I placed The Last of Us on media blackout after its initial reveal. The pitch video was more than enough to convince me that I was going to pick up Naughty Dog’s final PlayStation 3 title.
Like Naughty Dog’s previous works, The Last of Us didn’t bring anything particularly new to the table; it was a compilation of great ideas packaged very well. I saw instances of Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, Left4Dead, Tomb Raider (2013) and Telltale’s The Walking Dead within it. The one thing I didn’t get a whiff of was Uncharted and that’s the mark of a successful departure for the studio.
Okay the technical and some artistic signatures of the studio seeped through but that was it. This was a wholly new adventure from Naughty Dog and it was arguably their best title yet — especially when it came to immersion.
Uncharted’s beautifully rendered worlds offered moments of immersion but that feeling never stretched the entire length of a game. The tonal shift and a number of minor but powerful touches helped draw me into this post-apocalyptic United States like no other game before it.
The spaces Naughty Dog laid out were their most expansive yet. I expected highly detailed levels from the talented studio but I didn’t expect the increase in size. I kept expecting to be restrained or cut off by a cutscene of some kind but they kept letting me explore a sizable chunks of the world.
Unfortunately there were consequences for offering such scale and detail and that came in the form of long initial loads and unfortunate framerate dips. They could have mitigated the loading issues by allowing us disc owners to install but I’m willing to give up a few frames and minutes in order help them sell me on their world.
I love exploring detailed linear games like this — that’s why it took me nearly 18 hours to wrap this game up. Picking up clues, bite sized stories and scavenging for supplies while conversing with Ellie or whomever was accompanying us on the journey were world building moments that I absolutely adored. I tried to go through every cupboard, every drawer and closet for notes, supplies and other world building nuggets. It wasn’t uncommon to come across something less tangible and in your face like a nonsensical scribbling on a wall or a gruesome pile of bodies. I knew something terrible happened and they didn’t need many words to tell me what transpired. My imagination filled in the blanks with moments that were worse than anything that happened on screen.
Don’t get me wrong, The Last of Us, definitely earned its M rating, and early on, I reacted in the same manner Ellie did with her trademark “Holy shit, Joel!”. The early acts of the game were the most tense and unsettling moments from a gameplay perspective. I didn’t know how to handle every situation and I certainly did not know what Joel was capable of. This often lead to unexpected outcomes like the one hit smashing of someone’s face with a 2 x 4.
I started the game on the hardest difficulty available and coerced myself into playing this game as stealthy as possible. I employed stealth whenever I could but early on that often lead to untimely deaths by “Clickers”. Through trial and error, a growing number of enemies, an abundance of supplies and a touch of impatience, I decided to approach every scenario as efficiently as possible. I felt I could manipulate these infected into groups for effective use of Molotov cocktails. Similar tactics arose which transformed most encounters into puzzles for me to solve and not encounters to be avoided.
I never felt any of the action muddied what Naughty Dog was trying to deliver with The Last of Us. Joel was a complex character and Ellie was a person whom I grew to respect for her toughness. I often wondered how she was able endure but I don’t have that frame of reference. I don’t know what it is like to grow up in a world where survival of the fittest meant teenage kids needed to know how to wield a firearm or two. I’ve never experienced a life where a rotting corpse isn’t surprising anymore.
Joel and Ellie had a destination in mind and in a world where collaboration and blind trust could get you gutted like an animal, the violence was fitting. A precedence was set and I was okay by it. They touched on the subject of morality during desperate times but they didn’t travel very far down that rabbit hole before bailing out. The Last of Us followed through with one theme until the very end though: everyone is selfish.
Even with all this grimness and violence, there were moments of humanity ranging from the overt to subtle. I question the notion of certain giant animals still wandering through our cities but I do not doubt the reactions to tragedy and loss both Joel and Ellie encountered. I really appreciated Joel’s reactions to the notes and other items that he encountered. His unique acknowledgements to these collectibles helped better integrate them and myself with the world.
Time heals our wounds and helps us overcome the most unpleasant of situations. Naughty Dog used this fact to their advantage by leading us down dark and tough times. Then with a black screen and some white text they brought us back to some semblance of normalcy; Naughty Dog essentially emulated Disney’s methods for handling death. I didn’t mind it for my own selfish reasons but I’m sure it was easier for them transition and move on. This also gave them an outlet to try on new outfits. It was a fun little touch that helped me accept these transitions in time more easily as well.
The Last of Us should be played by all who can get their hands on it. It rewarded creative and careful actions but most importantly it made me reflect on matters long after the last credits faded away. It made me ponder what I would do in such dire situations as well. I disagreed with how the final moments transpired but I was willing to accept it as a valid choice. Not many games can pull that off.
For more information on The Last of Us, visit the official website.