In the past five years, the notion of a zombie apocalypse has grown from cult horror amusement to worldwide mainstream fascination. The videogame industry latched onto it with eagerness, and this generation has drowned us in undead adventures. Dead Rising, The Walking Dead, Plants vs. Zombies, Dead Island. It's been all about the zombies this generation.
It's fitting, then, that the PlayStation 3's last big serving is a zombie apocalypse action horror game. Fitting, but some would say predictable. After all, many gamers have grown thoroughly burnt out on zombies, and tossing another on the pile could be considered unwise fuel to an already saturated fire.
Unless, of course, the game happens to be special.
The Last of Us is.
The Last of Us (PlayStation 3) Developer: Naughty Dog Publisher: Sony Released: June 14, 2013 MSRP: $59.99
[Note: Due to technical problems, I have yet to play The Last of Us' multiplayer. However, given its ancillary nature, and my feelings toward the campaign, I am confident in assigning a score, and will add thoughts on the online features ASAP.]
The Last of Us' cold opening, easily among the most gripping introductory sequences a videogame has offered, lets us know exactly what we're in for. In just the opening minutes of Naughty Dog's genuinely emotional adventure, I was amused, excited, scared, and saddened. The Last of Us is possessed of a certain magnetic power, able to make one laugh, to shake, and to cry, all the while aware that one state will transition to another with pitch perfect subtlety.
Set 20 years after a virulent breed of cordyceps fungus has transformed most of humanity into wailing, mindless monsters, The Last of Us tells the story of Joel, once a hard working father, now an old and bitter survivor, scraping by in a militarized safe zone. He's tasked with escorting Ellie, a 14-year-old girl, out of the safe zone and through perilous territory, in a bid to take her to a militia group known as the Fireflies.
It's not an unfamiliar setup, but this is The Last of Us' greatest strength -- to take some of the most well trodden ideas in the zombie horror sub-genre, and handle them with a sensitivity rarely seen in videogames. Joel is the bitter old man who slowly grows to like his young ward, Ellie is a sassy teenager who must mature fast in a torturous new world, and humanity has turned on itself in such a way that we're forced to ask who the real monsters are. On paper, that sounds so trite, so unremarkable, but it's all in the delivery.
It's all in how likable the characters are. It's about how Joel is harsh and impatient, yet understandably so. It's about how Ellie annoys her companion in a way that entertains, rather than irritates, the audience. It's about how themes of compassion, tolerance, determination and common selfishness are woven expertly into a familiar narrative structure. You've seen most of the elements of this story many, many times. You've not seen them all threaded so well together. It is in overwhelming quality that Naughty Dog triumphs against the risk of genre fatigue.
The Last of Us is a true survival horror, and by that I don't mean it has terrible controls, limited save files, or any other other shallow understanding of the genre. It's an intimidating, sometimes terrifying game, all about approaching deadly situations with care and managing sparse resources to make the most of whatever's available. Each encounter can be dealt with using stealth, combat, or good old fashioned running away, and in most of them, you'll need to utilize all three tactics.
There are several dangerous scenarios Joel and Ellie will find themselves in, falling largely into three distinct camps -- a hunting party of human bandits, a group of weeping Infected, or a nest of creatures known colloquially as Clickers. Some encounters may offer a variety of opponents, and some situations will be entirely different, but to spoil them would be quite unfair.
Humans turn out to be the most common threat in the game, as roving packs of raiders have largely reclaimed the abandoned cities and driven the Infected out. They're also the most "fun" to deal with, especially for those who wish to play silent killers. Each location is packed with tables, boxes, and other debris to hide behind, while Joel can activate his "enhanced listening" to get an idea of where all enemies are located (it's a bit of an unfair advantage, but if it bothers you, the skill can actually be turned off in the menu). Armed with these two boons, players will be able to outflank his opposition, isolating stragglers and taking them out from behind -- provided you're careful!
A vital tool is the ability to pick up bottles or bricks and throw them to draw enemies away from their friends. While in most games, this option never seems to work properly, in The Last of Us it's an efficient, crucial tactic. Causing distractions to isolate enemies or lead them into carefully laid traps is a wonderful thing to behold, though breaking cover to sneak up on a victim, at the risk of being spotted, can be damn intimidating. Even the simple act of sneakily killing an enemy is a dangerous compromise -- one can strangle him, which takes time, or stab him with a shiv, which is quicker but will break the weapon. Knowing which type of kill is appropriate can mean the difference between success and failure.
One thing I love about The Last of Us, however, is that even if one's stealthy approach fails, there are still options. Joel is equipped with enough weaponry to generally hold his own in a fight, and can even run away and hide until enemies lose him. Unlike too many stealth games to name, enemies don't all magically know where the player is the moment Joel's spotted, and sometimes allowing bandits to spot you and give chase can be a valid strategy. There are one or two moments where I monumentally screwed up, but was able to claw myself out of trouble alive. It took quick thinking, and I survived by the skin of my teeth, but a level head and an awareness of one's surroundings can get you through an encounter still breathing. There's nothing lost in taking a long time to prepare and scout the environment before engaging a group of opponents, and a backup plan is a requirement.
Joel can craft several items using resources scattered about the world. Medkits and shivs are rigged up as useful defensive tools, while smoke bombs, nail bombs, and molotovs can be cobbled together, and make themselves invaluable in any combat situation. Scrap can also be used to upgrade weapons throughout the game. Most items share one or more crafting components with others, again leading one to compromise and judiciously use their resources, and even if one finds themselves with an abundance of items, it only takes one encounter to drain everything they have.
