In The Last of Us, humanity has fallen in the face of an epidemic. Cordyceps mushrooms have nested in the human brain and propagate to drive people insane within two days of infection. There is no cure, so humanity is reduced to living in heavily controlled military quarantine zones or eking out survival in out-of-the-way areas. Joel is a smuggler in the military quarantine zone in what used to be Boston. He is tasked with transporting a girl named Ellie to a group of antigovernment rebels called the Fireflies.
The Last of Us is perhaps the most relentlessly grim and depressing game I've played since Nier. It's expected for a postapocalyptic story, but death, rape, sickness and torture are all part of the narrative. Perhaps the most positive thing is that most of the subjects are handled in a surprisingly mature way. There are a few moments that feel a little gratuitous, but perhaps the most ridiculous moment comes in the middle of the strongest part of the game. The Last of Us is not a fun Uncharted-style romp. It is a constantly horrifying world punctuated briefly with moments of humanity. It is to the game's credit that it knows when to give you a few moments to recover — just in time to bring it back a few moments later.
The Last of Us is a heavily stealth-oriented shooter. Enemies outnumber you, so you can't go into a gunfight and expect to win. As such, the name of the game is stealth. Human enemies are heavily dependent on vision, but that's also their downside. If you can break their line of sight, they'll continue to move toward where you were, allowing you to flank them and kill them with a stealth attack. One minor annoyance is that enemies ignore Ellie and only care about Joel. There are also a few moments when the AI seems to get stuck repeating one pattern, but I didn't encounter that too often.
The biggest advantage is Listen mode. By focusing, Joel can pinpoint where noises in his environment are coming from. This highlights enemies through walls, a la Arkham Asylum Detective mode. A downside is that this only works on enemies who are making noise. Docile or motionless infected or trained military soldiers are much harder to pinpoint. Another downside is that you move very slowly while listening, and it is tough to hear the more subtle environmental noises. If you avoid Listen mode, the game has contextual clues and hints that still make it possible to play.
The infected come in three types: clickers, runners, and minibosses. Clickers have been completely taken over by fungal growth, so they have no sight but can hear a pin drop. Its bite is an instant-kill, so if they grab you, you're dead. They're also immune to stealth kills and can sustain a lot more damage. Your only defense against clickers is a shiv to stealth-kill them or unlock the ability to use a shiv to break a clicker's hold once. Runners look like regular people with some minor growths, and they charge at you and slam you wildly. They can be killed. Minibosses are clickers who have become a bloated mass of mushrooms. They require a lot of ammo to kill and can attack from afar with mushroom spores. The few times you have to fight these creatures are the closest that The Last of Us gets to boss fights.
As the game progresses, the infected get less scary. Once you're more heavily armed, you can handle a swarm of Infected with less trouble. After I got a shotgun, the clickers went from terrifying to bothersome. Gaining the ability to shiv a clicker also made them less scary.
Resource management is a key part of The Last of Us. Even on the Normal difficulty mode, you can't carry enough ammunition to sit behind a wall and shoot down enemies, even if they'd let you. By default, you can carry a small gun (pistol) and one long gun (shotgun or rifle), so you need to figure out how to use other resources, such as alcohol, bindings, blades, explosives, rags, and sugar. Each can be combined into different items, such as health kits or shivs, but each item requires two resources, forcing you to decide between them. You can also carry a melee weapon and a thrown object. Melee weapons range from heavy sticks to hatchets and break after a limited number of uses. Bottle and bricks can be thrown or used as a melee weapon, but you can only carry one at a time.
You can also upgrade your weapons and character in limited ways. By finding pills, you can increase Joel's health, improve the speed at which he makes items, increase your Listen mode radius, or reduce weapon sway, just to name a few. Each upgrade takes a certain amount of pills, and you're unlikely to afford most in a single playthrough. You can also use parts and tools to upgrade your guns. Parts are what you have to spend to get the upgrades while tools increase how much you can upgrade your gun. These upgrades are relatively minor, so you're not going to go from a wimp to being a tank.
The problem with resources is that by the midpoint of the game, they were throwing too many resources at me. I had three of every available item and three of every available resource. I would use items when necessary but have little trouble replenishing them, so it weakened the element of resource management. It still plays an interesting role in combat when you have an overabundance of items, though. Higher difficulty levels increase the need for better management, but resources are still plentiful, and if you're being stealthy, you'll rarely need to use many of the items anyway.
It's almost impossible to not compare Joel to BioShock Infinite's Booker DeWitt, and not just because both are voiced by the same actor. Both have been hired to usher a young woman to a location, both have done terrible things in the past, and both can singlehandedly defeat an entire army of people. Yet where Joel succeeds is that he feels like an actual person. He interacts with people other than Ellie, and that fleshes out his character. Some of the most interesting moments revolve around Joel's characterization. He does foolish or upsetting things, but there is always a reason. Joel really sells the idea that he isn't a good person; he's just trying to survive.
