Best of 2013: The Last of Us
After much deliberation, I have determined that The Last of Us has the best introduction to any video game I’ve ever played. It depicts a small town in the southern United States being overrun by infected in beginnings of a zombie apocalypse. In a mere 15 minutes I experienced fear, panic and heartbreak in a sequence that perfectly sets the tone for what’s to come. I won’t spoil any more details, so let me add that this game is worth playing for the introduction alone.
The Last of Us is a third-person action-adventure game that is equal parts survival horror and stealth action. It depicts Western society 20 years after the end of the world. A fungi infection has spread throughout North America (possibly the entire planet) and devastated the human population. The people left alive are forced either to live in small camps protected by the military or in the wilderness in their own factions. It’s a cruel world that’s absent of morality and decency. The game stars Joel, a middle-aged man who smuggles weapons and drugs to make a living. Early in the game, Joel is tasked with smuggling a 14 year-old girl named Ellie across the country. The story takes place over the four seasons and across the American Mid-West.
It’s a dark and gritty tale about survival and loss. Naughty Dog’s writing is top-notch, especially the dialogue (which isn’t surprising if you’ve played the Uncharted games). Joel and Ellie interact like real people, or at least how people would be like in an apocalypse. With each horrible act they witness, the pair begin to bond and Joel eventually shifts from a bitter and unforgiving man into a more likeable person. My biggest complaint is that it takes far too long for this to happen. For most of the game Joel’s very bitter and kind of an asshole. This is somewhat justified, you’re offered a glimpse into what Joel has lost in 20 years of survival. He’s had the humanity beaten out of him but is no way a good person. He cares only about his own survival and had shut off all of emotions in order to cope with his grief. The good thing is that all of this is intentional by Naughty Dog. It plays into the theme that there are no heroes in The Last of Us, just survivors.
Ellie, however, is the most triumphant success of this game’s story. Had she been poorly written, she would’ve served little more than a framing device for the plot, but luckily she’s not poorly written. Ellie is the most memorable and entertaining part of the entire game. She was born after the infection so unlike Joel, has no memory of what the world used to be like which makes her an excellent measure of just how much of the world has been lost. It’s initially jarring to see someone so young exposed to so much violence, but it’s surprising how quick you get used to it. You get the sense that she’s experienced loss but not enough that she’s blocked out her emotions like Joel. Ellie is by no means an innocent person, by end of the game she has blood on her hands. Ellie is a walking example of the game’s theme about the loss of innocence and the passing of the world. Without hesitation she’s the best teenage character in video game history.
It’s difficult for me to talk about The Last of Us without discussing the ending. Without spoiling anything, I’m simply going to say this. The actual ending itself is abrupt but perfect. It’s an ambiguous ending that ends at exactly the right moment. There’s no certainty in Joel and Ellie’s world and the way this game ends reflects this. It leaves a lot of implications as to where Joel and Ellie’s relationship might be heading but rather than see this answered in a sequel, I feel it’s up to the player to decide what happens next. This an odd example of a game that I hope never gets a sequel.
The last gameplay sequence is going to split some of you down the middle. Joel does something that’s very controversial. You’re either going to agree with what he does or disagree; I was rooting against Joel the entire time. While I’m sympathetic to his emotions and I understand why Joel does what he ends up doing, I hated Joel at the end of the game and I hoped that someone would come around a corner and put a bullet in his head. None of this however, is actually criticism against the game itself. If anything, this makes Joel a more interesting character. Surviving in The Last of Us has been reduced to thinking about no one else except yourself and Joel’s actions throughout the entire game reinforce this. I applaud Naughty Dog for taking a risk like this. This is how to do controversy in a video game.
What would have made this perfect would be if Joel had been a more ambiguous character in regards to his relationship with the player. Naughty Dog paint Joel much more sympathetically than other people in this game and there’s a lot of implications that they wanted me rooting for this guy. Joel does a lot of questionable things in this game, questionable at least from player’s perspective, but his uncompromising attitude towards survival goes unchallenged.
The Last of Us does well to avoid cliches that are common to stories set in a zombie apocalypse but there’s one I feel it should have kept. Just about every story set in a zombie apocalypse questions the value of survival. Whether not it’s worth living if you have to do horrible things to survive. Most stories fall into a trap because attempting to maintain one’s humanity in a zombie apocalypse almost always results in disaster.
