Naughty Dog has carved out a nice place for themselves in the grand scheme of gaming. Their titles always set the bar for cinematic storytelling in whatever facet they dip into. The Last of Us continues that trend by taking the dramatic, post-apocalyptic scenario and focusing on the relationships between characters. The human element of survival and how people react and treat each other in this type of world is really what draws players in. The Last of Us may have zombie-like enemies, but this is not the typical zombie-style experience.
Referring to The Last of Us as a zombie game at all, is doing it a disservice. Yes, there are infected people impeding player’s progress, but this isn’t just another shooting gallery. Instead the core mechanics consist of a healthy amount of stealth, and plenty of tactical thinking. Each situation I got myself into required me to sit back and figure out how to handle it. Did I want to risk encountering the enemies to raid for more supplies, or save my ammunition (and health) for the next encounter? Weighing these decisions is an integral part of the experience, and one that sells the tension.
Last of Us follows the story of Joel and Ellie as they trek across the United States. Joel’s one goal from the outset is to deliver Ellie to a group known as the Fireflies, but it becomes so much more over time. Joel is older, grizzled and carries a heavy past. He has seen the world before the infection, and keeps all of his feelings locked up. Watching him open up over the course of the game is one of the best progressions in recent memory. Ellie is a 14-year old girl who only knows the world as it currently exists, and the dialogue between the two is absolutely phenomenal.
This is the heart of what makes Last of Us so enthralling. I genuinely cared for nearly every character over the course of the lengthy campaign. There was never a moment where I wasn’t concerned with the events that were taking place, and the pacing is non-stop. The voice acting is also top-tier. Troy Baker delivers an outstanding performance as Joel, further enforcing his excellence in voice acting, while Ashley Johnson also shines as Ellie. The rest of the cast is equally impressive, not to mention Naughty Dog’s amazing engine brings them all to life, with uncanny facial expressions and emotion.
What makes all of this work though is how Naughty Dog sells the experience with the details. This is something that I noticed throughout the game. Finding comics (which are also collectibles) always prompts Joel to tell Ellie about them. Discussions about what ice cream trucks were, and explaining life before all of this happened is both relevant to me as a player, and interesting to expand on the world around the characters. Subtleties go a long way in selling the immersion, and the experience becomes less about the destination, and more about the journey. The campaign took me just under 15 hours to complete, but I was ready for more as soon as it ended.
As a game Last of Us feels like a mixture between stealth action and survival. Joel has standard cover and shooting mechanics, of which the latter can take a little adjustment. I recommend using the lock on if frustration sets in early. Naughty Dog has given players plenty of options to play how they want. I loved that I could turn off prompts for places to search, as well as the aforementioned lock on. Playing on harder difficulties without these aids is truly a unique experience, as well as a challenging one.
Survival plays a huge role, and scouring the environment almost becomes a meta game. I never grew tired of it like I did in Bioshock Infinite earlier this year, and discovering specific items always brought excitement. The sheer lack of supplies really keeps the scavenging aspect interesting and fun. Joel will find ammo, parts and upgrade points around the environments, as well as collectibles. The upgrade system works on points, allowing players to increase health, reload and crafting speed as well as steadying Joel’s aim.
Crafting is a major part of Last of Us. Everything happens in real time, from healing to creation, meaning the game doesn’t pause when Joel needs to do something. This is by design, and creates great tension. There is nothing better than trying to heal while a group of mercenaries have Joel pinned down. Crafting items requires various supplies such as water, scissors and nails. I could create new items when I discovered old blueprints, or someone showed me how to do it. It all feels organic, and the range of items cover the bases of an action game.
Weapons also play a large role, although on higher difficulties, ammo is always an issue. Weapons can be upgraded using parts collected, and include things like clip capacity, more holsters to allow quicker weapon swapping and of course scopes and range. As I mentioned earlier, the shooting mechanics can be a little fickle at times, but turning on the lock-on feature does wonders in that department.
Deciding whether to engage or avoid is always the dilemma in Last of Us. Wasting ammo on a group of infected may garner great rewards, but it also may cost more than it’s worth. These are the decisions I had to make constantly, and part of what makes the experience so great.
The campaign was enough for me, but Naughty Dog has also tossed in an online mode that feels more refined than I could have anticipated. Anyone who played Uncharted knows that this team is not about simply tossing in a generic deathmatch to add a bullet point on the box, and Last of Us is no different. The multiplayer mode, Factions, is broken down into two game types called Supply Raid and Survivors. Survivors is a four on four match type where death is, of course, permanent. It actually resembles the single player game, but with human opponents instead of AI. It kept me on the edge of my seat with each match, as one mistake usually leads to death.
Supply Raid is similar with a few twists. For example, I could craft items in this mode, as well as respawn. Each side of the battle also has a set number of lives, much like resources in a Battlefield game. This makes death less permanent, but it also drives players to keep their count low for the team. What I like about the online overall though is the metagame of personalizing your character, and building up your band of survivors. It is a small touch, but one that kept me coming back for more and more.
Visually the game is stunning. After spending so much time lately looking at next-generation titles and high-end PC ports, Naughty Dog’s latest really sticks out. The weather effects are amazing, the world is interesting and the sheer design had me wanting to go into every shop and house just to look around. Nothing is recycled, and I constantly saw remnants of the world that used to exist. When developers take the time to craft such an interesting world, I love stopping to soak it all in.
Audio is equally impressive, with a familiar guitar-pluck theme that becomes synonymous with the game. As I mentioned voice acting is also amazing with stellar performances from nearly everyone I came into contact with. Mix it all in with unforgettable effects (I will never forget what a Clicker sounds like) and you have an amazing package that simply soars on all levels of presentation. If I had to knock it for one thing, it would be the extremely long initial loading screen when I first boot up the game.
The Last of Us is a testament to game design. Naughty Dog continues to perfect their craft at immersive storytelling, while still delivering one amazing game to play. The surprise online mode definitely adds value to the package, but even solo players should not hesitate. This is one of the best games on PS3, and easily one of the best games to come out this year. Everyone with the means should definitely give this title a whirl. The experience will stick with you for months, or perhaps years to come.
Review copy of game provided by publisher.