Story in video games is quite often terrible. It is a medium littered with trope-laden characters, plots more focused on pushing gameplay forward then making sense, and unfulfilling endings meant to drive fan fervor for a multitude of sequels and spin-offs. Few games have stories worth paying attention to; even fewer have stories that are as memorable as a great book or movie. Naughty Dog has managed to deliver a few of these memorable stories in their Uncharted series, creating an Indiana Jones-esque, lovable rogue in Nathan Drake. While the stories in these games are often silly, they are great rides and packed with fantastic characters, relationships between those characters, and some of the best voice acting in video games. Their newest game, The Last of Us, manages to have characters that are just as memorable and realistic but in a story that is much more serious in tone. It grabs you from minute one with the fantastic, unnerving opening sequence and doesn’t let you go until you see the end.
You take control of Joel, a man who was already in his 30s or 40s when the apocalypse started and is still trying to survive some 20 years later. In those years since, Joel has done whatever he has to in order to survive, even being part of some groups willing to kill innocents passing through just to get at their food and supplies. At the point you take control of him, he mostly trades in illegal goods under the noses of the military forces that run the camps. When a big deal goes bad, he and his partner are forced to make a deal with another group, the rebel Fireflies, for the weapons they need. In exchange, they offer to take a young girl named Ellie across the country for reasons (at first) unknown. Most of the game’s story takes place as you cross these various locales across the States.
I won’t lie to you; The Last of Us is a bit predictable here and there. We’ve all seen the post-apocalyptic setting before and having your zombies be spore-based doesn’t not make them zombies, no matter how clever the developers might think they are. You will see a few characters and plot points that are painfully obvious or cliche, such as the token person who gets bit but doesn’t say anything, turning at an inopportune time. Aside from the ending, which ended in a way very unlike your average video game ending, the game doesn’t do much to shock you if you’re a fan of the genre. That really isn’t the point though, being a Naughty Dog game; they are a developer that much rather prefers to focus on the characters and the ways they interact with one another. It is in this sense that The Last of Us really shines.
Know that Joel is one of the most honest–and darkest–video game characters I’ve ever seen. I’m not saying he’s truthful; what I mean is that his presence as a character in the plot and his presence as the character the player controls align perfectly. Many people had issues with the way that Nathan Drake was a carefree, lovable guy in the story cutscenes but would also murder hundreds of people at the hands of the player. Joel, on the other hand, willingly tells everyone he meets that he has done bad things. The bits you hear about his history throughout the game sound pretty gnarly. By the end, you know he has done terrible things, willing to do whatever he has to in order to survive. In ways, he isn’t any better than those raiders you are supposed to hate. More than any character I’ve ever played, I could easily see him doing the things I did as him in the game. Few shooters manage to create such honest characters.
The relationship between Joel and Ellie is one of the most fascinating I’ve ever seen in a game. I can’t go into too many details, because a lot of the most interesting character moments are plot-based. They spend a lot of time together, about a year total, and come to know each other really well. The benefit of this time dilation (you don’t play the whole year, of course) is that you see their relationship grow at a pace that makes sense. They slowly become more comfortable with one another, their dialogue loosening and becoming more casual. It’s obvious that they wouldn’t have made it so far and through the shit that they see without trusting one another implicitly. Fantastic performances from both Troy Baker (even though you might not know it at first) and Ashley Johnson (a new voice actor) help to sell the relationship as well. As I mentioned above, it really is several of the plot elements that sell this relationship though, something I can’t really get across in this review. Just know that it is worth seeing, if you’re a fan of story-based games.
Gameplay in The Last of Us really rubbed me the wrong way at first. Most of your early encounters are with the infected humans, and these encounters are often trial-and-error based. One enemy in particular, the Clicker, will kill you the moment it reaches you. These enemies are also harder to stealth-kill, as they require a semi-rare weapon to do so. Clickers rely on hearing instead of sight, allowing you to sneak around them in relative ease by throwing a bottle or brick to distract them, but one small mistake and you will have a hard time escaping alive. Several of these early segments frustrated me to no end. They reminded me of the stealth games of old, forcing you to memorize enemy patrols and make no mistakes or reload a checkpoint (which are sometimes iffy). I will say that it gets better as you go, as you earn the way the game’s systems work and how to get around enemies in the best way.
