I’ve gone back and forth trying to decide how I wanted to handle this review. The Last of Us released this past Friday, and of course, it was a hugely anticipated PS3 exclusive. Reviews from the larger Metacritic outlets went up weeks ago, and so by now people who may have been on the fence before will have seen dozens and dozens of all positive reviews and have likely purchased the game. So with that said, I’m going to do something different with this review; I’m going to talk spoilers. Don’t run off yet if you haven’t finished the game though. First, I’m going to do a quick non-spoiler review consisting of a few paragraphs and then give the score. Underneath the score though, tons and tons of spoiler talk so do come back when you finish the game and finish reading it. This is one instance where I welcome spoiler talk in the comments, so I’d avoid reading any comments if you haven’t finished the game.
What Naughty Dog has constructed is nothing short of remarkable. The PS3 may still have some heavy hitters in its lifespan, but The Last of Us is definitely the swan song for the platform. Naughty Dog, known for developing three of the best-looking games (the Uncharted series) on a console, totally pushed the aging PS3 to its absolute limit. The lighting and attention to detail in this game is impressive. Many games have utilized flashlights, but I would argue none has been as successful as this one. The shadows, the reflections, and the way it all changes dynamically help make The Last of Us the best looking console game of the generation.
We’ve seen a ton of great games this console generation. Some had great stories, some had great dialogue and voice acting, some had great environments, and some just had great gameplay that made everything else easy to ignore because the game was so much fun. I would say no game this generation, save for perhaps Uncharted 2, Red Dead Redemption, and BioShock Infinite, nailed so many different categories as The Last of Us does. There is no such thing as a perfect game, and as such I don’t even know what a perfect game would be like, but this comes as close as anything I can think of.
The story and pacing of the story is fantastic. The dialogue is believable and is a key part that makes the story so good, and it’s made even better by probably the best voice acting in a game to date. The atmosphere is breathtaking and tense; never has a scary world been so beautiful. There are parts in this game where I just had to put the controller down and admire the environment, especially at one point near the end of the game. The gameplay itself is even superb.
Set in a post-apocalyptic United States, The Last of Us is probably the most human a video game has ever been. Sure, society has collapsed because of a fungus (inspired by cordyceps) that has left many humans turned into monsters known as “infected.” You’ll encounter many infected on your trip across the US, and just hearing one of the “Clickers” (as they third stage of infected are known as) is pretty scary (I highly recommend playing the game at night, with the lights off, and while wearing headphones so you hear everything). However, the other human survivors turn out to be the even bigger monsters.
That’s unfortunately what would (will) actually happen once society collapses. Survival will kick in and people will start doing whatever it takes to survive; if that means shooting at you own sight or trying to bash your skull in so be it. It becomes a kill or be killed world, and in The Last of Us you’re going to find yourself in situations where you will have to realistically and brutally murder someone. The bad guys in say one of Nathan Drake’s adventures all seem generic, and so it is easy to run around killing hundreds of them while Drake makes some wise crack like it’s nothing, but here it is a lot different.
The human enemies are smart, and within their group, they care for one another. They talk to one another and coordinate their search for supplies, and when it comes to fighting they will try to flank you, try to double team you, or they may get scared and try to retreat and come back with a different approach (all the others the human player would do). Killing these guys is hard, and I don’t mean it is hard to take them down; I mean killing them seems wrong, but it is justified and ultimately necessary because they’re going to kill you if you don’t (unless you manage to totally avoid them, which is possible in some areas).
Remember that spot at the end E3 2012 on-stage demo where Joel entered the room and got into a melee attack with another survivor? That guy ended up on the floor with Joel pointing his gun at him, and he begged for his life. That’s in the game, and totally not a scripted sequence and any enemy can do it. It’s powerful, and several times it happened and I wanted to let the enemy live because of it. Of course if you wait too long though, they’ll just try to get up and attack you again, so it’s best to just go ahead and finish them off.
I know, “fantastic” and “superb” have been devalued and used to overpraise games, but throughout my time playing this game and after completing it and starting a new run through, those are the two words that keep coming back to me. I’d toss in “awesome” as well. The game does so much right that it is easy to totally ignore the couple of flaws the game does have (namely instances where you have to shoot your way out of a mess).
Red Dead Redemption has been my favorite game of the generation; in fact it even eclipsed Knights of the Old Republic in becoming my favorite game of all time. It’s been three years, but something has finally surpassed Red Dead Redemption to me and have no doubts proclaiming this game to be my new favorite.
