Normally I don’t like to know a lot about the other reviews before undertaking one of my own but in this case I was obliged to do our review a little late and it was hard to miss all the giant heaps of praise for The Last of Us. As such I was really amped to get into it; I had even managed to avoid darn near all of the pre-release hype and videos that have been building for months.
In reality it isn’t quite the masterpiece everyone is saying, there are problems that keep this game from getting within grasping distance of a perfect score. The Last of Us is a very accomplished and technically sound experience, but it is also a limited one.
The graphical presentation is a great place to start with this game because it is, in a word, unparalleled. Somehow Naughty Dog has managed to bring us an even cleaner, more detailed world than they did in Uncharted 3. The character models are particularly remarkable and every care has been taken to add the details of care-worn faces and well-used clothing to all of the main people. The world is just as well detailed with some of the best textures and lighting that I can call to mind this generation. It is stunning and crisp. To achieve this crispness a few shortcuts had to be taken, for instance all foliage is a 1 pixel flat panel that crisscrosses and crawls over the landscapes, permeating the otherwise pretty trees. You can see plenty of the previous Uncharted experience at work in the dilapidated townscapes as you discover that nature has regained a foothold on civilization’s abandoned ruins. As such there is just as much greenery and scenic purple-orange skylines to behold as there are gray and brown crumbling interiors to crawl through.
You’ll move through your journey by day and by night along the way and the graphic and light tones help to establish a nuance of mood which veteran gamers will appreciate. For instance sneaking by cordyceps infected “clickers” in dark tunnels has a different feel from doing so in broad daylight where you might feel empowered enough to fight your way through them. The graphics are on best display in the cut scenes of course where we get a little cinematography here and there and finally hear some instrumentals.
What is most appealing about the graphical presentation is that, aside from a tiny visual bug now and then, it never actually falters in its processing. There’s no screen tearing, no frame rate stuttering in crowded situations, not so much as a timing tick revealing the PS3 is having problems processing all of this. It’s almost perfect.
Moving on to the sound I have to confess I’m not using a surround sound setup here and I really think that would have helped, but I kept this handicap in mind while evaluating everything I heard. Ultimately that drawback of mine led to some difficulty on my part using sound to establish where things were, with voices bouncing from left speaker to right when the bad guy was behind me or stalking the rooms ahead of me, it was a little disorienting but Joel has an ability that helps you iron those kinks out if you want to use it. More on that later.
Much has been made of the quality of the voice acting, and rightly so. I would have to say it is the best in a video game I’ve ever heard. The voice exchanges in game usually sync up with the characters actions and serve to humanize them for us with realistic dialogue. Unfortunately if you want to keep up with it all you have to hang back with your buddies when they decide to linger as they tend to get easily out of earshot. There is one glaring error that bothered me the whole time and it’s with Joel’s actor Troy Baker. He does a solid acting job as usual but his Texas accent is constantly going in and out. Most people probably don’t notice things like that but it jumps out at me.
The game takes a minimalist approach to music. I would have liked to hear more of what they had because I thought it really accentuated the emotional down times but you can only deal with what they give you. So, left with mostly the effects I can tell you that they are just as superb and crisp as the graphics.
The gameplay could best be described as a mix of stealth and survival. While you can feel free to attack your enemies head on, since weapons and ammo are sparse it’s never a good idea. There are various kinds of enemies from human raiders to infected “runners” (recently infected who still have sight) to “clickers” (scary blind infected types growing lots of head fungus who locate you by sound) and some others I won’t give away. Each kind doesn’t have much visual variation and you may find yourself attacked by what looks like identical people at times. You’ll want to vary your approach for each enemy encounter. Either way, stealth is your best option. If you get discovered more enemies than were previously present will appear out of nowhere and take you down. Once they close in you’ll have a hard time but you can use your shivs to stab them, pound them down with a melee weapon, beat on them, smash them onto nearby surfaces, or fire your guns wildly.
