The lights are on
Coming up with a tagline for this review was an exercise in inadequacy. There is no collection of a few summarized words that can do justice to The Last Of Us. It is, without a doubt, one of the greatest gaming experiences of my over three decades of playing video games.
The Last Of Us has kept me awake for three nights in a row, the first two because I didn't want to stop playing and the third because I was so overwhelmed with the enormity of the experience that I couldn't sleep. It's very difficult to express my feelings about the game without simply hurling superlatives at the screen and sounding like a babbling idiot, so instead I'll just simplify my task at hand by breaking it down into logical pieces and describing them as logically as I can.
I'm sure you've already read as much from plenty of sites, but The Last Of Us is visually stunning. It's obvious that Naughty Dog has learned how to wring every ounce of power out of the PS3's hardware set. It shows in every environment you'll traverse. Looking back now, I'm actually surprised at how varied those environments were. Sure, The Last Of Us takes place in a post-apocalyptic setting, but it's also a road story, and as such affords ample opportunities to play with very different color palettes and moods throughout. There are no spectacles here; no special effects wizardry or wild production designs to keep your eyes dazzled. Just amazing art design and texture work to portray a world that nature has wrestled back from us humans, and the results are mesmerizing.
I don't normally call out sound as a category of its own, but it's worth noting in this case. The sound design in this game is incredible. Gunshots sound very realistic and impactful, and environmental noises keep you engaged even during the quiet times. Voice acting is as good as any game I've ever played, from the main cast all the way down to the extras. Simply phenomenal. If I have one complaint about the game at all, it's that sound wasn't used quite to the full potential that it could have been. Joel, the game's main protagonist, has the ability to focus his sensitive ears to pinpoint enemy movements, and when the ability is in use all ambient noise is muffled. I would like to have had the specific things he was listening for, such as enemy footsteps, amplified to illustrate the focus of the skill. Also, The Last Of Us does have one of the same issues that all stealth games seem to suffer from, and that's the anomaly of an enemy remaining blissfully ignorant while you strangle the life out of his buddy ten feet away, legs kicking and arms flailing. It doesn't happen that often, but it did break my immersion ever so slightly in a game that is all about immersion. Still, this is the worst complaint I can register against a near-flawless game.
I'll make this short. If you like the gameplay in Uncharted, you will love it in The Last Of Us. Naughty Dog has honed their usual mechanics to a razor-sharp edge, To be clear, the shooting is imperfect and imprecise, but it's meant to be. This is not a trained soldier under controlled circumstances. This is an ordinary man in extra-ordinary circumstances who needs to weigh his options very carefully when approaching any dangerous situation, and the success of those actions falls squarely on your shoulders. When I missed a shot, I lamented my lousy aim for wasting a bullet. When I died, I blamed my poor judgment or faulty split-second decisions. Never once did I feel frustrated or cheated. I may have complained because I got spotted taking down one of the bad guys due to misjudged timing or overconfidence if my distance from them, but that's part of the beauty of the game. Enemies can see you from an impressive distance if you're in their line of sight, and they'll make you pay for your carelessness in spades. It all serves to ramp up the tension of every encounter, and it works beautifully.
It's almost impossible to say anything about the story of The Last Of Us without getting into potential spoilers, so I will make this short and sweet. The Last Of Us does not use story as a means to drive action. It does not bore us with generic characters or standard conventions. And it does not succumb to predictable outcomes. What it does it knock you flat on your back in the first half hour, and then kick you while you're down for the next 15-20 hours. You will come to truly care about these characters, and you will never feel they are safe. The entire game is filled with an ongoing sense of dread and tension, and it's glorious in its intensity. If you care about story in your games and have a PS3, you will not want to miss this.
I've gushed enough, but I still have to wrap this all up. The Last Of Us is an amazing game that makes the best argument yet for video games as art. It tugs at your heartstrings without feeling heavy handed and frays your nerves with its relentless atmospheric gameplay. For an adventure game, it is quite lengthy (I clocked in at over 20 hours, though I've heard the average is around 17), but it never felt overly extended or unnecessary, and I still have New Game+ and Survival difficulty to look forward to. However, the impression it leaves you with is where the game's true strength lies. The Last Of Us will probably play in my PS3 for around 100 hours by the time it's all said and done, but it will play in my head for years to come.