Review: The Last of Us – PS3’s Final Masterpiece, Naughty Dog’s Magnum Opus

I’m going to do something different from what I normally do with my reviews and cut to the chase: this is one of the best games ever made.  You should play it.

Okay with that out of the way, read on to find out my thoughts why.  Don’t worry, it’s spoiler-free.

The Last of Us is survival horror but without a single cheap in-your-face scare or psychological mind game. This is the way survival horror should be done, which is by building atmosphere and tension through environment, through the way danger is put across to the player, and exceptional level design.  For most of the game, you will know where the enemies are, and it will be up to you to decide how to approach the situation – whether you live or die is by your hand alone.  This is a good game.

Before The Last of Us came along, I lamented the death of good mainstream survival horror games.  Sure there are titles like Amnesia or hardcore Japanese ones like Siren, but at least as far as Western games are concerned, Resident Evil 6 and Dead Space 3 pretty much flushed the genre down the drain.  The best survival horror games employ unwieldy controls and tight camera angles to further the sense of claustrophobia and uneasiness.  It’s basically playing an interactive nightmare.  And The Last of Us is all about that.

Joel, the protagonist you play, is a horrible shot, you will miss and then have to turn tail when a whole swarm of infected or bandits reach you.  The inventory system requires you to stop each time you want to switch out a weapon, heal yourself, or craft an item, all in real time, so at any time you’re making that Molotov, an infected could jump you if you’re not careful.  Certainly, you can level Joel up in a whole variety of different traits, but at least on Hard difficulty, ammo scarcity and the keen senses of these vicious infected always puts you constantly on edge.  Unlike other games that employ levelling up, like Far Cry 3 and Dead Space 3, you’ll never ever be tanked out by the end-game.  You will always be at a disadvantage.

Joel is not your typical action hero, Nathan Drake from Uncharted he is not.  But he can lay a smackdown when push comes to shove, and there are many times when your back is up against the wall, when your gun is empty that you’ll have to engage in fisticuffs, even against infected.  There are melee objects lying around, and bricks, bottles to throw either as distraction or to stun an enemy.

One thing that Uncharted 2 did well was make it so that you could go from firing a gun to smacking an enemy with your fists seamlessly and fluidly.  That is the case here too.  In fact, switching up tactics on-the-fly is encouraged in this game, if you want to survive.  There are moments when shooting your way through will not work.  There are moments when running your way through will not work.  There are moments when sneaking your way through will not work.  There never is just one strategy to mine, you always have to stay on your toes.

The story in The Last of Us is one of the greatest ever told in any medium, certainly one of the best post-apocalyptic ones.  The opening alone is absurdly magnificent, frightening and arresting to play.  It trumps the last great PS3 game opening sequence, from Uncharted 2, which no surprise is also a Naughty Dog title.

To summarize, you play Joel, a grim survivor living in post-apocalyptic America eking out an existence as a smuggler.  You are tasked with smuggling a precocious fourteen year old named Ellie to a science lab, as she harbors a secret that could save all of mankind.

Joel and Ellie are really well-fleshed out characters with such depth and superbly voice acted by Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson respectively.  Joel’s hardened bitterness and gruff, and Elllie’s annoying charm and innocence are deftly portrayed both in the dialogue (credit to Neil Druckmann for a superbly written script) as well as photo-realistic mo-cap from Naughty Dog and Sony.  Every cutscene is a visual spectacle, especially because it is relentlessly focused on the character drama.

Even though we know that Ellie may be the salvation for the human race, it is never played up anymore than as a motivation for getting Joel to take Ellie across the country.  It is never brought up again till the last bit of the story.  Make no mistakes, you are not playing a grand story about saving the world, this is just about two people fighting for their lives, for each other, and growing closer as their journey progresses in a darkly brutal world.

The environments are extremely well detailed and beautifully put together, adding to the immersion.  The best parts of the game to me are the five, ten, fifteen minute stretches of uneventful exploring interspersed throughout the sharp bursts of tension and combat.  During these moments, all that happens is you walk from point A to B, along the way searching through abandoned houses, empty towns, and fallen down skyscrapers for supplies.  In a generation obsessed with Michael-Bay-esque explosions and fast-paced action, YouTube quick cuts, and bite-size media, Naughty Dog is brave to design a game mechanic where you do nothing but walk and look around – but take it from me, after all the stressful survival bits, it is truly welcome respite.

If you’ve played Uncharted 2, you can recall the bit when you first reach the Tibetan village and spend five minutes just walking and taking in the beautiful, idyllic sights all round.  Critics called out on that segment as being one of the most courageous, masterful additions to the game, a great break from all the action-packed sequences before.  The creative director Neil Druckmann took that bit in Uncharted 2 and turned it into an entire game mechanic in The Last of Us.

These quiet moments are significant in themselves, as it is when all the characters, not just Joel and Ellie get a chance to talk, revealing themselves little by little.  The script really is up there with the best of TV and movies, and it is to The Last of Us’ advantage that the capacity for a game to be lengthier than any other medium allows for a better paced story and deeper character development.

There are so many little emotional beats and character moments both in-game and in the cutscenes that made me laugh, cry, rage that it wasn’t long before I realized that the game had won over my heart.  It helps that the game is beautifully soundtracked by Gustavo Santaolalla who won Oscars for film soundtracks to Babel and Brokeback Mountain.  This guy loves his acoustic guitars, and deep thrumming sonics, contributing to the game’s mellow vibes.

Naughty Dog has to be commended, really.  From the time they announced this game at E3 a year or two back till now, I found that the game that was marketed is not the game you will come to play.  What is shown in trailers is really only the tip of the iceberg, and I recommend that you don’t spoil anything else for yourself, don’t watch or read anything (other than this review, of course) before you play.

The Last of Us isn’t by any means a revolutionary new experience.  Make no mistake, all the game mechanics in here, the story, and characters have already been employed, designed, and told before in other games and media.  But Neil Druckmann and team have tightened every bit of it to perfection.  They took the best elements of Japanese survival horror games, like escaping and avoiding unbeatable foes, and tuned it so it always feels scary, but never frustrating even when you game over and have to repeat it.  It’s a competent cover-based third-person shooter, with enough variety of weapons that you can mod to your needs.  And it is also a very satisfying game of exploration and discovery.

Finally, I just want to say that Ellie is the greatest modern day companion character in a video game ever written.  She certainly trumps the over-hyped vapid Disney princess that is Elizabeth from Bioshock Infinite, and for me at least, is even better than the fan-favorite Alyx Vance from the Half-Life series. Ellie walks, talks, and acts like a real fourteen year old girl.  Valve take note, when you write your next Half-Life game, or any game dev for that matter, The Last of Us has set the new benchmark for companion characters.

In closing, The Last of Us was the reason I bought a PS3 this late into its lifecycle.  The money I dropped onto this console that could have been easily saved for the next-gen is well worth every cent, if just to experience this game alone.  The game’s sixteen to eighteen hours game time (on Hard difficulty) is well paced that it never feels long, but always feels epic.  Like all good books, movies, and TV shows, this was one journey I never wanted to end, and yet when it did, it was the most heart-grippingly satisfying and morally ambiguous conclusions ever done in a video game.  The ending could’ve gone one of two ways, and other games might’ve employed alternate endings, letting the player choose how to play it out, but Naughty Dog and Druckmann are at the top of their game as storytellers, and confidently wrap up the story in the best way possible.

Kudos to Sony for making this a great final exclusive for the PS3, but if you ask me, this is a game that everyone should play if given the chance.  It is that brilliant.  I cannot wait to see what Naughty Dog comes out with next.

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