As with BioShock Infinite, though, the real star of the game is your female companion. Ellie is a surprisingly well-developed character who is likeable as well as an undeniable touch of fanciful Disney princess. On the surface, it sounds like she'd be pretty annoying as a naïve 14-year-old with few survival skills, but she has interest and wonder that's tinged with frustration at the world. Her lack of pre-infection experience gives her a very different view of the world, and it colors many interactions.
Perhaps the most important thing about Ellie is that she manages to have weaknesses while never feeling like she needs to be rescued. She can't swim, but she isn't a terrified mewling waif when it comes to water. She'll go along shallow paths or briefly hop into water and trust Joel to keep her afloat. She begins to contribute more as the game progresses by pointing out objects of interest or commenting on potential enemy weaknesses, and it isn't long before Joel depends on her as much as she depends on him. She also contributes in combat by tossing bricks at enemies, and eventually, she picks up a gun and assists as a full-fledged AI partner. This is a minor but significant addition that helps her feel like a person instead of an escort mission.
Outside of combat, The Last of Us is a relaxing game. The environments are mostly linear but contain optional rooms that contain items to upgrade abilities or parts to modify weapons. Some contain Easter eggs and secrets. There are simple puzzles that involve moving a ladder or plank from point A to point B. The environments are lush and detailed and contain lots of clues about what has happened. Much of Joel and Ellie's history can be pieced together from conversations that occur in out-of-the-way areas. There's no backtracking, though; the game constantly moves forward.
The biggest problem with The Last of Us is that I can't entirely argue that being a game works in its favor. The gameplay is fun, and the story is fantastic, but the mesh of the two rarely forms something cohesive. More often than not, the story takes a break so you can shoot some bad guys, or the shooting elements take a long break so the story can occur. There are several sequences where the two come together and form something wonderful, but they're few and far between. There are times when I clutched my controller tightly, waiting for the inevitable button prompt or return to action, only to watch the cut scene resolve everything. These moments are still powerful and effective, but only as much as in a television show or a movie. In many ways, The Last of Us's most serious flaw is that you could make it into a television show, and it would lose nothing. It might even be improved by trimming some of the fat.
In comparison, there are moments of action that feel forced, as if the game had been going on too long without a beheading. Most of these sequences are well paced, but sometimes, you'll get dropped into a pit of infected or be trapped in an arena with a bunch of enemies in a way that only slows down the plot.
There are a handful of moments where it all comes together, and you can't help but wish more of the game was like that. Even alluding to them would spoil major plot twists, but there's an entire section of the game where gameplay and story come together in this near-perfect whole, and it's worth playing the entire game just to experience that section. When everything comes together, the game stands head and shoulders above almost anything else on the market. Even when it isn't working, it's a delight to play, but there's a clear feeling that it could've been more.
The Last of Us also features a simple multiplayer mode. Players can join either the Hunters or the Fireflies and compete in deathmatches against players from the other side. Winning matches improves the state of your camp, which unlocks additional upgrades to use in future games. It's a by-the-numbers multiplayer mode that includes most of the features from the game. Listen mode and crafting come into play, adding an unusually slow element to the multiplayer. You need to move cautiously, or you'll be torn to shreds. It's difficult to tell if it will have as much lasting value as Uncharted's multiplayer, but it seems like a good value for a game that stands well on its own.
From beginning to end, The Last of Us is easily one of the best-looking games I've ever seen on the PS3. The character models are detailed and have subtle and emotive body language that conveys ideas without words. The environments are detailed, although there is some noticeable repetition of models in some areas. It would sometimes take textures a little while to load, leading to some ugly pop-in. It was rare and not overly distracting, though. The voice acting is absolutely top-notch. Troy Baker brings his best to the table, and it's pretty surprising that he manages to make Joel not feel like a retread of Booker despite the characters being so similar. Ashley Johnson's Ellie is an energetic delight, and she pulls off several extremely emotional scenes masterfully. Even characters who only show up for a short period of time sound great. The soundtrack is somber but appropriate, and it perfectly sets the mood of the game. It isn't music you'd listen to on its own, but it fits the context of the game.
The Last of Us is a must-play title for any PS3 owner who's not squeamish about violence and depressing subject matter. It has flaws, but they don't detract from the overall experience, and at worst, the game could use a little more interaction. Naughty Dog has crafted an engrossing and interesting tale, and I can think of no higher praise for the game than that they could remove every shooting sequence, and it might be better for it. The characters are likeable, the story is interesting, and it's an engrossing experience from beginning to end.
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