Last year’s The Walking Dead game brilliantly averted this by having an eight-year-old girl accompany the player, which made making these brutal choices that much more difficult. The Last of Us completely avoids this theme, and that’s a mistake. It’s justified in the sense that 20 years into an apocalypse, there wouldn’t be anyone left alive to question these things, but it would have made the story stronger if the characters were uncertain about survival. It would’ve added yet another obstacle for Joel and Ellie to overcome. Despite some shortcomings, The Last of Us has an excellent story.
You would think with so much to say about the story that the gameplay in The Last of Us didn’t leave an impression but this couldn’t be farther from the truth; the gameplay is outstanding. It looks and feels like a third-person shooter.There’s a soft-cover system similar to Tomb Raider however the scarcity of ammo results in a greater emphasis on stealth. Everything is done in real-time, from crafting items to healing yourself to retrieving weapons from Joel’s backpack. You can scavenge areas for parts and pills to upgrade Joel’s weapons and abilties. Joel’s arsenal consists of handguns, a hunting rifle, a shotgun and a bow and arrow to name a few, among hand-crafted items such as molotov cocktails and shrapnel bombs. There are melee weapons like pipes and planks of wood that break after repeated use. Enemies can be eliminated with melee takedowns to preserve ammunition or taken as a human shield and the world is scattered with bricks and bottles that can either be used as rudimentary weapons or thrown to distract enemies. Joel can also focus his hearing resulting in a sort of sonar vision that detects enemies when they’re moving.
The gameplay is very evocative or Resident Evil 4, right down to an AI companion following you into battle. Unlike Joel, Ellie is undetectable by enemies in gameplay which is convenient but can break the immersion. In one instance, I had Ellie sprinting in circles around an infected enemy for almost a minute. It was more difficult to complete that area without laughing than it was to remain undetected. Despite this, the gameplay in The Last of Us is at times, more organic and well-executed then any game in recent memory, especially when fighting humans. About half of the encounters are against humans, and they’re much more entertaining. Enemies will ambush you if you’re not careful and there are several detection phases that shift very quickly. You can go from stealth to all-out combat and back to stealth all in one area providing you slip out of sight. Enemies will hesitate to shoot human shields and charge at you if you run out of ammo.
Gameplay against the infected is also good. The infected come in several varieties from Clickers who rely entirely on hearing to thick-skinned Bloaters who serve as mini-bosses right down to common infected. If an infected creature sees you, unlike humans, they won’t lose your scent will pursue you until either you or they are dead. It’s less organic as a result but it puts a greater emphasis on survival; some enemies will kill you instantly if they get too close. The problem with the gameplay is that the player is too powerful about a quarter way through the game. If you take a predominantly stealthy approach with occasional bouts of loud combat you will always have ammo available. I went through the last area of the game barely picking up any ammo because all ten of my weapons were full. It would have helped if Joel’s backpack could only hold so many items much like the attaché case in Resident Evil 4. I understand that there’s less ammo on harder difficulties but upgrading your abilities remains unchanged which conflicts with the mood the game is attempting to set. I should feel vulnerable but I feel the opposite. It creates that problem that some horror games like Dead Space run into. I don’t ever feel vulnerable if I have an arsenal of guns to shoot my way out of anything that pops around the corner.
There’s also one section I simply must mention. The Winter chapter in The Last of Us is some of the best gameplay I have ever played. For reasons I can’t say without spoiling anything, every single criticism I made above about the gameplay is averted in this chapter. No game has made me feel this vulnerable since Silent Hill 2. If the entire game was consistent with this chapter, then The Last of Us would be my best game of 2013, no questions asked. It’s a testament to what The Last of Us could have been but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad game. Far from it, The Last of Us is an outstanding game.
For many of you The Last of Us is or will be the best game that came out this year. It’s proof that a game with a big budget doesn’t have to cater to a mainstream audience to achieve success. It’s a promising sign that one day, among the Grand Theft Autos and Call of Dutys, a game like higher aspirations will have a place among the titans of this industry. Naughty Dog have produced a great game that’s incredible achievement for gaming but in my opinion, there was one game released that was slightly better.