What You’ll Like:
- Beautifully crafted gameplay mechanics
- Emotionally involving story
- Intensely gripping action and fight sequences
- How realistic it all feels
- The absolute best graphics of this gaming generation
What You May Not:
- Initially takes a short while to get truly involving
- Very mild graphical snaffoos
- Some very mild and rare saving quirks
- It eventually ends
What You’ll Remember:
- The jaw-dropping motion capture quality
Naughty Dog have almost seemed to come out of nowhere these days as a more sleeper gaming company, having crafted some decent hits back in the mid-90s, beginning with the classic Crash Bandicoot series on the original Playstation, and marking a gigantic leap with the current-gen smash hit Uncharted series. Yet just when you thought things could not get any better after Uncharted 3, as well as the once popular but dormant survival horror genre in general, have Naughty Dog truly and impressively outdone themselves. Their latest masterpiece, The Last of Us, a post-apocalypse zombie action adventure, will ensure to tag Naughty Dog as one of the best game designing companies of our day; a company that has ingeniously crafted some of the most intensely dramatic games of our time; a company that have done great wonders for the long-time dragging Playstation 3 console sales numbers; a company blessfully owned by the Sony and currently leading its last hurrah of the current gaming generation before the introduction of the Playstation 4 this 2013 holiday season. Sony can absolutely say with great pride and certainty that their underdog blu-ray gaming machine will close out with one of the most epic bangs in video game history.
After The Last of Us opens with one of the most fantastic and emotionally gripping introduction sequences in all of gaming, we come to meet up with our main protagonists a full 20 years after the mysterious zombie apocalypse began. The player takes control of Joel, a mid-40’s hardened, tired, and physically strong man who now lives in a socially desolate world run by a solid as steel authoritative police force and law enforcing strict city limit boundaries, decreased rights, minimal survival resources, zero luxuries, and daily public curfews. The unexpected “zombie” outbreak two decades earlier was due to a mysterious infection which mutates normal human beings to quick and ravenous blood thirsty versions of themselves, as well as creating other sorts of gross monstrosities for which the virus has almost taken on a sadistic mind of its own. Now that this is the reality of life, people must find any means to survive amongst the heartless authority and overrunning vandals, as well as our protagonist with an uncertain lady friend at his side, another hardened but attractive younger woman named Tess.
What players will immediately notice at first glance is the incredible acting ability by all motion capture actors during Last’s thoroughly scripted cut-scenes; the aim towards realism captured with not only the character reactions but also secondary surrounding actors pays off to film-like quality; it is all brought to amazing life through the game’s hawk-eyed meticulous attention to the most minute details in body language alone, not even mentioning actual dialogue. While great acting has become a staple of Naughty Dog as shown through the Uncharted series, it was then done in a lighter mood, injecting a good dose of humor to keep the game’s overall tone and adventurous mood. With Last, atmosphere takes on a significantly darker and serious tone, one that to become even the least bit believable would require complete focus on talented acting chops by the entire cast. Thankfully with Last, the performances are absolutely nailed to a tee, sucking in the player to a story that may not necessary be the most original take on zombies in history, but sure is one of the most realistic, and it is this realism that stands out most as the foundational structure of Last, investing the gamer and truly making him or her one with Joel. A man who, just like everyone else, will no longer live any semblance of a normal life, yet must take on tasks that put him in danger at every turn. As the player gets deeper into the game, they will notice that in terms of story focused cut-scenes, Last feels more like a big budget feature film than perhaps any other game they’ve ever played. At the initial starting point we are mildly introduced to Joel and Tess as they go on a sort of weapons hunt with a gun smuggling deal with another local. Soon after this deal goes near south, Tess and Joel are introduced to a 13-year old girl named Ellie, an almost obvious personality taken straight from actress Ellen Paige’s ‘Juno’ character (which is another funny issue altogether). Due to the circumstances, Ellie must travel along with Joel and Tess and be taken to an organized rebel group hell-bent on finding a cure to the zombie virus, a group called the Fireflies. Due to some of Ellie’s special abilities the couple now agrees to take a dangerous road ahead to see what kinds of progress they can make when meeting up with the Fireflies with Ellie in tow. At this start-up there is a fairly low set of action sequences that does a decent job of introducing the player to the game’s mechanics, but the story is not immediately involving as even though you do meet these characters, the game simply hasn’t done enough to establish who they really are yet, and reasons as to why their journey is so important is unfortunately not fleshed out enough, leading to the player wondering what the big deal really is. This plays out for about the first half-hour of the game, yet once the first significantly dramatic scene takes place, the game takes on a new life of its own, very quickly magnetizing the player to the edge of their seats.
