Thu
Jun 27 2013 2:00pm
The Last of Us is the PS3’s Crowning Achievement

The Last of Us

A few years ago, developer Naughty Dog became a rising star in the third-person action-adventure genre with the launch of their Uncharted franchise. After the release of Uncharted 3, Naughty Dog opted to take a break from their wildly successful, established franchise in order to pursue a new IP. In what is essentially the PlayStation 3’s swan song, Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us has given the rest of us what can very nearly be described as the perfect game—and a pinnacle title for the console—from both a technical and artistic standpoint.

For the unfamiliar, The Last of Us is a third-person survival shooter set in a fallen, post-apocalyptic America. The story is a combination of the first half of The Stand, The Road, Children of Men, and the best of The Walking Dead. The mutated fungal epidemic that has ravaged the earth is based on the actual Cordyceps fungus—a species of fungus that quite literally zombifies insects in order to perpetuate itself. In the game, Cordyceps has mutated and gained the ability to infect humans, who are powerless to counter it. The story follows Joel, a hardened survivor of the plague that wiped away the world 20 years ago, and Ellie, a young girl born into the disease-ravaged, mutated, warring world of the present. Together, they traverse a hostile, infected landscape, in search of a little hope.

Let me get this out of the way right off the top. The Last of Us is a modern-day gaming masterpiece, and it may well be the best game released for the PS3, ever. If that’s the only thing you wanted to glean from this review, you could, in theory, stop reading right now (but please don’t). Accordingly, the rest of this review will be spent justifying this claim, rather than determining overall worth. But rest assured, if you have a PS3, your heart can handle survival horror, and you are in any way on this fence about this purchase, go buy this game now and thank me later.

From a technical standpoint, the game is nearly pitch-perfect. The ruined landscapes of America are at once breathtakingly beautiful and sad. The Last of Us transitions from rubble-strewn cityscapes reclaimed by nature, to rural farmhouses, to purple mid-West sunsets in the woods with nary a drop in framerate, and at no point do performance issues cause the game to chug or hinder the gaming experience in any way. From an aural perspective, it was important for the developer to get it right, especially due to the world Joel and Ellie inhabit, and get it right they did—every footstep, groan, or click is spatially accurate and suitably ominous. As for the score, while the music is never front-and-center in the game, the soundtrack composed by two-time Academy Award winner Gustavo Santaolalla floats seamlessly in and out of the gameplay, tugging and teasing at your emotions.

The Last of Us

In many ways, death permeates this game, and your own mortality balances on a knife-edge. That I actually felt emotionally affected anytime Joel or Ellie died in the course of a fight is a testament to how relatable Naughty Dog’s protagonists remain, even in these most extreme of circumstances. Death means something, and like in no other game I’ve played in recent memory, killing means something, too. You’re made acutely aware as the game progresses that while you have a cause for which you fight and kill, other opposing causes exist that are no less worthy—but you must tread over them to pursue your own. Your opponents generally are not arranged in massive groupings for you to mow down, because each one moves and fights realistically, as a human opponent would. And your strength and physical vulnerability are not supernatural in nature, because Joel, too, fights realistically, as a human combatant would. And in the moments you play as Ellie, you feel her childlike vulnerability via a different play style than Joel’s—you’re forced to play differently, with more stealth and less power. Melee fighting is reminiscent of a street brawl—physical, brutal, and graphic. Anything at hand becomes a weapon, by necessity. This is pure survival. Bricks, bottles, walls, countertops, windows... in this game, you can feel the impact of a brick to the back of a skull. You feel bones break, crack, and shatter, and this serves to accentuate the bleakness, the desperation of this world in which you reside.

The flow of enemy encounters is generally intelligently handled and well-paced. Fighting rarely grows wearisome, as is so often the case in other games that feel simply presenting the player with repetitive hordes of endless cannon fodder qualifies as a solid gameplay mechanic. In this world, you’re forced to scratch and claw for your resources and in some situations, even this isn’t enough. The game’s leveling and crafting mechanics add to the haphazard atmosphere of a broken world. You won’t often find weapons or health kits wrapped neatly up in a package, waiting for you on a conveniently-located floor tile. No, you have to search and scratch and scavenge in every nook and cranny to find the individual, separate components of makeshift weapons and health kits, adding to the game’s sense of desperation and ruin.

