I don’t think many video games have gotten as much pre-release publicity as the just-released PS3-exclusive The Last of Us. Fewer games are worthy of it, but this game seems equal to the hype.
Before its release, the game received 30 perfect scores from gaming magazines; the review aggregator Metacritic called it the best PS3 game of 2013 as well as second-best PS3 game of all time and gave it a score of 95; GameRankings gave it it a score of 94.26%. It won multiple awards at E3 2012 when it was still in development, including Best of Show, Best PS3 Game and the Editor’s Choice Award.
Its developer, Naughty Dog, had been working hard on the game, and working hard to make sure that everybody knew it. Their previous opus, the PS3-exclusive Uncharted series, had been well-received, and they were making sure that this new one was better than the Nathan Drake games.
It was finally released last Friday, and I immediately got a copy and have been playing it all weekend.
In a word, it’s… interesting.
The Last of Us is the story of Joel and Ellie, a middle-aged man and a 14-year-old girl, and is about their journey across a devastated landscape teeming with infected “humans” and murderous survivors after a fungus-borne contagion has destroyed the world. You play in third-person mode as Joel, while Ellie is largely controlled by the game’s AI. It’s reminiscent of the movie The Road, with two lonely people traveling and trying to survive, but with much scarier elements.
The game opens twenty years earlier with a long cinematic intro featuring Joel and his young daughter Sarah, as the plague begins to take hold of the country. We are treated to their lives before the holocaust, and things degenerate quickly as they try, along with Joel’s brother Tommy, to escape the devastation. A deadly disease is infecting the populace, a fungal infection mutating them and making them crazed and flesh-hungry, and everything is falling apart. Not quite a zombie apocalypse, but close enough.
This long intro is basically linear in progression, with the gamer being able to just barely control the characters. Full control comes later. I was drawn into the introduction and the story without realizing that I was already playing the game—it’s that good. Things turn out badly of course, with his daughter getting killed, and Joel and Tommy being thrust willy-nilly into the dystopia.
Fast forward a couple of decades later. Joel is a hardened survivor trying to make ends meet. There is an initial storyline of a misplaced weapons cache and Joel and Tess, another character, are trying to retrieve it. They eventually find out that a renegade group of survivors called Fireflies have the cache, and they are willing to give it back as long as Joel does them a favor: escort a girl named Ellie across the city to some other waiting renegades.
Thus begins the main story. Later, things fall apart and become a big mess, and a quick trip across a city with Ellie turns into months and months of agony. Boy, are you in for the fight of your lives.
The Last of Us, first of all, is great storytelling. You are lead to care about the characters, and care whether they do the right things or not in their quest (sometimes they don’t; they perform heinous acts later on in the game, and the user is forced to confront that fact: the characters do what they need to in order to survive, and it isn’t always nice). Joel knows that certain things have to be done, such as draw a gun on the newly infected before they mutate, even if they were your friends. And the plot! I haven’t even gotten to half the game, and I’m already overwhelmed.
Secondly, the game’s visuals are impeccable. The scenes of urban devastation are well rendered, and oddly beautiful in their own warped way. Destroyed buildings, ravaged subway tunnels and flooded roadways are shown in great detail as you walk across and through them. Climbing up the wrecks of once-beautiful buildings, now imposing, rotting hulks of their former selves, you get a grand sense of how the world has deteriorated and fallen apart.
Thirdly, the animation of the characters are fluid and realistic, even more so than the Uncharted series. In fact, The Last of Us owes a lot to Uncharted, although this time out, there’s less of the humor and good will that was the previous games’ hallmark. This time, it’s darker and more sinister. The fungus-infected humans of The Last of Us are marvels of perverted and sick design, and the various rebels, soldiers and survivors are formidable, hardy opponents. The voice acting is likewise impeccable, particularly the main characters Joel and Ellie. You believe in the father-daughter dynamic the two manage to convey.
And fourthly, the game’s mechanics have been honed to near-perfection. The player is deeply entrenched in what can arguably called a living, breathing film, walking, running, hiding and fighting enemies from a third-person perspective, and breaking off only when an in-game expository video is required. In-game HUDs are kept to a bare minimum, and indicators only pop up when necessary as the story progresses. It’s like you were in your own damn movie and living every moment.
My only complaint is that it conforms to third-person shooter conventions and you are constantly made to fight off wave after wave of enemies in order to get anywhere in the game. Somehow it doesn’t go with the beautiful structure and design of the rest of the game, and it kind of grates on the player when it happens. But hey, it’s only a game, right? Right.
Looks like a hell of a long one. I’m still in the thick of the it, and the end of the game is nowhere in sight. Which is just how I like it.
Technoodling highly recommends The Last of Us.
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