If you are outnumbered though you don’t stand much of a chance so it’s best to get by without being spotted if you can, which takes extreme caution and slowness. I had a lot of trouble doing this, and that brings me around to one of the game’s larger problems. Essentially what I see here is the same AI from Uncharted (which was fairly clever but stuck to pop and cover) handling a lot more intelligence routines that are getting jumbled up constantly. Your human enemies have some typical calm, alert, and pursuit modes but sometimes they don’t seem to know which one is appropriate and get confused. When all else fails them they go into attack mode and they don’t miss.
Up close they can lose their marbles. They might look right at you and see nothing or they might have a supernatural sense of where you are no matter how good your sneaking skills. The infected are easier to deal with, if runners see you they howl to alert other and close in fast, if clickers hear you you they stagger toward you so you better go some place slowly and be quiet or you’re in for a fight that your fists can’t help with. Your partner AI is almost as much of a problem as the human enemies. Ellie alone doesn’t cause much trouble but once you have two partners stepping all over each other, getting lost and deciding whether or not to follow you they have a tendency to give away your position, initiate open encounters, and block your path. They do their best to stay out of the way, but it’s far from smooth going.
The general gameplay turned out to be somewhat shallow. For a survival game there isn’t much here. You’ll scavenge for a handful of parts that can be turned into some basic weaponry like shivs, accentuated melee weapons, nail bombs, molotovs, etc. You also have to make your own medical kits. You can pick up various guns and a handy bow but other than making your own stuff the extent of what makes this a survival game is the fact that parts are not in abundance. The survival upgrades make almost no difference in your experience. A helpful ability is Joel’s hearing focus where he can track where people are by sound, allowing you to effectively see through walls and pre-plan attacks. If you feel like this is cheating the stealth gods you can either not use it or turn listen mode off.
The rest is some basic environment navigation where you get from point A to point B, helping Ellie a lot. It’s geared somewhat toward realism so you can’t expect any impossible Uncharted-style jumping or dramatic set pieces, you’re really just walking around between encounters most of the time.
Your journey is largely a linear one, but each area is of a medium size and encourages exploration since you’ll need to scavenge for parts. Pick up parts and build stuff, that’s the name of the game.
The highlights of the game are the characters and their interactions as well as the storytelling by Naughty Dog. I wasn’t impressed with the story itself as it basically latches onto every post-apocalyptic trope you can think of but the depth of the characters and sense of realistic emotion marks a new level for gaming. Does that change my view of how limited the gameplay feels? Not really, but you may feel differently.
There isn’t much I can say about the story without straight up giving at away (as per my previous comments) but we begin with some background on Joel. He’s a pretty regular hard working typical American guy when we meet him and the outbreak of the infection pushes him to his limits so that when the game picks up with him many years later he is a seasoned survivor who has been through it all. Tess is Joel’s partner, we don’t get much other information than that except she is a smart, tough cookie who can give as good as she gets and is more adventurous than Joel who likes to play it safe. When the two encounter Ellie for a risky smuggling job that Joel wants no part of your long road begins and revelations trickle in as to what is at stake for you and everyone you encounter along the way.
The lasting appeal of this game as far as it pertains to my single-player friends is going to be in challenging yourself to survive the long, hard quest on the higher difficulty settings and re-experiencing the satisfying nuances in the storytelling. For some this could become the kind of game you want to play every year or every few years for its quality.
Boasting incredible production values and a lot of nuance, The Last of Us is a very focused experience which impresses but doesn’t surprise or do much of anything creative or new in the gameplay. Come for the storytelling, stay for the stealth, and just try to keep the clickers out of your nightmares.
ONLY SINGLE PLAYER SCORE
Story – 9
Gameplay/Design – 8.7/10
Visuals – 9.8/10
Sound – 9.8/10
Lasting Appeal – 9/10
Overall – 9.5/10
(Not an average)
Platforms: PlayStation 3
Developer: Naughty Dog
Ratings: M (ESRB), 18+ (PEGI)