The Last of Us
Developer: Naughty Dog
Genre: Survival Horror
Release Date: 06/14/2013
(Note: I played a rental copy of this game, and thus didn’t get to try the multiplayer. This review will cover the single player experience only.)
When you think of zombie games, they all tend to at least start with everything going to hell, whether we’re talking about Left 4 Dead, Resident Evil, Dead Rising, Dead Island, or even The Walking Dead. There is usually at least some beginning section where things are all right. The Last of Us is a bit different. It gives you a brief look at how society fell, and then skips forward twenty years. By that time, society has changed as a whole. Discovering cannibals isn’t that horrific. It just seems like something you’d expect to happen over the years. Crumbling buildings serve as memorials to the past. This game doesn’t intend to examine how society falls. It examines society after the fall.
All told, this makes for one of the most interesting interactive experiences you can find.
An infection spread. Not only could it be passed through bites, but it became aerosolized as well. It all happened so fast that nothing the world’s governments could do could stop it. Twenty years later, the remnants are a wreck. Those still living in military quarantine zones live under oppressed rule where you could easily be killed for your ration cards. Outside the zones, packs of murderous infected roam the wilderness, while groups of human hunters take out travelers for their supplies. Society as we know it is no more.
Joel is a middle-aged man who somehow survived everything. He lives as a smuggler with his partner, Tess. As the game starts out, they find themselves involved with a resistance group. Don’t get the wrong idea. Joel and Tess couldn’t care one bit about saving the world. They just want guns, and the resistance will hand them over for the price of one smuggling job. All they have to do is take one fourteen year old girl to an outpost, and the goods are theirs. At this point, it’s hard to care about anything. Joel, who you play as, is nothing but a heartless prick who can kill without a thought. It’s when Ellie, the teenage girl in question, enters the fray that things pick up.
If you’ve played any of the Uncharted games, you know that ND is the master of using dialogue between action sequences. So, during regular traversal, the character will chat. Not one game does this better than TLOU. You learn so much from these moments, and learn to love Ellie like a kid sister. She’s bratty, yes, sarcastic to the core even. However, when you hear the way she lights up when she finds a group of fireflies, you’ll discover that perhaps humanity isn’t completely dead yet. She becomes something you want to protect at all costs, even though she’s more than chomping at the bit to prove she can take care of herself. It’s not that she’s weak, or in dire need of protection. She’s not some dainty princess trapped in a tower. She’s just precious. The game owes this strength of character to fantastic animations and the single best script I’ve seen in video game history. No dialogue in any other game feels this natural. With the addition of Ellie, Joel slowly starts to change, and that pivotal scene at the beginning speaks volumes as to his mindset. It becomes entrancing to watch these characters move towards final destination. It’s even better that you get to go along for the ride.
What’s really great here is that the plot itself is kind of bland. It’s the same kind of story we’ve seen countless times before, to the point where I successfully predicted most of it. It has few surprises, at least in terms of plot twists. However, it’s the strength of those two characters, and the attachment that forms between you and them that make the experience so powerful. The rest are archetypes or cannon fodder. Joel and Ellie are masterpieces. They carry the game, and do a bang-up job of it. There are so many powerful moments, it’s worth playing the game just to experience them. There are very few games that can say that.
Visually, the game has a lot of impact, though a few cracks pop their head in to keep it from being the best. The animations are fantastic, as are the facial expressions. Considering that the key to the game’s success is the characters, these two facets go a long way into establishing the game’s credibility. That being said, the game isn’t immune from clipping issues and bad textures. The foliage in particular gets on my nerves. It looks fine from afar, but getting close reveals that everything is in two dimensions. Back on the positive side of things, the post-apocalyptic world is pretty well realized. If you enter a house, you will find rooms strewn with the leftovers of society. Clothes that were hung up to dry but never taken down, grass that has started growing on old rugs, and other nice touches sell the world quite well. My only complaint was that sometimes it felt more like a few years had passed by as opposed to the twenty in the game’s story. Still, the visual side of the production is quite strong. When you add in the smooth frame rate and the lack of loading times, it’s easy to get immersed in what you’re seeing.
