The outbreak scenario has been seen, read about, and experienced many times throughout the history of entertainment. A global epidemic leaves behind survivors having to deal with seemingly endless numbers of infected. It’s a story that’s been told to death (excuse the pun), but sometimes you get creative minds that sit down and come up with a special and memorable way to spin this familiar yarn. That is what Naughty Dog has done, taking the well-known outbreak scenario and letting players experience it in a way that feels more powerful than most other forms of entertainment that have adopted the same plot device.
The Last of Us isn’t just one of the best outbreak scenarios in entertainment, it’s also one of the best games of all time, leaving players emotionally drained and highly satisfied once the credits roll. This is Naughty Dog’s best game, and it’s a beautiful way to close not just the era of the PlayStation 3, but an entire console generation. Keep reading to find out why The Last of Us is a masterpiece and an instant classic.
The Last of Us starts off with one of the most memorable, emotional and thrilling intros in gaming history, perfectly setting up the emotionally-charged ride players will embark on throughout the game’s 10-15 hour long adventure. The world has been reclaimed by nature after cordyceps has infected the mass population, leaving survivors quarantined in military zones and hordes of infected on the loose. Joel finds himself in this bleak world, 20 years after the outbreak occurred.
Pretty early on, you’re tasked with escorting a little girl named Ellie to a specified location, and it’s from this point on where we’re introduced to one of the most dynamic pairings you’ll experience in a game, rivaling Lee and Clementine, and Booker and Elizabeth, from Telltale’s The Walking Dead and BioShock Infinite, respectively. Joel’s interactions with Ellie really show off Naughty Dog’s writing prowess. Their dialogue is very believable and nothing at all feels forced. The same goes for the rest of the story. This is pretty dark material here, and I found myself feeling quite emotionally drained at various parts of the game, but I always wanted to keep on playing. I wanted to stay in this depressing, fungus-ridden world for hours on end.
Make no mistake, despite being with Ellie most of the game, you never feel annoyed or even disrupted by her presence and the fact that you have an AI partner tagging along. She’s there to flesh out the story even more, as well as the world around you. She was born in the aftermath of the outbreak, so she doesn’t know how the world was before everything went to hell. This makes for some brilliant and memorable character moments between her and Joel, where players can activate conversations with her revolving around various things she sees around her, like her amazement and observation of an ice cream truck, which leads to a pretty humorous exchange of words. Seeing her character growth throughout the game was a joy, but also rather sad, taking into consideration the world she and Joel find themselves in, and the choices they have to make to survive as they trek across America.
The Last of Us is all about survival. The game isn’t entirely a pure survival horror experience from beginning to end, but it adopts many elements from that beloved genre, doing things even better than some modern entries from said genre’s popular franchises. There are moments where you will be truly terrified, which occur especially whenever you face the infected. They come in a few different forms. The Runners are people who have recently been infected and behave like fast zombies (think 28 Days Later. The Clickers are the most horrifying, both in looks and behavior. These infected have fungus growing out of their head, cutting off their vision. Like the Lickers from Resident Evil, these blind foes rely on hearing. They bring special attention to the game’s stealth mechanics, which I’ll get to in a bit. If they make contact with you, it’s automatic death. Then, you also have the Bloaters. These brutes have fungus growing all over their bodies, having been infected for an extended period of time.
The infected aren’t the only enemies you should be afraid of, though. Many modern horror games have gone the route of having players go up against gun-wielding enemies, which results in fans being quite upset about the drastic departure, but The Last of Us does this right. Yes, as hard to believe as it may be, especially for us hardcore survival horror fans, The Last of Us also makes you fear the weapon-wielding enemies. These non-infected foes are just as dangerous as the roaming monsters. They’re pretty smart, making for some intense encounters whenever they present themselves. It makes perfect sense, too; of course we won’t be facing the infected the entire time, there are also other groups of survivors out there that have become monsters themselves, looking to kill others and steal from them in order to survive. So, I never found myself upset at all about fighting them. The battles with the non-infected and infected alike are balanced perfectly. It also helps that the combat mechanics are insanely satisfying.
Despite being a third person action adventure from Naughty Dog, you can’t go into The Last of Us expecting Uncharted-type mechanics. This is a much slower-paced experience. As far as combat and the over-the-shoulder gunplay goes, every bullet counts, which is another element that gives it a survival horror feel. You can’t go running around, shooting everything that moves. You have to be smart and utilize the intuitive cover system and stealth, and even Joel’s hearing ability which pinpoints the location of enemies around you that are making noise. Ammo isn’t as plentiful as it is in Naughty Dog’s other AAA franchise, meaning you have to make do with what you have. There’s a good amount of firearms in the game, ranging from your standard handgun and shotgun to a flamethrower later in the game, and it wouldn’t be a modern game without a bow and arrow! Joel can also use smoke bombs and an awesome nail bomb, amongst other objects. You can upgrade various attributes of your guns, but keep in mind that you most likely won’t be able to fully upgrade everything on your first playthrough, including your own character using pills. Joel can also use a selection of melee weapons, with my favorite one being the machete. These result is some brutal close quarters encounters, leading to some deliciously gory kills. Oh, man is this game gory!
