I remember the first time I saw the VGA 2011 debut trailer for Naughty Dog’s new game called The Last of Us, all I could think was “Oh God, Not another Zombie game, Naughty Dog hoping on the bandwagon” and boy, was I wrong.
So if you were afraid that The Last of Us is just an Uncharted game with zombies, you can lay your fears to rest. The Last of Us is a definite departure from the type of games Naughty Dog is known for and bears little resemblance to the Uncharted series in its themes, pacing and gameplay.
The biggest difference between the two franchises is that where Uncharted series is focused on fun experience through action platforming with third-person shooting, The Last of Us is a pure survival game that requires patience and strategy with reliance on stealth as the biggest game mechanic with use of firearms at the very last resort.
While several developers come to use their franchises like cash cows, Naughty Dog has shown immense guts as it takes a big risk with setting aside their cash cow and moving ahead with a brand new creative endeavor in shape of a new IP.
The biggest similarity it has with Naughty Dog’s previous IP is its ability, focus and determination in delivering a cinematic experience. The game puts as much emphasis on telling the story as it does for gameplay itself and in the end delivers on both fronts.
Since the story is of such an importance to the game experience, it is best not to dwell into its details. All that you need to know is that The Last of Us focuses on the harsh journey taken by Joel and Ellie and how their relationship organically changes along the ride.
While Joel is a weathered survivor and jaded individual, Ellie is a naïve yet head strong and curious teen who has learned to respond to harsh realities around her. Both of these characters are well rounded and rich with great characterizations, which creates a unique mix of chemistry that sustains the whole flow and feel of the game.
Unlike the Uncharted series, the characterizations of the main duo as well as the other individuals partnered and encountered in the journey have deep yet subtle characterizations, where every character is given a distinct personality without ever going over the top.
The grounded characterization extends to the main story telling and the character players are given to control. Unlike Nathan Drake, and most protagonists, even though the mission Joel embarks upon holds import, the game shows how the world does not revolve around him and he knows it.
Thematically speaking, where Uncharted was considered a nod to Indiana Jones, The Last of Us’ tone is less 28 days later and more I am Legend.
The game’s narrative starts off with a very emotive and powerful introduction and continues to offer constant focus on the story and exceptional character development till the very end.
Unlike many story focused games, The Last of Us does not insult the players’ intelligence with on the nose expositions. There are whole relationships explored through dialogues that merely hint at a past relationship without explicitly stating the obvious. The realistic speech and the character actions and motivations depict and explain relationships far better than any history lesson lecture.
The excellent voice acting talents of Troy Baker, Ashley Johnson, Anne Wersching, Brandon Scott and Merle Dandridge only serve to enhance already wonderful dialogue into a perfect vocal delivery, adding depth, detail and believability to the characters that the game focuses on.
This aspect of the narrative also extends to the game’s setting where the world of Last of Us is given enough attention to detail to make it a character in its own right. Like Rapture and Columbia, the environments in The Last of Us explain the lore of the world around and the time gone by without any need for copious exposition.
Each area in The Last of Us has its own personality owing the rich detail endued in it. Whether it is the posters, banners and graffiti in the more urban locales or the trees rustling in the breeze, animals populating the environments and sparkle of the snow in the more natural settings, the environments never cease to amaze the audience in the breadth and scale of detail stuffed in each nook and cranny of every level.
While you may find a select few games that can outmatch The Last of Us in visual details for individual things like grass or water, there is no game that comes even remotely close to the whole package. The game takes the players through a wide variety of environments, through weathers ranging from sunshine and drizzles to rain showers and snow storms and a campaign that samples all four seasons to provide an unmatched diversity in what players can experience from game environments.
Each level also offers beautiful vistas owing to the expansive use of the color palette despite the games’ setting in a dilapidated and post-apocalyptic world. This use of colors extends to how these hues and tints are used to subtly guide the players journey and indicate the trail via little details like bright colors near platforms and ledges to climb as well as warm lights in seething snow storm.
Even with this level of visual variety nothing in the game looks out of place, nothing sticks out and everything gels in well as part of the environment and looks like it belongs in the world around it.
Same can be said about the characters that populate the world. The Last of Us brings the Uncharted level of polish and attention to detail for the characters as they move with fluid animation and react to everything in the environment whether it be rain, water or fire.
The level of immersion brought through these details is increased because of absence of constant HUD as well as little additions of effects like dust, water, snow and blood sticking on screen.
As much as the visuals add to the level of immersion, the effect is further intensified by the game’s deliberate yet subdued sound design.
That does not mean that the game’s soundtrack lacks punch. The Last of Us brings its soundtrack in full force when it wants to and adds another level to the feeling of tension, helplessness, loneliness and serenity, with its somber and almost western-esque soundtrack.
It is not only the story, visuals and sounds that bring out such feelings but also the actual gamplay of The Last of Us. Everything in the game is deliberate, from the game’s pacing, movement and weapon weight to action, kills and deaths.
