Sooo, The Last of Us. I’m not even going to give this any preamble. This is the best game I’ve played in several years. Going back, my favorite games last year were The Walking Dead and Journey. The year before that, Skyrim. All 3 are outstanding games, but none of them come close to the experience I had playing The Last of Us. Honestly, if a game comes out later this year that tops this one, I will be completely shocked.
I do have a somewhat embarrassing admission to make though. I started the game on “hard” mode but about halfway through I took it down to “medium” for the remainder of the game. I’m good at video games, OK? You’ll just have to take my word on that one. But The Last of Us on hard mode is, well, pretty damn hard. I found myself not wanting to play the game because I’d be stuck on the same combat encounter over and over, and it was ruining my experience. But in order to understand that, let’s talk a little bit about some basic gameplay features.
The Last of Us plays like a stealth based 3rd person shooter/adventure game, but it is so much deeper than that. There are small amounts of exploration, but it’s mostly a linear, story driven experience. The game developer, Naughty Dog, has spent the last several years crafting some of the best story driven games this generation in the Uncharted series, and they step up their game here. Nowadays, gamers clamor for open environments where they can explore and tackle quests in whatever order they want, and I’m all for that. But Naughty Dog knows how to write a damn story, and I never find myself wishing that I could go my own way when playing one of their games. They’re very cinematic in tone and scope, both in large set piece moments, and in smaller character driven scenes made possible only by fantastic actors and excellent motion capture technology.
So while you are sneaking around, planning when to launch an attack and shooting dudes with guns, The Last of Us is more about the story and the experiences of the characters than the actual gameplay. But that’s not to say that the mechanics are boring or ill-conceived by any means. You find parts that can be crafted into items such as shivs and smoke bombs, and there are always trade-offs to be made. For example, you can make a health kit or a molotov cocktail with the alcohol and bandages you find, but not both. You have to decide whether to be offensive or defensive in strategy. The shooting controls feel loose enough to be realistic without making aiming impossible, and the melee kills are appropriately brutal for the world of the game. And oh boy is it a beautiful world.
The story set-up is that 20 years earlier, there was an airborn fungal outbreak that effectively turned some people into zombies. But these aren’t your run-of-the-mill George Romero zombies. There are the basic “runners” that act like you’d expect them to. If they see you, they run at you and will beat you to death unless you’re able to do the same to them first. But then there are also “clickers,” infected that have mutated so that they’re blind and feel their way around using echo location. Sneaking into a dark room and hearing the soft popping and clicking from a clicker is an intense feeling, indeed.
I won’t go any farther into the story here because it really does need to be experienced first hand. Some of the character decisions are so unexpected and shocking that I’m still haunted by them weeks after finishing the game. And the ending is appropriately full of optimism, sadness, and uncertainty.
As I get older, I really find myself needing to be connected to the characters in games in order to be fulfilled while playing them. Gone are the days when I could play anything just because it looked cool and there were guns involved. Now I look for story, character, and endings that leave me thinking, and The Last of Us has all of those in spades. Play this game.
-relationship between Joel and Ellie
-solid shooting/movement mechanics
-satisfying but open-ended conclusion
-some repeated puzzle mechanics
-combat becomes trivial in the latter half of the game on “normal”
-not so great multiplayer matchmaking