As we reach the end of the PlayStation 3 era, titles that promise to max out the console's potential will be released to gamers everywhere. On September 17th, we will see if GTA V's much touted switching between three characters on-the-fly thing is really all that. For now, though, we have a story of two individuals taking place at the world's - and this console's - end.
Twenty years after an infection nearly wipes out all of humanity (animals, as usual, are unaffected) forty-something Joel is tasked with delivering a young teen named Ellie to a group of rebels known as the Fireflies. At first glance, the infected are the same as zombies, and those burned-out buildings without a primary power source recall NBC's Revolution somewhat, but the larger themes and sense of moral ambiguity is more akin to Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road - and to a lesser degree Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men. Which is to say everything feels pretty darn hopeless.
In terms of exploration in an interactive medium, The Last of Us is in a class by itself. This isn't an open world RPG like Fallout 3 or a frag-fest like the Left For Dead series. You'll only use ammo when you need to (and then still regret it). Does that mean that as Joel, you'll be in stuck stealth mode 24/7? Yes and no, but we'll get to that.
Although it's been said in numerous other reviews, The Last of Us is indeed a masterwork, beyond the scope of it's seemingly derivative parts.
In case you can't tell, I LOVED my time with Naughty Dog's latest. Before reading on, I believe the best way to play is to know very little, but in order to discuss I have to be a tiny bit spoilery so if you're merely wondering if the game is worth your hard-earned sixty bucks the answer is an enthusiastic yes. The Last of Us ranks among the best action-adventures, up there with Resident Evil 4 and Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. If you want to know why I feel that way, read on as I discuss the game's strengths (many, many strengths) and few hiccups. Again, very minor spoilers.
1. Ellie: The Best Little Sister Ever.
A few months back we had to save Elizabeth in Bioshock Infinite; now we have to guard the life of precocious teen, Ellie. They even follow a dude voiced by the same guy (see next point) and yet these are very different young women. As much as I loved Elizabeth in Infinite, she was pretty much a hip, steampunk version of a Disney character. She never swore... and could sing! Ellie, on the other hand, can barely whistle, but swears up a storm (literally, during one rain-soaked level). Still, what makes her so engaging is her growth. Though Joel is the one we're controlling, it really is all about her journey, her point of view. The game takes place over a year's time and by the end, she'd not only captured my affection (to be honest, she had that after her first profanity-laced rant), but my respect as well. Big props to Ashley Johnson who provided the voice and motion capture. The facial animation, it's worth noting, is by the animation artists at Naughty Dog.
Since Ellie is merely fourteen, she's never known the world the way Joel and the rest of us has. Holed up in a suburban home, she's aghast that girls in those old days only cared about boys, clothes and vampires. I totally agree, Ellie.
It takes a real stroke of narrative interplay to convince me that the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many. Yet with Ellie that's exactly what Naughty Dog has done. She kept me both emotionally invested and, on more than one occasion, alive. As far as companions go, Ellie puts Elena, Chloe and Sully to shame. I had big crush on Elena in the Uncharted series, but she never mumbled a rock song under her breath while dispatching baddies. Just sayin'.
2. Joel: What Two Decades of No Internet Can Do.
After a prologue shows how Joel acquired such a nihilistic worldview, we see how that way of thinking keeps him alive. Every strangle, every Molotov cocktail tossed has an urgent feel and is always extremely violent. Some of this is in the animation; the way the shots are composed close-up, with sound effects that pierce. Still, like how Ashley has a way of imbuing Ellie with warmth, Troy Baker, who voiced and mo-capped Joel, never lets us forgot how unhinged this man has become. He makes his Booker DeWitt alter ego in Infinite seem tame, and that's a guy that shoved a sky-hook into a guard's face.
There's a moment early on that really sold me on this man after the fall. On a mission with Tess (an early partner) we see how on conflicted he is about moving forward with the task at hand. Tess keeps pushing. She's the alpha. Joel is profoundly unsure of himself. In our era of mucho bragging rights ("checkout my new selfie on Instagram, yo!") Joel comes off explosive yet ever-humble. To quote Ellie's favorite sci-fi comic book, he endures and survives.
3. Stopping to Smell the Wasteland: Endure and Survive!
The structure of the game will be no surprise to fans of the Uncharted series. Movie-scene, a little exploration, then combat. Repeat. Except here, Joel and Ellie don't have much affinity for platforming. Ellie can't swim and Joel barely jumps. Instead, their walkabouts are all about stopping at certain points and conversing about the world of yesterday. Every now and then one of them will come across something and the chat begins. Ellie can't believe there was a time when trucks drove around with music and gave ice cream to kids. Joel really misses coffee. A lot. If they are just standing around Ellie will read from a joke book she discovered. The mood lightens just enough.
Jump to :32 for my favorite.
Ellie is also on the hunt for any comic issues of Savage Starlight. That's where she learned the phrase "endure and survive!" The comics, along with an old arcade machine (Joel : "I never got into these") and a record make the beautiful (seriously, beautiful) locations come to life.
4. If This Is Really What the World Will Be Like I Hope to Go Out in the First Wave.
Of course, not all of it is interactive. A puzzle early on needs Joel to grab a big wooden plank. On the floor are several pieces of wood, but only the "real" one highlights with the triangle button. Many rooms have incredibly detailed things scattered around, but you can only pick up the obvious glowy ones. Still, the beauty of these places - where after two decades, nature has taken back the land with lush greenery, overwhelming the concrete - more than makes up for the standard "why can't I grab that?!" complaint. I also would have liked to be able to close doors behind me. There's even a scene where a another character literally tells Joel to close the door. Exactly, man. Exactly.
5. Combat? Stealth? Resource Management? Yes.
To be honest, for the first few hours I felt the gameplay was too reminiscent of Rockstar's PS2 game, Manhunt. Joel's takedowns are even more violent, actually, but on the negative side it felt like I was doing the same thing over and over. Whether it's a room of infected or hunters (the regular humans), I would sneak up, press triangle and then square to strangle. Repeat. What kept me invested, as is probably pretty evident by now, was not the gameplay per say, but my attachment to Joel and Ellie.
Once I started my second-run playthrough, however, I amped up the difficulty to Survivor. (My first run was on Normal, taking 15 1/2 hours to complete.) I am not a fan of hard for hard's sake gaming like in Call of Duty or Halo, but here it forced me many times to reevaluate my strategy, leading to the "why don't I try this" approach.
The game has a crafting system that I used without much thought on Normal. On Survivor, I started to focus solely on what I need for a particular encounter. So all those found parts - scissors, tape, alcohol, powder - are even more precious to me now. Health packs and Molotov cocktails share ingredients, so you really need to think about which you'll use effectively. Likewise, bullets are usually in small supply. All it takes is one out-of-control firefight to empty your arsenal. Oh, and all your crafting and health pack usage is in real time once Joel opens up his backpack, leaving you prone to attack. Every time you decide to open that bag, precious seconds evaporate. After seeing World War Z, I am very jealous of Brad Pitt's ample supply of electric tape.