PS3 Review – The Last of Us (2013)
2013 is a transition year in the video game industry where we say goodbye to the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 in order to say hello to their next gen successors. Years such as this one are usually filled with slim pickings as developers really begin to shift their focus to the more powerful hardware leaving millions of gamers essentially high and dry with a release schedule filled with yearly sports installments or quirky import titles that are sent out to die a horrible death at retail yet serve their purpose as bullet points that companies have not forgotten current console owners. However, while this is still true there are always titles during these periods which rise to the occasion, showing how the cumulative knowledge gained over the entire lifespan of these systems comes together in a shockingly effective package that make consumers totally forget that new toys are on their way. The Last of Us is one such title and it is a masterpiece on a level I have rarely experienced.
*The following is a review of the single-player campaign only*
The Last of Us spins a downright grim and totally unnerving tale of a post-pandemic America where cordyceps fungal spores have turned the majority of the world’s population into infested zombie-like creatures sending humanity to the brink of destruction. The survivors have splintered into a couple of major factions including a brutal Totalitarian government which rules the remaining human enclaves with an iron fist as well as The Fireflies, a kind of resistance group which is attempting to find a cure for the fungal menace. Throw in other factions that want nothing but to ransack, rape, pillage and succumb to cannibalistic desires and one gets the immediate impression that this is an anarchic world which represents the worst of human frailty.
Players take on the role of Joel, a grizzled survivalist of the apocalypse who has over the past twenty years adapted to this new ruthless reality with aplomb essentially becoming a gun for hire leaving whatever morals he use to rely on buried firmly in the past. Weary and disillusioned Joel, like the rest of humanity, has settled into an existence that could hardly be called “living” essentially subsisting hand to mouth from one job to another. This is clearly a society where all creature comforts of the old world have been stripped bare leaving nothing but simple survival as the only motivation to keep living even if comes at the detriment of others.
And boy is that last point front and center in this game. Cause and effect has never been executed with more biting precision than here in The Last of Us as every time Joel gains something it usually comes from cold-heartedly killing someone else. Petty arguments suddenly gain more weight especially when one realizes that this is a society where no one thinks twice about putting a bullet into someone’s brain.
A character that Joel meets later on in the game dissuades his kid brother from even bothering to pick up a robot toy left amidst the rubble because it breaks the fundamental rule that only items that are necessary for their survival are worth their weight. Another incident showcases a brutal murder of two civilians that are gunned down in broad daylight for their possessions but as fate would have it the assailants end up being disgusted at their bad luck as the civilians had nothing of use. Clearly, this is a world where humanity has been reduced to caring only for the bare necessities and everything else is not even worth a warm glass of spit.
After attempting to retrieve some of his stolen supplies Joel soon finds himself in the employ of the Firefly leader who hires him to deliver a package to a nearby rebel stronghold for a hefty fee that will see him well taken care of for years to come. The problem is that the package is none other than a precocious fourteen year old girl named Ellie who obviously harbors some earth-shattering secret that requires his unique talents.
The Last of Us basically follows the well-worn narrative of a mature veteran who must look after a young charge and many will immediately recognize that it bares much resemblance to other literary works most prescient being The Road by Cormac McCarthy which tells a similar tale. While it is true that the game appropriates many tropes and clichés from other zombie-related forms of entertainment it does so with so much confidence and flair that the final package is simply astounding to behold. Developer Naughty Dog has crafted the best depiction of a post-apocalyptic America in the history of video games as their attention to detail in every facet of the production is without peer.
The game certainly earns its mature rating as this is a brutally uncompromising view of a crumbling society where every vice known to man is on display all the time no matter where you go. From the flaccid bodies of policemen hung to swing eerily on lampposts to the piles of fettered corpses littering the street filled with the detritus of man The Last of Us pulls no punches depicting a world so fallen that it will surely make many inherently morose and quite possibly, suicidal. This is a world with no hope and as players traverse the many locations each piece of scenery is meticulously crafted to evoke a sense of dread.
Describing the gameplay is actually doing a disservice to the game as it is hard to accurately pin down in a snazzy marketing blurb. Essentially told from a third person behind the back perspective, players will soon discover that the beauty of the game is that it encourages multiple strategies all of which can be valid depending on one’s playstyle. That means that every level can be completed through a mixture of outright no-holds barred gunfire or a more stealthy subtle approach whereby Joel essentially executes foes from the silence of the shadows. What makes the game shine is that both strategies come with significant risks. Utilize gunfire and it will almost always draw the attention of every enemy within range straight to Joel’s location whereas botching a stealth approach can lead to a quick inescapable game over.
