The Last of Us Review
Developer Naughty Dog's Uncharted games struck me as excellent, but some reason, they never sat well with me after I was done playing them. And for a long time, I couldn't figure out why. Was it all the gunfights and the way that our Indiana Jones-like hero had to slaughter hundreds of enemies with low-wall-cover-shootin' so often? But I was raised on video games with action and shooting and I loved all that stuff the whole time, so how could I be so bored with video game violence now?
But it was the gunfights. Naughty Dog's latest effort, the zombocalyptic action game The Last of Us, proved it to me. By ramping up the impact of what on paper would be "mundane" video game violence to extreme levels and making it so hard-hitting, brutal, and seemingly so costly for both the perpetrators and victims of the violence, Naughty Dog has shaken me awake from my hundreds-of-headshots stupor, jolting me into cringing at a simple punch or a head getting slammed into a wall. Until this point, I'd become so desensitized to violence in games that it took no less than severed limbs and flying gibs to even get the slightest reaction out of me.
I hope that The Last of Us does the same for the rest of a gaming industry and populace that has become so mind-numbingly dependent on headshots and spurting blood that we basically consider a requirement for an expensive action game now. In that case, by slowly evolving and making a relative few changes, Naughty Dog has forced me to completely rethink the way interactive violence is being delivered to us - and how we should probably revel in it just a little bit less. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the rest of The Last of Us is so masterfully-made that it drags us along with it, even though it's clear that the main characters are in the same boat; they'd much rather just take a rest and try to eke out a normal life - or whatever's left of normal after the end of civilized life on Earth.
The apocalypse in The Last of Us comes from a fungal infection that creates something resembling both traditional zombies as well as more "evolved" infected that are much more dangerous; these creatures are blind and use sound-based echolocation to find people, and they're very deadly at close range. The game largely takes place decades after the outbreak, so you'll see a world well after the collapse - buildings are run-down, vegetation is retaking cities and towns, and most supplies you collect and craft are jury-rigged from basic components left from before the collapse.
After a brief and shocking prologue, The Last of Us has you taking control of Joel, an aging everyman protagonist 20 years after the fall of civilization. Yes, Joel is Caucasian with just-graying dark hair, just like the protagonists in most big-budget action games. I'm gonna keep harping on this until developers can figure out how to deliver a little more variety in their main characters without publishers' marketing teams objecting, but at the very least, this game does involve at least one female character that isn't just objects to be thrown around at will. (Baby steps.) Anyway, Joel is in the middle of working his own little racket with his companion Tess when he gets a new job, which is to smuggle a 14-year-old teenager named Ellie out of the oppressive but relatively safe Boston safe zone that he's staying in. There's a big payout involved with this job, so he takes it. What started out as a quick escort turns into a much bigger journey, as Joel and Ellie find themselves on their own, traveling across the country to get her to her destination.
As they travel, Joel and Ellie find themselves mixed up in hard-hitting fights with both bandits and zombies, both of which can often be avoided rather than fought. Sometimes skipping these fights by using stealth (which generally feels natural, with a few small exceptions) is preferable, but there are other times when you can gain supplies - especially if you can silently take out enemies without using weapons. Thrown objects can be used to stun enemies or distract them, but you can always sneak up behind someone to take them out silently. As you can expect, the use of guns attracts every enemy in the area, and the human variety will try to sneak up behind you pretty often. The zombies generally charge right at you, but the level design is still set up in such a way that they'll take you by surprise once in a while. Still, Joel can fight back against most melee-based enemies pretty easily. He can do melee-based finishers that look especially brutal, and point-blank gunshots or shiv wounds look really nasty as well. The only disappointment I feel on this front is that for every expertly-done animation of Joel smashing a guy's face into the front of an old washing machine, I wish there was a way to talk my way out of a fight - because I imagine that 20 years after the apocalypse with zombies all around and no cure in sight, people have got to be looking for ways out of fights, rather than constantly trying to start them. But I suppose we have the Walking Dead game if we want that.
