Review: The Last of Us

I played through the Uncharted series earlier this year, unfortunately before I had the chance to do a backlog review. To quickly sum up, the franchise was a wildly inconsistent mess. The first was terrible, the second was amazing and the third was split into two halves: the okay first and the bad second. Each game attempted to implement old school cinematic tricks into a gameplay framework, with the bigger successes clearly showing a bigger grasp on how each school worked. Uncharted 2 knew how to combine setpiece moments and a film framework with an action shooter and platformer, having just the right amount of run ‘n’ gun, stop ‘n’ pop, QTE, cutscene and landscape to be engaging. The only real problem I found with it was a generic story; not a game breaker, but obvious room for improvement.

Obviously, The Last of Us is a different breed of game than Uncharted. A story set after the zombie apocalypse, it takes after modern tales of shattered society and loneliness, like The Road, as opposed to old adventure films. Because of this, even cinematically, The Last of Us strives to tell its story and frame its gameplay differently from Uncharted. When it started getting more details, I still wasn’t convinced Naughty Dog could distance this project from its last.

But they did, and what we have is perhaps a sendoff to the generation more positively indicative of what games can do than Bioshock Infinite.

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The Last of Us starts just before it hits the fan, but with the wish of not wanting to spoil the intro, the game proper starts twenty years after an infection which turns victims into zombie-like beasts has spread across the world. America is completely decimated, and while a skeleton military tries to keep things in check, the infrastructure has pretty much collapsed and people rely on scrounging around to survive in a world without a pulse. After a run-in with a rebel group known as the Fireflies, main character Joel, and his partner Tess, have to escort a girl, Ellie, to outside of the city.

As the game properly began, I was reminded instantly of last year’s I Am Alive, another game based on escorting a girl set after the end of society as we know it. It also embodied a survivalist mindset, with the player having to gather resources in the wild to maintain their wellbeing. While the stats and parts you manage are different in The Last of Us, the feeling of the world being far more depressing is still emphasised. That said, The Last of Us realises its themes a lot more than I Am Alive, and more than other games of this model.

There are a number of small systems that hammer home the kleptomaniacal survivalist theme the world’s content is shooting for. Picking up resources like rags, alcohol and duct tape will allow to make makeshift weapons like molotov cocktails and shivs, as well as essentials like health packs. Picking up generic spare parts and finding a work station will allow you to upgrade your weapons. You can also find experience to level up attributes like speed and health, as well as manuals that give permanent upgrades to homemade weapons. These systems are all pretty generic RPG-like things you’ve seen before, but it works in the framework of the world.

The amount of supplies you can find in a world twenty years after the end of it feels threadbare, and you’ll never be carrying much in your backpack. The upgrades, in particular, are extremely hard to attain, as they require a lot of either parts or experience, and you won’t have nearly enough to level up more than a few times every hour. It absolutely makes you feel like all of your decisions and actions to conserve or use supplies have weight. Even though each level is open and has a number of optional rooms, the lack of supplies enhances the oppressive barren feel it’s aiming for. It’s one of the more impressive instances of gameplay reinforcing narrative.

Speaking of gameplay, the majority is probably exploration of the barren world and gathering whatever supplies you can find, peppered with small encounters with bandits or the infected. Occasionally, you’ll have to contend with a larger stealth section or gunfight that can take just under five minutes. Overall, the pacing exceeded my expectations, with only a few overly long indoors sections dragging their feet.

Said stealth and gunplay is pretty much interchangeable. A brilliant part of The Last Of Us that isn’t explicitly told is the relative freedom you have in each encounter in this game. You can choose to use stealth or full-on combat, evasion or offence, exploration or just trying to escape, melee or guns, and most are viable options in any situation. While stealth is recommended by the characters, there is usually no clear penalty for taking things on in a manner that suits you. This also ties into the aforementioned scavenging motif, as while gathering resources is important, it’s usually a big risk to either take everyone down or sneak past everyone to get the maximum amount of gear.

As for the mechanics themselves, they’re the sort you’ve seen before spliced with a more lo-fi set of skills. The stealth is more advanced than other stealth sections, but not as packed as dedicated stealth games. Joel has a listen mode, where he slows to a crawl but can see the outlines of enemies, even through walls, within a certain radius. You can throw bottles and bricks to create distractions, and stealthily eliminate people through a number of methods, depending on how discrete you need to be. Strangulation works silently but takes time; shivs are quick and silent but will break after one use (upgrades notwithstanding). There are also different sorts of enemies, the marquee being the Clickers. They are blind, but have heightened sense of hearing and can kill in one hit. There any enough options and variables at work to create a lot of neat scenarios, and the silent information of multiple approaches means it never really gets old.

