The Last of Us Review
Developers at Naughty Dog deliver yet another enticing PlayStation 3 exclusive and a promising new IP
The Last of Us is an action and adventure survival horror title from developers Naughty Dog, who were known for the Crash Bandicoot franchise (PS), Jak (PS2), and finally made their mark on PlayStation 3 with Uncharted. It’s with high interest, then, that most fans will be approaching one of their few brand new IPs in over 15 years. While many had hoped that The Last of Us will be a genre-defining experience purely because of the skill the developers showed with Uncharted 2, the new game doesn’t quite live up to those expectations. Instead it is a highly polished and atmospheric game that most any zombie and adventure fans can enjoy.
Following an emotionally charged and memorable opening sequence, which sees the first days of a virus outbreak on Earth, we meet the protagonist Joel. He is a hardened man who has survived for 20 years since the initial outbreak, now living in one of the safe but socially collapsed quarantine zones. He is a lone wolf, only trusting few of his life-long companions and not afraid to kill just for his own survival. Following a series of events, he comes in contact with a leader of the Firefly group, a rebel organization that operates outside the quarantined zones and is in armed conflict with the US military. That’s when we meet Ellie, a young girl who has always lived under the protection of the Fireflies and hasn’t ventured outside of the city. Joel is asked to take Ellie to a dropoff location to get rewarded with weapons and ammo; but things go south, and we find the heroes on a journey across the country to help Ellie reach her destination.
While the writing and characters are fleshed out and well acted, the plot in The Last of Us leaves something to be desired. With a dramatic focus on sacrifice and survival, events begin to unravel in a fairly predictable fashion. There is little here in the way of twists that you can’t see coming a mile away. The developers played it safe, and zombie genre fans will see plenty of familiar events. Probably the best part of the story is the relationship between the two leads, which evolves over time and becomes more heartfelt and personal, helping offset the often depressing mood of the game world. Not only that, both Ellie and Joel are great characters on their own and provide a unique perspective to every situation. It is just as enticing to see how Joel deals with his past as it is to learn more about Ellie and her personality. While action game narratives can be compared to those of movies, The Last of Us feels more like a TV show with distinct character arcs and standalone event scenarios. It's not easy to talk about the story without spoilers, but the people you meet come and go, and there is never a time where a new character enters the scene without the old ones somehow exiting for dubious and cliche reasons. Intensity fluctuates in almost preset patterns, putting our protagonists through peaks and valleys of plot development, which isn’t so bad overall; but it certainly subdues the final chapters since many of the events that came before it were just as memorable if not more so.
It is easier than you might think to talk about the gameplay in The Last of Us without comparing it to Uncharted, as this is a wholly different experience. Being a stealth-focused adventure, the game is best compared to Splinter Cell or perhaps Metal Gear Solid, except with a lot more gore. Realism is important, so Joel acts appropriately for his older age and thus unable to jump great distances or climb anything other than ladders or short ledges. His character has a fairly heavy and even sluggish feel as you move about. Joel is alongside Ellie for most of the story, but sometimes other characters join as you make your way through the United States. There is a distinct lack of wilderness environments until late in the game, as you spend most of your time in cities or suburbs, traversing through skyscrapers, apartment buildings, downtown streets, and sewers. However, given the state of overgrowth and urban decay, the environments manage to strike a balance - it’s nothing overwhelming like Crysis 3, but instead a tactful equilibrium between concrete and greenery.
The levels range from mostly linear encounters to some semi-open locales where you can explore a few indoor locations at your leisure. When exploring, the main goal is to collect materials to aid in your crafting ability. There are various types of materials, including water, bandages and nails; these are then used to craft items to help you survive. Joel can craft health kits, bombs, shivs, and other items – the twist being that some materials are used to craft multiple items, so player choice comes into the process. For example, you can either craft a Molotov cocktail or a health pack; a shiv or an upgrade for your melee weapon. In case of the former, the game is populated with health boosts so you’ll rarely need to craft them yourself. Speaking of health – which doesn’t regenerate – Joel must take a few precious seconds to heal, and if he doesn’t finish healing all the way, the progress is lost. This seems a bit unrealistic compared to the rest of the game and creates artificial difficulty, as if suddenly all bandages fall off if the last one isn’t applied. Having said that, the game is only moderately challenging on Medium, thanks to good stealth mechanics and basic enemy AI.
There are also two more types of items to collect – spare parts, which are used to upgrade your guns, and pills, which go into improving your abilities. With gun upgrades, you can increase reload speed, damage, and capacity while reducing recoil. The upgrades vary for each weapon, and there are a few types of rifles and pistols to choose from, each requiring their own ammo type. Pills, meanwhile, are used to upgrade your abilities which range from increased listening mode, more health, ability to save yourself from a melee Clicker attack, and others. Having explored a vast majority of the game, the upgrades were only filled about half way in both weapons and personal perks – giving more reasons to complete the game again in New Game + mode with all your stats carrying over.
When not exploring, you’ll likely be in a hostile area where either infected or humans are on the lookout for you. Joel can carry multiple weapons and swap to others from his backpack, as well as a limited use melee weapon and a distraction item. Stealth is usually the best method, because the gunplay often feels sluggish and your enemies can be difficult to hit. Joel can’t take much beating, and Clickers are usually able to instant-kill you. Though when you do go in guns blazing, as the game sometimes forces you to, it can be immensely satisfying. Getting hit by a shot feels very impacting and gritty, while the melee fights feature some brutal and graphic finishers. Ammo is hard to come by, and melee weapons degrade with every hit, so lack of resources also comes into reasoning to choose stealth over action.
Joel also has a so-called listening mode, where players are able to spot enemies through walls and other objects. As the game lacks an actual cover mechanic, maneuvering into position to peak around corners can be troublesome, so the listening mode helps avoid bumping face to face into an enemy. However, players wishing for a challenge can simply not use this ability, or even turn it off altogether in the options menu.
Going up against humans, who use guns and employ melee weapons the same way as Joel, results in some intense rounds of cat and mouse while stealthily maneuvering through the environment. Enemies will do their best to stay in cover and only engage when they have a good line of sight; surrounding the player and shouting to allies for help. Should they lose sight of you, it is possible to sneak around and ambush them, providing much needed element of surprise and a steadier target. However, the enemy AI is fairly basic, and will just start sweeping the area you were last seen endlessly. It’s a step above Uncharted’s goons, but not exactly a strategic sandbox.