I've got a couple of other minor complaints with The Last of Us, not the least of which is that the game sets you up for big fights and even if there are no ways to avoid a fight with words, the developers also drag you right through a bandit's home base, making it a lot easier to get into a fight than to go around it. If you do alert a camp of bandits or a group of zombies, you'll often be fighting against overwhelming odds, and if you're not using a stealth-oriented approach even once the fight begins, you'll get caught up in big fights and might die pretty often. What's helpful is that saved checkpoints come regularly, and fights can end in many very different ways based on how you move and what you do. Luckily, most combat areas are fairly large, and it can be a real thrill as you try to sneak around an enemy encampment, stealing their supplies, while they patrol and have conversations. In many ways, that's the most exciting way to play this game, but it's also the most difficult.
It can be a bit of a drag that you have to play a game in a very specific way in order to get the most out of it, but it just goes to show that immediately picking a fight every time a stranger walks into your view is not a good post-apocalypse strategy. (I just wish we could tell the game's many bandit groups this.) Sure, players can get away with it in The Last of Us, but it turns nearly every encounter into a bloodbath, and doing that misses out a bit on some of the best things this game has to offer.
Throughout all of this, I do want to say that Naughty Dog has made arguably the best-looking game the PS3 has gotten yet; its texture quality is fantastic considering the measly 512MB of RAM in the console, and the special effects and superb lighting make for a very realistic-looking atmosphere, all with a mostly stable 30fps which is well-suited for a single player game like this. The voice acting and writing are also just downright wonderful, and Ellie is an excellent sidekick who gets more involved in the fights than just tossing you items like BioShock Infinite's Elizabeth - she'll stab enemies that take you by surprise, she'll hide and wait for you to engage in combat if you're currently hidden, and she'll distract enemies that are shooting at you from a distance. The added challenge to balance out this helpfulness is that she does get involved in combat, and while she can hold her own for a while, you do have to rescue her from peril here and there.
One side effect of Ellie never triggering fights when you're stealthy is that the illusion the game builds up breaks immediately when she saunters right into the field of vision of an enemy, reminding us that we're playing a game. Of course, this same problem is shared with dozens of other games, and it wouldn't even be an issue if not for the fact that so many animations and character movements in The Last of Us look so incredibly natural. You know how it goes: the more realistic things get, the more glaring each tiny little flaw seems to be. But back to Ellie. She's only a young teenager, but she's a little bit like Clementine in the Walking Dead game - she's tough, she's a trooper, and even if she depends on Joel, she's still part of a team and she does eventually start carrying her own weight in a mostly very natural way. After hundreds of games with completely broken and idiotic NPC companions, it feels really good getting two games within a few months - the other being BioShock Infinite - that do this (mostly) right.
There is plenty more to dig into with The Last of Us as you can use parts to upgrade your weapons and craft consumable supplies, while survival manuals and other things bestow permanent utility improvements and will upgrade Joel's stealth and combat powers. There's also a versus multiplayer mode and I do appreciate that many parts of the single player game, like crafting, do actually work in online play in a way that's quite handy. Still, I didn't feel that multiplayer served as a good match for a game like this, no matter how well it was done, but there will be some who enjoy it at least until the PS4 is released later this year.
The Last of Us doesn't revolutionize anything, but in these months when current-gen starts to become last-gen, the commitment by Sony and Naughty Dog to the long life of the PS3 is amazing - and this game is a perfect show of that dedication. (And there are more to come for PS3 with Beyond: Two Souls and Gran Turismo 6 later this year!) With a well-thought-out mythos, a mildly original take on the zombie survival game that relies more on superb execution and storytelling than innovative mechanics, acting that's so good we actually see character development happen without even words being spoken, and Naughty Dog's impressive engine and top-notch production values, it all comes together to make for a wonderful reminder that not all big-budget action games need to be measured in headshots-per-minute. If you're a long-time PS3 faithful or a more recent owner, do make sure you check the game out any way you can.
Disclaimer: This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.