I’m not much of a gamer. That is to say, I have a ton of games — enough to last me years of constant playing without ever having to buy a new one — but hardly enough time to get through them all. Like most of my other interests, I’ll typically game in 1-2 month stretches before I find myself wanting to dedicate my time to other pursuits, and then go long periods of time without touching a game console or firing up anything on my PC.
As much, then, as gaming has defined certain formative periods of my life and as much time as I’ve sunk into gaming over the years, labeling myself as anything other than a casual fan would probably be tantamount to blatant misrepresentation. That said, I do keep up, even if somewhat obliquely, with gaming culture enough to have surface-level conversation with more hardcore fans, and occasionally certain upcoming games do capture my attention — the FFVII remake, for example, will probably put me in light debt when it’s released, as I have no other reason to buy a PS4 but you can bet I will for that.
Few games, though, in my history of gaming, had ever caused me to experience as much anticipation and pure want as The Last Of Us. Even before the game was released and the 10/10 reviews and gamer-approved praise were heaped on Naughty Dog’s magnum opus, I was enraptured with the idea of the game — I remember it being a cover story on Game Informer back in February 2012, when I still subscribed to the magazine, and my excitement on reading that article was palpable. Like most of the rest of the world around that time, I was enamored of post-apocalyptic stuff, and zombies provided a satisfyingly gruesome interpretation of How The World Will End; there was no shortage of fiction to latch onto to provide this fix, and the prospect of a modern, gritty, emotionally charged survival horror game with zombies that wasn’t Left 4 Dead was more than I could handle at the time.
Predictably, my interests changed with the wind and although I’ve always been fascinated by post-apocalypticism, the zombie thing kinda calmed down and went out of vogue (in favor of dystopias like The Hunger Games, which I was also a fan of). I never forgot about The Last Of Us though. It was always sitting in the back of my mind as a “must-play” game that I was unable to justify the purchase of a PS3 to play. So when I finally got a PS3 for my birthday last month, and my friend happened to have an unopened copy of The Last Of Us that he had no use for and so gave it to me for free, you can bet that all that anticipation and excitement came rushing back in no time flat.
The Last Of Us takes the usual setting for fiction of this type — a grim, bleak, desolate post-human world lying somewhere between Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Half-Life 2‘s City 17. 20 years after the initial outbreak, humans are still alive, but only barely and under a constant state of martial law. The majority of the population has been infected with a mutant strain of plant spore that turn everyone unlucky enough to encounter it into cannibalistic zombies, or “Infected”. You take control of a hardened survivor-type by the name of Joel, who lives in the Boston Quarantine Zone, one of the few places left that is still relatively safe, although life within is by no means pleasant. Joel’s a smuggler, and early on in the game he’s convinced by the head of a resistance group called the Fireflies to escort a 14-year-old girl named Ellie to her Firefly companions outside of the quarantine zone. The reason for this odd assignment quickly becomes clear: Ellie is, apparently, immune to infection. With her rests the hope of mankind…or something like that.
The story evolves from there, and I’m going to return to this aspect of the game a bit later because I have a lot more to say about it. But suffice to say that, at least up to this point, there’s nothing too crazily unique about this, at least not within the context of the timeframe it was released. I don’t want to call the story “cliche”, but it borderline is — at first.
But I want to turn now to the gameplay, because — and I really can’t hold back anymore — this is the single part of the game that left me wanting, and I’d rather get my disappointments aired now so I can spend the rest of this review doing what every other publication, gamer, and critic has spent their time doing whenever they talk about The Last Of Us: Giving it the unadulterated and completely breathless praise it rightly deserves.
So, the gameplay. The Last Of Us is a third-person stealth/shooter game, not unlike many, many other popular games of the PS3/XBox 360 generation. It has all sorts of elements familiar to this type of game — ducking behind cover, world-fleshing extras (i.e. notes, recordings, etc.) to collect along the way, melee and ranged weapons of various types, the ability to craft items and upgrades using found materials, etc. Really, this is the one part of the game that left me completely underwhelmed — I really felt like I’d done all this before. Granted, maybe not all in one game, but the combat felt a lot like Resident Evil 4‘s, for example. The item-collecting (specifically finding the dog tags left by fallen Firefly members) felt a lot like Gears of War. Somehow almost nothing about the gameplay really felt unique or new, or innovative, and while such a thing is hardly necessary, I have to admit I was expecting a bit more.
