Review: The Last of Us (PS3)

The creators of the Uncharted series, Naughty Dog, are back again – this time with a brand new IP. The Last of Us follows a post-apocalyptic world with a twist. This time, we’re looking at the world 20 years after a deadly fungus began turning people into zombies that are simply called ‘Infected’.

The majority of the world is full of infection, fungus, and the Infected they produce… what few bastions of ‘civilization’ that remain are hardly that – small towns walled and sealed off and kept ‘peaceful’ by the presence of armed soldiers, although I use the term loosely. This is the world the game drops you off in, introducing you to a man named Joel – a middle-aged survivor who has lived through a nightmare as the world went to hell – and a girl named Ellie, born 6 years after that fateful day, who has never been outside of the quarantine zone she grew up in.

overgrown city

Makeshift Mechanics

Let’s Get This Out Of The Way…

The Last of Us’s gameplay is not what would be called ‘well designed’ by modern standards. Aiming is shaky, controls are somewhat sluggish, and there is very little real progression that happens. Aside from a few binary additions, most forms of progression are largely unnoticeable. From a mechanical standpoint, this game is clunky. The weapons are fairly crude with limited functionality and power, for the most part. But aside from a few sequences, it never really occurs to you as a negative.

How Can That Be?

Quite simply, most of the time these elements actually add to the game. One of the most impressive elements of The Last of Us is how Naughty Dog managed to make this happen – you really feel like this is how it SHOULD be. You’re playing as Joel… he’s not a military veteran, he’s not a superhero, and this isn’t a modern civilization. He shouldn’t be a perfect shot, he shouldn’t have a steady hand, and you shouldn’t have an arsenal of high-tech weaponry. It just makes sense.

So as long as the game maintains its atmosphere, the mechanical ‘flaws’ never really feel like flaws because they make sense. There are a few points where they don’t maintain the atmosphere, places where you get forced into very shooter-esque combat sequences – in these you start to notice the gameplay limitations. In these rare instances the game can become exceedingly frustrating for a short, sad, disconnecting time. And it’s strange because these moments become so disjointing because of how rare they are.

infected

Atmospheric Integrity

Lonely Desolation

The Last of Us features some of the most stunning, breathtaking, and unsettling environments imaginable. This game really does invoke a sense of helplessness… a feeling that humanity really doesn’t matter. Environments once the site of millions of human lives are little more than a place for vines to climb, places where people once gathered to learn a mere playground for mischievous monkeys. More even than the infection and the infected… it is this feeling that the world just plain doesn’t care if humanity is there or not that manages to shake some of that self-importance that we have as a species, and this is a really disturbing sensation. We talk about ‘the end of the world’ but what we really mean is ‘the end of our species’ and The Last of Us really drives that notion home.

What makes it even more impressive is the incredibly simplistic sound design. What music is present in the Last of Us is sparse and subtle, yet still beautiful. The background music helps to complete the atmosphere. One thing that The Last of Us does that I’ve rarely seen is make such fantastic use of silence. They not only make the music itself more effective, but also makes the tension that much more palpable, the experience more, although I truly hate the word, immersive.

Ellie meets a giraffe

It is an experience that affects you on a profound level. And not just because of the almost unfathomable notion that we as a species just plain don’t matter… but also because of the simple brutality of the experience. This isn’t the first game to feature melee combat, by a large margin… but it was the first one I’ve ever played that made the experience unpleasant. I’m not afraid of gore and I’m not afraid of killing, but the simplicity and brutality of killing in this game really hit me hard. It made me question the game, and over the course of my time with it I had to take time away from it. I got to a point where I simply could NOT continue any longer for the night… and there were some evenings where I actually had trouble sleeping after playing this game.

The crazy thing was that once I took a break from it, I found myself almost obsessively interested in my next chance to return to this world… to see where this character would take me. And in some scenes, he took me somewhere truly fantastic. There are some scenes where you get the chance to just appreciate the things around you… and in those scenes, it can be almost difficult to pull yourself away from them to go back to the game itself. The game almost lets you forget the tension for brief moments… although it is always at the back of your mind.

Scissors and Potato Chips

The game features a small crafting system, allowing you to craft a variety of items from health packs to a few different types of explosives… out of scavenged materials like broken scissors, little bags(that resembled potato chips but I’m sure were something else), half-empty bottles of cleaning solutions, among other odds and ends that actually made a fair bit of sense to be strewn about.  And the specific creations you made were also fairly logical – things like shivs, or a Molotov cocktail, or a primitive first aid pack.

What really makes this crafting system work for The Last of Us is just that the game doesn’t just pause while you’re crafting(or using) items. I had more than one case where I was crouched behind a corner having to craft and use a first aid kit while infected wandered mere feet away… and it created a sense of tension and fear that just keeps you on the edge of your seat. It is truly unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before, not just in a game but in any form of entertainment.