While the overall story of Last has some wonderfully scripted hills and valleys for the main characters, as well as those for other allies and antagonists we get to meet throughout, at its base elements are primarily focused on the relationship between Joel and Ellie themselves and their growth as people and dependency on one another; a relationship that works to eventually have them opening up to their personal insecurities despite the strength and personal emotionless walls they have no option but to keep upholding throughout. The player not only is lucky enough to witness some fantastically acted and directed cut-scenes to further flesh out the story, but also, thanks to the near perfectly crafted gameplay mechanics truly are made to feel as if they are one within this horrid zombie outbreak; tension, fear, exasperation, hope, relief, frustration (a good kind), and joy of success are all emotional feedback rewards that Naughty Dog have all considered and implemented when designing exactly how this zombie tale would play out.
Gameplay Mechanics/ Elements/ Dynamics:
In Last you play primarily as Joel, despite the smaller game section a handful of hours in where you take the role of someone else for a little while. Yet for such an older man he can truly pack in some punch. Similarly to many survival horror games Joel begins with some weaker weapons in his arsenal, including even his bare fists when things become necessary in a clutch situation. In the third person perspective akin to Resident Evil 4, Joel is taken on a mostly linear path alongside mostly Ellie throughout the game. Need not worry as though it may sound like a continuous escort mission, it is anything but, yet a bit more on that in a bit. Once begun, more hardcore gamers may notice that the feel of how Joel moves, sneaks, and uses stealth tends to borrow the gameplay aspects of other recent hits, such as Tomb Raider and Far Cry; these controls can be seen as a tad unoriginal initially, but soon enough the game becomes so good that those other games quickly become a distant memory.
Last goes by a fairly basic and recognizable upgrade system, such as the ability to use randomly tossed scraps and tools around all the areas that can be used to level up weapons at workbenches scattered throughout the different areas. The game also integrates a smooth and rewarding crafting system, where Joel can use said scraps (ducktape, alcohol bottles, powders, etc) in real time to build various explosive devices, health items and small knives. Aside from this upgrade and crafting system, health and performance upgrades can be done through randomly scattered health pills. Maximum health, crafting speed, weapon skills, and other physical abilities can be leveled up through the ingestion of these pills; a system that is a tad far-fetched, but still keeps in check the believability of the overall game tone. Throughout the adventure, one will notice how vitally important the exploration element is in Last. Much of the game will be spent walking around desolate areas searching for as many scraps, pills, and health kits as possible, even scattered ammo which never gives Joel the luxury of any full clips and magazines, but simply bits of scattered bullets at a time; some which can be picked up from downed enemies, or others left behind by previous survivors. The ingenious purpose this upgrading and exploration mechanic has behind it is simply how realistically necessary it is. Throughout the game, Joel and Ellie will not only come across hordes of the bloodthirsty infected, but also violent human hunters and thieves who will kill anyone at the drop of a hat for resources. Since there are so very few friends and allies in Last, the enemy count will not only give the player a true run for their money, but also plenty and plenty of deaths. Experiencing this constant tension makes you aware that if you do not explore for scraps you will much sooner be dead; this gives the player the feel that every decision matters in regards to timing, control mastering (which isn’t hard at all), and strategizing of which weapons will be used, where, or if anything will be used at all. The player literally gets so involved into the overall atmospherics that the feeling as if they actually are trapped in a zombie apocalypse takes full swing as soon as the very first encounter with not just a series of infected, but also ones that have gone through such mutation, called ‘clickers’ who can kill Joel with a single touch (in that case, forget your health bar altogether). A frustrating feature at first, but eventually appreciated as this all becomes a gameplay design that absolutely revitalizes to full life the once dying genre of survival horror for modern game fanatics.
