Edit: I originally awarded this game a nine out of ten, but I am boosting it up, because it has had an affect on me like no game ever has in terms of its story and characters. Yes, everything else about the game is fantastic too, and I also address its flaws in my review.
Original post: Even in most games where the story is praised as an absolute highlight, I am usually left thinking, "Yeah that was nice." The Last of Us, however, completely broke new ground with me. The character development, interaction, and the climax in this tale are absolutely riveting, and it's one I'll never forget. The story is the best attribute of this game, but please understand that every other facet is also quite excellent, though there are a few noticeable flaws that keep me from awarding it with the highest score possible. Nonetheless, Naughty Dog has delivered yet another essential Playstation experience.
Headline: The Last of Us is a supreme mixture of gritty action, cinematic beauty, and brilliant story-telling
Bless the late Roger Ebert's heart. The famous film critic developed a somewhat sinister reputation among the gaming community when he said that video games are not art. Gamers and journalists alike still protest the accusation, usually doing so by posting screenshots of Shadow of the Colossus, Okami, Wind Waker and the like, writing captions underneath the said pictures similar to: "you can't tell us that this is not art!" What a folly! Art-styles are only a component of the work, not the all inclusive aspect that makes the entire concept a piece of art.
A good piece of game art involves superb craftsmanship and execution on all levels, and the Last of Us epitomizes that simple definition. This is not gaming's Citizen Kane (I do not even know what that means, because I have not seen Citizen Kane.) No, this is gaming's The Last of Us, and on the whole it is altogether lovely. Technical quibbles aside, The Last of Us is a supreme mixture of gritty action, cinematic beauty, and brilliant story-telling.
It has been done many times over. Think about the movies, television shows, and games you have watched or played over just the past year, and you will probably come up with several examples of stories in which humankind is desperately trying to survive a zombie apocalypse. But have you ever heard the story of Joel and Ellie? Joel, a scruffy Texan with a southwestern drawl, suffered much when the infection first began to spread. He has little to live for, but with the help of a female partner named Tess, he finds a way to survive.
Tess and Joel, living in Boston, are betrayed by a man who sold all of their weapons, pivotal instruments of survival in this unforgiving, cruel world, to a group known as the Fireflies. The group's leader, Marlene, agrees to return the weapons if the two can transport a fourteen year old, red-headed girl named Ellie to the capital building in Boston. Ellie is no typical youngster; growing up in a post-apocalyptic, immoral wasteland, she exudes maturity and cusses like a grownup man. She is an adorable young lady, endearing in her resilience, a beacon of light in a world desolate of life with her uplifting humor, curiosity and appreciation for the minute joys that many have forgotten how to love. She is still a child, though, one who is not afraid to express her fears in scary moments involving the infected.
The infected are not zombies, per say, but carriers and victims of a deadly viral infection turned into monsters. The trip to the capital building turns into a rigorous trek across multiple states, and during that time I truly connected with these characters in a way I had never done before in a video game. Much of it has to do with the deep personalities of the main cast in this script; some are more likable than others, but each contribute in a significant way, not just to the progression of the plot, but also as a way of bringing out certain traits in other characters and revealing past secrets and hurts. This game presents and plays its themes like a trumpet, much like a good film or book would achieve.
As much as it is a storytelling telling masterpiece, it is a feat in the looks department also. For me, The Last of Us is the best looking video game I have seen up to this point. And I do have all of the Uncharted games, Heavy Rain, Halo 4, and Super Mario Galaxy 2 in my collection. It is impressive to say that I bonded and sympathized with Joel and Ellie because they expressed such emotion in their faces through the bad times and the worst of times.
The cutscenes are absolutely gorgeous, and they would pass for a sharp three-dimensional animated film if consolidated into one motion picture. The dead cities with toppled buildings and busted homes are nothing new, but the attention to detail in the environment is astonishing. There are times in which Joel and Ellie find themselves in a different location--in the sewers, on the fringes of a forest--and in these places the beauty and ugliness always provide a good view. Not to be overlooked, the musical score is haunting, accompanying the look of, not just the present environment, but most importantly, the current mood in the story.