Crafting UI

Character Driven

From Start to Finish…

This game features one of the most effective and impactful openings in the history of video gaming. I won’t spoil anything for you, but the most important part is that while the subject matter is one that is covered frequently in zombie movies and games… it is taken in a way that is just different enough to make you think. There is one particularly incredible moment where you’re in a truck… and the character you’re controlling is not the one driving, so you’re sitting in the back seat looking around at what is happening with somber music… that is so perfectly crafted and that sets up the game so well, that it’s almost impossible to describe.

On the other end of things, this game also features what will likely be one of the most discussed and polarizing moments of this generation… and it’s the ending. The Last of Us is a story game, it’s a narrative. You’re not empowered with a lot of choice throughout the game – save in how you choose to approach problems… and yet, at no point in the game do you really feel at odds with this fact except the ending. Even in this linear narratives, people have a tendency to think of the character they’re controlling as THEIR character. This can lead to a sense of entitlement that leads you to feeling you should have some control. The Last of Us strips you of that notion, and it can be disconcerting. The ending of this game has left a sour taste in many people’s mouth because of this, but I couldn’t see it being any other way… and while the ending left me feeling more than a little uncomfortable it also felt perfect for the characters. I think that while choice would have left me with less of a pit in my stomach after the end, it also would have destroyed the impact this game had on me in the long run.

Seasonal Interest

The game takes place in a series of chapters delineated by the changing seasons over the course of the journey Joel and Ellie find themselves in. This isn’t exactly an uncommon tactic, but the really profound part is the way that they tie the story into the seasons in such subtle ways. The Winter chapter is particularly appropriate, and is probably the highlight of the entire game, containing one of the most crazy ‘oh shit’ moments in gaming history.

One thing this game manages to get away with is the act of skipping time. You aren’t with Joel and Ellie every day of the game… there are large jumps between the end of one chapter and the beginning of the next. A lot of games do this, but most of the time it feels very awkward – not so with the Last of Us. I don’t think the story could have worked without those time jumps, the downtime. These segments not only make the moments that ended the previous chapter feel like they’ve had time to sink in(and in some cases this is truly necessary), but they also allow you to really see the progression of Joel and Ellie’s relationship. I think of it as being similar to how a parent rarely notices just how much their children have grown unless they have a point of reference. These downtimes allow you to get that point of reference.

Joel and Ellie

Separation Anxiety

Far and away what makes this game so unbelievably special is the focus this game has on people… on relationships. Not just between Joel and Ellie, but also between a lot of the other characters you interact with – even some of the people who are trying to kill you. One of the running themes of this game is partnership and the importance of just being with one other person can be. Every character needs to be with someone else… and it becomes even more important in the type of disaster situation the world finds itself in in The Last of Us. The most intriguing part of this is seeing the different ways that people react to being confronted with the possibility of losing this relationship, this connection.

It takes the suspense horror style of story and makes it a lot more human. You begin to relate to all the various characters, and that makes the ups and downs of this story all the more impactful. It’s hard to find a story where you care about the people this much… whether you like them or otherwise.

But what really drives home the game is quite simply how thorough the creative team was with this one. Even the normally annoying side-banter is fantastic in The Last of Us. While it is still, from time to time, used to help point players in the right direction, it is used predominately to help build the mood. If Ellie is upset with Joel, she acts just like you’d expect a moody teenager to act. If Joel knows she’s ticked off, rather than letting her know when he finds the tattered remains of a comic book like he normally would, he’ll merely mutter something about saving it for later… and on the other side, if the two are getting along for the moment you might even catch Ellie humming. It’s these little touches that show the utter mastery Naughty Dog has of storytelling in the medium.

Final Thoughts

This game is one of the most incredibly complete experiences I’ve ever played. When the game finished, I was left feeling utterly and completely satisfied by the game, even if it was unbelievably impactful. Do not expect to be able to sit down and play this game through. The experiences are so brutal, so impactful, and so emotionally draining that you will almost certainly feel the need to take breaks.

Unless you’re truly a glutton for punishment, I recommend playing this game on the normal difficulty setting. Not because the harder ones are unbearably difficult… but because the difficulty almost takes away from the experience. The feeling of tension is developed even in the lower difficulties, and having to repeat stages can be a detriment to a game like this.

This game does feature a rather complete multiplayer experience – one that has received a lot of praise. I won’t discuss it because, quite simply, I felt no desire to play it. With the story, the world, and the experience of the Last of Us offers, I felt as though playing any sort of multiplayer would honestly take away from it. That isn’t to say I think it was bad of them to include it, but I was so immensely satisfied with the single player that I didn’t wish to dilute the experience through multiplayer.

Last of Us box art

Overall

The Last of Us is a game that is hard to recommend, despite the fact that it was nearly flawlessly made. I look at it as a perfect counterpart to Journey is the ‘games as art’ debate. This is a game that is not a toy. It is not designed to give you a deep sense of satisfaction, but rather to make you feel. To give you something to think about. And, assuming that is indeed the purpose, it is eminently successful.

It is successful at something that, to date, no post-apocalyptic movie has ever managed to achieve for me… to make me truly understand desperation and desolation. The experience of the Last of Us is one I will remember for a long time to come, and one that I will find satisfying to discuss while at the same time finding it extremely difficult to put into words. And I hope to see more like it.