The Last of Us is a survival-horror, third-person shooter for the PlayStation 3. Naughty Dog developed the game and is best known for developing the Uncharted, Jak and Daxter and Crash Bandicoot franchises. This is their first new IP since Uncharted. Since its debut at the 2011 Spike VGAs, the game has been eagerly anticipated, even as the final breaths seep out of the PS3. The game is a marked shift in tone from the lighthearted fun of Uncharted for a more bleak and crestfallen tone. Does this swan song of the PS3 live up to the hype and heavy praise it has received?
How does the world end? It ends in confusion, chaos and the spread of a vicious fungal infection. What does it take to survive in a society crumbled and replaced with Draconian military quarantine zones that run more like a prison than the last bastions of hope for the human race? A place where even the mere hint of infection or dissidence is met with a bullet to the neck. Can humanity thrive after the brink when nature reclaims the urban spaces and the bulk of humanity is dead or infected? Joel and Tess must attempt to do this in The Last of Us, or at least put on a facade of trying. The grizzled Joel and severe and cunning Tess are smugglers that deal in black market goods in face of incredible scarcity. Survival is about finding the needs and wants of the suffering then exploiting them for extra ration cards. The scarcity of resources shines a light on the depths people go to survive. After chasing down a business partner who back stabbed them and sold their goods, Tess and Joel meet the leader of the Fireflies, a resistance group. The leader of this group tells them to get their goods back, they must smuggle Ellie out of the city. Things get complicated, however.
She’s just cargo, Joel. The job was supposed to be easy. Get her out of the city and get paid, simple. Nothing ever is.
The opening is stunning. While it is something that people may have seen in different forms before in other media, be it movies or video games or novels, but the elements from scripting to atmosphere to voice acting and motion capture all come together so beautifully that it leaves a profound effect. It is one of the best video game openings ever. Outside of the opening sequence, the writing is phenomenal. The dialogue is crisp and expertly written. Every line spoken between Joel and other survivors or Ellie is charged with subtext that is constantly hinting at larger truths about the history of the world and Joel. It never resorts to spelling out of these events. All the plot points and story progression never feels cheated or unearned. They always lead to new and fascinating events that illuminate the idiosyncrasies and depth of this ruined world. The Last of Us’ story is stark and gritty; it reveals the horror of life after the fall of humanity and the desperation many feel when faced with the bleakness of all of it, but through it all there is a kernel of hope that we can come back from the brink of extinction.
What drives a man to look at a fellow human in pain and decide to leave them behind or immediately feel they are shady and underhanded? How can anyone decide the simple act of asking for help means they need to run through them with a car? Where does one draw the line between his/her own survival and helping a fellow human in trouble? What depths are you willing to plumb to muster up the necessary detachment to see a fellow survivor and immediately assume they are a threat? What does it mean to survive?
The Last of Us’ gameplay mixes traditional shooter elements with survival-horror mechanics leading to a rich, dynamic and deep gameplay experience. When Joel runs into enemies be they soldiers, stalkers, clickers or other survivors, he has a number of options at his disposal to take out the various enemies in a given area. Joel can go the traditional shooter route by shooting, bludgeoning, stabbing and hiding behind cover to dispose of the enemies in a room.
Or he can use his “listen” mode to hone his hearing and detect enemies by the sounds they make and plan accordingly. This skill allows him to know enemy placement and use it skillfully with crouching and slow movements to sneak up behind an enemy and grab them. Then they can choose to either strangle, shiv or use a weapon to dispose of them. There are drawbacks to certain stealth moves because the sound that choking out one enemy makes might alert the entire room to Joel’s presence. Then he has no choice but to switch things up because the enemies will not simply forget about him if he hides behind a box. There are many combinations possible through those two routes and players should mix them up as they experience the tough and harried combat in The Last of Us.
There are several mechanics in play that add depth to the gameplay. The crafting system is simple, but resource management becomes a huge concern when playing through the game, so the crafting system makes the player select carefully which items to make by using up scarce resources found around the world. There is also the gun modding/crafting that improves weapons, but gun parts are sparse and require detailed exploration. Even with a large number of parts, certain upgrades are locked behind tool levels and can only be modded when a necessary tool bench is nearby. They are few and far between, so players must think ahead to what weapons they want to invest in and what suits their play style. There are also the survival skills, which are perks that give Joel some added benefits to various areas such as health, improved shivs or wider hearing distance. There are plenty of systems to augment the harried, tense and often difficult combat situations.
As the generation comes to a close, gamers can finally see where AI will be going in the future by playing The Last of Us. From Ellie who is a smart companion, who grows as the game moves on and becomes more useful to Joel when dealing with heated fights with various enemies. From throwing bricks or slamming bottles to picking up a weapon. An AI relationship grows and deepens along with the story adding layers to both the story and gameplay in a logical manner. Then there is the enemy AI, which becomes much smarter and more difficult as the game progresses. Early on it is easy to outsmart the enemies, but later they become more proactive and with multiple enemies working toward a common goal, it is easy to get overwhelmed. Plus, damage from guns and weapons hurts so it is entirely possible to view a small group of enemies as a simple task until they flank and swarm on the player leaving them in a tough spot with little options to get out.
We’re sh**y people, Joel, it’s been that way a long time. It is about survival and some simple gear to get along the way.
Stunning and hauntingly beautiful, The Last of Us is a marvel pushing the PS3 hardware to the limit. Joel, Ellie, Tess and the other survivors are all gorgeously detailed, expressive and their faces sell the emotion impeccably well. The environments tells stories. Naughty Dog has created a living and dying world full of depth and juxtaposition. Joel and Ellie will travel to numerous and varied locations that not only look amazing, but like the dialogue tell loads about the world, its history and how things got to this point through visual instead of subtext.
The voice acting and music in The Last of Us is brilliant. With an impressive voice acting cast that not only delivers amazing vocal performances, but also the emotion in those performances can be heard with every line without them having to spell it out. Troy Baker as Joel is a powerhouse, the pain and struggle in his voice is palpable. While there are inflections that come through when Baker delivers minor dialogue or grunts that portray the conflict inside Joel’s character when making tough decisions. Ashley Johnson is mesmerizing as Ellie delivering a compelling and empathetic performance even if her character is meant to be snarky and slightly naive. Then there are the incredible supporting performances by Annie Wersching as Tess, which gives life to a complex and complicated character; and W. Earl Brown, who is simply riveting. Of course, there is the lush and moving composition by Gustavo Santaolalla, which needs to be heard to appreciate truly. The main theme is but a taste of what the score has to offer.
The Last of Us is a masterpiece. Easily it gets the Editor’s Choice Award at Gaming Illustrated. While talking about what makes it so great is tough because of spoilers. It is a game to experience with no foreknowledge. It is mesmerizing and captivating, yet difficult to play sometimes because it does ask much of the player. The Last of Us is a game that never fails to remind the player that the stakes they have to contend with are high and that survival has its toil. That while every shot may be the difference between surviving and not surviving; every enemy killed is trying to survive as well. That while the reward for those deaths may be getting Joel closer to his goal, it also may cause him to lose more and more of his humanity. What is the price of survival? How much are you willing to give up for another sunrise?