Heralded as the exclusive of the generation, The Last of Us achieves what’s been deemed near impossible and in doing so, drags us — kicking and screaming if need be — into a world and its denizens like few before. Yet, in using survival at all costs as a mantra has Naughty Dog‘s latest sacrificed the integral elements necessary for a game to flourish?
A future to fear
The Last of Us gives us a world that personifies the age-old connotation “survival of the fittest.” Obvious influences are unavoidable and appear in the form of The Road and even The Walking Dead, but this is a desolate post-apocalypse all its own. After a fungus called Cordyceps — which actually exist, by the way — takes hold of the global populace, life quickly crumbles into the ugly side of humanity we tend to ignore. It’s easy to dismiss fictitious events in movies, books, or games, but one thing history has shown us is that society is always just a step away from imminent collapse. One need only look to recent catastrophes as examples to what lengths mankind will sink to when lives are on the line. With this mindset, a further sense of realism is added to an almost hopeless future.
At the cusp of this madness is where we are introduced to Joel, Sara, and Joel’s brother, Tommy. The events that transpire set the stage for characters you care to invest in for the duration of the game’s 15+ hours. As far as openings go, I guarantee your heart will be in your throat.
Once the inevitable collapse occurs, The Last of Us delves into the realm of kill or be killed. Within this construct, its characters and relationships are realized. Perspective is a necessity for this violent world and once a 14-year-old child named Ellie grudgingly becomes your charge, the atrocities she’s forced to witness and commit, while difficult to watch, are somewhat understandable considering the circumstances. Make no mistake: even children are not spared the brutal reality in The Last of Us. While the game can be grotesque, there are moments when what isn’t shown on screen can be vastly more effective than what is. Instant kills are a shining example, particularly if a Bloater happens to get a hold of you. Imagining what happens as opposed to being shown the obvious outcome is the more effective tool.
What set the people apart here are the stellar voice acting performances throughout. Hand in hand with the wonderful facial animation, even the subtle moments have lasting impact. We care, we feel, we cheer, we hurt — all in the name of these everyday people asked to do the impossible. Every choice has weight, every kill carries a consequence, the symbiotic cohesion crashes together and before you know it you can’t help but care what happens to these characters.
“Once the inevitable collapse occurs, The Last of Us delves into the realm of kill or be killed. Within this construct, its characters and relationships are realized.”
It doesn’t stop at the main characters, either; many different faces fall in and out of your tale as you progress. All hit with the same realism and reflect perfectly the situations and predicaments they find themselves in. They’re believable and so are their relationships. From the initial stand-off between Joel and Ellie to what the connection evolves into and all the little moments in between are nigh perfect in their execution. You want to search every broken down corner or car as you traverse the environment simply to hear what they’ll talk about next. Truly, the achievement for character development cannot be overstated. Years from now, I believe we will look back at The Last of Us as an example on just how to create video game characters correctly.
Ellie is your ward to protect, but she’s far from helpless. The stigma of escorting another character carries a negative tone, but thankfully, the AI in place puts to rest any doubt that Ellie would be little more than a damsel in distress. It isn’t flawless, though and while not having to hold the hand of your companion is a relief, she will wander out of hiding right in front of an enemy sometimes, only for them to completely ignore her in favor of their prime target: you. More comical than anything, it is one of the sacrifices The Last of Us made in order for the game to control correctly and work it does, as the tension is palpable in encounters and mild AI distractions never serve to break immersion for me as the player.
In a despotic world where survival is paramount, combat is obviously integral. Joel isn’t a retired soldier or some clichéd chosen one; he’s simply a man and as such, plays like one. Years of living on the edge have honed Joel’s skills, no doubt, but precise headshots aren’t going to happen. Aiming is meant to have a learning curve at first, an intentional choice on the developer’s part to further underline the focus on tension. The swaying during aiming may frustrate initially and being thrown into the fire almost immediately can be discouraging for beginners, but believe me when I say that the most difficult encounters are front loaded. Once you grasp the necessary mix of stealth, listening, and combat, you’ll be right at home vanquishing Clickers, Runners, or any other form of baddie trying to do Joel and Ellie harm with your growing arsenal.
Scrounging amongst the squalor may seem demeaning, but it’s a necessity of life in The Last of Us. Discovering discarded blades, parts, or alcohol can mean the difference between having the upper hand in encounters or trusting a bat and a few bullets as your only defense. Upgrading your weapons with tools and parts at a bench, or creating Molotov cocktails and timely first aid kits in the thick of battle, crafting happens in real time. Choose wisely or leave Joel vulnerable to the horrors lurking around the corner. Knowing how and when to craft eventually becomes second nature as you progress.
