Developer: Naughty Dog
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Platforms: PS3 (exclusive)
Naughty Dog’s latest IP has the burden of being the next game from “the team that brought you Uncharted.” In all truthfulness, it’s a rather glorious burden to bear. Being the minds behind one of the most successful new IP launches this console generation sets a pretty high standard in the minds of gamers. So, when Naughty Dog announced to the world that their next project was leaving Drake and his uncharted fortunes behind in favor of a post-apocalyptic setting featuring an older gentleman and his teenage companion, the gaming community was cautiously optimistic that lightning would strike twice. It seems fortune does indeed favor the bold, as creative director Neil Druckmann and his second team at Naughty Dog have reset the bar when it comes to third-person action adventure titles.
The Last of Us tells the story of dual-protagonists Joel and Ellie, an unlikely pair brought together through bizarre circumstances; quickly forcing the two to rely on each other for survival. After a brief yet emotionally impactful prologue, set during the initial outbreak of an infection that’s turning ordinary citizens into crazed, deformed monsters, the story thrusts players twenty years into the future. From there, the roller coaster narrative takes a number of twists and turns, as we see a world pushed to the brink of chaos in the aftermath of the widespread, incurable infection. While humanity is losing hope and civilization is crumbling all around them, Joel and Ellie are on a mission to find The Fireflies, a group who still believe a cure for the infection will be found and are willing to preserve their dream by any means necessary. Making their lives more difficult are the Hunters, a group whose aim is to ensure their own survival, the rest of the world be damned. Thus the stage is set for grand adventure, as the dynamic duo must use their wits to not only survive, but also navigate across the country with limited means in search of the last hope for humanity.
Survival is the key ingredient of The Last of Us, and that singular idea is what separates this new title from anything Naughty Dog has done so far. There are no obvious puzzles to solve like during Drake’s adventures across the globe: Instead, Joel and Ellie must focus on scavenging to uncover the precious resources they need to stay alive. While there is no hunger or dehydration system in place, Naughty Dog does an excellent job of making the pair’s struggle all the more believable by limiting the available resources. This forces players to strategize and make calculated use of their crafting ability, as any encounter with an enemy could prove lethal. The survival component to The Last of Us is broken down into the following six resources: Alcohol, Binding, Blade, Explosive, Rag, and Sugar. These items can be stored in limited capacity in the inventory; so only three full slots per component type may be kept at a time. These components can be used to craft any of the game’s combat items. After discovering a combat item for the first, players can then begin crafting them whenever the resources are available. These items include Molotov cocktails, nail bombs, shivs, and much-needed health packs. As with components, only three of each item type can be stored in the inventory at any given time.
Aside from these items and components, there are guns and melee weapons that are available to use in combat, should players find themselves overwhelmed by a situation. Gun types range from heavier tiers including rifles and shotguns, to holstered pistols such as a magnum or revolver. Of course, since ammunition is scarce, being both difficult to find and infrequently scavenged off of enemy bodies, melee weapons and stealth are pivotal to getting out of most encounters alive. In fact, in order to play The Last of Us with any sort of chance at success, the best course of action is to avoid combat at all costs; a rather stark deviation from the Uncharted formula of mowing down countless droves of enemies.
In order to successfully navigate each environment, Joel will have to rely on his sharp listening skills. That’s right, by holding down the right trigger, Joel will use the game’s equivalent of “detective mode” and gain the ability to hear his adversaries through walls in order to better determine the most suitable course of action. Stealth takedowns take time as Joel puts his human enemies in a headlock and proceeds to choke the life out of them; time that players may not have should another enemy be patrolling an area just around the corner. To perform a quicker stealth kill, it will cost a precious shiv. The end result is a never-ending struggle between resource management and surviving encounters with maximum efficiency so as to preserve both health and ammunition, because Joel and Ellie must always be prepared for whatever’s coming next.
Breaking from combat for the time being, the most important part of The Last of Us is the exploration segments. Exploring the ruined cities and outlands of The Last of Us allow Joel and Ellie to not only stock up on the previously mentioned components, but also uncover the various collectibles found in-game. Ranging from documents that flesh out additional characters to the pendants of fallen Fireflies, the world is littered with over 150 trinkets to discover; which is probably the largest similarity between The Last of Us and Uncharted. Additionally, Joel can find scrap parts which serve as the game’s currency to upgrade the efficiency of guns at a workbench, or obtain vitamin pills which are used to upgrade passive abilities such as increasing his maximum health or improving his keen sense of hearing. Finally, Joel can also find two types of books: Skill books which can increase the efficiency of anything from the explosive radius of Molotov cocktails to the duration of which a smoke bomb conceals your movement, and comic books which Ellie enjoys reading, that can result in additional dialogue sequences.
These bookend segments precede and follow every “combat” encounter (stealth with little to no combat if you’re doing it right,) and are where Naughty Dog’s trademark character work really shines. Joel and Ellie are forced together by circumstances neither of them particularly enjoy, so they aren’t exactly best friends when their journey begins. As their relationship (not that kind, folks, Ellie is only 14-years-old) develops over the course of the game, the real emotional hook is watching these two grow closer together and how they interact amongst everything that’s going on around them. These quiet moments where the focus is on scavenging for resources, obtaining hidden collectibles, and uncovering additional dialogue sequences really bring these characters to life. In fact, the dialogue between the two as they explore what’s left of the world is some of the finest in gaming’s history. Joel and Ellie get into all types of conversations, and feel as genuine and lifelike as any characters in recent memory. My total playtime for the game is nearly double what it could have been because of all the time I spent standing still watching Ellie interact with the environment and offer her thoughts about our current situation. And that’s the point.