The Last of Us

The gameplay of The Last of Us, as you might imagine in a game of this ilk, is largely stealth-based. In many cases, it’s wiser to attempt to sneak around enemy combatants or infected rather than to engage them. This element is frequently used to brilliant effect by Naughty Dog when it comes to building atmosphere and tension. Let’s just say there’s a sequence involving a hotel basement, a power generator, an automated door, and a horde of infected that will literally have you cowering in fear as you play. It’s that good.

There are, of course, a few flaws. There isn’t a lot of variance available in terms of enemy type. Accordingly, as you level up your weapons and person, the game’s enemies stay static (save for some of the human combatants)—an aspect which some might fairly fault. Furthermore, partner AI is a bit disconcerting at times, as your allies occasionally run directly in front of infected and enemy combatants while you are attempting to stealth your way through a section. However, the developer has corrected for this by making partners virtually invisible to enemies, which is strictly speaking a cheat, but an effective one. By and large, though, the gameplay is engaging, and its raw, visceral emotion matches up well with that of the story.

In this game, the moments between the tense gameplay feel even more important than the action, itself, because these are what drive forward the game’s star attractions—it’s story and the relationship between Joel and Ellie. The Last of Us is at its best in the quiet moments between firefights and puzzles—moments in which we can see and feel the strengthening bond between the two main characters. Indeed, it is with no slight to any other facet of the game that I say the story and character development of The Last of Us are the game’s greatest triumphs. You want to go out of your way to find abandoned comic books for Ellie so she feels just a little bit happier. Ellie pulling out her pre-apocalypse jokebook for levity at a moment’s notice is heartwarmingly earnest and sweet:

“People are telling apocalypse jokes like there’s no tomorrow.” Too soon...?

The emotional impact of the pain and suffering both characters have endured goes a long way toward making you, the player, root for them both, and the ways in which they try to help one another slowly heal is truly artistic and sincere. The companions you meet along the way are meaningful, as well, as the game does a wonderful job of ensuring you see the humanity—the flaws and strengths—of all those you meet. From the friends you fight with, to those you’re forced to leave behind, each and every one connects with the gamer in some significant way. There are no superficial allies.

I generally prefer not to allot numerical scores to game reviews. They’re too much of a blunt instrument in instances that are often best served by evaluating nuance—at least, when not dealing with the absolute dreck of the field. I’ll continue to adhere to this principle here, so let it suffice to say that The Last of Us is at once a tragic, heartwarming, painful, beautiful, and emotional experience, and is the best game you’ll buy for the PS3 this year, if not ever.

The Last of Us is available now on the PS3 at a retailer near you.


Pritpaul Bains regularly covers gaming news for Tor.com, and will continue to do so throughout the zombie apocalypse and beyond. Follow him on Twitter @pritpaulbains

20 comments
Emmet O'Brien
1. EmmetAOBrien
You make it sound a bit like a non-broken Pathologic; is that a reasonable comparison ?
Pritpaul Bains
2. Kickpuncher
@1 EmmetAOBrien - There's a name I haven't heard in awhile! I would suggest that Pathologic's story is quite a bit more complex/abstract/ambitious, the game itself probably more innovative, and of course the universe smaller, but there are definite similarities in the feel of the world, at times. TLOU is certainly more action-oriented and the story is a simple one, told well.

As you noted, what really stands out is the sheer amount of technical polish in The Last of Us that pretty much didn't exist in Pathologic -- which is frankly almost criminal. I would've loved to see the game achieve the full glory of its creative vision if it had been aligned with a more competent dev/publisher pairing.
Lalo
3. Lalo
The Last of Us is, as far as consoles go, only the third game that we (meaning myself, my dad, my brother and my sister) have played as a family. It sounds a bit ridiculous since technically only my brother is the controlling the character, but we chime in with hints or strategy and get really into it. The other two games were Heavy Rain & LA Noire (tho in LA Noire's case we took turns doing side missions/driving).

I think this is the one we've been enjoying the most. There's some problems we run into on occasion with weird glitches (characters falling through random holes that don't exist, one time he swam down and the game refused to let him swim back up again, that sort), but overall we have a lot of fun. (for reference we're at the snowy scene)

Its been interesting for my brother and I too; he's laregely stealth/strategy and I am the Melee go Wild girl. I'm sitting there ordering him to go into an Infected fight guns blazing and he's like 'I DON'T HAVE THE AMMO FOR THAT I AM SNEAKING AWAY NOW' (which this game doesn't have 'experience points' per say so it feels odd to be like 'oh I don't have to fight?').

