The Last of Us, Naughty Dog's masterpiece, not only delivers brutal and harsh fights, terrifying enemies and a beautiful, yet tragic world, it goes emotionally deeper with its story than any other game before it.
Title: The Last of Us
Format: PlayStation 3
Developer: Naughty Dog
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Age limit: 18
Joel, the protagonist of this game, says at one point to his companion Ellie, who is about to fire a rifle: "Make every shot count." The same can be said about Naughty Dog. Throughout their longstanding collaboration with Sony, there has not been a single misfire among their games - from their Crash Bandicoot-series on the first PlayStation, who many gamers look at as cherished pieces of their childhood, to their Jak-series on the PlayStation 2, who are regarded as fantastic games, to last, but not least, their Uncharted-series on PlayStation 3, who has become the flagship-series on the console, and series protagonist Nathan Drake quickly became the PS3's mascot. They are without a doubt the biggest and most admired first-party studio in Sony's self-proclaimed "PlayStation-family" and every game they release are not only highly awaited and hyped, but also tend to be met with critical acclaim. They make every shot count. They do not waste their projects; they make every one of their games as it would be their last. And, hypothetically, if The Last of Us indeed was their last game, what a way to close their career with - this post-apocalyptic third-person adventure-shooter is not only their best game released to date, it is one of the best games I've ever had the good fortune to experience.
Twenty years after society has broken down following the outbreak of an infection which turns humans into savage killers, the United States is barely managing to function. The military has set up various quarantine zones, with tight security and poor living conditions, but nonetheless relatively safe. Outside these zones, it is every man for himself - either you'll meet your end by the hands of other survivors, or the infected, who make up a significant number of former citizens. It is a brutal world without morality. Joel, a man in his late 40's, is a survivor turned smuggler who operates inside one of these zones. He is a man of great sadness, to the point when it seems like he doesn't really care about anything or anyone, that he doesn't have anything to live for. When he agrees to a business arrangement that includes him accompanying a young girl, Ellie, across the dangerous country, through abandoned towns and huge cities, facing the brutality of infected and other survivors, Joel must decide to what length he'll go to protect the girl, as well as to how far he will go to survive.
That is the basic gist of the plot in this downright amazing game. While the story in itself might not be revolutionary or breaking new ground in the industry, the characters and the way they interact with each other most certainly does. Joel remembers the world before it went to hell, and this, along with the fact that he has went through some great losses in his life, has made him into a bitter, grizzled man that goes through life almost mechanically, just repeating his smuggling ventures again and again, in order to get food and other important supplies, so that he can live to see another day. He is a man that knows the brutality of this new world, and understands it - if put into conflict with another survivor who is after the same as him, he knows that it's either himself, or the stranger. And you can't help but feel that you understand Joel's brutal actions throughout the story - even if it includes killing other survivors. Because if put in a situation where it is either you or him, what would you choose? Joel is nothing short of a real and human character. He is imperfect, sure, but maybe that's what makes him such a compelling lead. Because that you just know that even though Joel commits all these murders, you know that he isn't a killer by choice. He is a killer because the new society made him one. Joel would much rather live a normal life, have a family, than doing this. It's just an unexpected and much undesired turn of events that threw his life upside-down. All he has done is adapting to the situation.
Even though Joel is a great character, the very best is his companion, 14-year old Ellie. The thing that makes this character so great is her personality, and how it shines through not only the story, but even the gameplay. Ellie was born after all hell broke loose, so the world Joel painfully remembers is completely unknown to her. That doesn't mean that she doesn't want to learn about it, though. Ellie is a girl of curious nature; she is interested in the world she could not experience. When exploring the now-lost world nature has long since reclaimed, Ellie will ask Joel questions about the past, and he will enlighten her. She will go through records at an old record-shop. She will laugh at the very idea that such things as ice cream-trucks existed. Ellie is a fascinating character because of the way Naughty Dog lets her interact with the player. Curiousness aside, the fact that she is 14 years old and in many ways still a kid, despite her maturity, is definitely apparent. If she decides to tell a joke, she will laugh at the silliest one, for example. Yet she is strong-willed and self-reliant, not fazed by the brutal and vicious world she lives in, and not afraid to take part in the many shoot-outs and encounters with the infected throughout the game. Ellie is a fascinatingly well-written character, with strong character traits as well as the curious mind of a 14-year old girl. Easily said - Naughty Dog truly nailed both of these characters, but its Ellie that truly stands out.
