It’s no secret that this game was a crowd favourite at last years E3, and then there was that live musical piece performed by Gustavo Santaolalla at the most recent Video Game Awards. However, if you’re reading this review right now then you may already be aware that the media have hyped this game so far beyond belief, with many already proclaiming it as the “Game Of The Year” for 2013. It is never a straightforward practice when addressing a game with this much attention, and disappointment is certainly imminent when there are so many expectations. It is for this reason that I suspect many readers are here to determine whether this game actually lives up to the hype, but all I can really offer to you is my own honest opinion, and a written critique to compliment that opinion.
The Last of Us tells the story of Joel, a weapons smuggler living in a world where humankind has been decimated by a parasitic fungus, and his mission to deliver a young girl named Ellie to a resistance group known as the Fireflies. It’s possible that some people may have been thinking, “oh god, not ANOTHER Zombie game?!” However, I can assure you that this narrative is everything to the contrary. There is no mystery behind how the outbreak occurred, and the events that defined this new world have long since passed. Sure, there are zombie-like creatures known as the infected, but players will also have to cross paths with militia, bandits and even cannibals. It should also be made clear that this is not merely a lazy adaption of films such as I Am Legend or The Road.
Anyone who is familiar with Naughty Dog’s work can surely appreciate their talent for storytelling, but what I don’t think many players will expect is how many punches they are willing to throw without holding back. This incredibly mature approach is not only a first from this particular team, but rather the entire mainstream “AAA” game category as well. We’re talking about some seriously heavy themes in this game, and in case it’s not clear, I am deliberately withholding a lot of specifics about the narrative itself as it will be a lot more rewarding to go in without knowing too much. The quality of writing in this game is undeniable, and it’s also remarkable how the story can embrace so many different zombie tropes, without ever feeling bound by those expectations. The Last of Us will provide players with a strong conclusion, and does so in a way that also avoids any type of genre cliche.
I’ll begin this segment by clarifying first, and foremost that I don’t think Naughty Dog ever set out to reinvent the wheel when they designed The Last of Us. However, I still suspect that the games design might be the core target for potential criticism, and I definitely want to set the record straight. I personally feel that the development team have successfully produced a quality experience that combines a lot of great ideas that defined this generation, although that doesn’t mean there aren’t problems. Predictability is rarely an attractive quality, and the moment I noticed waist-high walls, I couldn’t help but groan to myself. This implied there was going to be a shootout, and that immediately had me worried. And yet to my surprise the game quickly pushed on to explore different ideas, and whilst the design was not exempt from recycling tired concepts, it also never seemed to rely on one either.
There sometimes comes a time when critique turns into nitpicking, so let’s first focus on some of the positive design elements of the game as there are certainly a lot of them. The Last of Us is a survival experience at heart, and a third-person shooter second. Although, the experience manages to deliver on both fronts equally, which is not very common if you look at the history of the genre. Joel will simply never have enough bullets or resources to go all out “Uncharted” on the bad guys, and this functions very well to support a lot of interesting mechanics that keep the game exciting. A few of these systems include crafting, which will have the player constantly on the hunt for salvage to makeshift weapons, and useful items. As well as parts that can be used to upgrade weapons, or pills that can enhance the characters traits. There are also various collectables that will provide interesting backstory.
The only problem with these mechanics is the fact that the enemies will selectively drop loot, and it is sometimes frustrating when it’s clear that there should be something important to savage. Of course, this was merely a less than optimal solution for gameplay balancing, but it’s still an immersion breaker none the less. The second immersion breaker in this game is the AI, and just to be clear, I’m not inferring broken gameplay. Ellie and the other characters will generally interact well with the player, but problems often arise when you have multiple companions during a scenario that requires stealth. The AI will do it’s best to keep up with you, but if there is not enough room they will run off to hide somewhere else, loudly. Enemies will mysteriously not notice this noise, and it just feels odd. However, if they did, then we’d be looking at broken AI, so it’s just an annoyance, and not really a serious problem.
The Last of Us is a game that particularly does well in delivering a useful set of tools for the player to experiment with. This helps to keep the gameplay feeling fresh as it allows for so many different play styles, and whether it’s stealth, direct confrontation or a mix of both, players will generally have all the control they need to approach a scenario in the way they think suits it best. As previously mentioned, the game does not necessarily rely on just one idea, and this is clearly evident in both the freedom of gameplay, and how the designers have crafted each scenario to be unique and engaging. It will never just be waist-high walls, and shooting bad dudes, so don’t let the first section of the game set your expectations on what’s to come. I expect players will be consistently challenged.
