The Last of Us reminds me a bit of Capcom’s Resident Evil 4, internally as well as externally in the gaming universe. Both were released around the end of their initial console’s lifecycle, both were AAA high-profile titles with third-person shooting mechanics, both were graphical marvels at the time of release, both starred a combat-experienced man escorting a younger girl, both featured not-quite-zombies with horror elements, and both were critically praised across the board. What separates Naughty Dog’s product from Capcom’s 2005 masterpiece is the identity of a brand new intellectual property as well as a serious effort to avoid almost all notions of gaming campiness, lending to the idea that perhaps the medium is about ready to embrace such an endeavor.
Videogame silliness, including subtle camp which I often take for granted, has long been an integral part of how the medium retains appeal and fun even amidst the efforts of more grounded factors meant to draw emotional responses. Naughty Dog’s previous efforts on the Playstation 3, the Uncharted games, were prime examples of over-the-top circumstances surrounding well-acted, likeable characters. As Nathan Drake embarked on three wild treasure hunts aboard the PS3, the hundreds of human enemies he blew away could easily have been written off by conditioned action game veterans as expected, everyday obstacles fulfilling the need for consistent interactivity. Depending on one’s perspective of Uncharted’s realistic-but-exaggerated world, Nathan Drake would come off as either a charming adventurer or an insensitive maniac.
The Last of Us takes the impressive technical aptitude, cutscene direction, and acting standards of the Uncharted games and converts them into a valiant digital drama of a much more believable nature. The tone is set with a dark prologue that introduces protagonist Joel and his daughter, Sarah, to the fungal outbreak that would soon take over civilization. This highly scripted sequence has players controlling the latter character initially, and after completing the game I can thematically see why this choice was made. However, the switch from controlling Sarah to controlling Joel feels a bit too sudden, especially in the middle of an altogether brief 15-minute portion of the game. I can safely guess why the developers had Joel carrying Sarah through a desperate scene, but a simple car crash may come off as an insignificant or jarring excuse for a character transition, at least for first-time players. Nevertheless, the overall conclusion of the chaotic scene hits about as emotionally as I could hope an apocalyptic prologue to do.
The aforementioned scene stands out because The Last of Us eventually becomes a surprisingly lengthy game that takes place across a post-apocalyptic United States, yet all within the span of approximately one year. Joel is twenty years older in this era, residing in Boston, and works as a smuggler experienced in dirty work. After a few rocky operations, he is given the objective of smuggling a teenage girl to a rebel base outside of the quarantine zone, but a few twists expand his mission into an expedition of larger consequences. The story’s main hook sidesteps the nearly-tired zombie trappings in favor of establishing a chemistry between Joel and his new teen companion, Ellie. It never got to the point for me where Ellie usurps Joel as the most significant protagonist, but The Last of Us certainly accomplishes the task of developing the pair’s delicate compatibility and its budding implications for their actions.
While the plot may or may not contain several familiar tropes depending on one’s experiences with post-apocalyptic tales, it is difficult to deny the expertise in which Naughty Dog conducts their particular spin. Neil Druckmann proves to be an excellent creative director for this type of game, and his writing consists of impactful dialogue even amidst a setting that naturally retreads old ground. Special honors should go to the actors and animators, as their efforts do a remarkable job producing characters that emote telling expressions and natural voice performances. In my experience, there wasn’t any “uncanny valley” feeling in the cutscenes, which is a huge plus for the identification factor. In fact, I’d say the acting in The Last of Us can occasionally reach heights comparable to great modern cinema, and not just impressive by videogame standards.
Perhaps surprisingly, The Last of Us plays great by videogame standards as well. It’s a healthy mix of Stealth, Survival-horror, and Third-person Shooter, arguably in that order of significance. This combination has me leaning toward labeling it as an Action-Adventure, even though I’m sure that subgenre has already been attached to death amongst an endless variety of games. Regardless of which element seems more dominant at any given time, the main theme pervading the gameplay sequences is “survival.” The limited amount of resources (akin to series like Resident Evil and Silent Hill) encourages efficient stealth kills, which are typically as rewarding as each particular level design causes them to be. Yet it also makes the shooting aspect relatively intense, since it consequentially lends the combat sequences (or failed stealth instances) a feeling of “every shot counts.” It’s quite remarkable how these tried-and-true subgenres have been fine-tuned to complement each other in a fairly balanced manner, resulting in a gritty, uninviting world that somehow manages to feel fun to conquer.
Playing the game on Hard mode net me an occasionally challenging, but thankfully fair gameplay experience that had me collecting just enough resources to survive even throughout the approximately 15-hour main campaign. Resources would include temporary smoke bombs for stunning enemies to permanent gear like guns. Personally, I found the frequent appearance of bottles and bricks to be a bit too overpowering within the realm of stealth. When not holding the “aim” button, they auto-target an enemy’s head and can lead to an overly easy strangle or stabbing kill, depending on Joel’s position. While they’re definitely satisfying the first few times, I would’ve liked to see a bit more variance within Joel’s use of environmental projectiles. The world is constantly presented as filled with junk, but it seems underwhelming to only pick up a limited list of items. There are subtle statistical differences between bricks and bottles too (melee durability, noise), so I believe there could’ve been an opportunity to create at least a half-dozen more variations of these one-time projectiles, including small aesthetic differences.