Joel and Ellie's trip takes them through the United States, to locations like Boston and Pittsburgh. Naughty Dog's vision for the post-apocalyptic USA is nothing short of incredible. You won't find a single sign of humanity left - every small town or huge city is bereft of the society traits we would deem normal: There is only survivors killing each other, the infected, and the nature, which has over the course of twenty years reclaimed its land. The influence by nature is apparent by Naughty Dog's keen attention to detail, which really is unmatched. You will rarely find such an accomplished world in the world of video gaming, I would even go as far as to say this is the best version of a post-apocalyptic States I've seen in a video game, as well as a film, for that matter. The influence of nature can be witnessed everywhere, from grass through the windows in buildings and in the streets, to flooded-down subways. But it really is all those small details that make the world so incredibly believable: Everything from sentences scribbled on the walls, that will make you wonder how that particular note came to be, to written notes you can read, giving you an insight in the misfortunes of others, to the decaying furniture in buildings, big and small alike. I could go on and on, I really could, but you get the idea. The attention to detail, the believability of this post-apocalyptic United States, creates a unique atmosphere. This is an environment that demands exploration, and the scary and brutal, yet undeniably beautiful world is so thoroughly well-constructed that it is impossible not to take a moment, not only to take a minute from the brutal nature of the fights, but simply to make sure you have seen all there is to see, investigated all there is to investigate. Read all there is to read. You won't feel truly satisfied until every inch of this straight-out fantastic world has been checked out.
When roaming the land as a survivor, your first priority must always be to scavenge for supplies, and that priority is indeed very important in The Last of Us. There are several types of supplies for you to gather, and each of these act as components for items you can conduct. And in a game where you'll be lucky to have only around 15 bullets for your pistol, these creatable objects always come in handy during a fight. Some of the items you can create include shivs, small knives that can be used to kill an unaware clicker, which makes them essential to have in your inventory, and molotov cocktails. First-aid kits can also be crafted, which is the one thing that is mandatory for your survival. It's a dangerous world, and if you don't have first-aid kits at your disposal during an intense shoot-out, you are in even bigger trouble than you already were. The constant search for supplies adds even more to the survival element as well as gives you a reason to explore the world, apart from doing it purely because it's so damn beautiful.
The world in itself is very pretty, due to the appealing, overgrown nature and the drop-dead gorgeous graphics, but like I've mentioned earlier, it isn't a particularly safe place to explore. The presence of so-called "hunters", other survivors who scavenge the cities for supplies, as well as killing everyone in their path, whether they be infected or ordinary survivors, as well as the ghastly ghouls themselves, are constantly threatening you, and you'll never know when they might come. Because of this, it is safe to say that you are never safe in The Last of Us. At one moment, you might hear the horrible moans of the so-called "runners", infected people in a very early state of the infection; the hair-raising clicking noise of the "clickers", another type of infected that, seeing as they're blind, use echolocation as their eyes, or the noises of a group of hunters that gleefully chat about their latest murders. If you are spotted, you must be prepared for what will always become a fiercely intense and brutal fight. While the hunters will map out the location, take cover, and do their best to flank you, the infected have no consideration for their own safety and lunges themselves at you, at what seems like faster than light-speed, and if your shooting reflexes are poor, and your ammo low, especially the clickers will provide one hell of a challenge. The grotesque clickers will simply end your life in one single hit.
