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The Last of Us Review

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What would you do if the zombie apocalypse happened tomorrow? Would you hunker down in your house with a stockpile of weapons and food? Would you make a mad dash for the Arctic? Would you fight back against the zombies and look for a cure? The Last of Us is a game that takes the typical Zombie cliché and instead of asking what you would do, asks what would you do to survive. It might not seem like a very different question, but it serves as the starting point for what is a phenomenal game. If you’re planning on not reading the rest of this review, let me get this out of the way early -- play The Last of Us.

The Last of Us starts following the discovery of a strain of the Cordyceps fungus that can infect humans, turning them into infected creatures that operate on primal instincts. The infection rapidly spreads throughout the world, transforming millions into infected monstrosities. However, in the world that results, the infected are not the only threat. The infection rapidly leads to the collapse of order and society, leaving a world that only faintly resembles its predecessor. It is into this world that players are put in control of Joel, a man who has spent the past twenty years surviving. Joel is a smuggler living in the Boston Quarantine zone, a "safe haven" under martial law. It isn’t long before he is tasked with smuggling a young girl named Ellie outside the city, and eventually across the country. Ellie and Joel make for a curious dynamic. On one hand is Joel, someone who has done whatever it takes to survive from one day to the next, and as a result, has become jaded and skeptical. Then there’s Ellie. While she has grown up only knowing the post-infection world, Ellie, like so many children, is curious and challenges authority. However, while the two characters are interesting on their own, what truly stands out is how well Ellie and Joel interact. There’s no denying that it takes a while. At first, Ellie is just cargo that Joel has been tasked with delivering and Ellie treats him as barely more than a deliveryman. As the game goes on though, the two of them develop a bond as they fight to survive. They fight to protect one another, to make it through the challenges they face, to overcome the burdens they encounter, and they do whatever it takes to ensure they both make it to tomorrow.

The Last of Us is essentially a zombie game. Of course, to avoid the B-movie stigma associated with the word zombie, the infected are never called zombies. Instead, they are called infected, or a collection of names that refer to specific characteristics. The most terrifying are the aptly named Clickers. Humans that have been infected for long periods of time have transformed into freakish monstrosities that hunt by sound and emit a continuous and creepy clicking sound. Let me put this out there – if Clickers were real, I would become a mute who would never utter a sound. However, the infected are only half the story. As I mentioned earlier, society has collapsed. While the military maintains some semblance of order within the quarantine zones, outside their walls is chaotic and filled with clans of people willing to do anything to survive. Joel and Ellie’s encounters with these people highlight just how terrible the world has become. There’s a point fairly early in the game where one of your traveling companions points out how he prefers the infected to humans because they are more predictable. While the infected are terrifying, they can be tricked and don’t rely on tactics. Horde of Clickers closing in on you? Throw a bottle and run in the opposite direction. Humans on the other hand are smarter and will attempt to sneak up and trap you. The enemy AI is actually fairly impressive. While they still make stupid mistakes, they’re a lot better programmed than a lot of games and don’t simply forget that there is a threat nearby. In fact, I was shocked at the number of times the enemy AI ended up being more patient than me.

The Last of Us is a third person survival action game that forces players to sneak around and rely on strategy to survive. Yes, the game does offer its share of weapons. However, twenty years after the collapse of the world, ammo is scarce and gunshots attract crowds. As a result, much of the game is spent sneaking around cover, hiding from enemies, and waiting for the ideal moment to eliminate a straggler when no one else will notice. One useful feature is listening mode. Pressing R2 allows Joel to listen closely to the environment and anything making a sound is highlighted. This is especially useful for hiding behind walls and waiting till enemies have turned around and won’t notice you. It is worth nothing that on the hardest difficulty, Survivor, this ability has been eliminated, creating a more real and challenging experience. Another central aspect to the game is item management. About a third of the way through the game, in a passing conversation, one of the supporting characters mentions how it is important to only carry useful items and not overburden yourself. In line with this idea, Joel is only able to carry three of every item, including the supplies needed to make the various items. Especially on the harder difficulties, this becomes especially strenuous as the game’s limited supplies force players to choose between making defensive items such as shivs and health kits, or offensive items.

There are few games that can instill a real sense of fear and panic in players. And in those games, the moments of fear are punctuations that occur throughout the complete narrative. Throughout the game, The Last of Us is able to elicit a near constant mood of stress and fear. Whenever I would grab someone to execute a takedown, I would feverishly tap the square button, hoping it would speed up the strangling process, even though I knew it didn’t matter -- and I bet I’m not the only one. As I mentioned earlier, the game’s hardest difficulty is called Survivor, unlocked after beating the game on Hard. I recommend that everyone, eventually, play the game on Survivor. Not because it’s a fun experience – quite the opposite, it’s actually fairly stressful. But because Survivor does such a phenomenal job of pushing players and showing a world twenty years after society has collapsed. Compared to the easier difficulties, I never had a point where I was maxed out on items while playing through Survivor and I felt like I constantly faced choices like whether I would create a health kit or a Molotov cocktail. And unlike the easier difficulties, with ammo so scarce, guns were almost never an option when things went sour. While the encounters remain the same, supplies are so incredibly limited that it feels genuinely difficult to survive.

