With Games’ plots so often revolving around a worldwide pandemic turning a majority of humans into zombies leaving few survivors to fight for their lives, you might find it strange for me to say that The Last of Us really isn’t a cliche experience at all. The way it tells its story and presents its character sets it on a bar far above the games that it might be compared to at first glance, and seldom focuses on the topics most of those games handle. The game shows humanity at it’s worst. With little hope, and few smiles; a far cry from the developer’s previous (and highly successful) Uncharted series, a game that rests heavily on laughs and the charm of its characters. Exhausting is the word I’d use to describe The Last of Us. Naughty Dog’s latest creation is about as grueling as games come.
The Last of Us places players in the shoes of Joel, an emotionally wounded and callous middle-aged man who is hired to escort Ellie, a young girl in her late teens. Joel is at first reluctant to take the job, seemingly uncomfortable in the young girl’s presence, but accepts the job because their destination is only a few hours away. It should be an easy job for a bountiful reward. However, as you may have suspected, things don’t go quite as planned. Saying anything more about the plot would be saying too much. The Last of Us is filled to the brim with heavily impactful moments that would only be lessened by any kind of spoilers.
During their journey, players have to take down enemies of both the human, and infected (Zombie) variety. The latter come in several different flavors, including but not limited to “Clickers”: a sightless variety of infected that use echolocation to see and are hyper-sensitive to sound, and “Runners” that are basically just your standard zombie: shambling around mindlessly until sighting possible prey and running it down as best it can. Combat with the infected is appropriately tense and works well in the hand full situations in which it comes up, but as one of the characters in the game says: “At least [the infected] are predictable, it’s the normal people that scare me.” That line is a really good way of describing The Last of Us’ tone as a whole, but more on that later.
Combat with humans is as realistically unpredictable as it is gruesome. Most every encounter in the game can be approached with guns a-blazing — or through stealthy take-downs. The latter is usually the better approach as ammunition in the world is relatively scarce, but both are similarly disturbing — as they were meant to be. Each Silent take-down involves strangling, stabbing, or by other means killing another human being while making sure they stay quiet. The Strangling is particularly excruciating to watch, with enemies flailing desperately to impair Joel and take in another breath. Injuring an enemy often results in their begging for you to allow them to live, granting them life will backfire on most every occasion, so offing them while their down is the safe, but brutal end many enemies meet by your hand.This sense of brutality and the tense struggle to survive is enhanced by the game’s fantastic sound design.
Another thing that I suppose is probably important to say about the combat is that it works very well. Joel’s aiming reticle sways heavily as he breaths and struggles to keep his arm raised out of exhaustion. This makes pulling off headshots — or shots at all from long range a difficult but crucial thing to master — especially with ammo being as scarce as it is and reloading weapons taking a realistic amount of time.
As a member of the glorious PC Master Race, adjusting to the graphical output of the Ps3 took a while. That said, as far as Ps3 games go, this is one of the best-looking ones around — and easily the best-looking Ps3 game to shoot for a realistic art-style. Along with that, the game manages to hold a reasonable framerate throughout.
Another thing — something that I can’t stress enough — is how incredible the voice acting is, and how human the game’s facial animations look. Fear, despair, anger, anxiety, you can see it all just by looking at the character’s faces.
The one and only complaint I have about the game is its A.I. On her own, Ellie’s A.I. works fine a majority of the time. But at several points in the game you will have multiple companions, all of which seemingly share Ellie’s A.I. Meaning when you duck behind cover, all of your companions will all try to take cover right next to you before opting to hide somewhere else. In addition to that, there were several occasions that Ellie (or another companion) would block my path and I would have to run to an open area so she could situate herself and allow me to navigate through the narrow walkway. But even more distracting and immersion-breaking than all: if you (Joel) haven’t been spotted personally, your companions are invisible to the enemy. While this is a good design choice on Naughty Dog’s part, your companions will often run, shout and even bump into your foe without causing any sort of reaction. During stealth segments, this is incredibly distracting. I can only hope that future console generations will permit more careful A.I. companions. But as I said before, when it’s just you and Ellie, everything works almost 100% of the time, she even offers a fair amount of help.
The game also has players complete a few simple puzzles where you find different means to get Ellie from one side of a body of water to another (Ellie cannot swim). While some may call these segments “padding”, I found them to be nice breaks from the action. And fun interactions between Joel and Ellie. The puzzles are admittedly all pretty similar to each other though, as Ellie points out on one occasion. But they’re simple enough that they are a fully welcome occasional break from the always tense combat.
It’s important to state that The Last of Us isn’t a “fun” game. It wasn’t meant to be. There are few laughs, and very little joy to be found in the world. Its a unique, dark, and often twisted experience. It puts you in a world full of people that have all but lost their humanity, and asks the frightening question of what you’d be willing to do to survive — and more importantly — what you’d do to ensure the survival of those you love.
There’s so much to say about this game, but little of it can be said without giving something away. Just know that it’s a uniquely immersing experience that will be on your mind for quite some time.
Multiplayer: Much to my surprise, Naughty Dog successfully added an entertaining multiplayer component to a game that relies so heavily on plot-driven immersion. The online offerings use an impressive amount of the single-player game's mechanics, and manages to hold on to some of the same intensity that is found in the solo game's combat. Both of the two game-modes that are included are different variations of Team Death-Match, one with each team having a set amount of lives, while the other only gives each team one life. But what really sets it apart is it's emphasis on stealth, and it's premise. Upon starting up the multiplayer, you will be prompted to either join the Hunters of the Fireflys, the two primary factions in the game's world. Once you choose one, the game explains that with each kill you will gain supplies to support a clan you are starting up. There are also specific goals you will have to reach to keep the members of your clan healthy. This adds an extra intensive to play a multiplayer component that is already fun by itself, especially when it is played with a small group of friends.
Editor’s note: I played through a majority of the game on hard, but lowered the difficulty for the last two encounters of the game because of how eager I was to see its conclusion, and because the infamous day-one auto-save bug was active as I played. I also played the entire game with “Listen Mode” (a mode that allows you to see enemies through walls) turned off. I felt that having it off made each encounter significantly more intense, I would highly recommend that everyone does the same.