written by Justin Prince (@prince_justin)
I know, about time right? I was considering writing this for the Late to the Party segment but to be fair I originally wanted this review to be up right around release date. Quick explanation, my PS3 died, the Blu Ray optical drive failed on me while I was playing this game and for the past two months I’ve been busy/preoccupied with other things to get it fixed. Anyway, please excuse the delay and while I could have just let it be, I felt so strongly about this game I wanted to share my experience. The first thing I need to say is “wow”… absolutely WOW. This experience was one of those gaming experiences I will forever keep with me, much like how I felt the first time I saw Sephiroth kill Aerith, John Marsden’s tragic end in Red Dead Redemption, or the moment I first walked off that elevator at Shadow Moses. This tale of survival was an experience to be remembered, and much like what I said about BioShock Infinite, the saddest part of the closing credits is realizing I will never again play this game for the first time.
Naughty Dog is no rookie when it comes to expansive experiences, if you’ve ever walked a mile in Nathan Drake’s boots in the Uncharted series, you’ll see the sheer level of polish that was applied to those games is present in The Last of Us. The overall experience is beautiful.
Set in a post apocalyptic future, a mysterious virus turns people into mindless beasts driven by aggression and a cannibalistic disposition. I must preface this by saying that while the team at Naughty Dog was obviously inspired by many a zombie flick, these are not zombies and should not be treated as such, these creatures are more reminiscent of the “rage virus” infected of 28 Days Later rather than the mindless hoards of walkers from The Walking Dead.
I won’t spoil anything for those who haven’t played it yet, but one aspect I loved was how the story did not immediately start in this post apocalyptic future, rather the opening scenes (and the tragic happenchance that occurs) begins on D-Day in the year 2013. Fast forward to most of the gameplay you’ve seen in trailers or videos, and two decades have passed since the virus initially hit and the protagonist Joel has become a smuggler, moving goods from safe zone to safe zone for a price. In this broken future, the military has enacted martial law and governs the “safe zones” while another group, the Fireflies, are a radical group opposing the way of life the military has built since the fall of humanity. What stands out is that there really isn’t a clear “who’s the bad guy and who’s the good guy” between these two factions. One group (the military) are working to maintain the way of life they’ve built while aggressively keeping infection away from their populated safe zones, the Fireflies are still desperately looking for a cure to this epidemic while aggressively clashing with those who don’t share their ideals, in many ways by means of explosives and gunfire. The story doesn’t really delve too deep into the history of either group but that’s okay since the core story is the relationship between Joel and Ellie.
Speaking of Ellie, if there is only one thing you can take away from how she was characterized, I’d have to say it’s that she’s a prime example of what a strong female lead in a game can be like. While you primarily spend most of the game controlling Joel, the pair are more of a duo sharing the spotlight of a “main character” throughout the majority of the game’s narrative. She plays such a pivotal role in the entire plot that not having her would have negatively affected the overarching narrative. One interesting point to note is that Ellie is 14 years old, meaning that, unlike Joel, she has no knowledge of what life was like before the epidemic. There are scenes where she asks about movies that came out around the time mankind fell, reading through journals and commenting on how pre-epidemic teenage girls worried about superfluous things like boys and dresses; quite contrary to what generally sits atop her list of things to give a shit about.
On the other hand, Joel’s character evolves quite a bit during the game. Initially being more standoffish toward Ellie to eventually caring for her as if she was family. This evolution of the character is offset by how brutal Joel becomes, as he grows to care for Ellie more… his brutality and willingness to do whatever it takes to protect her reach levels of madness even I could not have anticipated. Joel’s story is a sad one, tragedy follows him around every twist and turn and while never explicitly mentioned, you can assume that Joel has done many things that would keep a sane man up at night. The story follows a year’s time, going from season to season opens up a very interesting journey for the pair. From the sweltering heat of the summer to a harsh winter, it’s beautiful to see all four seasons in post-apocalyptic America. While a year may seem like a long time, this never detracts from the overarching narrative and more so makes some of the more heart wrenching moments, that much more meaningful. This game tugged at me in ways I didn’t think was possible for a video game… and that damn Giraffe… well, you’ll see when you get to it.
Leave it to Naughty Dog to truly capture beauty in such an ugly future. Much like how Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception made maddening gunplay and gratuitous violence such a sight to behold, sometimes amidst the mutated infected and the crazy cannibals… there’s a beauty to behold. Every setting, from the darkest of sewers to sprawling snow covered wilderness, was given that extra bit of attention. Sometimes, especially after dispatching a group of Hunters or Runners, I’d just explore and take it all in. Graphically, this is the prettiest game I have played yet this generation, and that’s saying something since games like BioShock Infinite and Tomb Raider were held at such a high caliber. If this is what games are like right now, I can’t wait to see what’s in store for the next generation.