Make no mistake, The Last of Us, even on normal difficulty is challenging although never difficult enough as to make one feel as if they are being unfairly punished. For the most part players will control Joel as he has to fight or evade other murderous human factions or a variety of different infected creatures. Of the two groups fighting humans feels more like you usual third person shooter as the human AI is incredibly smart and astute enough to follow rudimentary tactics meaning that they will usually attempt flanking or pincer movements in order to box the player into a bad position.
However, while the infected are a bit more scripted in their actions they truly stand out as being wholly unnerving and much of that has to do with the amazing sound design where many creatures make totally hair-raising aberrant noises that will send shivers up your spine. Seriously, between the infected and the claustrophobic level, The Last of Us is one exhaustive experience where your adrenalin will kick in and most probably send you blood pressure into the stratosphere. I have not encountered such an intimidating game since the original Resident Evil scared me witless when a pack of rabid mutant dogs crashed through a glass window. However, that was a singular moment of pure shock whereas The Last of Us maintains a totally suffocating level of tension from start to finish especially when the game throws our heroes into totally dark as night levels as the sense of foreboding reaches a crescendo.
Making matters even more tense is the fact that the game tasks players to make the best use of dwindling resources with very limited amounts of spare ammunition for firearms and breakable weapons like bats or crowbars that will fall apart after a set number of uses. There’s no worse feeling to be had than being stuck in the middle of a dark sewer and running out of ammo while your only melee weapon fractures leaving you totally defenseless except for your fists while a pack of ravenous infected zombies barrels down on your position.
The infected usually shuffle back and forth like your stereotypical portrayal of the undead when they remain unaware of Joel but the moment his cover is broken they lurch into a wild warp speed dash while sending out a garish wail that usually signals his demise as they rush forth with abandon. If you have seen the trailers from World War Z where the zombie horde move like a bunch of unstoppable hyenas then this is a perfect analogy to what you’ll encounter if you mess up in the game.
Once Joel’s cover is blown the gameplay ratchets its intensity to the nines as players will no doubt be forced into fighting a running battle with the horde, chopping or shooting away at the targets bit by bit while attempting to navigate through the environment in order to escape capture. This is much harder than it sounds especially if you attract too much attention as one wrong move, one wrong choice of path can easily lead to Joel being attacked from multiple directions which usually results in his grisly painful demise.
Helping Joel in his fight is a rotating supporting cast of colourful characters who appear during different segments of the game. While not particularly competent nor powerful enough to make waste of most enemies they at least provide rudimentary combat support by shooting the occasional shot or engaging through melee combat. Ellie herself is always there and her fighting acumen actually grows as the game progresses meaning in the early going all she really is good for is to give enemies another target to shoot at as she’s only armed with a simple knife. However, as the game proceeds she begins to gain many skills leading to her actively shooting or engaging in advanced melee combat with the very same puny knife except this time with meticulous skill. The supporting cast can sometimes be caught by enemies in a death grip of sorts prompting players to help out within a set time limit or else they will be killed leading to a quick game over screen.
As Joel treks across a desolate America he’ll pick up new weaponry as well as learn new recipes that will aid his cause such as how to create a Molotov cocktail or construct a rudimentary nail bomb. Therefore, players need to scour the environment for various components such as blades, bottles or gauze in sufficient quantity in order to construct these more advanced arms. Creating these items actually takes time meaning they should really be crafted out of combat. That doesn’t mean players can’t do it when under attack but that it adds a totally extra level of anxiety to the gameplay if they are forced to craft a simple medical kit to heal Joel when enemies are descending on his position. If he’s interrupted by any sort of attack the crafting will automatically fail so it falls upon the player to quickly judge the situation at hand and make a tactical decision to run Joel to a safe position or, if the situation is dire, risk forcing him to make something to help him out.
The game features a kind of stripped-down RPG leveling system that allows players to collect special items scattered throughout the game and then use them to upgrade weapon traits or boost Joel’s innate skills. Obvious choices to improve are boosts to Joel’s overall health bar or to add a bigger ammunition clip to your favorite weapon of choice. Once again though, there aren’t enough of these special items available to improve everything to their highest level so it is up to players to decide where they can be best utilized.
