Nothing in gaming gets me excited like a new title from Naughty Dog and my expectations for The Last of Us were extremely high. Yet somehow it managed to surpass them. You just don’t go into a game thinking it will become one of your all-time favorites and that is how I feel about this game after having played it. With The Last of Us, Naughty Dog has created the defining title of this console generation and a must play for gamers of all kinds.
The game takes place in a post-apocalyptic world twenty years after a fungal infection has ravaged the planet. You take on the role of Joel, a survivor who does what he must to get by. His latest job requires him to transport a young girl named Ellie outside the city of Boston. This is just the start of an amazing journey for the two and one of the finest narratives you will find in the medium. The highlight is watching Joel and Ellie’s relationship grow over the course of the game from her being just a piece of cargo to him to more of a daughter-like figure. It’s an emotionally moving tale, at times very dark, but with just the right amount of humor. You’ll also meet a handful of colorful characters along the way which all help to shape the two main characters’ adventure in various ways. I’m not the hugest story guy when it comes to video games, but this one is definitely not to be missed.
A big reason why I’m not big on story in games is that it often comes at the cost of engaging gameplay, but The Last of Us delivers in that department as well. The meat of the gameplay comes in the form of some of the best enemy encounters around. I love having options in combat scenarios and TLoU gives me those. You want to try and go by enemies and avoid combat, you can do that. You want to stay stealthy but kill enemies along the way, you can do that. Gunplay and melee are both very viable options in open combat as well. You’ll have a handful of guns to use throughout the campaign and I was surprised by the amount of depth there is to the melee combat. You can let your fists do the talking, but melee weapons like pipes and bats are also available. Bricks and bottles litter the environments and can be used to stun enemies when thrown or as a makeshift melee weapon and even used to make sounds that draw enemies away from you in stealth scenarios. The crafting system adds another layer of depth to the proceedings. With various materials collected in the environments you can make a bunch of different items which range from shivs to health packs to Molotov cocktails, my personal favorite. You can even use tape and scissors to turn things like boards into one-hit kill weapons.
But there are other elements that make the combat shine too. There aren’t a ton of enemy types, but the ones that are here have very different behaviors and keep scenarios extremely varied. Take the clickers, the game’s infected zombie-like enemies for instance. They can’t see you, but will react to sound and can generally kill in one hit. These make for wildly different encounters than say the human scavengers you run across.
The game also utilizes a number of features to keep all these fights tense. Crafting and healing happens in real time during battles instead of in a menu. Ammunition is scarce and enemies aren’t bullet sponges which makes each shot feel important. Melee weapons degrade and break down after a certain amount of time. They’ve also worked some risk/reward elements into the game. Do you try and sneak by enemies and keep your supplies intact or would it be better to engage enemies and risk using some ammo so you can scavenge the area for more supplies? The same items create health packs and Molotovs, so which do you make? Do you choke out an enemy which leaves you in the open more or shiv him quickly to get back behind cover faster? Or do you save that shiv to use as a key on certain doors which will net you some extra supplies? Throw in a weapon upgrade system and you have some of the most intense, fun and varied combat in gaming today.
My big worry going into the game was what we would do outside combat and to be honest there isn’t a whole lot. But these quieter moments come as a welcome respite from the game’s intense enemy encounters. There is some simple “find a ladder or palette to get out of this area” stuff which aren’t anything to write home about, but more often you will just be exploring the area. Naughty Dog has done a good job of rewarding the player for that though. Along with supplies for crafting and upgrades, they’ve packed some storytelling bits into the environments themselves. There are the usual journal entries and notes to find, but I really liked the conversations that certain areas would allow you to cue up. These would give you some fun insights to the characters and world that you don’t get from cutscenes and the like.
If I had a complaint about the gameplay it would probably be the companion AI. They can actually be really helpful at times calling out enemies positions around you as well as shooting or throwing bricks at your foes in open combat. The game did run into the dilemma of how to handle them following you around in stealth. They basically will run out in front of enemies while sneaking around. The game makes it so this won’t blow your cover which is better than the alternative though it may hurt immersion for some players. They also on occasion seemed to open up fire on enemies when I was still in a stealth state which was bothersome. These are small gripes though in what feels like a largely flawless game.
The visuals and sound are fantastic across the board. The Last of Us features some of the best visuals you will find on consoles with extremely detailed characters and environments. I was really impressed with the variety of environments too especially seeing the changes each new season brought. The voice acting is top-notch with particular credit due to Troy Baker who is fantastic as Joel. Ashley Johnson does a great job as the foul-mouthed Ellie too and Nolan North is very good in a role you probably won’t recognize him in until you see his name in the credits. The soundtrack sets the mood perfectly and the sound effects including the extremely creepy clicker noises round out what is some of the best sound design out there at the moment.
While the main attraction for this game is the campaign, there is also a multiplayer mode. It’s kind of a mixed bag. On the one hand, they’ve done a good job of transferring over the gameplay from the singleplayer. There’s tense tactical combat featuring equal parts melee and gunplay with resource collecting and crafting to supplement it. And there are some water cooler-type moments that happen that make it a lot of fun. Mine was a tear I went on with a series of boards with some scissors taped to them. On the other hand, it feels a little barebones with only two modes, has some suspect matchmaking and I’m personally not a fan of certain players having unlocked stuff for playing longer regardless of how many games follow this trend. There is also a metagame that has you trying to keep a group of survivors alive. The group grows and shrinks based on how you do in each match and on certain missions. It seems a little superfluous, but may help hook some in I suppose. I will admit, I was a little upset when some of my little survivors got sick, so maybe it’s doing something right. The multiplayer didn’t do a ton for me, but it is a solid addition as an extra mode on top of the already lengthy singleplayer which probably lasts about 15 hours, much longer than many of its linear action game contemporaries.
The Last of Us is a game that I’d advise to just about any gamer except maybe those adverse to extreme violence. It really is a game that can appeal to many different types of players. For those that are more concerned with narrative, this game delivers. The gameplay features stealth and action, survival and horror, gunplay and melee and as a result seems like it has a little for everyone out there. At first glance it may seem like one of those cinematic games that have become all the rage this gen, but The Last of Us manages to marry its deep, moving narrative with substantial and rewarding gameplay in ways few games of its ilk do. It’s become my favorite game this gen and I recommend everyone makes time to play this gem.