June 18, 2013 by Paul Curtin
Unlike Naughty Dog’s previous games, The Last of Us takes a turn down a very dark and at times disturbing road that we haven’t ever seen in video games before. Taking cues from the likes of other great forms of media such as The Road and The Walking Dead, Naughty Dog’s latest does an even better job than both by allowing players to actually take control of the characters themselves, immersing gamers in hopeless kill-or-be-killed situations.
In The Last of Us, Naughty Dog has borrowed a lot of the award-winning visual and storytelling techniques that they’ve used in their previous games. But while very similar to their fun Uncharted series, The Last of Us is everything that Uncharted is not. Uncharted is Naughty Dog’s colorful, feel-good, PG-13 action series. The Last of Us is Naughty Dog’s dark, and at many times depressing, more realistic hard R-rated drama grounded in a world that has gone to hell.
The story involves a strange fungus outbreak that spreads across the world in 2013, causing those who become infected to turn into zombie-like monsters and leaving doctors with no idea how to stop it. With no cure, the spread of the virus leads to the fall of civilization as we know it. Jumping forward twenty years after the events of the outbreak to the year 2033, the story follows survivors Joel and Ellie as the two try to make it across a visually stunning post-apocalyptic United States.
In typical Naughty Dog fashion, the trip across country during the various seasons makes for a wide range of different gameplay environments that really show off just how good the game looks — no matter rain, snow, or shine — everything looks beautiful. It’s hard to find anything in the game that looks like it’s been copied and pasted; every location you go to feels different, and every square inch seems to have an OCD-level of detail put into it that will have you taking your time and searching every corner to make sure you don’t miss a thing in order to read up on every note you find and try to get a better understanding of how this could all happen. Joel and Ellie’s journey is long with the campaign spanning around 16 hours of playtime, and you won’t forget a single second of it after you’re done.
But like other intelligent post-apocalyptic stories, the Last of Us isn’t so much about the specifics of how the virus spread or the science behind it, and rather than trying to explain all that, Naughty Dog has chosen to focus more on the characters themselves and how they don’t know, and quite frankly don’t really care because in their world, the only thing they care about is how they’re going to get their next meal and survive one more day.
Striking an uncanny resemblance to Uncharted‘s Nathan Drake, Joel is a grizzled survivor who has been beat down by the events of the outbreak and at times still haunted by his past. Like the world around him, he’s changed for the worse and now does whatever it takes in order to survive. Troy Baker did an amazing job as Booker Dewitt in BioShock: Infinite, and here he does even better. Although Joel may be the main character, the story is centered on Ellie, a young teenage girl who is voiced by Ashley Johnson and who steals the show while she accompanies Joel throughout most of the game as his partner. Johnson’s short role in The Avengers, might have been cut, but she clearly has a bright future in voice-acting games.
It’s not just the two main characters that help bring the game to life; the voice acting for all of the characters combined with the stunning realistic character models come together to make for without a doubt the most realistic looking characters of any game to date. During both cutscenes and gameplay, the interactions between characters make them feel like more than just characters in a game, and the emotion they feel along with the touching score by Gustavo Santaolalla will hit you hard and play with your own emotions. Just in the first twenty minutes alone you’ll experience a sequence of events more dramatic and better than anything ever seen in a game before and that accomplishes what most Hollywood movies can’t in two full hours. Even going back now and playing Uncharted makes Naughty Dog’s last masterpiece seem cartoonish-looking and dated in comparison.
But any talented CGI studio can make a great looking scene with realistic looking characters, and The Last of Us is at its best when it throws said characters into its lively atmosphere. The way Joel and other characters move organically throughout each environment, brushing their fingers up against walls and picking up or knocking over objects, makes for an experience that no game has ever been able to achieve before and makes everything you’re watching feel real.
