This one doesn’t need much introduction; unless you’ve been hiding underneath a large rock in the gaming world for the last year, you’ve heard of this one. In case you haven’t heard, it’s also doing really well among critics and fans. If this, still, isn’t enough to convince you, many are already making game of the year predictions – myself included – and the ending is disturbing a lot of people’s shit and causing a general ruckus. That’s usually how you can tell a seriously high-quality game apart from the rest, these days – see how much dramatics it’s causing and you can almost gauge how good it is by how many people are fighting over it. Seemed to work for Mass Effect 3.
I shouldn’t have to say this but this review won’t be spoiler-free. You have officially been warned and normally I try to be as neutral as possible when talking about a game that not everyone was able to get their hands on for a while, I feel I’ve waited long enough to write this review that everyone that intends to buy this game has already played at least a little of it, so here goes, my review for The Last of Us:
Once you first boot up the game, you’re not initially treated to anything incredibly unique: The Last of Us is a cover-based, third-person shooter with a strong emphasis on scavenging and melee combat. As you progress, though, things begin to change – you find that there’s many ways to progress through the game and how prepared you are for every combat situation can drastically change how – or even if – you progress further.
The best way to explain how combat goes down in The Last of Us is to demonstrate it: you’re in what used to be an office cubicle farm, stationed in a building that’s almost toppled over, leaning on another skyscraper. Lights are down and the area is positively filled with these things called clickers – if you haven’t read my article about the infected in this game you definitely should now – and you’re already faced with a few options: there’s about ten clickers in the office, meaning that if you make any amount of loud noise, you’re going to be swarmed and, unless you have a good plan, you won’t be able to get the clickers off of you. Your one-hit melee weapons and your shivs are the only things capable of taking out the clickers at close range once they’re closing in on you and once they grab you, the only thing that can save you are shivs. Even then, the shivs only get them off of you and you need to spend points towards the ability to do just that. I try to keep my shivs and modified melee weapons aside for emergencies. If you used a long-range weapon, in this situation, you will immediately alert them all to your presence, demanding that have at least two shots per clicker for even your high-powered weapons, if they’re not upgraded. You could sneak by them, find alternate routes, but even that is absolutely fraught with danger – one slip-up and you’re gutted. This is where the survival and scavenger instincts come into play and turn this usual cover-based game into something special: when you start, if you take one path, you find a lead pipe lying there at your feet, which is the best melee weapon you can pick up from the ground. You can also find ammunition lying around on the person of many infected. Factor in that you can makeshift a kind of proximity bomb and Molotov cocktails – which send shrapnel firing off in many directions once triggered and sets an area of the ground on fire on impact, respectively – and you have a great deal of options. What I did, personally, in that particular situation was this: I threw a Molotov cocktail at a couple of the clickers that were close enough together where I could hit them both and after the fire died down and enough of them came around to investigate the noise and burning, I threw a proximity bomb and the shrapnel took out the stragglers. This strategy, though, wasn’t perfect and I still had to defend myself against a couple others that were walking around elsewhere.
This is a great example of the beauty of why combat works in this game and doesn’t feel stapled on. It compliments the setting of the game and the story that goes along with it all. You’re not some high-powered mercenary fighting off gun-toting thugs on a aircraft carrier, you’re a goods smuggler fighting off what appear to be plant zombie things in the shattered and broken remains of what’s left of the planet – which, I might add, seems like there’s not much of it left to speak for. Of course, things change when you introduce the human element and, yes, you will be fighting various human varieties of enemies, too. How you have to approach each combat situation is changed centrally around how much attention you’ve been paying to the world around you and how many resources you’ve gathered in the meantime.
Everything else is just your basic exploration-type gameplay between combat segments, really: something already familiar to Naughty Dog veterans like myself but a fresh change of pace in how it’s handled. There’s a lot of extrapolation through dialogue between characters and you get a real feeling for how much of an impact that exploration is actually making for your party. It’s another thing that feels more organic, even if it’s less integral than the combat and story segments. Everything feels incredibly organic and it flows very nicely with everything else in the game.
With that in mind, though, the game is not without basic flaws: you have path-finding problems with the non-player characters, periodically, and sometimes the environments don’t respond the way they should. These are all things that can be fixed with time with patches but they shouldn’t really have left the factory with some of the periodical glitchiness that does come up. While this could be excused by trying to stay in context of the game’s story and environment, I was really unimpressed with the unstable difficulty level. It could be completely tense for a time, keeping you on the edge of your seat, and then for no reason at all, the area becomes a complete death zone. I’m not going to spoil it for you but there’s a spot where you’re just exploring a building, trying to get through, which is tense enough because things are too quiet, but you drop through the floor into a literal hotplate for the infected, complete with runners, stalkers, clickers, and a couple bloaters. Did I mention that the only way to proceed further out of that section is to start a gas generator, guaranteeing you alert each and every one of them? It’s that kind of difficulty spike that’s really unnecessary, to me, but it can be explained away in the context of the setting and plot and that’s the only reason I’m not cursing it.
This is the big one, folks: the one game of the year that will blow your socks off. While Bioshock Infinite gave you Shyamalan-style twists that were fantastic and otherworldly, The Last of Us presents us with a very realistic, scary, and terrible circumstance: a pandemic washes over humanity that expands so quickly that humanity has no time to react in kind. This pandemic comes in the form of a fungal plague that actually exists in reality but only for a select type of ants; this fungal plague mutates so that it is able to perform its functions on humanity, effectively turning those infected into shambling shells of their former selves, resembling zombies. We gain control of our main character, Joel, who lost his daughter as a direct result of the panic caused by this pandemic, and has not been able to cope with his loss since. Fast-forward twenty years and you start to see Mother Nature taking her planet back and the infected are sporadic all throughout the world, or so it seems. All have their stake in the shaken world around them but there are two main factions known to Joel and the citizens left in the world – the governments, as broken as they are, and the Fireflies, who are basically rebels against the government faction: the government is trying to get everything in order and reestablish the control they once had while the Fireflies appear more concerned with humanity and its recovery from this pandemic and also its freedom from governmental control.