Above all else, the game’s strongest point is the audio. Now I’ve raved about the characters, and they are that damn good. However, the audio is just on another level. Firstly, we have the voices. Even the most mundane and trivial of characters is voiced to perfection. The portrayal of tone, emotion, and stress level is at an all time high in this game. There is as much power in the softest of whispers as there is in the loudest of screams. The effects are mind blowing. The call of the clicker will haunt your dreams, and the boom of a firearm in an abandoned house makes even thunder seem weak. Then there’s the music. One thing that more games need to figure out is that you don’t always need it. This game is great in that in often has you playing through large desolate areas with no music. The only sounds are your footsteps and any bits of conversation that pick up. It creates the feeling of isolation quite well. When there is music, it feels appropriate, and the tunes match the tone perfectly. It might not make for the best casual listening, but it fits the game like a glove. If we still gave scores, TLOU would be getting a perfect one in this category.
Creating a gameplay experience that can live up to the rest of the package would seem night on impossible. However, Naughty Dog has found the perfect mix of survival horror, stealth, and third person shooting. While there are some hiccups here and there, the style works brilliantly.
One of my biggest issues with Uncharted, ND’s previous game, was that it tried to do too much with its buttons. Context sensitive actions led to a number of accidental actions. For example, I’d try to duck into cover and find myself rolling right out into the open. This game avoids that. The left stick is for movement, while the right stick controls the camera. Sticking to standards, you can aim with the left shoulder button, and fire with the right shoulder button. Going into cover is as easy as moving towards it and crouching, saving a lot of frustration. Square handles melee combat. A key portion of the game comes from managing your equipment. This is done with the backpack.
The backpack allows you to carry all kinds of items. That’s good, because you’re limited without it. You see, this game strives for some resemblance of realism. As such, you can carry a limited number of weapons on hand at a time. It depends on your holster. So, you can only carry one handgun, and one two-handed gun at first. The rest go into your pack. If you want to switch guns, you have to go into your pack. Where it gets interesting is that going into the pack doesn’t pause the game. In fact, none of the actions you perform pause the game. This is true for crafting, healing, and even viewing collectables. This means that having to heal up or switch weapons in the heat of battle is a risky premise. You’ll have to find someplace to hide while you do it, and the tension that builds while you hope that no one interrupts you is brilliant.
Crafting is done by looting ingredients throughout the game. Find enough rags and alcohol, and you can make a health kit. The cool thing of it is that every item you craft uses materials that are needed for something else. Molotovs use the exact same materials as health kits, so making one could leave you with low health down the road. The only catch is that you only have about six different items you can craft. It limits a potentially awesome system.
There are generally two different kinds of gameplay sections in this game. The first is traversal. The second is engagement scenarios.
For traversal sections, the game does a good job. You have to figure out where to go, which often take a small degree of exploration and/or puzzle solving. You also have free reign to search every nook and cranny for supplies. It is during these sections that you’ll have time to go over your inventory, craft items, heal up, or even chat will Ellie should you stumble upon a hidden conversation. There are few mechanics at play here, but they break up the tension a good deal. Ellie can’t swim, so you’ll have to find a sort of floatation device in order for her to cross water. There are a number of out of reach areas, so you may need to find a ladder or other object to boost yourself up. These sections are all about looking around and finding things. I hesitate to call them puzzles.
When it’s time to get down to business, the game takes a drastic turn in atmosphere. You have a very limited amount of supplies. Your ammo count is often in the single digits, and you can’t carry more than a few of each consumable item. Plus, any melee weapon you use will break after a few uses. You’re always outgunned and outnumbered. However, the key is that enemies won’t always know you’re there. This gives you the ability to be stealthy. You can use this to take out enemies or simply slip by them most of the time. A good strategy is to throw a bottle to make a noise that attract guards. While they’re busy searching for nothing, you can make an escape. Of course, if you get caught while trying to avoid killing enemies, that just leaves more of them to come after you. If you want to clear the path, you can strangle enemies by sneaking up on them, or shiv them at the cost of the shiv itself. Going all out is another option. You could just start firing shots, bashing opponents’ skulls in, throwing molotovs, etc. While is this feasible, and fun at times, it will often leave you with little to use in the next section. However, you can play any way you want to and come out on top (although you can’t go pure stealth or bloodless. The story demands interaction at points). The environments make great playgrounds for this style. There are often numerous rooms, stairs, and hiding places to make use of. Some of the areas get pretty big, and moving through them takes a great deal of time and effort. It also makes sense to a degree that enemies could lose track of you, since there are so many twists and turns. Of course, the large areas work against you as well, since enemies will attempt to flank you. Well, the human ones anyway.
