- Editor's Rating
- Compelling story and characters
- Beautiful visuals
- Tense, satisfying gameplay
- Wonky friendly AI
- Uncomfortable cover system
Quick TakeThe Last of Us is a haunting narrative masterpiece with well-executed stealth/action gameplay that must be experienced by all PS3 owners.
The Last of Us is one of those games that you’re probably better off playing in small chunks, because the emotional toll might otherwise be too much to handle. That’s more of a testament to the game’s quality than anything else.
It’s not like it’s a completely miserable experience or anything like that. In fact, The Last of Us is a very fun game to play; it takes the playable movie-like aspect of Telltale’s The Walking Dead and injects action/crafting/stealth gameplay mechanics into it. And admittedly, in some ways, the story was not quite as depressing as it could have been.
But make no mistake about it: this is still one seriously bleak game.
After the Fall
The Last of Us takes place primarily in the year 2033, 20 years after the initial outbreak of a highly contagious strain of fungi called cordyceps, which infects the brain of its host, which in turn becomes violent. Yes, this is another zombie game, with the mild twist that the infection is based somewhat in reality; cordyceps is a real thing (though it has not been known to infect humans) and it’s super gross. Go ahead and look it up.
In the wake of the outbreak, cities are devastated, becoming home to just as many jackbooted soldiers and Hunters (violent raiders/looters, essentially) as infected. There is also a group of rebels called the Fireflies, which, aside from “sticking it to the man,” have taken it upon themselves to find a cure for the infection.
You follow the story of a Joel, a smuggler who prefers not to align himself with any of the aforementioned factions, and a young girl named Ellie, who appears to be the key to a cure after being bitten and suffering zero adverse effects. Joel has been entrusted to protect Ellie as he escorts her to a band of Fireflies at a faraway location, where they hope to research her immunity and develop a cure.
In some ways, The Last of Us threatens to be a tired, unoriginal story: a zombie outbreak, the one unlikely person who appears to be immune and needs to be protected above all else because she could save the world, etc. Heck, it’s almost the exact storyline of 28 Weeks Later. But the two elements that set The Last of Us apart from its contemporaries are its production value and its characters.
It’s fitting that The Last of Us will likely be one of the last big PS3 exclusives — what with the age of the PS4 slated to start later this year — because I suspect that the game’s visuals push the PS3’s hardware to its absolute limits. Lighting and water effects are incredible, pre-rendered cut scenes look freakishly realistic, and character animations are smooth and natural. The game looks so good that, on more than one occasion, it just straight-up shows off; players are often given the opportunity to stop and survey a sprawling, impressive landscape from some high-up vantage point, and boy, does it look beautiful. The voice acting is far and away the most impressive aspect of the game. It’s all spot-on and never once falls into that painfully stilted sound that’s all too prevalent in video games. Every line delivered sounds natural, whether it’s because of the occasional pause here and there or because they’re using just the right kind of inflection.
People are incredibly realistic too, and while a lot of that has to do with the painstakingly detailed character models, a lot of it can also be attributed to mo-cap work that was done for the game. Character’s body language and gestures look more natural than ever. The quick, simple wiggle of Joel’s finger as he gestures towards his eye while asking a friend about an injury to her face may not sound like a big deal, but it looks infinitely more realistic than the wide, slow, sweeping gestures that video game characters usually make while moving around.
And when I say that the people in the game are realistic, I mean it in every sense of the word. They sound good, they look good, but perhaps most importantly, they are well-written, believable characters. Joel is not your obvious angelic good guy. He does good things and his love for Ellie is obvious as it grows over time, but his flaws put him in a moral grey area and, at times, he acts like a monster. It’s refreshing to see Naughty Dog address the fact that although you’re playing the so-called “good guy,” you’re still murdering literally hundreds of people over the course of your journey.
Ellie, meanwhile, is a brilliant character. Rather than being a reckless, cartoonishly headstrong person or painfully naïve, she knows when to be confident and when to be scared. She’s cleverer than any 14-year-old has any business being and what makes her so believable is that she’s not a one-note character. Her range of emotions and behavior extend from one end of the spectrum to the other, anywhere from mumbling guitar solos to herself as you walk around to remaining hauntingly silent in the wake of a traumatic experience.
Shooting and Looting
As far as third-person shooter gameplay goes, The Last of Us is familiar but enjoyable territory. Players follow and shoot over the shoulder and waist-high objects abound to take cover behind, though the cover system isn’t great. Rather than having any sort of stickiness – whether it’s holding or tapping a button to put Joel into cover – players can only push him up against walls or objects with the thumbstick and hope he stays in the right place. On more than one occasion I thought I was taking cover, only to get lit up when an enemy started shooting.