Last plays out in a very linear fashion, with no backtracking or side missions whatsoever. The game knows its purpose, and has no real reason to keep the player traveling in and out of the same areas, which is a thankful induction and works well to keep the player focused primarily on the general mission and story; this decision keeps the pace quick and exciting, full of tension as no area can be readily recognized, thus only adding to the constant edge-of-your-seat stretching of the player’s nerves. Just like other survival horror games, bigger and more powerful weapons are found around the towns as you progress through Last. Thankfully, sorting through the menu walks a great balance of ease and skill, leaving the player to determine when are the best times to not only swap weapons, but also craft together various bombs and health upgrades. Many times using your explosives is more enjoyable than your weapons, considering it not only takes more strategy, but also conserves ammo as well as the joy of watching our enemies blown to pathetic bits. It’s a good thing that the game itself knows when you’re in dire need of ammo or health, sometimes (though few) tossing the player a bone in the form of relieving upgrades. Since Joel is not able to pick up full items all of the time, as well as limited “ability” pills, having enough scraps to craft a much needed item feels like a breath of fresh air every absolute single time it is done; and don’t worry about any weapons ever becoming obsolete, as older and weaker weapons have enough oomph to get you out of clutch situations whenever necessary, making the player thankful for Joel still holding onto them. This is what we call balls-out true survival. Aside from the scraps needed to build these weapons, there are also pendents, comics for Ellie, and other collectibles that are strewn about for the picking, yet the player should know that getting absolutely all of them in the first playthrough without a game guide is virtually impossible.
The last aspect of gameplay that should be mentioned in Last is the violence factor, and all of its epically visceral brutality. While Last isn’t really a gory game per se, as you never really see guts or human remains such as your Silent Hills, what makes Last so disturbing is just how, again, real the characters and enemies move and act during fire and fist fights. Since animations are done so fluidly, as well as the same character reactions not typically acting the same way twice depending on the angles of shots as well as background objects, moreover to mention the amount of blood splatter per kill, all do a subtle but very significant level of success in surrounding the player into this depressive lost world they must survive. Gameplay fights are neither constant nor consistent, and the player is thankful when there’s a breather moment open to explore; yet when enemies are upcoming or plainly present, all senses of sound, visuals, and environmental objects become your best friend when deciding when and how to take cover, or not taking cover at all. Naughty Dog also did such an excellent job in a seemingly small detail as enemy placement in the game, where some of them come up so unexpectedly that yours grinch truly found himself mumbling “oh shit,” crouching Joel quickly out of harm’s way before being spotted. It’s as if Naughty Dog knew exactly how some sections would play out, and purposefully placed foes in the most hair-raising spots just to mess with you.
Joel also has the ability to use his listening ability to track enemy locations, depending if they are making sound or not. Some may recognize this feature to the recent Tomb Raider game when Lara was able to use her important, if somewhat silly “sensing” ability to track enemies and even objects (Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon has a similar feature to track foes by using visual scan). Since inanimate objects are not able to be tracked in Last as they are in Raider, exploring every nook and cranny is not unheard of in Last. Anyway, so does Ellie do anything in this game? Besides being your escort she proves herself to be one tough teenage kid, offering a good amount of chuckles and general cuteness despite how foul-mouthed she can become. Since she is physically able to take care of herself, she never becomes a hindrance to your mission, and does a good amount to help you later in the game by taking down some foes herself. She almost becomes an extension of your character, but one tomboy you will definitely come to like and appreciate. Although you do play as Joel as your main lead, Ellie becomes the true star of the show.
While graphics are not always at the top of what makes a good game great, Last’s visuals not only work to make everything in it awe inspiringly believable, but are without a doubt some of the best, if not arguably THE best graphics of any game thus far this current gaming generation. As mentioned, the brilliant motion capture cut-scenes go beyond what is already impressive, but add to this the amount of attention put towards all of the environmental details and what you have is a game that makes you take breaks simply to stare at where you are. From far and vast distances you can make out distraught buildings in cities where nature is trying to take over everything in sight; cars lay burned and torn apart due to whatever ravages they had witnessed at whatever prior point in time in the last two decades; dead bodies and skeletons lay lonely and forgotten on sidewalks and random areas either killed by infected or simply starved to death. But even in more natural areas like the forests, birds fly by fluidly as do the rich and gorgeous clouds above, and the sun rays shine gorgeously through trees in some of the best designed lighting effects in gaming today. Heck, your grinch truly won’t even go into how gorgeous the rain effects look. Even in dark indoor areas such as the subway areas and abandoned buildings, objects lay wasted in all directions, many times just not visible, forcing Joel to switch on his flashlight (which in a cute feature sometimes begins to burn out, in which case a shake of the six-axis controller function brings it back to normal). Even Joel himself tends to slowly walk, jog and generally pace himself differently at the drop of a hat, depending on how much he feels he needs to perhaps conserve on his personal energy. The meticulous small nuances here in all objects and controls make not only your character, but also these objects feel so vividly life like, it’s just a shame that such stellar graphics have to always come so late in a console’s life span. Yet despite how downright beautiful everything looks, pushing a console’s hardware to this kind of extreme will likely not make for a 100% smooth game run. A few times throughout players may find the frame rate not as smooth as others, yet thankfully this virtually never happens during battles, but mostly just during walking bits. This never deters gameplay in the least but is still visible when it happens. As far as visuals go, that is about the only negative, therefore it’s easily wiped off the shoulder.
