The Last of Us is a harrowing journey through the core of the nature of humanity. What would you do, how would you react when constantly facing bad decision after bad decision. In the The Last of Us, Sony owned studio Naughty Dog explores what happens when society, civilization and everything that is a routine in protagonist Joel’s normal day-to-day life collapses. The game takes place 20 years after a cordyceps type fungus decimates most of the planets population. The “Infected”, as they are affectionately known as, become infected via the usual zombie type cliches – bites, scratches or inhaling the spores from a deceased infected that literally sprout huge tentacles of fungus (which is the last stage of infection: procreation). Joel lives in one of the last bastions of what you could barely describe as civilization, the Boston Quarantine Zone. The Military have in effect created martial law and execute anyone who they deem a potential threat on sight. Simply put, it’s not much of a life. I won’t reveal any spoilers from the game, because TLoU truly must be experienced on it’s own terms. I will say that much like Bioshock Infinite, the true meaning behind the game’s title won’t really become apparent until the very end of the single player campaign.
From the beginning to the end of your journey, the game commands your attention emotionally, physically and yes… maybe even a little bit spiritually. It’s a rare achievement when a game finds balance between story telling, cinematics, voice acting (which is absolutely EXCEPTIONAL here) visuals and gameplay so seamlessly. All the subtle nuances of the characters in the game help bring them to life so that you feel emotionally invested with every character you develop a relationship with it’s difficult to watch what happens to these people. I literally found myself yelling in agony as one of the game’s cinematics played out, leaving me to just sit there helplessly and watch as one of the supporting characters makes a fatal decision and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. There are few games that leave me without words and my mouth agape, but TLoU did it. On several occasions.
As previously stated, you play as Joel, a early 50-something male that has pretty much lost everything and has condemned himself to survival mode, isolating himself from anything or anyone that would even bring about any emotion. Joel basically lives day-to-day, smuggling black market goods in and out of the Quarantine Zone with his partner in crime Tess, a gun-ho female that like Joel, has acquiesced to survival mode. However, while Joel is content to just do whatever to get by for another day, Tess has more ambition, actively pursuing arms deals, ration card trades and acquiring drugs to give her life some kind dysfunctional purpose. Whether Tess and Joel are intimately involved is really left to player interpretation, however it seems that they are partners in crime and all also partners in life, not so much that they love each other, but because they are together so much it seems that any intimacy is just more out of convenience. It’s during one of Tess and Joel’s smuggling runs which goes awry that they come into contact with another character named Marlene. For the purpose of this review, it’s not really important how their paths intersect but because of this arbitrary meeting it sets off a chain of events that involve Joel and Tess to smuggle 14 year-old Ellie out of the Quarantine Zone to a secretive militia group known as the Fireflies. Joel and Tess reluctantly accept the mission, and this is where the meat of the game begins.
Gradually, as you make your way through city to city, the game allows you to freely roam around different parts of the towns. It’s as close to an open-world survival horror game as you’ll get, just with a linear path to the game’s conclusion. It’s the little conversations that are prompted by wandering into record stores, diners and bookstores by Joel and Ellie that make her so much more than just another videogame NPC. She was born after the outbreak of cordyceps and has no knowledge of how life existed before. At one point in the game, she literally believes that everyone in the world owned boats. It’s these extra conversations with Ellie that really make you believe her character knows nothing of the world before, and she postulates so many questions to Joel that he gradually becomes her walking encyclopedia. These little moments don’t just happen on their own, TLoU needs to be explored so that Ellie herself can explore the world she never knew and in turn, initiate the discussions with Joel about the world she never knew. It’s through this gameplay mechanic where the player controls the flow interactively, without disruption that helps set apart TLoU from other games of similar genre. These moments between Ellie and Joel help to add levity in otherwise perpetually dire and terrifying situations. You will face life and death scenario’s at nearly ever turn in the game, whether it be via the infected or even more scary, other survivalists themselves. Hunters, bandits, cannibals…. TLoU doesn’t shy away from the most horrific post-apocalyptic scenarios. Other human enemies in the game are especially crafty, if you kill one of the hunters in a group of hunters and their comrades come along and find the body they will alert the rest of the gang and before you know it you’re know dealing with 3 or 4 more human opponents who will try and smoke you out, flank you or just bash your face in with a lead pipe.