Firing your gun and smashing enemies with a pipe will only get you so far; to survive this trying ordeal, you will need patience and, more importantly, your ears. The Last of Us’ sound design may be its most underrated aspect. Hearing a Clicker shift from speaker to speaker never ceases to disturb. Couple this with at times the deafening quiet of an empty world, sound is masterfully captured and contrasted by the feeling of calm one moment, to having your heart pounding while an infected creeps on the other side of the door.
“Full of big moments, graphical wow, and sublime audio, it’s often the little things that matter most. From observing the dilapidation of the future United States to having each building hold some half-finished story, The Last of Us thrives on your ability to fill in the gaps.”
My only qualm was in relation to the supposed stealth killing of Runners or Survivors, who, despite the namesake of the act, make a ton of noise upon dismissal. Enemies remain unaware, no matter how close you are when you dispatch their compatriots, and as long as they don’t have you in their sights during this supposed silent take-down, they’re no more aware than before.
Full of big moments, graphical wow, and sublime audio, it’s often the little things that matter most. From observing the dilapidation of the future United States, to having each building hold some sort of half-finished story, The Last of Us thrives on your ability to fill in the gaps between satisfying story chunks and hold-on-to-your-seat enemy engagements. This dependence on the subtle can detract from the pacing and, unless you are willing to engage and buy into everything surrounding you, the narrative bogs down. Likewise, while the story length is welcome in an era of too short single-player campaigns, The Last of Us doesn’t do quite enough to justify it, ultimately becoming long in the tooth and at times serving up a vibe of “okay, we get it.”
The Last of Us introduces online multiplayer into the equation as well and with mixed results. Entitled Factions, it does away with cumbersome aspects that may impede, letting you focus on putting the skills learned in the single-player’s combat to good use. Attempting to infuse some of the story-based aspects, you play as either the Fireflies or Survivors and work to expand your group while keeping them fed and stocked with necessary supplies. Fail to do so and your group may become ill and die or simply up and leave you. You can follow along if you choose, but it can easily be forgotten to concentrate solely on the two battle mode choices.
For players wanting more out of their time, multiplayer is a welcome addition, but like God of War: Ascension’s stab at multiplayer earlier this year, it adds little to the overall experience in a seemingly single-player focused game. Entertaining and capable but forgettable, don’t expect anything ground breaking online when you inevitably delve into Factions.
Remaster notes and adds
Essentially built from the ground up for the PlayStation 4, Remastered is the quintessential experience and posed significant challenges to the development team during its transition. While resolution and frames per second have become notions to scoff at lately, the improvements here to the aforementioned buzzwords make a world of difference. In addition, new textures, shadows, and all-around effects give the world that little extra touch of beautiful despair. Having played through the the initial offering twice, I was wowed once more with what The Last of Us has accomplished in every respect I laid out in my above review.
Adding upon the package further are all the multiplayer DLCs and maps, along with the lone single-player DLC, Left Behind. Covering Ellie’s exploits prior to the main game, it also meshes itself well with the main story’s Winter chapter. An option to blend it seamlessly into the single-player campaign would’ve been a brilliant addition, but that’s a little ambitious. Regardless, Left Behind is a must-play companion and a standard for DLC done right.
There are other great additions which liken Remastered to a collector’s edition Blu Ray. Feature commentary with the game’s voice actors and cast, along with the director’s, add that extra bit of punch that further cement the reputation that The Last of Us has already earned. It’s become more than a game and has elevated the medium as a whole in doing so.
The Last of Us Remastered is the standard bearer for how re-releases should be done and, like a choice vintage, has only improved with time. The accomplishments are as relevant as they were at release and Remastered once again proves why The Last of Us was named 2013’s game of the year. In lieu of all this, I have chosen to improve my initial review score by half a point.
Uncompromising To A Fault
From the onset, The Last of Us sets out to weave a tale of survival and struggle. It accomplishes this in every way, but Naughty Dog’s unflinching devotion to this ideal results in something unfamiliar. The emotion is real, as are the characters residing in its universe, but you never feel really good playing it. Perhaps we aren’t supposed to. We relate and sympathize with The Last of Us’ plight, but do we want to return?
I suppose that is the point and nowhere is this single-minded focus more clear than the finale, which is shockingly human in its flaws and, as a testament, almost made me sick. Never wavering from its theme is the highest compliment to be paid here, but after all we went through together, don’t we deserve more? In the end, The Last of Us may leave the player suffering as much as the in-game world has, but maybe that’s the point…
- Characters. These are realized people who push the limits of what we thought great characters can be in games.
- Visuals. Breathtaking in every way and now with Remastered, even more so.
- Audio. The nuance of effects and knowing when to use music and when not to work splendidly.
- Story and world. Uncompromising and effective and now, I want more.
- Minor AI Issues. Little more than annoyance, but Ellie’s pathing and some minor enemy issues arise.