(PlayStation 3 Review) The Last of Us

Developer: Naughty Dog
Publisher: SCEA
Genre: Action / Survival Horror
Players: 1-8
ESRB: Mature
Reviewer: George Damidas

Overall: 9 = Must Buy

Throughout the years, Naughty Dog has parlayed their experience from one title to the next with a skillful precision that has seen them rise to the industry’s higher echelon of developers. Each subsequent release has built upon its predecessor to create increasingly expansive, polished titles that have become standout releases in their respective generations. The increasingly action-oriented platformer motif of their previous titles took a hard shift earlier this generation, leading to the cover-based third-person shooting system of Uncharted, and as this console cycle comes to a close, the studio has once again pivoted with their latest release, the fantastic survival-horror-styled thriller The Last of Us.

One of the first things that came to mind after starting The Last of Us was Valve’s landmark action title Half-Life. The seminal first-person shooter is noteworthy for many reasons, one of which is its evocative introduction. The beginning is a watershed moment in the presentation and perception of video games. The player’s mundane commute through a generic science facility lulls them into a sense of complacency as they play out the role of an unassuming researcher going through the routine motions of the day, creating a mood that was then turned on its head as one of the newest experiments went awry. Few games have been able to so quickly and so thoroughly draw the player into its world, but then, few games are as good as The Last of US. Not since Gordon Freeman innocently stepped into a test chamber so many years ago has an opening sequence been so engaging, as players are introduced to Joel, a single father in Austin, Texas, at the outset of an outbreak that will soon bring society crashing down.

After a frantic night of attempting to escape the city for safety in the country, the game opens up 20 years later, with an aged Joel waking up in a dingy apartment set inside one of Boston’s quarantine zones. He’s soon approached with an offer by a senior member of the Fireflies, a rebel organization devoted to the end of martial law and the reestablishment of representative government. The group needs an experienced smuggler to escort someone outside of the military’s zone of control: a 14-year-old girl named Ellie. Unbeknownst to Joel, she’s a potential carrier for a vaccine, but his interest in taking on the assignment isn’t rooted in anything so lofty: he’s looking to recoup some guns a two-bit arms dealer double sold and gave to the Fireflies. The striking of this inauspicious deal sets in motion a 20-plus-hour odyssey that will see the pair face the worst that mankind and nature has to offer as they venture across the United States.

The Last of Us might look like a different flavor of Uncharted, but it’s actually a quite different type of game. Nathan Drake’s chasm-jumping, cliff-dangling heroics for fame and fortune are replaced by an aging man with a questionable past who attempts to overcome the struggles of a slowly decaying world: getting on top of transport trailers, using planks to make it from one rooftop to the next, and trying to figure out how to scale chain-link fences. He’s also not as quick on the draw as Drake, at least not initially. But he is a survivor, and he will need all of his skills to face the horrors of this new world. The Cordyceps Brain Infection has ravaged humanity for the last 20 years and has led to the deaths of millions, but not all of the infected die; many of them are transformed. There are three stages to the transformation, where the first causes the infected to lose higher cognitive faculties and turn into fast, murderously violent mutants. The second stage causes hard fungal growths to appear over their bodies as they lose their sight, causing them to rely on echolocation to find their victims; this gives rise to their nickname of Clickers, but also makes them more intensely vicious and powerful in the process. The final stage, for those infected the longest, creates what are called Bloaters, lumbering beasts that can take significant amounts of punishment and fling out explosive sacks of spores. Unlike the spores found throughout the world, the ones from the Bloaters’ projectiles do not cause infection, but they steadily weaken those within the blast radius. As destructive as these monsters might be, there are still pockets of non-infected people wandering the lands, many of whom are just as deadly. Many of the survivors have reverted to tribalism, killing those who happen to be unfortunate enough to find themselves caught in one of the many traps laid by these tight bands of killers. The most dangerous are those who have gone even further and turned to cannibalism. If Joel isn’t trying to sneak Ellie past a roaming infected, then he’s having to choke out a bandit to keep him from alerting the nearby patrol that fresh victims—or possibly their next few meals—are in the vicinity. And if worse comes to worst, Joel will shiv a bandit in the neck and break a board over the face of any who stumble upon the scene.

