At the Ragged Edge
HIGH Finally getting my hands on a weapon that can behead zombies. And then doing that.
LOW Spending twenty minutes trapped in an almost game-breaking bug.
WTF The whole ending. All of it.
A third-person shooter/stealth title, The Last of Us follows Joel and Ellie as they make their way through a post-apocalyptic America peppered with bandits, cannibals, and fungal zombies.
Interestingly, Naughty Dog combines stunning action setpieces with gorgeous art design, and then adds in one of the least likeable main characters in mainstream gaming history for good measure. It's a fascinating project that would have had the potential to be a generation highlight if it wasn't undermined by weak writing and questionable design decisions.
After an intense opening sequence set during the first hours of a zombpocalypse, The Last of Us settles into a slower pace as it attempts to depict what a terrible ordeal post-civilization cross-country travel would be. Once Joel (former bandit turned smuggler) meets Ellie (the only person immune to zombie infection) the game becomes entirely episodic, eliding over their journey for weeks and months at a time, only cutting back in just moments before gunplay starts.
This hyper-emphasis on action is one of the ways that the Last of Us hurts its own premise. The game never establishes a sense of the distance traveled, or how difficult survival would be. Gathering food isn't even an issue except for a brief (and intriguing) sequence that has the player foraging, but of course, things quickly turn prosaic as it's interrupted by yet another group of bandits.
Speaking of which, for a title set after a cataclysmic human die-off, there's no shortage of people running around. Every enemy the pair encounter has a few dozen friends in reserve, excited to leap into the breach and continue the fight after the first ten or fifteen guys have been brutally murdered.
The real tragedy of these decisions? The player never gets a chance to understand the world they've been tasked with helping save.
There are glimpses of people struggling in a militarized quarantine zone, and there's talk that a group called the 'fireflies' is opposed to the soldiers in charge. No information is ever offered about why the military's rule might not be an entirely positive one, or on what ideological grounds the fireflies oppose them. Other than a brief glimpse (from a great distance) at a small isolated city getting by just fine, nearly every person the player meets is a bloodthirsty murderer so committed to cruelty that they'll pursue it even against their own self-interest.
Did the developers not understand that players might be interested in how the world has reshaped itself? Or perhaps they wanted to keep the focus off of the implications of the player's actions. In any event, if Joel and Ellie had even a single vignette in which they solved a problem or met people without enemies turning up at the worst possible moment, it would have given players a much-needed look into the world they're exploring. It would have also made enemies showing up a little more surprising, rather than what they ended up with—setpieces that encourage players to tap their feet impatiently while waiting for the monsters which are inevitably going to come screaming out of the shadows.
Those monsters are quite an accomplishment of design, however. There's something inherently revolting about the fungal growths protruding from the heads and bodies of the game's zombies, and while the nature of the spore-based infection goes almost entirely unexplained, the devs make sure that they're so disgusting and threatening that players will have an instinctual fear of being near them.
This near-physical aversion makes the scenes of having to creep quietly through packs of them in abandoned buildings incredibly effective. The human foes are just as well-drawn. It's clear that an art team with an eye for detail did an exceptional job of making them look weathered and beaten down by their lives. Desperation drips from every pore of the human foes, easily selling the idea that they're as dangerous as any zombie.
Looking towards the mechanics, the shooting and physical combat that makes up the bulk of the running time is executed as beautifully as would be expected from the developers of Uncharted.
The stealth combat brings to mind an expertly-tuned modern version of Manhunt. Creeping around decrepit urban landscapes, distracting enemies with thrown bricks and then rushing up and slashing their throats is every bit as brutal as Rockstar's controversial PlayStation 2 masterpiece, and should satisfy gamers looking for visceral action at its most unpleasant.
Beyond choosing between sneaking up on enemies or engaging in all-out gunplay, the game offers a wealth of options to the player by way of a well-implemented crafting system.
Every area is peppered with a variety of components that can be collected to assemble a half-dozen different tools for use in combat. By keeping things simple and useful, they encourage players to use the appropriate tool when they stumble into a situation, rather than having a particularly neat tool that they have to contrive a situation to use.
Despite these accomplishments, there are a couple of major flaws in the game, one practical and the other aesthetic.
The practical one is patently ridiculous: human enemies can happily spend all day firing round after round at the player, yet almost never drop ammo when they die. It's an obvious attempt to generate pressure from ammo scarcity, but in the context of the game it makes no sense. This lack of ammo also creates a hilarious cognitive disconnect because in the many scenes where players kill hordes of zombies, it's rare to find a single infected without bullets, molotov cocktails, or a canister of flamethrower fuel (!!!) on their corpse.
The aesthetic issue is in regards to stealth, and is a more critical one from an immersion standpoint.
The problem here is that the developers were apparently unable to create smart partner AI that could take care of itself during sneaking sequences, and decided to "fix" the problem by turning off enemies' ability to see Joel's partner. Ellie can—and will—walk directly in front of and bump into enemies without them having the slightest reaction. If a fight starts they'll attack her, but so long as Joel doesn't trigger enemy awareness, they'll have no idea she exists, and it happens enough to suck the tension out of what should be the game's most nail-biting sequences.
The Last of Us is gorgeous and intermittently thrilling, but it's too bad that it doesn't have the courage to be the game that it could have been. Other than one single segment, the game never explores the possibilities of a post-human America, and the developers' need to constantly throw players into brutal fights leaves them without the chance to get to know the characters outside of cut-scenes.
This focus on action is a true shame—Naughty Dog made the daring decision to build a triple-A game around a genuine antihero, and then made everyone around him cartoonishly monstrous in the hopes that players would like him anyway. I'd say that the kind of story that The Last of Us wants to tell can't be done in a mainstream video game, but I Am Alive and the Metro series manage just fine. Perhaps it's more accurate to say that it can't be done in the kind of game that's expected to sell three million copies.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail store and reviewed on the PS3. Exactly 16 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes, and the game was completed. Multiplayer modes were not sampled.
Parents: According to the ESRB this game contains blood and gore, sexual themes, strong language, intense violence. No. Just no. I wasn't kidding with the Manhunt comparisons above. This is one of the most violent games I've ever covered—and coming from the developers of the PG-rated Uncharted series, that's kind of a huge surprise. There's blood and body parts and actual onscreen cannibalism and more swearing than you'll hear in a GTA title. Weirdly there's no references to liquor or smoking, which seems a little strange, given the setting. The listed sexual themes are mild at best, and nothing to worry about—especially since the violence means you absolutely shouldn't be letting your kids play this anyways.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: You're going to have some trouble here. Audio cues are vitally important for figuring out where your foes are—and while there's a "listen closely" mode that puts silhouettes onscreen representing nearby creatures making noise, you must slow your movement to a crawl in order to use it. On the upside, though, being hit will put an indicator onscreen letting you know where the attack is coming from, so that's a plus. All dialogue is subtitled.