Review: The Last of Us

Jun 21, 2013

While The Last of Us has a better story, a better setting, and better characters than pretty much anything that’s come out of Hollywood in the last decade, the occasional bugs that remind you it’s a game hold it back from being a perfect product.  Still, the talented team at Naughty Dog has created one of the best experiences on any platform, current or past.  If you own a Playstation 3, you would be a fool to miss out on this.  If you don’t own a Playstation 3, go to your retailer of choice and buy one: The Last of Us is that good.

Set twenty years in the future, the world as we know it is gone.  The Cordyceps fungus is responsible for infecting the majority of humanity and has turned them into nightmarish creatures bent on infecting the remainder of Earth’s population.  The uninfected populace is forced to live-out their days in strictly-governed quarantine zones or fend for themselves outside of the walls of “civilization.”  Sounds familiar, right?  Well, Naughty Dog took a different approach to the familiar zombie story and ditched the zombie.  Partially.

There are a few different forms of infected that you will run into in this crumbling, dystopian world.  The most creative is known as a clicker.  These are people who have had their brains completely taken over by the fungus, which is apparent by the growths on their heads.  The clicker is unique because it lacks eyesight; it relies on echolocation to move around and hunt.  Another form of infected that you will find are known as runners.  These are simply people on their way to becoming clickers.  Runners are recently infected and maintain all of their senses but are tormented and extremely violent due to the fungus taking root in their brains.  Zombie-esque?  Sure, but it definitely doesn’t feel as stale as other zombie games can today.

The other distinction between The Last of Us and a few other zombie titles you can pick up is the setting.  While other games put you right in the forefront of the zombie apocalypse, Naughty Dog decided to drop you twenty years after the outbreak.  The year is 2033 and the scenery has changed dramatically.  Nature has begun to regain what she lost.  Trees grow in the middle of once-bustling metropolitan streets.  Vines have grown up buildings and are pulling our skyscrapers back down to earth.  While the sight of nature reclaiming our once-proud cities can look gorgeous, what lurks beneath this green and grey shell is anything but.  The back drop that the game presents to us is a bleak one indeed.

You play as Joel, a hardened, no-nonsense smuggler whose primary objective seems to do whatever it takes to get a job done.  Not long after you are introduced to Joel, he takes a job to smuggle Ellie, a fourteen-year-old girl, out of the military quarantine where they both have been living.  However, like most things in the world of The Last of Us, this job doesn’t go according to plan.  Joel and Ellie find themselves fighting tooth and nail to survive what ends up being an epic cross-country journey.

Telling you too much more about the story would be a grave injustice to The Last of Us, which weaves one of the best tales in recent memory.  The emotional weight that the game expects the player to carry can be overpowering at times.  There were many instances where I paused the game, set my controller down, and processed what had just unfolded before me.  In its darkest times: The Last of Us manages to make repulsive and vicious choices seem like your only option.  At its most beautiful moments: The Last of Us paints a picture so striking that you just can’t help but pause and stare.

Therefore, it’s really too bad that a few bugs and some wonky AI were to blame for taking me out of the experience.  I want to get this out of the way because I don’t want it to be what you take away from this review; I simply would be remiss not to mention it.  The biggest issue with The Last of Us is the AI.  Imagine this: you’re crawling through an old, dark, neglected subway system.  Shambling between you and your only exit are about six clickers.  Joel quietly reminds his companions to use caution as the group sneaks by.  All of a sudden, one of your companions shouts their agreement and runs, not walks, right into a clicker.  The world holds its breath.  Nothing happens.  Your companion ducks behind cover and you go about your way.  Other times you may be choosing a sneaking route when your partner decides that he wants to squeeze a few rounds off… your cover is blown and you are forced to adapt or, worse, are killed and must restart.  These events, while infrequent in my first journey, still were noticeable enough that they dropped me right out of the experience.  The Last of Us did such a great job of pulling me in that when I hit a wall, I hit it hard.

Then there are the glitches.  I encountered quite a few bugs in my 16 hour playthrough.  A few were annoying; fewer still actually forced an area restart.  There were two times in particular where my companion was jumping down from a ledge and got suspended in mid-air.  Eventually, my screen went black and the game had rewound itself about 30 seconds before the ledge.  These occurrences are small black marks on a title that is otherwise polished to a high shine.

The-Last-of-Us-NatureEven with the issues I just listed, The Last of Us does a fantastic job of keeping you glued to your TV screen.  The level of detail on display is simply astounding.  Even in the waning hours of PS3’s lifespan, Naughty Dog was able to craft one of the best looking games on any console.  Each and every scene is gushing detail, from Joel’s broken watch to the carefully placed supplies that are required for the game’s crafting mechanic.  The Last of Us is definitely something that you are going to want to take your time completing.

There are plenty of collectibles in the forms of comic books, handwritten notes, and voice recorders to locate among the wreckage of the old world.  These go a long way in telling the many personal stories of the people who inhabited the world that Joel and Ellie live in.  Not only do the handwritten notes tell stories, but they are even more believable because they are actually hand-written.  They weren’t just typed with some Microsoft font and then edited into the game world; each note has a different handwriting style unique to the person who scrawled it.  There is a point in the game where Joel finds a note that was written to one of your companions.  When you examine it upon picking it up, you will notice that the note was written on an unfolded, flat piece of notebook paper.  After giving it to your companion, he crumples the paper and throws it on the ground.  Joel has the choice to pick it back up and now when you look at it in your inventory, it’s crumpled.  The little touches like this really stuck out to and allowed me to become more entranced by the world that Naughty Dog has so lovingly crafted.

