|The Last of Us
|Developer: Naughty Dog||Release Date: June 14, 2013|
|Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment||ESRB Rating: M|
|Platforms: PS3||MSRP: $59.99|
After the release of Uncharted 2 in 2009, most people assumed that the talented people at Naughty Dog would be focusing their efforts on the final chapter in Nathan Drake’s story. Well, this turned out to be half right; at the Spike Video Game Awards show at the end of 2011, it was revealed that one of the teams at the company were working on a brand new IP for the Playstation 3. The trailer they showed was stunning, and caught the attention of gamers everywhere, myself included. Finally, a year and a half later, The Last of Us has finally arrived. With the gaming public preparing for the upcoming release of the Playstation 4, this could very well be the last big PS3 exclusive. Does the game live up to its hype? Thankfully, the answer is an unequivocal “Yes”.
In nature, there is a parasitic fungus called Ophiocordyceps unilateralis which infects insects, such as ants. The fungus grows inside the ant and consumes its soft tissue, while at the same time fundamentally changing the host’s behavior. These “zombie” ants leave their colony, cling to the underside of low hanging leaves, and die, thus allowing the parasite to reproduce. There are several similarly terrifying parasites in the animal kingdom that thrive by changing their hosts’ behavior, and it is no small comfort that most of these pose no threat to humans. However, The Last of Us asks the question, “What if?” Taking place in a near-future, mankind has been devastated by an outbreak of a fungus that, similarly to O. Unilaterlis, changes the behavior of its host; in this case, humans. These infected are completely hostile, lashing out violently toward any human they come across. All it takes is a single bite from one of the infected to transfer the fungus to a new host, thus continuing the cycle. Well, that doesn’t sound familiar, now does it? Yes, from the surface the infected do appear to basically just be another name for zombies, and from a mechanics standpoint, there is little difference. However, the thing that sets the two apart and what really makes The Last of Us shine is the attention to detail. Where as most games with zombies offer little (or more often no) explanation as to the nature or reasoning of their monsters, the origins and process of infection is on full display. Players will get up close and personal with all stages of the infected, up to and including the final stage of the fungus’ life cycle, which turns the host into an empty, spore-spawning husk. It’s a unique experience, and one that is presented in a way that manages to inform players without giving them a graduate-level course in biology.
Two decades after the initial outbreak of the infected, all that remains of civilization are a few scattered outposts and heavily controlled quarantine zones. Players take control of Joel, a gruff man who smuggles things into and out of the quarantined area of Boston. In order to regain a weapons shipment stolen from him and his partner, Joel agrees to smuggle a young girl, Ellie, out of the city. Along the way, he discovers that there is more to Ellie than meets the eye, and when things go awry, he agrees to escort Ellie to her final destination. The story of The Last of Us is, at its core, the story of these two people, and their struggles against man, monster, and nature itself. This primal theme is very raw and powerful, and the game pulls no punches when it comes to the trials the two face. This is an extremely violent game, and the violence isn’t restricted to things you passively observe, either. As the game continues, players will witness Joel and Ellie doing terrible things in order to survive, and this constant struggle reinforces both their relationship as well as their connection with the players. This is helped along by the dialogue, which is extremely well written and manages to find levity even when facing down a ravenous horde of inhuman monsters. Peaceful sections in the game, while few and short-lived, are very poignant, and serve well as a stark contrast to the violence that permeates the world. In addition to the main tale, players can discover small tidbits of story that help fill in the tale of the world around Joel and Ellie. Diaries, notes, and audio logs all help give small windows into the lives of other anonymous survivors, and players can listen to snippets of conversation from NPC’s throughout the game. Probably the most powerful storytelling tool, however, is the world itself. Everywhere that players go, the ruins of society, scavenged by survivors and overtaken by nature, show the history of the infection far better than any amount of exposition could. All told, the story in The Last of Us is beautifully crafted, and has a level of depth and sense of wholeness that is rare in any form of fiction.
When it comes to gameplay, there is very little hand holding; there are no minimaps or giant glowing arrows pointing the way. A bit of critical thinking is expected to determine the way to progress, and players are free to scavenge every corner of an area for every last pill and comic book or just run straight through. While these puzzles rarely become more complicated than locating a ladder to climb up or ferrying the hydrophobic Ellie with a wooden pallet, these solutions feel natural and organic, and are brief enough to avoid frustration. Instead, the real obstacles tend to be whoever is in an area with you. At its heart, The Last of Us is a stealth game; direct confrontation is not recommended, as the odds are usually overwhelmingly against the player. Instead, you must do your best to sneak around enemies, either taking them out silently from behind or avoiding them all together. In addition to his superhuman echolocation powers, Joel can hide behind ledges, vault over windowsills, and even pick up bottles or bricks to use as distractions. Successfully taking out all of the enemies in an area, like some vengeful, bearded Batman, is an extremely satisfying feeling. For me, at least, it was a rare occurrence. The best I could hope for most of the time is to thin the crowd a bit before I was inevitably spotted and had to revert to a style of play more appropriate in a Rambo film.