The only real complaint that can be made is that AI partner pathing isn’t perfect. While the AI is smarter than anything we’ve seen in other games, sometimes while hiding and having to move to new cover to avoid being detecting, your partners may run right in front of an enemy, sometimes without the enemy even knowing, which can at times break the immersion of the stealth-based gameplay. It’s something that Naughty Dog clearly did to avoid gameplay becoming annoying in the case of AI partners constantly being seen by enemy AI, blowing your cover, and ruining the experience even more. It’s not a huge deal, but hopefully something Naughty Dog can perfect in future DLC or their next game.
Other than said pathing problem, the AI on both sides is amazingly intelligent. Human enemies act just like real humans, discussing strategies in real time based on the situation and cautiously taking cover and flanking Joel. Enemies are so smart that the sound of Joel’s gun clicking when out of bullets will alert them that he’s out of ammo and result in them charging and trying to grab Joel. When out of ammo and beat down or grabbed themselves, they’ll beg for their own lives. And while human enemies will covertly try to flank you, the infected will charge straight at you with no regard for their own well-being, making for even more frantic moments that make you question whether you should try to kill enemies or just sneak by them as to not alert others.
To make the gameplay even more intense, ammo is scarce, and Joel isn’t the best aim, so scavenging is key to survival. One of the best features is the inventory and item management system, which encourages players to search every drawer and loot every dead body in order to scavenge more parts that can be used to upgrade weapons or craft new items. The inventory system is quite simply brilliant. Throughout the entire game, Joel is able to quickly at any time take his backpack off and rummage through it, switching out guns and using parts he’s found to make health kits, Molotov cocktails, nail bombs, and other items all on the fly without the game ever stopping.
Fighting groups of enemies in abandoned suburban neighborhoods and being chased into multi-level homes where you’re having to search for new parts and ammo, all while trying to avoid those searching for you and at the same time setting up traps from the items you find and make, is an experience unlike anything else. Seeing just how different everything can go down based on how you take on each encounter and where you choose to go will make you want to go back and play over and over again.
That same hectic, yet tactical, experience translates perfect into the game’s multiplayer. While the campaign alone is easily worth the game’s price tag, the multiplayer adds even more value that will have you playing it for months after you’re finally tired of playing the campaign. While there are only two basic modes — a respawning Team Deathmatch and a single life Elimination mode — the gameplay is insanely addicting. The player customization and multiplayer maps have the same level of detail put into them as the campaign and by putting players together on two teams of four, the game only gets crazier and even more unpredictable.
There’s even a unique Mafia Wars-like metagame that’s an interesting take on how players level up in multiplayer by gaining survivors. It’s pretty funny when you choose the Facebook link option that actually connects the faces of people you know (who don’t have the game themselves) to members of your group of survivors and see updates about them joining your clan, gnawing on rat bones, or even dying if you don’t collect enough supplies. Even when they get everything right, Naughty Dog never seems to be satisfied with what they make and are always trying to introduce new interesting online features that we’ve never seen done before.
Like Uncharted, Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us doesn’t really do anything new, but what it does do, it does better than anybody else. Naughty Dog has once again been able to top not only the rest of the industry, but themselves, and as a result have created yet another masterpiece that’s in a league of its own. The team at Naughty Dog has saved their best for last with The Last of Us being the PlayStation 3’s black swan song that will be used for many years to come as an example of how to pull everything together to make for a perfect viewing and gaming experience.
Like others have said, The Last of Us can be described as the Citizen Kane of games that has changed how we view games forever. There’s no reason why any current PlayStation 3 owner shouldn’t get it, and it’s a great reason for anybody who doesn’t own the system to pick a used one up just to play it before the PlayStation 4. The Last of Us deserves each and every one of its five stars, if not even more. 5 out of 5 stars (Masterpiece).
- Storytelling on a higher level than any game before it
- Perfect voice-acting and animation from all the characters
- The best looking game on the PlayStation 3
- Brilliant inventory management system
- Frantic gameplay that perfectly blends stealth mechanics and gunplay
- 4 vs. 4 multiplayer makes for even more intense moments than the campaign
- Partner AI pathing isn’t perfect and at times can break immersion