It’s powerful, it’s brutal, it’s stark and funny and tragic. It’s long enough to satisfy even though you don’t want it to end by the time it does. No one else is doing quite what Naughty Dog has done here.
Normally, I probably wouldn’t bother with reviewing a game that Steerpike has already pretty effectively summed up, if only as his impressions. But for many reasons, The Last of Us feels like something of a special case. Partially because I am a Naughty Dog devotee. Partially because I’ve been a little more absent from Tap lately than I’d prefer. And yes, partially because The Last of Us has been the critical sensation it has, raking in the perfect scores, the GOTY predictions, the general uproar when a less-than-perfect review rears its head.
I came to The Last of Us a week late – which is odd for me with a Naughty Dog game – and so I came in already loaded with certain specific expectations. And, to be sure, I had some of my own based on my past experience with Naughty Dog, through both Uncharted and, earlier, the Jak & Daxter series. I will admit to some initial trepidation because of my own weariness at the zombie apocalypse genre, which I’ve never been a huge fan of in the first place. I have a much greater fondness for the pulp tradition to which Uncharted belongs. If not for the thunderous applause The Last of Us received right out of the gate, I might have deferred playing it even longer than I did.
Now on the other side, and with some time to let The Last of Us percolate a little, I am of two minds. Is The Last of Us one of the best single player experiences of this generation? Is it one of the best stories told in a video game yet? Resoundingly yes. But is it also, perhaps, the recipient of game journalism’s tendency toward hyperbole when it comes to such stand-out titles? Most definitely.
Twenty Years Later
The Last of Us is a game – a story – about characters. This is an important point. Game storytelling tends to run somewhat like short fiction, despite games being several times longer than films at the least and more time-consuming than some novels. That is, a game’s story often has room for either a plot, a character, or an idea at its core, but not all of them. Each part is important and present, but only one can be center stage. Most game stories are plot stories. Some, like BioShock Infinite, are idea stories. Relatively few are character stories in the traditional sense. The Last of Us is one of them.
The character in question, really, is Joel. If you looked up the word ‘grizzled’ in the dictionary, Joel’s picture might as well be there. Life as he knew it fell apart when the Cordyceps infection – parasitic fungus that turns people into this world’s zombies – hit twenty years ago. But Joel’s a survivor, clearly, and by now he’s surviving in Boston as a gun runner. Boston is one of an indeterminate number of quarantine zones, cities or parts of cities walled off and under martial law to protect what remains of humanity from the Infected. The game’s first and slowest hours take place in Boston, and we get a fairly hazy sense of what life is like for someone in this world. Hard. Spartan. Dangerous.
This introductory portion doesn’t make a great impression, to be quite honest, especially after the powerful night-the-infection-struck prologue. Joel and his partner, Tess, have a bone to pick with a local criminal type, and getting the payback they desire requires a fair amount of walking and climbing and stuff to bypass Boston’s security checkpoints. This shows off the Boston both inside and outside the QZ, but there’s not a lot of great interest to see. If you’ve seen one post-apocalyptic urban infrastructure, you’ve seen them all, or at least this one. There’s not much in the way of gameplay here, either, and the get-back-what’s-ours story falls a little flat. I couldn’t help but feel like I’d have had more fun and engaged this new world more if I were helping Joel and Tess smuggle their cargo into the city, dodging military and Infected alike, rather than this plodding revenge quest.
Fortunately this is just the excuse for Joel to fall into the game’s main plot. He finds himself charged with escorting Ellie, a fourteen-year-old girl who is important in the least surprising possible way, for the Fireflies, a nationwide militia movement that may or may not be better than the establishment. Though the job begins as just a trip across Boston, you know as well as I do that things don’t go as planned, necessitating a much longer journey. This is where the game really gets going, finally, and where it stays pretty well in command of itself for the duration, driven by the relationship between Joel and Ellie. That’s where the meat of The Last of Us really is, at least narratively, and both Joel and Ellie are rendered believably and acted wonderfully. Ellie, foul-mouthed and impulsive, is a real scene-stealer, but Joel is himself intriguing to watch grow in his quiet, gruff way.