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Gunplay is a bit more straightforward. There isn’t a dedicated cover mechanic (you just crouch behind walls), but otherwise, it shares a lot in common with other third person shooters, Uncharted included. The map design is a bit too obvious in how cover crates are stacked, but otherwise, it remains original through liberal application of limited supplies, heavier recoil, more weapon sway and less health, as well as the seamless interweave between gunplay, melee and stealth and how all of these are viable options.

Another huge selling point is the brutality of it all. Melee combat involves getting your hands very dirty, and hits with a 2X4 or machete feel violent as opposed to just looking it. When you die by some form of special grapple, the screen will cut to black just before the worst happens to Joel, but with an echo of his death cry to drive home that he did not go quietly. It’s not just violent for the sake of violence, however, working to enhance the depression and loss of humanity the world exudes.

There are a few minor options to dislike, such as only being able to carry one bottle or brick at once, but the biggest issue is undoubtedly the team AI. In combat, they serve their purpose well, but in stealth sections which call for subtlety, they have a habit of running out of cover or not moving out of sight quickly enough. Naughty Dog seemingly realised this, as they seem to be essentially invisible to enemies outside of combat, but this just breaks the immersion. Tightened AI would have fixed this even if the illusion remained untouched.

It definitely would have taken a lot out of the experience if Ellie wasn’t there, though. The story is one of the most strongly told in some time. Although it uses devices seen before in games, like colourful background dialogue during downtime, it has enough enhancements to stand out on its own.

The game engine looks a little too close to Uncharted, but the presentation is fantastic all the same. The world looks very dilapidated, with nature slowly creeping back in to reclaim its ground, akin to Enslaved. Infected designs are suitably monstrous and gross, and humans have fittingly ragtag clothing to demonstrate how far they’ve fallen. There isn’t a lot of music in the game, but I prefer the silence in the tense situations, letting the atmosphere speak for itself. What music was some of the most alluding use of acoustic guitar this side of Deadly Premonition’s theme song.

The facial animations, rather surprisingly, are some of the best in the field. They’re effectively used to express emotions in instances where dialogue would take the subtlety out of it and add a lot to the humanity of these characters, something especially noticeable in a script this somber.

That script is a well-written, well-paced tale about two survivors learning to get along in a world that needs both of them whether they realise it or not. As it always goes, Joel and Ellie do not like each other at the start, with Joel thinking that a “kid” is ill-suited to the work he usually does and Ellie resenting how much Joel underestimates her.

It starts off as a bit of a dysfunctional duo, almost buddy cop movie, pastiche, but it’s pulled off a lot better than recent takes. The span of time it takes for trust to build between the two feels relatively realistic, with quite some time passing before Ellie is even allowed a gun. Joel’s grizzled, bitter persona plays really well off of Ellie’s naïve but brash manner, and each moment with clear development between the two feels very special as a result. It’s also worth noting that Troy Baker’s performance here gets him out of his rut, selling a very convincing old man with the right amount of rasp.

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They aren’t the only characters in The Last Of Us, however, and this is arguably where things begin to slide. Your initial partner, Tess, not only has the same voice actor as Elena from Uncharted but also a very similar face, and the correlation is impossible to shake. As mentioned before, the pacing can also feel too episodic at times. While there are quite a few characters, you won’t be seeing much of anyone save for Joel, Ellie, Tess and the leader of the Fireflies. It makes the world feel cold and lonely, which is good, but you’ll also pine for these characters who seem interesting but have limited screentime.

The thematics are what elevate The Last of Us beyond its contemporaries, with almost every element working to build a consistent atmosphere. Dissonance between the story, atmosphere and gameplay has been a growing complaint among those who particularly detest AAA titles, and was seemingly the crux of Bioshock Infinite’s criticism, but the major thought that was going through my head playing The Last of Us was that it was clear from the beginning where Naughty Dog wanted to take the game.

That is, with the arguable exception of multiplayer. Holding a COD-style level-up system framed in a micro-management environment, multiplayer essentially consists of two team deathmatch modes: one based around Battlefield‘s reinforcement counter and one based on Counter-Strike‘s one life per round system. It’s an interesting curio, attempting to integrate the scavenging and quick-crafting of the single player, but not all of the tricks really work, with the health system being pretty unbalanced.

With exception to the extraneous multiplayer, The Last of Us is one of the most consistently enjoyable games in a long time. While not wholly evolutionary, the weaving of gameplay with story to create a thick atmosphere and clear direction is a far cry from failed attempts at traditional cinematic storytelling we’ve seen. Each facet is individually enjoyable, but it’s the way each one works together that really sells and elevates it.

We might be approaching the beginning of the next generation, but I sure am glad it came out now.

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The Last of Us is currently available for the PlayStation 3 for $59.99 RRP.

This game was independently acquired by the reviewer.