Humanity sucks. It really does. When shit hits the fan, you would hope people would band together to overcome it. If TV and video games have taught me anything (because both mediums are great teachers) it’s that when it comes down to it, it’s survival of the fittest. The Last of Us drives this home more so than any other game I’ve played, and unlike some games I’ve played (*cough I Am Alive *cough), it manages to do so with a great story and excellent game play.
In The Last of Us you play as Joel — a ruthless survivor; hardened by events of the past and the new cut-throat world he lives in. Joel lived through the global pandemic that radically changed the world 20 years ago from a civilized to a survivalist culture. Those infected by the virus are now only human by form, as the infection takes over their brain and turns them into violent zombies. Joel’s ruthlessness, skills, and instinct help him to be a great smuggler; allowing him to get contraband in and out of quarantine zones for the right price.
It’s his skill as a smuggler that brings him into contact with Ellie — a 14 year old girl who doesn’t know what a world without the infected is like. Joel is tasked with smuggling Ellie out of the city to hand off to an anarchist group called the Fireflies, and what is thought to be a fairly simple task ends up being a trek across the country. It not only has Joel and Ellie come into contact with massive amounts of infected, but also has them cross paths with an even more dangerous group: humanity.
The Last of Us was touted as a survival game, but it didn’t feel like much of one to me. There are a few different types of supplies that you can collect to craft items such as health kits, bombs, or even make your melee weapons more dangerous. I expected to have to search hard for these items or for them to be sparse, but even on harder difficulties I never really found myself wanting for supplies. Sure, in the beginning you start off with nothing, but by the time I was a few hours into the game I found that I was running out of space in my back pack for supplies (even having to leave some behind at times) and my guns were full on ammo. Then again, this could have been because of the way I played the game.
I played very conservative for the first few hours — only shooting when I absolutely had to and staying stealthy, effectively using Joel’s hearing ability that allows you to know where enemies are. When I started using ammo and supplies more liberally I found that they were replenished soon after a battle; so I never had those tense feelings of running out of ammo or even health kits. Playing stealth definitely has its challenges, though, as enemies don’t always walk the same paths; moving about to different areas at random. It’s because of this that you need to not only be patient, but also have full awareness of your surroundings. On more than one occasion I’ve had enemies get the drop on me as I stalked one of their friends. Joel can strangle enemies if he sneaks up on them, but this takes a few seconds. For an instant, silent solution you can use a shiv to slice your enemies’ throat open. Besides enemies, you also need to be aware of what’s around you. Step on glass or other items that make noise and you may find enemies heading your way.
Sometimes I would get frustrated and just want to shoot enemies in the face — especially when I had a lot of ammo. While doing that would bring conflicts to an end faster than trying to sneak my way through a building, it brings its own problems. First off, on top of draining your ammo, starting a shootout will draw more enemies; and not just enemies that will try to shoot at you. Some enemies will try to keep you occupied in the shoot-out while others try to flank from the sides and get close with pipes, axes, and the like.
Second, In order for your shots to be accurate you need to be standing still and not moving your weapon. Walking and shooting is pretty much out of the question, but even moving the gun will cause your accuracy fall greatly. Keeping still and shooting one enemy can be a challenge, but taking on multiple enemies while they shoot back will result in you taking a lot of damage. It’s not like you can just soak up the bullets and keep fighting; if Joel gets hit a few times consecutively he will fall over — making you prey closer enemies and at the very least meaning you will need to get up and aim again. While enemies that run at you make for easy shots at a distance, when they are up close they can be a real problem since you will likely need to keep moving your gun to aim; causing your shots to be inaccurate. In those cases you may just be better off trying fight with melee or getting away.
Most areas you play through are pretty open in terms of where you (and your enemies) can go — typically having multiple ways for you to reach different points. There are boxes, cars, couches, barrels, and tons of other items for you to hide behind; making almost all areas either great for a shoot-out or for stealth play. The flipside of the level design is that the enemies will also use it to its fullest capacity, sometimes making it all the way to you without you even noticing they were on the way. In most games I usually never count how many enemies there are on the field at once; I just kill them if I see them. With The Last of Us, if I noticed an enemy was missing I immediately started to try to locate him or at least prepare myself for a close encounter.
Enemy AI is pretty dynamic. What weapon you’re using, how many enemies you’re killing, how effectively you’re doing it, and the status of your weapons will determine how enemies engage you. If you’re kicking major ass you will see them back off a bit, but if they hear the clap of an empty gun chamber they might rush you. Enemies will close in on your position, so you shouldn’t stay in one place for too long since fighting multiple people at close range is pretty much a death sentence. Enemies only close in on the last position they saw you, so if you manage to slip away to another part of the area unseen they will have no idea where you are. This not only will save your life, but gives you time where enemies are definitely not looking in your direction, giving you time to slip past them or reposition yourself behind them for a sneak attack. That pretty much only applies to humans, however, since a general rule of thumb is to completely stay away from the Infected.
It’s never a good idea to engage in combat with infected AI unless you absolutely have too, which usually means you messed up somewhere and now they are after you. The infected you will see the most are Clickers and Runners. Clickers have been infected so long that the virus is literally growing out of their face and they can no longer see. They use sound to determine where you are, so sometimes even walking lightly is enough to get them agitated or coming after you. If a Clicker grabs you it’s game over, as they will immediately tear out your throat (which looks gruesome every time). Runners aren’t as dangerous and will just try to beat you to death, but they can see, and if you alert one the entire area will know where you are and that’s typically a bad situation. At least with Runners you can strangle them if you manage to sneak behind them, but with Clickers, the only way to kill them is with a shiv.
