The Last of Us Review
Platform(s): PlayStation 3
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Developer(s): Naughty Dog
Release Date: June 14, 2013
MSRP: $59.99 (Standard Edition), $79.99 (Survival Edition), $159.99 (Post-Pandemic Edition)
What would you do when the world “ends”; when society has collapsed and every man, woman, and child must fend for themselves with nary anyone to guide them in a world overrun by infected monstrosities and groups of people killing others just to survive? How would it feel to wake up every morning wondering if this day could very well be your last? Would you seek the comfort of friends and camaraderie to survive, or strike out on your own and hope for the best? This is the bleak world that The Last of Us, the latest adventure from acclaimed developer, Naughty Dog, paints for us, and in this world, a worn, middle-aged man named Joel and a hard ass, potty mouth teenager named Ellie become an unlikely duo on a journey across North America.
I’m going to keep this review as spoiler-free as much as possible, so if it sounds like I’m dancing around any issues, I’m not. I’m just trying not to give away anything that could detract from your experience with the game, seeing as The Last of Us places heavy emphasis on plot and character development, particularly Joel and Ellie’s relationship as they brave a shattered and hopeless wasteland. The story’s prologue immediately grabs on to you, laying a foundation for Joel’s character before it jumps ahead 20 years. The story does get rather slow at this point, and remains so until Ellie finally comes into the picture. I wish I could say that the plot remains consistently euphoric from that point until the end, but the truth is, The Last of Us’ story is marred by inconsistent pacing, predictable storytelling, and negligible sub-characters.
Joel and Ellie clearly remain the primary focal point on their journey, but as said journey continues, they meet some folks that either help or hinder them along the way. Bill is easily my favorite of the bunch, as his exchanges with Ellie are hilarious bouts of expletives and insults and he melds well with the journeying duo. Other characters, however, don’t really seem to leave their mark as much as I had hoped, and where certain moments should have been more emotionally gripping, I felt nothing at all and merely moved on. It’s disappointing to see a title that focuses on character development create characters that seemingly fail to leave their mark on the player’s experience.
What makes those encounters worse, as well as other facets of the plot and its share of twists and turns, is that it’s surprisingly predictable. The game doesn’t leave subtle hints or breadcrumb trails for you to possibly pick up on before a twist comes. I actually saw twists coming from a mile away, which greatly lessened the impact once they finally occurred. That’s not to say there aren’t any fantastic moments to behold. Quite the contrary, actually. Certain events push Joel and Ellie to the brink, creating memorable moments whether you see them coming or not, as their execution is still brilliantly emotional. I just wish the twists were better masked so that more intense moments weren’t so obvious and lose their sense of surprise.
Another issue with the story is how inconsistent the pacing seems to be. There will sometimes be periods of downtime as you traverse environments, and these periods seem to last a bit too long, though this really only applies early on in the game. Once the story really starts to pick up, periods of downtime are pretty much nonexistent. What hurts the pacing more, though, is how long periods of time are skipped in the plot. At one point, Joel and Ellie will be in one place, and the next thing you know, a season has passed and they’re in a new location without any explanation of how they got there, what occurred during that time, and the two seem to have not really bonded much more during that time.
Which brings me to yet another issue: Joel and Ellie’s relationship. As I said, there are events that push the two to their limits, bringing them closer together, and these moments are heart-wrenching, jaw-dropping, and create a greater connection between the player and the traveling companions, which is one of the strongest facets of The Last of Us. However, by the end of the game, it really seemed like Joel and Ellie were still somewhat strangers to each other, even after everything they’ve been through. For example, Ellie brings up a subject about Joel’s past that she knew about for a very long time and would have been more appropriate to bring up when she first learned of it, but instead, it’s brought up a long time after that and it feels forced when she does bring it up. It really gave off this air of unfamiliarity between the two, which is extremely odd, considering everything they go through together and how strong their bond has supposedly become.