One other spotty gameplay factor is the AI. Enemies are respectable enough, and they’ll often flank your position without you even noticing until they’re pumping you full of bullets. But the friendly AI could really use some work. For the most part, allies tend to just run back and forth between two endpoints while occasionally firing off a shot, and relying on them to be stealthy is a lost cause. That being said, my allies could romp around as much as they wanted to since they were basically invisible to our enemies so long as I had yet to alert them (which was essentially the only flaw of the enemy AI, though I at least got the impression that this was intentional).
On more than one occasion, my allies would wander out from cover right in front of an enemy, while other times they would be following me so closely that when I would turn around to move, they’d be in the way and I would subsequently either be seen or attacked. The worst was probably when I was sneaking around and Ellie just straight up knocked over a lamp like a klutz and immediately notified our enemies of our whereabouts. Granted, I think that was a glitch since the environment wasn’t typically interactive and, again, enemies were clearly not programmed to take note of my companions clomping around. But it was a problem nonetheless.
Aside from those minor hiccups, and aside from the fact that this is all taking place in the context of a zombie outbreak, the relative realism of the gameplay is enjoyable. Sure, Joel can still soak up more bullets than the average human being and just shake it off with a quick patch-up with some bandages, but he still loses health quickly, and if hit cleanly, he’ll be knocked over. And ammo is in such short supply that you will never find yourself pulling a Rambo and spraying bullets willy-nilly, simply because you can’t.
But in an odd move considering the otherwise realistic nature of the gameplay, there is the “Listen Mode” mechanic, which essentially allows Joel to see enemies’ locations through walls just by crouching down and listening carefully. It’s useful, but when that gameplay facet is introduced, it kind of comes out of left field since we are at no point led to believe that Joel has bat-like sonar superpowers.
What’s really intriguing, though, is how well Naughty Dog incorporates elements of the stealth, survival, and horror genres into the game. Again, players of the earlier Resident Evil games will appreciate how precious a commodity of ammunition becomes, so stealth by way of melee attacks is often the player’s benefit. Meanwhile, the game’s crafting (e.g. creating makeshift bombs out of household items) and upgrade elements are oddly satisfying. Having to scrounge through levels trying to scrape together ever last bit of parts and supplies to upgrade or create weapons really nails the tone of just how desperate things are for Joel and Ellie.
And put simply, The Last of Us will creep you out. The ominous sound of a Clicker — a blind type of infected that uses clicking noises as a sonar-like means to track its prey — approaching you will undoubtedly have you on the edge of your seat as you sit deathly still in hopes that it will pass you by. In fact, the infected in general will likely make your skin crawl since, again, there’s some aspect of realism; as gross as the infected look in The Last of Us, it’s not a far cry from what infected creatures look like in real life.
As is often the case when developers feel the need to “flesh out” their AAA title, the multiplayer in The Last of Us feels a little tacked on. There’s a reason it came as a surprise to almost everyone when, prior to the game’s release, it was revealed that there would be some form of multiplayer present: it’s not really necessary.
But in all fairness, the multiplayer mode, dubbed Factions, doesn’t detract from the overall quality of The Last of Us. It’s just nothing special. The two included modes are Supply Raid and Survivors, both of which are death matches, and the only difference between them is that each team is granted a handful of respawns in the former, while there are no respawns in the latter. The matches are 4-on-4 and the small number of players admittedly helps increase the tension of creeping around the relatively expansive maps, of which there are seven.
The multiplayer experience is framed in the greater context of recruiting survivors to your “faction” – you select either Hunter or Firefly at the beginning – and then gathering supplies for said survivors at your camp. Supplies are earned through winning matches, downing and/or executing enemies, gathering them off of other players’ bodies, etc. The matches you play take place over 12 weeks before they finally come to a close, with your faction either surviving or being wiped out based on your performance, at which points players restart the experience all over again.
It’s nice that Naughty Dog offered some sort of narrative thread here to explain what on earth this seemingly out of place multiplayer mode was doing here, but it doesn’t do much else to enhance the experience. Sure, there are unlocks and temporary boosts players can purchase mid-match, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s pretty vanilla. Like I said, it’s not bad by any means, but most people will probably play it for a few hours and then forget about it. A 15-20 hour adventure (with some element of replayability thanks to New Game Plus) would have been sufficient enough in my opinion, but if you really need your multiplayer fix, it’s here for you to tool around with.
The Last of Us may be unenjoyable to play at times, but that has nothing to do with the quality of the game. It’s a dark, depressing portrayal of a father-daughter-like relationship that resonates so deeply with the player that only the most stony-hearted audiences won’t be moved. But while it may not be perfect or the most uplifting experience, The Last of Us is a game that just has to be played. Gameplay is tense and enjoyable, it looks great, it sounds great, and the story and characters are so well-written that the game provides a narrative experience like few other video games can. This is, without a doubt, a must-play PS3 exclusive.