Review: The Last of Us
After the creation of an iconic character for both the PlayStation One and PlayStation 2 eras – Crash Bandicoot – PlayStation 3’s Nathan Drake three adventures, you would think that Naughty Dog would take a breather and rest on its laurel.
Even with the launch of the first Uncharted, Naughty Dog has become a reference development studio on Playstation 3. Probably a little bored of Nathan Drake, the Dogs surprised everyone by announcing The Last of Us, a new action adventure title, which would be much more focused on its atmosphere and character than their previous productions. After spending over fifteen hours with Joel and Ellie, I can proudly say that The Last of Us is the twilight miracle of the PlayStation 3 era.
It is quite difficult to explain The Last of Us without fanning the very substantial influence of the developers. Between I Am Legend and The Son of Man, the road trip Naughty Dog takes us across the United States – from Boston to Salt Lake City – is a deadly one, engulfed by a mysterious infection that borders mankind on rare safe heaven across the world. What remains of legal authorities are groups of mercenaries on the edge of fundamentalism and a rebellious group known as the fireflies, who believe in a cure for society’s disease problems, leaving you in a hard neutral position between their feuds. After a long and well explained introduction, our main antagonist Joel, is given the task of escorting a certain girl called Ellie. And this readers, is the beginning of a complicated friendship that will be the greatest feat of this game.
The Last of Us is the twilight miracle of the PlayStation 3 era
The center nerve of the studio’s title is the Joel and Ellie duo. Relatively caricature by first impression – the grumpy old torn man and the young playful girl – the couple bond over the mutual events, meetings and small talk on the road. With Ellie being a mere 14 years old, she has not experienced life except within the realm of infection-free quarantine zones, and she is shocked to discover the rules of American football, ice trucks or pre-Apocalypse history and cities. All this is touching, but also rich enough in material and vital for the evolution of their relationship, as Joel is rather silent, and confiding himself gradually on his harsh past.
Driven by impeccable dialogues and a perfect soundtrack that doesn’t overtake dramatic situations, we are surprised by Naughty Dogs’ Neil Druckmann and co-writer/artist Faith Erin Hicks risks. These narrative risks are fluid and logical for the first hours, increasing in style and suspense as the game is nearing completion. These last hours will remain stitched in many gamer’s memories, as the game unleashes all its characters’ verves, contained throughout the adventure. Surviving has a price, and only at the end of the story that our duo realize it truly. The theme might not be new, and may even be over-represented lately in games, movies and books, but The Last of Us is no simple image of a survivor story, but a masterful depiction of one.
If you’re used to their past games, Naughty Dog are not shy about violence. But this time, things are taken to a higher level, staging it as it is, raw and dirty without glorifying or condemning. This is well reflected on secondary character’s faces and expressions such as Ellie, or in its graphical representation – good – disgusting blood splatter, marked by the impact of shots and melee attacks on infected, as well as human enemies walking away from the approach of death. In The Last of Us, violence is a means to an end in any case, proof that the studio has matured, and is less obsessed with graphical showoff as seen in its previous titles.
The proof is also made by the gameplay features, which does not need to deploy a hectic array of originality to seduce and convince you as a gamer. Between the infiltration and combat system, The Last of Us lets the player choose its strategy. Some attacks are silent such as choke attacks, or they can be loud with relic guns and homemade Molotov, bound to attract attention to you. Both types of enemies – whether humans or infected – forces you to think differently in how to approach a battle: if you can be inventive and varied with the first, you will certainly advance carefully with the second, as they are reckless, fast and could kill you within the second.
Survival horror accustomed gamers will be used to the lack of resources (health, ammo, upgrades), optimizing core violence with melee, or simply avoiding conflict when they can. Those used to Uncharted on the other hand will have to review their tactics quickly after a few hours of play, because desperately trying to snipe opponents may not go well. It’s mainly because every bullet counts, and this great roughness of the gameplay contrasts with previous Naughty Dog productions. Rationing is necessary instinctively as the main quest for the player, who will have to find in the beautiful scenery everything he needs to survive.
