Review: The Last of Us
By Zack Wheat on June 17th, 2013 (15 comments)
There really is no other company like Naughty Dog. It is impossible to fathom the existence of a group which releases hit after hit and seems utterly impervious to criticism. It could be reasoned that they are in some respects the Pixar of video games: every few years they come along to spin an engaging yarn, show off spectacular visuals, and grip you with engaging characters and story. When Naughty Dog speaks, the industry listens; when Naughty Dog begins a new franchise, the industry waits with bated breath. Crash Bandicoot staked its claim as one of the greatest platforming trilogies in history; Jak and Daxter evolved into darker territory in a way no other developer could ever manage; Uncharted showed us that video games should not emulate Hollywood, but surpass it. The Last of Us marks the first time Naughty Dog has ever released more than one franchise in a console generation, but it should at least be renowned for standing as Naughty Dog’s evolution beyond pulp action.
That it happens to be their most gripping and emotional work is probably worth remembering, too.
The Last of Us
Developer: Naughty Dog
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Release Date: June 14th, 2013 (PS3)
The Last of Us depicts the zombie apocalypse in a manner that is at once hopeful and hopeless. Yes, humans have managed to survive for another 20 years after “the infected” mysteriously arrived, but that doesn’t mean they’re faring particularly well. In order to survive, humans are forced to live inside walled-in communities held together by what remains of the government and armed forces. Walking around the starting area of Boston, I was reminded very strongly of Half-Life 2’s City 17 and the domineering Combine. Both spaces contain a populace in a world gone mad kept in line by a cold and heavily armed government promising that their way of life was the only way to survive. In both cases, the stories starred a main character who was both quietly dissident yet roundly disinterested.
That main character is a man named Joel, whose scruffy gray hairs tell the tale of a man who continues living but is unsure why. Thanks to a complicated set of circumstances, Joel is tasked with transporting young Ellie on a journey which becomes much more than he bargained for, and along the way the characters are irreversibly changed. The script succeeds because it is human, and makes the characters human, by giving them opportunities to explore the range of their morals and emote. That is the tricky part. The cast of Uncharted isn’t complex, but writer Amy Hennig was always skilled at thrusting them into situations where we would see the full scope of their emotions. Neil Druckmann has taken over both writing and directing duties for this outing, and his depiction of a quiet post-apocalypse is at times breathtaking in its perfect simplicity.
The script is brought to life by a cast of incredibly talented actors. In a just world, video games would be shown at the Academy Awards and Ashley Johnson would take away a Best Actress for where she takes Ellie as a character. Naughty Dog has always succeeded at writing some of the industry’s strongest female characters, and the strength that Johnson finds within Ellie and evolves over the course of the story is absolutely remarkable. Troy Baker has come a long way- anime fans may remember his early performances, such as in Fullmetal Alchemist,sounded akin to a man learning the English language- and this represents his most challenging role yet, which he pulls off most of the time. His Southern accent can be spotty, at times nice and subtle and at other times sounding a little too Hank Hill for anyone’s liking, but in moments of Joel’s quiet rage, he perfectly hits the mark. Supporting characters are given enough screen time to be fleshed out more than many games’ main characters, and every last one takes Druckmann’s masterful script and runs with it.
The game has a thick, rich atmosphere which permeates the entire experience, from the run-down buildings to the vast forests to the cities reclaimed by nature. Look to the changing seasons, and the explosions of color which accompany them; read the signs and the graffiti, which silently tell of how civilization fell; read the journals, some of which on their own tell the story of an unmet man’s last days. To race through the game is a crime that will result in missing some of the most vivid and affecting artwork of this generation. This is the strongest chance any of us will get to see what the post-apocalypse wouldreallylook like, and note that there’s not a bit of brown or drab. The focus is not on rubble and wreckage, but a quiet sense that humanity’s time is about wrapping up.
That quiet is only ever broken by simply brilliant sound design, put together with details that put other designers to shame. This is a game so dedicated to realism that characters’ voices become echoed and muffled if you are distant . Terrifying noises of the infected come through as what is possibly a legitimate attempt to provide a soundtrack for players’ nightmares. The startling thunderclaps of gunfire never cease to punctuate the raw brutality and ugliness of the violence depicted in the game, and serve to make infected encounters that much more terrifying. A shot fired at an infected can and will alert every enemy to your presence, making for a tense system of risk versus reward, and a slight flinch every single time the trigger is pulled. Humming underneath the sound design is an acoustic guitar-driven soundtrack which is all at once hauntingly beautiful, grippingly melancholic, and tragic beyond words. It is the perfect compliment to Naughty Dog’s vision of the end of the world: quiet, slow, and peaceful, with the occasional explosion of activity to match the bursts of intense violence. Academy Award-winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla has earned his pedigree here.
