The Last of Us, developed by Naughty Dog, attempts to capture a world that is a shadow of its former self. A dreary place where hope is a characteristic of a fool and happiness is all too rare. The game is set 20 years after the outbreak of an infectious fungus called Cordyceps. Cordyceps affects the nervous system and turns its victims into monsters that are hell-bent on infecting every human. You play as a man named Joel, who has been alive since before the outbreak. As a favor to a friend, Joel must protect a teenage girl named Ellie. Together they must travel across America in a fight for survival reminiscent of The Road by Cormac McCarthy. It is a feat in and of itself that Naughty Dog can immerse players in this world, but the company also made a game that is satisfying and enjoyable to play.
Graphically this game is very hard to beat. Environments are lush with bright greens, yellows and browns of nature contrasted by the stone and metal structures of man. The city environments are beautiful and haunting as painstaking detail portrays nature violently reclaiming the earth. From toppled skyscrapers to giant sinkholes revealing the subway systems, nothing seems forgotten or out of place in this ravaged landscape. You are not limited to the cities, though; the environments in the wilderness show no less detail. Streams flow and ripple as you walk through them. Grass and brush sway as they get caught on your legs in passing. You can even see where lack of sun has stunted growth of wildlife as well as moss growing on the correct sides of trees. Simply put, the Last of Us has some of the most beautiful digital environments I have had the pleasure to witness.
Just as beautiful as the environments are the character models. The emotion portrayed in real time is breathtaking. When Joel grabs an enemy to choke them out, you can see genuine fear as they try desperately to get away. When Joel gets hurt you can plainly see where he was hit, your clothes can become bloodied and you can even see blood trickling down Joel’s face. The infected character models are terrifying as you see their eyes pouring blood and the fungus erupting from their heads. Never before have I seen such emotion in game characters. From facial expressions to posture and body language, you really get the sense that every character is a living person.
The effects of the game are also of the utmost quality. Gunshots, smoke from grenades and fire from molotovs all look damaging and beautiful. The lighting is some of the most impressive I have ever seen. Most shadows work realistically, and in dark environments the flashlight can produce some breathtaking effects. Based on the color of the surface that your flashlight shines on, the area surrounding you will take on a glow of that color, which adds to the immersion in a way you wouldn’t believe without playing.
The sound design is also topnotch. Sound effects are crisp and immersive, and the sounds of the infected will send chills down your spine. But what really steals the show is the dialogue. The performances of the actors here are amazing, and not just for a video game. Joel is portrayed by Troy Baker and Ellie by Ashley Johnson. These actors, as well as the rest of the cast, have given outstanding performances that will stick with you long after the credits have rolled.
The soundtrack is deliberate and effective, with mostly stringed instruments, and adds another level of personality that helps the game stand apart even more. Composed by Gustavo Santaolalla, the soundtrack coupled with the performances will have your hair standing on your neck one minute and have you wanting to cry the next.
Naughty Dog has striven for a level of realism for almost every aspect of the game, and this approach really comes through in the mechanics. Gunplay is slow and shaky, as it should be to someone who isn’t an expert marksman, but it feels deliberate. The close combat is effective enough to where if you have to resort to hand-to-hand combat you can survive, but it doesn’t feel overpowered. There is a slight emphasis on stealth and using the crafting system due to ammunition being very scarce. Scavenging is a huge part of the game, as you must find everything you use. Scattered around the environment you find ammunition, parts for upgrading your firearms, medicine to improve Joel’s skills and materials used for crafting items. The system is simple yet elegant, and there aren’t any items on the list that feel useless. There is also a system called listen mode that reveals the locations of enemies that are making any kind of noise. This mechanic is useful and well-polished, but it feels like a feature that was added to make the game a little more accessible. Keep in mind that on the hardest difficulty this mode is unavailable, which feels a bit more like how the game was intended to be played.
The enemy A.I. is well-done. Both humans and the infected act the way they should. Human enemies will react to how you are attacking them. If they hear your gun click, they will realize you have run out of ammo and rush you. Infected are very sporadic and react violently to every little sound. Even the companion A.I. is consistent and doesn’t get in the way. But there are instances where you are sneaking through an area with enemies around, and your companions will start talking or run out of cover and into the vision of the enemy, but the enemy A.I. will completely ignore their existence. Only after the player character has been seen or heard will the enemy acknowledge your companions. These instances, while noticeable and slightly illusion-breaking, aren’t frequent enough to pose a problem to gameplay, but I will note that some may notice it more than others.
The single-player is linear, but due to the topnotch level design, this is hidden well. There are numerous different ways to tackle most situations, which can add replayability. The game offers a New Game + and Survivor difficulty after beating it once, and the NG+ is necessary if you want to fully upgrade Joel (for that trophy). There are also plenty of collectibles to find, which are cleverly hidden and can take several playthroughs to find. The Last of Us also features a multiplayer mode that is tactical and addictive. There are two different multiplayer modes, Supply Raid and Survivor. Supply Raid is two teams of four that have 20 supplies or respawns each. Survivor is also two teams of four, but no respawns per round. The objective of both modes is to wipe out the opposing team. The mechanics of the multiplayer are almost identical to the the single-player, and the level design on most of the maps allow enough freedom that each match feels different than the last. I can’t get enough of the multiplayer, and I have spent almost three times as much time playing it as I have the single player.
With incredible attention to detail and quality world building, Naughty Dog has taken narrative in games to the next level. While it may not be for everyone, The Last of Us should not be overlooked by any gamer with enough gumption to brave this dark, haunting world. This is truly one of the finest experiences to be had — not only on the Playstation 3 but in gaming.
- Developer: Naughty Dog
- Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
- Platform: Playstation 3
- Release: 6-14-2013
- TimeStamp: 8-10-2013