Prior to our newest generation of video game consoles, I had been a fairly avid gamer leaning entirely to the Xbox side of things. Unlike today’s console market, previous consoles differed little in performance and features. The real gold was in the exclusives. Xbox had the big boppers; Halo, Gears of War, Mass Effect. Playstation had some winners like Uncharted, and Metal Gear Solid, but they never consistently matched Microsoft’s consistently stellar lineup. In the days of 360 versus PS3, I was almost entirely happy with Microsoft’s exclusives. Sure, LittleBig Planet looked cool, Killzone’s graphics popped, but almost the entire console cycle never made me once think about buying a PS3. Then in 2013, the tail end of the consoles life span, developer Naughty Dog released the post-apocalyptic tour de force, The Last of Us. From the developers of the acclaimed Uncharted series, The Last of Us was a fairly anticipated title, but no one was entirely prepared for what was coming. Buzz began after traditionally fickle review websites such as IGN distinguished the game with an almost-never-used perfect score of ten out of ten. It was quickly deemed a masterpiece and a classic, and I was quickly incensed I could not play it. Skipping ahead here a bit, I eventually bought a PS4 for its specs and Sony eventually released a beautiful, 60 FPS remastered version of the game the next year. Everything lined up, and I had my game.
Anyway, I’ve worked a lot with this game recently so I thought share a bit of background with that one. On to a more review-like structure.
The “survival” game is an oft-confused label in the video game world. Horror? Action? What is it? Resident Evil 4 really confused everyone. It felt survival-like in scrounging for supplies, felt action-like with explosions and guns, and certainly horror-like with its heart-thumping moments of feeling chased. It was called a survival-horror game, and since then the genre label has been all over the place. As far as I’m concerned, Naughty Dog nailed the balance, using its fright and violence elements strategically as means for survival. Especially in the game’s “grounded mode” in which Joel lacks his superhuman ability to see enemies through walls, gameplay is outrageously taught and suspenseful. Supplies are scarce and can be cruelly fickle. Crafting a moltov cocktail might be helpful, but the rags you used to make it won’t be around when you need a first-aid kit. Is it worth it? These sorts of survival gameplay systems make choices have more impact and make individual playthroughs more unique. Combined with sound third-person shooting and stealth mechanics, and we have among the smoothest-playing games of its design. The only real mechanical knock is on the ever-thorny third-person cover system. This is a game where you absolutely need to stay hidden at times. While the auto-cover system against walls and other surfaces is responsive, there are undoubtedly awkward moments that break the experience and leave players helplessly exposed. In the more advanced difficulties of this game, just a moment of accidental exposure can spell doom.
This excerpt from an essay I wrote on the game nicely sums up why its gameplay feels so personal and visceral:
For much of the first half of the game, The Last of Us’ Ellie (the boy’s counterpart) is entirely defenseless, leaving Joel (the man) to defend her. Up until a certain point, players are exclusively in control of the highly-capable, world-weary Joel. That is, until Joel is injured and the game unexpectedly drops the player in a hostile environment as Ellie. Though she has a small pocketknife, as players, we feel completely vulnerable and helpless in this situation. Ellie has to try and escape from a mall that is swarming with violent drifters. The game initially guides the player through a hallway where Ellie creeps up behind an armed enemy. There are no expectations here for players. Can she kill him? Will he kill her? Can she sneak past him? The choice is up to the player, though the most effective option is indeed to stealthily take the man out. As Joel, players are familiar with a simple button combination that stealth-kills enemies from behind, but there is no guidance or guarantee as Ellie. Will it work, or will I die? Choosing to kill the man has Ellie jumping on the man’s back and struggling with him before repeatedly stabbing him in the chest and falling to the ground covered in blood and tears. The man gurgles at the mouth, blood runs down his chest, Ellie’s clothes become temporarily blood-stained. I believe that this sort of medium-specific moment where the player acts out harrowing actions is more effective at detailing “the boy’s” awareness of the sadistic world around him, moments where the game is truer to the source than the source material itself.
The game’s narrative details the story of the world-weary Joel and his young companion, Ellie, as they trek across a post-apocalyptic United States. Joel’s teenage daughter died during the outbreak of a virus that caused a zombie infestation. Many years later he is paired with Ellie, a fourteen year old girl who was bitten by an infected but found she was immune to the virus, making her the last hope for humanity.
Cormac McCarthy is among my favorite authors, and his 2006 novel The Road, was my introduction into his work. I mention it because of the striking similarities between The Last of Us and McCarthy’s novel. In fact, for a class last semester, ENGL Adaptation, I wrote a paper and complied a comparative digital map on the nature of the film adaptation of The Road and its “faithfulness” to the source material in comparison to the Last of Us. Ultimately I argue that though the film is more literally faithful in terms of plot elements, in many ways, The Last of Us is more spiritually, thematically “faithful” to the novel’s original concepts.
No game in current existence comes anywhere close to cultivating more realistic and believable characters. The scripting, voice acting (and motion capture), and character growth are unsurpassed and mind-blowingly poignant. Traditionally, I feel as though reviewers go somewhat easy on the video game narratives, understanding their limitations and constraints. This is a game that needs to excuses, that is as good of a telling of a tale as one can see anywhere. The emotion drawn from such a powerful story that so directly involves its audience is staggering.
This is a bit of a tricky category considering the nature of the game’s release. Judged by PS3 standards, it is an absolute masterwork. The absurd level of detail in every building, in every poster, in every facial expression is absurd. On PS4 in 60 FPS and 1080p, my experience, the whole thing just looks like butter. It’s a sight to behold. At the same time, however, it also reveals a number of the initial build’s hardware limitations. Everything up close is mind blowing, but those trees over that ridge there look a little pixelated. The motion capture used for the character animations is nearly flawless, save an awkward moment or two. The total package here though, is absolutely nuts. Visual gold.
I freaking love this soundtrack. The main theme, the gritty, melancholic electric bass notes wrench my heart just a bit every time I hear them. It’s such a beautiful blend of modern, urban, weathered vibes. It fits the game like a glove.