All of this wraps around the gameplay, however, and on this point I find myself split. The Last of Us is in no way a fun game to play, and should not at all be treated as such. The Last of Us is a tense, ugly, brutal game which wordlessly commands the player to not take the concept of violence lightly. Joel doesn’t kill as many humans as many other video game characters, but thanks to the sheer brutality of the violence, he is one of the few who we would label a murderer. If Call of Duty’s mass slaughter was depicted with the reality of The Last of Us, players would need psychiatric treatment afterwards.
But that’s dodging the question of is the gameplay in The Last of Us good, and my answer to that question is a shrug. There are things in The Last of Us which would be heavily criticized in other video games, but are clearly in this game for an important reason. Joel’s aiming, for example, is not very good. He shakes more than one might expect, which causes occasional frustration thanks to the game’s scarcity of ammunition. This in a traditional shooter would be a notable design flaw, but there is no question that making murder difficult is the point here; Joel is not a video game character, he is a person, and people do not have perfect aim, particularly when tense and under fire and old.
There are legitimate downsides to the gameplay, however. Joel has a breadth of options in battle, arguably some of the most I’ve seen in a game: use an item, craft an item, switch weapons, go back into your bag and pick out a different weapon, upgrade your melee weapon, grab a bottle or a brick to hurl it into someone’s face, multiple projectiles. There is so much that in certain encounters, I simply froze for a second while I was stuck working out exactly what to do. This is especially a problem late into the game, where the altogether too many forced gunfights result in a sense of wrongness as it becomes apparent that straight-up gunfights are not what The Last of Us is about. In those moments, the game really just becomes a clunky Uncharted, and it’s sad that things would be driven home in that way. Enemy AI is consistently strong at least, and you will need to think your battles and guerrilla tactics through, lest you be flanked and killed in seconds.
The level design can also cause unnecessary confusion, and at times disrupted the flow of the game such as when I spent far too much time wandering around an abandoned hotel with no clue where to go. This is largely because the game is just not very good at telling you what it wants you to do. I’m not asking for the game to hold my hand, but giving me an overarching “we’re trying to get across the city to the bridge” didn’t at all help direct me to the slightly askew elevator doors it wanted me to pry open.
Consistently strong, however, is the crafting system, which allows Joel to construct everything from medkits to bombs. It has been said that the great success of the crafting system is its eminently easy-to-use interface, and I would have to agree. You can easily duck in when in an intense situation, upgrade your melee weapon, and duck right out. No muss, no fuss, dive right back into the apocalypse. This is part of the games multiple very satisfying upgrade systems, though you will need to play the New Game+ mode to scratch the surface of touching on them all: Joel can use parts found in the environment to construct new holsters for himself, and can tinker with his arsenal to increase clip size, reload times, et cetera. This is done at workbenches, which are surprisingly rare, so appreciate them when you find them.
The multiplayer modes are based around two factions present in the main story who battle it out for supplies. In one mode, a player has a group of survivors who they must keep alive by reaching a particular supply quota per battle, but in the end this only ever translates to traditional team deathmatch and trying to be the best at it. The other mode is deathmatch, but there are no respawns. It’s not the most interesting multiplayer once you strip away the surrounding nonsense, and it’s fair to estimate that many players probably won’t touch it, but the mode is entertaining with a strong team. It holds the main story’s sense of desperation in battle thanks to a scarcity of supplies and the presence of the crafting system, but beyond that it’s standard cover-based third person multiplayer with not a lot of bullets.
The Last of Us is not a game to be played because it is fun. It is not fun. It is, in all honesty, one of the least fun games I have ever played. But it must be experienced by anyone who can stomach it, because there has never been another game like this and I honestly can’t say that there ever will be one for some time. Only a studio like Naughty Dog would have the pedigree to put this out on the market, and only a studio on their level of skill could make it work. The Last of Us is not a thrill ride, but a depiction of the slow unfurling of the darkness within all of us which awakens when the chips are down. Its “scruffy guy protecting a figure representing his child” setup has been done before in everything from The Road to Telltale’s The Walking Dead, but no other depiction of it has been like this. As the credits rolled to a close, and one of the most brave and morally complex endings in gaming dawned on me, I didn’t dwell on any potential gameplay missteps or the iffy multiplayer mode. I could only think of the fact that The Last of Us is one of the most interesting and different and brave games I have ever played.
80-89%: Great - Only very minor issues get in the way of greatness.
Zack Wheat is the Lead Writer at 4Player and fights the urge every day to make sweeping statements about video games using as many words as possible. He has an unbridled love for anything Metal Gear or Ace Attorney, a fondness for JRPGs, and a bias towards Atlus games. Follow him on Twitter, because he loves you.
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