Perhaps the most jarring thing about The Last of Us, however, is the ending. Without giving anything away, once the credits started rolling, I simply felt overwhelmingly baffled. The ending felt abrupt and unsatisfying, and given the epic journey I just experienced, I came to expect something far more substantial, but couldn’t help but feel short-changed. It’s a shame, really, as getting to that point is such a great experience. It’s worth noting the fantastic voice work that contributed to this story, with the amazing Troy Baker, who also did the voices of Booker DeWitt in BioShock Infinite and Kanji Tatsumi in Persona 4, doing a fantastic job as Joel. The rest of the cast does a phenomenal job, as well, delivering every line expertly and breathing life into each and every character. The desolate world of The Last of Us is brought to life even more by the benchmark graphics and art direction. This is the pinnacle of graphical power that this generation is ever going to see, with realistic-looking character models and intricately detailed environments that truly paint the depressing picture of a destroyed and gloomy world. One look at this game in motion and your jaw will drop to the floor. It’s practically graphical perfection.
The Last of Us, clearly, is more about the journey than the destination, and yes, what you do on that journey shines. It plays as an over-the-shoulder, third-person shooter with a very heavy emphasis on stealth. Taking cover, using the environment to your advantage, diligently using Listen Mode, which allows Joel to hear enemies in the surrounding area and thus reveal their locations, and silently dispatching enemies are the name of the game here, especially when dealing with infected people. This is not a game where you will succeed by running around guns blazing. You will die with that strategy, especially early on when you have barely any supplies and weapons and the game’s upgrade system hasn’t fleshed itself out yet. Enemy encounters are pulse-pounding and tension-filled moments every single time, demanding careful progression if you don’t want to get caught.
You’ll be forced to tackle both humans and infected people, and encounters with each demand different approaches. Humans walk around like sentries, constantly keeping their eyes peeled for trespassers. If they find a body or see you, they immediately go into alert and search diligently. If you engage them in a firefight, they’ll take cover and won’t needlessly poke their heads up while waiting to take a bullet to the head. The A.I. is extremely intelligent, aggressive, and will push you to your limits, even on Normal difficulty. You’ll want to take as many out silently as you can, whether you creep up from behind and choke them out, shiv (i.e. knife) them, or use your bow to take them out from long range. If you do alert them, you have to run and hide or they will gang up, flank you, and kill you.
Infected enemies, however, demand an even more delicate strategy. These are classified as either Runners, Clickers, or Bloaters. Runners, as you may have guessed, run faster than you. They come strong and hit hard, thrashing about and grabbing hold of you, leaving you vulnerable to surrounding threats. Clickers are an even more serious threat. While they can’t see, the slightest sound will alert them, and getting grappled by a Clicker without a shiv and an upgrade that allows you to expend a shiv in order to escape is an instant death. I’m not kidding. If a Clicker gets you, it’s over and you’ll have to restart the checkpoint, and getting grabbed by a Runner first can make this scenario even more likely. Knowing the difference between life and death lies with one small mistake makes encounters extremely tension-filled and brutal, but oh-so satisfying once you manage to survive. Knowing when to avoid enemies entirely, which is possible and even encouraged in order to save supplies and your life, is also of the utmost importance. I found myself holding my breath at times just trying to avoid alerting the Clickers, which isn’t necessary and quite silly when you think about it, but it goes o show just how immersive this game can be. Every time I managed to take one out silently (which requires a shiv) was a small victory in and of itself. As for Bloaters, think of them as Clickers that have weak points that must be shot out in order to kill them and are able to spew projectiles that eat away at your health. Oh, and they can still kill you instantly if they grab on to you, so they’re bundles of fun. Infected encounters are brutal and heart-wrenching moments, but at the same time, are immensely fun and extremely satisfying.
Of course, you’ll need to be prepared for such encounters, and when you’re not busy trying to survive, you’ll be scavenging for supplies. Checking cupboards and desk drawers, unlocking doors with shivs, and searching every nook and cranny for supplies is crucial to survival. Ammo is extremely limited and you can only carry so much, so searching the environment for some is a must, lest you want empty weapons. There are also supplies for making health kits, smoke and makeshift explosive bombs, shivs, and even modifying melee weapons such as bats and pipes with one-hit kill modifications that can take out any enemy in a single blow. There are also parts to find that you can use to upgrade Joel’s weapons as well as supplements that can upgrade Joel’s abilities, such as maximum health, increase the range of Listen Mode, quickening his ability to make health kits and items on the fly, and more. There are even a range of collectibles to find, such as comic books, Firefly pendants, and documents and journals left behind by previous inhabitants. The documents and journals are really the only collectibles of note as they help paint a greater picture of just how bleak Joel and Ellie’s world has become while the rest just feel like they were thrown in for Trophies. Regardless, it’s essential to scavenge in The Last of Us, as having those extra bullets and health kits could mean the difference between life and death.
