By Nick Olsen
A deadly virus has been let loose, and the population is devastated. The infected run rampant, terrorizing the remaining population as everything goes to hell. The infection turns its victims into a variety of different monsters the longer the it rages within them. It’s up to a small group of people with limited ammunition to save us from total annihilation. In 1996 this game was called Resident Evil. Fast forward 17 years and two console generations and Naughty Dog utilizes a near identical formula for The Last of Us. Fortunately for us, the formula remains solid, and with the advancements Naughty Dog applied, The Last of Us will undoubtedly be remembered as the game that brought the Playstation 3 (PS3) life cycle to a close with a bang. As we shift our focus to the Playstation 4 (PS4), it’s difficult to imagine how better hardware could provide a substantial improvement on graphics, or gameplay. It is that good.
On the other hand …
Before diving into the actual game, I’d be remiss if I didn’t address the frustrations I encountered just trying to get the game to work. The first copy of the game I purchased was the standard disc format, and initially all seemed well: I popped the game into the PS3 and off we went. Unfortunately before I could complete the playable intro I experienced environments that refused to render, floating characters, broken dialog and a host of other issues. So I started over, but the problems persisted. This is where things got seriously bad; on my third attempt at starting the game my PS3 refused to recognize the disc and after multiple ejects and re-inserts spanning two hours the farthest I could get was starting the game from the PS3 home menu and receiving a “unable to load game” error.
One might imagine that if a developer is developing console exclusives, they’d want to be sure those games run on the system they’re developing for.
Eventually I gave up on the disc and decided to go for the digital copy-a download which was 27 gigabytes. I decided that was enough frustration for one day and let it download over night.
Putting the frustrations aside
To my great relief, when I fired up the digital version of the game everything worked as it should and I was able to put my frustrations aside and truly focus on the game. The two things I noticed immediately when exploring in the playable introduction is how smoothly the game responds to player commands and the impressive level of detail in the creation of characters and environment alike. Moving through Joel (our primary protagonist) and Sarah’s (his daughter) house as the initial infection event takes place immerses the player immediately through unparalleled attention to detail–Sarah’s facial movements, her reactions to events and quality voice acting from Hana Hayes create a natural sense of tension which draws the player in. In the few short moments that we get to experience the world as Sarah we are given small but meaningful glimpse into just how much time and effort Naughty Dog poured into the game.
The basic controls of the game are mapped perfectly to the controller and feel natural no matter the action the player is taking. Using the left and right analog stick for both player and camera movement allows for an all-encompassing view of the world from any angle, allowing the player to examine every nook and cranny available, a critical aspect of the later gameplay. Early, using Sarah, there are limited actions to take with objects in the environment, but the few interactions that take place do so seamlessly without disrupting the natural flow of the gameplay.
There are no extended wait periods as we open doors to explore new rooms, and picking up a newspaper to read the headline happens in real-time rather than pausing the action. These details may seem trivial, but they actually carry a great deal of importance later in the game: when the action gets heavy (and it will), Naughty Dog ensured that each action the player decided to take had very real potential consequences. The player can’t use an object interaction as a free pause during combat to take a break and think through strategy – everything happens in real time.
Heartbreaking and heartwarming
From the moment we take control of Joel we are taught another lesson: we’ll have more to fear in this post-infection world than just the infected. Racing through the streets of the newly infected town, carrying Sarah with a broken leg, only to reach a potential safe zone and be gunned down by the military was a rude awakening that The Last of Us takes “survival horror” to a new level. The question quickly arises: which is worse, the infected or the survivors?
The story of the game doesn’t seek to answer this question for the player, rather it pits one side against the other and let’s the player try to decide. There were long stretches of the game where dealing with the infected made me pine for human interaction. Then, the story would lead to a quarantine zone, or an occupied city and I’d quickly reverse that thought process. At one point, Bill, a character who owes Joel a favor, tells Joel that he prefers the infected to the survivors because “at least they’re predictable,” adding as he looks at Joel “but I don’t have to tell you that,” a reference to the way in which Sarah was killed.
And yet, as the relationship between Joel and Ellie (our second main protagonist, who is immune to the infection and is thus humanity’s potential savior) grows throughout the game, Joel eventually finds a way to move past the memory of his inability to protect Sarah and allow himself to start caring for Ellie as a friend and guardian. By the end of the game, Joel’s affection for Ellie has grown so great that he refuses to allow Ellie to be operated on (an operation which would have killed her) despite the loss of the potential cure for the infection.
The kindling of this relationship between Joel and Ellie never felt forced; with each chapter there were ebbs and flows in the dynamic between the two. At points Ellie nearly begs for approval and affection while Joel views her safety as only a part of his duty. Eventually the two have a heated exchange in which Joel yells at Ellie “You’re not my daughter and I sure as hell ain’t your Dad!” which serves as the turning point for Joel realizing how much he actually does care for Ellie. But it’s not all smooth sailing from here. The handful of remaining awkward exchanges in which Joel still struggles with his feelings allows their interactions and relationship to feel natural and realistic.