Obviously, I give this game the full five stars and highly recommend it to everyone. Buying a PS3 is worth it to play this game. It’s that good.
The Last of Us gets a five out of five: EXCELLENT.
****Do not read if you have not finished the game and have a desire to do so. Last warning.****
This game brings the emotion right from the very beginning. I did not expect to start the game off at the beginning of the outbreak; it was a pleasant surprise. The fact that the player’s first interaction with the game is controlling Joel’s teenage daughter was also very cool. Never has a character been so likeable so fast as Sarah was. I, and I would have to imagine everyone, knew after seeing her on the couch that first time that she was going to die. She’s simply not Ellie. With that said, it didn’t make her death any less impactful. If you weren’t sad when Sarah died then you are a stone. Her death was the big reminder that this was going to be a game you were probably going to enjoy experiencing, but wouldn’t necessarily be “fun.”
Indeed, there is little actual fun to be had during the 15+ hours of the games campaign. Violence in video games can obviously be fun, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If you want to virtually murder people in all sorts of hilarious ways, then a game like Saints Row is totally fun. There’s nothing serious about it and there is no reason to care about any characters in the game; it’s just a sandbox to go wild in. This game is the exact opposite of that, and indeed most violent shooters. The violence here actually seems necessary and realistic, which makes it not fun in the traditional sense.
It’s one thing to brutally kill the infected, after all they are essentially monster zombies and whatever person they used to be is dead. It’s the brutal killing of other human survivors that sticks with you.
Of course you don’t have much of a choice in that regard. This is a kill or be killed world, and that in a way makes it easier. If a human enemy sees you, then its main goal from that point on is going to be to kill you. In that way, it’s just like every other video game. What separates the violence in The Last of Us from other games though isn’t just the realistic brutality of it, but also in the behavior of the enemies.
Before you are spotted, it’s a treat just to listen to the enemies talk to each other. These are characters just like you; they’re largely doing what they have to do to survive. You may kill a group of people, but that group of people might not be doing anything except looking for supplies themselves. It helps to make them seem real, which in return makes it not so fun when you brutally bash their skull in with a baseball bat.
At one point, I grabbed a human enemy and held him hostage. One of his friends yelled out “Oh shit!” That character, and another one, approached me with their guns pointed at me. “Take it easy man,” one said. I aimed my gun at one of them, and he ran back a brief distance to a car and took cover. The other stood there while I pointed my gun at him. For a moment, there I stood with a hostage and my gun aimed at a dude’s head and he had a gun aimed at mine. Now I knew I could not hold the guy hostage much longer, so I did the only thing that made sense at that time: I shot the guy in the head and pistol-whipped the hostage and quickly took cover. At this point, I had two bullets left total and no melee weapon. I was in a standoff with the other guy for at least four minutes before I was able to maneuver myself around enough cars to get close enough to the guy to try and throw a few punches and then smash his head into a car. It worked, but barely.
Part of the beauty with this game is that that kind of stuff doesn’t have to happen and is random. I’ve played that area again on my Survivor play-through, and I left these three guys alone and they eventually left to go look for their buddies (who I hadn’t been long slaughtered, but they did ambush me). They never knew I was there. In fact, I actually felt kinda bad for having killed those three during my first playthrough because it was unnecessary. This game works on that level, and I think that is an amazing thing.
To that end, it’s amazing the impact the game can have on you. Watching the relationship between Joel and Ellie grow felt natural, and thus it was special. I don’t usually care about video game characters, but both of them grew on me, especially Ellie. When they first met, Joel was cold to Ellie. He obviously didn’t care for her, and she wasn’t that fond of him. This is how it would be for real. But then they spent every day together for almost a year and they saw and did some awful stuff and eventually Joel becomes the father-figure for Ellie. It worked so well that by extension your primary goal while playing the game is to protect Ellie the way a father would, or should, protect a daughter.
The Winter section of this game is where it really all clicked, at least for me. Joel had been injured, and suddenly you’re playing as 14-year-old Ellie hunting for food in the snow. Then you come across two survivors looking for food because they have a camp of survivors including women and children. This is led by the character David (voiced by Nathan Drake himself, Nolan North). David seems nice enough, and as Ellie you battle a tense couple of waves of infected while trapped in small spaces. After killing all of the infected in the area, you sit down with David and he tells he believes everything happens for a reason and he can prove it.
“This winter has been especially cruel. A few weeks back, I ah, sent a group of men out to nearby town to look for food. Only a few came back. They said that the others had been ah, slaughtered by a crazy man. And get this. He’s a crazy man travelling with a little girl (he says it while pointing his knife at Ellie). You see, everything happens for a reason.”
