In the past, playing a post-apocalyptic game meant you were most likely venturing into a post-nuclear war wasteland while toting advanced weaponry. That’s not the case in The Last of Us, a PS3 game that draws you into a world of luscious greenery — and utter desperation.
At Sony’s E3 2012 press conference, we saw five minutes of gory, gruesome, intense gameplay. Senior Reviews Editor Tim Torres gripped his seat’s hand rests and dropped his jaw for minutes while attempting to process what he was witnessing. I too, was incredibly shocked. Was that gameplay? Or was that a cinematic? The game’s physics and A.I. shined through the short demo we watched, and set an incredibly high bar for Naughty Dog.
Yes, Naughty Dog. The company that’s known for comedic, classic series such as Crash Bandicoot, Jak and Daxter, and of course the newer Uncharted franchise. As a kid, teenager, and adult, Naughty Dog has always touched my heart. When speaking to SCEA producer Sam Thompson, he said, “This is the most intense story Naughty Dog has ever written.”
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves was intense, but also uplifting and comedic. Could Naughty Dog craft a great game focusing on horror and a nightmarish scenario? The answer is yes.
The relationship between protagonists Joel and Ellie is not father-daughter, or friends at all, really. Joel’s endured 20 years of hell on Earth, and Ellie, only 14, has lived in quarantine zones for her entire life. The Cordyceps fungus is the cause of the misery. In real-life, the fungus uses spores to infect insects and arthropods. When the fungus takes over, plants begin to grow out of the hosts — eventually killing them — and disperse more spores to keep the cycle going. In The Last of Us, this fungal disease has spread to humans.
You play as Joel for roughly 90% of the game, and then as Ellie in the winter segment. The winter segment is very aggravating. You no longer play as a strong guy in his early-fifties who’s been through years of chaos to bulk up for the apocalypse; you play as a swift, but weak, fourteen year old girl. Ellie mainly detects enemies and assists in difficult situations. Other than that, she’s there for good dialogue.
Joel, on the other hand, is stronger, runs at a slower pace (he only sprints while in combat), and absorbs more damage. He can take down an enemy in a much smoother and quicker fashion, and has a better hand for weapons (Ellie, however, is more proficient with firearms).
As their journey to find the government-rebel group, the Fireflies, begins, the two characters show hostility toward one another both in body language and random conversations. As the game goes on, the pair engage in conversations about the past. Ellie’s imagination depends on your stories of the world that once was; there are many silly conversations that talk about things such as the credibility of ice cream trucks actually existing at one point. Since Ellie was born years after the apocalypse began, she’s full of questions about the world that once was; our world in 2012.
The crafting in The Last Of Us adds to the realism. To craft weapons and defense items, you gather items like sugar (for explosives), medical tape, and scissors. You cannot craft anywhere, however. You must be aware of your surroundings, and make certain that it’s safe to get on your knees and dig around in your backpack to make the augmented necessities.
The Last of Us has a small, yet horrifying spectrum of enemies. Towards the beginning of the game, you stumble upon government paperwork which explains the four stages of infection. Forty-eight hours after being bitten or inhaling spores, people are turned into Infected Runners. These enemies can see you, and are quite fast. Runners can be killed using stealth attacks, guns, or melee weapons and/or punches.
Stage 2 of infection brings in the Infected Stalkers. Stalkers are the most uncommon enemy in the game, which is a shame. In the rare events I did interact with these, I found them the most horrifying and most challenging to defeat. These enemies reminded me of the Hunters from the Left 4 Dead franchise. They have the ability to hide and sneak up behind you.
Stage 3 brings out the worst out of the four, in my opinion: The Clickers. Clickers’ faces have been compromised by the disease, leaving only their ears and mouths in tact. They use echolocation to find their enemies, and cannot be taken down with simple melee attacks. Shooting them attracts them to your position, so you have to be smart. Using molotov cocktails or nail bombs is my favorite way to take them down, but they can be taken out with shivs. If you choose to go the stealth route, make good use of throwing bricks and bottles to send them in the wrong direction.
The fourth and final stage houses Bloaters, incredibly large, yet slow monsters. From a distance, they shoot spore bombs, which deal significant damage. You cannot let yourself get close to them, or your face will get ripped open from the mouth — the visual is quite gruesome.
The fifth type of enemy you fight is humankind. In the winter segment, you fight humans eighty-percent of the time. They too, can use crafted devices against you. The humans can sense your movements, use stealth, and call for reinforcements — they are by far the most difficult and frightening enemy. The different human factions (survivors in specific towns, Fireflies, military personnel) keep the survival aspect fresh. The military personnel fight in an organized manner, while survivors fight dirty and use crafted weapons.
”As you journey farther and farther into the story, you begin to see a deeper relationship emerge, it’s beautiful really. The infection creates a lot of tension and the pressure in the world as it is, and the juxtaposition of Joel and Ellie adds a unique maturity and grittiness to the storyline.” – Sam Thompson, Senior Producer, SCEA
The game mechanics themselves aren’t perfect, however. There are a couple things I have issues with. Why is it that when I step on a stick, a Clicker notices me, but when Ellie runs around like a maniac wearing iron boots, she goes unnoticed? Why is it when I peek my head from behind a box, I get shot at, but Bill is running around in circles untouched? These moments took me out of the game.
Although the results are ultimately the same, each play through is unique as you can achieve mission objectives in different ways. The intended way of playing the game is a good mix of stealth and gunfire, but due to the engine’s flexibility, you can play in either way. I’m a bit trigger happy, so it was especially challenging for me. Realizing through trial-and-error that running and gunning wasn’t the way to play this game, I reverted to using stealth for the majority of the game. If there’s one tip I can give new The Last of Us players, it’s don’t be afraid to take it slow.
The Last of Us’ heart comes from its excellent cast. Voice actors Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson truly invested parts of themselves into Joel and Ellie, respectively. There’s a scene at the 20-minute mark of the game that’s an emotion-filled cocktail of anger, fear, and desperation, and the actors nail their performances.
There are tons of layers to The Last of Us, and it would be impossible for me to tell you about all of them without writing a novel. The game has pulled me into its world like no other. Not Uncharted. Not even Mass Effect, a game in which I make all the decisions. The Last of Us is more than just a game, more than just an experience: It’s a feeling. An emotional roller coaster. A part I had to truly let sink in was the ending. At first I was angry, and confused about why it played out as it did. After dissecting it, however, I was happy. Naughty Dog’s intentions are for players to decide their own ending. It was done in a way where you’re not asking yourself too many questions and are at peace with it.
Well done, Naughty Dog. You have my vote for game of the year.
You can buy The Last of Us at Amazon.com for $59.96.