It only happens once or twice every console generation, when a game is released that reaches the height of visuals, audio, story, gameplay and emotion and wraps up into an experience that extends beyond the controller. Few games can affect you beyond your time spent in front of the television, but Naughty Dog has achieved just that with The Last of Us, the post-apocalyptic survival game that sees you crossing the country in an attempt to keep the wise-cracking, too-smart-for-her-own-good Ellie safe. With gameplay that beautifully melds stealth and action, requiring use of audible and visual cues to navigate the landscape, The Last of Us very well may go down as the best that Playstation 3 has to offer.
Navigating across the country is a feat within itself, but doing so with zombie-like creatures, called infected, lurking at every corner, not to mention a tag-along tween who has clearly seen far too much for her age. Playing as Joel, the protagonist, you’re never unprepared for what the scenery has to offer, despite the constant feeling of helplessness. By picking up items like scissors (clearly a commodity in the apocalypse), rags, or duct tape, Joel has the ability to fashion makeshift bandages and weapons to deal with the ever-present horde. Weapons, also found scattered throughout the world, give just enough defense to lend a feeling of ease, only to see you thrust into an unexpected encounter that uses damn near all of your ammo. Truly, while players will find handfuls of ammo and weapons, it’s never enough to allow for constant combat, leaving Joel to rely on his own resourcefulness.
That resourcefulness comes in the form of quick, quiet movements that can be used to avoid combat or dispatch enemies in methodical ways. Enemies come in many forms throughout the long, 15+ hour campaign, creating a unique triumvirate of baddies. Zombies, other refugees and the military each present their own problems and must be approached with different tactics, particularly when they’re inevitably aware of your presence. Zombies will swarm Joel and Ellie when startled, creating havoc and using the last of your resources when the fighting becomes close quarters. Refugees seem to use flanking maneuvers to try and catch you in a pincer-like standoff, and the military uses brute force and dangerous firearms to simply overpower you. To avoid each of these dangerous situations, Joel and Ellie must meticulously study and learn the somewhat-random path that the AI takes. Sneaking from cover to cover, you’ll eventually find yourself with an isolated enemy and, with lightning fast reflexes, can remove them from the scenario with little effort.
Unlike most games that rely on surprise to catch players unaware, Joel has the ability to listen for his enemies, an ability that he can upgrade along with some others. When listening, Joel enters a slowed version of reality and can see possible enemies based on how much noise they’re actually making. you may find yourself startled when you happen across a room with a silent enemy though, as this skill doesn’t locate enemies, it only focuses on the noise they make. It’s this reliance on audio that forces players to slow down and pre-determine which route is best for their overall survival. Stumble into the path of an unexpected enemy and you’ll soon be facing a legion of their allies hell-bent on your destruction.
With the stunning gameplay mechanics creating a blend of action versus stealth, adrenaline stays at a surprisingly high level. Even with the constant concern that a pack of enemies may catch you off-guard, it’s still easy to take in the scenery. Transitioning from city streets to sewers, then to open, forested terrain is common, but the use of seasons to help differentiate each of these landscapes is another simple factor that Naughty Dog uses to add realism and other concerning elements to the fray. Furthermore, each scenario takes you on a voyage through various aspects with cities seeing you move in and out of business or to the tops of buildings, sewers requiring a level of problem-solving that may take you underwater, or the wilderness taking you in and out of small, deserted towns. Don’t think that everybody you meet is out to kill you, either. Routinely you’ll include additional survivors that are scavenging for themselves and will be faced with joining with them or moving on – a choice that is made for you as part of the narrative.
The lone situation that causes concern is the combat AI during certain events. To be blunt, the enemies come off as simply clumsy when multiple enemies are engaged with Joel or Ellie. Zombies, military personnel and other scavengers may get stuck on debris or fall into a pathing issue that has them running back and forth from point to point -- a benefit for players, as it’s an easy kill, but nonetheless it’s distracting and stands out as a flaw in an otherwise flawless game. Discovery problems also plague the game, with AI sometimes becoming aware that you’re in an area when you’ve clearly not moved or made a sound, while other times you can pass behind them without the slightest hint of recognition.
em>The Last of Us is a title that will clearly define the end of an era for the Playstation 3. Giving players the option to toss bottles or bricks in order to distract enemies and the brilliant use of darkness to force players to rely on senses beyond sight creates a blend that is unseen in the gaming world. Stress and anxiety is high throughout, which only enhances the truly human moments seen between Joel and Ellie. With other characters coming into the narrative, even for short times, the personal responsibility that Joel has for Ellie is developed in ways that you wouldn’t expect. If you’re on the fence about purchasing this game, don’t be. The Last of Us is a must buy and, for those who don’t own a Playstation 3, is a title that will help sell the console, even this late into its life cycle.
Overall score: 10 out of 10