The writing is excellent by any standard, least of all the rather low bar set by most game writing. The characters quickly become captivating and likeable (even when they aren’t). The plot itself is not outstanding and somewhat predictable, though, and many of the side characters that Joel and Ellie meet end up taking the easy way out of the story. Maybe this was intentional, to keep any guest stars from lingering too long. In a few too many cases the next twist was obvious well before it happened, but at least they were well-executed.
Endure and Survive
At first, The Last of Us looks and feels a bit like Uncharted, but diverges from its predecessor quickly as more gameplay emerges. There is a fair amount of platforming, though Joel is not the prodigious jumper that Nathan Drake is, and doesn’t really go shimmying across the sides of ruined buildings or anything. Platforming instead generally takes the form of small puzzles, usually involving finding the right thing to climb on or locating a ladder or plank you can move into a more useful position. It works fine, even if it doesn’t offer much challenge. Mostly it slows things down for in-game conversations between Joel and Ellie, which are always worthwhile.
The action is almost exclusively stealth-oriented. Joel is often armed to the teeth, it is true, but his enemies – whether human or Infected – eat bullets for breakfast thanks to armor and/or zombieness. Ammunition is scarce. Plenty of scavengey games make ammo hard to come by and quick to go, but The Last of Us is one of the most aggressive about it. Shooting your way out of things is often a last resort because it’s so easy to run out of ammo in the middle of a fight, especially if you aren’t making every single shot count. Headshots aren’t too hard to pull off, as in Uncharted, but plenty of enemies have some kind of protection so that you’ll need to land more than one even then. When guns fail Joel can resort to melee, either with a weapon, like a pipe or a two-by-four, or with his fists. Weapons break after a few hits but are pretty devastating while they last. Melee combat is brutal, but it’s also very button-mashy, best accomplished by spamming the square button until the other guy dies.
Joel’s preferred method of approaching enemies is, instead, stealthily. He can crouch to move quietly, catch enemies off guard and choke them or, if he’s properly equipped, shiv them for a quicker kill. An assortment of other equipment – smoke bombs, makeshift grenades, Molotovs and the like – help to give Joel a few more options for dealing with enemies. He can also enter a “listen mode” to “hear” (see) enemies through walls and floors up to a certain range.
The problem with the stealth gameplay is, as in most stealth games, that it becomes a bit of a rote exercise in waiting for enemies’ patrol patterns to take them far enough away from each other to pick them off quietly. Enemies are reasonably alert sometimes, but other times are terribly unobservant. A common complaint to level at this point would be how NPCs can literally run in front of enemies without being noticed, but that just strikes me as pragmatic: the stealth sections would be nigh unplayable if players were saddled with AI characters that could blow their cover. Even so, some enemies seem like they can only see ten feet in front of them, or like they have no peripheral vision. And, yeah, the whole Ellie-is-functionally-invisible thing, while handy, is a little distracting.
The Infected appear designed to vary up the formula a little – they don’t patrol so much as loiter – but in practice this makes them even easier to sneak up on. Clickers, the Infected which hunt with echolocation, are frustratingly dangerous in a melee – they can kill Joel instantly if they close to biting range – but are pretty terrible at noticing a slow-moving target no matter what direction it’s coming from. Even playing on Hard, Clickers became very easy to bypass after the first few encounters. The stealth design is solid and sometimes challenging all the same, but it does feel very run-of-the-mill for the stealth action genre, despite some ideas that suggest it could have been much more unique.
The other piece to the puzzle is the scavenging. The Last of Us takes a more moderate road than some loot-happy games like BioShock, opting for relatively few drops from enemies – so there’s not too much rooting around dead bodies – instead littering items around the levels, often just a little off the beaten path. Though the levels are highly linear, there are plenty of nooks and crannies to find that you don’t technically need to go through, but often hold useful stuff. A lot of the stuff you scavenge get used in the game’s simple-but-effective crafting system, combining two items to make one more useful one. The components consist of blades, rags, alcohol, sugar, explosives, and binding, and various combinations produce useful items like medkits. Most recipes will make more than one thing, though, so you have to choose what you want as you go – should these rags and alcohol become a medkit or a Molotov? Do you need these blades for shivs or bombs? For a while this keeps scavenging pretty critical, though after about the midpoint of the game I frequently had too much of everything – both items and supplies – with the exception of ammo. Scavenging ceased to be about survival and became exclusively about the many collectibles littered throughout the game.