The way you approach each encounter will change depending on what you are up against. When under attack by roaming bands of surviving humans, they will constantly send people to flank you from the sides and behind, so you have to pay attention to where they go. The entry-level infected, after spotting you, will just charge head-on, requiring players to manage their resources quickly to keep them at bay. The level 3 “Bloaters” are like heavily armored tanks, covered in large fungal plates that they rip off and throw at the player. By far the most interesting enemy, however, is the 2nd stage of infected, appropriately named “Clickers”. These creatures are blind, and use echolocation to home in on their targets. To get past these creatures, players will have to creep as quietly as possible, as a single touch from them will result in a gruesome one hit kill. Several areas require you to navigate past many roaming clickers, which makes for some intense moments and several changes in pants. When sneaking fails, players will have to utilize a wide range of weapons to combat these threats, ranging from pistols and shotguns to rifles and a bow. Each of these can be upgraded at workbenches to improve things like reload speed or clip size. When conventional weapons aren’t enough, players must create their own, using an intuitive crafting system that combines everyday items into Molotov Cocktails, health packs, shivs, and more. Like many of the other parts of the game, finding these materials in the world feels organic and intuitive, and rewards players who scour every room and corner.
As you work through the twisted remains of civilizations, Ellie will almost always be by your side. You’ll need her help in pulling down ladders or squeezing through small areas. In combat, her AI is pretty advanced; she’ll shoot at enemies, thrown bricks at them, or pull them off of your back when they ambush you. Of course, enemies will also try to grab her, in which case you need to hurry over and help. In addition, at several points during the game you might have more companions join you, and their behavior is similar to Ellie. However, one weird thing that I’ve noticed is that outside of combat, i.e. when you’re trying to be stealthy, their behavior and the ways enemies treat them fundamentally changes. Enemies seem not to be able to see your NPC companions when outside of direct combat, which is fortunate, since they tend to run around areas with no regards for how many infected are standing right next to them. I understand that they couldn’t expect the AI to be as adept at stealth gameplay as a human, and in reality its a minor issue, but its still a bit jarring. Several times I would be doing my best Solid Snake impersonation, when all of a sudden I would hear footsteps behind me; only to have one of my buddies running around like Tom Cruise in a Mission Impossible movie. Not to say that the enemy AI is perfect, either; at one section I managed to find the invisible wall of their movement range, where they would not attack me regardless of how much I shot at them.
One aspect of the game I was surprised by was the appearance of multiplayer, which would seem, at first glance, to merely be a casual add-on to appease a publisher’s checklist. However, it manages to still fit into the overarching game world, as players take on the role of an anonymous member of two opposing groups from the game. This ties into an overarching meta-game, in which each player is in charge of their own camp of survivors. The goal is to survive for a certain length of time, with each match being one day. At regular intervals, challenges will appear, and players will need to perform well in the actual multiplayer to keep their settlements alive. The game modes are standard team deathmatch, but add in the twist that comes from the inclusion of the crafting system from the single player campaign. This gives players a lot of flexibility when it comes to how they approach the conflicts. It is a little disappointing that there aren’t any unique modes to be found, but overall the multiplayer is perfectly serviceable for anyone who is interested.
From a visual standpoint, The Last of Us is nothing short of stunning . Naughty Dog is known for making some very good looking games, but some of the things that are on display here are so impressive I can scarcely believe the PS3 is capable of it. The character models are extremely detailed, and the motion capturing done for the game makes for some of the smoothest and realistic movement I’ve ever seen. As mentioned above, the environments are gorgeous, with a ridiculous level of detail that conveys the life that must have been found there before, as well as the life that thrives there now. After what I’m sure is a frightening amount of work by the development team, the entire world has been overgrown by dense plant life, offering a much appreciated shift in palette from the infected-filled buildings and tunnels. By far the highlight of the graphical tricks, however, is the lighting. Whether it be from the sun or a flashlight bulb, light dynamically casts shadows off of anything it comes into contact with. Another neat trick is that, upon entering or exiting a dark space, the game’s camera takes several seconds to adjust to the change in light. All of these components, combined with a fantastic art direction, raises the bar for what consoles games can look like, and puts a lot of pressure on any games in the future.
The music in The Last of Us is subtle, usually only appearing during dramatic action scenes or significant plot areas. The score is primarily a mix of guitar, violin, and piano, with a melancholy tone that underscores many of the key scenes in the game. The sound design is also top notch, everything from the pounding of foot steps to the sharp pings of the clicker as it searches for a face to rip off. Its the voicework that steals the show, however, with some of the best performances from any video medium. I don’t remember a single bad performance from the entire cast, and the level of commitment they brought to their work really helps to keep players invested in the story. Special props go out to the leading duo for some truly powerful performances. Ashley Johnson manages to make Ellie into a strong, self-confident young girl, while still maintaining a level of vulnerability that makes her into such a grounded, sympathetic, and relateable character. As for Joel, well, lets just say that Troy Baker is having a very good year. After giving a spectacular performance as Booker Dewitt in Bioshock Infinite, he actually manages to top himself with The Last of Us. He perfectly captures not only the strength and experience of Joel, but also the internal conflicts that make him such a great character. When combined with motion capturing Baker underwent, the result is easily the most subtly expressive character in games yet.
All told, the Playstation 3 could not have asked for a better swan song than The Last of Us. A refreshingly complicated and emotional take on a topic as cliched as zombies, the game also has a level of respect for its players that is almost unheard of in our tutorial and waypoint-covered gaming landscape. The stealth gameplay is topnotch, managing to feel natural while still giving players the tools they need to survive. The Last of US is also stunning, from an audio/visual perspective, setting the bar for all of the next-generation titles currently under development. The multiplayer mode, while feeling a little underwhelming, is still a solid experience, and has an interesting survival meta-game surrounding it. It’s not without its issues: the AI can be a little strange at times, and I did notice a couple small graphical glitches during my playthrough. However, none of that comes remotely close to hampering the incredible experience players will get from The Last of Us. For anyone who can stomach the subject material, I cannot recommend it highly enough.
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