As mentioned before, The Last of Us is a Stealth based Survival game which focuses on Stealth, Survival and Platforming/Exploration as its main gameplay elements. The game is more focused on sneaking and strategy in tackling the enemies than gung-ho action and mowing down every enemy in sight.
While the normal game strategy is to keep the stealthy approach to deal with opponents, the game presents the players with multiple methods of dealing with the enemies, which themselves are varied not just between different types of infected but also between rebels, military and hunters. Each enemy has its own tactics and requires unique strategies to tackle each of them.
What helps players deal with such adversaries is the method of hiding behind covers and going by undetected.
One thing that facilitates this is Joel’s hearing ability that works like Batman’s detective mode in the Arkham series. However, unlike the detective mode, Joel can only identify enemies by sound and in a certain radius. Plus the game slows down the player movement and is not a complete x-ray-like precise tool thus making it less intrusive and more of a balanced ability than the dark knight’s detective power.
Therefore, the game does not overpower the character and makes it possible for the players to let something slip by, which results in surprising ambushes when an enemy turns the tables by successfully sneaking up on the player.
The game pours even greater amount of tension by limiting the ammunition and materials available to upgrade your weapons, items and health thereby requiring player to scavenge for items and ammo in order to survive. This not only builds upon the stealth survival element of the game but also incentivizes exploration of the beautifully detailed environments that the game has to offer.
The game really succeeds in the stealth elements of the gameplay, so much so that the weakest points of The Last of Us are the portions in closed environments requiring compulsory fight sequences with one-hit-kill enemies.
The Last of Us has a whole crafting mechanism that allows players to get hold of their inner MacGyver and create and upgrade weapons, objects and skills by combining collectable materials. This process, along with the act of healing and weapon swapping happens in real time as the players have to hide away from enemies to browse through the elegantly designed inventory system.
Your companion AI is also fairly adept in stealth elements, though same cannot be said for the occasional second companions, which can occasionally run in front of the enemies during sneaking. Though the enemy AI also has a habit of selectively ignoring those companions in such situations, which can be a blessing and a curse. This occasional occurrence does, in fact, break the immersion that the game works so hard to build.
The Last of Us also provides respite between these stealthy encounters through slight platforming, exploration and environmental puzzles, which really come off organically and don’t feel like a forced or contrived addition just to impede progress.
Even with all the attention to detail and deep gameplay, The Last of Us still manages to provide a lengthy 15-17hours of gameplay in its story mode. The game also offers different difficulty modes to tackle and numerous collectables ranging from weapon, item and skill upgrades to notes and recordings adding greater depth to the game’s lore.
Moreover, Naughty Dog has also included an online multiplayer component to The Last of Us, with a mode called Factions. While the Factions mode only offers two different multiplayer styles, however both are different enough to offer a good deal of variety in gameplay.
The Survivor mode pits two teams of four against each other in a best of seven match without the luxury of respawns. The mode allows the same type of gameplay the players experienced in the story mode, however now, instead of stealthily executing AI enemies, they have to utilize stealth, crafting and listen ability to locate and contend with human competition.
Next mode is called Supply Raid, in which teams feature a slightly more generic team-deathmatch style gameplay where each team has a shared number of lives and the objective is to bring the other’s lives to zero in order to come out on the top.
What makes The Last of Us such a great game is that while it offers so much variety, it never deviates its focus from the core aspect of the game and remains consistent on the themes of humanity and survival from the start of the game to its finish.
The Last of Us is a brilliant and masterful game but it is surely not for everyone. The game is purposeful in the way it handles its story and gameplay and is not conducive to hop in and hop out, twitch action gameplay enthusiasts. However, if you are someone that appreciates games with deliberate pacing, strong themes and stealth based gameplay, then there is no better game in the market than Naughty Dog’s latest gift to the gaming world; The Last of Us.
Perfect meld of Survival and Stealth based gameplay with additional depth brought on through crafting mechanics for upgrading weapons, items and skills.
Highly detailed environments with a full and vibrant color palette and locations varied enough that every new level brings a sense of awe and wonder to the wide eyes of the players.
The excellent sound design in The Last of Us provides a mixture of immersive environmental sound effects, emotive and subdued soundtrack and the outstanding voice acting making every moment an aural treat.
Sober menus, dark themes, deliberate pacing and the weight of each act of violence performed really add to the overall immersion into the theme of the game which revolves around the nature of humanity and survival.
A fantastic story told through a fairly lengthy singly player campaign, a host of collectables to find and a multiplayer mode that offers two distinct styles of group-based competitive gameplay makes The Last of Us worth every penny of its asking price.
The Last of Us is not a perfect game, but it receives a perfect score because of what it manages to accomplish. In its 16 hour singleplayer campaign it is able to provide a holistic experience that not only entertains via its visual spectacle but also manages to rejuvenate gameplay of a genre thought dead.
All the while telling an emotionally compelling tale that not only entertains while playthrough but also leaves a lasting impression once it is over.