You have two different types of foes in this game. There are humans and infected. You never fight both at the same time, mostly because even the worst of enemies will team up to fight off infected. Infected come in three forms: runners, clickers, and bloaters. Runners are newly infected that try to run you down. They’re barely human anymore, but they’re not at the level of zombies. They will throw punches and try to grab you as opposed to simply biting you. Clickers, though blind and comparatively slow, are much more dangerous. You can’t strangle them to death, so the only way to take them out quietly is with one of those precious shivs. You might want to melee them, but all it takes is one grab and they kill you instantly. They are scary bastards, and you will dread facing them. The right tactic is to attempt to sneak by, but all it takes is one slip and you’re toast. Bloaters are even worse. They’re bigger, stronger clickers. On top of that, they have a ranged attack that blinds you and damages you at once. And while slow, all it takes is for you to get distracted for a moment before one comes up and rips your jaw off. I’m not kidding. Human foes are less terrifying, but even more deadly. They can use guns, throw molotovs, and use tactics to get you on the defensive. They also use cover, thus making them harder to hit. They’re also a lot more likely to drop loot, which is important.
One mechanic I haven’t mentioned yet is Joel’s super hearing. By pressing the R2 button, Joel automatically goes into stealth mode and starts listening. This allows him to pinpoint the presence of nearby enemies. This might seem overpowered and cheap, but there are downsides. The range is limited until you upgrade it, and you won’t be able to pick up stationary enemies. This means you can easily get complacent and walk right into a trap. If you’re a stealth purist, using this technique is completely optional.
Everything I’ve talked about so far has worked, but there are definitely issues. The enemy AI can get wonky. I’ve had human enemies miss me as I walked right in front of them, infected that failed to engage with me even after I had shot them, and other issues. For a game that seems to want to be as real as possible, it’s annoying that enemies so rarely drop ammo. If the guy was shooting at me, you’d think there would be at least some bullets in his gun I could steal. The game also gets formulaic and complacent. It runs out of new ideas to show you. Even old ideas don’t get reused. There’s a section of the game that introduces you the presence of traps placed by other people. I only found one section in the game beyond that introduction that used traps. Also, the backpack is bizarre. Why can I hold three molotovs, but the max number of empty bottles (used for distracting enemies) is one? Why am I limited to three of everything? Why can’t I decide to hold only two nail bombs and put in a fourth health kit instead? It’s little things like this that make the game less than it could have been. It’s still incredibly engrossing to play thanks to solid controls and stellar atmosphere. It just could have been so much better.
Going through the campaign will take you upwards of a dozen hours. That’s not a bad length at all, especially since you can increase it by full exploring each location. If you decide to replay the game, you have a new game plus option so you can head into a higher difficulty with some upgrades. However, it’s likely that you won’t want to replay the game. The experience feels completed when the credits roll, and a second playthrough can’t possibly live up to the first. A part of that is because so much of the game is traversal and conversation. There isn’t much exciting going on. It’s interesting, but less so once you already know how it works.
There’s been a lot of talk about this game being a truly exceptional title. They say we’ll be talking about this game for years, and that it is the Citizen Kane of games. While I don’t agree with those sentiments, I can understand where they come from. There is a level of characterization and atmosphere here that is damned intoxicating. It’s at a level far and above what we’re used to seeing. I don’t think this is the best game of the year, but it is perhaps the most interesting one. I honestly think it’s something that everyone should play.
Short Attention Span Summary
The Last of Us is one of the most engrossing interactive experiences I’ve ever come across. It does this through dynamite scripting, visual that bring the characters to life, the best aural composition in gaming, and through gameplay that fits the tone of the game like a glove. It’s a brutal, merciless game that will often leave you with your mouth open in shock. There are issues, but they merely keep the game from being perfect. This is one of the best games of the year, and something you shouldn’t hesitate to try.