Let’s talk about the specifics though, and the first aspect I want to discuss are the weapons. Wow, they feel powerful! It’s primarily a combination of great design, and the fact that you have to use them so sparingly. However, there is just something empowering about the way they feel, and this also includes the melee combat, which works especially well when the surrounding environment comes into play. The other core feature undiscussed until now is the listening mode, which might come across as a little unrealistic for a survival game. However, it does successfully add a unique layer to the core gameplay, and an especially interesting experience for the multiplayer. The most important thing here to clarify is that providing empowerment is not the same as making the game easy.
Essentially, the multiplayer component plays out through a “Meta-Game” where players will align themselves with a particular faction, and then spend 12 in-game weeks building a clan of survivors. One day is represented with one match, and the results of those matches will determine the fate of your clan. There will be unique challenges to undertake for bonuses, and you can also include the names of your real life friends with Facebook integration. It’s a fantastic alternative to the saturated XP model, but where this mode truly shines is just how faithfully they have translated the core gameplay into the experience. The action is calculated, team work is vital, and collecting salvage is the core for crafting useful items. Also, when a player is downed they will drop what is known as “parts”, and this can then be used as in-game currency to purchase upgrades or as a form of XP to build your clan.
If you’ve ever read my reviews before, you will notice that I don’t often take a lot of time to discuss a lot of multiplayer options. Personally, I have the mindset of going into an experience for one or the other, and don’t usually want to invest my time into tacked on competitive play. However, looking back on my work, I did take the time to praise the multiplayer component in Uncharted 2 when it first released, commenting that it was a breath of fresh air in a first-person dominated playing field. It was for this reason that I was intrigued to see how Naughty Dog had approached the multiplayer in The Last of Us, and I’m pleased to say that my impressions have been very positive. If anything, it’s a complimenting experience to the singleplayer game, and I expect that many players may go through at least one instance of the meta-game. It’s a great concept, and I believe it deserves to be acknowledged.
What else can I say about this game’s presentation other than it is absolutely stunning. This is arguably the best looking game ever to be released on a console, and it also manages to deliver some of the most beautiful, as well as emotionally traumatic experiences in any game I’ve played. The world design is just so well crafted and detailed, and the designers always ensure the player never has time to become bored with their surroundings. There were so many instances where I just had to stop and take in my surroundings, with one particular scene towards the end of the game that just took my breath away. The music is equally as inspiring, and as mentioned earlier, it even had the honour of being played live at the VGA’s months prior to the game’s release. However, the real shining talent comes from the actors who played Joel & Ellie. This is one of the best performances in a video game, period.
There is that much I could say about the narrative alone, that I could have literally spent this entire review breaking down the important aspects that defined it. The two lead characters have been written with so much care and consideration, and it’s remarkable the way that the writers have also been able to approach so many mature themes without pushing people the wrong way. It’s also necessary that I take a brief moment to acknowledge a comment I made in my review for Bioshock Infinite, and that was I expected that Elizabeth would be a focal point for the positive representation of females in gaming. I was wrong. Ellie is that defining character, and I stand by that with absolute certainty. This narrative will provide players with a genuine portrayal of two deeply flawed individuals, both of which are ultimately human. It does not play into cliche, and it is never about being a hero.
Ultimately, The Last of Us is a game that succeeds remarkably well in its overall vision. Is this enough to ensure that no one will be disappointed with the game? Absolutely not. Naughty Dog have never been that development studio that sets out to re-invent the way we play games, and will instead focus on delivering a high quality experience that is simply fun to play. And isn’t that what gaming is truly about? There is definitely a time and place for innovation, and I agree that time is well overdue, but what I see with The Last of Us is a shining example of all the great ideas that defined this generation, and I’m okay with that as well. If you’re more of a veteran player then you may find some aspects of the game design predictable, but the simple fact is that no game can ever live up to the hype. Expectations are defined by an individual’s perception, and all that can be promised here is quality.
Note: This review was based on the PS3 version of the game, and provided to us by Sony Computer Entertainment Australia.