Last of Us is not Naughty Dog's prior efforts. It is really unlike anything we've seen before. It isn't larger than life. It is difficult. It isn't really all that fun at times. It is dark, moody, subtle and a masterpiece.
This is a game of not mowing down wave after wave of infected and marauding humans. This is a very human story that just happens to be set in a world that has gone completely insane. Nature has reclaimed the brick and steel of metropolis. We are not at the center of the order of things anymore. The world has moved on. All of this surrounds the horrid center of a game that is not about player choice or any of the more modern conventions of storytelling in video games. No. Naughty Dog is spinning us an old fashioned yarn that serves up just as much brutality as it does genuine moments of emotion and quiet dignity. Neil Druckman and crew are at the top of their game here.
When we meet Joel in the beginning it is before the world went to shit. It is before the pandemic. Even then it is quite clear that Joel will do any and everything to make sure those he cares for are safe. This only becomes crystallized as the game stretches on. He has an almost maniacal drive to survive that serves as justification for the downright atrocious things he (you) will do throughout the game. Ellie, a 14 year old girl who will serve as Joel's ward (and foil) has known nothing but the chaos. She isn't quite as jaded as Joel, no, but has clearly seen a thing or two in her time. A journey must be made from the quarantine zone of Boston to the headquarters of the Fireflies. This is an escort mission across country and into the very heart of savagery and madness.
The pacing is even throughout and each new character or truth learned about just what the hell is going on kept me riveted. Honestly? This game would have worked surprisingly well in an episodic form much like The Walking Dead did. Here, though, the long form of narrative that a video game can offer works beautifully. The slow unearthing of these characters and each new wrinkle of their personality comes forth naturally. A two hour movie would have forced a lot of this character development into single moments that would then later be overshadowed by excessive gore or violence. Here we see that, yeah, much like Bioshock Infinite showed us earlier this year this genre is capable of producing genuine art. It, also much like Infinite , came to a conclusion that has haunted me long after I put the controller down.
The dark beating heart that is the narrative The Last of Us will often leave you wounded. It will surprise you and it will make you feel awful. The violence informs the story just as much as the bonds between two people just trying to make their way through the remnants of civilization. It is this story, that fully embraces the tropes of an already overplayed genre and twists them, that helps to deliver one of the finest gaming experiences of this generation.
Dialogue flows naturally as we've grown accustomed to with Naughty Dog games and the quality is second to none concerning the way it is presented. What totally surprised me was just how matter-of-fact the entire thing was and, I hate to say it again, but how subtle the writing was. Careful attention was paid to not only the major set pieces and their choreography but also the small moments that would mean nothing in most games. Ambient dialogue as Joel and Ellie wander through the ruins of an abandoned neighborhood, the rusty remains of an ice cream truck in the middle of a street, the discovery of a moldy yet still readable comic book. These little things along with the larger drive of the story make for one hell of an experience.
So, the story is great. We get it, Scrivener. What about the rest of it? It is here that I have rarely seen such a vital link between gameplay and story. Unlike the Uncharted series where there was such a blistering dissonance between what you did between cut scenes and what the story showcased the combat and mechanics throughout go hand-in-hand with the overall feel. This is a game of desperation, of endurance and survival. Ammunition is scarce along with food and medical supplies. You can't just go into a fire fight with any and everyone or that will get you killed. Some enemies will require you to make use of just enough resources to get to the next section. Others will require a much more stealthy approach allowing for the usage of melee weapons or even just choking someone out as opposed to outright gunplay.
There is no regenerating health here and all "medicating" must be done in real time as is the crafting of these items. Need a Molotov cocktail for that group of bandits up ahead? The ones roving around? Better be quick about making one lest you get blindsided. This game is tense. Staying hidden isn't just a good idea but a necessity though it doesn't work for very long at all. Level design offers many options per encounter to deal with the enemies at the gates. Stealthy gameplay will definitely reward you with a better stockpile but often there is no other choice. Enemy AI varies from downright homicidal rage to defensive postures in humans and the more forthright blitzkrieg strategy of the Infected. Runners will charge as soon as they see/hear you where the more advanced types such as Clickers (which use echo-location via a series of clicks to find its next target) that will kill you in one hit if they get too close. They are tough to take down and provide a huge challenge in groups. My one gripe with the game overall is a small one. The AI, as good as it could be at times, would more often than not completely disregard the companions Joel was with. It would break the illusion just a TOUCH but it was nothing game breaking
I played this game on Normal difficulty and often found myself repeating sections numerous times just to continue on with the game. I look forward to playing it on a higher difficulty soon just to really dig in and see if I can actually survive it. Overall that level of anxiety in trying to figure out how to approach each encounter further informs the the already exquisite story being told.
This violence isn't necessarily fun or cathartic. It is jarring and unsettling. Joel will kill people in awful ways often in this game. It is very intimate and always consistent with the tone established from the very beginning. This overwhelming drive to survive propels Joel forward into the next awful execution of would-be attacker or Infected. It's interesting how, at times, I had the same sort of tension I felt while playing Dark Souls . The overall dread and nerve-fraying combat that is so grim throughout really hammers home that this is not necessarily a fun story you're witnessing. It is a tough one that will see people throughout make tough choices all in the name of enduring and surviving.
You see the scale of devastation often in this game as you'll be climbing out a window overlooking a nearby section of the city you're in. You'll see abandoned cars, shells of houses and business offices left to ruin and bodies in various states of decay. The overgrowth of the trees and grass, the various herds of animals and the overwhelming presence of Nature in general in this game was something that continued to catch me off-guard throughout. One section had me hunkered down by a rusted out El Camino-ish car with some bandits at a checkpoint ahead. A squirrel was lazily plodding along the hood of the car and off to the right a few sparrow were sitting in in the tree chirping away. Then the gunfire broke the serenity of it and all was madness and blood again.
It's interesting how this is a game of big moments, no doubt, but it is some of the smallest ones that resonate and had the biggest impact for me. I would have never suspected that coming across a docile creature in the midst of a utterly ruined city would have such an effect on me as it did later in the game. Or how Joel looking down at a watch allows to peek behind the veneer of bravado for just a moment to see what lurks beneath the surface.
I extolled accolades and many big words onto Bioshock Infinite as well when it dropped and, rightly so, as it is a wonderful game. My connections to the horror genre and, in particular, my love of all things zombie definitely helped me to establish a deeper connection to this than maybe most would. That said this is a game that must be experienced and what a way to send off a console like the PS3 than with the last major exclusive it'll ever have. Even if you don't have a system to play it on I'd recommend checking out a Let's Play of it on YouTube. It is a superb example of what this genre can accomplish in the hands of a developer who knows what the hell they're doing.
You'll probably clock in about 14-16 hours of gameplay with this and, along the way, you'll wonder if this game was all that fun. Honestly? It could be at times but that wasn't the point of it. Not to me. I know video games are all about fun but it seemed to me that Naughty Dog wanted to tell us a story. One we've seen before but rarely has it been executed so well.