The Last of Us is unlike anything I’ve ever played before. Developed by Naughty Dog, the development studio that brought us Crash Bandicoot, Jak and Daxter and Uncharted, they’re no strangers to great games. But with The Last of Us, they’ve managed to not only outdo everything they’ve done in the past, but also set a new standard for what video-games are capable of.
This isn’t a game for just anyone, but it is a game everyone should play. It’s brutal, shocking, emotional, dark, scary and immensely immersive. Never before has a game, or any entertainment medium for that matter, floored me as much as The Last of Us did. When I wasn’t playing it, I was thinking about it, and when I was playing it, nothing else seemed to matter.
The game follows Joel, a forty-something man tasked with escorting a fourteen year-old girl out of Boston for reasons best left secret. He starts off as reluctant and sees this girl, Ellie, as a nuisance; nothing more than a payday. But as the two journey across what remains of the United States, and the depravity of the world becomes clear, the two forge a bond unlike any other.
While these two characters come into contact with a myriad of characters on their journey, some good and some bad, this is their story above all else. Everything that Naughty Dog put in this game serves primarily to both develop these characters and endear them to the player.
Joel, brilliantly voiced by the always impressive Troy Baker, is a man who has lost everything and lives only to survive. He acts as a smuggler for hire, sneaking things in and out of the quarantine zone he’s lived in for the past several years. While he is alive, he is not living, and due to the tragedy experienced in his past, he no longer allows himself to feel.
Ellie, voiced by the equally impressive Ashley Johnson, is quite the opposite. Having grown up in this post-apocalyptic wasteland, the only world she knows is dark and dangerous. Her every waking minute is spent either obeying the so-called ‘militia’ that rule the quarantine zones or hiding from the danger that lurks around every corner.
The interplay between these two characters is what defines the experience. Their initial dislike for each other, and eventual trust shared, is one of the most believable and realistically developed relationships I’ve ever seen in a game, even topping what Bioshock: Infinite did with Booker and Elizabeth.
This is what drives the story forward through the games shockingly lengthy campaign. While the story does hit all the major notes a post-apocalyptic ‘zombie’ story is expected to hit, which does take a little of the impact from a couple of the game’s more important moments, The Last of Us shakes things up just enough to always keep you on your toes.
It’s a familiar yet fresh take on a genre that has quite frankly been beaten to death these past few years. Even with the few predictable moments it never once falters or takes advantage of the player’s intelligence. And by dramatically shifting the game’s tone every so often with dramatic, and yes, unexpected, twists, you truly never know what’s in store.
As I always say, as good as a story is, a game is never truly great unless it has superb gameplay to back up the narrative with. And not surprisingly, The Last of Us excels in both those categories. The gameplay is both brutal and unrelenting, and is somehow able to make the taking of another human live a personal and yes, uncomfortable experience.
In a market where violence is marketed and branded, The Last of Us dares to portray the enemies you face as relatable, albeit misguided, individuals rather than faceless thugs or mercenaries. The kill animations really hold nothing back, and while The Last of Us doens’t revel in its violence, it certainly doesn’t shy away from it either.
Whether you’re fighting the human survivors or the deadly Infected, the combat is brutal. Stealth is always an option, and intensely satisfying, but every so often you’ll find yourself forced in a corner where it’s kill or be killed, and it’s in these moments that The Last of Us becomes something more than a survival-horror game.
And acting as the juicy cherry on top, the game looks absolutely stunning. The environments are detailed, the lighting crisp, and the vistas equally beautiful and melancholy. Seeing a decayed Boston street, overgrown with foliage and littered with empty cars and rotting corpses, is a sight not soon forgotten, and clearly sets the tone for the entirety of the game.
Everything is here for a reason, and every empty house tells a story. Through the deluge of collectible documents, items, and even comics you find, you’re able to glimpse a world long since passed, and it sets the moody, threatening tone of the world at just the right tempo.
To make it all better, The Last of Us comes sporting a simple but effective crafting system as well. By scrounging through the environment you can find various supplies needed to craft either weapons or health packs, and since the crafting menu runs in real-time you’ll have work quick or else risk getting spotted. It’s an easy addition, but one that works incredibly well for the game.
The Last of Us really captures what it means to be human, and throughout the game’s storyline you’ll see both the very best and very worst of what mankind has to offer. It’s a journey that can be touching one second, and disturbing the next. You never really know what’s in store for you, except that nowhere is safe, and no one can be trusted.
It took my almost fifteen-hours to complete the game, but you could easily spend another couple hours searching out every last collectible that’s littered throughout the non-linear environments. And even once the credits roll, you can go back and play again with the New Game+ mode that transfers over all the upgrades you acquired in your first playthrough.
This opens up the option to not only max out Joel’s many upgradeable guns and abilities, but to also experience the game in a different way. And when combined with the surprisingly fun and fleshed out multiplayer component, there’s lots of incentive to keep playing after you finish the campaign.
However, the ending of the game, which is both perfectly executed and refreshingly ambiguous, has such an impact on you that you might be content to just sit back and let it sink in for awhile, like I am now, simply because it requires that much thought. Nothing is hand-fed to you here, and the depth and meaning is yours for the taking if you’re willing to accept it.
This is a game that dares to push the boundaries of storytelling, and goes places that even Hollywood rarely treads in. It’s a story about survival, or more specifically, the survival of Joel and Ellie, two unlikely allies forced to coexist or else risk death, or worse, infection.
The Last of Us takes the best qualities from every game that Naughty Dog has ever made, and in the process sets a new bar for storytelling in video-games. It’s brutal, emotional, ambitious, spectacular, and most important of all, real. It’s unlike anything else out there, and will most likely go on to be one of the defining games for this generation.
Story: 9.5/10 – While it hits some expected notes, The Last of Us tells a story unlike any other, and you’d be hard pressed to find a better portrayal of man anywhere else.
Gameplay: 10/10 – With non-linear exploration, open-ended upgrade systems, and realistically brutal combat, The Last of Us represents the best of what the PS3 has to offer.
Presentation: 9.5/10 – Outside of a few less than original menus, The Last of Us is filled with many little details that not only enhance the experience, but make it a realistic one as well.
Graphics: 10/10 – This is as close to next-generation graphics as we’re going to get before the new consoles launch this winter. Simple as that.
Replay Value: 9.5/10 – With a New Game+ mode and a surprisingly detailed multiplayer mode, there’s plenty of reason to keep playing The Last of Us, but you might be better suited to just let it stew over in your head for awhile instead.