Review: The Last of Us
Reviewed on: PS3
When I finished the story in The Last of Us, I had to sit at my desk and mull it over for a while before I looked for my jaw on the floor. It's not the usual Naughty Dog or Uncharted ending, with everyone riding off into the sunset together, happy as clams. It's not even a typical game ending, where the hero saves the day and the bad guy gets his comeuppance. It's dark, there's no clear-cut day saving and I couldn't say who the hero or villain even was. It's brilliant. Naughty Dog have made the perfect ending for this story and its two main characters. Gamers everywhere should hold this game up when anybody says you can't tell an emotional and adult tale with a video game. This story probably couldn't be told to this effect with any other medium and may even be one of the best tales ever told in video games.
After the bleak prologue hits home how terrifying the world has become, we jump to our main character Joel twenty years later. The cordyceps fungus has jumped to humans, turning them into highly infectious monstrosities. Joel is surviving as a smuggler in a quarantine zone and is essentially completely closed off emotionally after the harrowing events of twenty years prior. Along comes a job that will set him, and his partner/hinted at romantic interest Tess, up for life. Tess and Joel have to take Ellie, the surprisingly tough but naive young girl, to the Capitol building to meet up with a rebel group called the Fireflies that have a vested interest in her survival. In typical fashion, things don't go according to plan and Joel must reluctantly take Ellie on a journey that will take months and span America.
In typical fashion, things don't go according to plan and Joel must reluctantly take Ellie on a journey that will take months and span America.
The story is gripping almost the entire way through. Around halfway through, just as I thought I was being led on a wild goose chase and my interest was starting to wane, the game chucked a wild card in that made me swear out loud and get drawn back in all over again. Don't expect the over the top action of Uncharted here though. We're dealing in a universe far more grounded in reality (regardless of fungus-zombies) and much of the tension is derived from the obstacles Joel and Ellie must overcome.
Speaking of Joel and Ellie, The Last of Us has one of the best two character relationships I've ever seen in a game. While both characters are stubborn, and Joel is not quick to trust anyone, they warm to each other and you. Part of what makes this so effective is the superb acting being supported by some of the most emotive motion capture I've ever seen. Troy Baker is as perfect as Joel and regardless of the surface level similarities to his recent character of Booker DeWitt in Bioshock: Infinite (a closed-off thug escorting an innocent girl through dangerous territory), he makes Joel his own. Ashley Johnson as Ellie is also pitch-perfect. Her innocent honesty is endearing and disarming, especially to Joel, who tries his damnedest to remain emotionally distant. Even the subtle nuances of a character absent mindedly playing with a broken watch or the torn look as Joel tries to apologise but can't, Naughty Dog have obviously spent an absurd amount of time making sure their characters feel effective and real. It's a good thing they did because they're the heart of a fantastically written story.
In terms of gameplay, The Last of Us takes some familiar concepts and gives them its own spin. It also wraps them in a hugely satisfying engine that conveys Joel's movement and physical weight very convincingly. Essentially you'll be broken up into action, active stealth and passive stealth. The action sections are frantic, balls to the wall shooting and death. On the harder difficulties, it's best to avoid this at all costs, which is perfect because the most satisfying experience in the game is the active stealth. What I mean by that is, the enemy already knows you're there and is actively searching for you, but a clever use of the environment and your items can be used to overcome them one by one. Especially later in the game, where you will come up against groups of four or more humans with guns. You'll never be able to take them all on, but distract one with a brick and maybe you can get two more with a molotov before charging the bewildered third man with a metal pipe. With careful planning, you can take out groups in a few seconds before they've even got a shot off. This isn't just for the sake of gameplay but it ties into one of the game's main themes. Survival, and what it takes to survive. Once you get a hang of the controls you really feel like Joel has spent the last twenty years doing just this, and getting scarily good at it. The passive stealth is mostly used when sneaking around the later-stage infected. The mutated fungus has burst through their skull and made them completely blind. As such, sneaking past them can be a breeze or a tense test of your nerves depending on the situation and how many there are.
Of these three routes, none of them skimp on the violence. Some people may complain about the no-holds barred gore you'll see but to them I say A) this is a game for adults, much like The Road, and B) in post-apocalypse America, nobody trades in hugs. This is an unashamedly dark world and it doesn't feel gratuitous because the theme of the game is survival and protecting the people you care about. You're meant to question Joel and his status as a hero and if it makes you uncomfortable to be wading through pools of giblets and crushed skull then the game has achieved exactly what it set out to do.
Apart from all this praise I've been slinging around, no game is perfect. Some of the character animations and controls have a hard time when trying to pull off a fast move. If too many enemies attack you at once, especially the melee-based infected, Joel will freak out and attempt to lock on to too many at once. While the minimal user interface usually does a fine job of knowing who you were attempting to brain, it will get confused at times. This brings an otherwise fantastic combat system down as you'll often need to rely on quick thinking when you're found out. Still, the checkpoint system is fairly forgiving so you won't be sent back very far.
My biggest niggling problem was the hit and miss detection system of the enemies. You'll spend a lot of time avoiding their line of sight and waiting for the perfect moment to strike. It's just some times the eagle eyes of the human enemies will spot a tuft of hair from behind cover and other times they'll ignore Joel's sneaky “stick my whole head out to check” tricks like he was meant to be there. This problem doesn't really cross over to the infected, because their sections are mostly based off of how much sound you make.
The human enemies also can't see Ellie. She doesn't seem to register to their artificial intelligence (AI) at all. As long as you stay hidden, she's seemingly invisible. I can understand why Naughty Dog would have done this. You don't want to punish the player every time your AI character does something stupid. Still, when Ellie attempts to join you behind cover and ends up practically running into a man with a shotgun who ignores her, it brings you out of the experience. It's hard to say how to get around this problem except make better AI, but that's easier said than done. Plus these problems won't plague you all the way through and you may get to the end without noticing any of them but the Ellie one frequently bothered me.
For players who want more after the end of the story there is a multiplayer mode. It does a good job of not resorting to a mindless deathmatch mode but it does require more of a time investment than a lot of other multiplayer offerings. Essentially you are a group of survivors in the Last of Us universe, coming up against a rival group. The individual matches make good use the main campaign's engine and having a human on the other end of the fight adds a level of challenge that an AI can't hope to replicate. Though winning matches as a group gives you upgrades and unlocks, many players won't stick around for that many matches in a row. I can see a dedicated group of players who keep up with the mode as it deserves to at least be given a chance as it tries something new, but many will sadly overlook it.
Apart from a few comparatively small issues, The Last of Us stands up as one of the best games on PS3. For once, this is a game that isn't given perfect scores because of some internet, and media, hype machine but is truly a work of art. The gameplay, art design, sound design, acting, motion capture and writing are all a perfect example of what one of the best game developers working today can do if given creative freedom and a huge budget. I only hope that it doesn't become an endless franchise because the ending fits so perfectly. There's not much else to say about Joel and Ellie. Maybe a game in the same universe that doesn't follow those characters could work, but I think it should be respectfully left alone. Then again, considering how much money it has already made, I'm probably asking too much. Either way, if you own a PS3, play this game. As soon as possible.