Ellie is an integral part of The Last of Us experience, both narratively and emotionally. While she won’t be tossing health and ammunition your way like another comparably-engaging teenage sidekick who won’t be named, Ellie is the emotional crux of the experience. Naughty Dog successfully manages this impressive feat by bringing Ellie to life through a mix of exquisite detail and spot-on voice acting by the lovely and talented Ashley Johnson. Her body language conveys genuine, lifelike emotions, which are equally exemplified by her mood and tone of voice. When Ellie is calm and happy, she’ll whistle or tell a joke. When she’s upset, she’ll drag her feet and pay less attention to what’s happening around her. This is dictated by linear story progression, mind you, but her expressions are nonetheless believable and engaging. Making this accomplishment all the more noteworthy is that Ellie isn’t the only character the team put effort into personifying; every character she and Joel meet along their adventure are equally as believable. The two will come across multiple traveling companions throughout the journey, which is spread out over the course of four distinct seasons totaling a single year. Begging in the summer and ending in the spring, each and every important character, be they friend or foe, is fleshed out in a way that perfectly encapsulates why video games are simply the best form of entertainment available. When a carefully constructed narrative can be this heartfelt and engaging, the experience is truly immersive on a level nothing else outside of gaming can provide.
There are, however, some technical problems that keep the game from reaching a status of perfection. Age-old issues such as textures popping in and out and companion characters phasing through one-another while navigating tight spaces are omnipresent. The world is beautifully detailed, which makes the unstable textures and lighting effects that are there one moment and gone the next all the more noticeable. Worst of all, heartbreakingly enough, my biggest gripe is the sound mixing. The best advice I can give is to play the game with the subtitles on. I know a lot of folks hate leaving subtitles on the screen because they detract from the experience, but this is unfortunately one game that absolutely needs them in order to get the full effect. I say this because Joel and Ellie are constantly conversing with one another while exploring and scavenging for resources. But once Ellie is out of Joel’s line of sight, her dialogue becomes near-impossible to hear; leaving the player with the choice of either standing still or running to find her as soon as conversations start, or otherwise getting on with exploring. Simply turning the volume up seems like the obvious solution, but once the action ramps up and Joel mistakenly engages in a firefight, the roar of bullets turns deafening. Without subtitles, I’d have honestly missed about half of the in-game dialogue between the two; and considering the most important aspect of The Last of Us is their relationship to one another, hearing what they have to say is sort of important.
Some smaller issues I found include the fact that manual saves appear to be entirely useless. Granted, The Last of Us features a generous autosave function which never throws players more than a few minutes behind schedule, but why is there an option for manual saves when rebooting the game will just take players back to their last checkpoint? I thought perhaps the manual save could be used to keep track of collectibles, but this isn’t the case either. Upon reloading my last checkpoint, I still had to go back and re-collect anything found after the previous autosave. My final issue is that the game itself seems very persistent in hurrying the player along during scavenging segments. Considering how the narrative and mechanics place an emphasis on careful, methodical exploration, it seems counter-intuitive and somewhat insulting that when Joel and Ellie don’t reach their next objective within a couple minutes, a nagging hint button pops up on the screen prompting an on-screen indicator to show where the players are supposed to go to advance the plot. On multiple occasions I literally threw my hands in the air and told the game to “hold your horses, I’m not finished searching this place yet.” The hint system can of course be turned off in the options menu, as can the excessive gore during particularly brutal combat finishers; but both are on by default and I imagine most gamers will not take the time to disable them.
The final piece of The Last of Us pie is the online component. Admittedly, while the mechanics of it work well enough, I found myself having little to no interest in any sort of online aspect to such an engrossing single-player experience. However, for those who want to know, the multiplayer mode is called Factions. Tied together by a threadbare story that has no impact on the single-player narrative, players begin their online campaign by choosing to join either the Hunters or Fireflies. This choice is permanent until the “story” aspect of the mode is concluded. Ultimately, the point is to round up a clan of members and survive the infectious plague ravaging the world. Members of the clan are NPCs and not actual other players, although linking The Last of Us to a Facebook account will populate the clan with the names of actual friends. In order to add more members to the clan, players must compete in two variants of Team Deathmatch, titled Supply Raid and Survivors. Supply Raid puts together teams (of real online people now because this is actual online play) and gives them a limited number of respawns. From there, classic Deathmatch rules are in effect. The second mode, Survivors, doesn’t offer any respawns at all, so strategy and patience is the name of the game. Online matches in The Last of Us play much like the main campaign; so quiet takedowns and clever uses of limited resources are the ingredients for victory. Oh, and everyone playing has access to that listening ability Joel uses in the campaign; so players will spend the entirety of their online time sneaking around, lest they be promptly ambushed.
Focusing particularly on the single-player aspect of Naughty Dog’s latest PS3 exclusive, The Last of Us is an absolute joy to experience. Beautifully detailed locations paint a perfect picture of a world in despair in the aftermath of a widespread plague, leaving humanity on the brink of extinction and acting nearly on survival instinct alone. Populating this richly engrossing world are memorable, emotionally resonant characters that are so naturally personified through the use of wonderfully-written dialogue and lifelike animation, it’s hard to let them go once the journey concludes. This is hands-down the best game Naughty Dog has made up to this point, perfectly refining their years of well-crafted action adventures to a masterful level. While some minor hiccups restrain the game from being as perfect as it could be, this is certainly a contender for any Game of the Year competition. I find myself in the same position I was a couple years ago when I wondered, “how can they possibly top themselves next?” Whatever Amy Hennig and her talented crew are working on for next-gen, I can’t wait to hear about it.
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