Apparently no one told Naughty Dog that the PS3 was entering its twilight years. In the final months before the release of the next-gen consoles, the developer has released one of the most impressive games of the generation. In short, The Last of Us is a masterpiece that combines taught, unique gameplay with a riveting story that revels in bleakness. This all works together to create a strikingly mature experience almost wholly unique in the current gaming landscape.
The Last of Us follows protagonists Joel and Ellie through post-apocalyptic America. This premise is the most unimaginative aspect of the game, and it’s one you can find in any number of other forms of entertainment at a moment’s notice. This shouldn’t dissuade you, though, as once the plot gets moving, there’s no stopping the force of the story. The game takes more cues from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road than any other work that it could be compared to. The world of the The Last of Us is a hard world full of hard people who make hard decisions to continue living a hard life. It’s as simple as that. Of course, with humans like Joel and Ellie as the protagonists of the story, emotions and morality tend to complicate the otherwise simple lives they lead.
This is the greatest strength of The Last of Us; emotion. The script is one of the best ever produced for a video game, hitting all of the right beats and going above and beyond the level of maturity that’s become expected in this medium. It’s a refreshing change of pace to feel genuinely sad and confused by a game while you play, rather than bored and angry at a conclusion that only serves to set up another game. The Last of Us starts and ends with this game, with only the promise of one piece of single player DLC to extend the storyline further.
While navigating the intensely dark story, players will have to face off against the game’s version of zombies in the form of the Infected. These unfortunate souls have had their minds overtaken by a plant-based infection. In essence, there are only a handful of enemy types, from the common Runners and horrifying Clickers to the massive Bloaters. While there’s a time where it seems like fighting these enemies might get old after only a few short hours, the encounters themselves are largely varied based on enemy placement, objectives, and even your own ammo supply. The same can be said for the human enemies in the game, who are often smart and aggressive, and generally more dangerous than the Infected. While fighting these enemies, the game favors stealth over all-out action. Often times, whatever supplies you have on you will dictate if you even fight the enemies in any given room, never mind all of them. Most of the encounters can be avoided, which is a nice touch and pushes the game ever closer to survival-horror territory.
When things do get out of hand – and they will – Joel is perfectly capable of defending himself. He’s decent with weapons, and becomes better as you find more in the environment, and upgrade them, but combat really shines when he takes up a melee weapon. Be it his fists, or a metal pipe he found lying around, the hand-to-hand combat is brutal, resulting in some brilliantly vicious finishers. There’s nothing quite like the rush you get choosing to sprint at an enemy and take them down with your bare hands as he turns to fire on you, and winning. The intensity of the combat is what makes The Last of Us stand out in this department, and it’s truly an amazing experience because of it.
This intensity carries over into the multiplayer as well. Called “Factions,” mutliplayer is comprised of two variations on the deathmatch formula. You chose either the Fireflies, or the Hunters, and you play out the next twelve weeks as the leader of a small clan of the group. Each match is a day, which provides an adequate framework that compels you to continue playing, to see what unique challenges and rewards may be just around the corner. As you play, you want to win the match (naturally), but you also want to collect salvage, which takes the place of the more standard experience. You do this by looting lock boxes and corpses, killing opposing players, and assisting your own team. The entire experience is based around cooperation. Teams that work well together and stay close will find greater success than those that run around guns blazing. Its a refreshing change of pace from the selfish nature of most multiplayer games, and helps this game stand out well beyond its exceptional single player campaign.
The Last of Us is nothing short of a masterpiece. The storytelling is top notch, and the gameplay is a smart variation on the survival horror formula. Perhaps most importantly, this is a game that feels finished. The developers at Naughty Dog put their hearts and souls into this game, creating an emotionally draining experience that transcends the medium into something that few games have achieved. The Last of Us represents the artistic possibilities of video games in general, and it is the new standard against which all future story-based games will be judged.