The game’s visuals are arguably the best you’ve seen ever on the Playstation 3 with a solid framerate and vast expansive environments that almost never repeat themselves. From the wretched urban confines of a militarized quarantine zone to crumbling twisted skyscrapers to the lush wilderness of a Wyoming forest in the middle of a harsh winter season the game is simply stunning to behold taking your breath away with regularity. Gamers will no doubt often pause just to take a look around their surroundings as every location is rendered to the most excruciatingly minute detail. At the same time developer Naughty Dog never allows gamers to become visually bored with the environments changing the game’s location at precisely the right time in the narrative to once again energize gamers with new areas featuring totally different architecture than the last that also allow fresh scenarios to play out.
No matter where you turn the signs of humanity’s decline into darkness are readily recognizable from shattered newspaper boxes featuring stories that detail the fall of man to notes, memoirs and tape recorders belonging to long since dead people forlornly recounting their last days of torment the game is unrelenting bleak and though there is some humour to be found, by and large this is a cheerless adventure that progressively gets darker by the minute. I said in my review for Mass Effect 3 that it was an inherently dour narrative that perpetually sent gamers into depression yet I have to say The Last of Us sends you even further down the rabbit hole through its suffocating dismal outlook of a society barely hanging on to sanity through cracked bloody nails.
Striking visuals aside the game utilizes some of the best motion capture ever seen in a video game allowing the characters to truly spring to life showing a level of expressive emotion that intimately endears players even more to the game’s main characters. Each character is given a wide range of canned animations that occur whenever there is downtime, such as Ellie walking around the room and sitting down if there is a convenient seat, leaning against the wall with her arms crossed or merely stopping to tie her shoe as well as unique individual touches that truly add enormous flavor to their established characters. Watching Joel subconsciously look at or touch his watch lovingly adds an enormous emotional punch especially to those gamers who are more invested in the narrative as they can truly understand his motivation in doing so.
This is part of the game’s beauty because much of the subtext in terms of the plot and of the character development is subtly shown and not overtly blasted with a megaphone level of bludgeoning that treats gamers as essential idiots who cannot connect the plot threads by themselves. That does not mean that the game’s narrative cannot be properly deduced long before the final reel but the game makes it a point that the plot is actually tangential to the relationship between Ellie and Joel.
It would be doing a disservice to the game to simply point out that their relationship boils down to your rote father and surrogate daughter as the events that transpire as well as how the duo react to them forge a much deeper and intimate understanding between them and for once players are really going to feel connected to them even more as their relationship grows in a totally believable way. This is a story about two people who simply cannot trust anyone due to the society that they find themselves in who slowly bond albeit in a dysfunctional and inherently violent way as they travel together. Each character gains something from their relationship although it has to be said that whatever conclusions they arrive at might not be deemed appropriate by the player.
This is part of what makes the game electrifying and totally upsetting at the same time as it doesn’t take long for players to clue in to the fact that what Joel and Ellie have to go through and their solutions are totally justified within the fallen society in which they reside yet are complete stomach churners for players living in the here and now.
Making a perfect accompaniment to the visuals and the gripping narrative is Gustavo Santaolalla’s near-iconic predominantly acoustic guitar score which works wonders in echoing the game’s somber mood. Santaollala achieves this strong emotional resonance through subtlety instead of going with the flow of most Hollywood blockbusters to throw Hans Zimmer horn blasts all over the screen whenever anything of note occurs. His use of simple guitar riffs provides the game with an almost Western genre feel as if Joel and Ellie are portrayed as lawful gunslingers fighting valiantly against all odds. It is incredibly ironic then that Santaollala utilizes this strategy as our heroes here embark on actions that can hardly be described as law-abiding and in some cases are just as if not worse than those they fight against. Such is the brutality of the world they live in and the score ends up being a haunting reminder of this fact as if forcing gamers to consider the humanity now lost through the mists of time.
Subsequently, the voice acting on display here is clearly in a class of its own headed by Troy Baker as Joel and Ashley Johnson as Ellie who achieve an engaging chemistry that really accentuates the pairs growing relationship. The supporting cast is equally as competent delivering their lines with an intensity and conviction rarely seen in other games. Most of the dialogue is given through brilliantly edited cinematics yet there is surprisingly a ton of ambient chatter during the actual gameplay that further enhances each character. Some gamers might be worried that the banter between Joel and Ellie would follow Hollywood buddy movie pseudo-insults and though some of that is present the context and delivery could not be more different as each attempt at lightening the mood feels as if the characters are forcing themselves to smile rather than laughing from the heart. At the same time much of this dialogue fleshes out the characters in intriguing ways such as having Ellie make constant queries and observations to Joel about the “old world” and how it now seems like a fairy tale made up to put kids to bed at night.
