Last year at E3, Naughty Dog’s “The Last of Us” was my undisputed most memorable game from the show. Despite not even getting my hands on the game while on the show floor, and only watching the demo from the cheap seats at the Sony E3 Press Conference where “The Last of Us” had the arena buzzing, I knew this game could be something amazing. I distinctly recall that after the demo it took me some time to process what I had seen. I was literally stunned, but in a good way as it was the last thing I expected from Naughty Dog, and hot damn it looked great. Well in the months that followed, The Last of Us has remained front and center despite all the survival/horror action games that have been released over the course of the past year. Other games like Telltale’s “The Walking Dead”, Ubisoft’s “I Am Alive” and Deep Silver’s “Metro: Last Light” have all showed us that we love a good post-apocalyptic “end of the world as we know it” type story. Yet all those games, and many others in the same genre, seem to be missing something. Well my friends, I think the times are changing as “The Last of Us” for the PS3 seems to truly be a winner here.
The first thing I should note is that after you have played through the first hour or so you cannot help but get a “been there and done that” kind of feeling. That sense of familiarity had me somewhat disappointed at first. Sparse ammunition, puzzle solving, varied combat, story driven gameplay, tense moments and those instances of frantic action that are included in The Last of Us reminded me of so many games I have played on the current generation of consoles; and yes, a great deal of the game felt like Uncharted to a degree. Yet what Naughty Dog is able to achieve with The Last of Us is quite remarkable and it is the development team’s attention to detail which separates it from the rest of the pack. It has been some time since a survival/horror action game managed to deliver in all areas while dishing out a 15-hour or so campaign that you will likely remember for the rest of your life. Much of that lasting emotional feeling I had when playing the game could be chalked up to the games storyline.
The Last of Us takes place 20-years after a pandemic broke out infecting humans. American cities have become overgrown with weeds and foliage as nature reclaims suburbia, surviving humans have banded into groups, oppressive military forces await you, and those that are infected present as fatal hazards for everyone. The infected however are not the only threats. Humans also remain a threat to each other as they will kill for food, weapons, and pretty much whatever they can get their hands on. It is a wicked world and our main hero, Joel, is a ruthless survivor who was around before the pandemic broke out. Joel operates in the black market of the city and is hired to smuggle a 14-year old, Ellie, out of a quarantine zone. After a series of events, including one of the most memorable prologues I have experienced to date, Joel and Ellie find themselves on a profound journey, and as you would guess things do not quite go as planned.
That is the storyline in nutshell and it is about all I can say without spoiling anything. Needless to say, I was flat out impressed with the way the characters interact with one another and the way their journey unfolds. That sense of desperation and loss of humanity is evident throughout. It is a sad world but one that is captivating. I found myself relating to Joel quickly and it doesn’t take long before you really start to care for Ellie like she is your own daughter. She is foul-mouthed and street savvy but easily one of the more interesting characters in the game. Having grown-up in post-pandemic USA she is tough, but every now and then you see that 14-year old in her and the caring innocent side that can creep out. It is unquestionably an emotional rollercoaster that tugged at my heart strings on more than a few occasions. If you have seen the movie ‘I am Legend’ or ‘The Road’, The Last of Us will leave you with some similar feelings and there are similarities at play. In any event, it is a game you will want to play free from distractions as you won’t want to miss a single word.
You play as Joel and Ellie is your trusty sidekick. Unlike many other sidekicks, Ellie does not annoy you and you never really find her a distraction. She can take care of herself so you are never pre-occupied with her as you fending off the various forms of enemies that range from ’28 Days Later’ infected to ‘Resident Evil’ infected. She is not afraid to shoot and she is not afraid to venture off on her own. She is quite easily the most interesting character in the game and can be quite helpful.
In many ways, The Last of Us plays out like Uncharted. You are moving from one set piece to another, there is a great deal of exploration, a glut of shooter segments, some stealth sequences and a heavy emphasis on character development. It remains a mostly linear affair as you travel to pre-determined destinations. On the surface, The Last of Us doesn’t sound like anything special but in reality it is a remarkable feat. There is no question Naughty Dog has managed to raise the bar when it comes to survival/horror action games and for me it all starts with the varied combat.
