Developer: Naughty Dog
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Platform: PlayStation 3
I’m terrified at the thought of writing this review. The hype surrounding this game both before and after its release has just been so immense, and it was so well-received that I am not certain I can say things any differently. The game is amazing, and the story even more so. Still, I am paid to do this kind of thing, so here goes.
The Last of Us is as much a game as it is a story that you can play through. Yes, I am aware that most games have at the very least a rudimentary story, but this is much, much more than that. This is that rare title that feels as though the makers used the game as a thinly-veiled reason to tell a story and not the other way around.
If you are reading this, you are, no doubt a fan of the gaming scene, and so to recap the backstory would be a terrible disservice. So rather than bore you with a lot of drivel you already know, I’ll get right to the meat of it, and a few tips that I picked up along the way.
It’s a pretty standard third-person shooter, though they have left out the “sticky” cover system that really does get in the way of decent combat. In practice, movement flows smoothly, and the animators have gone out of their way to keep things tight without sacrificing how the game looks. As an example, most games of this nature will have you walk up to items and pick them up with a quick animation. TLoU does the same thing, but they went out of their way to animate it in such a way that makes Joel look like a normal, non-CGI human being picking something up of the floor, table, or shelf. It is a very small touch, but it goes a long way to providing realism to the whole gaming experience. Combat is equally slick, and even a PC gamer such as myself had little time getting used to, and effectively entering into fights, though only when absolutely necessary.
While not a zombie game in the truest sense, the game carries a lot of the survival-horror blood of similar games. Resources are terrifyingly scarce, and if you aren’t careful, you will inevitably find yourself sprinting towards an enemy to knock them out with punches because you ran out of ammo for your primary and secondary weapons, the spare gun is in the backpack, and the lead pipe you were using to wail on the last baddie broke from the fight. Combat can get pretty frantic, and with the limited supplies, you will have to come up with creative ways to end fights or bypass them altogether.
Crafting items, an important part of the game, and the improvised weapons you can create, is something that you should be doing a lot. The game limits your ammo by setting an ammo and item cap, so a good way to manage your limited inventory space is to turn the raw materials (binding, blades, alcohol, rags, sugar, and explosives) into items as soon as you can. This frees up room to pick up other raw materials later on. Bear, in mind though, that some crafted items share raw materials, so while it is a good idea to craft ASAP, make sure you have at least one of every crafted item before creating doubles. Oh, and whenever possible, add blades to your melee weapon. It’s worth the resources.
Creating items is a helpful way to come up with useful items to get you out of a jam, but another thing worth doing is finding tools and scrap with which to upgrade weapons. You will get into fights. Sometimes, an enemy turns when you don’t expect, or you fail to see infected past a corner, and bullets will start flying. You’re going to want to invest in increased ammo capacity (yet another way to boost your inventory space) to make the most of the weapons you have. An extra holster also spares you the brainpower, dexterity, and wherewithal of swapping weapons from the “passive” item slot in your backpack into the “active,” fast-swappable weapon slot. Just like in real life, it’s always faster to swap weapons than it is to reload, so swap out instead and stay in the fight longer. Upgrading the most commonly-used weapons for damage is also helpful, as, if you think about it, if you nail a lot of body shots, it makes your ammo last longer. Crafting and pulling items from the pack will all happen in real-time, so if you’re going to do it, you’d best make it quick.
Joel’s abilities can also be upgraded with the use of supplements. To be honest, though, the only skills that I found useful were listening distance and weapon sway to keep my crosshairs from moving while aiming. Crafting speed and healing speed aren’t really things you should worry about, as it’s not often you will be healing or crafting in combat, at least if you’re doing things right.
There are a few things that take getting a hang of. Quickly switching from a brick to a Molotov, for example, might need a bit of thinking through before executing, but do it enough times, and it’ll just happen naturally. The game does help you out a lot by making allies invisible from enemies, and nothing they say or do should get you in trouble while sneaking. This is immensely helpful, though does quite a bit to take you out of the experience at times. Still, nothing breaks the gaming experience more than frequent loading, so I’ll take it. When combat starts getting heavy, allies help out by distracting opponents and even attacking them when the opportunities arise.
Now that all of that is out of the way, I would like to talk about what really makes the game shine: the story. Now, this is not to say the gameplay is bad—far from it. It was fun even for a guy who was looking for the comfort of keyboard and mouse control, and the mechanics were very well-executed. It’s just that, faced with a story like this, everything just sort of fades into the background.
The Last of Us is one of the most riveting stories you will ever see this year. The main character, Joel, is just so realistically human in his emotions, reactions, and moral behavior that you are drawn to learn more about him. Add to this his fondness for Ellie, which is slow to start, but grows very clearly throughout the game, and you have the recipe for a real narrative masterpiece.
The story takes its time to develop. The writers clearly know that a good story takes its time, and man, does The Last of Us take a lot of that. The main story is the Cordyceps infection that sweeps the world and leaves it in ruin, but that is old hat for those familiar with the zombie/post-apocalypse genre. The real story here is the one Joel and Ellie have to live through as they travel across the barren landscape to try and find an answer to the infection. Slowly, you warm up to the characters, just as they do with each other, and before long, you are frantically scrambling to drop infected and zombies alike, just to keep them from getting Ellie, because you’ve formed a connection with the character. The writers really capitalize on this at one point, where Joel is put in a situation where he throws human decency right out the window for the sake of Ellie. Sure, you know he is more than capable of it, but at that point, you’re caught o -guard and honestly, I found myself agreeing with the guy. That’s some primo storytelling right there, having convinced me that I would probably have done the same.
The story actually spans about a year from start to finish, and brings in quite an impressive cast to help push the story forward and create an even deeper bond between the two main characters. I swear to you, you will play this game to learn more about the story. There is only so much excitement you can get killing enemies before gameplay gets repetitive, but The Last of Us keeps you wanting to slug it out by creating in you a need to see what happens next. It’s like a book you just can’t put down.
The game doesn’t try any convoluted twists or pull any cheap surprises story-wise, and the way the game is, it wouldn’t have helped at all. The story, as it stands, is solid and cleanly done, if a little brutal in its honesty about the human condition. It doesn’t pull any punches, and the thing is you can’t, in your heart of hearts, deny that it is telling the truth as ugly as it might be. Therein lays the beauty of the story that drives the game. It is outlandish in the premise surrounding it, yet perfectly accurate in portraying people faced with the reality it presents. You just stop caring about the apocalypse stuff and see how people really are. It’s powerful stuff, and you won’t be able to get enough.
There isn’t much I can really say that hasn’t been said, really. Based on the collective love for this game, as well as how much I enjoyed it, you should get yourself a copy. Gameplay-wise, it’s a lot of the same, just re ned to a pretty high degree. The pacing and story, however, makes all of that irrelevant. You have to play this game. Play the game. You’ll see what they mean.
Words by Ren Alcantara
First published in Gadgets Magazine, August 2013