The Last of Us is a game that grips you from its opening prologue featuring a harrowing yet intensely personal account of the beginning of the fungal apocalypse to the very last shot which leaves you feeling totally stunned at the audacity of developer Naughty Dog to end the game on such a powerfully ambiguous note, there is simply, no other game like it and through its 15+ hour single player campaign players will experience a totally exhausting tale that will leave you shaking your head in wonder at how invested you have become in its sordid tale.
Like the best science fiction yarns, The Last of Us is more about human nature itself rather than the zombie apocalypse and though the narrative funnels our heroes essentially on an epic road trip through a downtrodden America in decay it is the characters that will make the biggest impression on you. Never before has a game managed to make players feel totally invested in not only their plight but seriously care about their survival as the script is so wonderfully and lovingly constructed. Generally, most gamers and even moviegoers have a slight aversion to having a young teenage sidekick tag along as the potential is high for cheesy dialogue or downright childish actions to percolate to the surface. Mark my words, Ellie, in The Last of Us is not that child and for once you are going to experience the growing of an organic relationship that feels totally convincing and heartfelt.
What elevates the game though is that this budding relationship occurs amidst the ruin of society where the act of violence has become as common as taking a piss. Because society has crumbled almost to the point of no return the human survivors have essentially regressed into a more animalistic state where the rule of law is nothing but the survival of the fittest. Being cold-hearted is the norm and boy will you experience its full no-holds barred impact.
Joel is perhaps one of video game’s most conflicting characters imaginable as he’s nothing but a blunt instrument who resorts to any action no matter the level of violence involved and some players might even feel sick to the stomach when they realize they are playing and controlling the “hero” even when he’s bashing someone’s head into individual bricks, brutally torturing a captured thug by ramming and then twisting a knife into their kneecap, or impaling someone’s neck straight into a hanging shard of glass. This is a man who has learned to survive in this new society who only barely remembers the way things used to be before the infestation. And you know what? It’s damned refreshing to play an unrelenting crazed ass as he is as his character is totally in tune with the new normal of the world that he finds himself in.
By contrast, Ellie is a child of the new world, born without ever knowing how good things were in the past and her constant curiosity is both inspiring and genuine as she attempts to understand a society that is as alien to her as extraterrestrials from another galaxy. She’s known nothing but the constant threat from the infested or from other humans yet to her that is the world she knows so during her road trip is can’t help but wonder in awe at the things that have been lost. Yet at the same time her character never whines or comes across as a brat and as the story naturally progresses it becomes obvious that she is a sponge learning from Joel the way to survive.
To illustrate how mature-oriented The Last of Us is think of the movie Leon: The Professional with Jean Reno and Natalie Portman about a hitman who makes a connection to a young girl and through the course of their short relationship influences her to want to take up his vocation. Being a Hollywood movie everyone understands that this will not come to pass as some bigwigs have deemed it as unethical to show kids in such a role. To Hell with that here in The Last of Us and when the time comes for this to occur within the game it is so powerful, visceral and downright intense that it literally becomes the emotional highpoint even though it comes not at the last level.
Nevertheless, The Last of Us has a few technical hitches none of which ruin the game yet stand out more precisely because the rest of the game near flawless in its execution. During my 16+ hour playthrough there were a few occasions where clipping reared its ugly head as Joel phased straight through solid tables which made for a few hilarious guffaws. While the AI in the game both for allies as well as enemies is rock solid there were a few occasions where the game essentially spazzed out at one point having Ellie run straight into the corner of a room and remain stuck there while Joel climbed up two floors leaving her behind. Once Joel had completed the area all by his lonesome the game corrected itself and Ellie miraculously warped to his side.
Yet another instance nearly gave me a heart attack when I mistakenly alerted the nearby infected to my location but I managed to dispatch all but one target who proceeded to run around the level like a madmen yet every time managed to run right straight into Joel’s face but instead of attacking merely turned around and kept running. The first time it occurred I instinctively thought Joel would be mauled but when I hesitated the poor sod kept doing this in a loop by coming to Joel and then spinning away to complete another run around the room. I couldn’t help but laugh and in the end just shot it in the face to end its misery.
Finally, there’s the rather awkward realization that the supporting cast AI really doesn’t matter much in a firefight in that the enemies only care about targeting Joel. This can easily be seen when the game has a hard time keeping allies in cover as what inevitably happens is that Ellie or another companion often will take a tortuously long path to get behind cover and in doing so almost always expose themselves to enemy fire, sometimes even running and bumping directly into them. However, this is where the game’s finely tuned illusion of reality literally breaks down because the enemies basically ignore the companions even if body contact has taken place. This leads to totally bizarre sights as allies run around in wide open spaces where any enemy can plug them with bullets or engage them in melee combat but more often than not ignore them to concentrate on Joel even if he is hiding in cover. In the long run it doesn’t ruin the game yet it is something that reminds players that no matter how much effort is made by developers that oftentimes things like this still occur.
