Many game developers have a style. Shigeru Miyamoto tends to gravitate toward the whimsical, whereas American McGee likes to twist children's tales. David Cage pushes heavily toward the cinematic. Like Heavy Rain before it, Beyond: Two Souls is more readily described as an interactive narrative than a video game, but that isn't a bad thing. The vast majority of video games use heavily recycled tropes ad nauseum, and although David Cage's work is never as fun to play as peers, it is every bit as compelling.
Before The Last of Us, I would not call myself a fan of video game developer Naughty Dog. Obviously, they are very popular; their games sell in the millions, and they are Sony’s flagship developer. Uncharted is the best-selling Playstation 3-exclusive franchise. I played a demo of the original Uncharted and didn’t care for it. I enjoyed the platforming, but as soon as the game erupted in gunplay I lost interest.
Flash forward four and a half years: after opting to skip their next two Uncharted titles, Naughty Dog’s latest game has made me a fan. I’m actually planning to go back and play the Uncharted series. It is all thanks to their latest release, the exceptionally well-written, fantastically executed The Last of Us.
Set in a post-pandemic United States, The Last of Us tells the story of Joel, a cantankerous smuggler, and Ellie, a young girl with far too much pluck for the gritty world she finds herself in. The tale isn’t incredibly unique, at least at the outset. It was obviously influenced by films such as Children of Men and The Road, as well as the currently-trendy zombie genre.
The Last of Us takes its own spin on all these things, of course. Another big influence on The Last of Us is cordyceps. Cordyceps is a fungus that infects some breeds of insects and arachnids, and alters their behavior. In the game, this fungus has mutated and now infects people. Although the infected enemies are zombie-like, they are quite clearly not zombies. They react to pain, and don’t need to be decapitated to stay dead. In fact, the most common way you’ll take them out involves a knife through their neck, not their brain.
I suppose, after that last sentence, that we can get one of the two bigger disappointments out of the way: The Last of Us, for all its technical excellence, still falls to some disappointing video game tropes. In many situations, you’ll be forced to kill everything between you and the area’s exit. I was frustrated to discover that, after sneaking through a bookstore held by a gang of marauders, I was automatically spotted on the way out. When I instead killed the entire crew, no such scene occurred. The game literally punished me for trying to get through a situation without resorting to mass murder. I had to go out of my way and kill every enemy in the area.
The game doesn’t revel in the violence; in fact, Ellie often appears shocked by Joel’s brutal actions. There are many situations where these killings seem unavoidable, and they do appear to affect the characters. Naughty Dog intended for the game to be savage, and it is, but I do wonder if they could have done a better job of making the constant killing less integral to the game. The Last of Us is about surviving, and I am pretty sure I could have survived Pittsburgh with about one hundred fewer kills.
Where The Last of Us absolutely shines is in its writing. Although the overarching plot shows its influences at almost every turn, the characters are what draw you in. The characters feel fully realized, and don’t spend time shouting out catch phrases and one-liners. Conversations carry weight, and the main characters grow over the course of the story. The voice actors are fantastic — Tory Baker (who also put in a great performance as Booker DeWitt in Bioshock Infinite) and Ashley Johnson (who was most recently in Joss Whedon’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, but I remember from freaking Growing Pains!) portray the leads wonderfully. Other characters met along the way are just as well-written and interesting, but the majority of the story is about the way Joel and Ellie work together.
The score, composed by the Academy Award-winning Gustavo Santaolalla, is also marvelous. It is atmospheric, haunting, and entirely appropriate. You can hear the main theme here and sample the entire soundtrack at Soundcloud. The main theme will etch itself into your memory in the best possible way.
In terms of actual gameplay, you'll find yourself switching between four modes: stealth, combat, exploration, and puzzle-solving. The puzzles are barely that; they typically involve finding a ladder, a plank of wood, or a pallet to get across environmental obstacles. Ellie can't swim, so expect to go looking for a wooden pallet to float her across every body of water you come across. The exploration aspect of The Last of Us involves some fairly simple platforming and navigating. Not every area is loaded with enemies, and the areas that are can almost always be cleared out. Once you're safe, it is a good idea to peek into every nook and cranny -- the game rewards finding obscure collectibles with PSN trophies.
Exploration is sometimes frustrating; collectibles are easily overlooked, and the game regularly closes off the path behind you, forcing you to move forward whether you are ready to or not. You will get the opportunity to revisit completed areas, but exploring them means replaying the entire chapter, which becomes time-consuming. I understand there may have been technical reasons why the choice was made, but it is maddening to turn around and find the path you walked through inaccessible. That is my second biggest complaint: unless you are mind-numbingly thorough, you will have to either accept missing items or replay huge chunks of the game for a perfect record.
Combat and stealth go hand-in-hand in The Last of Us. Many confrontations can be avoided, to some degree, by staying hidden and stalking your prey. If you are sly enough, you can take down many of your enemies by simply waiting for them to turn their back, then suffocating them. It won't work in every situation, and some of the infected can't be taken down that way at all. Clickers -- people who have been infected so long they have lost their eyesight, and hunt by echolocation -- are an instant death if they catch you early in the game. You can only stealth-kill them with a shiv, which causes the weapon to then break.
This leads me to a side complaint: very few games get breakable weapons right, and The Last of Us isn't one of them. I can believe that a wooden board falls apart after a few hits, but an axe breaking in five? Nonsense. Some skills earned later in the game extend the life of your items, but even they don't always make sense. Why a shiv made from a single scissor blade is unusable after two hits instead of one still reeks of gamification. I do understand why The Last of Us makes its melee weapons so breakable; it's the same reason ammunition for the game's guns is so rare: it forces the player to use stealth and adds tension to the combat. When you have three clickers looking for you, and just one shiv and five bullets for your 9mm, you start to worry.
I should clarify, however, that while weapon-breaking is annoying, it does not render the game unplayable. At normal difficulty, you won't have much trouble managing your inventory. You will have moments where weapons stocks run low, but over most of the game I had enough on-hand to get through any situation. In addition, Ellie, like Elizabeth in Bioshock Infinite, isn't a damsel in distress. She will look after herself in combat, and sometimes, she'll come to your aid.
Visually, The Last of Us will probably be seen as the Playstation 3's swan song. Although there are some annoying graphical glitches, for the most part the game looks amazing. Environments look incredibly realistic and detailed. The lighting is the best ever seen on the console. Characters move naturally, and the physics are reasonably realistic. There were two visual glitches, one of which is excusable: first, the clipping was so spot-on that when it failed, it was incredibly noticeable. Seeing Ellie half-through a wall breaks immersion. It is a forgivable glitch, but not an unnoticeable one.
A bigger glitch occurs when you go into listening mode. There is a surprising amount of haloing around the edges of objects when the filters/shaders they use for the effect are active. I am not referring to the black-and-white noise that appears around characters; that is intentional. I am referring to bold white outlines appearing around inconsequential objects and seams in walls. It doesn’t happen constantly, but it it happens often enough and makes insignificant objects or areas seem to be the opposite. In the grand scheme of things, these glitches are relatively minor. However, they do mar an otherwise gorgeous sheen.
At the end of the day, the flaws in The Last of Us are largely minor quibbles. It doesn’t do anything particularly unique on the gameplay front, but it is a competent and fun adventure that is a feast for the eyes and ears. It will easily sit as one of the best games of the year, and possibly the best story. Joel and Ellie are fascinating characters, competing with the cast of Mass Effect as my favorites of this generation. At around twenty hours for a playthrough, The Last of Us never grows overlong, and leaves you completely satisfied. If you own a Playstation 3, you owe it to yourself to give it a shot.