On the cusp of gaming’s next generation, with E3 having just unloaded rounds of variegated technological goodies (and horrors) into our optic nerves, one would expect developers to be putting all efforts toward the future – in the case of Playstation, looking ahead to the Playstation 4 while abandoning its seven-year-old predecessor like a quickly dying planet.
A supposition that couldn’t be further from the truth. Case in point: The Last of Us.
This latest Playstation-exclusive game, which has players navigating their way through an America twenty years deep into a population-whittling infection outbreak, is arguably the console’s most masterful game to date. It is potent in ways heretofore alien to the world of gaming, giving the Playstation 3 not only one of its most enthralling and immersive experiences, but its last one at that.
Delving into this acclaim-arrayed swansong, there is an unmistakable quality on every level.
The Last of Us takes a backdrop we are all familiar with (that of the zombie apocalypse), and twists it in just such a way to feel completely unique. The obvious point of difference is in the “zombies”, not walking dead so much as people infected by a mind-destroying fungous called cordyceps. This is where the game really stands out in creativity. To take the cordyceps (which is a real fungous doling out horrifying population control on the insect kingdom) and apply it to humans is a refreshing evolution of the zombie/infection mythos, and it makes for some outlandishly ghastly enemies as well. To this, add the military and terrorist factions of Children of Men, and the…boundless (for spoilers’ sake) survivors of The Road, and you have a truly grim reality to trek through.
That is just the foundation though. The Last of Us is really a human story. It is a game about hope and survival, about a broken man named Joel growing beyond his grief. As Joel, players are charged with escorting an undisclosedly special youth named Ellie across the country. This pairing, of the calloused shell of a man and the precocious yet innocent child, contributes to one of the most engaging and emotionally authentic narratives gaming has ever known. By some mind-blowing amalgamation of writing, pacing and acting, the game instantly tethers the player to these characters. The player feels intensely what Joel, Ellie and others feel. When things begin to go sour, it becomes very apparent that there are no lengths too far when Joel’s sole source of hope and reason for living has been threatened. As Joel, it makes his anger/need the player’s anger/need, and it imparts the very jarring understanding that survival can mean justifying very villainous things to be someone’s hero. This makes The Last of Us an experience terrifying, heartbreaking but also highly rewarding.
I can’t stress enough just how cinematic a game this is. From beginning to end, it tells its story in very filmic terms. Its ending in particular, one of the most polarizing climaxes gamers have likely encountered, is beautifully understated; thought-provoking in a way much more wont of film than game. The discussion it is stirring up among players is evidence alone of its effectiveness.
While graphics aren’t the most important thing about a video game, those things that are top priority (narrative, gameplay, etc.) are raised or ruined on the skin of graphic quality. In this regard, The Last of Us does not disappoint. The graphics are unquestionably advanced, to a point where in-game and cinematic sequences differ so slightly to almost be unnoticeable. Naughty Dog spared no detail in manifesting this world. The settings are breathtaking in their realism; the remnants of civilization are dingy with the textures of decay, and the overgrown landscapes are believably lush and wild. Most essential though are the characters. From Joel and Ellie to the handful of survivors encountered along the way, the characters look – and more importantly, feel – like real people. Employing performance capture to animate its cinematic sequences, The Last of Us has a peerless realism in the movements and expressions of its characters.
The skill with which Naughty Dog nailed down the nuances of human expression, demonstrated in the game’s many heartstring-pulling cutscenes, is outstanding. These characters, as much the craft of animation as acting (voice and motion-captured), do not allow the gamer the luxury of disbelief. They feel real, and thus, their dangers, struggles and pains are real. A wonder what great graphics can do.
Gameplay is the skeleton of every video game, offering players either the fluidity of functioning bones or inconsistent mechanics that grind and clunk as painfully as joints robbed of their cartilage. Again, The Last of Us excels. The mechanics of how the player interacts with the world, from walking to running, shooting, climbing, combat…it all works so effortlessly. It takes no time at all to feel at home in this backpacked vagabond as he scrounges for ever-scarce supplies in the wreckage of trash and evacuated homes. The game is a truly open-world experience that, while following a linear narrative, always allows the player to find their own path. For those who like stealth, sneaking and silently shiving/strangling foes is an option. For those who prefer shootouts more in the vain of Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series, the player can make it through in that way as well. Everything depends on the player’s preference. While certain choices may make things more difficult for the player, the game doesn’t penalize you for choosing your course. You act, and then deal with the consequences of your actions. In providing an immersive gaming experience, this aspect is crucial and thankfully well-executed.
The other great aspect of The Last of Us is its buddy system. Working through a fungoid post-apocalypse where humans are just as dangerous (if not more so) than the infected is nerve-racking business. Whether in the city or in the nature-reclaimed wastes between, having someone with you is a small sliver of familiarity and partnership that makes a massive difference in staving off the crushingly bleak loneliness of The Last of Us‘ environs. Not to make the player too comfortable, there are many moments that force the protagonists to strike out alone for a while, and how terrifying and intense those moments are is a mark of just how finely-tuned a product The Last of Us actually is.
Even its multiplayer, a feature usually criticized as unnecessary and tacked-on, functions well in tandem with the single-player experience. It is admittedly on the sparse side as far as diversity goes, only offering two essentially identical modes to choose from, so interest in the multiplayer will likely wane more quickly than other games’ multiplayer platforms.
Still though, where it matters, The Last of Us is superb. Dialogue is unforgettably delivered by the voice acting talent, and the soundtrack is a moving accompaniment to the game’s cutscenes. The world is realistically grim, and yet…there is beauty. Through Joel and Ellie’s journey the game suggests, as Nietzsche did a century ago, that “what is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil.”
This ruthless loyalty gives The Last of Us its awesome dynamic, and makes it easily one of the most indelible gaming experiences the player will ever encounter.
The Last of Us is out now for Playstation 3, and can be purchased at all gaming retailers.