The post-apocalypse, viral outbreak, humanity-goes-to-hell-in-a-handbasket-at-the-drop-of-a-hat storyline has been done about to death. Even so, I was looking forward to seeing how Naughty Dog would tell the story.
Their take on the genre, The Last of Us, operates on a solid premise: A pandemic fungal infection has created a race of infected humans which degenerates in four phases; human survival is brutal; make it to the end of the line. The characters you come to know in the course of the story, set twenty years after the outbreak, are appropriately charming or detestable depending on whether they're a good or bad. Gender roles feel balanced: male and female characters meet the same obstacles and move around them in the same way, not depending on the guys to do all the heavy lifting. The voice acting is spot on. As the Santa Monica studio's first departure from Uncharted since the PlayStation 3’s debut, they've managed to expand on their trademark style of third-person combat and explore a new genre, all the while maintaining their grip on brilliant storytelling and stunning graphics.
The Things You'll Do for a Shiv
Not wanting The Last of Us to play like an Uncharted clone, Naughty Dog has given the environments an open-world feel, encouraging exploration. As a survival game, it's in the players best interest to scrounge every corner of every area for weapons, ammo, and supplies. But beyond these and a number of collectible objects, which appear shiny from afar to catch the eye, I was never driven to explore. The game never ceased to feel linear, and while each combat scenario gave me an opportunity to make choices about how to progress, the beautiful outdoor environments felt like a very elaborate maze leading me from one cut scene to the next, offering up objects to add to my pack along the way.
The usefulness of these objects, however, was entirely up to me. Sometimes I went in guns blazing and pins pulled only to realize I’d have been smarter to sneak because I ran out of bandages and used up half my ammo. At times when stealth was the best way to make it through an area, I'd craft my scissors into shivs, making it easier and faster to take someone down. Knowing how to craft my objects, and how best to take down a group, was made fairly easy an in-game mechanic that let me "hear" where people were, representing their location visually on screen like radar. Relying on this skill, which at times feels a bit cheap and at other times completely useless, I managed to sneak through an enemy encounter unnoticed, conserving all my supplies. This wasn't always an option as I was usually forced to kill something in the way of the exit.
While it may sound like a complaint, I wasn't disappointed by this lack of complete combat freedom. Each encounter offered a new challenge, and starting with one style and switching to another proved to be seamless. The wide variety of enemies ensured that once I mastered the tactics for dealing with one, later stages would pose plenty of different threats to overcome. The constant escalation and changes kept the combat feeling fresh from start to finish. With human enemies, whether military or civilian, I felt more at ease using stealth. When faced with the early-stage infected, I experimented with a mix of sneaking and melee combat.
Alternately, the more infected humans -- Clickers -- pose a threat on an entirely different level from their more human counterparts, and combat against them requires very different strategies. Because they depend on echolocation, not only did I have to play with how best to take them down, I also had to consider how I moved about the room. There's something significantly nerve wracking about hiding in plain sight, stiff as a board so as not to make a sound, as a gruesome monster slinks past you erratically like a drunk on the street, ululating an awful sound.
Survive and Endure
As I pushed forward through The Last of Us, the story hooked me with its constant twists and turns. Between the increasingly dramatic events and the natural writing of the characters, I found myself trying to piece together all the plot threads at the beginning of each new arc, hoping to cleverly one-up the writers and guess what would happen next. I spent 12 hours playing through the campaign, and by hour 10 I found myself torn. I wanted to see how it ended, but I didn't want it to end. I'm not a big fan of DLC, but I'm looking forward to the story’s continuation in the upcoming pack.
Each twist and turn sends Joel and Ellie across the country, and each environment flowed from dilapidated buildings to the great outdoors. It was with these environmental contrasts that The Last of Us hit some of its most visually stunning notes. I’d work my way through a city, entering an abandoned building from a broken window on the third floor. One time I feel into an underwater cellar and had to swim up to an exit. Once I made my way out, I’d be surrounded by cars and high-rises overgrown with green ivy, which then led to isolated fields filled with trees and spectacular lighting. With all the detail in every section of the game, I found myself unpleasantly surprised and honestly disappointed to encounter a number of low-visibility segments.
For a game that puts cutting edge graphics, lighting, and design as a top-shelf priority, these moments of low visibility seemed completely out of place. In the first one, I came upon a building full of spores and lost all visibility, my flashlight rendered useless. I had to wander around moving forward blindly, and it wasn’t at all fun. Realizing a fungal infection becomes airborne whenever a Clicker dies, I set aside my frustrations, made my way through, and powered on. Figuring this would be the only time visibility would be an issue, I didn’t think much of it until I was hit with the same cheap obstacle later on, only this time it wasn’t spores, it was the weather. It felt a bit cheap, and because the flow of the rest of the game was so fluid, it didn't feel like a good fit.