As it comes near the end of the PS3’s tenure, it should come as no surprise that The Last of Us is a gorgeous game. Naughty Dog did a phenomenal job of creating expressive characters that really do a great job of drawing players into the story. The environments are also impressively crafted to depict a world that, for the most part, has been abandoned by humanity and retaken by nature. One of the really cool parts about the game is that there are a number of parts that take place in the remnants of major U.S. cities and it is really interesting seeing how these cities have changed following the infection. That said, having lived in one of the cities, I can confidently say that the landmarks do not always line up correctly -- but I’m willing to bet that the majority of players will not have that issue. Now, as nice as The Last of Us looks, these graphics are more often used to depict the savagery and brutality of the world. So much of the expressiveness of the characters comes in depicting the struggles and changes Joel and Ellie endure as they progress through their journey. There are few games that really make players put down the controller and turn off the game because of how intense they can be. The Last of Us doesn’t do this constantly, but there are definitely multiple points where the game manages to successfully put a heavy burden on its players.

Naughty Dog also included a multiplayer offering in The Last of Us that does not feel as tacked on as many of us originally anticipated. Multiplayer consists of two types of two team death-matches. One is essentially your basic, first to X points wins. Each team has twenty lives and the first to run out of lives loses. In the second game mode, players do not respawn in each round and teams win a round by eliminating all the opposing team. The first team to win four rounds wins the match. One of the things that is really impressive about the multiplayer is how well it embodies the gameplay of the single player game. Teams in both game modes consist of four players and really emphasize the need for strong teamwork. Throughout the game, players can collect supplies and create various items to help overcome the mediocrity of the weapons. Players are rewarded rations at the end of each match, essentially The Last of Us’ take on experience points. However, these rations are more than just points to collect. The multiplayer experience is contextualized within the idea of clans fighting to survive. Performing well in matches rewards players with more rations to keep their clans healthy and well fed. Performing poorly means that members of your clan can go hungry, get sick, or die. It definitely adds an additional element to the game which makes multiplayer more challenging and involved. That said, as fun as the multiplayer is at first, the lack of variety becomes really noticeable the longer you play. With only two very similar game modes, extended sessions can feel very repetitive. And the necessity of teamwork means that matches where a single player fails to work with the group can become frustrating quickly.

As much as I have to say in praise of The Last of Us, that’s not to say the game is perfect. There are occasional graphical glitches and gameplay affecting flaws with the game. Thankfully these appear to be few and far between. In three playthroughs, I only encountered one graphical glitch with Ellie’s ponytail and there was only one sequence where enemies didn’t spawn correctly on me. What’s more irritating is the way the enemies never notice your allies. I understand that The Last of Us is a game, and yes, having to constantly worry about whether enemies can spot Ellie would have made it far more irritating. However, it really takes you out of the experience when you’re hiding behind cover to avoid detection, and Ellie is hiding on the other side of your cover, in clear view of the enemies. I can’t help feeling that this and other aspects of Ellie’s AI could have been done better. Now, before I get into my biggest problem, let me preface this by reiterating that I played through the game three times in a row. That said, my biggest problem with The Last of Us is the lack of replay value. Naughty Dog did a phenomenal job of ensuring that almost every encounter is challenging and memorable. The first time I encountered a group of runners and clickers, I remember failing to successfully clear the room numerous times. However, as a result of the strength of these encounters, in subsequent playthroughs, the memories of the previous completions definitely made the game predictable and less challenging. By the last playthrough on Survivor, even without access to listening mode, I was able to easily dispatch that room without any problems.

Guides on how to survive the zombie apocalypse have developed into their own niche market, and I’m sure we all know at least one person who’s strangely overzealous when it comes to zombie survival. However, these guides and many of the popular zombie stories don’t really illustrate what it would mean to survive in such a world. It’s not about having guns, or having a boat, or even trying to find a cure. The Last of Us is one of the few stories that truly delves into what it would take to survive, and in doing so, showcases the terrible of burden survival. Naughty Dog is very deserving of the nearly unanimous praise that they have received for this game. There’s the old adage that it’s not the destination but the journey that matters. As a gamer, you would be amiss to not experience Joel and Ellie’s journey together. I cannot say how strongly I recommend playing The Last of Us.

People are making apocalypse jokes like there’s no tomorrow. Too Soon.. Ellie

All images owned by Naughty Dog.


  1. dannyl -
    dannyl's Avatar
    Nice read. Not a huge console gamer but saw this game and wanted to dive in. The idea of the game gives me that feeling when I first played Resident Evil. =0
  2. Callisto -
    Callisto's Avatar
    Decent review. I can say this is the first game in probably a couple of years that I felt fully lived up to the hype, absolutely the least regrettable $60 purchase I've made in a long time.