One of my favorite books in the last ten years is Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”. It tells the tale of a father and son walking to the coast in a post-apocalyptic America. It’s a book that spends less time discussing why the world is in its current state and more time with the father and son relationship. There are pages upon pages of inner struggle; the father trying to figure out how to protect and raise his son in this new world. There is a line in the book that resonated with me and feels extremely appropriate for The Last of Us. The father says that “you forget what you want to remember, and you remember what you want to forget.”
I’m not going to explicitly call out why I bring up this reference other than to say that the same inner struggle that faces Joel in The Last of Us has a lot in common with the “The Road”. I should mention that I will not be giving away anything else about The Last of Us’ story but instead talk about the areas that did and didn’t work, without going into specifics that could give anything away. The Last of Us is a story driven experience and therefore should be left for you to experience on your own.
What drives The Last of Us is the two main characters, Joel and Ellie. You can connect with both characters from the outset, and you gain a deeper understanding of them as the game goes on. Similar to “The Road”, there are many moments where the two are just walking and discussing their past and future. These simple moments not only make you root for them, but make you truly care about what’s happening to them. The game goes out of its way not to have every conversation be about pushing the story forward but instead to get a view inside their minds. It doesn’t shy away from slow moments where there isn’t anything happening, allowing you to dive a little deeper into these two characters.
Throughout my journey with The Last of Us I marveled at even cutscenes of the conversations between both Joel and Ellie. Its something several games have tried but none have done quite to this level of polish before. What’s even more exciting is that these two are not alone. The characters that you meet along the way share their sense of depth, and help give you insight to how others are surviving. The story is masterful. It hits all the right notes. It will make you laugh, cry, and everything in-between.
The thing that worried me the most about The Last of Us was not the story, which even from the beginning I knew would be stellar, but the gameplay. Everything I had seen leading up to its release felt a little like Naughty Dog’s last big franchise, Uncharted. I worried that this game might feel too familiar to those games which wouldn’t fit this game’s setting. I am happy to report that The Last of Us plays to near perfection. It takes some of the best elements of Uncharted (gun play and movement) and adds in intelligent AI and brutal hand-to-hand combat. The Last of Us does a good job keeping things from getting stale by mixing up both human enemies and the walking dead. The humans are more of a straightforward enemy, where the undead can be quite a challenge. The game gives you the freedom of choosing whether to attack straight on, or take a more stealthy approach.
What makes combat even more intense is the scarcity of both weapons and time. For 75% of the game you will only have a handful of bullets, a melee weapon (if you’re lucky) and supplies to try and create weapons like smoke bombs, or adding scissors to a melee weapon. The weapon creation system happens in real time so if enemies are on to you, you won’t have the chance to craft a weapon and will instead have to find different ways to take them out. This adds to the already high sense of terror that The Last of Us cultivates so well. The combat is also extremely brutal. There is an uncomfortable crunch that happens anytime you bash someone or something in the head with a bat. If you have a good 5.1 Surround Sound setup, be prepared to have more than a few startles.
The Last of Us comes in around 15 hours or so. I played the game on easy and found that to allow a less frustrating and more enjoyable experience. In my opinion, The Last of Us is so much more about the journey then the combat. Any frustrations that arise from the higher difficulty levels can easily be avoided by ratcheting it down to easy and enjoying the ride. However, if you choose to go with the higher difficulties, expect to die, and die often. The undead are even less forgiving and take far more to bring down. Not to mention there will be more of them.
You may be surprised to learn that The Last of Us also houses a multiplayer mode. In full disclosure, I was so emotionally drained after completing The Last of Us that I only got a couple of hours in multiplayer. Surprisingly though, it was pretty great. You pick a faction (fireflies or hunters) and you have two modes to choose from: Supply Raid (team deathmatch) and Survivor (only allows you to die once). What I found most intriguing about my time in multiplayer was that not only do story elements pop up, but that the mode doesn’t make you feel too far removed from the core single player experience. Its quite impressive that Naughty Dog was able to put in such a stellar multiplayer mode while not compromising its core experience.
The fact that the single player and multiplayer actually mesh is incredibly refreshing. It continues to drive home the point of how much thought went into every little piece of this game. It’s the type of experience that doesn’t come around every day. It’s easy to see that the developers probably spent weeks working on the most small and minute details. Just spend a few minutes reading some of the letters that are left behind on the journey and you will see that no stone was left unturned to make the experience feel authentic.
With all of the sequels, with all of the first person shooters, with all of the over-promise and under-delivery of games these days, I have become more jaded than I would like about the video game industry. But this game in many ways has rekindled my love for it. The Last of Us is a masterful tale of two individuals who are both authentic and flawed. It creates one of the most memorable video game experiences I have ever played and I believe its the best game to come out in the last ten years.