Our next game is Beyond Two Souls, but somehow I don't think that will entertain us half as much as this game has.
Lalo
4. politeruin
I'm curious how it tackles that whole violence-against-women-to-show-us-just-how-bad-the-bad-guys-are. It's not going to end up in a future instalment of anita sarkeesian's new video series, is it? Anyway, i'll have to hope it'll be ported from a dying format to the pc in order to play it, still waiting for red dead redemption though...
Scott Silver
5. hihosilver28
@politeruin
It handles it pretty well. There are female deaths in the game, but they feel earned for the most part. There is one that is more a trope than others, but I feel the way the game deals with Ellie more than redeems that and makes it worth the play.

Don't hold your breath for a PC port. Naughty Dog is very adamant with their exclusives, and it won't ever come to a PC. I think it's worth getting a PS3 for their work, Demon's Souls & Dark Souls, inFamous, and then you'll be able to play Red Dead as well. :-)
Lalo
6. politeruin
#5 I've not read anything damning about that side of the game yet so it seems like it should get a green light. Shameful it's the exception rather than the rule but there you go.

I'd sworn off purchasing anything sony a long time ago but maybe if i was gifted one... I don't know, consoles these days are far too compromised which is why i moved to pc gaming, the freedom of choice is refreshing.
Scott Silver
7. hihosilver28
@politeruin
It handles that aspect really really well. Same thing with race. While the two main characters are white, there are many people of color through the game and when they appear, they aren't characitures.

I actually think that Sony has better policies and exclusives than Microsoft, but I completely get going console free. I love my pc for gaming. Still probably going to get a PS4 shortly after it releases.
Brian R
8. Mayhem
I have to say everything Naughty Dog has ever done has been a good advertisement for the console it is on - all of the Uncharted series were absolutely amazing, and I could believe that their storytelling ability will top that here.

That being said, I'm not a huge horror fan, so not sure if this will float my boat. Also curious to know how on rails it feels - I know Uncharted 2 felt amazingly freeform despite the rails, while Uncharted 3 was a little more locked in to trade off against the stunning visuals.
Jenny Thrash
9. Sihaya
Anybody who wants to get more of Gustavo Santaolalla's musical work should listen to "Ayre," composed by Osvaldo Golijov. Santaolalla and his group the Andalucian Dogs perform on a very weird, wonderful album that's one half original compositions and one half folk songs.

I was on the fence about this game. I'm much more interested now.
Marcus W
10. toryx
I agree with Mayhem 8: Naughty Dog has been excellent so far. I'm not a fan of zombie-type horror myself, but I got the Last of Us simply because the Uncharted games were so excellent.

So far, I'm seriously enjoying this game. I'm only about 46% of the way through it but it's definitely been an excellent experience and I'm constantly on the edge of my seat. I highly recommend it.

One of my favorite things about it is that there actually is a lot of different options for handling any given combat; you can try to go in guns blazing (but really, watch out for your ammo!), take the bad guys out by stealth or just try to get passed them without being noticed. That sort of freedom is extremely gratifying.
Let’s just say there’s a sequence involving a hotel basement, a power generator, an automated door, and a horde of infected that will literally have you cowering in fear as you play. It’s that good.
Man, that was an excellent moment. I was thoroughly creeped out. It didn't help that I was playing in a dark room with all the lights off either. When I finally got out of there I breathed a big sigh of relief. The sound effects of this game raise the tension tremendously.
Theresa DeLucci
11. theresa_delucci
I loved the hell out of this game. I haven't enjoyed a game this much -- or cared about the characters so much -- since Red Dead Redemption (which this game reminds me of in many ways. Horses!) Joel is not a good guy, but he does good things. So any time you make him kill a human, you feel bad about it. And his badass murderous ways have consequences.

@9 Thanks for the soundtrack rec!

My favorite chapter was definitely during "Winter." What incredible writing went into David.

A bow and arrow is awesome.