The aforementioned supplies and scraps can be picked up from junk piles, cabinets, and in drawers.  One cool feature is the on-the-fly crafting system which allows you to assemble the bits and pieces that you find to create various useful (and necessary) items such as med kits and Molotovs.  Since crafting takes place in real-time, it is imperative that you find a safe place before opening your pack.  The various scraps can also be utilized to upgrade the weapons in your arsenal.  Upgrading firearms requires a workbench and tools.  You will come across a fair amount of workbenches as you traverse the narrative, but it’s vital that you comb your surroundings for anything that might help you, otherwise you might not be able to perform the upgrades that you desire.

Along with scraps to upgrade weapons and create items, supplement pills can be collected to upgrade Joel.  If you gather enough pills, you can give Joel a decent boost in health, make crafting or healing quicker, or you can also boost his listening ability.  Much like the weapon upgrading feature, you will have to carefully manage your player improvements since there are not enough scraps or pills in the game to max out everything in one playthrough.  That’s quite alright, though, since The Last of Us does offer a new game plus feature that will allow you to experience the story again but while more prepared for the deadly situations you encounter.

Combat in The Last of Us is brutal, violent, and rarely comes without weight and consequence.  While the game is linear in a broad sense, almost every encounter gives the player an option of how to handle it.  Should you sneak past a group of enemies or should you silently take them out one by one?  If you choose the latter, you may be spotted and swarmed by overwhelming odds.  If you run in guns blazing, you might want to keep an eye on your ammunition.  Bullets are scarce and running dry may force you to take a more “hands-on” approach.  Items such as planks, pipes, and machetes can be used to down your enemies if you can get close enough.  Unlike so many games, however, The Last of Us makes the player understand that it takes more than just a good whack to kill an enemy.

Speaking of combat, I found the controls to be pretty good overall.  The shooting mechanics feel solid, but it’s the vicious melee combat that really sticks out.  As mentioned earlier: this is a cold, cruel world that you will be travelling through.  Often times, whether it’s to conserve ammunition or to remain undetected, you will engage in hand-to-hand combat and perform executions.  The latter of the two is brutal and stabbing your enemies in the neck forces you to watch them writhe in pain on the floor while they gurgle and choke on their own blood.  It’s something that I never really became numb to, especially since you have to remember that most of your human enemies are really just trying to survive and protect their own.

While it’s true that there are “evil” individuals that you encounter, the moral high ground is something that eroded many years ago.  Every single character you encounter in The Last of Us is motivated by self- or group-preservation.  “The way things were” is either a distant memory or a story told to people who never knew it.  Ellie would fall into the latter of the two camps, and is a far-cry from the naïve 14-year-old girl of today.  While she still has to come to terms with being the cause of death, she is certainly not a stranger to loss.  The Last of Us doesn’t just focus on death, though and it’s interesting to listen to her talk about airplanes, movie posters, or the lives of kids her age before the catastrophe.

Troy Baker (Joel) and Ashley Johnson (Ellie) provide some of the best voice acting I’ve ever heard and are perfect fits for the characters.  On the whole, The Last of Us features an amazingly voiced cast of characters.  As a matter of fact: there didn’t seem to be a single line that was forced or awkward.  Every line seemed very natural and flowed well.

Not only is The Last of Us a visual tour de force, but the audio is also phenomenal.  The rain pattering on windows, gunshots, the sound of boots on a wooden floor all sound amazing and only help the player to become lost in the game.  If you get the chance to experience it in 5.1 surround sound, there will undoubtedly be times when you pause the game quickly and turn around to see what made the noise.

As you can probably guess, I really liked The Last of Us.  Not only is it one of the best experiences on PS3 but it could be one of the best experiences of the generation.  No other title has come as close to being a complete package like The Last of Us has.  It’s also an indication that Naughty Dog is evolving as a developer.  While the Uncharted franchise is a personal favorite of mine, The Last of Us is something completely different.  Uncharted can be dramatic at times, but we all know that the good guys are going to win.  In The Last of Us nothing is certain, not even who the bad guys are.  While it seems obvious that Joel and Ellie are the protagonists, there are times when you have to admit that the line blurs.  The game could just as easily have put the player in the role of another character who is trying to secure food for his starving clan when Joel comes along and stabs him in the neck because he might pose a threat.  Morality in The Last of Us isn’t questioned as much as it’s simply thrown out.

As a matter of fact, The Last of Us does indeed do what I just described with its multiplayer component.  The aptly named “Factions” mode makes you choose between two clans and then pits you against the other in team matches.  The twist to this is that you must grow your clan by winning matches and gathering supplies.  Supplies play a key role in The Last of Us’ multiplayer.  Supplies allow you to purchase more weapons and ammunition in combat and also allow your clan to survive and grow.  As you win matches, your clan grows.  As your clan grows, you unlock more customization options for your character and more weapons and abilities to use in combat.  It’s a particularly well-thought-out tie-in and is quite fun to play.  The one issue that I have with the multiplayer is that there doesn’t seem to be any sort of balance to the teams.  This can be especially frustrating because losing matches can decimate your clan.  Still, it’s a harsh reminder that this game makes you work for what you achieve and learn from your failures.

The Last of Us is the reason that I play video games.  While I am compelled to mention its dodgy AI and occasional glitch as a reviewer, I can easily overlook these little quirks as a gamer. The amount of detail and quality on display makes The Last of Us one of the most cinematic and engaging experiences I’ve ever encountered.  The single player story is more than enough reason to buy the game and the multiplayer will keep you hooked until you’re ready to experience Joel and Ellie’s journey again.