Naughty Dog has been one of my favorite studios for a long time–as a child I played through the Jak and Daxter series, and when I got around to owning a PS3 I quickly fell in love with Uncharted. Uncharted 2 is one of my favorite games of all time, and Uncharted 3 was my game of the year in 2011. All of their recent games have been more than excellent–they’ve been the reason for owning a PlayStation 3.
The thing is, though, while all of Naughty Dog’s games have been fantastic, none of them have been defining like Shadow of the Colossus, Half-Life 2, or the original BioShock. They’ve made games that are fun as hell, but have only pushed the envelope in terms of production quality, rather than gameplay or story-telling. All of this changed with The Last of Us.
The Last of Us is a masterpiece, and the best game to come out this generation.
Name: The Last of Us
Developer: Naughty Dog
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
If you’ve seen screenshots of the game, you know that The Last of Us is gorgeous. Uncharted 3 was the best looking console game that was out, and now it’s The Last of Us. Characters get wet in the rain, weeds growing out of buildings look almost lifelike. Character animations are as smooth as butter. Everything is beautiful (except for the few times textures pop in). Multiple times in the game I stopped playing just to stare at the rabbits, roaches, or rats that crawl along the floor, and I spent even more time staring at the absolutely jaw-dropping landscapes. If you’re a graphics whore, you’ll adore The Last of Us.
Without spoiling too much of the story, The Last of Us takes place twenty years in the future in a post-apocalyptic United States. It follows Joel and Ellie as they travel across the states in search of well . . . you’ll have to play to find out.
Suffice it to say, though, you won’t be disappointed with this game. While playing through it, the game felt very reminiscent of The Road or Children of Men. While the story itself isn’t exactly revolutionary in the post-apocalyptic genre, the way the story is told is what makes The Last of Us a masterpiece. Naughty Dog has always been good with character interactions, from the CGI cutscenes to the in-game banter, but they take it to another level in The Last of Us. Never before have I cared about the characters as much as I cared about Joel and Ellie. Not only are the main characters multi-dimensional and well-crafted, but even the supporting characters are beautifully done, and stay with the player long after their segments are finished with. My favorite supporting characters are the two brothers, Henry and Sam. When I say that they’ll stay with you, just trust me.
Joel is one of the most interesting video game characters in recent memory–he isn’t even that likable of a character at the beginning. He’s no Nathan Drake–instead of being charming, roguish, and snarky, he’s rugged, brutal, selfish, and morally corrupt, but at least he’s a survivor. He’s a reluctant hero by every definition of the term and in the end you can’t help root for him, even though you play through his decisions, not your own.
The Last of Us is not a game that has huge questions that force the player to make a difficult moral choice. It isn’t a game about choice, it’s a game about Joel and Ellie’s story. This isn’t really a surprise when you think about previous Naughty Dog games, but in a game that focuses so much on what is the right thing to do or not, it’s something that strikes me as slightly odd, but I’m honestly glad the game is very linear in its story–it lets the story be told that much better.
Ellie is the second side-kick this year that is the focus of the game, the first being Elizabeth in BioShock Infinite. If you read my Infinite review, you know that I really liked Elizabeth, so when I say that Ellie makes Elizabeth seem boring and useless, I want you to understand my full meaning. Ellie is consistently moving around and investigating things, similar to Elizabeth, but she never just stands still and looks lifeless (one of my few complaints about Elizabeth). In combat, Ellie takes out enemies with her pistol, knocks enemies off of Joel when they grapple him, and throws bricks at their heads to distract them so that Joel can flank them.
I’ll use that to segue into the combat of The Last of Us. There are three main ways to play the game: stealthily or with guns blazing, or of course a combination of the two. The stealth is satisfying but difficult, because there are some times (not many) when I was unable to grab the enemy not because of my positioning, but because of a glitch where it wouldn’t register my button presses. While this was annoying, it luckily didn’t kill me (usually), but it ended my stealthy play and forced me to use my weapons. Luckily, the gunplay and melee combat in the game is very satisfying. The human AI in The Last of Us is for the most part incredible, and enemies work together to flank Joel and Ellie, and they’re actually smart. If there’s one guy left who only has a pipe and I have my revolver out, he’ll do his best to sneak around cover to get closer to me, rather than charging right at me, because that’s a fight he knows he’ll lose. The combat is similar against infected, but there it’s much easier to sneak around because most of the infected aren’t as bright as the humans, and because Naughty Dog wants you to sneak, because if you go in guns blazing, you’ll more than likely be overrun by the infected. Fighting the infected was my least favorite part of the game, but they don’t show up nearly as much as human enemies, so it’s not that big of a complaint. Joel does have good hearing though, and if you press the right trigger, Joel ducks down and the world turns grey and highlights enemies in range in white. I opted not to use this most of the time because I felt it unfair, but it is there in case you want to use it.
When you’re not fighting enemies, you’re usually scavenging for parts, pills, cloth, sugar, alcohol, blades, or wrapping. While The Last of Us is primarily an action-adventure game, it does dip its toes in the survival horror genre, and does so with great success. Most games pit you against a multitude of enemies without batting an eye, and the player easily wipes the floor with them. Not so with The Last of Us. Joel and Ellie are vulnerable, and whenever I had to fight against more than three characters, I found myself feeling nervous about dying and actually playing strategically–whenever you want to switch weapons besides the two you have equipped (a big gun and a pistol), Joel has to actually dig into his backpack and grab it, making him vulnerable to being shot–as well as playing to conserve my ammunition, supplies, and my health. At one point Joel tells Ellie to “make every shot count,” and he’s talking to the player there, too. The Last of Us is not forgiving if you waste your ammo and don’t play smart. While supplies aren’t rare on the easier difficulties, you do have to go out of your way to find them, and there are times where there are dry spells of certain supplies (ammo and blades were there most difficult to find).
All this scavenging is done for a reason, because there’s a crafting and upgrade system in the game. With the supplies, you craft first aid kits, shivs, molotov cocktails, nail bombs, and smoke bombs. With the parts and pills you can upgrade your guns and other gear (such as multiple holsters to conserve time between swapping weapons), and the pills can be used to increase maximum health, crafting time, healing time, or Joel’s hearing distance. This system is fairly simple, but there are quite a bit of upgrades to get through, so grabbing pills or parts is never a bad thing.
When Joel’s not sneaking, fighting, or scavenging, he’s usually solving some small puzzle in order to turn on a generator or get up on some ledge (like I said, he’s not Nathan Drake, and he’s also pretty old, so he can’t be climbing everywhere like Naughty Dog’s other leading male can). These sections are usually short and not terribly difficult, so they’re never tedious, and instead serve to break up the combat and exploring sections. Naughty Dog did an excellent job with placing these in the game without making them seem forced, and for that I commend them.
What makes The Last of Us stand above the other “great” games of this generation are its attention to small details. Every time you upgrade your weapon, it actually looks changed. If you have arrows in your inventory, you’ll see them poking out of your backpack. Book pages flutter in the wind. Joel clenches and unclenches his fists when he’s tense. When Joel and Ellie take cover, Joel will instinctively place an arm over Ellie’s head to protect her. None of these things are major, and that’s why they make the most difference. It’s this attention to detail that shows Naughty Dog put everything they had into this game, heart and soul.
The Last of Us isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty damn close.