The Last of Us Review
SCE, Naughty Dog 2013
Right now, you won't get this kind of scenario writing and event planning in any other game. Not of this style, not at this level, and somewhere down the line, it's something you need to witness. That's the bottom line. Naughty Dog is doing things with The Last of Us that other developers probably can't even imagine yet, let alone be capable of. An odd thing to say, given that the game is a combination of the most familiar and primitive third person control mechanisms, hand guided sequences, and cutscenes placed between approachable stealth setups, and yet, the sheer gap between the observable talent seen here compared to other productions is occasionally breathtaking.
Occasionally. Because although there are some unbelievable segments in The Last of Us, you really have to cherry pick them out of a broader, less convincing experience. Which is a shame, because when it's good it's really good. Such as the opening sequence, where, in the middle of the night, you walk a little girl down a set of stairs in her pajamas, exploring the rooms of her suburban home as she wonders where her father has gone. Her shouts for "Dad?" are at first innocent and curious, but as the eeriness settles in, her cries became desperate, a rising notion of a child's fear that would put anyone with a heart on the edge of their seat.
Twenty years later, the events of that night are a reality across the United States, a viral outbreak that has turned the populace rabid. You get bitten, you go insane, basic zombie rules apply. Joel, a man who lost everything to the outbreak, now survives as a vigilante in one of the martial ghettos of Pennsylvania. The dire state of the world is apparent, walking through militarized zones, throwing people ration cards for favors, and putting things like justice and survival into your own hands.
The detail of this environment, devolved culture, and the decrepit, abandoned buildings, is nothing short of immaculate. In fact, much of the game is nothing but rummaging through its leaning skyscrapers, disaster struck office buildings, universities with years of overgrowth festering over its dormitories and commons, shining the rich beam of your flashlight over cabinets, storage rooms, and once lived in places. It's a very convincing premise, though can meander a bit. Constantly grabbing materials off of shelves and countertops, locating ladders or finding alternate paths for your partners who can't swim -- an all too clean segmenting between combat and exploration areas that sort of guarantees that you needn't expect any surprises in between.
Enemies will usually occupy only a few rooms or a small building, quickly hushing you and your partners' banter, and Joel will typically head forward alone to handle things. Areas where your partners do follow you create some comical cases of them stepping into searchlights, or making a loud racket while sneaking through a room of blind infected called "Clickers" who find their prey through a heightened sense of hearing. Enemies luckily ignore this lack of polish, but it's difficult to neglect it as a player, or to neglect how The Last of Us is a fairly clunky cover shooter, and a stealth experiment of conflicting proportions.
A pedigree for animation Naughty Dog may have, some of the small things you'll notice are that character movements around cover are automated but awkward, offering no real control over which direction you face, and no variety in the ways to hug against objects. Ensuing attempts to shoot people then reveal that bullets aren't all that effective, and that's strange, given the powerful crack of the guns, and the extreme value placed upon ammunition. Enemies can soak 2-3 well placed hits, at times, and now you have a problem to consider.
Not really that of realism or lack thereof, but a case of inconsistent rules that can make the game feel silly, frustrating, and rather dated. The idea is that Joel has a backpack full of items to scrape by on: Medkits, homemade shrapnel grenades, molotovs, and eventually, a load of different weapons, but only bits of ammunition at any given time. Since thugs and military personnel only grow stronger throughout the game, such as acquiring hard hats that make your headshots count for nothing, The Last of Us puts little faith in your smartly managed armory, and instead places a heavy reliance on stealth; either choking people out, or sneaking by entirely.
What you have now is a very standard, 'crouch-walk-behind-sporadically-patrolling-enemies' game, often with misleading fields of vision to get caught on (some enemies have ambiguous peripherals, others can't see 10 feet down a corridor). Consequently, the checkpoint system invites trial testing instead of immersion. Because, if you're spotted, you either can enter the sloppiest and most ridiculous attempt to survive in a shootout -- your screen glaring red with damage as you miss key shots and see pincushion enemies belly over, only to get back up and return fire -- or you can restart the sequence (you're going to restart the sequence).
It's comforting that The Last of Us is hardly founded upon these combat setups, but rather, a continuous journey and relationship between Joel, and a girl named Ellie. First taken under his wing as a job -- smuggling her across the United States to an elusive resistance group -- Ellie takes root as a daughter figure, and Joel as a protector who must now, again, go through the trials of a parenthood that he lost to the chaos 20 years ago. The brash 14 year old has a real fighting spirit, and her colorful vocabulary is wholly lovable, though it takes until the latter portions for your journey to take advantage of her role in the game's play, finally setting the stage for some of the most creative and powerful sequences ever incorporated in a piece of software. That isn't something to say lightly, and it's why, past the mediocrity of many individual segments, there's enough reason to push through them and revel in some of the best drama this medium is capable of.
Early on, there are still hints of how great a character Ellie is to become and what she has in store for the game, mainly in how well she bounces off Joel's warm, but concerned, Southern tinge of fatherly lecture. At one point, upon finding a pickup truck in a neighborhood of abandoned ranch homes inhabited by infected, Joel has Ellie get in the front seat to put the truck in gear as he pushes her down a hill. Already annoyed by any kind of adult advice, she'll quickly get fed up: "I KNOW how to pop a clutch!" And so you'll push her down the road, infected sprinting behind you as you take quick breaks to blow their faces apart with blasts from a shotgun, until she finally figures it out.
It's just one example of how character building and game tension come together, and without spoiling similar situations, this same concept applies to the darker, and more dramatic climaxes that ultimately make The Last of Us so recommendable. But it's just so jarring to have, at times, segments that involve nothing more than Joel Solid Snaking his way towards an open elevator and new checkpoint, that are then split between moments that are so much more personable, involving multiple characters in creative ways, with writing and voice work that make people, kids in particularly, appear as real human beings, and not satellite attempts to bait cheap emotional reactions. It's a level of professionalism that might make you rethink your interest in past games, and how startlingly immature they are in their portrayal of drama. The first time Ellie shouts a 'Fuck you!' at someone, her delivery is so perfect that it just shatters everything known about this hobby. It's so good, it's honestly pretty sad that there's nothing quite like it.