The action sequences found in The Last of Us is, quite simply, the most intense, the most grueling and among the most strategically demanding found in its genre. Familiars of the third-person shooter genre might picture this as your standard, run-of-the-mill take cover behind something and pop up for some easy headshots-experience, but that is very far from the truth. In The Last of Us, not every situation is best solved by cleaning the area of your enemies. In fact, far more often, treading stealthily and bypassing any enemy contact is the smartest way to go. If spotted, however, the quiet atmosphere of The Last of Us completely changes into a hectic and intense experience where your head must be kept calm at all times. Ammo is constantly scarce, and there are many variables you have to take into consideration when going into a fight. Do you use your final bullets at the attacking hunters, or would it be preferable to conserve them into a possible run-in with the infected? Do you gamble your bullets, putting down your enemies with firepower and hoping you'll find some more on their dead bodies? Or do you decide that the fight is not worth using your precious bullets on, and beat them with your melee weapon? The Last of Us is a game that rewards strategies and combat planning - there is no thing as satisfying as bypassing an entire room of clickers, or perfectly mix stealth and deadly force to make your way through a group of hunters, unharmed.
The violent and vicious world of this game is also reflected by the realistic brutality in this game as well. Whether ripping another man's limbs of with a homemade grenade, shoving the head of another man into the wall, or beating another man to death with a steel pipe, to more brutally chilling moments like strangling a survivor, watching his last moments fade out as he desperately tries to stop Joel from committing the murder. Also, your enemies truly do manage to scare you. Not only the infected, with their horrible moaning and clicking noises, but also other survivors, because they, along with Joel, are not murderers and cutthroats by heart. There is no hired army of mercenaries here, like in Uncharted, or criminals, or people who decided that their future lied in the killing of others. They are only survivors, like Joel, interested in one thing: Survival. Perhaps that is why fighting them is so compelling: Not only because they are smart and cunning, but because that they, along with Joel, rather would have an everyday-life consisting of work and spending quality time with their family. They are in the same boat as Joel, and I at least, find that oddly fascinating, and it adds to the overall realism of the fights.
On a technical level, The Last of Us truly is in a class of its own. Not only is the design of the world absolutely amazing, like I've said, but the graphics is also impeccable. This is the prettiest game on consoles today, period. It looks terrific, from huge elements like the big building's you'll explore and everything inside, to micro-elements like blood falling down Joel's nose after taking a punch, or watching the desperate eyes of a hunter as he is slowly being strangled to death. The rust on cars and walls, the varied environments throughout summer, fall, winter and spring, not to mention the absolutely incredible lighting effects! Walking through a dense forest is something unique, due to the sun forcing its way through the available space between the trees. The cut-scenes also impress highly, with no sub-par facial animations or unimpressive body language. The audio in this game is also very impressive. The voice acting, for example, is consistently impressive. The voices of Joel and Ellie are one of the key reasons for their believability, and the strong line delivery is up there with the best voice acting in games. But for all eternity, when I think of audio in The Last of Us, my mind will directly jump to the high-pitched and chilling moans of the runners, and the terrifying clicking noise from the clickers. You are constantly listening carefully, always concentrating to hear moaning or clicking in the distance, so that you can prepare your strategy for the encounter. With the infected, you'll most likely hear them before you see them. The music too, while mostly absent from the gameplay, also provide the game with more emotional impact.
The Last of Us is one of the finest games this console generation, and it is one of my new favorite games of all time. But it isn't because of the intensity of the fights, the stellar graphics or the story in itself. It is because of the immersion of the world, fueled by the great design and the fantastic graphics. It is because that the unique atmosphere creates a genuine feeling of despair. It isn't scary because the infected looks so horrifying, it is scary because you really feel like a situation like this could happen, and an outcome exactly like this seems surprisingly legit. It is because of the way Joel and Ellie interact with each other, and how much you'll grow to love them. It is Naughty Dog's ability to create so genuine personalities and relationships that shine through, at all times. Whether it be small things like Ellie that reacts to Joel murdering others, or bigger things that happen during the story, The Last of Us is always a deeply immersive and emotional experience, that sets a new standard for storytelling in video games. Add in some of the most intense and frightening action sequences you'll ever experience, which is so intense you'll always let out a sigh of relief when it is over, and a world that is so beautifully created you'll spend far more hours than necessary just wandering about, taking it all in, and you've got one of the defining video games of this generation, an unforgettable experience that will make you emotionally invested as you play. One of the last PlayStation 3-exclusive games to come out is also one of the greatest games ever made. A true masterpiece and an absolute must play.
10/10 - Dark and scary, yet beautiful and completely memorable, The Last of Us is a unique and unforgettable experience that shouldn't be missed.