Developer: Naughty Dog / Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment / Played On: PlayStation 3 / Price: $59.99 / Release Date: June 14, 2013 / ESRB: Mature [Blood and Gore, Strong Language, Suggestive Themes, Sexual Themes, Drug Reference, Use of Tobacco, Intense Violence]
Post-apocalyptic worlds are a favorite of films, television, and games because they paint scenarios rife with unfathomable human atrocities. Despite the popularity, few stories have captured the struggles of a believable human psyche faced with these challenges, and the endurance that stems from the need to survive–but The Last of Us reaffirms that not only is it possible for a game to be emotionally compelling, it can do so while forcing you to execute horrible acts of human indecency.
A fungal virus has mutated and spread among the American population, turning everyday citizens into violent, frenzied creatures. The U.S. military begins eradicating some of the threat and gathering the uninfected, under martial law. Years later the virus is still virulent in the wild and the remaining survivors are cohabiting in harsh living conditions. Joel is a black-marketeer, smuggling items for whoever pays best. What was meant to be a simple goods run shifts to escorting a 14-year-old, Ellie, to the Fireflies, a resistance group outside of the quarantined zones. This leads to a cross-state journey fighting Infected and human alike, with the primary objective to keep Ellie safe.
The Last of Us is a third-person action survival-horror game that offers two fundamental paths: fight or flight. The game does an excellent job of letting you choose your own path, each bringing its own consequences.
Choose to fight and the combat is challenging, but well balanced, prompting a reevaluation of your tactics when it turns tough. If you shoot first and ask questions later, only to find yourself overwhelmed, you can always take cover for a couple of seconds before your enemies spread out. If you sneak around and a nearby Clicker—Infected that can’t see but has a heightened sense of hearing—picks up on your footsteps it’s best to have a shotgun at the ready. Then there’s the post-encounter assessment: evaluating how much ammo you have left and if that’s enough for what might lie ahead. This sense of urgency needed for survival sits at the heart of The Last of Us’ emotional rollercoaster– the game wants you to feel on edge at every turn and fully inject yourself into this bleak scenario. And it succeeds admirably, causing pulses to race in each encounter.
The emotional tug is even more impactful when pitched against Joel’s displays of brutality in the face of danger. Here’s a man no stranger to fighting who can wail on an enemy and then stomp his head clean off, or strangle one from behind, though this also leaves him vulnerable to attack. Every move you make requires some thought, imbuing each combat encounter with the right amount of survive-or-die threat. Thankfully Ellie alerts you if you’ve been spotted and even throws bricks at charging enemies. Joel also has the option to listen carefully to the environment, allowing him to see enemies’ silhouettes through walls – though even being aware there are five Clickers in the next room is enough to stop you in your tracks.
Items littered around the many abandoned homes provide the materials to craft tools. You can craft weapons like shivs out of scissors and bandages to snare Clickers, an option not available otherwise, or nail bombs for oblivious enemies to detonate. Crafting takes place in real-time, so even if you have the necessary material to make a health pack, you need to find a safe place to create and then apply it, adding tension to an already fraught situation.
Ladders, planks, and underwater diving form a majority of the puzzle mechanics, but they’re a welcome break from the onslaught of carnage lying behind the pair and awaiting up ahead. These puzzle sequences are integrated in spots that are plausible obstacles for someone exploring a world destroyed by panic and reclaimed by nature, highlighting the level of detail present in every facet of The Last of Us. Though society is not currently crumbling under fungal mutation, the events that occur and the environment itself are situated disturbingly in the realm of reality.
Beautiful character design, a slick user interface, and stunning scenery combine to bring to life this devastated world. The voice acting and facial animations are superb; the dynamic between Joel and Ellie is especially praiseworthy. Adversaries at the outset, Joel and Ellie evolve from barely tolerating each other to loving one another, but at different times, painting a relationship riddled with engaging, relevant problems. It’s gritty, heartfelt, painful — it’s human. And that’s what you will take away from The Last of Us. As seamless and involved as the combat is, the focal point is always on the human interactions, and that’s what keeps you on emotional edge to the end.
The non-playable characters that accompany Joel and Ellie on their journey are just as important to the story as the protagonists. Tess, one of the first characters you meet, is amazing, and an example that it’s possible to write a strong supporting cast without turning them into clichés; it’s not about a character’s gender or race, it’s about authentic personalities, especially in a world where morals are as mutated as the creatures and everyone fights for themselves.
And this flows into the multiplayer, a portion of the game that pits Fireflies versus Hunters, the ruthless killers in Pittsburgh who refused martial law, forming two modes. In Supply Raid each team has four players and you need to kill the opposing team twenty times to win; Survivors is elimination with four rounds per match. These firefights are just as tense as single-player, given how the AI can be as calculating and devious as human players.
There are four classes and loadouts are balanced by an allotted number of points to, for example, revive fallen teammates faster or purchase weapons like flamethrowers. Multiplayer uses many of the same traits as single-player: you can craft, throw stun bombs, and there’s limited ammo, but only one class has the listening ability and you can’t throw bottles at players to stun them.
Another intriguing element to the multiplayer for those seeking extra perks: when you choose your faction, you have a certain number of survivors you need to keep healthy. What this means is that when you play either mode (under your faction), you collect supplies (from fallen enemies) and parts that can turn into supplies (rewarded for any actions, e.g. downs, executions, revives) to help keep your clan alive—though parts can also be used to purchase armor and ammo during matches. The more multiplayer sessions you play, the more your memberships grow and the demands for supplies increase. Avoid the survivors from getting hungry or sick, and you earn one-use boosters.
Overall, multiplayer is light on modes and it may not expand on the core story-driven experience, but it’s still a thoughtful addition to a superbly executed package.
Towards the end of the single-player—a good ten to fifteen hours—it was exhausting, but not due to the game dragging on for too long; it was the weight of the ordeal Joel and Ellie were surviving. And that’s what’s so great about The Last of Us: you worry for Ellie any time she’s out of your sight; you value sunlight as much as Joel does because you know the darkness hides more Clickers; you marvel how the characters develop over time. This is a sublime send-off for the PlayStation 3’s near-decade generation, a shining example of what’s possible and what’s to come. The Last of Us is a brilliant experience that balances strategic gameplay in the action-adventure genre, and it stands as a testament to the power of storytelling in videogames.
+ A compelling narrative of desperation and determination
+ Excellent combat mechanics that balance action-adventure and survival horror
+ Brilliant acting from every single character
+ Beautiful landscapes of a destroyed civilization
10 / 10