These little technical issues really do not ruin the overall game but there is one segment which really does seem superfluous as if it were added as nothing but filler. This section comes past the midpoint where Joel needs to track someone down on a horse yet it really makes very little sense in the context of the narrative. Think of it as ramming an action sequence into a part of a film that really doesn’t require it at all and that would accurately describe this minor faux pas. Still, it is not as if the section is not fun to play but any gamer will come out of it questioning just why exactly it was included.
The narrative’s moral ambiguity will have some players reeling in dizziness yet the beauty and mastery behind this is that developer Naughty Dog knows exactly how to play with your emotions. There are sections of the game where one will undoubtedly stop for a second and think twice that the character’s actions really are repugnant yet totally justified within this screwed up world that they inhabit.
Naughty Dog has to be commended in this regard for crafting a game that pulls no punches depicting the full extent of the depravity of man amidst a healing world that is clearly moving on. As players make their way through the once proud husks of human civilization it quickly becomes apparent that part of the narrative calls into question the centrality of man on this planet and how truly insignificant we are within the entire ecosystem. Cities are slowly being reclaimed by healthy blossoming vegetation while certain sequences showing nature’s beauty at its most sublime will cause most gamers to have an epiphany that perhaps The Last of Us really isn’t just about guarding one young girl on a trek across America.
In some ways The Last of Us is the perfect example of the unique experience that can only be delivered through video games. For far too long academicians and journalists have attempted to frame games in relation to other art forms, namely movies, and though there are some similarities it is a much better fit to compare them to a serial television show which unfolds over the course of a season. The narrative in The Last of Us is basically constructed along these episodic lines and over the course of about 15-18 hours it unfolds with many of the same traits with natural cliffhangers between levels or huge revelations that many would expect would take place before a hard cut to a commercial.
The obvious difference for a game is that the player assumes complete control of the onscreen avatars for large sections of the running time only giving up control when a cutscene automatically is triggered. In this case, The Last of Us’ gameplay is so linked to the hip with the narrative that it really brings forth the argument that this interactive medium can provide a much different yet wholly visceral feel to the experience that no other entertainment medium can hope to match. The narrative might be essentially carved in stone yet it is up to the player to decide whether or not Joel barrels through a throng of human assailants like a madman without a conscience or if they’d rather “play” him as more of an idealist who attempts to sneak past everyone avoiding unwarranted combat. That said the level of violence here is still extremely disturbing no matter how you decide to proceed but for once it never feels like it is gratuitous and insulting but rather merely a reflection of a decrepit society which only knows the darker side of the human spirit.
This generation developer Naughty Dog has crafted the award winning Uncharted trilogy but though that series deserves all the accolades that it received The Last of Us represents an even higher achievement, a product so finely tuned and crafted that it literally transcends the medium to become almost a religious experience. So gripping is the final product that it will leave you thinking for days about some of the more ambiguous elements presented within it and any game that forces you to ponder deep philosophical concepts immediately gets a big thumbs up in my book.
The Last of Us is a ballsy artistic choice from one of the best developers in the business and full kudos goes to the entire team there for actually taking a risky chance at crafting such a powerfully mature narrative that frankly would never have been green-lit by any major Hollywood studio. There are far too many instances in the game where I mentally made a note would end up scaring away any film executive as the mere thought of filming certain sequences will inevitably cause protests to erupt all over the world. Yes, the game is that biting, raw and oftentimes downright unsettling but it is so electrifyingly fresh that most mature gamers will be more than satisfied.
As it stands The Last of Us is unquestionably the standout title so far in 2013 and easily vaults into contention for not only game of the year but game of the entire generation. Whether it is the best or not is surely debatable but as the PS3 rides off into the sunset and the world welcomes the PS4 the one point which is not for debate is that Naughty Dog is the Playstation’s best developer and based on this game one can only salivate at what they can do with next generation hardware. Playstation 3 owners should go out and buy/rent this immediately while those without Sony’s system now have an excellent excuse to go buy one. Bravo Naughty Dog, you’ve hit this one out of the park.
**** out of ****
Developer: Naughty Dog
Published by : Sony Computer Entertainment
Released US: 06/14/2013
Released EU: 06/14/2013
Released JP: 06/20/2013
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