Bloaters are nothing but bad news. They have been infected for so long that the virus growth now acts as armor for them. There is no shiving or strangling with these guys, and if they get you they literally pull your face apart. On top of being heavily armored and incredibly strong, they also throw spores at you which cause damage and block your vision. The first time I ran into one he almost completely drained my ammo, and honestly, I don’t know how I am going to beat them when I play on the Survivor difficulty.
The only negative I have to say about the AI is that they almost completely ignore friendly AI. There were so many times where Ellie ran right in front of an enemy while I was trying to sneak around and they didn’t even notice her. Even during combat, most enemies will attack you even if your allied AI is shooting at them. Sometimes an enemy would grab Ellie and I would have to save her, but most of the time this wasn’t the case.
Combat with or sneaking around both Infected and Human enemies is fun, but there is a problem with the part that is between those battles. Unlike other games like Uncharted or Assassin’s Creed, there is no real platforming. You’ll move a ladder here, a plank there, and solve some puzzles, but there isn’t much to do outside of combat; and that can get a bit boring. There are several parts where you are walking and talking, but the dialog in these parts isn’t always the most enthralling. Boredom did creep its way in during certain parts, and it made it harder for me to search for supplies because I just wanted to get through these spots to the next action area. Luckily as the game progresses, these lulls decrease.
For a survival game there was quite a wide weapon selection. There are multiple handguns, shotguns, rifles, and even things like a bow and a flame thrower. Besides those you also have your melee weapons like pipes, bats, axes, and throwables like Molotov cocktails, smoke bombs, and good old homemade bombs with lots of sharp things in them. The crafting system is what will provide most of your throwable items, and you can upgrade your melee weapons by doing things like wrapping a pair of scissors to the end of a pipe; allowing you to kill enemies in one hit.
These things don’t last forever though. Melee weapons wear down over time, and the upgrades wear down even faster. You can upgrade weapons at work benches using parts you salvage — making the weapons stronger, giving them the ability to hold more ammo, increasing fire rate, and things of that nature. It really depends on how you play the game and what upgrades will help you with that play-style. Joel can also upgrade himself using pills you find — giving him more health, adding abilities, and perhaps making him faster while performing certain actions like healing or crafting.
Joel can only equip so many weapons at a time, so making sure you have the right weapons before going into combat is a big help. You can switch equipped weapons at any time, but this requires going in your bag, and any time you go into your bag it’s done in real time. Enemies will still be moving around or attacking you, so unless you found decent cover far enough away from enemies you will want to stay out of your bag in combat situations. This goes for crafting items as well. Don’t be the guy that gets killed because you didn’t make health kits when you had the chance.
One thing Naughty Dog has always shined at was dialog and cinematic experience, and somehow they managed to up their game with The Last of Us. Not only is the dialog well thought out and authentic, it is accompanied by excellent voice acting. The combination of the two help relay the characters’ emotions, but also helps them feel like real people and shows you where their heads are at. When Ellie asks Joel about things that have happened in his past, his repsonse doesn’t just sound like some macho guy trying to push down feelings. You can tell that his past has made deep scars that he doesn’t even want to remember.
The dialog isn’t all static either. Different dialog can start at different times depending on where you are, what you are doing, and where Ellie is and what she is doing. Did you just pick up a note a kid left behind in his room? Ellie might have something to say… if she’s with you. Like I mentioned earlier, there are multiple ways to get to where you are going. If you walk by certain things it will prompt Ellie to say something that could have easily been missed just by going in another direction. The dialog and how the character relays it tells you a lot about their current state of thinking. You’ll see Joel change a bit, but Ellie is the most notable. As she becomes more comfortable with the survivor lifestyle you will hear major changes in her personality.
The cinematic experience wouldn’t be complete without visuals, and Naughty Dog didn’t slouch on that either. The transition from cinematic to game play was pretty smooth because the difference in graphics between the two wasn’t all that noticeable. Cinematic camera angles come into play seamlessly when you engage in melee combat, making those final hits that much more impactful. These moments aren’t always on rails. Depending on how close Ellie is to you she may interact as well; like if an enemy has you pinned down she may jump on their back and stab them to help you out.
The PS3 is an old bird, but it looks like Naughty Dog was able to squeeze even more power out of it to render good-looking character models, animations, and especially scenery. Naughty Dog went to great lengths to make the places you visit look authentic, and there should be a few familiar locations for people who have been to places like Boston, Pittsburg, or Colorado.
The visuals during fights can be pretty visceral. I already mentioned getting your throat ripped out and your face ripped apart, but when you get a clean hit with a shotgun to someone’s face, let’s just say it doesn’t just blow their head clean off, and it matters which side of the face you shot them in. It’s tough to see damage when fighting melee because the action is happening so fast, but don’t be surprised if you see that you’ve chopped the back of someone’s skull out with your axe or hatchet.
Details that we typically dismiss in games were paid attention to here. If you find yourself going through water expect your backpack and clothes to be wet for a while, and I’m not talking 10 seconds either. Also, if you get shot, expect for the place you got shot to stay bloody even after you bandage it. Bloody enemies can also get blood on you and it will stay there for a while. All of visual effects coupled with great sound design and dialog really help to immerse you in the game’s world.
The Last of Us tries to take players and have them experience the story and not just play it. I’m not going to tell you that it tries to make you feel sad or hopeful, but I will tell you that some of the things I felt weren’t what I expected. Both characters have changed by the time you reach the end of the game, and the events that lead to those transformations might leave you feeling happy for the characters or possibly angry or disappointed. To tell you my experience would rob you of your own, so I suggest you check it out as soon as you can.
The PS3 is in its final throes, but The Last of Us is helping it go out with a bang. Great story, excellent game play, solid voice acting and dialog, and fantastic character development make The Last of Us a great game overall.