Every decision is critical
Ammo is sparse, enemies are plentiful. Molotov cocktails are made from the same ingredients as first aid kits. Explosives are effective but loud. Shivs are great for stealth kills and opening doors, but a single use can destroy them. Scrap can be used at a workbench to upgrade your weapons, but each upgrade costs more; do you upgrade a single weapon for great power at great cost or upgrade all weapons for a minimum bump?
Every decision you make in The Last of Us has an enormous impact on your strategy.
I found myself frustrated more than once after incurring a death due to a poor decision or strategy. I would use Joel’s “focus hearing” skill – a skill in which Joel can listen intently in a direction to try and identify enemies through the sounds they make – to determine enemy locations and formulate a plan of attack, only to realize that I had acted in haste and been spotted from behind during a stealth kill, drawing the attention of every infected or survivor hell-bent on killing us. And yet, this frustration was refreshing.
Too many games like Gears of War give us a sense of invincibility where we can simply blast our way out of any situation. Or, as in Dishonored, they provide unique superpower-like abilities to escape desperate situations. But The Last of Us forgoes these copouts and focuses on strategy and quick thinking; knowing when to avoid combat or run away are essential skills for survival. Make no mistake though, Joel (and sometimes Ellie) is a badass survivalist willing to do what it takes to ensure he and Ellie achieve their goal – survival at all cost. But Joel’s skills, while impressive, didn’t seem out of the bounds of reality; they seemed plausible yet well-practiced.
There were some instances while sneaking, however, that enemies failed to see me even though I appeared to be within their line of vision. At certain points I’d be approaching from a direction in which they’d turn and face and I’d still be able to sneak up to them without their noticing. These incidents were infrequent enough to not distract from the overall gameplay, but still caused a moment of disbelief (sometimes appreciative disbelief) that the enemy hadn’t seen me as I approached. But overall, the stealth mechanics in the game were clean and natural, and I utilized them often to assess and overcome precarious situations with clickers (enemies that are blind but use echolocation to identify you) and survivors alike.
It’s all about perspective
Perhaps one of the most important aspects of this game is Ellie’s humanization in a completely dehumanized world. Twenty years have passed since the initial infection and Ellie is only 14 years old; this means that the only world she knows contains the horrifying infected and the cut-throat survivors. It would stand to reason that Ellie would be just as cold and jaded as her surroundings, yet she always manages to find the beauty in the world. The first time she sees the world outside of the quarantine zone she’s awestruck by the natural beauty. Her first interaction with monkeys in a test lab isn’t one of fear, it’s one of warmth and curiosity. And the moment in which she finds free-roaming giraffes will stand for ages as one of the most smile-worthy moments in video game history.
But more than her love of nature, it’s her inner conflict about harming people that really positions Ellie as a bastion for humanity. She’s quick to want to help defend Joel and repeatedly begs for a gun, yet when forced to use one often struggles with the actions she’s just taken. For that matter, her reaction to Joel shooting or strangling another survivor is often “Damn, Joel.” An expression both of admiration for Joel’s strength and an admission of her own perceived weakness. When Ellie is forced to kill David (a murderous survivor) in a kill-or-be-killed moment, she is both overcome with rage while committing the act and consumed with tears when it’s over.
Finally, as Joel tries to talk Ellie out of turning herself over to the Fireflys (a radical group of survivors opposed to the military and intent on finding a cure for humanity) for study of her immunity, Ellie explains “After all we’ve been through. Everything that I’ve done. It can’t be for nothing.” This recognition that she has committed awful acts, even if out of necessity in a world full of awful acts, reminds us that she is more than the potential cure for the infection which has spread, but also perhaps as a cure for what humanity has become in its wake.
An exercise in greatness
We have discussed the impact that a quality story can have on games, and we have dissected when and how the use of violence makes games better; The Last of Us got both right. The story of Joel and Ellie will have a lasting impression upon the player and the industry alike as the characters are realistic, beautiful and flawed. Their trials are engrossing and engaging. And the resolution to the conflict is heart-wrenching and uplifting. The use of violence isn’t entirely optional, but it’s not forced upon the player either. And when brutal scenes occur, the use of gore isn’t romanticized or trivialized. Sometimes, in a bleak and barren world, the only way to survive the horror is to take whatever action is necessary. Yet Ellie reminds us that these decisions cannot be made lightly for each one takes us closer to the becoming what we are fighting against.
Combined with clean, well-mapped controls, beautifully rendered environments and expertly crafted characters, The Last of Us could easily be an example of Naughty Dog saving the best for last for an entire console generation. Yes, PS3 games will come after The Last of Us, but it’s hard to imagine that any will surpass it in terms of gameplay, story, or execution. It’s equally as difficult to imagine that the PS4 hardware will produce anything drastically improved; but for that we’ll have to wait and see. For now, if players can overcome the initial challenges with disc errors (perhaps just avoid them with a digital download) The Last of Us will provide a unique and amazing gaming experience.