Level Up: The Last of Us
While many gamers are already drooling in anticipation of the PS4 and Xbox One, we shouldn’t forget that there’s a bit of life left in the current cycle. Consoles are often in their twilight years before developers truly master their hardware and The Last of Us is a shining example. The game’s creators, Naughty Dog, have pushed the PS3 and their Uncharted engine to new heights creating an intriguingly realistic take on the survival horror genre.
Despite its tired zombie apocalypse premise The Last of Us handles it’s tropes with levity and grace, making other games seem campy by comparison. In fact it’s almost bewildering how downright dark the game feels, when on its surface it’s Uncharted in a zombie costume. The “world after people” presented within is totally believable with video-gamey aspects only revealing themselves in the fact that (if you so choose) you can play this game as an unstoppable killing machine.
The secret to the believable atmosphere is Naughty Dog’s obsessive attention to the mundane. Instead of allocating resources to giant set-pieces and epic boss fights, they put their attention on making the environment a realistic facsimile of the United States long after the shit has hit the fan, splattered on the walls, flies have gathered, the shit’s dried up, and the flies have left. Cities are run down, quarantine zones are long abandoned, rusted out vehicles are askew in the streets, and plant life has begun to uproot the concrete. To traverse the broken-down environment you’ll be starting up old generators and moving rusty ladders. Protagonists Joel and Ellie are not super-human climbers like Uncharted‘s Nathan Drake. It’s a different kind of satisfaction than getting from point A to B in most games. You don’t feel like a badass, you feel lucky to have survived.
The environment is the least of your problems and these kinds of puzzles make up little of the gameplay. The majority of the game has you facing either cordyceps-fungus-infected zombies or hostile groups of people who are fighting for their own survival. Many of the infected enemies lack sight but have super-sonic hearing and will kill you in one hit if you get too close. These scenarios require the use of stealth and can really get your heart racing.
But while the game suggests that you be sneaky and save ammunition, I found this to be the least effective option when dealing with humans, who end up being the majority of your foes. I played most combat scenarios like Marcus Phoenix from Gears of War rather than trying to Solid Snake it up. Sneaking three-quarters of the way through an area only to be spotted and have to defend yourself from all sides doesn’t play out in your favor. Running the last quarter of the distance is cool when it works, but it’s often not an option because of a blockaded door or a ledge that requires you to boost Ellie. Perhaps it’s due to my own inability or impatience with stealth, but it seems unfortunate to me that so much of this game is a cover-based-shooter, especially since the stealth sequences with zombies are excellent. Nonetheless, the shooting, cover and melee mechanics are competent and it’s generally pretty fun to pick guys off from a distance or take them out with a steel pipe.
But the gameplay itself has little to do with what makes The Last of Us so great. It’s all in the story-telling. I was wowed by the realism of the motion-captured acting in the Uncharted series, but this takes it to a new level. Body language and facial expressions are beautifully captured, bringing the player closer to the drama. It helps that the characters and dialogue are heavier in tone than the kitschy, Indiana Jones homage that was Uncharted. In retrospect, we can see that those games served as a proving ground for the technology now in full effect in The Last of Us. It seems like a stretch to describe something as cultural cliched as a zombie-apocalypse as dark or thought-provoking, but this game plays on these themes with an understated, yet truly emotional tone. The great writing and acting, coupled with technology that allows it to shine, makes story-telling in most games seem clumsy by comparison.
Instead of launching into government conspiracies, giant mutant monstrosities and the like, Naughty Dog designed by subtraction, cutting extraneous gaming cliches and making a game about a broken man helping a young girl across the country in hopes of moral redemption. Sure, the version of Joel I played killed hundreds along the way, but maybe you can be sneakier. Naughty Dog has taken their story-telling to a new level and created another example of video games becoming a relevant medium for narrative.