It won’t be a controversial statement to say that Naughty Dog is one of the biggest names in gaming right now. Not only have they created some of the best games of the last FOUR console generations, but they have consistently revolutionized gaming as a whole. The Last of Us is no different.
The game puts you in the shoes of Joel, a smuggler living in post-apocalyptic Boston who is handed an unusual job: get a teenage girl named Ellie (who looks remarkably like a young Ellen Page) to a rebel group outside of the city. Despite the oddity of the situation, he needs the job so off they go to escape the quarantine zone.
If you’re like me, when you hear post-apocalyptic, you immediately see images of nuclear devastation, mutants/zombies, and Jennifer Lawrence with a bow (Anyone? No? Just me? Okay.) but The Last of Us is certainly not that. The premise of this world is that the very real disease Cordyceps has jumped to humans and is spreading like crazy, turning humanity into a bunch of violent, raving, mushroom-headed people. While this has had quite the impact on civilization, the world as a whole is relatively undamaged so, without humans to hold back the tide, nature has reclaimed most of the world…
…And it’s absolutely gorgeous. I mean, sure, there are a ton of cars littered around and everywhere you look are buildings that haven’t been maintained for 13+ years but still, the beauty of the world grabs you. At least as long as the infected aren’t grabbing you first. Nothing quite kills the mood faster than a giant Bloated running up and ripping your face apart.
Just like nature, this world isn’t just pretty. It’s also deadly as hell. Infected roam in groups and infest buildings, waiting to spread their seed… er… spores. It’s not just them you have to watch out for as bandits have taken control of most of the world as well. In fact, human enemies are just as prevalent in The Last of Us as the infected.
Fortunately, the game gives you plenty of options for getting through enemies, even if bullets remain pretty scarce. You can run in guns blazing and fists pounding but Joel is not invincible, nor is he super-human. A good crowd of baddies will take you down fast. For when you’re outnumbered, stealth is usually the best option. It also happens to be the most fun. Little is more satisfying than sneaking up behind a bandit and strangling him from behind without his buddies seeing. You can also use trash strewn about to distract enemies in various ways. Finally, most encounters can just be bypassed altogether, if you are stealthy and clever enough to make it through.
For times when stealth just won’t work for you, though, you have a few options available. Melee weapons can be found and even upgraded to perform some devastating kills. Joel is a tough guy even without weapons and, in a one-on-one fight, can usually find a good corner to bush a dude’s skull into. There are many guns that become available throughout the game although ammo for them is often scarce. If you play The Last of Us like a shooter, you’d better be a great shot and be prepared to use every gun available to you like a pro. Finally, Joel has learned how to make use of available resources in this post-society world and is able to craft bombs and molotovs to add to his impressive arsenal.
All of these options make each encounter feel less like a scripted firefight and more like an opportunity. Running out of ammo? Time to try some stealth tactics. Guys charging you through a doorway? A molotov ought to slow them down! While the game often leaves you with few resources, it never leaves you with no way out. The way out may just force you down a path you aren’t used to.
This isn’t to say the gameplay is perfect. Combat can often feel clunky and at times, confusing. I frequently felt as though the rules of the game kept changing on me. Sometimes I was able to stealth kill an enemy and other times I was not and I couldn’t always figure out what I had done wrong. The level of detail in the world is also so impressive that it stands out when enemies do things or come from places that don’t make any sense. One particular enemy that stood out to me popped out when I was exploring a child’s bedroom in an optional house. Despite enemies in the area coming from a specific position, this guy was apparently just camping out in this kid’s room on the off-chance someone happened to come by.
The combat is very much a case of, “when it works, it works” as wrecking your enemies not only makes you feel like a badass but also smart for figuring out ways to get through. It just doesn’t always work how you want it to. Regardless, the narrative is the main draw for this game and unlike the combat, it is absolutely perfect.
The relationship between Joel and Ellie takes center stage, each character bringing their own issues to the table. Dialogue between them feels natural in a way most games do not even come close to achieving and it’s not even limited to cut-scenes. The Last of Us incorporates dialogue relevant to your actions whenever possible. Not only will characters comment on the world around them but even your optional exploration will also usually result in Joel or Ellie making a quip about what is going on.
In most games, this amount of dialogue would quickly become repetitive and annoying but that never happened even once in The Last of Us. I cannot recall a single time dialogue was ever recycled, nor did it ever feel like they were simply narrating to me what was going on. If I picked up one of the collectible comics lying around, Joel may call out to Ellie saying he found one of those comics she liked so much. It was a small bit of dialogue but it felt so perfectly Joel at that moment. Awkwardly trying to be friendly towards this girl he’s stuck with while still trying to maintain emotional distance.
This was successful in no small part thanks to the work of voice actors Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson, Joel and Ellie respectively. The dialogue and delivery sets a new industry standard and scripted scenes were shot with the actual actors acting out the scenes in motion-capture suits, allowing for a level of realism most games don’t even come close to reaching.
I don’t want to talk too much about the path the story takes but it’s also worth pointing out that the narrative isn’t just supported by the acting. The writing is perfect, always setting the tone without ever pushing it too far. Character’s actions feel realistic and make sense. The music fits the tone of the story completely and while the melodies don’t often stand out, their ability to influence the emotional gravity of each scene is masterclass. Even the level design helps the narrative by making sure you can take moments to pause and reflect on the world around you. The art tells a story as often as the writing does.
If there’s one complaint I have, it’s that I wasn’t always clear what the characters were trying to accomplish by traveling down a certain path. The game often uses the Uncharted formula of giving you a far-off destination to work towards by traveling a linear path. At one point in the game, though, along your path to your destination, you wind up going into a building, going all the way up the building and then all the way back down the building just to leave it and continue on. While I may have just missed it, I wasn’t clear what the goal was for being in this building in the first place. It didn’t happen all the time but it happened often enough to be noticeable, particularly in the early parts of the game.
Despite its few flaws, The Last of Us stands as a pinnacle of game narratives. I rarely speak in absolutes but I feel quite confident in saying that The Last of Us is the best narrative experience I’ve ever had in a video game and yes, I’ve played through Planescape: Torment! If you have a PS3 or a PS4, even if you aren’t a fan of Naughty Dog’s other games, The Last of Us is more than worth your time.