While the game was very linear, this never detracted from my enjoyment of the game. While we’re on that note, this obsession with sandbox overarching world games doesn’t mean that a game with a clear path and narrative is a bad thing. While some games do it better than others, it’s capturing that “sizzle” to keep the player hooked when you’re going from point A to point B. Despite being linear, the game takes several chances to clue you into the world around you. From finding collectables, reading posters on walls or finding a note written before the fall of mankind. It gives the world around you character, making the inevitable fall of humanity that much more of a pitiful event. This is a world, much like our world, destroyed and left with only a memory of what was left behind. Each abandoned house or destroyed metropolis presented this fact very well. I do have a small complaint, there were moments when Joel would just not be able to reach a ledge or Ellie has to climb over something. While the puzzles were never that difficult, the playing field in which they were presented did need some work. Why doesn’t Joel just grab that bolt sticking out in front of him, there’s a human sized hole Ellie can sneak through, why can’t I jump over a bloody fence? Not exactly game breaking, but it did serve to pull me out of the experience a bit.
The soundtrack is one of the best I’ve ever played through, when sneaking around, the background score will take some auditory cues from the action. A muffled horn sound, dark and ominous tones accompany when a Clicker gets a little bit too close. The music fits the mood of this story very well, you always feel a little on edge turning a corner, I found myself drawing my pistol around every corner I turned… hoping I wouldn’t come face to face with one of those damn Clickers.
Character models are all gorgeous, whether it’s a secondary character or one of the horrific infected. The polish is astounding, whether you were looking at Ellie or Joel or you were looking at random Hunter-B, there isn’t a noticeable drop in quality when it comes to the main characters and the enemies you face. Too often, games will overhaul the graphical fidelity of the main character while the enemies you dispatch will be rendered without the same attention to detail. This is absolutely game breaking and I’m so glad Naughty Dog continues to exemplify what it means to be a top tier developer. Little things like the facial expressions a Hunter or a Runner show when Joel is choking them to death, I’m sure you’ve play a few games where your enemies facial expression never changes when dispatching them. While very minor, I also like that with each season, Joel and Ellie change what they wear. It’s not game breaking but far too many video games have a “costume” for the hero that never changes, always makes me think their underwear must be disgusting.
Gameplay is very similar to the Uncharted series but with more sneaking. Gunplay is highly discouraged since just one shot can bring a hoard of runners right on top of you or a band of hunters on your tail. The gunplay isn’t bad but I like how the mechanic is used as more of a last resort rather than a run and gun style. The limited ammo coupled with very obvious handicap that comes from letting your enemies know where you are make for an interesting game of cat and mouse, do you sneak up and flank your enemies? Or lay them out in a blaze of gunfire? On normal difficulty I found that a few pop shots here and there didn’t hinder me as bad, but playing on the hard difficulty setting I was forced to sneak around more and only use my gun during scripted sequences or as a last resort. I personally like how the game hinders you for using firearms. Much like in many a zombie flick, melee and bladed weapons are more of a friend to you than any gun you come across.
To help out with the sneaking, Joel has a listen ability that allows him to concentrate on his surroundings. Threats are seen through walls and obstacles, while not the most realistic way, it does add a nice mechanic to sneaking around. It does have some limitations which I do like, if say a Hunter is being very quiet and isn’t moving or talking, they don't show up on Joel’s magical “radar” but the infected who are always wailing or clicking always show up when you go into listen mode. Very reminiscent of the Detective Mode from the Batman Arkham series.
Depending on the type of enemy, you need to employ different tactics. There are four distinct enemy types: humans (the Hunters and the military), Runners (newly infected), Clickers (infected for a longer period of time), and Bloaters (big ass fat Clickers that throw spores at you). When it comes to sneaking, humans and Runners can be stealth killed (choked) or shanked with a shiv, Clickers can only be shanked with a shiv or a bladed melee weapon, and Bloaters you gotta hide and light them on fire (best results I’ve come across). The rest of your arsenal is effective but as I said earlier, sneaking is the best tactic to utilize.
Aside from finding guns in the field, you can craft various other weapons such as Molotov cocktails or nail bombs. Crafting health packs and smoke bombs from the supplies you find is also possible. Utilizing the full extent of your arsenal is crucial to surviving, on harder difficulties you need to utilize your full arsenal to survive. I was very Molotov happy, while they warned you that the recipe for crafting a Molotov was the same as crafting a health pack, I found that I rarely needed to craft too many health packs and I would find health out in the field or just let myself die and spawn at a checkpoint. Bladed weapons can be found or crafted, you can craft shivs or attach blades to blunt melee weapons for increads effectiveness. Bricks and bottles can also be uses as weapons but serve more as a means to disorient an enemy rather than incapacitate them. I never came across any issues with the gameplay and found it to be very intuitive.
One aspect that always seemed to pull me out of the narrative was how the enemies rarely discovered my comrades. Ellie can run around a Clicker and never get attacked, I get a little too close and the sum’bitch is at my throat. While it did pull me out a little I did appreciate that they didn’t notice them as easily, otherwise I’d me more pissed off at my AI ally always being discovered by enemies. Elizabeth is still the best in game ally ever… I really loved BioShock Infinite.
Masterpiece… this game was an absolute masterpiece. It's one of those experiences that will sit at the top of many a gamer’s list for years to come. Despite a few hiccups, everything melded together well and made for an unforgettable experience. When the final credits roll and after you play through a very surprising ending, you come to realize that every moment of this experience is one that will stay with you. I’m already playing it again and only being a few hours into my second playthough, I’m a little saddened that I can never experience this for the first time again. Absolutely play this game, you won’t want to miss it.