The human enemy AI is aggressive and cunning, but Joel is somewhat of a proto-McGuyver, able to craft shivs, molotiv cocktails and bombs. The game does not hand-hold you through combat. Instead you need to use a combination of stealth, run and gun, and out maneuvering your opponents so confrontations don’t consistently occur. You can enter a “stealth mode” which allows you to crouch down, put your ears up to a wall and listen for lingering threats or targets on the move. This is extremely helpful when you want to avoid a firefight and gives you the ability to stealth kill your targets if you can sneak up on them without making them aware of your presence. Ammunition is a prime commodity in the post-pandemic world of TLoU, as is resources such as rags, duct tape, scissors, explosives and alcohol. All the aforementioned items can be strategically used to craft weapons, healthkits, smoke bombs etc. The crafting system is integrated in real-time, so you need to find a safe spot before you start preparing a bomb or bandaging yourself up with a healthkit. Crafting is implemented intuitively and can be triggered with a simple press of the select button. Resources are scarce, so deciding which items to craft for what threat and when to take flight or when to fight will make for tough decisions throughout your venture. For instance, you may only have 12 rounds left in your revolver and be surrounded by hunters. If you can stealth maneuver past them without confrontation those bullets may be much more needed during an engagement with the several variants of infected, who unlike your human enemies, have no regard for their own life and will charge at you in numbers making each encounter ferociously tense.
Thankfully, Ellie is a tough cookie and depending on the scenario, will throw bricks or bottles at your human opponents to distract them while they are trying to crack your skull open so you can gain the upper hand. She’s also a good shot with a gun and if your human opponents hear your gunshots, the rest of the hunters will be alerted to your presence. Ellie will join right in the firefight to assist Joel, and even though at first he’s disturbed by her willingness to help, he eventually relinquishes a weapon to the foul-mouthed teen (some of Ellie’s funniest lines involve habitual swearing). When encountering the infected however, Ellie will typically take a wait-and-see approach depending on how you act. If you try to use your stealth to sneak past them and are sniffed out, she’ll typically help you in combat. Ellie is not immune though, like Joel if she gets over run by baddies a health indicator will appear above her giving you about a 60-second window to take down any enemies that Ellie is struggling with and if your to preoccupied with your own battle and can’t assist her before the clock is up, it’s game over. And before you start writhing with claims of “Oh great, just one giant escort game” these situations are few and far between. For a 14 year old girl, Ellie can kick some serious fucking ass, simply put. The most deadly of the infected are without a doubt known as Clickers, infected humans that have sprouted fungus from the face and use echolocation to find potential prey (meaning the see by sound, not sight). These guys (or gals; whatever they used to be) should be approached with extreme caution, as if you get close enough in stealth mode they will still sense your presence and chomp into your jugular for a one-hit kill. This makes any encounter with a Clicker a tense and deadly proposition. You can pick up bottles or bricks and toss them at a designated position using Joel’s arc-throw as a quick distraction to draw them away from you, and if your crafty enough with a shiv you can sneak up on them and stealth kill them from behind but you never know if they’re going to discover you at the last second or not.
As you progress through the game, you can collect pills/tablets/Flintstones chewable vitamins or whatever to increase your maximum level of health, how fast you can craft items, how durable your shivs can become, the distance that you can see and hear targets in stealth mode etc. Their are also tool benches scattered throughout various parts of the game, allowing you to upgrade your weapons. Each weapon can be upgraded as long as you have enough parts, items that are collected in all different areas of a particular level. You have your standard fare arsenal, beginning with a 9mm handgun, a revolver, a hunting rifle, a bow and arrow, shotguns etc. Each weapon has their pros and cons, the revolver is good for taking out infected when being overrun because it has a decent clip capacity, and the bow and arrow is great because it’s silent and you can stealth kill enemies from a distance without bringing a crowd of baddies down on you. The game is also brutally violent, but in the context of the narrative and story it’s not gratuitous or out of place. You can literally bludgeon the shit out of your human opponents until they plead for their lives then unload a shotgun in their face (if you take pity on them they will only call for help or try to get back up and attack you, so you’re typically left with little choice).
