Over the course of this generation, Naughty Dog has become Sonyís prized quarter horse with the Uncharted series. After three critically acclaimed titles, the developer has attempted to go a full mile with a new intellectual property that serves as a fitting swan song to the Playstation 3 as its successorís arrival looms near. While not perfect by any stretch, The Last of Us claims the title of the finest Naughty Dog Game of this generation.
The Last of Us follows the story of Joel, a grizzled survivor of a fungal pandemic doing his best to forget his tragic past as he lives in a post-apocalyptic United States. Early on, he is tasked with smuggling a young girl, Ellie, out of the city heís called home and the two set off on a journey that could change the fortunes of the human race. It is a tale of desperation, loss, and redemption that draws similarities to such narratives as 28 Days Later, The Road, and Children of Men. Compared to Naughty Dogís previous titles, The Last of Us is unflinchingly brutal, yet surprisingly tender. This is the most affecting story ever crafted by the developer and a shining example of storytelling in the medium. Its one thing when games boast high production values and superb character performances, which it absolutely does, yet what truly sets the game apart is that gameplay becomes integral to the narrative. This is The Last of Usí crowning achievement. Brilliant character performances, finely-crafted environments, and tense, brutal gameplay coalesce to create an enthralling interactive experience.
I must confess that I rarely had fun while playing The Last of Us, yet it wasn't due to poor gameplay. The game so convincingly conveyed fear, desperation, and tension while playing that I felt the same dread the characters felt while traversing this untamed, volatile world.
Any psychologist will tell you that the root of fear is powerlessness, and the gameplay follows this mantra to the letter. To survive the bleak world of the Last of Us, Joel must be cautious and methodical when in combat. This is because ammunition and supplies are limited, and his enemies are smart, powerful, and large in number. In most cases, direct confrontation will lead to a swift death.
Joel will face two types of enemies in the game: human survivors and the infected. This is a meaningful distinction because you must approach combat in different ways depending on the enemy. Humans are smart and employ team work to actively track you down and use intelligent tactics to get the better of you in a firefight. These sections force constant movement and thoughtful strategy.
While fighting other survivors is tense, confrontations with the infected magnify the sense of dread ten fold. What the infected lack in intelligence, they make up for in strength, speed, and numbers. It takes only hearing the distinctive guttural clicking from an aptly-termed, clicker or the rabid snarl of a runner to raise the heart rate and loosen the bowels. Runners are fast and tenacious. If you are seen, prepare to be relentlessly swarmed. Clickers are blind, but use their finely-tuned hearing to track their prey. If you are caught by these horrifying creatures, itís game over. Stealth is usually the best option when dealing with the infected as one false move can be potentially fatal. To aid you in sneaking about and gaining a tactical advantage, you can activate Joelís finely-tuned hearing to view obscured enemies, a la Detective Mode from Rocksteadyís Arkham series. This functionality can be turned off in the options menu should you find that it cheapens the experience.
While the enemies are vicious and horrifying, combat would not carry nearly as much weight if it werenít for the supply management system. Supplies are scarce and as such you will be forced to approach each confrontation strategically. Do you have enough ammunition to engage in a firefight, or should you use stealth to slip by your enemies? Are you low on health packs? Do you have the ingredients to craft more? You must account for questions like these and plan accordingly. You will find yourself meticulously scavenging abandoned homes, shops, and towering, corporate buildings for much needed ammunition and ingredients for crafting offensive and curative items. The items you can craft draw from the same pool, so deciding which item to makeis not something to take lightly. You will also find supplements and munitions parts for upgrading Joelís abilities and weapons. As with item crafting, frugality is essential because there arenít enough resources to fully upgrade everything in one playthrough. An added wrinkle to this system is that the game doesnít pause when crafting, changing weapons, and viewing artifacts found in the world. This makes preparation during quiet moments key because crafting and healing takes time. The effect of supply management on gameplay is that your decisions during an encounter will have unforeseen consequences later in the game. Itís a unique take on player choice that feels organic and further immerses the player in the world.
Speaking of the world, Naughty Dog should be commended for the attention to detail with which they crafted the post-apocalyptic setting of The Last of Us. Bombed out, ravaged cities give way to lush greenery as nature reclaims them. Homes and shops, ransacked and desolate, tell stories of their own as Joel and Ellie find artifacts left behind by a world no longer recognizable. Each nook and cranny is given special care and evokes fascination in the player that largely contributes to the desire to push forward and experience the next segment of the game. Seeing Ellie interact with the environment during quiet moments is reward in and of itself.
Outside of the single player campaign, The Last of Us contains a multiplayer component that feels like an extension of the former. Factions, as itís referred, charges you with choosing one of two sides, then offers two modes of play: Survivors and Supply Raid. Both capture the unique sense of tension and dread as the campaign and elicit a sense of personal responsibility from the player within a team dynamic. Survivors pits players in four-on-four matches within a best-of-seven series. Death in this mode is permanent within a match, so the cautious, methodical tactics from the main game are still requisite. In Supply Raid, players on each team share a pool of lives as they work to drain the opposing teamís life pool. Both modes put the onus on each player to act smartly as no one wants to become the weak link on their respective team.
Furthermore, each match has implications for your fully-customizable avatar within the interesting metagame that pervades the mode. Your avatar is the leader of a band of survivors and the outcome of each match, collecting items, and completing certain one-off missions effects the efficacy of your group. This provides a unique way for you to measure your success outside of the normal win/loss/kill ratios in other titles. Itís nice to see that care was taken in the multiplayer to mirror the experience of the campaign, however superfluous it might be to enjoyment of the game.
With all the praise The Last of Us deserves, I did come across a few frustrating bugs and took issue with the controls and button layout. In more than a few instances during my time with the game, Joel would get caught on pieces of the environment, and contextual prompts to interact with objects wouldnít trigger; this was especially frustrating during tense chase sequences when time and precision are of the essence. Equally frustrating were instances when Ellie and other AI partners would stall in front of doorways, ladders, and windows, making progression impossible when infected are hot on your tail.
Locomotion itself is a bit clunky. For example, turning Joel around requires extra input from the X button as you move the stick backwards. It may seem small, but in the heat of conflict, needing extra input for an action as simple as turning around is disorienting. Furthermore, and perhaps this is merely a personal gripe, button layout felt less than ergonomical. For a player like me with motor impairment in my left hand, sprinting mapped to the left trigger was a bit of a challenge when in conjunction with moving the left stick. I grew accustomed to it over time, but the option to remap that function to another button; X perhaps, would have been appreciated. This issue; however, did not elicit nearly the frustration of the technical bugs.
It was clear from the outset that The Last of Us was reaching for higher plateaus than Uncharted ever did, or could, with a captivating opening sequence that few games can match. It set the tone for the entire 14 hours spent with the game that left me emotionally drained and relieved when the credits rolled. It was a deftly crafted experience that rivals the effectiveness of the best films and novels. While technical snafus and curious design choices might frustrate some, The Last of Us is the finest example of every element of a game presenting a unified effort to create lasting experience.