Naughty Dog declare themselves Kings of the PlayStation 3 as they deliver an emotional, thrilling, and thought-provoking swansong to Sony’s third home console.
I find the release of this title quite strange. For the past seventeen years, Naughty Dog has only developed one franchise per PlayStation console. Not a lot of people appreciated their approach, but I’ve gotten used to it and even admired them for it. With the massive success of the Uncharted trilogy behind them, Naughty Dog break tradition by introducing a brand new IP on the same console. This was my game of E3 2012, completely blowing my mind when it was showcased at Sony’s press conference, and one of my most anticipated games of this year. Since its release, it has been hailed as a masterpiece. That is a very big word to throw around, and considering that only a few games have been called that, I became extremely curious and was itching to test the game out. Is it really the instant classic that many people have been claiming it to be?
The Last of Us is an action/survival game set in a post-apocalyptic USA in the year 2033. Twenty years prior, the country was destroyed by a mutated version of a parasitic fungus, infecting humans, and making them contagious monsters with the intent to kill. This resulted in the downfall of human civilization, with only scavengers, oppressive military and infected humans living in a now desolate United States. You play as Joel, a hardened survivor tasked with escorting a young teenager named Ellie across the country in a space of a year to a resistance group in the hopes of finding a cure.
When it comes to pushing what the PS3 can do in terms of graphical and technical prowess, Naughty Dog is the go-to developer, noting the graphical capabilities of the Uncharted games. The Last of Us is a very impressive game in terms of technicality and graphics, not to mention that it is an extremely violent title visually. Character models look convincingly human and each character has very distinct designs, from their facial structure to their figure. The environmental elements are incredibly detailed; so detailed in fact that it must have taken the designers a really long time to construct them, from ruined cities to untouched nature reserves. The meticulousness of the environments makes the entire world very atmospheric in a post-apocalyptic sense, with credible lighting, shadows, water shimmers, and air particles adding to a great visual palette. The game captures a riveting atmosphere so well that exploring every nook and cranny of a desolate wasteland feels strangely relaxing (if there aren’t any enemies around).
The character animations are the best I’ve seen in any game so far, and it looks like Naughty Dog made a good effort in making it as realistic as possible. From running, crouching, being next to cover to firing a gun and reloading, there is a grounded feeling to every action the character does. A good example would be whenever Joel is near cover or a wall when crouching, his hands will brush along the side, and if Ellie is close to you, she will come under your arm and huddle next to you.
The most impressive thing about the gameplay is how it is entirely up to you on how you pace yourself throughout the game, particularly in enemy-infested areas. Whether sneaking past the enemy or fighting them, it is your choice. The Last of Us consists of a very balanced mixture of stealth and action with an overarching emphasis on survival, so choosing brute force or stealth can be effective either way. This is a game where you actually have to think about your approach as carefulness will save you and recklessness will get you killed, and that goes both for stealth and combat.
To make the gameplay a little bit interesting, it has a very simple but incredibly intuitive crafting mechanic that lets you create makeshift weapons and health packs out of scavenged items you found. That’s if you bother to explore, anyway. What’s more intriguing is that whenever you are crafting, the game will not pause, leaving you open to impending attacks. This allows you to think about the area around you and forces you to pick the best opportunity to craft an item that may save your life. This makes stealth and combat a lot more intense and it gives an authentic, real-time perspective to the gameplay.
If you are in combat, realism plays into it. Ammo is quite scarce, so making your shots count and using the right gun for the situation is the way to go. Always hide in cover instead of being in the open if you are healing yourself or reloading, because when you get shot or attacked, you will often stumble and get stunned for a while, leaving you open for more damage. From what I’ve played, combat is the more difficult method of approach since it will attract all the enemies in the area, and it is easy to waste bullets since aiming is quite difficult when there is more than one target coming at you. If you are out of bullets, you don’t have a choice but to either run away or attack with melee. The latter is credible, too, but quite flawed, and is not the recommended method of taking down targets. Melee combat seems to only connect and function on one adversary, and that can be a real problem if there is more than one. Repeatedly hitting an enemy leads to an elongated kill sequence and it will make the camera go closer and swerve in one shot, which will leave you completely open to their allies, as well as being completely oblivious to where they are. Also, it is an incredibly loud method of killing, so it can sometimes alert other enemies to your location.
