Platform: Playstation 3
Sometimes a game comes along and takes my feelings about it on a rollercoaster ride. The Last of Us did that so much, that I very nearly stopped playing altogether a few times. I didn’t understand the hype and adoration it was getting. I really felt like I was missing something, but I dug in my heels and kept at it. And boy, am I glad I did.
The opening sequence is a rather surprising bit of game design. You find yourself not controlling Joel, the character you’ll be controlling through the rest of the game. Instead, his daughter, Sarah, plays as your window to the game’s prologue as she’s awoken in the middle of the night. While pulling the ol’ switcheroo on who you play as isn’t anything new, the amount of detail put into this rather brief sequence speaks volumes about how much effort Naughty Dog, the game’s developer, put into The Last of Us. As Sarah climbs out of bed and wanders around the house, there’s a very deliberate slower pace to her movements that are subtly emphasized by an ever-so-slight sway to her movements, giving more weight to the feeling of just having been woken up and unsure of a situation.
As you move to the next section of the prologue, you’re still in control of Sarah as Joel and his brother, Tommy, drive off to get away from the city. While Joel and Tommy try to figure out what’s going on as they talk in the front seat, Sarah sits in the back seat and will move around as you spin the camera around to get a view of what’s happening. As you move the camera around, Sarah will clamber over the seats pressing on the windows and leaning on the car’s seats to brace herself as she looks around. It’s a very subtle touch that’s easily overlooked. The effort put into this incredibly brief sequence is something that wouldn’t be missed if not included, but its inclusion is a brief hint at the level of design craftsmanship that’s been put into The Last of Us.
Once the prologue wraps up, you’re put twenty years into the future to see humanity’s struggle to survive against their brethren, both infected and not. Humanity is its own greatest enemy and obstacle to overcome and it’s a great analogy for The Last of Us. The “inner demon” of what something is at its core is the struggle of not only the story of The Last of Us, but the struggle of the gameplay too often getting in the way of the tale that Naughty Dog is telling.
The actual “game” portion will be more than a bit familiar to people who have played through Uncharted 2 and/or Uncharted 3. From a pure mechanical perspective, you’re looking at a very similar game. It’s not quite as simple as that though. Ammo is far scarcer and your health doesn’t regenerate, making going guns blazing a la Nathan Drake not only inadvisable, but nearly impossible if you plan on seeing the game through to the end. As in Uncharted, there’s cover to use, but you’ll be using it more to sneak around to set up stealthy kills and hide from opposition more than to pop up from between segments of mowing down hundreds of people as casually as you were putting a second bag of chips in your cart at the grocery store because they’re “buy one, get one free.”
The Last of Us tries to deviate from the simplistic, popcorn-action flick style of Uncharted and instead wants you to sneak around more. With your resources more limited for both dealing out death and keeping yourself alive, it would make more sense to take this approach. You’ll find sneaking about the best way to handle most situations because if you try to go full Rambo, you’re likely to either fail miserably or be left with so little in terms of supplies that your next encounter will be the end of you.
It’s when the game forces you into full combat without the stealth that can be a bit maddening. Too many times I found myself reloading a section time and time again because I thought I couldn’t find the proper sequence in patrol patterns to take down most of the enemies in an area only to find out that there was no alternative to full on combat. It’s a little disheartening to find out you’re doing it wrong without any real cue aside from constant failure. For a game that presents itself with such a wide array of being able to fight or avoid enemies, it seems like a bit of a blunder to not include some sort of hint that you can’t avoid certain sections. Actually, it seems like more of a blunder that those sections exist at all. They’re far more common in the first half of the game, but once you learn that there are areas you can’t get passed without taking on all comers, those instances will seem less annoying.
Joel will also improvise weapons and weapon upgrades with the simple crafting system. It works very logically as you strap on scissors blades to a lead pipe using duct tape you find laying around. You’ll craft makeshift grenades, smoke bombs, and molotov cocktails using things you find laying around. You’ll also find glass bottles and bricks throughout the world that you can use to both distract enemies and stun them so you get the upper hand on them.
Granted, the logic of some of the stuff is a bit silly, but you have to suspend your disbelief somewhat. Realistically, what are the odds you’d find a random ladder to climb an inaccessible ledge or a conveniently placed pallet to help Ellie, your companion through most of the game, get across some water? Those sections of simple puzzle solving seem out of place and largely unnecessary. If there was more to them than “find object to make next area accessible,” I wouldn’t have a problem with throwing some puzzles in. As they are though, they’re one of a few unfortunate design tropes that made their way into The Last of Us.
Looking to access higher area of buildings? You’ll be blocked off by groupings of furniture used to block off a stairwell that are so precisely placed, that no one could have placed them from any direction but from the side that you’re looking at them from. Why block off an area so others can’t get to it if you blocked it off in such a manner that there’s no way you could have gone back to that area? It’s a simple thing, but when there are so many little details crammed into The Last of Us, it’s hard to overlook the nonsensical ones.
Those simple details that make the world so nearly believable are sprinkled throughout your journey so generously; you might not even notice them. Bricks are found only in spots that would make sense. Finding empty glass bottles thrown about everywhere in a bar makes as much sense as only finding one or two throughout huge areas. When Joel goes to grab a low spot of cover, Ellie will go to occupy the same spot as Joel if there isn’t any other logical cover for her. At first, this looks like she might be clipping through Joel and might be another design detail somehow overlooked. Upon closer inspection (spin the camera ever so slightly), you’ll notice that Ellie is actually against the wall and Joel has adjusted his stance as to let her hide under his arm. Joel is protecting her. There’s something about this when I finally noticed it that really warmed me to both Joel and Ellie more than I thought I was going to.
Will you warm to them as well? Odds are good you’ll likely warm to both and then go back and forth constantly on one of them specifically. I’ll leave that statement as vague as possible in case you haven’t had the opportunity to play through it yet. Let’s just say there’s a very purposeful choice in the game’s title that might not become totally clear until the credits roll.
Deep down, what exactly is The Last of Us? Ultimately, it’s a game that’s perhaps a stepping stone for gaming as whole. While it suffers a bit from the foundation it was built upon, the incredible design of not only the world, but the more subtle and small touches of animation and dialogue make getting through The Last of Us an experience you shouldn’t pass up. Sure, the combat might muck it up for entirely too much of the first half, but once you get passed that and the areas that require you to take out everything become less frequent, it turns into the game that everyone has been hyping it up to be. You’ll be on a ride that you’re going to remember for a long time and is likely going to be copied for a long time.