For many, Naughty Dog already defined this generation with their releases in the Uncharted series. The introduction of their iconic Nathan Drake character gave gamers a few good reasons to own a PlayStation 3. In the process, the studio became somewhat of a darling among game critics for their unparalleled delivery of the cinematic experience. When The Last of Us was announced, it immediately seemed like a major departure from what had been working for the studio. Long gone was the wise cracking treasure hunter and lush environments fans had grown accustomed to. This was traded in for a post-apocalyptic, grittier looking world. There hasn’t been much debate as to whether Naughty Dog can write a great story, or push the PlayStation 3 to its absolute capabilities, but many people questioned whether or not the cinematic experiences that Naughty Dog crafted were anything more than a pretty face. With the Last of Us, it appears that the studio has closely examined what has worked in the past and what hasn’t, the result is their most complete package to date: The Last of Us.
The comedic undertones found in the Uncharted series are long gone in The Last of Us. By all accounts, The Last of Us is as serious as they come in the video game world. Mature subject matter about the survival of the fittest is the root of this new game. The tale focuses on two survivors in a story that has players seemingly setting out to save the world from a virus that is infecting its inhabitants. Joel, a middle-aged smuggler who passes his days moving in an out of a militarized quarantine zone on the East Coast, takes on a new project when he’s asked to smuggle a human. Ellie, the human in question is a valuable package for a mysterious group. A memorable journey begins when these two start making their way across the dangerous, beautiful, post-apocalyptic world of The Last of Us.
Joel and Ellie are treading on dangerous ground outside of the quarantine zone. A deadly virus has spread across the world that infects humans with a brain altering fungus that turns them into flesh eating beasts. A spin on the traditional zombie formula, but you’ll be hard pressed to ever draw a link between The Last of Us and the myriad of zombie games that have been hitting the market lately. The Last of Us feels more firmly rooted in reality than any game before it with similar subject matter. Coupled with the reality of a world that is governed by the simple rules of survival of the fittest, The Last of Us is not a game whose draw is player empowerment. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. While Joel and Ellie are more than capable fighters, the reality of many situations they encounter is that they are simply out-gunned and out-manned.
Naughty Dog’s spin on a world that is two decades into decay, is one that includes the same beautiful graphics and art design that is found in the Uncharted series. The Last of Us is a beautiful game, albeit a dreary look at what happens when the lights go off, and civilization as we know it breaks down. According to Naughty Dog’s tale, when it does, survivors scrape and scavenge for every morsel that can be used to live another day. Joel and Ellie will both be constantly looking for supplies, weapons, ammunition, and crafting materials to build survival tools as they journey towards their goal. Since supplies are limited, and combat is difficult, resource management is paramount for the duo. Sneaking past enemies when the opportunity presents itself is almost always the smartest way to approach a situation, but it might not be the funnest.
Naughty Dog’s approach to combat in The Last of Us is much better than what we’ve seen from the studio in the Uncharted series. It’s not only more dynamic, but it’s ingenious when facing infected enemies. Their use of sound as a primary game mechanic is much different than the traditional vision cones that we find in most games that have you sneaking through the shadows. The infected are truly frightening enemies, you’d better be prepared to deal with them, because they’ll relentlessly attack of you if you disturb them. The worst of their kind are blind, a by-product of the infection, but it leaves them easy to navigate around given you have the patience. There are multiple strands of these infected enemies, which make for some incredible gameplay when trying to navigate an environment swarming in them.
The Last of Us is an point A to point B adventure. There’s very little deviation from the path, but the sandbox style combat areas shakes things up quite a bit. Instead of pumping round after round into enemies, The Last of Us focuses on gunplay, melee, distraction, and sneaking. Gunplay is almost always the last resort. It causes too much attention, and can have you dealing with a bunch of enemies all at the same time. If you simply must kill an enemy to progress, a silent choke out takedown move or crafted shiv to the throat, are usually the best ways to progress. No single tactic works on all enemies, but they all respond to sound and the art of misdirection. You can pick up bottles and bricks which are littered throughout the game, and throw them to distract enemies to clear a path. It’s the safest way to go about navigating treacherous ground. Though sometimes you do want to see some of the brutal combat sequences in The Last of Us, and at other times they are completely unavoidable. It’s very important that Naughty Dog got this part about The Last of Us right. Without it, the game boils down to a bunch of pretty sequences, and rather linear gameplay. Naughty Dog taps only a handful of puzzle solving mechanics throughout the game’s entirety. Solving most puzzles requires you to simply find a ladder, or something to help Ellie cross water due to her inability to swim.
