The Last Of Us, the latest from Naughty Dog (Uncharted, Jak and Daxter, Crash Bandicoot), shows just how far videogames have come as a story telling medium. This is not just naother post-apocalyptic zombie game, though those elements do play their part. Rather, much like the TV series The Walking Dead, this is more of a drama driven by its characters. They're characters you come to care about quickly, and their journey across a United States ravaged by a disease and the subsequent societal decay will take you across a full spectrum of emotions. It is, by turns, thrilling, funny, chilling, sad, and even heart warming. It is a survival tale against incredible odds, and one that may make you question as to how you might handle such a situation. Its characters, and you as a player, find the need to balance swift brutality with the need for a more measured response. This is more of a thinking man's action game, and its creators pull it off nearly flawlessly.
WARNING: Some minor spoilers may follow
The story, written by Neil Druckman, is extremely well told. It opens in the near future, with single father Joel (voiced terrifically by Troy Baker) coming home late from work to find his daughter, Sarah (Hana Hayes) waiting up for him, since it is Joel's birthday. It sets a nice tone at the outset, and while Joel does come off as a bit rough around the edges, you can see that he cares for his daughter deeply. The next scene shows Sarah alone in the house, waking to find her father not at home. A frantic phone call from Joel's brother Tommy (Jeffrey Pierce) leaves her a bit concerned. Moving Sarah through the house is handled supensefully, giving us the feeling that something has gone terribly wrong or that something terrible is about to happen. This becomes more evident when Joel bursts into the house, and warns Sarah to stay away from the doors as he retrieves a pistol from a desk drawer. A horrific encounter seconds later has Joel and Sarah fleeing the house, meeting Tommy out front. They pile into Tommy's truck and attempt to get through the town, only to find chaos ruling the streets. There's a nice build-up of tension, all ending in a dramatic moment that alter's Joel's life.
The game then flashes forward by twenty years. America has undergone drastic changes, ravaged by a fungal disease called cordyceps which turns humans into savage, cannabilistic beings. Cities have fallen into disrepair, with Mother Nature reclaiming the land from mankind. Plants grow wild over deserted streets and buildings, and the remaining pockets of humans are contained within quarantine zones. These pockets are under military rule, rule that is challenged by a resistance group known as the Fireflies. This is the world Joel needs to deal with, and along with a partner named Tess (Annie Wersching) attempts to make his way. An encounter with one of the leaders of the Fireflies lead Joel and Tess to take on a task for them in exchange for a cache of guns. The task involoves getting a package outside of the quarantine zone, but that package is not some mere parcel. Instead, it's a young girl named Ellie, who just may hold the key to saving humanity.
Ellie (fantastically performed by Ashley Johnson) is afourteen year old who's seen more than her share of tragedy and horror. She is by turns stubborn, determined, and resourceful. She is terrified of being left alone, yet faces terrifying situations with a bravery beyond her years. As a companion, Ellie holds her own, only occasionally needing you to get her out of trouble. In quieter moments she hums and whistles, showing herself to be the kid that she is. The relationship between her and Joel isn't the smoothest at first, but as events force them to make the journey west together in search of the Fireflies it grows and expands, leading Joel to become protective of the girl, just as any father would be of his own daughter. He knows Ellie can never replace his own child, but he still needs to keep her safe.
I won't divulge any more of the plot here, as this is a game that players will want to discover for themselves. The journey of Joel and ellie takes you through ruined cities, creepy sewers, and forests that are both wondrous to behold and hide dangers within. As they move through this world, they need to be on guard from the Infected, humans afflicted by the cordyceps virus. The Infected at first appear to be slow, but once they sense you they attack with startling speed. The game makers chose to give us three types of Infected, each reflecting varying stages of the disease. Runners are the most common, roaming in packs. Clickers have had their eyes covered by fungal growth, but hunt with a sonar like ability, making them challenging to sneak by. The rarest and largest Infected are the Bloaters, large shambling masses that fire off vision obscurring clouds of spores. While you do encounter your fair share of infected throughout the game. they're not as prevelant as the foes are in other zombie themed games. This helps keep encounters with them from growing stale, keeping every fight with them tense and fresh.
Far more common are human enemies. In the quarantine zones you'll encounter soldiers, and outside the zones they move in groups known as Hunters. Human foes may be easier to kill, but they're just as brutal as the Infected in their attacks. Plus, they're often armed with various types of guns. Ammo isn't so plentiful that the game just becomes an ordinary shooter, making you think on how you approach any given encounter. While the guns blazing approach may be needed at times, stealth is often the greater option. The game does a nice job on giving players the choice on how they want to proceed. Encounters often become intense affairs, becoming a game of cat and mouse where the table scan turn in an instant. Adding to this tension is the fact that you can only carry a limited amount of supplies and ammo, and you often need to craft things to aid in your survival. Exploring an area to scrounge for materials becomes a necessity, and fortunately there are plenty of supplies to be found, making exploration a rewarding proposition. Checkpoints are nicely spaced, so even if you do die in your endeavors you're not forced to replay a large chunk of the game.
The crafting really is a nice added touch, but be aware that it occurs in real time and not in a paused mode, so you're vulnerable to attack. This means you need to find a sheltered spot when crafting, or hope Ellie can cover you long enough to accomplish your goal. With crafting you can make things like first aid kits, shivs, and bombs, as well as upgrading your melee weapon. Special tables allow you to upgrade your arsenal, increasing clip size or firing rate. While supplies can be found, they're not overly plentiful, so you need to be wise on how you use them. Other items can be used to increase your attributes, such as increased health or crafting speed. This adds a nice RPG-lite touch to the game, and can make playthroughs a little more unique to the individual players. In addition, collectibles such as comics, letters, and dog tags can be found lying about, giving you further incentive to explore every nook and cranny.
The game controls beautifully, and works well for whatever your style of play may be, be that shooting it out or sneaking up and quietly dispatching your foes. With the battles being satisfying yet intense affairs, you do come to appreciate the game's quieter moments. Some of these offer some light puzzle solving, exploration, and some of the game's best character moments. Strong voice acting really makes these bits shine, and it extends to all of the roles, not just the leads. The game gives you a memorable cast, with none of the characters ever coming across a just one note. A layer of emotion underlines the game, and it will toy with you throughout the 15-20 hour experience.
I haven't played much of the multiplayer, but what I have played is fun and well designed. It's divided into two parts- Supply Raid and Survivors. Supply Raid allows you to pick a side (Hunters or Fireflies) and has your team gather supplies as you work together to eliminate the enemy. In Survivors, there is no respawning- once you're dead, you're dead, until the next game. Most people will buy The Last Of Us for the single player, but for those who enjoy multiplayer it's nice to know a well designed mode was included and not something that was just tacked on.
For all its good parts, The Last Of Us does have some minor flaws, and those come in the form of technical glitches. There's nothing game breaking here (though one did mkae me reload my previous save) and are often more amusing than irritating, but they are noticeable in an otherwise highly polished game, so they're worth noting. Everyone may not encounter these glitches, so it may be a disc specific problem.
All in all, The Last Of Us is just an amazing experience, kept just shy of perfection by some minor but noticeable technical glitches. It's a beautiful looking game with stunning environments and excellent character animations. The voice acting is superb, and the musical score by Gustavo Santaolalla provides the perfect backdrop for your journey through post- apocalyptic America. It's a game that will thrill you, scare you, and tug at your heartstrings. It is one of the best exclusives to come out for Sony's console, and for PS3 owners this is a must play title, if not a must buy. It's incredible from start to finish. Don't miss this one.