Joel will also find parts and supplements which are used to upgrade his weapons and abilities, respectively. Parts are fairly plentiful, but so are the weapon upgrades, and most of the upgrades feel significant, whether it’s reducing the reload time on a weapon, increasing its clip size, adding a scope, or whatever else. The availability of these upgrades is also paced well, and you’ll still be upgrading some of your basic weapons late in the game when new upgrades become available for old mainstays. Upgrading Joel’s abilities via supplements proves a little less useful. These upgrades make up the usual suspects, like adding extra health or decreasing the time it takes to use a medkit. For the most part these feel kind of unnecessary – medkit use and crafting leave Joel extremely vulnerable, but there’s also so much downtime (and so much pattern to enemy movements) that doing one of those things in the middle of a heated battle doesn’t come up often unless you’ve planned very poorly. Increasing the range of Joel’s listen ability is somewhat handy, but the most critical upgrade is one that allows Joel to shiv a Clicker when it grabs him, thus preventing instant death (if you have a shiv, anyway). More abilities like this that work within a narrow but important context would have made this aspect of the game feel a bit more critical.
Many of these features get carried over into the multiplayer, which is pretty good but not outstanding. The multiplayer is, as you might expect, more stealth-oriented than your average shooter, rewarding players and teams that are careful about where they step and cover each other. At the moment there are only two game modes, both of which amount to slight variances on team deathmatch, and that holds this component of the game back. Naughty Dog introduces a metagame element where each player has a clan they have to supply each day (wherein a day equals a match) as it grows larger, with larger clans unlocking new items for your loadouts. Occasionally, missions will also crop up, giving you personal goals to complete within a certain number of matches. These are interesting touches but don’t go a long way to making the multiplayer experience more lasting.
You Can’t Deny the View
You’ll notice early on that The Last of Us looks incredible, especially the characters. Naughty Dog’s performance capture made a big difference to the pulp characters of Uncharted even in their self-aware goofiness, but The Last of Us really shows how much of a difference this level of detail can make in a dramatic, emotional story. Some of the writing in this game simply would not work with the kind of animation most games – even high budget ones – still work with. Add to that the exceptional in-game animations for character movement and Joel and Ellie really come to life, especially through little touches like Ellie hiding with Joel during stealth sections, tucked up under his arm or staying close at hand.
The world looks great, too, even if it’s nothing you haven’t seen in apocalypses before. Joel and Ellie traverse both the wilderness and the ruins of cities, and both environments look equally great. Despite the tendency of this genre to be somewhat dark and dismal (for good reason), The Last of Us doesn’t shy away from the occasional beautiful sight. The end of humanity hasn’t sapped beauty from the world.
There is a little clipping here and there, but with how good things usually look that’s easy to forgive. The odd graphical glitch or texture pop-in is often quickly forgotten when the next room or cutscene comes along to knock your socks off again.
There’s Got to Be Enough Here
I feel like maybe I’m nitpicking, here. As I write this review I second-guess every bit of criticism I level at The Last of Us. It really is an extraordinary game if you are inclined to measure by the power of its characters and narrative. If you don’t care about that stuff, it’s still a very, very good game, if one that simply puts solid execution to many tried-and-true elements. Does the game part need to innovate when the story part does so much more than most of its contemporaries? I don’t know. I guess that depends on what you think video games should do. (And possibly whether you think The Walking Dead already did it.)
I find flaws throughout the game, though. Little things, things that, really, would barely be worth mentioning if this weren’t such a great piece of work as a whole. This is one of those games that, on its own, makes me want to shrug and trumpet its perfection because, really, it’s close enough, dammit. What more could you want?
It’s powerful, it’s brutal, it’s stark and funny and tragic. It’s long enough to satisfy even though you don’t want it to end by the time it does. No one else is doing quite what Naughty Dog has done here. I suspect I will always have more fun with the Uncharted series, but The Last of Us leaves much more of an impression. The Last of Us is more categorically worth playing. Or at least watching. I’m not certain participation is critical to its effect, which is maybe the most damning thing I can say about the game. So experience this game however you prefer, maybe by yourself, or with a friend or loved one. Cherish the moments and the journey. Don’t miss it.
Developer: Naughty Dog | Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment | Released: June 2013
Available on: PS3 | Time Played: 20 hours