If the visuals don’t immediately arrest you (but they will), the incredible sound production surely will. As mentioned above, Joel employs a listening ability as to which similar to the recent Tomb Raider, is able to track where enemies are depending on if they are making any sounds at all. These foes will come out as black silhouette shadows when behind objects, and using this ability by pressing L2 will automatically put Joel in a slower walking crouch position. Whether enemies are distant through the sound of their voices, moans, clicks (for those tough and intimidating clicker mutations) and footsteps, players must take it upon themselves to be hold awareness to these sounds (so to those with a good stereo system will probably do a bit better at getting through the game). Hearing the enemies in Last is just as important as seeing them. The game’s soundtrack also uses some keyboard tones to work in conjunction in making the player aware when enemies are nearby, which leads to just how spot on the soundtrack itself is.
Last doesn’t have any epic symphonies or loud intense music when action fills the screen, but instead decided to keep itself very low key, and really the only actual musical pieces play in the game’s opening menu, during more dramatic cut-scenes, as well as the ending credits. During actual gameplay the “music” is really left limited to atmospheric sounds and tones, which in themselves are infrequent enough that they can hardly even be called part of the soundtrack. This low key vibe ultimately works to keep things in Last very creepily realistic. So since the music is on the DL, what players really notice the most are the general sound effects, and it is pleasing to know that everything from the crunch of whacking an enemy in the head with a lead pipe or wooden plank, to the in-your-face gun shots and even down to the rich satisfying sounds of you crafting new materials, all blends so seamlessly to bring about an authentic world that does more to involve the player than all the Resident Evil 4’s in the world ever could (as wonderful as that game was).
The greatest thing perhaps about The Last of Us is how even for a game focused on its single player campaign, once things are over players may likely feel more reason to play though it again. While games like Tomb Raider and Resident Evil do provide grand experiences throughout their campaigns, there is little reason to go back for a second playthrough, mostly due to the general lengths of the campaigns as well as the feeling that all necessities have already been explored. With Last, the campaign is so long and varied (probably about 15 – 17 hours in your first playthough), with enemies that are so much fun to kill thanks to such a well designed strategy system in place, as well as close quarter kills and satisfyingly full and intense weaponry, that it would be hard to deny this a second or third go around. You literally never have to do the same things twice, and various situations Joel and Ellie find themselves in call for differing gameplans, but never coming off too difficult or unreasonable; such variety keeps the pace fresh and fast, not to mention a lot of fun. In addition, Last has one of the best and smoothest running multiplayer games in recent memory. Here, you can play with a faction to accomplish tasks such as simply destroying the other team or collecting important objects. The multiplayer puts you on one of various maps from the game itself, and through credits collected you can purchase upgrades such as armor and enhanced weapons. The best thing about this feature is just how incredibly smooth it runs and how competitive it becomes. While not as involving as the single player, the mutliplayer does add a good amount of hours of enjoyable replay to Last. It should also be noted that once the single player is finished, the game grants some fun unlockables, through money accumulated where the player has the choice of what bonuses they can buy. The amount of money collected is likely determined on in-game performance as well as what difficulty levels were beaten.
There is simply too much greatness to The Last of Us to be able to cover in a single written review without causing too many spoilers, but this is truly one of the greatest games of this generation, and possibly of all time. While the hardened content may not be for everyone, for those who do have a heart for this type of action/adventure survival horror thing, this is a must own for anyone with a Playstation 3, as well as being well worth the full retail purchase price. Actually, it could almost be determined sinful for a person owning a Playstation 3 and not having ever played Last, granted its sheer genius. On both a technical and storytelling level, what can be said for The Last of Us is the same that was said by many for the Uncharted series – how can Naughty Dog possibly improve on such a breakthrough piece of gaming creativity? Only time will tell, yet as of this writing Naughty Dog has come out and said that they unfortunately plan on no sequels to Last, believing such a task would be overkill on these two characters. One can only hope that their next project, likely to hit the Playstation 4 will at the very least match levels with this absolutely fantastic achievement. The Last of Us is one for the record books. 4 out of 4 clickers, easy.