The lights are on
Few games have made as much of an impact this year as The Last of Us and it rightfully earns its place in fans’ hearts in surprising and unparalleled ways. Brutal, foreboding, shocking, haunting: all of these words can describe the level of artistic effort that Naughty Dog has put into its tortured, apocalyptic epic of survival and tragedy. Players will find themselves most hooked not on the horrors of a viral plague or the fall of civilization, but the unforgettable characters at its heart. The game is better for it as both a testament to the emotional growth of gaming and a surefire contender for 2013’s Game of the Year list.
Beginning with a fungal outbreak that ravages the near-future U.S., The Last of Us takes its players twenty years into 2033’s post-apocalyptic future through the eyes of Joel, a smuggler tasked with transporting a young girl name Ellie who may carry the cure to the world’s infected. The course of their perilous journey takes them through an ever increasing amount of moral complexities as viewers will be left with their own answers to fill.
The Last of Us immediately grabs players’ eyes and ears with its overwhelming attention to detail. The world at the heart of The Last of Us is rendered like few games of its generation, from its sparkling graphics to its mesmerizing devotion to realism. Gangs and feral mobs of the infected fill every corner of city streets as wildlife overruns the ruins of once grand city monuments. Joel and Ellie will never keep you in one place for long and the changing terrain and seasons effectively manipulates the game’s atmospheric moods. Summer, fall, winter, and summer all encompass your journey from the dirt and grime of the quarantine zones to the rich, lush forests of the countryside as the game immerses you in its passage of time. This natural beauty strikes a bittersweet contrast to the graphic violence at its core, and accompanied by the game’s empathetic voice-acting and Gustavo Santaolalla’s haunting guitar chords, the Last of Us brilliantly realizes the fragile sense of morality at the game’s heart.
For all the technical quality of The Last of Us, its real treasure lies in its characterization. Joel and Ellie’s relationship dynamically evolves with the changing scape of their environment and their progression from strangers, to friends, to something more impossibly complex is remarkable in retrospect. Their stories cleverly intertwine as the game progresses and are further well-paced enough that you never lose sight of their sense of humanity amidst the game’s consistently brooding narrative. The heartbreaking sacrifices they put on the line for each other are thought provoking and you won’t soon forget them after you’ve put your controller down.
The game is unapologetically brutal in driving home their fight for survival against the world’s fungal monsters or bloodthirsty muggers and perhaps better for it artistically even as uncomfortable as they are. You’ll never feel betrayed by a sense of Hollywood camp and no matter how dark its tone, it always seems to flow naturally and logically from moment to moment. It’s only drawback may be its low replay value in light of its moments’ reliance on shock and you can trust that you’ll be surprised more than you expect. That said, the game far from ends on a poignantly happy note, but its scenario’s satisfying ambiguity leaves players with fascinating consequences to imagine for themselves.
The gameplay only further emphasizes The Last of Us’s consistently chaotic nature. Taking the best of Uncharted’s 3rd-person shooter mechanics and stripping them down to their least level of protection, you’ll often be left with few feelings of invincibility. When the game’s infrequent supply of guns fails you, objects like shivs and baseball bats will be your only way out apart from your own two fists. The hand-to-hand combat is satisfying if not frightening in its visceral nature. You’ll crack heads and cut throats as much as you’ll be firing bullets into them and in spite of the game’s optional gore-censorship, the violence remains appropriately barbaric for the story it tells.
The Last of Us further boasts diverse enemy types. The roaming human thugs are smart, capable, and well-armed, mostly composing of snipers and basic brawlers. The only things deadlier than them are, of course, the dead themselves. The game’s fungal creatures, meanwhile, are divided into three basic categories: runners, clickers, and bloaters. While runners are smarter and quicker, clickers and bloaters are particularly more hideous juggernauts blind to your movements but with an uncanny sense of hearing. Gameplay allows for a wide variety of strategy and each enemy’s progressively more vicious than the last. There are rarely any easy ways out and it’s thrilling and frightening all at the same time to outmaneuver your pursuers.
Despite you’re constant temptation for a straight fight, you’ll be encouraged to use stealth when you can. Avoiding enemies pays off as often as kills do and thanks to Joel’s x-ray like “hearing,” you’ll have the option to sense approaching enemies before meeting them head on or whittle down their numbers one by one. Trying to stalk them in the dark makes for unprecedented adrenaline and testifies to the game’s knack for creating unbelievable tension.
Another aspect of the game is its crafting system. Joel will routinely be able to collect items and trinkets left laying around fashion them into weapons such as bombs, Molotov cocktails, and guns mods along with supplements and medical kits to boost his own character statistics. Supplies of any are scarce and the game doesn’t hold back on reinforcing your desperation for the simplest bandage or shotgun cartridge. It’s unlikely you’ll ever fully upgrade yourself in one playthrough, but choosing your upgrades wisely makes a difference in surviving the next level.
Through the course of the game, players will take control of Ellie as well as Joel and the subtle variations is keeps the formula fresh. While Joel’s bigger frame relies on purely brute force, Ellie’s smaller size requires more frantic, marksmanship based combat than direct confrontations. Both have access to the same, non-crafted items and weapons list but their different feel keeps enemy encounters unique. The NPCs alongside you can still get in your way during battle, but apart from these minor lapses in competency, they never interrupt your immersion with Joel and Ellie.
Like Uncharted, the game also caters to some amount of platforming and problem solving in between gut-wrenching fights. Traversing wilder terrain from forest trails to university grounds can take ingenuity. Getting past a locked gate or using a power generator can take some doing and while the game never goes far enough to provide puzzles per say, there are plenty of “ah ha!” moments that pleasantly invites you to use your brain over just brawn.
There are a further amount of collectibles for completionists to gather in the form of comic-books, diaries, and dog-tags. Most of these are purely for the sake of trophies or personal checklists, however, a few contain some revealing allusions to survivors of the outbreak and are still interesting despite their superficial value.
The game further features a multiplayer mode in which players pit themselves against each other for supplies a four-on-four death matches via the game’s “Firefly” and “Hunter” factions. Each allows for customization and character progression and the matches, taking place over twelve imagined weeks in the main game’s levels, are refreshingly focused on stealth and finesse over brawn. While surprisingly competent, it still feels unnecessary compared to the compelling Joel and Ellie’s more compelling narrative.
The Last of Us is nothing short of a classic that speaks volumes about the power of interactive storytelling. The year will be hard-pressed to match the masterpiece that Naughty Dog has created, and it’s certainly won hearts if not awards already. The Last of Us uncompromisingly asks us how far we would go to save someone we loved. You may never be able to answer it, but you’ll remember the question for a long time to come.
Overall score: 9.5