I’m going to warn you now: this is not a spoiler-free review. I’m not going to ruin the game for you but I’m not tip-toeing around. That’s all you’re getting.
Have you ever watched I Am Legend? You know, that movie with Will Smith about the end of the world at the hands of some kind of manufactured disease that turns humans into some kind of monstrosities similar to vampires or zombies? In case you haven’t, Will Smith’s character parades around a metropolitan city, living day to day, trying to reach out to what remains of humanity while coming up with a cure, as he’s a military scientist, in spite of the fact that the city is overrun with these monsters during the nighttime. He tries to eke out some semblance of a normal life with his dog and his… imaginary friends. Later on in the movie, it’s implied that there are quarantine zones where the military is holed up, securing survivors. Over the course of the movie, too, you see how Will Smith was forced to respond as this disease is released on humanity and causing immediate and desperate evacuations.
There’s a lot of parallels in I Am Legend and The Last of Us. Not just in its story but in its presentation. It moves quickly to establish a very serious tone and gets only more serious and dire from that moment. The Last of Us opens with a segment showing the main character, Joel, with his daughter at the onset of the pandemic – some kind of parasitic plague that acts like cordyceps unilateralis, a naturally occurring organism that is capable of altering the form and function of ants – that mounts against humanity so sharply and quickly that humanity has almost no time whatsoever to respond. A lot of people die and things just get worse from there – this pandemic has turned infected humans into a shambling semblance of their former selves. The infected either continue to change and grow or they start breaking down and become more plant than human.
Fast forward twenty years and you have an embittered Joel trying to get through life the best way he knows how: as a goods smuggler. He and his partner, Tess, are confronted with an extremely awkward contract from a rebel cause called the Fireflies: smuggle a child out of the military blockade and into a Firefly compound. Joel is given no real information other than the girl is extremely important and that the contract comes from the leader of the Fireflies, making this even more important.
You don’t really need to know more than that to know that your journey will take you across the wasteland and things go from bad to worse to even worse at almost regular intervals. This game makes absolutely no mistakes about the tone and tries to be as realistic as it can be about the circumstances presented. These creatures that you’re faced against have one purpose and one purpose only: to spread the infection.
That brings me to the gameplay: this game seems to borrow elements from many triple-A titles but keeps all the gameplay elements in context with the story. Like Tomb Raider and Fallout 3 before it, the name of the game is that of resourcefulness: you have to conserve every bullet, you have to make every item, you have to find every resource you can and you can only upgrade your weapons at workbenches. If you’re not resourceful, you will not succeed. You sometimes have to pick your battles based on how your inventory counts out. Combat is a very important part of the game and it actually plays very differently depending on what you’re fighting – the infected come in different varieties and sometimes you’re fighting fellow survivors. For example, there are two main grunt types: runners and clickers. The clickers’ heads have been deformed to the point where they have absolutely no vision so, like bats, they make this sound in order to find their way around using echolocation. They are easy to navigate around if you’re careful and strategic but one slip-up could mean disaster, killing either you or your inventory. Runners, on the other hand, haven’t been infected as long as clickers so they still have their sight and enter into rage as soon as another uninfected human is seen. They often move in larger numbers and can overwhelm you easily if you’re not careful but they are easier to fend off via melee combat. Humans operate in much the same way they do, realistically, like in other stealth combat games before it, nothing really new, there.
Everything feels very organic and flows very well together – there’s a lot of times where I caught myself thinking I was in an exploration section just to be jumped from behind by a runner and find out that the area is crawling with infected. Combat scenarios and story exposition doesn’t feel disconnected, either, which is great. It drives home the sense that no matter where you are, no matter what you’re doing, you should never assume you’re safe – and if you’re safe and calm, there’s a good chance you got lucky, in the context of the story.
They took everything they did right about every game they made before and propped them into this game. They have learned from other developers, for sure, as well. I see flavors of many games and experiences past. I was still shocked by some of the story’s twists that I’ve discovered so far – which doesn’t happen very often – but those twists are definitely not new for the whole “zombie, not zombie” style of story: this is something that I’d like to point out. This game is nothing new. This game doesn’t do anything that games past haven’t done. Why this game is a shining example of how games should be made is not in the new ground it paves or risks it takes but rather in the attention to detail, the writing, and refinement this game shows. There is definitely a sense of what people really want from a game in this and there is an extreme sense of care and detail that went into this. I am reminded of how Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty felt when I first played it: I went in with great expectations and anticipation going into the game and I was taken for a ride – not a path I haven’t been down before but rather given a ride that made the journey from point A to point B extremely worth it.
Given, there’s a lot of the game left open to me so it’s possible that my opinions will change but as it stands, right now, I am so impressed that I’ll be hard-pressed to find a better title this year for the PlayStation 3. I think it’s sold out around the world for a reason – hype alone can’t always do that.