Developer: Naughty Dog
Format: Only on PlayStation 4
Released: July 29, 2014
How does one even begin to discuss The Last of Us?
It’s emotionally gripping, has an incredibly dark and realized world, and is one of the most tense experiences in the medium. While the game has its naysayers, the original PlayStation 3 release in 2013 went on to garner over 200 “Game of the Year” awards. With that much praise, there must be something to Naughty Dog’s post-apocalyptic tale. When the game re-released on the more powerful PlayStation 4 a year later, a new audience got to trek their way through its dangerous world and experience the story for themselves.
Before going any further, I want to clarify something.
While I don’t personally know anybody at Naughty Dog, they’re without a doubt my favorite developer in the industry, and this is arguably my favorite video game ever created. I don’t personally feel that my love for this studio and love for this game will temper my critique of it, but I do want to bring that knowledge to the forefront before proceeding. With that being said, let me tell you why I think The Last of Us is a masterpiece.
The Last of Us takes place in a dark, post-apocalyptic world.
A variation of the cordyceps fungus (a real life parasite that inhabits and eventually controls insects) has managed to infect mankind, and the resulting pandemic has eliminated 60% of the worlds population. The government has stepped up to “protect” the survivors, but their means of protection are more akin to prison. In retaliation, a resistance group called the Fireflies has risen up to overthrow the government and find a way to make life more bearable. In this game, you play as a man named Joel, someone who has survived for 20 years in this hellish universe. He has faced horrible tragedy, and caused it to others, and the only thing he cares about is survival. When a trade with an arms dealer goes horribly awry, Joel gets caught up in a mission for the Fireflies to escort a young girl named Ellie across the country, resulting in one of the best stories to ever be told in a video game.
This journey sends you across multiple states, through varying locales, and spans the four seasons. As Joel and Ellie cross state borders in pursuit of their goal, they’re constantly tried by the unrelenting nature of the world around them. Whether it’s the infected humans who now inhabit the abandoned cities and countrysides, or the gangs formed by dangerous and deranged individuals, this is a journey that’s rarely calm or safe. While the infected are quite frightening to encounter, it’s often the other non-infected humans that are the most terrifying. With a complete disregard for both morality and humanity, these hunters and bandits are almost more dangerous than anything else you encounter. Which is where one of main exploration points of The Last of Us comes into play.
A huge focus in this game is human nature.
What are the things people would do in this type of world, what would force them to do these things, and what affect does it have on their conscience? Through some absolutely terrific writing and unparalleled performances by the voice cast, these subjects are explored, often in emotional and potentially uncomfortable ways. Another key point in this game is violence. How does the world beat down a person enough to make them turn to murder, when does murder become a desire instead of a necessity for survival, and how much of who you are is lost when committing violent acts?
This game does a lot to expand its world and explore these themes.
Whether it’s the actual plot of the game, the scraps of paper and diaries found throughout the environments, or through visual storytelling (i.e. messages scribbled on walls, positions and poses of corpses, the way things are set up/barricaded), The Last of Us finds several ways to expand its lore and tackle these dilemmas. I just replayed the game for probably my 10th time, and there are still cutscenes and notes that pull a strong emotional reaction from me.
What makes this all work so well is the strong connection you feel to Joel and Ellie.
Troy Baker (Joel) and Ashley Johnson (Ellie) give two of the best voice over performances across any medium, resulting in characters that feel extremely real and easy to connect with. Joel is a flawed character, which makes him a perfect protagonist. He’s not a hero, he’s not even necessarily a good guy, he’s just a man trying to survive in a harsh world. Ellie is a foul-mouthed, easily agitated young woman who you can tell wants to enjoy some of the smaller things in life, but is forced to throw away any sense of normality due to the situation she finds herself in. Joel and Ellie go on very personal emotional growth over the course of the game, but as the world around them gets increasingly more bleak, they also grow as people who need to rely on each other. Some of the decisions these characters make are right, but the majority of them are made with selfish intentions in mind, or simply made without consideration of consequence. I could write a novel about Joel and Ellie and all of the emotional and psychological events of this story, but I won’t bore you with that.
Regardless of how masterful the writing, characterization, and themes of the game are, the gameplay is what you’ll be spending the bulk of your time experiencing.
Even though The Last of Us is home to some deep emotional, moral, and thematic grounds, it’s also a very tense third-person shooter. However, it’s not the actual act of combat itself that makes it tense, but rather the small amount of supplies given to you. The world established in this game has been picked over by scavengers, resulting in supplies being incredibly difficult to obtain. While defeated enemies occasionally drop extra rounds, you’ll spend a lot of time breaking into abandoned shops, homes, and tunnels to find valuable resources. Unfortunately, even if you find said resources, the amount you’ll receive is always extremely low, adding a sense of conservation. Do you engage the enemy with bullets, or save your ammunition and try to sneak through undetected? If you enjoy stealth games, you’ll be happy to know that a majority of the fights in The Last of Us can be completed by sneaking up and choking out your foes, or bypassing them entirely. If running and gunning is more your style, you can do that too…to an extent. While you’re free to play however you desire, there’s definitely more of an emphasis on stealth.