This isn’t to say that the gameplay was actually bad, please understand. It took things that have worked in countless games in the past and stitched them together into a cohesive whole. I certainly can’t fault the developers for this — if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it and all that. And it did have one unique gameplay element that I haven’t encountered in past games, namely the ability to “focus” Joel’s listening to pinpoint enemies who are offscreen or around the corner. This was a super useful and surprisingly not-game-breaking advantage given to you, the player, which aided in strategizing and working my way through difficult sections.
And, let’s talk about the difficulty, because I was surprised at how challenging this game could get. I like a good challenge so I played through on Hard mode, and it certainly wasn’t easy — I died countless times, often due to my own impatience or negligence, but also, I felt, occasionally from AI inconsistency. There was one point where I was navigating through an underground portion completely filled with Infected. Being the type who likes to conserve ammo, my goal was to get through by doing as many silent takedowns as I could, which meant sneaking up behind Infected as they walked along their pre-programmed patrol routes. I could not do this. Every time I would get close, no matter how slowly and silently I was walking, the Infected would shriek and turn around and my cover would be blown.
After trying this probably 15+ times, I just decided to screw it and blast my way through. Lo and behold, nearly every zombie I killed dropped ammo, an otherwise scant resource in the world of The Last Of Us. I realized at that point that that’s what I was supposed to do all along — kill them all head-on without using stealth at all.
And it was fine, and figuring this out relieved a lot of frustration, but I didn’t like that this particular portion of the game was basically created so that you have to beat it a specific way. Other reviews will rave about the game’s propensity for strategizing, for figuring out the best way through each situation based on your health, your ammo situation, etc. And there are plenty of instances where you can, in fact, do this. But every so often I’d come across one of these portions where it’s nearly impossible to get through without going full-on-stealth-mode, where you have to avoid everybody, or full-on-attack-mode, where you have to announce your presence to the world and just gun them all down, and every time this happened it broke the immersion juuuuust a little bit. Having to restart and do a portion over and over until you figure out the prescribed method of completing the task just doesn’t make for a really consistently immersive experience.
One other thing that bothered me from the standpoint of remaining fully engrossed in the game’s world (which otherwise was never difficult) were the times when, as I would be crouched behind a barrier with an enemy completely unaware of my presence, Ellie would run across an enemy’s line of sight or even right into the enemy and nothing would happen — the enemy would ignore her completely. Only my visual presence mattered to the enemies — human or Infected — and while I was grateful that the imperfect friendly AI didn’t screw up my plotting, it was another point where I was sucked out of the game world and dropped squarely back on my couch, in my apartment, in front of my TV, clearly playing a game, and not actually there.
And this was disappointing, because the world in The Last Of Us is something that, as a gamer, one simply does not want to be sucked out of. It’s a beautiful world, and I mean that in the most genuine and complimentary way — even in the places which are physically ugly (and you spend a lot of times in places like that), it feels so carefully and deliberately made. This is a world built with purpose and the utmost care, with each of the many different places you travel to having its own charisma, its own dilapidated charm. Some places feel vaguely unsettling or threatening, but no threat ever materializes, which just adds to their mystique; others feel heavy with an unwritten history that never had a chance to completely play out. Some places even evoke true, breathless wonder, an anachronism in the game’s wider context, but never unwelcome. The variety of settings and emotions extruded is almost without equal.
All this would go to waste if the story were as paint-by-numbers as the opening hour or so of gameplay would make it seem (despite the emotional wrecking ball of the game’s introduction). Thankfully, the story’s momentum never loses steam to cliches, and while there are plenty, few games I’ve ever played (actually — scratch that, I’ll go the full nine years and say that no game I’ve ever played) has a cast of characters as absolutely real and convincing as those in The Last Of Us.
It becomes clear within a short span of time that this is a game driven wholly by its characters, and the relationships between them. Video game creators love to paint their characters in broad strokes; even if you as the gamer have complete control over a character’s moral path in a game, usually there’s little impetus to take the middle road — be evil or be good! But if you try to take some path between the two, you usually end up sacrificing the best powers/upgrades/whatever as a result.
As an entirely linear game, The Last Of Us has characters whose choices, personalities, and moral compasses are all predetermined, but the Naughty Dog team managed to capture the complexity of these very different people — there is nothing simple about who they each are, what is motivating each one, and how they interact with others. In short, they are very human, neither good nor bad but somewhere in between. At some point throughout this game, I found myself disliking almost every single character at at least one point — and I found myself caring about them all too. The morality of The Last Of Us becomes very muddled, and our heroes don’t always make what we might consider to be the “right” choices. But this is because they all carry tragic pasts with them, and the choices presented to them are rarely cut-and-dry.