"Cool film review, Deepblue," you may say. "But what about the gameplay?" Mindless fanboys of other companies have trashed the Last of Us for its gameplay, and competent critics have criticized the mechanics and immersion-breaking moments as a major flaw. There are indeed a few issues that I will get into, but overall, the gameplay is excellent.
The Last of Us is an action title with a healthy dose of stealth and a tinge of survival horror. Joel can sneak around and use a "listen" ability which allows you to see the outlines of enemies through walls as they move around. Similar abilities have been used in the Batman Arkham games as well as in Dishonored, and it is just as useful here as it is there. Joel can grab and choke out his foes from behind, or hold them hostage for a period of time as a human shield.
The stealth is great for the most part, but there are areas in which executing a flawless or even decent stealth run of the foes are nearly impossible. The game emphasizes the choice between fighting, fleeing, and using stealth, the importance of reserving your resources. However, some spots are littered with so many enemies, hosting so few places for cover, that being seen is almost inevitable.
The immersion-breaking moments also occur during stealth sequences. Clickers are foes that cannot see, but hear. They use echolocation, like bats, to find their prey. Oddly, Joel's partners can move about roughly and talk quite loudly and the clickers never notice. In some instances, Joel can grab an enemy from behind, strangle him, and not be heard by an enemy facing in the opposite direction, standing literally three or so feet away. Perhaps they are hard of hearing, but this flaw does taint the experience somewhat. These occurrences are not very common in this twelve to fifteen hour adventure, but they happen enough to deem a noticeable flaw.
En route to the next destination, Joel and Ellie encounter many blocked paths, so they have to find ways around. Often you will have to find something to step up on to climb onto a high ledge, a plank to place across a gap between buildings, or a ladder to place against a wall to climb to an unreachable spot. These sequences may be considered to be puzzles, but they require little to no thought, really. They are neither flaws or necessarily pluses to the overall experience; they are just there. A few set-pieces that shake things up a bit, however, and these sudden rifts in the pacing can be quite refreshing.
Fighting enemies is a lot of fun, but the gunplay is not for all. Joel is a shaky shooter, and he does not reload super-fast like his video game protagonist contemporaries. When he is shot, he feels it, as it knocks him to the ground. Changing weapons requires him to disengage from battle long enough to search his backpack for another gun, which only takes two to three seconds. Joel can also pick up a melee weapon such as a baseball bat or crowbar to smash some skulls. Surrounded by a horde of enemies, playing to the tune of the mechanics can be difficult and frustrating to some, but it is fair and adds a sense of realism. Joel can at least sprint like a spring chicken to get out of some binds, thankfully.
Keeping one's self out of a bind also requires preserving ammo. There were times where I was running low on the stuff, but I was never completely lacking. Searching abandoned buildings is vital, for they contain left-behind goods. Some of these goods can be utilized to craft weapons such as explosives, smoke-bombs, and used to make health kits. Pills allow you to upgrade Joel's overall health and hearing ability, among other attributes.
Acquiring tool kits allows you to enhance the weapons you already carry, so long as you have the right number of cogs. The crafting and leveling-up systems inspire exploration along the linear paths. Just be sure to have a better eye than myself, because I felt that I did not collect enough pills and cogs to be as empowered as I could have been.
There is a multiplayer component, but I have not tried it yet. When I do, I will edit this review accordingly, but I know that it will not alter the score by a half point in either direction. This is first and foremost a single-player classic. It has been praised more for its storytelling and visuals above all else, but that is okay. The gameplay is not perfect, but it is still great; sneaking around and blasting away enemies is a lot of fun. It is just that I do not remember pausing throughout my day to think about what I experienced with any other game like I have with these characters. Have you ever cried during a movie? Have you ever put down a book after reading that final chapter, still dazed, desiring to walk somewhere alone and bask in what you had just absorbed? Have you ever experienced such with a video game? It is possible, and The Last of Us may be the game that breaks that ice.