Naughty Dog’s venture into survival horror might just set the bar too high for all that follow it. While there are a couple stumbles along the way The Last of Us isn’t just one of the best gaming experiences ever made, it is an often powerful and incredibly human story of two of the most memorable and best realized characters the medium has ever given us the pleasure of spending time with. I know that sounds like hyperbole… but it really isn’t.
A fantastic opening sequence that introduces the main player character, Joel, on the night of a nationwide cordyceps-like outbreak, with the infection reaching its full first stage effects within 48 hours and turning the infected into a psychotic with a taste for human. We pick up twenty years later, Joel and his partner Tess are smugglers in a Boston quarantine zone. Joel is not someone you’d want to fuck with, he’s done horrific things in the past twenty years and when we join him is about to go hunt down someone who owes him a shipment of guns. Before long he and Tess find themselves escorting a 14-year old named Ellie across the crumbling, dangerous and infected filled ruins of Boston. Why would someone take that near suicide mission? Because Ellie was infected three weeks ago and shows no signs of becoming a murderous disease carrying Runner. Of course nothing will be going well for Joel and Ellie and their walk across the city becomes a yearlong odyssey across the ruins of the US.
The leading voice and motion capture cast of Troy Baker (best known as Booker from the recent Bioshock: Infinite) and Ashley Johnson (once upon a time she was Chrissy Seaver on Growing Pains and more recently a waitress saved by Captain America in The Avengers) give fantastic performances, giving the characters a realism and honesty of emotion that really make you want to see them through to the end of their task, no matter what that ending may be. The rest of the cast do fine jobs as well but their characters are nowhere near as developed. Which is fine, it’s really a two person show here. Though special mention does have to be given to long time video game go to guy Nolan North (whose been in everything and is Naughty Dog’s leading man Uncharted’s Nathan Drake) as David, the leader of a survivor group Ellie and Joel cross paths with.
Designer Neil Druckmann’s script is better than anything heard spouted on television or in a movie theater in recent… decades. His dialog is individual to each character and, even when lacking in development, makes them all sound like fully formed characters, even if they didn’t make it in the game that way. Ellie alone is a wonderful testament to his script. She has no reference for the world before the outbreak or even what’s beyond her quarantine zone and at no point does Druckmann lose sight of this and give her, as is far too often the case with video game scripts, knowledge or dialog that doesn’t fit with the character’s frame of reference. It goes beyond standard tropes, even though they are present, and works them in powerful ways.
Graphically The Last of Us can be stunning. Naughty Dog has brought their usual graphical A game and stepped it up even more. The Last of Us is easily the best looking console game of this generation. The wrinkles in Joel’s face, roughly on par with those that adorn Clint Eastwood’s, look and move like wrinkles in game, not pasted on unmoving hard detailing. The second stage infection Clickers are a terrifying and unique creature, though I did find them slightly reminiscent of Silent Hill’s Nurses in their movement and reactions. Though the third stage infected and normal human enemies are nothing too impressive or original, they still look fine. Areas are highly detailed and immersive. The look alone is enough to drive the player to better exploration than they might usually do, just to be able to see more of it all. When in cover sometimes Ellie is really close. At first I would have sworn that she was clipping and I’d finally found something to harp on but the more I saw it and the closer I looked, I realized that this wasn’t a mistake. When covered by a wall sometimes small Ellie is ducking beneath Joel’s arm between his body and the coverwall. It’s an amazing animation and a detail that is easy to miss and means so much to the game.
Gameplay, unfortunately, is limited to your standard third person shooter type of play. You enter an area and you clear it out. Repeat. There’s a standard “Oh, NO! You’re in an awkward situation and must fend off a couple waves” moment. There’s nothing wrong with the gameplay but when everything else is forward leading it’s a bit of a shame for the gameplay to be so heavily standard. Any play through of The Last of Us will include a fair amount of restarts. Unfortunately the checkpoints are just too close together for there to be much suspense or drawback to having to restart. It hurts any building tension when you have no fear of having to deal with any consequence in failure.
The Last of Us is a game that should be played. It’s small moments and large spectacles are all so well done that any problem is easy to overlook. I thought before starting it that SpecOps: The Line or TellTale’s The Walking Dead would be for me the defining games of this generation but I was wrong. The Last of Us raised the bar so high that, while the previous titles are still good, there’s just no comparison. Borrow a PS3 if you don’t own one. Kick open a Redbox if you’ve lost your card. Just play this game… you won’t regret it and next time some pretentious asshat tells you games aren’t art, you can smack him upside the head with The Last of Us.
Review by Dave Gray