Above all, the relationship between Ellie and Joel is fascinating and organic. He doesn’t like Ellie. He doesn’t want to escort her. And yet as the game progresses, and barriers start coming down, their relationship deepens and becomes utterly fascinating. It doesn’t exactly develop in the way one might expect, but it does develop, and it’s mesmerizing to watch.
The voice acting is probably the thing that helps this the most — we’re talking big-budget movie-script quality writing, with A-list voice actors, and it makes all the difference. It feels natural and fluid, never forced like in so many other games. Especially nice are the side conversations — many of them optional — that happen as you are walking around. On of my favorites was during a moment of peace as you and Ellie are walking through an abandoned suburb, and she comes across a broken-down ice cream truck. Having been born after the outbreak, she’s never lived what we would consider to be a “normal” life, and she’s in disbelief at the idea that a truck would just drive around playing music and handing out ice cream. These often-quirky conversations provide depth that can’t be achieved in any other way, adding richness and humanity to the game’s characters, and making the more dramatic moments exponentially more intense.
On top of it all are graphics that put any other game from this generation to utter shame; the cinematic sequences are brilliantly rendered, probably the absolute best I’ve ever seen. Character designs, facial expressions, everything — it’s hyper-realism in video game terms. Screenshots don’t do any of these scenes justice, it’s something you need to experience on a big HD screen with the lights off. The normal game world is, as I’ve already touched on, gorgeous to behold, with little graphical details (Joel’s pants and the bottom of his backpack getting wet and staying wet after walking through standing water, for example) making the experience all the better. The HUD and menu interfaces are all smooth and intuitive, and integrated well into the world — more importantly, the HUD goes away during the slower parts, so you can immerse yourself in the world even more.
Modern critics love to praise BioShock for its commentary on philosophical and social questions that concern us all; although primarily a critique of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy, BioShock served as a resounding and lasting answer to the question, “Can video games be art?” It was a deafening “Yes”, and people still point to it as the penultimate example of a game being able to ask the Big Questions while still managing to create a moving and memorable video game, of all things.
I would argue that The Last Of Us does this even better. And while I’m not about to get into a BioShock vs. The Last Of Us discussion here (I’m sure they exist elsewhere), I have to say I never really thought that I’d find a game whose story was more intellectually challenging than BioShock‘s. Sure, at the end of the day, The Last Of Us is another zombie game; but along the way, it forces you as the gamer to consider hard moral choices that few other games really do. Even if it isn’t explicit, it inevitably holds a mirror up to the gamer and asks you, “What would you do in this situation?” The age old moral question of “Would you steal a loaf of bread to feed your family?” is taken to violent, gruesome, and terrifying extremes in this game, but sometimes that’s the only way to get people to consider such questions.
I read an article a while back on why people are (or were) so fascinated with post-apocalyptic fiction; it posited that, deep down, people love the idea of living in a world with no real authority. We’re all anarchists at heart. We’ve tried communism as a means to dispose of authority, and that didn’t work. The utopias we imagine always fall apart, or have some sinister side. Through all the ideals we imagine and the revolution we as humans incite to achieve our perfect world, where we don’t have to answer to anyone but ourselves, something always goes wrong. The only option left is to destroy humanity and start over. Through that lens, The Last Of Us feels like a social critique in the same vein as BioShock; taking a (twisted) version of what some people would consider an “ideal” world and showing why in actuality, it would suck.
Or, you know, you could always just look at it as a really top-of-the-line survival horror game. In either view, The Last Of Us is certainly among the best games of the last 15 years, and maybe ever. In my own estimation, it was one of the most emotionally engaging and intense gaming experiences of my life, story-wise — actually, story-wise, this game beats out about 85% of the other fiction I’ve watched, read, or played otherwise. But I’m hard-pressed to call this one of my all-time favorite games as a whole. It has too much of a generic feel from a gameplay perspective, and while it’s perfectly functional, the actual gameplay rarely excited me. Most of the time I felt like the gameplay portions were just filler for getting to the next plot point.
Regardless, this is absolutely a game that any modern gamer needs to experience, even if that means watching someone else play it. It will be a game that people look back on and remember as a high point in the medium, one of the highest from a time when lots of quality stuff was being released. That I finally got to play it is one of the milestones in my history of gaming. If you are, like me, consistently behind the curb in all things pop culture, put this on your short list of “things to do”. It’s a totally unforgettable experience.
Personal value: 8/10
Weights as follows:
Personal value: 30%