The Last of Us is far from a disappointment in its exploring sequences, but it does very little other than offer the opportunity to deliver story through the sights and sounds of it all. I’ll reiterate that it’s a beautiful game, and a lot of this comes from Naughty Dog’s vision of this alternate future. The character reveals are a slow burn though. Joel and Ellie are revealed bit by bit, with banter between the two that grows as the game progresses. As your characters earns new weapons and becomes more powerful, as does the bond between these two characters. But they are extremely interesting characters because of that slow burn. Joel’s back story is somewhat revealed in the game’s intro, and his hardened persona is certainly explained well. Ellie on the other hand has her own growth story within the context of the larger quest. She’s venturing out into the world for the first time, as a fourteen year old girl who has never been outside of the Quarantine Zone.
The Last of Us touches on some serious subject matter and is one of the most violent games we’ve ever played. The realism in death sequences is almost disturbing. Equally troubling is the incredible tone that is set by the sound design team. There’s a wide range of beautiful melody in The Last of Us, and an equally wide range of tension ratcheting bass lines when action gets hot and heavy. To add to the illusion, Troy Baker’s role as Joel can’t go without being recognized. The voice actor has played a lot of important roles recently, and Joel might be his best work to date. Joined by Ashley Johnson as Ellie, and Nolan North as part of the accompanying cast, The Last of Us features an all-star cast of voice acting talent. A cast that most certainly did not phone this one in.
It’s somewhat hard to relay what makes the story of The Last of Us a can’t miss bit of video game history without delving deep into spoiler territory. It’s definitely one that raises questions in the players mind when the final curtain falls, and one that could go down as one of the most maturely themed adventures of the current generation or any before it.
While single player has long been the strong suit of Naughty Dog, The Last of Us’ multiplayer package is once again the studio’s best work to date. The core game modes in multiplayer are a standard team deathmatch and a last man standing style mode, but it’s the deep systems that the game is wrapped in that really make it special, and in turn, keep players playing.
All of the core gameplay mechanics return in multiplayer. It’s a slower paced online offering, that makes players carefully plot out attacks, manage inventory, and earn and build better weapons on the fly. The crafting mechanic from the single player plays a large role in multiplayer. Littered throughout the map are supply caches that hold the ingredients for shivs, smoke and nail bombs, molotov cocktails, and other power-ups that can help swing the tide of a battle. Depending on which mode is being played, the Factions mode can play out quite differently, but your overall objective is always to harvest another layer of supplies, this time for your “clan”.
It’s a little bit confusing at first, but think of it like any other game’s progression system and it begins to make more sense. Instead of just grinding from level to level, The Last of Us multiplayer has you managing a clan of your choosing. This clan will grow as you successfully play matches, and will suffer with sickness and hunger if you do poorly or quit early. Building a bigger clan and earning more supplies will allow you to build out completely customizable avatars, unlock better weapons, and all of the other goodies like emblems and taunts familiar from previous games from the developer. The third person shooting affair is one that can easily sink its teeth in, and is extremely fun with a group of cooperating friends. Given its down but not out method of play, helping teammates with aid or revival is paramount for online success. Its slow pace might not be for everyone, but it’s certainly something different in a sea of me-too shooters.
The Last of Us is at or near the top of a very short list of must play games in 2013. The Last of Us not only fulfills the expectation from Naughty Dog fans of game with a beautiful presentation and well thought out story, but its also got the gameplay that is both fun and tension filled. It’s quite possible that The Last of Us will go down as the best work of this generation, not only from Naughty Dog, but in the industry as a whole.
The Last of Us
- Available On: PS3
- Published By: Sony Computer Entertainment
- Developed By: Naughty Dog
- Genre: Survival Third Person Shooter
- US Release Date: June 15th, 2013
- Reviewed On: PS3
- Quote: "The Last of Us is at or near the top of a very short list of must play games in 2013. It not only fulfills the expectation from Naughty Dog fans of game with a beautiful presentation and well thought out story, but its also got the gameplay that is both fun and tension filled."