The Last of Us

by

Story/Gameplay

The world as we know it has ended. Not through war, famine, or at the hands of alien invaders, but through the miracle of mother nature. The cordyceps fungus, generally associated with the infection of a small percentage of insects, has evolved to plague the human population. It has the ability to attack the host and affect behavior in the most violent of ways. In what appears to be a very short amount of time the first few cases of infection quickly transform into epidemic proportions, placing the entire human race in a struggle for existence. Governments fail, technology disappears, and civilization is replaced with the most basic, and primitive,  survival instinct. Welcome to the new world. Welcome to The Last of Us.

Twenty years after the first outbreak – and after the most emotionally charged videogame prologue I have ever experienced – what remains of society labors to adapt to the new way of life. Food and supplies are rationed and monitored, living conditions in what remain of the burnt-out cities are nightmarish, and the will to live another day is an hourly struggle. The events of the past have beaten down even the most resilient of  survivors; including Joel, the main protagonist and playable character of The Last of Us.

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Like so many others that surround him, Joel has had a difficult life. He’s lost friends, family, and loved ones, yet he continues to fight for survival at a time when life may be more of a curse than a blessing. He has endured – through brute force, cunning instincts, and common sense. He distances himself from becoming attached to anyone, but is thrown into a situation where emotional bonds and paternal instincts get the better of him and hope, an abandoned term, rears its ugly head.

Joel’s tale involves Ellie, the young, rebellious, teenage girl he is charged to protect and escort from the relative safety of the “free” zone, and through the decimated cities and suburbs, on a journey that campfire stories are made of. Along the way they encounter past acquaintances, marauding groups of deranged survivalists, military-like police forces, and a variety of terrifying infected. Fighting your way through or avoiding encounters altogether, it is an adventure that I liken to Cormac McCarthy‘s 2006 post-apocalyptic novel, The Road.

The writing, incredible set pieces, interesting characters, and superb dialogue is the culmination of Naughty Dog‘s talent with this generation of gaming consoles. It is finely crafted, superbly detailed, and engaging; and it has elevated the videogame medium to new heights as an interactive form of entertainment. There is no denying the love and passion the developers infused into this game with every chapter, encounter, and scene.

However, as strong as the storytelling of The Last of Us is, the gameplay tends to suffer from an identity crisis.

On the one hand, the game is incredibly tense, filled with life-or-death decisions to engage or avoid confrontation through stealth and sneaking. The idea of survival, and in many cases survival horror, are at the forefront of the game.  Resources can be extremely limited, the infected – a variety of quick moving runners, shambling stalkers, and deadly clickers – will quicken your pulse with every encounter, and you’ll need to plan your next move or suffer disastrous consequences. It’s the type of gameplay I enjoy the most. It can be terrifying in one moment and exhilaratingly beautiful the next. You may have choices, but the available options are limited. You need to think on your feet, and on the move.

On the other hand, The Last of Us is a straight up 3rd person shooter that places restrictions on your ability to fight back, hold your own, and successfully defeat the more human element (i.e. non-infected). The enemy AI is brutal, fearless, and constantly on the move. They will come at you from all sides, take cover when needed, and generally have a greater variety (and supply) of weapons than you will ever see. It can feel somewhat unbalanced at times and generally frustrating when these combat situations end with the weapons (and majority of ammunition) of your adversaries vanishing into thin air. Getting your hands on the AK-47, pistol, or shotgun that was previously aimed in your direction is unlikely to happen.

I understand the intent Naughty Dog has taken with The Last of Us embracing a survival theme. For the most part it works, but situations described above often broke the experience for me. I was never looking to become an unstoppable killing machine, but when the game limits your survivalist scavenging to a convenient and predetermined set of resources I began to question its authenticity. I would also often scratch my head at the questionable (and quick) breakdown of melee weapons. Although a wood plank may snap after a few solid hits, I wouldn’t expect a lead pipe to do the same . . . anytime soon.

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Where I may have been conflicted about some of Naughty Dog’s scavenging decisions, they excelled at the attention to detail and level of realism they provided for the the crafting system. By completely eliminating the option to pause the game to consider your options, all crafting is done in real time. This promotes a heightened level of suspense and tense gameplay, as well as enforces a strict need to strategize and plan accordingly. Realizing that you need a health pack or Molotov cocktail to survive the latest wave of marauders or horde of infected will come back to haunt you.

Crafting takes time and consumes the resources you’ve been scavenging. Adding to the mix and complexity, some of the resources are used across multiple items. Alcohol and torn cloth scraps may provide you with a necessary Molotov, but they are also detrimental to the creation of health packs. Scissors and knives make for a quality shiv, but they are also the key ingredients to upgrading your melee weapon. It comes down to whatever your current situation may be during your playthrough of the campaign, but it requires you think through your decisions before acting impulsively.