Make no mistake about it, Joel can and will do what needs to be done. Ellie might take a shine to him early on, but hints dropped in conversation about his past point to a man who has survived through some of humanity’s darkest times. It’s hard not to like Joel because of his task as the guardian of Ellie, who is one of gaming’s most genuinely likable characters. Played wonderfully by actress Ashley Johnson, Ellie is not only one of the few teenagers in any medium that hasn’t made me want to banish them to oblivion, but she also adds a lot of weight to the game, providing a moral anchor for Joel and the player. But her fondness for her protector is based largely in how lonely a life she leads, with all of her loved ones either dead or long gone in search of a better life. Joel’s anti-hero grit is played up perfectly by actor Troy Baker, who gives him all the mannerisms of a confident but exhausted traveler who has only the push for something better to keep him going. Their relationship is one of the more entertaining in any game, book, or film, with Joel’s grim outlook and Eastwood-esque gruff responses matched by Ellie’s strained optimism and snappy sarcasm. They are further fleshed out by numerous small touches that add an extra element of life to their regular actions, with Joel sighing or taking a deep breath when doing the heavy lifting and Ellie, as teenagers tend to do, not letting a topic go or muttering an insult under her breath.

It’s not just in Joel and Ellie’s rapport that the details shine through but also in many elements and items found throughout the game. As with Fallout 3, it’s up to the player to make the most out of the world they’re in. It’s easy to zip through the areas without concern for much else other than gear to scavenge, but that would be missing so much of what makes The Last of Us such a memorable experience. Scattered throughout the ramshackle houses, stores, and various factories and facilities are graffiti scrawls detailing the deteriorating relationship between the populace and military authorities, the rise of the Fireflies, as well as the personal notes and recordings of survivors who held out for as long as they could. These sub-stories can be just as compelling as the main narrative, with notes detailing a family’s attempt to survive by taking shelter with a stranger, the life they began to build with other survivors, and the community’s horrific end. There are also instructions left by parents for their children, husbands trying to contact wives, and evacuees scribbling their farewells before being bussed to a new safe zone. Naughty Dog added a mechanical incentive to read these notes by having some people scribble safe combinations that can be used to access their stores of loot, but those are superfluous when it comes to the weight these mementos add to the 20-year gap.

Those wanting the extra details won’t have to look too far because of how close most of the items are to the salvageable gear that is necessary to survive. Resources are scarce, and Joel will have to rely on the handful of items lying around—rags, alcohol, sugar, scissors, etc.—in order to create the shivs, first aid kits, Molotov cocktails, explosive canisters of shrapnel, and gas bombs he’ll need against so many enemies. Manuals can also be found to add automatic improvements to the many crafted items. The growing arsenal of weapons, including pistols, a bow and arrow, a shotgun, and a flamethrower, will be upgraded by using the toolkits and piles of parts found amongst the debris. The toolkits improve Joel’s upgrade proficiency, and the parts are the bits and bobs used to implement the actual upgrade. Aside from being able to add holsters, allowing quicker access to more weapons from the main weapon menu, he will be able to improve clip capacity, range, reload speed, damage, and more. These can be used in conjunction with bricks and bottles for some imaginative combinations. At one point, I no longer had anything to throw to get the attention of nearby infected, so I tossed an explosive canister of shrapnel near a doorway and fired a shot in the air. The sound caused them to come running, which set off the canister, causing considerable damage, and then, when the remainder rushed to the sound, a Molotov caught the initial rush on fire and took out the remaining stragglers who wandered into the flame. It’s immensely satisfying to come up with scenarios that seem too contrived to work, only to find that they not only worked but worked exactly as planned. Weapon upgrades have extra benefits as well, such as being able to tie a shiv to a bat or board to allow for an insta-kill melee attack, being able to use a shiv multiple times (crucial against Clickers, which go down the fastest to a shiv in the neck), or using a shiv to pry open a door to reach the items inside.