Of course, players can try their luck at simply blasting away the opposition, though ammunition is never plentiful and enemies soak up a lot of damage. The Last of Us' one big similarity with Uncharted, and by far its biggest drawback, is the nonsensical durability of enemies, where basic humans can often survive up to three point-blank headshots with all but the most deadly of weapons. Joel's weapon sway and the bullet restrictions make it clear that a guns blazing approach isn't preferable, but for those moments where combat is necessary, it would have been more sensible to not have every mook be a miniature Tony Montana. Seeing a man take a bullet to the face and get back up breaks the otherwise laudable believability of the game's world, after all.
Taking out adversaries in melee is an even bigger gamble, but it can be quite entertaining. Joel may pick up and use various improvised weapons, with limited durability, and even use the environment to slam enemies against walls or tables. Melee attacks are performed simply by smashing a button, and scenery attacks will be contextual, but such simplicity does little to diminish the vicious impact of close range fights. Fighting feels desperate and raw, and is designed in such a way that players will invariably take damage as a result, making it a last-ditch option that carries as much risk as reward.
Recently turned Infected share similarities with humans when it comes to dealing with them, but the differences are considerable. They too can be distracted, strangled, and taken out with care, though screwing up against them will lead to harrowing results. Unlike the more cautious humans, Infected aren't so easily escaped, and generally inhabit areas where running away isn't an option. If one spots you, it screams, and the whole horde comes running. Fortunately, they absorb less bullets and can't shoot back, so fighting them head-on isn't a death sentence, but their speed, power, and horrific wailing make them plenty intimidating.
It should also be noted that the artificial intelligence of the Infected is remarkable. While not exactly careful, Infected actually know enough to not charge at you in a straight line. During one moment, I was actually snuck up on by a monster, who turned and ran when I spotted him. He came back with a friend, and proceeded to dart from doorway to doorway, in an attempt to confuse me. Human enemies aren't quite that tricky, but they do try to outflank you and keep you moving. The Last of Us definitely boasts some of the best A.I. I've ever seen, and I'm very cynical when it comes to A.I. boasts.
The greatest horror, however, is reserved for the Clickers. These are advanced Infected, whose fungal growths have burst from their head and consumed their eyes. Though blind, they are far from easy, and in fact only serve to be more deadly for their disability. Stalking dark corridors, making disturbing clicking sounds, these creatures have excellent hearing, and can only be snuck past with total care. Their clicking also reverbs sound back to them, allowing them to sense you if you happen to crawl too close. Oh, and should they grab you, you're dead. A Clicker will execute you the moment they get their hands on you, unless you've made use of the limited leveling system to allow a one-shot shiv defense against their attacks.
My first encounter with the Clickers will live on in my memory as one of my most delightfully threatening horror experiences. I hated it, in the way one loves to hate something. Each step nerve-wracking, each jolt of a monster's head a cause to freeze and pray. This is the kind of horror content most retail games are too spineless to include in their games anymore, the kind that threatens, rather than coddles, the player. The kind that presents you with situations you struggle to even comprehend escaping. The kind that will be remembered.
Ellie's influence on the gameplay is subtle, but important. She doesn't need protecting for the most part, though there may be times where her or an ally is grabbed and needs saving. Enemies tend to ignore Joel's counterpart -- a wise move from a gameplay perspective, though one that regularly leads to Ellie running out in full view of an enemy and being jarringly invisible to him. It's odd to see allies running around the map with nary a care in the world, but given that the alternative would completely break stealth, it's an acceptable anomaly.
Joel's young partner can be pretty useful in a combat situation, though. Should stealth go awry, Ellie isn't afraid to grab some debris and throw it to stun an opponent, and later she even gets to make herself useful in deadlier ways. It's refreshing to escort a character who not only avoids being a burden, but can actually prove to be a lifesaver when circumstances call for it.
Whatever enemy I faced, and however I faced it, I can say with pleasure that every combat encounter was one I relished. Seeing enemies actually made me excited -- or horrified -- as I knew that, whatever happened, I would have an incredible, unforgettable time. It is violent stuff, to be sure, composed of a brutality more shocking in its understatement than your typically cartoony, energetic action games, but its hard not to be mesmerized by what The Last of Us can do. And with every kill she sees, Ellie's remarks of shock are there to remind you your bloodshed is not going unseen.
As befits a Naughty Dog game, The Last of Us is suitably beautiful, though its gorgeousness is strangely inconsistent. While much of the scenery is impressive, and the game only looks more incredible the further into it one gets, some of the textures, especially in the early chapters, are muddy and basic, riddled with pop-in. Each new game session also seems to require an awfully long load time, though loading thereafter is considerably short. Animation is astounding, and effects such as water and flame are fantastic, but the weirdly amateur textures that open the game leave a bad first impression that only evaporates with time.
The quality of the audio, however, is without question. The music is haunting in its delicacy, a soundtrack that never imposes, but perfectly compliments each scene. The voice acting is even better and, coupled with the superb animation, leads to a cast of convictive characters, impeccably performed. Once again, subtlety must be brought up. These are not characters designed to chew scenery or spout liners, and their actors reflect that. Small gestures, slight nods of the head, whispers tinged with sadness, and murmurs bubbling with implied threat, this is the kind of thing that should be meant when pundits spout on about games being "cinematic" as opposed to explosions and special effects. Real acting. Genuine and credible.
There is more to The Last of Us than just combat and "emotional" story tropes. To touch on its setpiece moments, to detail its beautiful changes in pace, would be to spoil too much. It cannot be said enough, however, that Naughty Dog's new best creation is complete, and when I say complete, I mean it to pay the highest of compliments. I do not want more from The Last of Us: I do not need more. As the last line was uttered and the credits ushered in the close, I was done. The Last of Us had achieved everything it needed to achieve in order to provide me with everything I wanted.
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