Joel is a pretty violent guy and this is most evident when engaging enemies in melee combat. Whether he’s using just his fists or a pipe, Joel doesn’t hold back when facing threats, human or infected. You’ll see many heads explode and chunks of them flying out, and performing stealth kills by strangling foes can be pretty disturbing as well. Enemies make very realistic noises when strangled, and it gets even more disturbing when Joel kills Clickers by sneaking up behind them and using shivs to stab them, which need to be crafted once they run out. Despite the loss of their humanity to the exposed fungus, the Clickers make some pretty creepy sounds when they’re just roaming around and when they’re dying. Trust me, you won’t forget these enemies anytime soon. They’re some of the creepiest I’ve ever faced. And that’s where stealth comes in.
Sometimes, it’s better to avoid fights altogether, especially since ammo and health supplies aren’t as plentiful, which adds another layer of realism to the overall experience. You can craft health supplies and even make stronger melee weapons after obtaining the necessary parts, as well as making shivs which are used for aforementioned stealth kills. You can only use a shiv once on an an enemy, but later on, you can upgrade them so that they can be used twice, and even out of desperation once a Clicker grabs you, which would be instant death if it wasn’t for this upgrade. Sneaking up on the infected and regular humans is always highly satisfying, and you can take an even stealthier approach by throwing bottles and bricks to distract enemies. Again, it’s best to conserve as much ammo as possible, so that you’re well equipped for those moments where you deem shoot-outs necessary. It’s also worth noting that health doesn’t regenerate, making confrontations even more dangerous. I highly recommend upgrading Joel’s health (which displays on the screen in a style very similar to Resident Evil 4‘s health meter), because the game does get pretty hard the further you advance.
Puzzle-solving in the game pretty much just relates to traversal and finding out how to get past certain obstacles. Again, it keeps in line with the game’s strong sense of realism and pure survival. Don’t worry, though, you won’t really find yourself stuck in the game. Unless, of course, you’re like me and you just find yourself gazing in awe at your surroundings and remain stuck in place for a little while, taking in every detail of the world around you. Naughty Dog truly shows off their artistic expertise in the game, resulting in one truly immersive and effective atmosphere. Ruined buildings, abandoned streets and the sight of nature reclaiming the world all makes for a setting you won’t soon forget. It’s even better because we get to go through different seasons. I’m a huge sucker for snow levels, and the winter segment in the game was truly mesmerizing to me, especially because of one breathtaking sequence where the Infected play a huge role, and another where the weather actually ties into gameplay. It rivals Phendrana Drifts from Metroid Prime for me. It’s all wrapped in quite possibly the best visuals on the PlayStation 3, backed by a subtle but tonally appropriate soundtrack and masterful voice acting. Even the moments of pure silence will resonate with you, and the game’s soundtrack is used to great effect here. One particular sequence (seen in a trailer) is a cutscene that plays to Hank Williams’ “Alone and Forsaken.” It was quite intense.
Despite being a game focused on the single player experience, The Last of Us also boasts a pretty fun multiplayer component. There are two modes available for play: Survivors and Supply Raid. These aren’t entirely new additions to what’s already available in other multiplayer games, but they’re still fun nonetheless, and they tie in wonderfully with the single player campaign. I only spent a little time with it, but I’m sure players can sink hours into the multiplayer. I would’ve loved to see a co-op horde mode offering, so I’m hoping we get that as DLC. As far as issues go, the only one I really have is very minor and it has to do with head shots. Call me a sick individual, but I want to see heads explode after a well-placed shot to them! That doesn’t really happen here, and it takes a couple of shots before an enemy goes down via a head shot. That kinda pulls you out of the game’s realistic sense of survival, but hey, things would be pretty easy if all you had to do was shoot enemies in the head.
Even if you ignore the multiplayer mode, the single player campaign is shining with replay value. You have multiple difficulties to tackle, new game plus, a bunch of upgrades to complete and just the joy of experiencing everything the story has to offer, over and over again. I will admit that after I beat the game the first time, I was left quite emotional and in tears, so be prepared! Or maybe I’m just a softie… Regardless, Naughty Dog has truly crafted one of the finest games you’ll play this year, and definitely an automatic contender for 2013’s Game of the Year award. It’s an experience you won’t forget and I’m personally hoping that Naughty Dog focuses on new characters if they decide to continue making games in this universe. 20 years is a very long time and I’m sure the team can come up with even more stories revolving around different survivors. I’m not going to spoil anything, of course, but I found the end of Joel and Ellie’s story to be a very suitable one and extremely powerful. I was moved to tears.
The Last of Us is a crowning achievement, not just for the PlayStation 3, but for all of gaming. Sure, it doesn’t break new ground with innovative, totally unique gameplay mechanics and features, however, what it does is up the ante for storytelling in the medium with its top-notch presentation and writing, beautifully marrying that with solid and immersive gameplay mechanics. This is a game that evokes many different feelings from the player, whether it be fear of the infected or sadness at the bleak reality you’ll be placed in. The Last of Us isn’t a happy game, but it’s one that will definitely make you happy to be a gamer.