The Last of Us - Review


Especially through the excellent Uncharted series and the talent to squeeze out even more graphical marvels out of the Playstation 3 than thought possible, Naughty Dog has rightfully claimed its place as one of the best video game studios in the world today.
Instead of playing it safe and expanding the Uncharted franchise with yet another entry (which will nevertheless surely be in the works), Naughty Dog presents The Last of Us, a brand new IP that differenciates a lot from Uncharted both in terms of setting, mood and also gameplay.
Can Naughty Dog furthermore transfer their talent to a new IP or can they only do good Uncharted games? Is this the swan song the PS3 deserves? Let's find out.



Story
 

The plot:
The Last of Us is centered around a modern fungal plague nearly leading mankind to extinction. Nature encroaches upon civilization, forcing remaining survivors to kill for food, weapons, and whatever they can find. Joel, a ruthless survivor, and Ellie, a brave teenage girl who is wise beyond her years, must work together to survive their westward journey across what remains of the United States.

The story is truely the strongest part in the Last of Us.
First and foremost, the story is heavily influenced by movies like Children of Men, 28 Days Later, I am Legend, The Walking Dead and most notably The Road.
With that said, The Last of Us is by far not a very happy game. The story is very down to earth and kept as realistic as possible. Aside from that, it is one (if not the) most adult and emotional game of this console generation.

The main focus in The Last of Us is not how the world economically collapsed but the characters living in this world. Along with the adventurous odyseey-like structured journey through the post-apocalypse, seeing the characters evolve throughout the story and how they interact with each other to keep surviving is perfectly executed.
In this case, the character development of Joel and Ellie is the main show.

After a very tragic and rough past, Joel is a man, who has been scarred by the apocalyptic outbreak and the questionable actions he had to make in order to survive. Still, Joel is not a bad person. His (and other peoples') often gruseome and harsh decisions to survive are for the most part understandable in the context of this apocalyptic situation. Yet, overall he is not your typical heroic protagonist but an everyday guy just trying to stay alive by doing odd jobs in exchange for shelter, food and clothing that just so often result in someone's death.
Through a turn of events, Ellie and Joel meet in order to reach the headquarters of the Fireflies, an organisation of survivors in the post-apocalyptic U.S.

This isn't a very happy game.
 
Unfortunately, it has to be said that a fairly lazy plot device is used early on in the story to be the driving force behind Joel and Ellie's journey. Without spoiling it, this plot device is utilized in nearly every post-apocalyptic zombie movie and makes a small dent in an otherwise great and memorable storyline. Luckily, this plot device is mostly shoved aside in the further course of the story due to other situations and only occasionally comes up.  
Right from the start, their relationship is more function-based than anything else. Yet, after numerous situations and talks throughout their journey, both characters form a bond with each other and get more and more attached.
Ellie herself is far away from being depicted as a damsel in distress. She is a strong teenage girl who along with the story slowly adapts to the circumstances that force her to handle live and death situations. She pretty much just as often saves Joel's live as he does hers. Their bond as a team grows so strong that during many deadly situations you as the player start to really worry about them (and other side-characters as well). Joel and Ellie's story feels just as real and honest as the ones of the people they meet. You quickly start to get invested with them and really don't want anything bad to happen to them. This makes many of the game's unpredictable moments nailbitingly suspensful, exciting or sad (get ready to get teary eyed...more than once).

In the end, The Last of Us is a game whose roughly 14 hour story will completely entertain and fulfill you with a heartwarming feel, that video games can tell such a great story with such well written characters. It's one of those games that serve as a prove that video games are art.         

Also, this is quite a long journey. So pack your lunch.

Gameplay
 

At first glance, The Last of Us presents itself as a stealth-third-person game.
For the most part, this might be true, but it would be wrong to sort the game entirely into that genre, because ultimately the Last of Us is a mix of gameplay styles that allows you to choose how you to play.

The biggest factor in choosing your gamestyle is the enemy type you encounter.
Throughout the main campaign, encounters with human enemies and the infected alternate to give the player a healthy variety in situations.
Anyway, no matter what enemy type it is. Both types generally work in groups.
Regarding human enemies, the player can choose whether he wants to tackle the situation stealthily, go in guns-blazing or just completely sneak by. Although the option between stealth and offensive play is most of the time given, the game does have certain sequences in which you are forced to play a specific way due to story related reasons (for example having all of your equipment taken away).
Luckily, this is only rarely the case and always makes sense storywise.