And with that, the most tense level I have ever seen in a video game gets underway. Ellie escapes back to Joel, but she’s been tracked. She decides to lead the men after her away from Joel, so she jumps on their horse and rides away; dodging bullets and enemies, and even fighting enemies off as they try to grab her on the horse. When the horse gets shot, you have to go on foot and I was armed with nothing but a knife, a pistol, and a bow.
It’s during this entire section that you really see how Ellie is the most awesome character in the game. While you’re playing as Joel, Ellie seems like a great companion. She’s following you, but she’s doing her own thing. She’s making jokes, teaching herself to whistle, scavenging for supplies, and commenting on all the bad stuff happening around her. But when you take control of Ellie in this section, you see that you’ve sort of trained her. Ellie is relentless and brutal. Where Joel would be choking guys out, Ellie wildly jumps on their back and repeatedly stabs them. When alone and surrounded by dozens of men who want to kill her, Ellie becomes a wild, almost feral, killing machine.
My best job at being stealthy came while playing as Ellie. I didn’t want to see her die because I did something stupid and lost some patience. The section took a while, but I totally stealthed her entire level, and it was perhaps the most rewarding level in a game. As Ellie, I was deadly with the bow; took down enemies from a far with headshot after headshot, even on moving targets. I slowly crouch-walked my way to their bodies and reclaimed my arrows. After a while, I didn’t feel like Ellie was the hunted, but instead she was the hunter. I used the heavy snow to my advantage, slowly walking around to pick off target after target. Arrows were flying, and none were taken in the knee. Bottles were thrown to lure people in, and then they were promptly stabbed repeatedly in the neck. Watching, and controlling, Ellie in action is a sight to behold.
Then I came upon a restaurant, and David entered it. This equated to basically a boss fight, and it is easily the most tense and scariest section of the game. Here you are as a 14-year-old girl armed with a knife, trapped in a burning restaurant with a grown man armed with a gun and a machete who wants to kill you. This whole thing is cat and mouse, and it is completely heart pounding. Once you manage to get away from David, it’s hard to know where he is at. That not knowing is brutal. Getting caught by him and watching Ellie die is even more brutal.
Now I’m a 27-year-old male, but I would say Naughty Dog completely nailed the feeling of being a 14-year-old girl trapped in this situation. A smart 14-year-old girl who is a killing machine at that. The whole battle here is slow and methodical and requires great stealth, and some headphones to really be able to hear. And as far as video games can be, it’s scary as hell. Once you sneak up on David and stab him for the third time and trigger the cutscene to end the battle, you will feel like a total badass who just accomplished something. And relief, sweet relief. And when it is over, you’ll truly realize just how awesome this game is because it is vastly unique to anything else outthere. Naughty Dog has created something truly special here.
Speaking of special, when you’re in Salt Lake City and you come out of the building and see and pet the giraffe, that is a special feeling. Go just a little further and then stand against the edge of the building next to Ellie, and you really get to see the most beautiful setting in a video game. There are mountains in the distance, buildings being overrun by nature, and several giraffes walking and grazing peacefully. By this point, Joel and Ellie are near the end of their adventure, and the bond between them has grown. Joel, the rugged survivor who hasn’t really cared about anything but surviving since the death of his daughter, now has a deep affection for Ellie and something to care about beyond surviving. Likewise, Ellie has found in Joel something she has never had; a father-figure, or anyone, that she knows will not abandon her. Standing side-by-side admiring the scenery, things almost feel normal in the destroyed city.
So, now is a good time to talk about the ending and how I go there. Finding the Fireflies wasn’t all it was made out to be; these people are no better than the government and soldiers, and no better than the hunters. You’re task from the moment you encounter Ellie has been to bring her to the Fireflies; she is immune from the infected and could be the means for a cure, or rather a vaccine. I was like Joel when he found out that the doctors would need to kill and dissect Ellie… hell no, that’s not happening.
Breaking away from the soldiers and making your way to the operating room was probably the most difficult section of the game. These soldiers are well armored, and there are many of them. You don’t stand a chance by trying to take them on in combat, and anyone who tries to play this game like it is Uncharted will repeatedly fail here (of course they probably wouldn’t make it this far anyway). You have to sneak and be slow. This goes against everything you want to do. Obviously there is no time limit, but you still have the sense that you need to hurry up and reach Ellie to save her, and that can cause you not to be as patient as the level requires.