The true genius of Naughty Dog is actually expressed in the way the studio perfectly articulates its artistic ambition with a very down-to-earth gameplay. It is not clear until we start adventuring into the vast environments found in The Last of Us. Past architectural wonders, an urban jungle, tangled in never-ending foliage, varied and rich in detail, sets The Last of Us’ savior, holding a limited set of collectible items, to craft offensive and defensive gear. That’s all beside the typical – but exciting – pieces of memoirs and testimonies from former survivors.
The settings are all different and you can hardly compare between them, from dark interiors packed with infectious spores blocking your view, to the exterior bathed in light, between urban and never been touched prairies and forests. With the rhythm of seasons (from summer to spring), The Last of Us offers a chromatic orchestra tapping every aspect of mother Earth’s beauty: sky threatening the sea in the early hours of the day, warn late afternoon sun over the city, storm that taps into destroyed buildings or the grayish mood of America’s Midwest forest. It’s so beautiful that you will lose yourself admiring the scenery.
Gameplay basics are well established, as Naughty Dog takes its time to teach you – in an unusual rhythm that could annoy the fast paced Call of Duty fanatics – going against the trends of the past ten years in the videogame industry. This helps the player, plot and its characters engulfed in a smooth sequence of events. There are a few more scripted sequences that remain stronger than others, but you will spend most of your time walking the vast universe of this game, and while it’s far from being open-world, it is large enough for endless exploration and action.
The limits of the PlayStation 3 have finally reached its prime. As with the last Uncharted, there’s barely no loading time (except for at extremely long one at the beginning), proving the development’s fluidity. There’s some hiccups occasionally, such as rare frame rate drop reminding us that this machine was is seven years old. But all of this does not preclude that The Last of Us offers beautiful animations, great facial expressions and an amazing lighting engine like never been seen on the machine.
So are there any flaws? The bitter fighting and stealth parts of the game, forces the player to constantly be involved. There’s some few aspect that harm the realism of a fight, such as the ability to “listen in” and identify enemies through walls, even if they do not spoil much in the end (You can anyway disable this option on the main menu).
AI flaws? Well, your main character, Joel, although often accompanied by other characters, is usually the main – and almost unique – target of all enemies on screen, including the infected ones. Yet, your companions are involved in the action, with Ellie throwing rocks in the face of enemies, but we can only see their lack of involvement in fights or inconsistencies in AI movements when they charge in full force. Naughty Dog has consistently made the choice to not penalize the player with malfunctions of combined enemy and companion artificial intelligence, and we see here a little room for improvement, not an embarrassing deficiency as the action is challenging enough in itself.
The Last of Us leaves a solid mark in the videogame industry
Very comfortable with her blockbuster series, Naughty Dog scratch everything they did from our minds with The Last of Us. I can’t really figure out if it’s the fact that the direction is worth of a Hollywood movie, the breathtaking scenery full of charm and details or the fierce combat and action that marked us as, or simply the consistency of the three. Each plot of the game is to serve its characters, the development of their friendship and their struggle. It’s almost like the antithesis of Uncharted, forcing the constant attention of the player where most of the current AAA games merely feed him with explosions, guns and naive violence like a goose.
The Last of Us leaves a solid mark in the videogame industry, beautiful and exciting, it is the swan song dreamed for Sony’s console and a remarkable foothold for its upcoming little sister, who will benefit from this brilliant legacy. In one word: a masterpiece.
• Poignant story without concessions
• Ellie is a perfect character
• The end of the game is the ambivalence of the human soul
• The integration of the surrounding in melee attacks
• The fluidity of the violence
• Beauty and the level of detail
• Music and sound effects
• Puts the player into enough tension
• Some sequences sacrifices realism to the gameplay
• Secondary characters can be rather dumb AI Wise
• A lighter hint of repeat sequences during the action, exploration and fights