A couple of minutes into The Last of Us, I was thinking to myself: why don't they make more games as good as this?
I mean, they can. It is possible. It's just frustratingly rare. And that makes the joy brought from a game that nails it as well as this one all the greater.
The Last of Us is a superb game, a modern masterpiece of interactive storytelling that moved and excited me about as much as I can reasonably expect.
The game is a post-apocalyptic survival story, similar in tone to The Road and Children of Men. Humanity has been nearly wiped out by a devastating fungal infection that causes victims to mutate and become murderously aggressive, while showing no signs of the personality they were before they 'turned'.
Yes, the infection is similar to zombieism. But it's also quite different, to its credit, meaning The Last of Us is not bound by established zombie pop culture tropes and can be original in ways that are interesting and fresh.
More horrifying than the infected in many ways, however, is what has become of the survivors. With civilisation eroded, most living humans are savages. They kill, loot and worse, with no laws or law enforcers to stop them. There is a military force trying to enforce quarantine zones, but they are just as vicious as the savages.
This is a game principally interested in exploring the human condition. Humans are not entirely bad, and in addition to the depraved killers that mostly populate The Last of Us, there are still good people around and elements of hope shining through the darkness. But it is mostly a grimly realistic look at the darker side of human nature and generally fairly bleak.
The main characters of The Last of Us are Joel and Ellie, a pair that have featured in most of the publicity material for the game including the cover art above and screenshots within this review. They are two remarkably well-written characters with deeply satisfying story arcs across a moving narrative that is expertly told through a near perfect combination of compelling cutscenes and thrilling gameplay.
I don't want to give much away about the story at all as it really is massively rewarding discovering it for yourself. In short, Joel and Ellie are put in a situation where they have to leave a quarantine zone together and travel across America on a journey of survival. Along the way the meet other survivors, some of whom become allies, but most of whom are scavengers that want to kill them. Or worse.
They also encounter a load of the infected. Getting through the game constantly forces the player to choose between slipping past enemies or engaging them in combat. Slipping past is always the safer option, but Joel and Ellie need supplies to survive and acquiring them often means combat is necessary. Combat is, of course, unavoidable in some situations, even when you don't want to get into it for the supplies it may bring.
The sky-high quality of the scripting and voice-acting give The Last of Us an instant gravitas, making the characters feel real and forcing the player to feel for them almost immediately. This makes it all the more powerful when bad things happen to them - and believe me, truly terrible things happen to pretty much everyone in this game.
By agreeing to review the game I had to agree to not talking about a list of things developer Naughty Dog classed as spoilers, one of which was the game's prologue. I'm going to bend the rule here, not by giving away what happens, but by simply saying that it is one of the greatest openings to a game I've ever played.
When the title card appears on the screen and the opening credits are played, I sat watching in a strange, stunned silence. I was exhilarated at having just played an incredible game opening that I instantly knew I was going to remember for years to come, but also I was already emotionally involved with the characters and surprisingly shaken by what I had just experienced with them.
A couple of caveats on that opening and how much I've just talked it up. Firstly, you shouldn't play this game if you're under 18. You shouldn't anyway because it's R18 and has some violent content that is very adults-only stuff. But also, more importantly, most people under 18 won't have matured emotionally enough to get the impact of what they're playing with The Last of Us. If you wait a few years, you'll probably enjoy it all the more. I hope that doesn't sound patronizing, but I know what I was like as a teenager and certainly for myself the game wouldn't have had as great an impact on me then. No matter your age or maturity, you have to be willing and open to getting emotionally involved with the game too, of course.
Secondly, I feel this way about most games, but it's more essential than most with this one. Try and play it in a dark room with the sound up and no distractions. Turn your phone off, shut the doors, draw the curtains. I know this is not always possible with family obligations and household restrictions, but it is such a fantastic experience if you're able to do it right.
The game is linear, which it needs to be in order to deliver a narrative of this quality, but most of the gameplay sections are quite vast. You have to get from Point A to Point B, sure, but there are several ways of doing it.
There's no compass or objective marker telling you where to go, which feeds into the realism but may annoy some players used to having their way clearly marked out and spoon-fed to them. Instead, organic waypoints are employed. Often Joel and Ellie will be progressing toward a landmark in the distance that you can see from almost anywhere along the way, or just remember in roughly what direction it is. In some interiors, graffiti will help point you in the right direction.
There are times when you're panicking, under fire and have your vision obstructed by darkness or a blizzard or something similar. In these situations, you can't look around for a landmark or sign and must just move in the direction you guess is right. These are stressful sections of the game, but this works to its advantage.
Sometimes there are basic puzzles to solve, but these usually aren't very demanding. If you struggle with one for a good few minutes, an option pops up where you can just have it tell you what to do, if you like.
There are a couple of levels that take place in confined, dark spaces filled with spores - horrible dusty stuff that comes from areas where infected congregate. These are really ominous, scary sections of the game that are comparable to classic Resident Evil or Dead Space games in their intensity. Because there are so few of these levels they have a greater impact, and juxtaposed alongside the sections where it is other human survivors you are battling, they provide a wonderful variety.
As I mentioned above, acquiring and using supplies also makes up a lot of the gameplay. The system around using items you find to improve your character's skills or weapons is very well designed. By the end of the game, I hadn't maxed out every skill tree or weapon improvement either, so choose wisely with how you use pills, screws and so on.