As for the actual weapons, there’s a decent amount available.
You have a selection of sidearms, shotguns, and rifles to utilize, as well as a powerful bow (which is silent to fire, and also my favorite weapon in the game). You can also pick up wooden planks, pipes, and axes to use as melee weapons if enemies come too close to you. Taking things a step further, you can find crafting materials in the environment to make an assortment of traps and helpful tools. For example: smoke bombs, Molotov cocktails, and health kits. There’s also a special kind of supply known as “parts” which can be used at work benches to upgrade the different stats (rate of fire, penetration, recoil, etc.) of your firearms. You’ll also want to be on the lookout for pills, which can upgrade Joel and his survival capabilities, such as more health and faster crafting speed.
However, there’s one mechanic that I’m not fond of, which is the ability to use a “heightened hearing” to essentially see enemies through walls. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a very helpful tool, and it can make infiltrating enemy territory much easier, but it doesn’t feel like it belongs in this universe. Joel isn’t a superhero, he’s a regular guy. Why should he be able to see through walls? With the rest of the game having a very grounded nature, this ability feels jarring.
The Last of Us is also one of the most visually stunning games I’ve ever played,
Whether you’re playing it on PlayStation 3 or PlayStation 4, the game is gorgeous to behold. Sure, the PS4 version benefits from stronger graphical power and 60 FPS, but the original release on the older console is still a sight worth seeing. Everything from the lighting effects, facial animations, textures, and more technical stuff that I appreciate but don’t know the name for, combine together to further enhance an already wonderful game. The PS4 remaster even comes with a “photo mode” that allows you to pause the game and take pictures. This mode lets you move the camera around, zoom in and out, alter lighting, apply filters, and more. This is a fun mode to play in, especially if you want to just stop and admire the beauty created by the fine folks at Naughty Dog.
Also, although I’m not a big fan of multiplayer, I haven’t been able to stop playing the online component to this game. When you first start the multiplayer, you choose which faction you wish to join, Firefly or Hunter. You then have a camp of survivors that you’re responsible for, and by playing and winning matches you’ll earn parts to keep your camp healthy. There’s three modes to compete for parts in, and all three modes put an absolute emphasis on teamwork to win. Supply Run gives each team 20 lives and ends when one team is all out, which is simple enough. Likewise, Survivors focuses on kills too, but each player only has one life per round, and a team has to win four rounds to win the match. Then there’s Interrogation, where players have to down but not kill players on the other team and perform an execution on them. After four executions, the enemy safe appears and you have to find it and crack it to win.
While the inclusion of only three modes might be a turn off for some, all three are actually quite fun to play. There’s something about slowly sneaking through an abandoned building with your team, working together to pick off the enemies, and having each others back when things get rough. As someone who doesn’t play much multiplayer, my biggest praise is that its kept me playing for countless matches. I also love that the winner isn’t decided by who has the best weapon, but rather by which team has the best strategy.
Similar to virtually every other multiplayer shooter on the market, you steadily unlock new weapons, perks, and cosmetic items. While I don’t feel like there’s too much variation in the different weapon classes, the cosmetic unlocks are insane. With something like 60+ hats and masks, there’s a ton of customization options to make your survivor stand out.
Simply put, The Last of Us is one of the best video games ever made.
Naughty Dog has delivered one of the best stories video games have to offer, and it’s largely due to its thematic exploration. Violence, humanity, morality? The Last of Us looks at all of it and challenges what you think and how you would act in dire situations. Along with some of the most memorable vocal performances ever, this is a game that’s impossible to forget. The characters of Joel and Ellie are two of the most fascinating in fiction, and you can’t help but feel for them through all of the torment they go through on their journey.
The game also boasts an interesting take on combat, often making you plan everything out before engaging in a fight, or finding a way to avoid it entirely. With a good selection of firearms, tools, and traps at your disposal, taking on infected humans and non-infected bandits and scavengers is always tense. Unfortunately, a certain feature slightly ruins the immersion, but when the rest of the game is this damn good, it’s easily forgivable.
There’s also a pretty great multiplayer component for those looking for a competitive experience. While the small amount of game modes leaves a bit to be desired, the actual gameplay itself is perfectly crafted and creates some of the best team-based experiences around.
Also, although graphics aren’t the “end all, be all” aspect of a video game, it’s worth noting that The Last of Us is one of the most exceptional looking titles available on console. The visuals are the perfect bow on the top of an already great gift, and every PlayStation owner owes it to themselves to own a copy of this game.
– Zack Burrows