Other items are a bit rarer to come by, as the player will have to make them on their own through the game’s great crafting system. While it may not be the deepest alchemy pot in the world, Joel’s method is never complex, creates the essential health kits, and can build five different offensive weapons for multiple ranges. Since ingredients are limited, players are forced to make a choice every time they want to build one thing and not the others. Blade, binding, rag, alcohol, explosive, sugar, and melee weapon certainly aren’t the only materials Naughty Dog could’ve thought of for survival, but I’m thankful they kept it simple to ensure the real-time crafting is smooth for most players (even during a harsh fight or sneak). Right beside the crafting menu is an upgradeable skills menu, though it never caught on for me as anything engaging. If anything, it looks out of place, since the feeling of collecting medical supplements to permanently increase Joel’s stats seems at odds with the survival limits that The Last of Us focuses on. Rather than the common encouragement of “make yourself powerful,” this game is at its best when it demands players to simply “keep yourself viable.”
With this slight uphill mentality, players are encouraged to lean toward stealthy takedowns or quiet avoidance. Being a third-person POV game, The Last of Us allows its players to peak around corners even with Joel in no position to see what the camera sees. It’s naturally at odds with the otherwise grounded world of underpowered survival, but the game takes things a step further with “Listen Mode.” This ability allows Joel to strangely hear enemies through walls by seemingly concentrating harder. While I appreciate the general feature, as videogames can’t truly capture all of human hearing, I think the silhouetted enemies provide a bit too much detail and make Joel into some kind of superhuman at listening/seeing. Luckily, there is an option to turn off the ability, though like Batman: Arkham Asylum’s detective mode, it may create a conundrum involving forced trial-and-error portions of levels (especially in dim areas).
The levels themselves are diverse enough to carry the stealth and shooting gameplay without getting too repetitive, since there aren’t many enemy types to mix things up on their own. I don’t consider this a flaw since shoehorning arbitrary enemy types into The Last of Us would be out of character, but at least the differences that the Infected bring to the table are distinct enough to instantly change the player’s mood. Human hunters act more cautious, take cover frequently, use weapons, and occasionally rear some disappointing A.I. flaws. Fortunately, the Infected introduce a bit of horror to the game’s enemy encounters, and even come in four stages of corruption. The main types consist of Runners, which resemble aggressive zombies (but a cut above Resident Evil 4’s foes), and Clickers, which blindly scramble around yet possess enough strength to kill Joel in one grab. The latter are by far the most memorable thanks to their unique design, even if their apparent use of echolocation often just equates to “very sensitive hearing.”
Despite possessing some of the finest graphics of its generation, The Last of Us periodically displays some minor blemishes that harm the immersion it works so hard to accomplish. Texture and/or environmental pop-in is rare, but its frequent appearance in a particular horseback sequence brings the draw distance limitations to light. Gameplay shortcomings not only include A.I. stupidity on the part of the enemies, but also instances where Joel’s companions (sometimes loudly) walk into plain sight during stealth sequences, yet remain unseen. Attempting a nearly full-game escort mission is likely difficult enough for programmers, but trying to make it all work within complex hide-and-seek mechanics is probably too ambitious to flawlessly execute with the levels Naughty Dog had built. An inexcusable, non-technical sour point, however, occurs during the scene when Ellie is scripted to back Joel with a sniper shot, but doesn’t fire until Joel gets caught at least once. When I try to be efficient as possible yet can’t advance until I engage in open combat, it damages the game’s balance of realism and cinematic storytelling. While these tricks and imperfections are present in other videogames, they become highlighted especially in The Last of Us, where suspension of disbelief is typically less necessary.
Finally, there’s the optional DLC adventure Left Behind, available for a medium-sized fee on PSN or as part of the Remastered package on PS4. This single-player story follows Ellie in both past and present, switching between prequel and an untold chapter preceding the Winter season (which is arguably the best section of the main game). The past portions lack much action, but understandably dedicate time to fleshing out Ellie’s relationship with her friend Riley via an abandoned mall run. It turns out to be a prime setting for showing off the girls’ playfulness, and wonderfully contrasts with the struggling Ellie in the present. The present portions have players controlling Ellie through a parallel mall, where the tone is much more dire and combat is forced on her. In fact, combat in general may seem somewhat forced in this DLC, and it gets tough to imagine someone like Ellie having the strength/luck to take out as many foes as she singlehandedly does. Fortunately, players do get treated to the intriguing possibilities of fighting hunters and the Infected simultaneously (a missed opportunity in the primary campaign), adding to the open-ended approaches of an otherwise linear game.
The Last of Us, for me, represents a transition in the status of AAA gaming’s ability to deliver on goals of seriousness. If Uncharted was Naughty Dog’s Indiana Jones trilogy, then this is their Saving Private Ryan in more ways than one. The PS3 swan song utilizes the team’s refined pacing, acting, visual artistry, and writing to demonstrate how to properly funnel last generation’s defining attributes into a meaningful product. While their title isn’t flawless, it achieves a somber, emotional tone for the vast majority of its narrative, and handles its post-apocalyptic subject matter with an earnest proficiency that many other studios don’t manage to reach. Like what Resident Evil 4 accomplished years ago, The Last of Us pushes the boundaries of its debut console in seamless, detailed, brutal, and memorable ways that set a significantly higher standard for zombie Action-Adventure videogames. Yet on its own, Joel and Ellie’s engrossing trek through the obstacles of a ravaged America shows that weighty cinematic cutscenes and balanced, intense mechanics still work very well together under tight direction and a relatively uncompromising thematic vision.