Weapons may also be upgraded based on the number of tools you’ve located and the number of parts you’ve scavenged. Each weapon, although unique from one another, provide their own set of upgrades: rate of fire, ammo size, recoil, etc. Taking a page from the Dead Island franchise, weapon upgrades can only be managed when stumbling across a variety of workbenches. However, unlike Dead Island, these available workbenches are much more scattered and farther apart, forcing you to think through your options and make the decision that best fits your play style. Some may want to upgrade their shotgun as they enjoy jumping into combat head on. Others may invest their upgrades into the bow and arrow, preferring a more stealthy approach. The choice is yours.

Presentation

The opening moments of The Last of Us provide an immediate realization . . . this is hands down the most stunningly realistic and beautiful game I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing on the current generation of gaming consoles. Other games have come close – Uncharted 3 and Halo 4 come to mind – but The Last of Us has unbelievably raised the bar even further; to a point that may simply be out of reach for any of the remaining games yet to be released to the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, or Wii U.

Environmental variety is the name of this game. Equaling the sheer scale and scope of the story, The Last of Us takes you through the apocalyptic remains of our once-sprawling cities, small suburbs, dark and dank sewers, and sprawling forests. Thankfully, the incredible pacing of The Last of Us provide for periodic respites from the tense action that allow you to drink in this graphical powerhouse and reflect on the fact that although humanity may be at its end, mother nature has found a way to forge ahead. Once-crowded city streets have been overgrown with foliage, and wildlife is in abundance where previously thought to be forbidden. The earth has moved on, with or without its remaining human inhabitants.

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Just as impressive as the expansive vistas is the use of light and shadow. Several chapters of the game push Joel and his companions through city sewers, as well as  navigating during the evening hours. Providing your character with a flashlight (that periodically requires a shake of the Dualshock controller to keep working) a previously darkened corridor is lit up enough for you to see what may lay in wait around the next corner. Dust particles float across your line of sight with an airy subtlety, puddles reflect the light, and smoke filters the light as you would expect it would.

The use of sound also provides for an extremely high level of polish. I’m a bit of an audio snob, and The Last of Us met and exceeded all of my expectations. In particular, I wanted to highlight the incredible voice acting. Naughty Dog has been known for retaining the services of quality voice actors and The Last of Us is no exception. Joel and Ellie, as well as the variety of other characters you encounter along their journey, help to promote an already story-driven game. Whether through ordinary comments or intense situations of fear and survival, you can’t help but feel that you are living through the most realistic of gaming experiences. More importantly, the interactions between Joel and Ellie blossom and transform into one of the most beautiful “father/daughter” relationships I’ve seen in just about any form of entertainment medium. Without this level of incredible voice acting The Last of Us could have potentially destroyed the very foundation of the game and, as a result, fallen through through the cracks and into gaming banality.

Multiplayer

Multiplayer in The Last Of Us feels less like your run-of-the-mill player vs. player and more like an extension of the single-player experience. The slow-paced gameplay finds its way into all modes, making group cooperation essential to survival. This is especially evident in Factions, a mode that places you in the shoes of the leader of a small team of survivors. Perks and customization options unlock as your group expands, but so do the amount of supplies required to thrive. With your group on the line, random missions such as killing a certain number of foes with specific requirements net you much required rewards. Going beyond the call of violent death, extra incentive is also offered to those that heal or assist others.

LastOfUsMulti610While most of the single player mechanics are present, tweaks were made to accommodate the multiplayer aspects such as tighter gunplay. One of the nicer features is the ability to use your Facebook friends list to name your survivors, helping create a certain sense of realism as your group grows in size. Even the more generic team deathmatch style Supply Raid is tense and exciting, as it has you eliminate your enemies slew of survivors while avoiding the same fate yourself. Typical respawns and cover-shooting are present, but the silent and sneaky players are rewarded in the long run, as rushing will end your session as fast as it began.

Survivors on the other hand brings much speedier gameplay to The Last Of Us. Without respawns, killing offers a much more substantial advantage, helping your team in the best-out-of-7 match. With one mode a story-like experience of protecting a group of survivors that truly emphasizes the struggle presented by the single-player story, and the others quick, fun shootouts peppered with surprises, the multiplayer feels like an organic part of the game as opposed to an unnecessary addition. While occasionally the matchmaking can be odd or unfair, the entirety of the package is nearly flawless. Regardless of whether multiplayer appeals to you or not, The Last Of Us offers something different that demands to be experienced.

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