There’s a moment in the final act of The Last of Us that made me want to put down my controller and stop playing. Not for anything that upset me or caused me to doubt what had just happened or anything like that; no, I wanted to let that moment live on for as long as possible. I probably could have let the game end there, and would have found the game just as ambitious and worthwhile and impressive as those who finished the cross-country journey. It took every effort not to pull back on the controller and push away from this sequence and on into the game’s climax, but I knew this was not the end. I knew there was more that Joel and Ellie had to endure. And so I drew away, and marched on toward the conclusion of one of the rare games that has made me think about violence, survival, and human nature and what lengths I might go to protect those I cared for.
The Last of Us is Naughty Dog’s fourth game for the PlayStation 3 following their studio’s acclaimed Uncharted franchise. Written by Neil Druckmann and directed by Bruce Straley, The Last of Us is as complete a departure from the whimsical world-hopping and treasure hunting of Nathan Drake as one could imagine. The Last of Us is a mature game and a hard game, so do not pick this up expecting witty one-liners and casual gunplay. That said, The Last of Us may be the most engaging video game I have played: from stunningly realized environments, gripping tension, and more fully developed individual performances than in any game in recent memory, Naughty Dog has brought this world to life in a way that lives on in my mind well after completion.
In 2013, the Cordyceps virus, a fungal disease that exists in the real world, has jumped from insects to humans, and a man named Joel is caught in the middle of the outbreak. The story beats are very similar to what you might find in other end-of-the-world “zombie” scenarios, but The Last of Us takes those conventions and plays with them in subtle ways. The Last of Us takes place twenty years after the outbreak, over the course of a year: the United States is in a perpetual state of martial law enforced in Quarantine Zones in the remaining major cities, and Joel is tasked by a resistance group called the Fireflies to deliver a young woman named Ellie to their compatriots outside of the Boston zone. What follows is a journey across the nation to bring Ellie to this organization, in the hope that she might be the solution to, well, everything.
If the story sounds familiar, it’s because it is. Druckmann himself cited inspiration specifically from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and tonal direction from No Country for Old Men, and I couldn’t help but find similarities to The Book of Eli, but the basis for the narrative is of little consequence when the execution of the narrative is so well delivered. Without performances to suit the narrative, even the most finely crafted dialogue can come off weak and meandering, but The Last of Us has no such issues. From leads Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson to supporting cast members like Annie Wersching, Robin Atkin Downes, Jeffrey Pierce, W. Earl Brown, and an unrecognizable Nolan North, character is emphasized and made essential from the moment you press start. Their performances sell this world as a real place, where the most terrible and wonderful of things can happen, and do happen, from moment to moment. The subtle glances between old acquaintances, the casual profanity in a world gone to hell, the wonder at the beauty of a moment’s breath between harrowing encounters with both the Infected and the desperate, they all develop a sense that this isn’t just some fantasy or idle thought; this could be us.
Baker and Johnson in particular create such a dynamic through their interactions as Joel and Ellie that, over the course of the game’s narrative, you begin to inhabit their reality as much as you’re observing it from a distance. Whether it’s Joel and his frustration with Ellie’s whistling and jokes or Ellie’s fascination with or contempt for the pre-apocalypse ideas of entertainment and fashion, my investment in these character grew through the little moments just as much as the epic ones. It may even be hard to distinguish what moments will truly stand out until well after they have passed, and the words and actions have taken their time to sink in. That’s the beauty of The Last of Us, though: in the magnificent and the mundane, there is so much to be uncovered in how these two broken individuals come together and support one another with so many odds against them.
Characters are the vehicle through which a story is told, but the world of The Last of Us is just as much a character in the game as any of the people speaking dialogue or shuffling and biting and shooting. The Last of Us is the best looking game on the PlayStation 3, without much of a second thought. Games like Crysis 2 and Battlefield 3 are technically gorgeous, but the life imbued by the designers at Naughty Dog to this world after the fall is remarkable. The first time you step into your character in the prologue and see your reflection in the mirror, or watch something on television happening simultaneously out your bedroom window, you have a sense of the attention to detail paid to The Last of Us. Burnt-out high rises overgrown with brush and foliage stand side by side with mountainside vistas in both their visual artistry and their attention to detail. In all my scavenging and searching, it was rare to find a bedroom or an office corridor that looked the same as the one I had entered five minutes ago, or thirty minutes ago, or six hours ago. The world tells just as much about what happened to humanity as the character dialogue or the collectibles you encounter.