Beyond The Last of Us’ roughly 10-hour single-player campaign lies a rather interesting multiplayer component. Shirking the usual leaderboard climbing and superfluous need to improve one’s kill/death ratio, the mutliplayer instead focuses on fighting for your clan’s survival, whether it be the Fileflies or the Hunters, depending on which you select upon starting up the mode. The goal is to sustain your camp of survivors for 12 weeks, with one multiplayer match representing one day of a week. As you play through both modes of The Last of Us’ multiplayer, you’ll acquire supplies from performing such tasks as downing and performing executions on enemies, healing allies, collecting supplies from boxes scattered about, and marking enemies for other players to see on their radar. Once the match ends, those supplies are then given to your home camp, where they are used to sustain your fellow survivors. The more supplies you bring, the more survivors will join your camp, which means more multiplayer upgrades and unlocks for you, such as weapons, perks, and customization options. Failing to bring enough supplies will cause your denizens to starve and get sick, and if everyone eventually dies, you’ll have failed to reach your goal of surviving for 12 weeks. It’s fascinating how the world of the single player campaign has been drawn right into the multiplayer, creating a unique experience that also feels appropriate.
Gameplay elements are also adapted into the multiplayer suite as well, with Listen Mode and scavenging and crafting items and health kits being completely integrated, just like in the campaign. You can also pick up parts along the way, which serve two purposes. They can either be spent to acquire ammo or upgrade your weapons on the fly, or you can hold onto them until after the match ends, where they are converted into supplies for your camp. The multiplayer is strictly 4-on-4 matches, but don’t let the small numbers dissuade you. They actually serve to heighten the tension, as stealth is an integral part of getting the jump on your enemies, just like the campaign. Besides, chaotic 16-on-16 matches, for example, just wouldn’t fit the style of this game, seeing as it would hurt the stealth element of it all with an abundance of people running around everywhere.
There are two modes of play available. The first is Supply Raid, which grants each team 20 lives. The first to lose all of those lives loses. While taking each other out, each side fights to collect supplies from toolboxes scattered around the map, which are vital to your camp’s success outside of battle, so they quickly become a priority beyond simply killing your opponents. The other mode is Survivors, which is exactly as it sounds. Each player only has one life, and once you die, you’re out for the round, which greatly replicates the tension-filled encounters of the single-player campaign, though instead, it’s against live players, which greatly ups the ante in terms of difficulty if you happen to be playing against solid players. The last team standing wins, whether it be after the allotted 5 minutes have expired while having more survivors left or wiping out the other team. The first team to then win four rounds wins the match. I’ll admit, I didn’t expect the multiplayer of The Last of Us to be anything impressive, as it seemed it was clearly developed as a single-player experience, but what’s here is surprisingly fun and well-adapted to the world Naughty Dog has created here.
Taking it as a whole, The Last of Us is an outstanding gameplay experience, with enemy encounters that will have you on the edge of your seat and the addictive nature of scouring the environment for supplies consuming your time in order to better your chances of survival. Joel and Ellie are a compelling duo that manages to have some powerful, emotional, and memorable moments, but are hamstrung by a narrative that’s mind-numbingly predictable, paces itself too unevenly, manages to develop Joel and Ellie’s relationship in a baffling manner with an ending that is just as baffling, and scatters secondary characters that, for the most part, aren’t very memorable, despite the admirable voice cast bringing these characters to life and the breathtaking world that surrounds them. It clearly isn’t the masterpiece it could have been, but even with its narrative shortcomings, The Last of Us is still an excellent title that every PlayStation 3 owner should have in their library.