McGinnis: Naughty Dog delivers one-of-a-kind game with ‘Last of Us’Written by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
“The Last of Us” (PlayStation 3, $59.99) has a lot in common with games you’ve played before, and yet the overall experience is like nothing you’ve ever seen. It’s about a journey across a post-apocalyptic landscape, but this is not “Fallout.” The land has been overrun by zombie-like creatures, but this is not “Resident Evil.” The game is by Naughty Dog, the designers of the classic “Uncharted” series, but though the mechanics are similar, it is far removed from the carefree adventure of those titles.
The closest equivalent one could find would be 2012′s Game of the Year, Telltale Games’ “Walking Dead” series. But even that analogy doesn’t fit, because though both games feature a pseudo-father/daughter relationship at their core, “Walking Dead” is about the choices one makes in difficult situations, and how they impact the future.
“The Last of Us,” on the other hand, is about a world without choice. The infection happened, the majority of the planet is dead, and society is still hanging on by bloody fingernails. Outside the flimsy walls surrounding a few quarantined cities, it’s survival of the fittest, with horrific monsters that will kill on sight acting as the apex predators.
Yet “Last of Us,” like the best zombie stories, understands that the real danger lies not in the monsters, but within ourselves. To traverse this landscape is not simply to battle mutated beasts, but encounter hordes of humans who survive outside society by any means necessary. Simply by setting foot in their territory, you are an enemy combatant, and they will shoot to kill on sight. Faced with such a world, how would you adapt to survive? How would any of us?
Joel, the game’s lead character, made his choice long ago. After a wrenching prologue, the game opens 20 years after the initial outbreak, where a strange fungus takes over the brains of living beings and makes them into carriers for their deadly spores. He works in gun running and smuggling, and one day is approached by a rebel group to transport unusual cargo — a teenage girl named Ellie — across the country.
That’s the superficial set-up. But what makes the game remarkable — almost certainly the best of 2013 — is the process of playing it. First, the visuals are breathtaking, with every stop on this wasted landscape captured in compelling detail. From coffee shops flooded and abandoned to towering hotels being slowly reclaimed by nature, the world “Last of Us” inhabits is both derelict and strangely beautiful. It’s all enhanced by brilliantly subtle sound design and one of the most evocative and beautiful soundtracks that a game has ever had.
The gameplay will feel familiar to “Uncharted” players, but with a few important caveats that make this a wholly unique experience. First of all, ammo is understandably scarce. This makes every encounter that much more tense, because when you’re empty, you’re in deep. It behooves the player more often to approach an encounter silently, taking out enemies with stealth. But the second you’re seen, your opponents will swarm you, so be careful.
Adding to the tension is the differing kinds of beasts you’ll fight. Humans will take cover and shoot, but the infected have no such strategy, and charge full bore to attack. Some have been infected so long, their heads have become overgrown by the fungus — they’re blind and can only find you by sound. But these are the most deadly of all, and if they grab you, you don’t even get a chance to fight back.
Adding to the emotional immediacy of the events is how the player becomes attached to the lead characters. Joel may be beaten down by the world and had his morality warped, but there’s still a person inside — a kind soul who slowly emerges as he begins to care more for Ellie during their travels. But she’s far from a stereotypical female tagalong, either. Ellie saves Joel’s bacon just as much as he saves hers, and in the heat of battle, a well-timed intervention by her (executed brilliantly by Naughty Dog’s programmers) can mean the difference between survival and death.
The end result is a game that doesn’t quite pack the same emotional punch that “Walking Dead” did, but it doesn’t miss by much — and far exceeds Telltale’s title in terms of gameplay and atmosphere. Naughty Dog has long been one of the most important of Sony’s platform-exclusive developers, and with this title, their artists have crafted a game that acts as the pinnacle of a generation of hardware. If you own a PlayStation 3, you owe it to yourself to play “The Last of Us.”