Reviewed on Playstation 3, Offical Website
Rated “M” for Mature.
20 years after a pandemic fungal infection has wiped out civilization and created a feral hunter-class of infected, humanity lives on the edge. Rigidly controlled but exquisitely vulnerable quarantine zones represent the last of organized government. People get along as best they can under constant threat from sickness, starvation and their fellow survivors.
Joel and Tess are smuggler’s doing whatever needs doing in the Boston quarantine zone. Ellie is a young girl inexplicably immune to the plague destroying humanity. Your story begins when Joel is begrudgingly convinced to escort Ellie to a shadowy group of rebels who believe they can use her to synthesize a cure and break the hold of the totalitarian government.
I’ve previously written about the stunning and brutal E3 Game Play Trailer and the Release Demo here on DepressedPress and covered my initial thoughts on the game’s enemies on our sister site, MoreBrains.com. If that didn’t clue you in, this was a game that I was preparing to savor. I wasn’t disappointed.
[Two quick notes: Firstly, this review is so late due to the fact that, with a tall stack of unplayed games looking at me, I refuse to pay full price for a game. I can wait three or four months for the price to drop. Secondly this review will only cover the single-player experience. I’m not much for multi-player at the best of times but, with that stack of games looming, I simply don’t have time for multi-player.]
Crafting and Character Progression
The simplistic crafting and upgrade mechanics work well. The dual layer upgrade mechanic – you need both enough of the generic “parts” and the required set of tools to create upgrades at the few scattered workbenches – effectively fences off the more powerful options until the end game. Upgrades affect all weapons of that type from that point on. It may not be realistic, but it does encourage experimentation.
The crafting mechanic is balanced to support specific game play styles as well. For example, the same ingredients are used to create both health kits and Molotov bombs. Similarly explosive shrapnel granades and close up shivs also share ingredients. This forces the player to conserve their resources to better prepare for unexpected threats. Balancing that is the severe limit on the amount of resources allowed to be carried. This creates a constant pressure to use them or risk not being able to grab that next roll of tape or cherry bomb.
If there’s a complaint to be made it’s that the resources, especially weapons, are often too limited. You are able to carry multiple handguns but only two “long” weapons. After using the very effective shotgun throughout an entire level I spent my parts to upgrade it but was unable to find another for most of the game. Granted, the weapons available later were more useful, but I did feel that I wasted my resources upgrading a weapon I rarely saw again.
To address the basics first the mechanics of the game are just as polished and tight as you’d expect from the makers of “Uncharted”. That’s not to suggest that they are in any way cloned from that game. Rather, in the same way that a luxury car controls differently than a sports car, they are tuned to the circumstances and the needs of this story.
Controlling Nathan Drake in “Uncharted” felt easy and carefree. Animations, such as reloading, were clockwork precise and very fast. Combat was bombastic, impersonal and could have been pulled from directly from a Hollywood action movie. Controls in the “The Last of Us” are less sure, more tentative. Animations are longer and more realistic. Combat is brutal and animalistic; completely about survival rather than heroics. You play several characters over the course of the game and the controls for each feels appropriate and correct.
Your inventory is extremely limited (perhaps too rigidly, but it works) and accessing it requires the character to rummage through their backpack in real-time. The added tension of finding a safe place to exchange weapons or dig out a first-aid kit is subtle but adds meaningfully to the experience. This is all to ensure that the player remains rooted to the reality that the game portrays. A grim, deadly reality that strikes uncomfortably close to home.
Throughout much of the game you’ll have companions and while there are issues they are generally well behaved and even often helpful. The main issue with them is one of realism, not gameplay. Your companions tend to be fidgety and noisy but are completely ignored by enemies while your character’s slightest bump sends them into a murderous charge. There are some simplistic “Ico-style” puzzles involving opening paths for your friends, but overall they’re some of the more capable A.I. friends around.
Strong mechanics might carry a game but rarely make it a classic. What we remember are the characters and how they interact with the story being presented. “The Last of Us” makes the hat-trick by providing an incredibly engaging setting for its wonderfully sculpted characters to have deeply effective relationships.
The game actually starts with what amounts to a prologue, set in the present day. It walks us through the madness and hysteria that accompanied the initial outbreak and sets the tone for the future that evolved from it. We’re introduced to Joel and given direct insight into his character and why this mission with Ellie may be problematic for him.
Having spent a significant portion of my life in Boston I was gleefully excited that the early chapters of the game were set there. Boston is an old city. Its twists, turns, nooks and crannies are brilliantly suited to this kind of experience. The environment, as rich and detailed as it was, sadly ended up more “Boston-like” than Boston. I can’t bring myself to knock the game for it – it’s clear the gameplay came first – but it was personally disappointing.
A Word about Trophies
In a departure for Naughty Dog the trophy set for “The Last of Us” is rather dull and difficult. After completing the game on “normal” difficulty, with no guides or help, I only earned a paltry 5% of the available trophy value. Most of the trophies are collection based and most of the value is wrapped up in completion of the game’s many difficulty levels and “new game plus” modes. Finally, unlike the “Uncharted” series which encouraged, but didn’t demand, extensive online play, several of the trophies require significant dedication to the online modes.
All things considered, as good as the game is it can only be seen as a disappointment for trophy hunters.
The environments are rather pointedly constrained and almost completely linear, but gorgeous nonetheless. The evidence of collapse and the reclamation of nature is everywhere. Creeping plants, running water, resurgent wildlife and weather are all wonderfully, but subtly, realized. There is also significant variation. Urban offices, city streets, suburban neighborhoods and wilderness accompany the expected ruined subway tunnels and sewers.
The game masterfully creates tension where none actually exists by playing, perhaps subconsciously, with common tropes. As an example (and a very minor spoiler, I suppose): when entering a deserted suburb you’ll see a dog in the distance, which then runs off. During the entire sequence I was absolutely convinced that I would be attacked by a pack of feral dogs. It never happened. The game bought a significant amount of nervous tension, and it bought it cheap. It does it over and over again, paying off just exactly enough to keep you on edge.
The story is just as linear, if not more so than, the environments. Every major decision takes place in a cut scene; out of the player’s control. It’s an excellent story and completely engaging but the persistent and continuous loss of control negatively affects immersion. This is disappointing. I plan on addressing the topic more in a spoiler-filled tirade but, suffice to say, you’ll often be made to feel like a spectator. Like most Naughty Dog games the characters are far from original but are excellently defined and realized. Refreshingly, character logic is respected at all times. You’ll likely not agree with all of the character’s choices but they’ll always make sense.
Despite the several problems that I’ve mentioned, “The Last of Us” is an undeniable achievement. It will stand proudly as one of the greatest games of this generation. That said, the game does play things safe. It might have benefited greatly from experimentation with interactive narrative structure, but instead relies on tried-and-true exposition techniques. The story and characters are a fresh and interesting take on well-worn themes. In short, Naughty Dog doesn’t create genres: it perfects them. It’s very difficult to complain about that.