There's a brutality in the game that is shocking, but realistic and in-keeping with the setting. A baseball bat can be made more deadly by fastening broken scissor blades to the end of it. Improvising Molotov cocktails and crude nail bombs, or using any solid objects around you in a fist-fight, also increase the nastiness. Joel, a hardened survivor, won't think twice about killing someone by punching their throat in, or slamming them into the ground and stomping in their skull.
The violence is severe, but it's also not glorified. I felt bad when I killed some of the other people as they were merely other survivors, trying to get by. Sure, you kill hundreds of people in The Last of Us, like Schwarzenegger did in Commando or the protagonist does in every Call of Duty. But there is something quite different about the way it is handled in this game that make it much more serious and weighty.
The Last of Us' success is helped considerably by a brilliant score and some exceptional sound design. I actually have the reflective, subtle, moody soundtrack on my iPod now and will listen to it fairly regularly for the next wee while. I'm on my third straight listen through it as I write this review and am enjoying the game memories it is evoking.
The sound design has had some serious attention paid to it too, giving a decent variety and exceptional quality to the different sounds within the game. Nothing is too repetitive or fake-sounding and it all adds in to the overall experience.
But The Last of Us also knows when to be quiet, too, which is very often. The eerie stillness that hangs over the post-apocalyptic world is haunting and helps give further impact to the violent punctuations of action and emotional punches.
The game is not perfect. The area where it is most frustrating is with the AI. The best way to get through most sections is by using stealth and almost always, you have at least one partner with you. While you are hiding behind cover from your enemies, your partner(s) will try and do the same - but often fail. Mercifully, the game has been designed so that when you're controlling Joel and Ellie takes cover on the wrong side of a bench, in plain sight of a nearby enemy, that enemy won't react. It's as if Ellie is invisible. This means a lot less dying and is less annoying than if the enemy did see her, but it's still stupid.
As with all stealth games, the enemy AI is questionable a lot of the time too. If you were part of a team of armed bandits and you got into a gunfight with someone, only to have them slip out of sight, why would you separate your team and have them walk in repetitive little cycles? Of course, the game would be more frustrating if the enemies behaved like real people and ganged together to unrelentingly track you down and murder you. But again, this is still a little stupid.
The graphics are beautiful and very well-done, but we have seen the PS3 pushed further in this department recently. Tomb Raider and Metro: Last Light are two recent games I can think of that I reckon look better than The Last of Us.
There's no way I'm giving this less than a perfect score, however. It has amazing graphics, they're just not the best I've ever seen. The AI is still a little stupid in some respects, but that just means that this is not the first game ever to get AI as good as real life. The AI is, for the most part, very impressive. I'm just trying to add balance to what is turning out to be an extremely glowing review.
But why shouldn't it be extremely glowing? I love videogames and this is about as good as they have ever been.
The conclusion of the single-player mode is incredible. Compared to a lot of games, it may seem anti-climactic in terms of the 'boss battle' finale we often expect. But ultimately The Last of Us is a stunning narrative and the ending is a masterful bit of storytelling that lands with a resounding, triumphant punch.
It may sound spoilery to say how long it took me to clock the game, but every game save has a progression percentage and how much time you've spent playing. Now that I think of it, that's something Naughty Dog shouldn't have done. At certain points in the game it felt like I was getting very close to the conclusion, but the game save would say something like '70 percent complete', so I knew things weren't going to work out like Joel and Ellie were hoping.
Anyway, it took me just under 16 hours, according to the game save data. I will definitely play the game through again, but it won't be the same. Reliving the journey of the characters will be super fun a second time around, I'm sure. But that first play through, with those ridiculously satisfying developments and revelations… I'd pay a lot to have my memory erased so I could savour all that for the first time once again.
There's a multiplayer mode that I wasn't able to play during my review period, so I can't comment on that. I will say that it seems unnecessary, given how amazing the single-player is. Maybe if they'd done away with the multiplayer they could've put a little more power into the graphics, or made the story a bit longer. But who knows - the multiplayer could be unexpectedly fantastic and not just a curiosity to waste two or three hours on at the most, like the Uncharted multiplayer was.
With the next-generation consoles now beating down our door, some reviewers have already labeled The Last of Us "the greatest game of this generation". This is a difficult statement to quantify. The best Call of Duty games were so beloved for their fast-paced multiplayer action thrills while The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion and Skyrim are epic fantasy worlds to explore almost endlessly. Comparing The Last of Us to those other titles is like comparing a great Beatles album to a great Mozart piece, or Notorious B.I.G.'s classic Ready to Die. They're oranges and apples.
But every game does provide a certain amount of satisfaction. I'm not going to say The Last of Us is the greatest game of this generation, but I'll definitely say it'd be in the top 10. The greatness of its story and how well it nails its themes transcends not only most games, but also most movies. It's more comparable to one of the great television series of recent years than it is to most movies or games. There's more time to get involved with the characters and much greater range for the storytellers to create a masterpiece. But it's not just a magnificent story, the gameplay is also way, way up there. It's about as good a whole package as it gets.
Playing a game as great as The Last of Us is indeed a rare joy. I give it my highest recommendation possible.
The Last of Us
:: Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
:: Developer: Naughty Dog
:: Format: PlayStation 3
:: Rating: R18
source: newshub archive