The stealth mechanics themselves work surprisingly well, with human enemies tactically searching the location, hearing you if you move too fast or trying to flank you if alarmed.
Of course there's also a variety of options to stealthily handle enemies. Joel can strangle, silently stab or use enemies as human shields while aiming his gun. Also, Joel has the ability to use his hearing to locate enemies. This works basically just like the detective mode from Arkham City, making enemies' shapes visible through walls.
Furthermore, objects scattered throughout the location can be thrown to distract enemies and gain a tactical advantage. This feature becomes very handy when tackling groups of infected called Clickers. This blind type of infected responds to noises and has to be carefully dealt with due to the fact that they can instantly kill you when grabbed.

Trust me, the stealth is way better than in Uncharted 2.

However, some minor oddities are still present in the game that occasionally pulled me out of the experience: Regarding stealth, A.I. partners always adapt to your movement and intentionally hide behind cover when in stealth situations. With that said, the enemies still only get alarmed when YOU (Joel) but not when anyone of your allies is spotted. Although your allies generally do a good job in hiding, there were rare occasions when i saw Ellie being straight in an enemies' sight without him being alarmed. But once again, this only appeared once or twice.

Despite the fact that the option of choosing between gunplay or stealth is basically always there, the player will quickly notice that his playstyle cannot always be pulled off in every situation. Case and point: the infected.
While some infected types like the Clickers often trigger situations that can be tackled stealthily, considering the sheer number of infected enemies rushing against you simultaneously and the amount of damage they can deliver, your best bet dealing with them is offensive gunplay.
Joel's backpack can hold a fairly big collection of guns to deal with groups of infected.
But shooting at infected is often easier said than done: They move fast, and ammo is fairly scarce in The Last of Us and should be used carefully. Making every shot count is a total necessity in the game. Although ammo scarcity is not too punishing to make the game a drag, it's still enough to make EVERY encounter with enemies, doesn't matter if infected or human, a battle for survival.
Gunplay itself is heavily oriented on the rules set by Uncharted with the only difference being the lack of a specific get-into-cover button and instead just a crouch button. Although this didn't bother me that much at first because it felt like Joel was much more flexibly controllable that way, it quickly got annoying when human enemies started shooting at you from around corners and ridiculous angles (did i mention that the human enemies turn out to be top marksmen?).
Last but not least, enemies can of course also be beaten to death with objects like pipes or woodplanks that can be furthermore upgraded with sharp metal or nails for more fun. 

Top all of this off with the fact that the game effectively uses a NOT-regenerating healthbar, I seriously lost count of how many enemy encounters were "Boy, that was close!" kind of situations. But guess what? That's exactly what the game wants you to feel like struggling for survival. And it's awesome!

Sneeze and you die.

Aside from fighting off enemies, actually the biggest part of the game is filled with locations to explore and to travel through. Contrary to the Uncharted series, which tended to throw wave after wave of enemies at you, Last of Us has enemy encounters that are much more reasonably and carefully placed making sure that the suspense of each encounter doesn't decrease. In between encounters, most of the playtime the game builds up tremendous atmosphere.
While traveling through abandoned cities, towns and landscapes, i was truely surprised at how much there acutally was to explore. Despite being a linear single-player campaign, the areas in the game are surprisingly big and littered with rooms and places to explore and loads of stuff to find.
Following the theme of survival in an apocalyptic world, the game not only encourages you to loot through abandoned places but also makes it a necessity. Collecting tape, sugar, alcohol, rags, metal etc. is necessary to be able to upgrade and craft weapons, health packs and even upgrade Joel's abilites such as hearing distance or healing speed. The variety of loot-items, crafting-objects and the use of your backpack-inventory are kept very easily accessible and self-explanatory (but don't worry there are still tutorials there) avoiding an item-overkill.
Another great side-effect of exploring and looting through the world of The Last of Us, is that various notes and messages provide great insight into the game's backstory and some of the characters' motivations.

Aside from the main gameplay mechanics, your A.I. partner Ellie is among the most independent A.I. partners out there. Travelling through abandoned places, Ellie independently from you interacts with the environment: she just so sits on tables, breezes through old records, talks about what she sees or thinks without you triggering it in seemingly any way. The feeling of you not triggering Ellie's conversations or monologues makes Ellie feel way less artificial and far more real.
Additionally, Ellie's helpful interactions in battles, for example by throwing objects at enemies when you're struggling, should also be praised.

Lootin' and levelin'!

