First and foremost, this is the story of hardened survivor Joel, and 14 year old Ellie. An unlikely pair thrust unwillingly together, they’re found in a world decimated by a deadly viral outbreak. With the prospect for survival becoming less and less likely, they set off on a cross country trip as perhaps the last chance for humanity. Although this is by no means an incredibly unique premise, it’s the way Naughty Dog makes you care about the characters that is truly impressive.
Even with the world and narrative as mercilessly bleak and violent as it is, the humanity of its two protagonists allows a glimmer of hope in the darkness. I savored every second of peace and relative calm that was given, as Ellie cracked jokes and Joel momentarily let his gruff anterior slip as they share the moment together. These don’t come often, but add a level of realism to TLoU’s cast that is rarely seen in games. From the jaw dropping opening I was completely invested in the fate of these characters, and seeing the events unfold was what made the emotionally draining experience worthwhile.The performances by the voice actors rival most hollywood productions, and they bring with them some of the best dialog in any game I have ever played. Naughty Dog deserves inumerous amounts of praise for what they have done here, and I have no doubt that they have once again set the bar for storytelling in the videogame medium.
It’s disappointing then that the gameplay does not measure up, and is simply in comparison to Naughty Dog’s past games less than it could and should have been. Although footage makes it easy to assume TLoU is little more than a post apocalyptic Uncharted, the similarities are actually rather few. Some of these, such as the low level of platforming, make perfect sense in the context of the world and I applaud the developers for maintaining a certain level of realism, but so many other aspects are bad purely by design, and turn combat in particular into a serious grind.
Should you have to take up arms against your attackers you once again encounter roadblocks that make the game much less fun and more frustrating than it should be. For reasons I cannot begin to understand there is no real cover system to be found in TLoU, and instead you simply press up against a wall and it acts in a similar fashion. This works mostly well when you are sneaking around, but pull out a gun and the last several years of cover based shooters are thrown out the window. Shooting around corners is virtually impossible, and popping in and out of cover does not always work consistently. This makes aiming while avoiding fire extremely hard, and given the high level of difficulty already found in the game it makes everything very very frustrating and not at all fun. I avoided as many encounters as I could, but there are several times when you have no option but to blast your way through, and these are easily the worst parts of the game.
One new component I actually did enjoy was the crafting system, that while basic, provides a lot of incentive to explore areas for supplies and added a great deal to the feeling of being a survivor. With different items requiring the same materials to craft, you have to pick and choose what is most beneficial to the situation at hand. I actually would have prefered a slightly more limited pool of resources, as it was rare that I didn't have more than enough to craft everything I needed. Scavenging the environment also rewards you with upgrades for both your weapons and Joel himself, and here you have to be much more frugal in what you spend them on as there is no way to upgrade everything in one playthrough. I was pleasantly surprised to find that they actually included a new game plus option, which in my opinion adds a lot more replayability to the campaign, which is a decent length at 10-12 hours.
Given their past work, it should come as no surprise that Naughty Dog has once again set the graphical bar for console games. At times they nearly approached photo realism, with unbelievable character models and texture work. When you start picking apart all the little things that are easily taken for granted (characters shading their eyes from your flashlight; the tracks made by you and animals in the snow; subtle facial expressions, etc), it’s hard not to stare in awe at how amazing everything looks. Some visual bugs popped up here and there, but by and large it is a work of technical genius that it runs as well as it does on such an old piece of hardware.
Music is used sparingly during your journey, creating a subdued and immersive experience helped in no small part by the terrifying sounds enemies make. Clickers, a highly progressed version of infected named for their reliance on sonar to find prey, are particularly spine chilling and immediately identifiable even (perhaps more so in fact) when you can’t see them. What music is here is impeccable in quality, perfectly fitting the tone of the game while standing on its own as a work of art. Every aspect of the presentation adds to the visceral nature of the game, so all I can say is dim the lights, turn up the volume, and sink into the desolate world Naughty Dog has so meticulously created.
If you go into The Last of Us expecting a tightly wound and technically sound gameplay experience, you are likely to come away a bit disappointed. In the end The Last of Us is just not fun to play. Gunplay is frustrating and enemy encounters are poorly designed and drawn out. The AI of both friend and foe is terrible, and the cover system is buggy and not nearly dynamic enough to be useful. A great game to play, it is not, but if you can accept The Last of Us for what it is there is something remarkable to be found underneath the weak gameplay.
What that is is an emotional, extremely well written and acted tale of two people that must do whatever it takes to survive. It is one of the most engrossing relationships I have ever found in a game, and is more than enough to carry it through its rougher parts. When all was said and done I found it hard to put words to all that I was feeling about these characters, that while only digital creations, became something very real to me indeed. It isn't perfect by any stretch, but The Last of Us is nonetheless an amazing accomplishment that is well worth your time.
Final Opinion: ⅘ Great!
Note: The Last of Us also includes a multiplayer component, but as of the time of this review I have not had enough time with it to give an educated opinion as to its quality, so consider this a review of the single player portion only.