Joel remembers the world before the pandemic.
Occasionally haunted by his past but living in his dystopian present, Joel is surprisingly easy to root for. In many ways, he’s strangely relatable. He retains shreds of his humanity as best he can, considering the extraordinary circumstances he finds himself in. He has a sharpness to him, but a tenderness, too, which he occasionally displays to his partner, a woman named Tess. In the time it took me to beat The Last of Us, I came to care about Joel, and I became invested in his story, and the stories of those he meets along the way.
The Last of Us takes place in 2033, so the regular world Joel harkens back to on occasion is one you and I understand. It’s fascinating to think about how he’s evolved since the world crumbled around him, and even if he does what’s necessary to stay alive – including stealing and murdering – it’s hard to fault him for it. In fact, one of the great ironies of The Last of Us is that you’ll be pulling for him no matter how dark things get, or how violent his actions are. He does what’s required. Joel knows it’s either him or them. There’s no gray area. Joel can be cold and ruthless, but those around him have the propensity to be far worse.
Joel and Ellie develop a sort of dysfunctional father-daughter relationship as their collective experiences bind them, and rooting for Ellie in particular is commonplace in The Last of Us. Her success means the player is successful, and her hardened exterior is the perfect complement to her complete ignorance of the world before it was destroyed. Ellie was born after the collapse, and as such, she’s full of questions and wonder, often communicated through the many contextual conversations she and Joel share. She’ll pick through records at a music store, become fascinated with wildlife she’s never seen before, and ask a million questions about the past. You watch her learn, grow, and gain meaning. It’s impossible not to become attached to her.
The interplay between Joel and Ellie, as well as the other characters you meet on your adventure, is one of the great highlights in The Last of Us. Voice acting is not only consistently superb, but the game’s graphical beauty makes the events of The Last of Us overflow with realism. Everything that happens is immediately more memorable, more powerful, and more poignant because your surroundings are so believable. Forests, fields and wooded trails are overgrown, dense, and lush. Abandoned villages and metropolises alike are eerie, silent, and crumbling. Each environment is unique, thoughtfully created, and bursting with little details, including notes, letters, voice recorders and more that tell ancillary stories of survivors you rarely ever meet in person. The game took me so long to beat because I was obsessed with seeing every inch of it. The Last of Us demands exploration, not only to scour for needed supplies, but to satisfy your curiosity.
Joel and Ellie's endless chatter is one of The Last of Us' highlights.
Stealthily killing entire rooms of enemies is incredibly satisfying, so much so that when you blow your cover, it’s hard not to feel a sense of disappointment (especially when one of your companions occasionally fires a gun or walks in front of an enemy, which you can’t control). Holding down R2 while crouching lets Joel listen carefully to his surroundings, giving him a glimpse of enemy locations in his direct vicinity and an edge in staying away from danger. Some players may consider this a bit cheap, but I’d merely call it gamey. Just like the L3 prompts that tell you where to look and hints that appear if the game determines you’ve been stuck in an area too long (all of which can be turned off), Joel’s listening skill can simply be ignored if you feel like it doesn’t fit. But rest assured, it’s very helpful, especially later in your quest.
The beauty of stealth in The Last of Us is the incredible, uncomfortable realism you’re forced to witness each and every time you execute a silent kill. Watching a survivor fruitlessly swat at Joel’s arms as he strangles him to death is disturbing, as is quickly shiving a man in his neck and listening to him gurgle some parting breaths as he collapses to the ground. The Last of Us does a phenomenal job of making each and every enemy feel human. Every life taken has weight and each target feels unique and alive. It’s hard not to think about some of the older folks in particular, ones that remember the real world, lived in it, and were once normal. There’s an emotional pang when you’re taking out thugs that look a whole lot like you and your allies.
Unlike your human adversaries, who often work together, audibly communicate, plan their actions, and practice self-preservation, The Infected attack with reckless abandon, with absolutely no regard for their safety and with every intention of killing you. Fighting them is terrifying, especially during your first few encounters, and feels completely different than your engagements with pockets of humanity. The lesser versions of The Infected, colloquially known as Runners, can be taken out with firearms and melee strikes alike, but it’s the Clickers – characters so infected by the Cordyceps fungus that they can’t even see – that will haunt your dreams. They can only be killed with silent shiv strikes or via firearm – silence is more often than not your best weapon against them -- but if they so much as get their hands on you, it’s game over. In this world, they are the true threat. It’s unlikely you’ll ever get comfortable dealing with them, of being mere feet away from them, crouching, hoping they don’t somehow sense you.
Another brilliant aspect of The Last of Us is its crafting options, all of which happen in real-time. With the exception of actually going to a pause menu, there’s no way to stop the action, so you need to find lulls in order to scavenge for items, put them together and create new goods that can be used both curatively and offensively. The system is extra tense considering you can use, say, alcohol and rags to create either a healing pack or a Molotov Cocktail, but not both with the same goods. Thoroughly exploring environments nets you the components necessary for item creation, giving you yet another reason to inspect surroundings already begging to be rummaged. And item scarcity, a perpetual issue in the world of The Last of Us, means that everything you find is precious in its own way. There aren’t any factories making more of anything you find, and that includes the greatest prize of all: bullets.
Ellie is undeniably the star of the show.
Joel can also upgrade himself with pills and other supplements hidden throughout the adventure, though here you’ll also have to make careful choices, as there isn’t enough medicine in one playthrough to fully upgrade him. Likewise, all of your weapons, from pistols to shotguns and rifles, can also be upgraded using parts and tools found on your journey. Similarly, you won’t be able to max-out everything, so you’ll need to make thoughtful decisions. This adds an analytical, tactical slant to The Last of Us not found in the likes of Uncharted, though if you really want to upgrade Joel and his goods fully, you could always take advantage of The Last of Us’ very welcome New Game+ feature.
While the campaign is absolutely worth playing through multiple times, The Last of Us also comes packing a robust, rich multiplayer mode that isn’t simply a retread of Uncharted’s. In fact, The Last of Us’ multiplayer seems decidedly scaled back in order to fit it into the context of the post-civilization United States, with small player counts and only two modes that pay exceptional detail to the greater context of the single-player campaign.
Supply Raid, on the other hand, is about whittling down your team by eroding their overall life count. It’s more generic than its counterpart, but the idea of having a shared number of lives forces you to strive for better play. It makes you not want to be the reason your team loses, it makes you not want to make silly blunders. Like Survivors, Supply Raid also allows you to craft items on the fly using components found on the map and feels a whole lot like the single-player game. By scaling back the modes and the player counts from the likes of Uncharted, Naughty Dog has removed the tall barrier between single player and multiplayer and has made the two feel interconnected, even ancillarily.
Then again, The Last of Us is still all about its single player campaign. Many players will never jump online, and frankly, they won’t be missing out on what truly makes the overall package so incredibly special, so exceptionally noteworthy, such a must-play experience.
Its unrivaled presentation in particular sets the bar even higher than the Uncharted trilogy already did, and its writing, voice acting and layered gameplay combine to create what is very easily the game to beat for Game of the Year 2013.
- +Superb storytelling
- +Immersive, rich environments
- +Stellar voice acting, sound design
- +Beautiful graphics
- +Excellent Gameplay