Throughout the game I found myself riding horseback, shooting the infected while hanging upside down, systematically taking down enemies in Splinter Cell-like fashion, sniping enemies who were closing in on fellow survivors, melee killing enemies in some of the most gruesome manners, launching homemade bombs and at times absolutely sprinting for my life. It is unpredictable and I never knew what I was going experience from one area to the next. The combat is challenging as I found many choke points particularly difficult and there were many instances of trial and error. Although there were times when I found the pace of the game tended to drag I enjoyed the fresh, intuitive and immersive combat that kept me on my toes as in the end it was always satisfying.
The Last of Us has a heavy emphasis on exploration and much of that has to do with how sparse ammunition is. If ammunition were plenty, the game would be an entirely different experience. Instead you are often found with limited resources. As a result, your health takes a frequent pounding, and you will find yourself questioning whether you need to use that last bullet or spare it until later. The enemy AI is smart and relentless. In the heat of the action you rarely have time to sift through your backpack so you can craft a shiv. Enemies will flank you at times and other times they will sprint towards you. You are never safe, so keeping a steady supply of health kits and anything else you can collect so you can protect yourself is essential in the game. I found myself scavenging for every little item. Some items can be used to upgrade your weapons while other items can be used to make such things like a Molotov cocktail or a smoke bomb. You will come across such things as training manuals, rags, bottles, bricks, tools, scissors, artifacts, comic books, letters and all sorts of other collectible items, many of which help you in your journey. It is impressive and deep. The exploration alone will likely keep you coming back to the campaign a second or even a third time.
Control wise, The Last of Us is easy to pick up and weapons feel good. Granted, it felt a little unnatural pressing the X button to aim and switching from weapon to weapon takes some getting used to. Yet once you scavenge enough upgrade points to unlock the ability to carry two short and long range weapons, life is good. Crafting items with the things you have collected along the way is accomplished on the fly and the gameplay does not pause while you craft various items (e.g. first aid kits, smoke bombs, etc.). So while it is easy to accomplish control wise, you will find yourself panicking a bit when you have a Clicker (one of the games nastier enemies) breathing down your neck, your low on health, and need to craft a health pack.
When you need a break from the single player portion of the game The Last of Us does offer up some multiplayer play. That being said I really question why multiplayer needs to be included with such a robust single player campaign, but alas it is and surprisingly it is not bad at all. Visually and control wise nothing is compromised with the online play. It looks every bit as good as the single player portion of the game and it was entertaining to hop online. Admittedly, I did not spend as much time as I would have liked to but the little I did play was enough to sway me to come back after the game hits retail and the lobbies are populated.
Visually, there is no question Naughty Dog has maxed out the PS3’s hardware. This really comes as no surprise as they have a pretty good track record with their in-house graphics engine. Underground the game looks great but even better when Ellie and Joel travel above ground through cities, suburbs, farmlands and dense forests. The colors pop from the screen, the draw distance is impressive and the landscapes are absolutely stunning. The lighting effects are equally magnificent as they cast a level of realism we rarely see in current gen consoles. The way the sun casts light through trees or windows or the way the light reflects off the water are just a couple of good examples of how life-like the game can appear. The rich textures and attention to detail is something truly special. Character animations are equally stunning as you can see every little wrinkle on Joel’s face and every grey hair in his beard, especially when the game pans in while he speaks. Could The Last of Us be the best looking game we have seen on the PS3 to date? Well it is certainly right up there. It does however come at the cost of some long load times but these are small sacrifices considering the end product (Editors Note: First 15 screens in Gallery below are from Single Player, the rest are from the Multiplayer portion of the game).
When it comes to the games audio, much like the visuals, The Last of Us is second to none. The game delivers in all areas. The character chatter is bang on and even the mindless batter that carries on between the characters when they are simply scavenging is captivating. The music sounds terrific, enemies sound menacing and the weapons pack a punch. It is a game filled with ear candy and all I can say is you won’t be disappointed.
The Last of Us is about as good as it gets when it comes to survival action games on the PS3. Once again Naughty Dog’s powerhouse of a graphics engine really showcases how good a game can look on the PS3. Yet The Last of Us isn’t all about the looks. It is a deeply emotional story driven game with an addictive element making it difficult to put the controller down. It is game you won’t forget and one that ultimately raises the bar for the genre. In the end it’s simply a fantastic game, a fantastic experience, and one PS3 owners can purchase with confidence.