Joel himself can be upgraded through the use of pills. These can extend his health, speed up his health kit usage, reduce weapon sway, and improve his ability to listen for enemies. By placing his ear near a wall, he can focus his attention on the sounds he hears nearby, causing the screen to turn dark and a white light to form around the outline of enemies. Players can use this information to sneak past enemies, take them out silently, or just toss caution to the wind and go in guns blazing (and arrows flying). This is a crucial ability early in the game when he has access to few weapons and character upgrades, but it can still come in handy later on as Ellie finds herself in some difficult situations.

It’s difficult to not go into detail about the story because there’s so much to say, but saying too much will spoil its many reveals. I will say that there are few games that go the distance that The Last of Us does in terms of dedication towards its characters and plot. Things are rarely done purely for shock value, and because of that, the narrative progression feels much more natural than in other post-apocalyptic odysseys like Book of Eli and The Road. The little touches, from the extra animations of Joel scooching Ellie to safety when they’re crouched near a corner to the fact that items are very rarely actually in drawers, adds so much to an already engaging voyage. There are some AI hiccups that are pretty jarring, however, especially in the beginning, which ranged from a character kicking a chair in front of them through several rooms of a house to several instances of someone running out in the open and kneeling directly in front of enemies. Fortunately, the enemies didn’t always notice them in the case of the latter—I’m not sure why—so there were only a few moments when it led to a premature confrontation, but in a game that is so richly detailed yet comes across so effortless in its execution, such moments really stood out. The game frequently skirts a fine line between solid set pieces and sequences that are overly manufactured, but it seldom felt forced, which is very rare in any game, much less one so ambitious.

I played Factions, the clan-based online mode, only after completing the story, and it was strange to shift to a fast-paced action system after such a brutal final act. As either a Firefly or a Hunter, players will go through 12 weeks of matches of either Supply Raid or Survivor, with each match representing one day. The goal of either game type is to net enough supplies to meet the faction’s needs and grow their numbers. Not acquiring enough will cause members to go hungry or fall ill. The general supply amount accumulated also unlocks new weapons and loadout points. Loadouts are pre-set or customized weapon and item sets, consisting of a small firearm, a large firearm, survival skills, and purchasable items. Survival skills include the standard array of upgrades, such as longer sprint bursts, faster revival times, and pistol auto-zoom. Two pistols, a hunting rifle, a semi-auto rifle, and a handful of skills are available to use with the initial handful of loadout points, but everything else must be purchased with earned supplies. Other character-customization items are also unlocked, but they do not require supplies to select: gestures, masks, helmets, hats, and emblems. In Supply Raid, teams are given 20 respawns to kill the members of the rival faction. Survivor is a round-based mode where the first faction to win four wins. Both modes contain material necessary to craft items, and Survivor allows players to purchase ammo, weapon upgrades, and armor.  There are also events that pop up, such as the chance to improve a faction’s training by completing one of several challenges (e.g., reviving an increasing number of teammates to attract a larger number of new members), that must be accomplished in three days, which add a welcomed dynamic element.

Factions can be quite fun with a good team, and some groups can use some pretty savvy tactics to win, including letting a teammate remain wounded so the rest can pounce on any enemies that go in for a melee execution. The downside is that attrition will see many players unlock weapons without bothering to work in a team, allowing them to get kitted-out assault rifles and magnums simply by playing more, though not necessarily better, than others. Performance can be spotty at times, and the animations aren’t quite as smooth as in the campaign, but the additional insight into the world that it offers, similar to what BioShock did with the second game’s multiplayer component, makes it worth trying out.

The Last of Us is an engaging, nerve-wracking, and frequently depressing experience, and it’s phenomenal. Random erratic behavior from allies and enemies can break the tense atmosphere and deep sense of immersion, but the game quickly rebounds from its AI hiccups with its solid combat system and its fantastic cast, skillfully motion captured and voice acted. The game has a little of everything, with plenty of vicious action, well-implemented stealth elements, survival horror frights, and a pair of protagonists that are both memorable and entertaining, making this one title that shouldn’t be missed.

(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)

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