I haven’t gotten back to this section yet in my Survivor playthrough, but when I busted through the OR door and saw the doctor and the two nurses, and Ellie on the operating table, I immediately put a bullet in the head of all three. I didn’t take the time to listen to them beg for their lives, or to even look around. I didn’t even consider what would come next and if I would need those three bullets; it was just an immediate reaction that, at the time, felt right for what they were going to do to Ellie.
The end itself really bookends the entire game nicely. You began the game playing as Joel’s young daughter Sarah. A few minutes later, Joel was carrying Sarah trying to get her to safety. An idiot soldier listened to his orders and shot, and thus killed Sarah. You end the game by carrying Ellie out of the operating room trying to get her to safety while soldiers have their guns pointed at you. The predictable ending at this point would have been Ellie getting killed in the same fashion as Sarah, or even Joel getting cared. I had to make myself watch, because that is what I expected and I didn’t want to see it.
Instead, the last bit of the game shows you what happened (Joel killed Marlene because he knew she’d come after Ellie) and you once again control Ellie. You simply follow Joel, and he finally opens up about Sarah and how he thinks Ellie would have liked her, how he knows Sarah would like her, and how he thinks the two of them would have been great friends. It was touching. And then Ellie tells Joel of her roommate and friend who was bit at the same time she was, and how she died. Ellie has been waiting for her time, and wanted Joel to swear that everything he said about the Fireflies were true (that many people were immune and they hadn’t been able to find a cure and haven given up). Joel lies and swears, and the game ends with Ellie saying “Okay.”
Was it a happy ending? For some, maybe. For others probably not. I fall somewhere in the middle. Did Joel do the right thing by saving Ellie and not letting her be killed for a chance to find a vaccine, and thus dooming many? Absolutely. There’s no guarantee a vaccine would have been created from Ellie, in fact it seems unlikely. Joel risked death to save Ellie, and in the process of their journey, Joel regained some of the humanity he had lost over the past 20 years.
The world at this point is beyond a vaccine because the problem isn’t so much the infected, it is the other survivors. Scary as they are, the infected don’t seem like such a big threat in the grand scheme of things when compared to the monsters viciously gunning down folks in the hopes that they have something one them worth taking, or even chopping people up and using them for food.
Humanity isn’t going be saved, and society restored because of a vaccine that came at the expense of a young girls life. The Fireflies would continue to kill whoever disagreed with them and would be every bit the dictatorship the government in Boston was. The best chance for society to regain what it had lost comes from the people like Tommy, Joel’s brother. The survivors who have banded together to try and rebuild small communities based on relationships and caring. The bonds like we saw between Joel and Ellie.
It is a happy ending in the sense that both Joel and Ellie survived, and will make their way back to Tommy’s camp. Some would say it isn’t a happy ending because Joel lied to Ellie and their relationship will suffer because of it. But I would say Ellie knows Joel lied to her, and is okay with it. Because at that point she knows Joel isn’t going to abandon her or allow anything to happen to her, and that’s what she has always wanted.
There are tons of touching moments throughout this game, some everyone who plays the game will see, and others that can be missed. If the game doesn’t move you in some way, then again you are a stone. The game is full of emotions, and that is a great thing for a game to have.
I love the Uncharted games, but I know how I play the game and how you play the game is largely going to be the same. Nathan Drake is one of my favorite characters, but I’ve never connected with Drake. We’ll all have the same experience playing as Drake, but how I played as Joel and Ellie in this could be vastly different from what you reading this did. I love that, and it helps connect me to the character.
In closing, The Last of Us is simply an amazing experience. Earlier this year I said BioShock Infinite would have to be high on the Game of the Year list, and indeed, it will be high… maybe second best. I don’t see anything topping The Last of Us this year. In fact, if you look at all the games released this generation, I can’t think of one that tops it (not Uncharted 2, Red Dead Redemption, Portal 2, or Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood… nothing that I’ve played has been this good in every possible category for me).
If I didn’t already have a PS4 pre-ordered, or even if I had no previous thoughts to purchasing one, I would get one just so I could have the pleasure of playing whatever Naughty Dog is developing for it. Through three console generations, Naughty Dog has put great games that have been defining games for the PlayStation consoles (the Crash Bandicoot series on PSone, Jak and Daxter on PS2, and Uncharted and this on PS3.) I would say there simply isn’t a better developing studio going today than Naughty Dog. So congrats to the men and women who worked on this game; it’s the best game Naughty Dog has ever made, even more of a masterpiece than Uncharted 2 is.