Video Game Review: The Last of Us

One of the biggest stories, aside from the various E3 shenanigans, is the nearly universal acclaim of Naughty Dog’s newest PS3 exclusive The Last of Us. The Metacritic aggregate of 95/100 for critic reviews places it tied for the third highest score of any console or PC game to date. The other thing to consider is the current 9.1 user score which (along with Metal Gear Solid HD Collection) is higher than any other user reviews on the PS3 I found. With that in mind, it is pretty much a given that The Last of Us is absolutely a game worth playing. Although The Last of Us routinely gets perfect scores, it by no means guarantees that it is a perfect game and there are certainly concerns to be wary of. Before any of that, let us jump right into the basics.

The premise of The Last of Us revolves around a parasitic fungus which acts to alter normal behaviors to help spread the fungal spores and maximize the potential hosts. This family of fungus is called Cordyceps which just to help you sleep at night, actually exist in the real world. The twist implemented by Naughty Dog is that this fungus, which normally infects insects, has started infecting humans and the genetic prerogative of the Cordyceps causes them to act in an extremely aggressive behavior. One of the side effects of the fungus is the horrifying disfiguration caused over time as the basic person turns from a “Runner” to a “Clicker” or even worse. The aptly named Runners are essentially humans that are incredibly aggressive while the clickers are blind and use echolocation, hence the name.

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Taking place 20 years after the initial epidemic, Joel is charged to protect Ellie as they trek across America. These two characters and the juxtaposition of their personalities are the foundation for what makes The Last of Us so special. Joel is one of the few remaining people who remember what life was like before the epidemic while Ellie was born after the world was torn asunder. Her propensity for trying to understand the world and what it once was leads to more than one surprisingly poignant comment about our society. My personal favorite revolves around the incredulous idea that there are trucks that drive around towns, playing creepy music, and selling ice cream to children. In contrast, Joel sees how far the world has fallen and often resorts to morally ambiguous actions in his pathological fight for survival.

Image via Thelastofus.com

Whereas many action heroes are so over-the-top that they become something less (or more?) than human, the decisions Joel is forced to make are not unreasonable. The scale of The Last of Us does not push so far out of the realm of the possibility that the moral dilemmas become completely abstract. An early example uses a classic zombie trope: an infected man asks you to shoot him so that he will not turn into one of the infected. Do you shoot him to prevent him from turning or do you save the ammunition and let him die? The ambiguity of this moral dilemma brings up one of my favorite terms, chiaroscuro. Chairoscuro is an Italian term which simply describes the use of strong contrasts between light and dark used in various artistic mediums such as painting, cinema, and photography. As opposed to referring to The Last of Us being “gray,” chiaroscuro is much more apt because the contrasts at various points of the game help to shape the entire experience. Plus, it makes you sound smart so have that one on me.

This albeit minor detail actually makes a significant difference because The Last of Us can quickly, and surprisingly, shift from the dreariness, which admittedly rather fits the subject matter, to moments of tenderness and beauty. Each of these brief moments allows Naughty Dog to include some more characterization for the main cast as well as giving the player a momentary break to relax and feel relatively safe. This only acts to intensify the moment when the player is thrust back into danger. This wonderful rollercoaster of emotion creates a magnificently paced game. I will admit that I was rather surprised at how much time I actually invested in the story, which took nearly 20 hours on my hard mode play through, because at no point did the game feel artificially padded.

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This is where the sourness of the experience begins to emerge. The easiest to address is the rather lackluster intelligence of your NPC companions. It seemed they moved in a completely arbitrary manner at times, and I even had one moment where a companion had literally walked into a Clicker which proceeded to completely block off the path I needed to follow to escape my particular situation. Luckily, Naughty Dog understood that punishing the player because of some random AI companion moving would have been incredibly frustrating. So to combat this, none of the companions you encounter in the game will actually alert the enemies when you are trying to stealth through a section. While it certainly feels a bit unusual to watch a 14-year-old girl run right across the path of a group of people trying to find and murder you, they made the decision to err on the side of the player.

Another complaint is about the enemies, specifically the ability for the Clickers to instant kill you should they get into melee range and you happen to be out of shivs. Worse than that, the other infected will instant kill you regardless. While I generally hate anything that can be considered an instant kill, especially as common as Clickers are in The Last of Us, I can, once again, understand why Naughty Dog decided to include this mechanic; to build tension and enforce stealth. The balancing act in The Last of Us arises from the scarcity of the items. A shiv can be used to perform a stealth kill on a clicker to completely remove the threat, a tool to open hidden areas, or as protection allowing you to break a Clicker’s grapple. Even with my borderline absurd tendency to collect items, I still did not find enough materials to have everything I wanted. The choice facing the player is either to use their shiv to remove the threat of the Clicker, or to try and sneak past while saving the shiv for something else in the future. Failing to do so will only thrust the player into combat and with intentionally unwieldy gunplay, shooting the enemy is not the easiest accomplishment. Once again, scarcity rears its ugly head because a limited supply of ammunition makes shooting everything in sight a very unrealistic proposition. In hard mode, it was an accomplishment if I managed to get ten or more rounds for any given gun.

Image via Thelastofus.com

Basically, The Last of Us is an incredibly elegant game because despite not liking certain features like those mentioned above, I feel that without these difficulties the overall game would be worse off. All of this leads to a peculiar situation. When describing The Last of Us, “fun” is not an adjective that springs to mind; it is bleak, tense, terrifying, rewarding, and at times even comforting. Somehow it feels more like an interactive experience and less of a game. This very well may be because of the connotation that games are inherently fun which is a stark contrast in tonality between Naughty Dog’s previous games, namely the Uncharted series, which could very well be exacerbating this feeling. “Difficult” is perhaps the perfect word to describe The Last of Us. Aside from the aforementioned mechanical challenges, the game confronts your ability to champion Joel as he matter-of-factly murders his way through waves of infected and humans, sometimes more justly than others. This ambiguity at play is precisely why I love The Last of Us, and why it is spawning so much discussion. Granted, people are still actively trying to avoid spoilers seeing that the game came out June 14. Despite my minor gripes with the minutiae in The Last of Us, I would say that you will be doing yourself a disservice if you have a PS3 and do not at least try this masterpiece.

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