Review – The Last of Us
As I sit here after having finished The Last Of Us, my thoughts and opinions swirling through my mind, I wonder how I can communicate all I’ve just experienced. How do you put into words what has been the most emotionally intense experience I have ever had whilst playing a video game? In the end, I expect it’s simply a matter of being completely honest, and the truth is The Last of Us is a perfectly paced, perfectly planned and perfectly realised game.
By now, I’m sure you’ve heard the main story premise: 20 years ago humanity was almost completely wiped out by a sudden outbreak of the cordyceps virus, a fungus based infection which turned its hosts into mindless, aggressive monsters. In the 20 years to now, civilisation as we know it has been effectively destroyed and humanity teeters on the verge of extinction. Only pockets of survivors remain, with individuals either living in heavily policed quarantine zones, or taking their chances in the infected zones battling both the infected and the worst of humanity. The player is introduced to Joel, a jaded man trying to survive in one of the quarantine zones, and it is through Joel’s eyes that the story unfolds.
Early in the game, Joel is tasked with delivering a young girl named Ellie to the Fireflies – a rebel group who want her for reasons unknown. The trek takes Joel and Ellie across the country, placing them in various scenarios as they struggle with both the challenges in front of them and their own realisations about the world they find themselves in.
Whilst the premise of the game appears at first glance to be ‘just another zombie game’, anyone classifying The Last of Us in this way is grossly simplifying the experience. I want to make this clear: The Last of Us is a game with zombie like enemies, not a game about zombie like enemies. This is a very important distinction, as one of the major highlights of The Last of Us is the way in which Joel and Ellie struggle with the world they find themselves in. In essence, The Last of Us is a story about two people thrown together, and the relationships they form with each other, with other people, and with the wider world at large. And what a world it is.
To describe the game world as brutal is an understatement. In The Last of Us, Naughty Dog have crafted a world so harrowing and bleak that the extent of the hopelessness surrounding you seeps into your real-world existence. You will feel loss. You will feel sadness. You will feel horror and disgust and terror. For a game to be able to emotionally affect you in this way – that is an incredible achievement. And yet the effects aren’t purely emotional – the gameplay and fighting mechanics are so exceptionally well implemented that they affect you on a physical level. In some instances during my playthrough, I took a moment to breathe during cut scenes and only then realised my whole body was tense, my hands clenching the controller in an almost vice-like stranglehold. The game had crafted such an involving atmosphere I was physically tense and emotionally drained.
You may think having such an experience would make you unmotivated to spend time in the game world and explore, but nothing could be further from the truth. The world of The Last of Us is not a world I would wish to exist in, but it is a world I could not stop exploring. In fact, I craved exploration within this world. Through an ingenious resources discovery and crafting system, Naughty Dog have created a game which actively rewards the player for exploring, yet still provides them with the choice regarding which play style they wish to favor. Consumables found throughout the game world can be converted into items which help Joel survive in the world. But there is a catch – the same consumables are used to craft either offensive or defensive items, forcing you to choose between the two. Rags and alcohol, for example, can be used to craft either med kits or molotov cocktails. Not only does this reinforce to the player how precious and rare resources are within the game, it also provides the player with a choice regarding what play style works for them. The sense of constant danger the player faces is reinforced via the crafting mechanic – done completely in-game in real-time without the ability to pause the action.
Consumables can also be used to improve weapons, such as adding a pair of scissors to a baseball bat to create a very deadly and satisfying melee weapon. Throughout the game, Joel is able to wield a variety of weapons, from melee weapons to pistols, to hunting rifles and shotguns. Weapons can be upgraded by finding gears and parts in the world, and the weapon upgrade system is surprisingly deep and detailed. Things like weapon holsters, clip capacity, fire rate and range can all be improved, and the variety of weapons means players will never feel constricted or limited to a particular play style. Freedom of choice is definitely a feature of the game, expressed not only in the way you choose to play the game, but also in the extent to which you interact with the environment.
One of the many areas where Naughty Dog have excelled is in passive storytelling. Through items found in-game, and through optional character interactions, Naughty Dog allow the player to be exposed to the story of the world. Through Joel’s eyes you experience what it is like to live in the world of The Last of Us, and as a player you realise how incredibly detailed and nuanced that world is. Every area you visit is practically overflowing with atmosphere. Each place has its own distinctive look and feel. And each environment contributes to creating moments that will live on in your memory long after you have finished the game. There are items to find and conversations to have that delve into the history of this world. So impeccably crafted are they that you will want to explore to find them. Even the obligatory ‘find the hidden items’ quests are woven creatively into the storyline in a way that simply fits.
Whilst I mentioned earlier that the world of The Last of Us is a very bleak, harrowing place, it is also a place of buried beauty. The duality of the human condition is on display in The Last of Us, with both the very best and the very worst of humanity in the spotlight. Despair and hope exist in equal measure. Love and Hate. Selflessness and greed. As Joel and Ellie you are forced to witness this duality, and it could be argued that even Joel and Ellie exist to showcase the interplay between extremes of human survival. Naughty Dog have created a beautifully realised, emotionally involving experience that will have you discussing the characters, the world and yes, the ending well into the future. Adding to this is the sublime story writing and voiceover work that brings each individual character to life. Each character has their very own unique feel and voice, and each affects the story in their own subtle way.
Perhaps the standout of the game, however, are the two title characters – Joel and Ellie – and the relationship that develops between them. Without venturing into spoiler territory, I will say the brilliantly written dialogue and the faultless performance of the voice actors creates a dynamic that is without equal. These are not simply ‘video game characters’, they are characters with as much depth and back story as any literary character. And as for their relationship – to compare it to another emotionally charged pair – if you felt protective of Elizabeth as Booker during Bioshock Infinite, that is nothing when compared to the depth of feeling you will have for Ellie as Joel.
By now it must sound as though I am a complete and utter fangirl for The Last of Us. But the truth is that Naughty Dog have crafted a masterpiece. I cannot fault anything in this game. Every single element of The Last of Us is perfected crafted and perfectly realised. Every box is checked twice over. But more than that, this game is an example of innovation, of exploring storytelling and game design in ways that push the games medium from something you play to something you physically and emotionally experience.
The Last of Us is the game we have all been waiting for. The game we can point to when asked ‘why do you game?’. If you haven’t played it yet, buy it. If you don’t have a Playstation 3, buy one just to play it. There has never been a game that has affected me on such an emotional level in the way that The Last of Us has.
If I could score this game 11 out of 10 I would. There are so many praises I could heap on The Last of Us. Instead, I’ll let the score speak for itself.
The Last of Us scores a 10 out of 10. That’s steak wrapped in bacon, people.