The Last of Us Review
The Last of Us
Naughty Dog / SCE
Note: This review is presented free of spoilers. No major events or plot details will be divulged within this article. Read on with no fear!
The Last of Us comes to us from arguably one of the best game development studios in the world, Sony Computer Entertainment’s Naughty Dog. Best known for trying to bridge the gap between gaming and cinema with the Uncharted series, Naughty Dog has also been toiling away on a game that really throws away all preconceptions about what a “cinematic game” can be and accomplish. Outside looking in, The Last of Us shares a lot of common traits with Uncharted, but people who’ve played the game to completion know that the two experiences couldn’t be more different.
To be honest, I was conflicted as to whether I really wanted to write a written review of this game. After being witness to the events within, breaking it down bit by bit and examining the graphics, gameplay, music, and sound was dead last on my list of priorities. I was so dumbfounded by what I experienced in those sixteen hours that I couldn’t really separate all of the individual pieces; it’s a whole, complete, flawless experience. We can poke at a technical glitch here and there, but it does nothing to detract from the fact that I would not change a single thing about this game.
Going back to my original point, this is not really a cinematic game in the way that Uncharted is. Yes, it has cutscenes and interactive ‘movie-like’ moments. But those are merely vessels by which the story is told, as are the gameplay and dialogue. It’s not about the explosions and daring stunts, and the game doesn’t build to these cinematic moments; they’re just pieces of the whole. And it most certainly is not just another playable zombie movie or zombie arcade game; the infected humans are simply more vessels, obstacles. This game is about Joel’s experience coping with grief, Ellie’s growing pains and search for meaning, and the relationship that ultimately builds between the two characters as they move from point A to point B.
What’s so magical about The Last of Us is that it embraces the fact that it is a video game, while simultaneously telling a deep, thoughtful story. This sets it apart from film, and even other cinematic games that are heavy on the drama and “emotions”, but light on the actual gameplay. Here, gameplay is fully integrated into the experience, and gamers will easily latch on to the shooting, exploration, crafting, and stealth. They’ll also be delighted that, even though they’re confined by a story that does not change or deviate based on player actions (no moral choice system here), they can progress in their own way. That said, to truly enjoy the game and its ending, players will really have to embrace the fact that they ARE Joel. We as players aren’t making the decisions. We’re simply the catalyst for Joel’s predetermined actions. If you really put yourself into his shoes, and think as if you were him and not yourself, you’ll unlock the full potential and gravity of the story as played through this interactive medium.
Stunning also is the treatment of combat. Gone is the fanfare that accompanied Nathan Drake’s actions in Uncharted. There are no fireworks at the end of hard-fought battle, and Joel doesn’t smile at the camera after quickly and comically snapping the neck of a faceless enemy. The team went to great lengths to put weight into every move that the player makes. Stealth takedowns of enemies are brutal, as you see them squirm and fight for breath. The quick takedowns are even more chilling, as you see how quickly characters, full of life, become empty shells. Ellie’s reactions to Joel’s kills really drive home how disturbing this world really is. As you come across the notes left by another character that never actually appears in the game, his words are particularly brutal, as, by this point, you realize how horrific his story is. The desperation of the world that Naughty Dog has created is driven home in a much more believable way than any game I’ve ever played.
In the spirit of keeping this review as spoiler-free as possible, its difficult to really describe what I most loved about the game; the characters. The game is filled with clichés, from the post-apocalyptic world, to the infected humans, to the characters themselves. But what makes it so special is how expertly crafted, how dynamic and intricate each of these elements are, especially the characters. Joel fits the bill as the rugged survivor, fueled by rage, who makes the tough decisions with ease and kills without remorse. But the way game peels away his layers, revealing a tortured, grief-stricken shell of human is so well done that you can’t help but identify with him despite the fact that he’s not far removed from a homicidal maniac. And Ellie, the headstrong adolescent, is complex in her mix of maturity and naivety depending on the situation. It helps enormously that the voice acting talent, Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson, provide performances that are consistent, believable, remarkable. The way their relationship evolves is, again, predictable but done in a way that caused me to become hopelessly attached to them. As such, I had no qualms with the games resolution. In my opinion, it couldn’t have ended any differently. I hope they take the single player DLC in a different direction with different characters- I’m content with Joel and Ellie’s story.
Naughty Dog is a developer that I expect to do well no matter what they release. And, somehow, they always catch me off guard with how good they actually are at what they do. The growth of the team over the years is remarkable. And the fact that they’ve created a game that is being discussed by literary, movie, and game critics alike is a testament to their storytelling; only Naughty Dog has the power to generate these kinds of discussions. The Last of Us is absolutely brilliant; it made me think, it made me feel, and it kept on the edge of my seat. Its beauty comes from its believability and life. Do yourself a favor and play it. It absolutely gutted me when I caught my brother-in-law watching a let’s play of the game. This kind of perfectly-crafted experience deserves to be played firsthand.