Uncharted developer Naughty Dog's upcoming PS3-exclusive The Last of Us is a grim, grim survival horror game. Critics, however, found that beneath its bleak, dark exterior, The Last of Us hides a deep, extremely rewarding experience.
Apart from a few technical issues, like the AI being wonky in places, reviews talked at length about the raw emotion, the sheer terror, the incredibly tense action, and the nuanced, compelling and very well voice-acted cast that all serve to make The Last of Us a true masterpiece. Let's have a look at what the reviews say.
The Last of Us made me feel sick to my stomach. The Last of Us mines the same post-apocalyptic scenario as dozens of other games, but its approach is starkly its own. It paints a vision of a near-future that is cold, heartless and, in many cases, downright evil. It's not a fun place to be, and likewise, the game isn't really a fun thing to play. Developer Naughty Dog's commitment to this dark, depressing tone is alternately impressive and frustrating. The Last of Us actively fought any enjoyment I might have gained from it — from its oppressive world to its inconsistent mechanics. Being anything but fun might be the point, but The Last of Us doesn't always make that point gracefully.
One night the heart of society beat loud and strong; the next it was silent. The outbreak happened so quickly that there was no quarantine plan in effect. Infected monsters crashed through their neighbours' windows, smashed the doors to splinters. Husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, dead before they could react, or worse. Maybe they became one of the infected. The virus spread through major cities and suburbs, and the military, with all of its training and weapons, was powerless to stop the epidemic. Joel is just one man amid a sea of people whose lives have been destroyed by the infection, but who still cling to life. Though he never asked for such power, he now holds the key to saving the world.
The story focuses on Joel's journey as he takes his young ward, Ellie, from one side of an American wasteland to the other, encountering the trials and tribulations that you might expect along the way. And that’s all we'll say about the details of the story. It’s a large part of why you'll play, truth be told, and Naughty Dog has excelled itself both in terms of characterisation, animation and general quality of storytelling. If Uncharted is Michael Bay, The Last Of Us is the Cohen Brothers: character-driven, plot focused and not always derivative of its forebears.
We don’t really consider the infected to be the primary enemies in the game. They're the reason the world has gone to pot but the most dangerous enemies are still ordinary humans. We're not sure if that was always the plan, or if Naughty Dog just realised partway through that it was more interesting fighting intelligent enemies, but scavengers and other humans are your opponents for over half the game. Given the often shocking levels of violence they're just as frightening an opponent, if not more so. The presence of the infected may seem to paint the game as a survival horror, but it really isn't. It’s tense, not frightening, and never more so than when you have half a dozen wild-eyed scavengers bearing down on you and you’re down to your last bullet.
While most games sell the fantasy of superhuman powers, The Last of Us constantly reminds you of your vulnerability. Stealth is the key to your survival, as overwhelming odds often encourage you to remain in the shadows before leaping out to perform graceless executions with blunt instruments like shivs. If events escalate into melee or gunplay, you are forced into tense, harried battles that leave you breathless. While the game never lets you feel at ease during combat, the play mechanics — from stealth to the weapons — are solid. I noticed occasional AI lapses and some of the "trial and error" frustration that creeps into any game that relies heavily on stealth, but overall it's an impressive action game that distils the strengths of the survival horror genre into something that's both deeper and more accessible.
Naughty Dog has built on the surprising success of Uncharted's multiplayer with Factions mode in The Last of Us. You want to know the crazy thing, especially coming from a guy who usually can't give a crap about a game's multiplayer modes? It's great. The methodical, slow-paced gameplay from the single-player translates well to multiplayer. In both game modes, players are split into small teams, and working with one another is not only essential to survival match-to-match, but it plays into the larger metagame. (...) One thing that kept with me, though, was multiplayer's focus on rewarding gruesome execution kills. When a player is almost dead, they go into a hunched state where a teammate can rescue them — or an enemy can end their life in a terrible way. Unlike single-player, there's no terrifying us-versus-them mentality contextualizing these alarming acts. Here, it's more points and a bothersome use of extreme violence.
The Last of Us often feels like a crystallisation of the big-budget, Hollywood-style video game. It’s constrained by all the limitations of a rigidly linear, movie-like video game experience, even as it is a smashingly well-executed example of the form. For a variety of reasons, the video game industry does not appear ready to make a non-violent, character-driven big-budget game, and so game developers must find a way to embrace character amid the shooting and the zombies. That Naughty Dog has succeeded feels noteworthy, another step toward worthwhile, affecting video-game stories that aren't built entirely on worn-out genre tropes. That being said, art isn't so much about the what as it is about the how. And The Last of Us, from its over-familiar beginning to its shocking ending, reflects the courage of its makers' convictions. It is a terrific feat of storytelling, design, art direction and performance. As it turns out, good things still reside within the house of cliché.
Top image courtesy of Gergő Vas.