Ellie is fantastic. While the partner AI might not be perfect -- DAMMIT, BILL! WHY DID YOU RUN HEADLONG INTO THAT CLICKER I'M TRYING TO AVOID?!?! -- Ellie's characterization was just spot-on. I have to compare her against Bioshock's female companion, Elizabeth. Elizabeth may off more help in combat, but as far as characters go, Ellie all the way. She is tough, vulnerable, naive. All of the things Elizabeth is, but you just feel it more with Ellie, especially as she relates to Joel. You know right off the bat that Ellie is a daughter surrogate for Joel and it colors all of his interactions with her in subtle ways that just yank on your heartstrings. The weight of the world is on their shoulders and it shows.
Pritpaul Bains
12. Kickpuncher
One thing I neglected to mention above was the absolutely exceptional quality of the voice acting in this game. From Nolan North's refreshingly dark turn as David, to Troy Baker's Joel and Ashley Johnson's Ellie... a fantastic job all around.
Lalo
13. Eric Saveau
I have been telling everyone I see that I know to be a gamer or to have any geeky inclinations at all that they have to experience this. The Last Of Us will not just affect you, it will break you. And then put you carefully back together and gently send you on your way. I've been deeply emotionally engaged by games before - Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Bioshock - but not nothing like this, nothing so raw and pure and honest. And it's not just the writing: Troy Baker as Joel and Ashley Johnson as Ellie turn in the most heartstopping performances I've seen in ANY medium for years. I expect to remain in awe of this achievement for the rest of my life.
Scott Silver
14. hihosilver28
Theresa, I'm inclined to agree with you. I feel that Winter is hands down one of the greatest video game segments I have ever played. Looking forward to starting my second playthrough on Survivor mode. *rubs hands with glee*
Jeremy Goff
15. JeremyM
I just started playing this game and it is absolutely phenomenal so far. They really set the stage early with the opening sequence which really broke my heart and let me know what type of game I was in for. Normally I just play games and have fun without getting too attached to characters, but with this game I can't help but sucked in. It really feels like I am a part of the story and not just playing a game where different things happen...if that makes sense.
Lalo
16. DougL
I am an unapologetic PC gamer, I abhor games that are multiplatform releases because the UIs are never optimized for the PC, but I bought a PS3 just to play this game. I think it came with Uncharted, but I will never play that, just this game, after I finish my latest playthough of Alpha Centauri, and tryout the latest beta patch of Elemental - Legendary Heroes.
Pritpaul Bains
17. Kickpuncher
@15 JeremyM -- Very much know what you mean. It's incredibly immersive. The last time I felt such a part of a game would probably date all the way back to Half-Life.

@16 DougL - I'm a die-hard PC gamer as well but I've managed to come to terms with consoles over the past few years so I could take advantage of platform-exclusives like this one. If you end up liking TLOU, I wouldd highly recommend playing Uncharted when you can. Both Uncharted 1 and 2 were great gaming experiences. 3 was good but kind of went off the rails a bit toward the end.
Theresa DeLucci
18. theresa_delucci
Uncharted 2 was fantastic. It hit all those Indiana Jones buttons and the puzzles were challenging and the landscapes were sweeping and lush. And you get to listen to Claudia Black's voice for a good couple of hours. Worth every penny.
Marcus W
19. toryx
I finished The Last of Us a couple of days ago and I had to take a break from video gaming in general just to sort of get over the game. I thought the ending was rather perfect and I had so much fun getting there.

Winter, by the way, was awesome. I died a lot in the final battle but man, were my emotions twisted up by the end of that chapter.

Uncharted series: Yep, I loved the Uncharted series. Uncharted 2 was definitely the best but all three were a blast to play and totally worth having a PS3 for.

Theresa: I'm new to the PS3 so by coincidence I picked up Red Dead Redemption about a week before receiving my preorder of The Last of Us and for a while was alternating between the two -- until I got so hooked on The Last of Us that I couldn't stop playing it. Anyway, you're right; they're totally different games but at the same time they feel sort of similar. Now that I've gotten over The Last of Us I've been playing Red Dead exclusively and having a blast with it.
Loyd Etheredge
22. EtherEdge
Although I think the game has flaws that should've been fixed to make the game perfect, its emotional "pull" overshadows these flaws giving gamers something new in a crowded zombpocalypse genre.

I'm also glad that you mentioned something about the music as many reviews I've read overlook this important aspect. The music of The Last of Us amplifies the game's depressing theme and there would be times that I would keep still just to feel the music as it blends with visuall excellent backdrops.

The multiplayer mode is also fun to play and here's a walkthrough you can use:
http://www.cheatmasters.com/blog/2013/08/11/the-last-of-us-multiplayer-guide-2/

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