Multiplayer 
 
Only weeks before launch, the multiplayer for The Last of Us was unveiled. Immediately, it looked like the third-person-shooter Uncharted multiplayer.
The Last of Us multiplayer is actually called Factions and connects the collected supplies from the MP with the SP game.
There, you have to choose a group to fight for: Hunters or Fireflies. 
2 modes are available in MP: Supply Raid and Survivors. While Supply Raid puts you against the enemy team raiding the map for supplies while simultaneously fighting you, Survivors is much more team-deathmatch focussed.
In the multiplayer its all about managing your supplies and allies. There is a total of 8 maps that you can all adapt to by choosing your specific perks and weapons matching the situation.
Also individual character design like in Uncharted is back, with you being able to change your appearance.
Stealth and gunplay as well as teamwork during ambushes have to be both used efficientely to keep your team alive while also killing the opponents group. Of course all of the weapons used in the single player campaign can be used in multiplayer along with the single player features like hearing (which can be only triggered for a short amount of time before recharge).
Although i have to give Naughty Dog credit for trying a new interesting concept for their multiplayer addition to the game, i can't shake off the feel that it still feels like it somewhat belongs to another game. Especially in a game whose single player campaign is so emotionally driven and strong, the multiplayer feels tacked-on and unnecessary.  

Last of Us multiplayer: interesting but unnecessary.

Graphics
 

It's borderline obsessive how Naughty Dog tries to squeeze out even more power out of the over six year old PS3 hardware with every new game. Even more ridiculous is the fact that they always succeed. The Last of Us is Naughty Dog's newest top-achievement in graphical design.
Sure, Crytek also always amazes with bleeding-edge graphics, but few studios manage to let their creative artdesign blend together so well with technical high-quality graphics.
Naughty Dog simply delivered the most realistic and beautiful post-apocalyptic game to date. No other game pulled off such a peaceful but also dangerous feeling post-apocalyptic world like The Last of Us.
This further enhances with the extremely realistic looking characters and facial animations.
Along with it goes superb acting and performances worthy of a Hollywood movie.
From a design and graphical standpoint, The Last of Us is a marvel that pushes the Playstation 3 hardware to its limits, raises Naughty Dog's bar and is one of the most beautiful games of this generation. 
   

Sound
 

Remember the iconic Uncharted theme song? Guess what? Naughty Dog managed to give The Last of Us a memorable key theme as well, that also deserves an iconic status.
The soundtrack mainly follows a banjo-guitar like key theme that it often takes cues out of, which are subtely placed just at the right moments to underline the atmosphere.
Emotional moments are fantastically emphasized with fitting orchestral music that will make everybody soft. It's one of those soundtracks worth owning.
Speaking of the sound design, the scary and unsettling sound of the infected and most notably the Clickers steal the show. The sound of them instantly alarms you and cuts through the mostly silent ambience like a knife. It's even scarier when you hear it from afar echoing through empty halls.
Also, I already mentioned the perfect voice acting that goes along with the excellent script and dialogue of the game. And that's just what it is, the (voice) acting and performances are completely perfect. 

This is how you end a console generation.


The Verdict

Seeing how almost every single game magazine and website gave this game a full 10/10, i can absolutely see where those came from.
Yet still, for me personally, The Last of Us still is not a perfect game...but it's very damn close.
But then again, there is basically no game that is perfect. It's all just the ranking of the personal overall experience the game gave you and how obvious and annoying the game's negatives were for you. Considering this, for me, games like Mass Effect 2 and Uncharted 2 would be games that i would have given a 10/10 ...BUT even these games had some negative aspects about them, that just didn't bother me as much as here.
Still, The Last of Us comes extremely close for me to being perfect. With a flexible choose-your-own-style gameplay, amazing graphics, perfect acting, an awesome soundtrack and a story filled with great emotional depth and character development, these are already more than enough pros that make the game deserve a "must play" status.
It's just that some of the very minor annoyances in the gameplay (cover button, stealth bugs), that one clichee plot device and the interesting but still somewhat tacked-on multiplayer were just enough to pull the game away from a 10/10 for me.
Anyway, is The Last of Us a perfect game? - Not perfect but damn close. 
Is it the best PS3 exclusive? - Either this or Uncharted 2.
Is it one of the best games of this generation? - Definitely!
Is it "game of the year 2013"? - Yes, if GTA V doesn't blow it away.
Is it a great way to end the console generation? - Bet your ass on it!

With The Last of Us, Naughty Dog prooved that they are a studio that doesn't need to play it safe and make sequel after sequel of already popular franchises. 
Despite taking risks with new IPs, they still don't disappoint. 
Naughty Dog is a game development studio that deserves your trust.               
          
  

 Final Verdict: 9 out of 10 

Status: Must-Play!


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