Joel makes a living – or what resembles a living in this climate – being a goods smuggler, a kind of modern-day Robin Hood, taking from government supplies that are stocked but not given to those in need, and distributing it among those in his community. Joel also takes contracts, it would seem, so he seems to be a jack of all trades. After settling up a feud with a personal enemy of his, him and a personal friend – there seems to be a romantic tension there that’s never really addressed – receive a contract to smuggle a young girl out of government control and to a hand-off point where a Firefly agent would receive her and transport her further. The contract starts out as one in trade for guns and ammunition but, as the escort goes on, things complicate further.
There’s a lot that happens after but there’s a lot of heart-wrenching and mind-blowing that goes on here that any post-apocalyptic tale-done-right will wave around – society has crumbled, people are showing their true colors, there’s no room for tact or professionalism, and some have turned into psychotic bandits. You’re faced with humankind at its worst and you’re merely just trying to find your way through without losing Ellie, Joel’s escort.
Ah, Ellie: the raison d’etre, as it were: I’m going to get a little spoiler-heavy, here, because the relationship between Joel and Ellie is a big part of this game and a lot of the plot is involved in Ellie, so… just skip it if you don’t want to be spoiled, I guess. Ellie is Joel’s contract from the head of the Fireflies and you learn early on that Ellie appears to be immune to the infect as she’s harboring a bite and she hasn’t turned over. After the transport to the Fireflies goes awry a couple of times and Joel losing his partner-in-crime, Tess, Joel takes it upon himself to transport her to the Fireflies, much to his dismay. What you see is a serious internal confrontation going on – Joel lost his daughter and seriously blames himself for not being able to protect her. He’s had this boiling in the back of his mind for twenty years and he’s not exactly apt to let that bitterness go anytime soon. Ellie, not knowing this, tries to get him to open up but she’s got some personal wounds of her own to deal with, not to mention the weight of the fact that she may be humanity’s only hope in overcoming the pandemic. As you’d guess, they don’t always meet eye-to-eye but then something happens: they realize that they’re perfect for one another – Joel is looking for someone to protect in his daughter’s stead, where he could actually help and feel like he actually has value; Ellie, on the other hand, is tired of being such a big deal and just wants to give in to the feeling of becoming a daddy’s girl. They start licking each other’s wounds and, after some time, come to rely strongly on one another.
That brings us to the controversial ending which, even though this is spoiler-rich, I’m not going to give away. Let’s just say that things happen as you should have expected and yet not, at the same time, leaving a lot of possibility open for DLC and any kinds of sequels, though talks of either have been limited. Naughty Dog has been adamant in saying that Joel and Ellie’s story has ended but I feel that they are kind of being dodgy about this; that they are choosing their words carefully so that way they can take certain paths and not run into the hellfire Bioware had to face a year and change ago. The way I see it, there will be some side-stories told in the form of DLC soon – could be a story of how Joel and Tess got together and their story explaining all the romantic tension, a story of the Fireflies and the government, a story of what happened shortly after the pandemic started, away from Joel, maybe telling it from the perspective of a drafted soldier. However, there does leave room for a sequel – what happens to just Ellie? The fact that Joel survived for as long as he did after being wounded bad and then not having proper antibiotic treatment is a miracle but he won’t be around forever: Ellie will have to launch out on her own and I think that will offer a different story altogether. Yes, Joel and Ellie’s story may be done – the one they had together – but Ellie’s story, alone, is not.
The Final Verdict
This is a game you cannot miss, this year. There is absolutely no reason why you can’t at least try it – you can download a demo from the PlayStation Network and the demo also comes packed in a very decent game, God of War: Acension – so if you haven’t at least tried it, at this point, you’re avoiding it, and you’re missing out on one hell of an experience.
I’ll basically repeat to you something I said to a coworker of mine who was deciding on whether or not to purchase the game because he “had heard things from both sides, saying that it was equally bad and good” and wanted to, at least, check it out because he enjoyed the Uncharted games: I would pay three times the money I initially paid to buy this game. I almost feel like buying ten copies to support this kind of approach to game-making. I want more games like this: not games that take place in a post-apocalyptic zombie-not-zombie wasteland – no, that can get overdone really quickly. I want games that have this kind of in-depth storytelling, that have this much attention to detail, that have this kind of graphical prowess that accepts the weaknesses of the system but also plays to its strengths, that plays to what’s necessary to the narrative and not, particularly, everything the market demands – yes, it is a cover-based combat game but it doesn’t pander to all the standards demanded – a game that just makes all the extra efforts in all the right ways. Mass Effect 3 went from credible artistic integrity to trying to hard to keep everyone happy over time and, while that did work, for the most part, I did lose a little respect for Bioware, going forward from that, even if going with EA would have been a dual-edged blade to begin with. The Last of Us is a game that brings out the best in gaming while telling a story that stays true to its context. It’s a brilliant melding of mediums and I don’t think I’ve seen a game that has brought these together so well since Metal Gear Solid 4.
Buy it. Enjoy it. Complete it. Discuss it. That’s what I think.