When I did manage to pull off an entire area without raising an alert, it was a great deal of fun. Human enemies are much easier to get around and take out with a chokehold; the trick with them is not being spotted by their gun-happy buddies. The bow is a great tool for those stealth-inclined, and it is one of my favorite bows in a game yet. Every chance I got, I snuck through an area by quietly downing guys and retrieving the arrow for the next guy. It is a bit hard to tell at times whether or not stealth is possible; know that it almost always is, as long as you aren’t immediately thrust into a shooting segment (a rare occurrence). Naughty Dog also makes a few gameplay concessions to ease the annoyance factor with regards to stealth. Characters will stack in cover, negating those issues of needing to hide from an enemy and being unable to because your companion is already taking the spot. It’s also nice that AI companions seem incapable of raising alarms by being seen; the enemies don’t even register them as being there. While it is a bit immersion breaking, it is preferable to the frustration of having a poor AI routine compromise your stealth.
Of course, you are going to get into gunfights several times throughout the course of the The Last of Us’s twelve hours. If you’ve played an Uncharted game before, it feels very similar: a loose, somewhat inaccurate shooting style paired with a brutal melee system. Joel doesn’t have the same abundance of supplies that Drake has, however. For the majority of the game, you are barely getting by on ammunition and health packs. Prolonged encounters can, and often will, run you dry and force you to pick up whatever you can find to get through it. Headshots are crucial, saving you ammo that you need for the other three or four guys around the corner. You can craft bombs and molotovs with supplies you find around the environments; these can get you out of the hairiest of situations. I enjoyed this scarcity, as it reminded me of the survival horror genre I love. While the inaccuracy of the shooting made some situations frustrating, I really liked having to take careful shots and not waste a bunch of ammo or risk having to engage in dangerous melee encounters to get by. Several encounters left me barely standing, with no ammo or health kits to speak of, my heart pounding in my chest. Those with happy trigger-fingers may be frustrated when their gun clicks empty, and they still have three more guys wanting their blood. Unfortunately, that dearth of supplies becomes a non-issue in the final few hours of the game. You have enough weapons and built-up supplies and health kits that it is a breeze to clear out even all of the enemies. I would have liked this scarcity to stay constant till the end of the game, as it fit the tone of the world much better. I have heard that harder difficulties are much more strict with the ammo and supplies, but I haven’t seen it for myself, having played the game on Normal. If you want a better experience, a harder difficulty may be wise for a first playthrough.
Like Uncharted 2 and 3 before it, The Last of Us features a multiplayer mode that feels very similar to the pace of the single-player game. You go down fairly fast, spawn with enough bullets to only kill one or two players, and must constantly scrounge for supplies to get by. This gives the game a very unique feel, playing unlike anything else on the market. Multiplayer also features a unique metagame. You take control of a camp of survivors and must keep them supplied. Playing a match earns you these supplies, based on your score. As you keep playing, the camp grows and the requirements grow along with it. Every so often, raids happen on your camp, forcing you to complete a challenge, such as getting so many headshots across three matches, or lose a large percentage of your camp. If you lose your entire camp, you start over and try to grow larger the next time. This isn’t really essential to playing the game; only most of the cosmetic unlocks are tied to getting as far as you can, with new guns and perks tied to just how many supplies you have earned overall. It has some issues, particularly the way that a team that dominates a match makes that match shorter, meaning less supplies for everyone. This idea is still one of the most creative in years, one that I hope spawns a more fleshed-out metagame for future shooters. A nitpicky issue I have with multiplayer is that it takes more shots than you might think to down someone; five or six shots with a pistol to down an enemy seems somewhat absurd for a game trying to take a survivalist-based tone. My biggest concern with the multiplayer, however, is that I feel the shooting is not refined enough for a multiplayer experience. It never seems to put bullets where I’m aiming, and the hitboxes on the other players seem absurdly small. I haven’t enjoyed the feel of the shooting in any Naughty Dog games, though, so your mileage may vary. It is still a multiplayer experience that is fairly unique.
My enjoyment with The Last of Us started out fairly low but climbed fast as I progressed further into the game and figured out how it works. I’m still not convinced that the way Naughty Dog makes shooters is the correct way; more than anything, I was constantly frustrated by the way I missed at times where it seemed impossible to do so. There are some elements, like the crafting system, that are promising but without the amazing characters, however, I probably wouldn’t have bothered playing the game in the first place. Naughty Dog is doing things with characters that few other developers are even attempting to do, a mission I applaud and support by playing all of their products. I loved the characters in The Last of Us, particularly the way that they felt so honest to the game concept they were part of. Few other game characters have seemed deep enough to do a character study on, but I think Joel could absolutely make a fascinating one. I cannot wait to see what Naughty Dog can do on next-gen consoles and hope that they continue to craft some of the most realistic and interesting characters in video games today.