Better Not to Go it Alone
Joel is to The Last of Us what Nathan Drake is to Uncharted, but they play like different characters, and each game’s environments are designed to reflect that. Joel doesn't have the same unyielding upper body strength as Drake, so he needed help to get to high places. His companions, male and female, were forever helping up to a ledge after being given a boost. At other times, hard to reach ledges could be accessed by dragging a large object, but these objects always had wheels. The characters are survivors, and as such, they’re made to appear capable, not superhuman. It’s a subtle adjustment from Uncharted, but does well to create a practical sense of balance among the team.
Joel spends most of the game accompanied by AI-controlled companions. These taglongs rarely feel useless or in the way, regardless of whether or not they carry weapons. On a few occasions I'd have to wait a second or two for a character to move out of a doorway, but I never lost in combat because of it. In one early firefight, I wanted to experiment with the controls, and my companion took out everyone for me while I fiddled with my controller. I was impressed by how helpful this was, but the AI wasn’t perfect. At one point I was sneaking through a backyard when out of nowhere one of my partners trudged up to me loudly and asked me for keys without whispering. The enemy AI didn't take any notice, but I was taken out of the moment immediately. Thankfully, this was an exception to the rule. In every arena, The Last of Us pushes the bounds of what games are about, and delivers an immersive experience from start to finish.
Full disclosure: I consider Uncharted 2 one of the best games to come out this generation. Naughty Dog hit the right notes by combining a solid action/adventure game with a tried-and-true Indiana Jones-style storyline. The masterstroke, though, was with the fun script and the absolutely fantastic voice acting. While the original Uncharted was basically John McClane goes to Machu Picchu, the sequel made me care about these characters, their developing friendships and romances, and had one of the most memorable endings I've seen since I started playing games.
That's why, even with the slight disappointment of the Uncharted 3 narrative, The Last of Us had me excited from day one. A zombie-type game with heart, humor, and actual acting? Count me in.
Well, I can unequivocally say that The Last of Us is definitely a zombie-type game (think the furious in 28 Days Later, not the shambling walkers from The Walking Dead). But it lacks heart, which I found surprising.
That's not to say this isn't an emotional game, but it's almost an analysis a main character, Joel, being devoid of emotion. A character who's gone cold and numb. The characters in Uncharted 2, their friendships and interactions, had humor and a modicum of grace. The Last of Us hits you hard, and it hits you early, and it doesn't stop. You see Joel's heart almost disappear. It takes awhile for him to start regaining his humanity, and it was painful to experience.
The game itself is very good, reminding me of a cross between Metal Gear Solid and Tomb Raider, both of which I enjoyed. Joel's ability to hear his enemies, even through walls, is a gameplay mechanism that makes The Last of Us unique, and there are whole sequences of the game dedicated to battles, whether you choose to engage or not. As we play more games, it's tough to find something that is both unique and effective, and I'm pleased to see The Last of Us hits the mark while making it an enjoyable experience to play.
Still, with a game like this, I have to go back to the narrative, and I speak broadly as to avoid any spoilers. Is it a story of redemption? Is it a treatise on the effects of a world-changing pandemic on daily civilization? Am I overanalyzing it? All I know is that I'm close to the end, and I cannot wait to get back home to find out how it all unfolds. Naughty Dog hits the mark yet again. I just wish it wasn't so painful.
The Nitty Gritty
- Visuals:Everything looks amazing. Not only is there amazingly realistic detail in how things look (how the hell do they make eyes look so real and holy crap does the gore look disgusting), there's also a lot to see (deserted cities have empty gumball machines). It's a shame the game is so linear because the outdoor landscapes beg to be explored.
- Music:Sound plays an important role in the game, but it's usually pretty quite because you have to listen to what's around you in order to decide how to go about a combat situation. But every not and then a Western tune would pick up and it fit really well with the story.
- Controls:Seamless. Even the underwater, everything feels natural. There wasn't ever any stick when trying to jump through a window in the heat of the moment, and the gun mechanics are tight. Aiming is smooth and enemies are in no way bullet sponges.
- Lasting Appeal:The Last of Us will go down as one of the last great games on the PlayStation 3. The story fits nicely into zombie canon, the characters are memorable, and the gameplay is top notch.
I know a game is really good when I get caught up in the story, get lost in the world, or find myself entranced by the gameplay. In my twelve hours with <em>The Last of Us</em>, I managed to experience all three. Not only is it a beautiful game, it's a metaphorical microphone drop for Naughty Dog, leaving the PlayStation 3 behind for the next gen PlayStation 4.