I can’t assess this game without mentioning how visually stunning the world in which Joel and Ellie trek through. Naughty Dog has shown how astute they are with the PS3’s Cell processor, and it clearly shows in TLoU graphical fidelity. The environments, where brick and concrete structures once occupied by man have been reclaimed by nature, blend in perfectly with the overall aesthetic theme of the game. The Last of Us is drop dead gorgeous. With games like this, I think I can wait for next-gen a little longer. That being said, their are minor graphical glitches that rear their ugly head every now and then. There is some noticeable pop-in, especially in areas that are heavily detailed. Also, there were some clipping issues that caused my character to die. For instance, jumping down from a ledge and landing on an odd shaped pile of debris often resulted in my character getting stuck and the game didn’t know what to do, so my character unfairly perished. These instances were extremely rare occurrences (It probably happened no more then 3 times during my entire play thru) but extremely annoying nonetheless. Overall, these minor glitches didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of TLoU and will most likely be patched.
The single player campaign would’ve been enough to satisfy most of the gamers who were anticipating this release. But Naughty Dog included multiplayer with TLoU, and I have to say with a resounding YES that not only is it a great addition to the game and adds ton of replay value, but it’s also incredibly well designed, addictive and just a lot of fun. There’s more to be found in the online portion then just your standard deathmatch. You start off choosing a faction, Hunters or the militia group Fireflies. From there, the game puts you in a 12 week episode of growing your population, keeping people healthy and performing training exercises to attract more clan members. This is all accomplished by fighting along side other hunter or firefly (depending on who you choose at the onset) players in a 4 vs 4 match up. You keep your clan healthy by killing members of the opposing team and scavenging food, parts, ammo etc off the bodies of your deceased opponents. The bigger your clan population is, the more parts required each match to ensure everyone stays healthy. Failing to do so results in hungry or sick clan members. Eventually as your clan grows, you will come under attack from the opposing faction or face numerous challenges such as hostage rescues, malaria outbreaks etc. The only way to maintain the welfare of your clan population or to repel the attacks is to improve the clans various skills and combat training.
When faced with a faction attack, malaria outbreak or hostage rescue the game gives you a vast selection of choices to improve your training during the online matches. You can select from downed enemies, executions, revives, crafting, headshots, etc. After you choose your training exercise, you have 3 matches to account for the appropriate amount of exercises required for whatever training mission you have accepted. If you fail to meet the quota, then you risk losing clan members; exceed the quota and you gain new members and unlock more firearms and special skills that can be used during your online matches. Depending on how many weeks you have sustained, if you fail a particular training mission during the latter weeks you risk losing anywhere from 60 to 100% of your clan population, resulting in rebuilding your clan from scratch. If you succeed during the later weeks, your clan can grow exponentially and the rewards as aforementioned, can be plentiful, ie: more weapons, new abilities (such as faster revivals, reduced weapon sway, extended stealth mode, new item crafting etc.) and custom outfits to personalize your avatar. So far, I have only managed to reach a clan population of 60, but there are people who have 100’s in their clan. The online community for TLoU, as of this writing, is thriving. Last time I checked the leaderboards, there were over 800,000 different players. Needless to say, the multiplayer in TLoU is not just another featured bullet point on the back of the box, but an actual great companion piece to an already awesome game.
The Last of Us excels in every way that a new IP should. It tells a story of a hardened survivor paired with his polar opposite and together, they must journey across the wasteland that is now North America. Ellie is the real star of this game, she’s wise, she’s resourceful, she’s outgoing and man can she hold her own against ravenous hunters and bandits. The adventure between Joel and Ellie is not about fighting the infected. No, this is a beautifully crafted story of a man who has lost everything, trying to regain some sense of humanity and a young girl who has had everyone close to her leave or die, with nobody to unconditionally love her. What starts out as a smuggling run that neither character wants to be a party to, the duo eventually realize how much they come to care for one another after the horrific events that they face during their cross-country expedition. The Last of Us will leave you morally conflicted, a little heartbroken (unless you have a void where your heart is) and even manages to tell a few jokes along the way. The multiplayer addition to the game just makes it all the more worth it. If you own a PS3, you owe it to yourself to purchase The Last of Us.