What stands out even more because of the world and story and characters is how it actually feels to play the game. Having spent six years making Uncharted games, the Naughty Dog crew has refined and honed how their systems work, the shooting, running, gathering ammo, and ducking into cover. What’s impressive about how The Last of Us plays is that they have taken many of those systems and changed them or refined them to benefit the story. One of the primary criticisms I recall when Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception launched was that the shooting felt a bit “off” compared to Uncharted 2; in The Last of Us, picking up a weapon, aiming, and shooting have a weight to their action. As a middle aged man, your hands aren’t as steady and your control on your weapon might not be as precise as you’d like. Joel is well into his fifties when you take control in Boston, and he can’t run like he does in the first moments of the game when the world is being overrun. Unlike many similar shooters, when you pick up ammo it doesn’t automatically find its way into your weapon in hand; you have to manually reload in order to make sure that box of bullets is put to use. Perhaps my favorite tweak to the tried-and-true cover-based third-person-shooter mechanic in The Last of Us is the cover system itself. Gone are the snap-to cover designs of the Uncharted and Gears of War games; in The Last of Us, you crouch to maintain a lower profile, and to duck behind a partition or hide against a wall. Moving in and out of cover doesn’t require another button press, you simply move from one place to another. It is such a subtle difference, but a noticeable and appreciable one, especially in the midst of a frenetic confrontation when a missed button press could lead to a Clicker ripping your throat out or a Hunter bashing your skull in.
The Uncharted games, both on the PlayStation 3 and the PlayStation Vita, incorporated collectibles into the game world as a reward for exploration and as a way to enhance a world that could otherwise seem hollow and static; at least, that’s how I saw it. Uncharted: Golden Abyss for the Vita—which was not developed by Naughty Dog, but rather by Sony Bend Studio, makers of the acclaimed Resistance and Killzone games on PSP—had the best use of collectibles of the four games, encouraging the player to discover more about the game’s primary antagonists and supporting characters through puzzles, trinkets, and artifacts related to their story. They enhanced the game by making the items in the environment meaningful, something the Naughty Dog-produced Uncharted games fell short at. The Last of Us makes no such mistake, and exploration is required in order to make the most of your experience. Aside from the dog tags of members of the Fireflies organization, every collectible item in the game, be it a note left for a loved one, a newspaper clipping, or a voice recorder, builds up the idea that there was a person who lived here, that everything has been lived in, and that some truly terrible things have happened. Some of the neatest experiences in my playthrough involved discovering new pieces to a thread of artifacts that bound together the tales of survivors I knew I’d probably never meet, wondering what kind of resolution I would find to those stories, if any at all. Similarly, crafting is a mechanic that was simply nonexistent in Naughty Dog’s previous escapades, yet here they have proven that it can be implemented simply and elegantly without dragging down or slowing your game’s progress. Weapons can be modified at workbenches, health kits and improvised melee weapons and explosives can be bound together with scissors and alcohol and duct tape, and even your senses can be improved to give you a steadier aim or a better sense of hearing in a style that drew me back to Rocksteady’s Batman games and their Detective Mode, though without being quite as game-breaking as that mechanic could be.
Perhaps most surprising about The Last of Us is just how good their multiplayer component is. Just as with the single-player story, the multiplayer options are more intimate and brutal than they are grand and epic. Players begin by choosing a Faction, either the militia/terrorist Fireflies or the ruthless and desperate Hunters, and are given individual charge of a clan of survivors. Multiplayer matches are eight player affairs, pitting four Fireflies against four Hunters in two types of game modes that grant you access to materials that your clan needs to grow and survive. The modes, Supply Raid and Survivor, are essentially two versions of the classic Team Deathmatch. Survivor ups the ante by removing respawns until your Faction has wiped out your opponents or vice versa through four rounds, while Supply Raid gives each team twenty lives shared among teammates to outmaneuver your opponents. Both modes allow you to collect items similar to the single player game to craft bombs and health packs, but holding on to these items until the end of the match allows you to trade them in for materials once the match is complete to level up your clan and add to your skills. Each match counts as one day leading your clan, and players cannot change Factions until their clan has survived for twelve consecutive weeks or has been completely wiped out. It came as no surprise to those who have previously played the Uncharted multiplayer suites, but The Last of Us enhances a time-tested mode and brings an element of story to what could have been just another back-of-the-box feature.
When the action had settled, and the dust cleared, I left my experience in The Last of Us wondering just how this game would affect me in the days to come. I found myself humming composer Gustavo Santaolalla’s score on my way to the store. I replayed the Winter section of the game in my head again and again. I debated friends who had completed the game about the implications of the ending, which I feel is a daring choice for a AAA development studio to make in a world of cookie-cutter finales. Is this the finest experience I’ve had on the PlayStation 3? For me, the answer is yes. Will it be for everyone who plays The Last of Us? Probably not. Those ideas about violence, survival, human nature, and our desire to protect those we love? No game has made me consider these things as acutely as The Last of Us has. For that, I cannot help but give this product my highest recommendation.
Invisible Gamer’s review ofThe Last of Us is based on a final retail copy provided to us by Sony.