For better or for worse, The Last Of Us is an exhausting experience. The journey you embark on, from the game’s traumatic opening to its bleak closing, is one that will haunt you for a long time. Even a week after completion, thinking back on the 17 hours that I spent with the game’s single player campaign still sends shudders down my spine. Never before in a videogame have I experienced such genuine feelings of reverence, apprehension and distress. The Last Of Us isn’t without flaws and frustrations, but as an overall package it still manages to be one of the finest games ever to grace a Sony platform.
The Last Of Us' story is nothing short of phenomenal. The game takes place in a post-apocalyptic America, where a deadly infection has reduced most of the population to a swarm of mutated murderers. You play as Joel, a man who has lost everything but has adapted to survive in this sombre environment for the past 20 years. However Joel’s fortitude is put to the test when he is reluctantly paired with a 14-year-old companion who he’s tasked with trafficking across the country. Although this may sound like the premise for “Escort Mission: The Game”, Ellie quickly proves herself to be an ally rather than a liability.
Excellent writing, coupled with prestigious voice acting make interactions between Joel and Ellie feel both natural and engaging. Having lived on both sides of the apocalypse, Joel is understandably acrimonious and uncompromising. He lives life on a day-to-day basis and does whatever he has to do to survive. Meanwhile, Ellie was born amidst the chaos and sees the world rather differently from Joel. She is more curious than cautious, with an infectious sense of enthusiasm that makes her the perfect analog to us as the player. Although she has seen things that no child should have to witness, her feisty temperament and lack of context for what the world was like before the outbreak makes her surprisingly resilient. Rather than cower in a corner when the actions heat up, Ellie will often find ways to assist Joel without the slightest regard for her own well-being.
While the gameplay isn’t as transcending as the narrative, The Last Of Us is still incredibly fun to play. Some gamers may criticize the less than perfect shooting mechanics but this feels like a design choice rather than a shortcoming. As Joel can’t always rely on firearms, players are forced to think more creatively when dealing with enemy encounters. Silently taking out unsuspecting adversaries with an arrow, or creating a diversion by throwing a grass bottle before bum-rushing them with a 2 x 4 feels infinitely more rewarding than taking pop shots from behind cover! Having to constantly adjust your tactics as you transition between fights against regular humans and the horrifying "infecteds" will keep you on your toes and prevents combat from ever becoming stale.
I died dozens of times throughout the game, which often caused me to curse up a storm. But in retrospect most of those casualties were due to my own poor planning and sloppy execution. Once I took time to survey each environment, tactfully takedown foes and assess whether I should avoid combat altogether, the hidden genius behind The Last Of Us was revealed. Unlike most videogame stars, Joel isn’t a fearless killing machine. He is incredibly vulnerable and must rely on his heightened hearing abilities and craftsmanship skills to gain an upper hand.
At any point during the game Joel can craft health packs or a number of various weapons, ranging from shivs to nail bombs. However many items require you to collect the same base materials and crafting doesn’t pause the gameplay, which means you often have to make decisive decisions on the fly. When you have very little health and even less ammo do you craft a health pack or a Molotov cocktail? Being forced to regularly make those kinds of snap judgments will leave you fatigued!
Being grounded in reality doesn’t leave much room for puzzles but The Last Of Us still managed to leave me stumped on many occasions… just not in a very way! While I’m willing to forgive the game for its small blemishes, I can’t ignore the frequent moments of frustration caused by not knowing what to do next. I spent far too much time running around cluelessly and the game’s hint system (which takes 5 minutes or so to appear) is far from elegant. On the plus side, these moments of disorientation gives you time to explore the game’s luscious environments where you’ll often discover notes from previous survivors, crafting materials, collectables and items which allow you to upgrade Joel and his weapons.
Although the developers have been reluctant to talk about it, The Last Of Us also has a multiplayer component which I automatically assumed would be terrible. Thankfully I was wrong. Naughty Dog has somehow managed to produce a multiplayer mode that holds true to single player campaign and doesn’t feel like a mandated afterthought. It would have been easy for ND to simply repurpose Uncharted’s multiplayer offering but The Last Of Us instead pits groups of survivors against each other in a fight for supplies and territorial dominance.
There are only two modes to choose from, namely "Survivors" and "Supply Raid". “Survivors” features a series of short elimination rounds where the first team score four victories is declared the winner. As the title suggests, your ultimate aim is to survive as long as possible across as multiple matches. The longer you survive, the more goodies you earn. The “Supply Raid” mode offers a more traditional team deathmatch affair where each team has a shared number of lives. Both modes contain the crafting system found in the single player campaign and there’s an overarching metagame which incorporates your Facebook friends to keep you invested. The Last Of Us multiplayer probably won’t lure away any Call Of Duty players but it’s a neat addition that puts other games such as Tomb Raider to shame.
This review was based on a physical review copy of The Last of Us for the PlayStation 3 provided by Sony Computer Entertainment.