Going further into the stealth and combat, let’s also harp on the artificial intelligence as well. The enemy AI in this game is very intelligent, one of the most intelligent I’ve ever encountered in a game, but they do have some minor inconsistencies. The stealth is incredible, and can be quite immersive and intense if you are doing it right. If so, it is the most conservative and safest option. It consists of sneaking around, using the listen mechanic to detect enemies, throwing objects to distract, and pulling off kills like a strangle or a shiv to the neck. Noise is an important aspect to consider as it can either help you or kill you, especially with Clickers, an infected enemy that can only detect you by sound. They are the most dangerous enemy in the game as they can kill you instantly if they grab you just once. While the stealth is really good, it does have some odd quirks that slightly ruin the immersion. Strangle kills are loud. By loud, I mean that you can clearly hear the grunts and fidgets of the enemy, and the strange part is that the other baddies will never notice it, even when they are right next to the guy getting strangled. Also, your companion AI will sometimes sneak into an enemy’s range of view, sometimes right in front of them by millimetres. I did look it up and it seems that this was intended as your companion AI being invisible as long as the playable character is unnoticed.
As for the story, don’t dismiss this game as another zombie game because it is more than that. The zombie apocalypse is a genre that has been used way too many times in most forms of media over the last decade, video games in particular. Personally, I like the living dead titles that are just played for laughs (House of the Dead) or flesh-eating games that look at how the apocalypse affects the characters’ psyche (Telltale’s The Walking Dead). Thankfully, The Last of Us falls into the second category. It isn’t a scary game per se, but it still makes the fungi infection a looming presence, and the game is not really about fighting zombies/infected. As the matter of fact, you fight an equal amount of those exposed as well as humans. The main focus is how the journey throughout a dangerous, desolate wasteland affects Joel and Ellie’s personalities and outlooks in life, as well as their growing relationship with each other, and throughout the game, it is done beautifully. Joel (voiced and motion-captured by Troy Baker) is not a hero. He has a despaired view of the future, is willing to kill without mercy, and will do anything by any means necessary to survive. Ellie (Ashley Johnson) is the snarky, cynical, foul-mouthed but innocent counterpoint to Joel’s misanthropic outlook. Throughout the journey, their personalities change for the better and for the worst, and their relationship hinges on the both of them experiencing great losses. The ending is a conclusion that will make you contemplate on the whole story. It asks questions like it should, but because of how bittersweet it is, and having the knowledge of the various events that happen, it becomes a provoking game.
Of course, for the story to fully work, you need to have some great acting talents behind the characters. The voice acting as well as the motion-capture is so good that the game deserves an Academy Award nomination for the overall performances in general. Baker and Johnson’s chemistry is just wonderful and their performance in their respective characters is pretty much the emotional spearhead of the story.
The multiplayer option is graphically inferior, but an overall okay addition to the package. The entire purpose of it is to grow a settlement and just make sure that they survive. To make sure, you can play two modes: Supply Raid and Survivor. Both modes are just team death match modes, one where you can re-spawn and one where you can’t. For your settlement to survive, you have to gain enough points in a multiplayer match or better yet, win. Gameplay is pretty much the same as in the single player, with more emphasis on the combat mechanics, and from what I’ve played, it is one of the most difficult multiplayer experiences around. Multiplayer is something that you have to get used to since it is based on working as a team and it is more recommended, and a lot more fun if you play with your friends with voice chat at the ready, instead of on your own. The downside is that it could’ve used more different types of modes instead of just two. Maybe future DLCs may offer it but for now, it’s alright but a bit lacking as it is.
Writing this review, I tried my best to seek out as many flaws as I can. Yes, it does have problems but the pros outweigh the cons considerably. Besides the minor AI inconsistencies, a flawed melee system, and a slightly shallow multiplayer, I literally cannot find any other glaring faults. The game just does nearly everything consistently right, from story to gameplay. Going back to my question of it being a masterpiece, I’d say let time decide if it really deserves that claim. But for now, The Last of Us is one of the finest releases I’ve played this year, and easily one of the PS3’s most definitive titles. The graphics are incredibly atmospheric and realistically detailed, the gameplay perfectly balances stealth, action, and survival, and the story is an emotional, thought-provoking, and contemplative journey with well-written and memorable characters. With how the story ends, I personally don’t feel like the narrative should continue. Maybe in a sequel, they should create a brand new story with fresh characters in the same world. If you have a PlayStation 3, just do yourself a massive favour and pick it up.