor glitch in the system, it still caused me to raise an eyebrow.
As of the time of this writing, there is also a list of bugged trophies. Difficulty trophies are supposed to stack, but this hasn’t been the case for many users. Though it will surely be resolved in time, it’s hard for a trophy hunter like myself to overlook that I don’t have a trophy for a completion on Easy.
The story alone is enough to drive people back multiple times, but Naughty Dog also included a host of other reasons for you to invest your time. Aside from four standard difficulties, there’s also a New Game Plus mode (which carries over each of Joel’s upgrades) that has four more difficulties tied to it. There’s hidden secrets, Uncharted-esque collectibles, skins, render modes, concept art – in short, if you want to experience everything The Last of Us has to offer on the singleplayer end, you could be here for upwards of thirty hours with ease.
At this point, there’s just nothing left for me to say. The Last of Us will not only be a defining title of this generation, but of the entire video game industry as a whole. I don’t just recommend you to go out and buy this game; I recommend every Microsoft loyalist, Nintendo lover, and PC gamer to go out and buy a PlayStation just to play The Last of Us (and I didn’t even get paid to say that). Although there is a striking flaw that can momentarily break pace, it can’t deter from this experience. If The Last of Us isn’t worthy of a perfect score, no game ever will be.