A new take on a familiar theme.
Much like the walking dead themselves, zombies as a game or movie plot is a trend that just doesn’t want to die. The “been there, done that” feeling that the idea can evoke doesn’t stand in the way of success though, as Telltale’s incredible The Walking Dead (at least season 1) recently proved. The Last of Us is another such success, as it similarly shifts the focus from the undead themselves to the people trying to survive in the world. It’s a game personified by its characters that just happens to look and sound terrific. Throw in the Left Behind DLC and a reduced price tag and it’s a no-brainer for anyone who hasn’t played it yet.
It should be noted that The Last of Us doesn’t characterize itself as a zombie game – the enemies in question here are infected by a virus. They still attack and attempt to eat people though, so it feels like one regardless of what they call it. Anyways, rather than taking place right in the middle of the zombie apocalypse, The Last of Us is set 20 years after the initial viral outbreak. It’s a world where government quarantine zones have been attempted and failed, and survivors have organized into societies and settled into the new normal. Factions compete for limited resources and weapons, and the living can be just as dangerous as the dead.
Multiplayer: Team-based competitive
Length: 15-20 hours for the main story and DLC
The majority of the game is spent playing as Joel, a gruff, no-nonsense, “lost someone special and never going to get too close to anyone again” type, as he attempts to transport a young girl, Ellie, to one of the factions. Joel’s character is a little cliché, but thanks to good writing and some excellent voice work it’s easy to overlook. The star here though is Ellie, who manages to strike a balance between being a kid who has had to grow up fast in a dangerous and frightening world and being, well, a kid. It’s not an easy character to write for, but she feels authentic and genuine throughout.
Mechanically the game plays like a stealth-based version of Naughty Dog’s Uncharted Series. Joel has an assortment of guns and special items like Molotov cocktails, but probably the most useful item is a bottle or brick, which can be thrown to attract the attention of the infected so he can sneak past. The aiming and shooting is slow and unwieldy at the beginning of the game, but after some upgrades feels much better. It never feels great though, so stealth was always my first and best option.
The game design choices echo that, and put an emphasis on planning. Everything Joel does, from swapping weapons to crafting supplies, is done in real time. That meant I had immediate access to the weapons I was using, but getting something else meant waiting while he set down his backpack and found the new one. The lack of a pause menu in which to do things made me take advantage of quiet opportunities to stock up or heal, so I would be ready for the next encounter.
While those choices fit the overall theme of combat being the last alternative, they become a sticking point in the sections of the game where combat is the only option. There are certain choke points where I had to kill all of the attackers to move on, and in those fast paced sections slow fire rates and weapon switching delays were problematic, especially since some enemies are capable of one hit kills. Often the solution was memorizing the pattern of incoming enemies, so after a few deaths I had an advantage. That’s a bad solution though, and the forced combat sections were definitely a weak link.
The game looks fantastic, and runs smooth as silk on Sony’s new platform. Naughty Dog did some amazing things on the PS3, and if this is an early representation of what their work on the PS4 will be like then we are in good hands. There are occasional elements that show the game’s last generation roots like some bland water tech, but those are few and far between and easily forgotten.
The sound design is another standout. I already mentioned the excellent voice work for the main characters, but the enemy and ambient sound is also top notch. The advanced form of infected are Clickers, who use sonar to hunt their prey. Crouching and hiding my way through a dark warehouse lit only by my flashlight, hearing the clicks and screeches of enemies on the prowl was really horrifying. The Last of Us sets its tone without resorting to cheap jump scares, and the audio carries a lot of that load.
The game features the Factions multiplayer mode, which includes some plot oriented game types with the twist that I had to choose a faction up front, and that choice carried through all of my multiplayer sessions. The idea is that players choose up sides, and then fight for their side until they are either completely victorious or wiped out. The multiplayer was fun, and I could use points earned for creating custom load outs or buying one-time boosters. It’s a little daunting to get into though – the game just dropped me into a menu with a lot of choices I didn’t understand, and it took me a bit to figure out how to actually play something.
Aside from the graphical upgrade the main difference in the remastered version is the inclusion of the Left Behind DLC. Focusing on Ellie, it gives both background on her life before her journey with Joel and fills in some blanks during a section of that journey. While there is some combat it’s expository in nature, and helps to put some things in context. It’s definitely a good addition, especially for as much as I enjoyed Ellie’s character.
While the setting for The Last of Us is not unique, the game differentiates in enough ways that it feels mostly like new territory. Rather than gunning my way through hordes of the undead I was doing my best to survive amongst both the infected and the remaining humans, and aside from the instances where the game would abandon that focus and push me into combat it felt really good. More than once I looked at the clock only to realize I had been playing for several hours without realizing it, and that’s a pretty strong endorsement. Players who missed this on the PS3 will find a lot to like here, but for those who have already completed it I doubt the graphical upgrade is worth another play through.
Review copy of game provided by publisher.