The Last of Us
With each successive Uncharted game it became increasingly difficult to accept Nathan Drake. He was our hero, a lovable rogue with a soft spot for an impetuous blonde reporter. He was tenacious, he was resilient, and whenever we were put in control, well, he was nothing less than a cold-blooded perpetrator of genocide. When Drake was knocked down we knew it wasn’t for long. Drake was supposed to be the hero, and not a tragic one, and together, we were invincible.
To appreciate The Last of Us one has to see the maturation of Naughty Dog not only as a studio but as a collective of storytellers. Joel, the new protagonist, is in many ways Drake’s opposite. Joel is never made out to be the hero. He is simply a man living in a shitty time doing the shitty things he perceives to be necessary to his survival. He’s reserved, he’s gruff and he prefers to take on as little risk as possible. And because of these traits we accept Joel, though not embrace him, to be the heartless bastard he is in and out of our control.
If there is a hero in The Last of Us it’s Ellie. Born after the pandemic, she is a stark contrast to Joel’s pragmatism. The world outside of the Boston quarantine zone, where Ellie has spent her entire life, is a blank slate. Her observations and occasionally profound commentary lend the game its pulse, providing the necessary breathers between combat and stealth, which are both abundant and stressful.
“Survival feels like a wholly essential extension of the stealth gameplay”The Last of Us strikes the appropriate balance between fighting and sneaking. Stealth becomes combat and combat returns to stealth in an organic fashion that feels more natural than other stealth titles. In most stealth-centric games it’s all too common to feel like you’ve failed once spotted. In most of those titles you have the tools to dispose of your pursuers but you’re still left wanting to revert to an old save and finish the area the ‘correct’ way; I never felt this way playing The Last of Us. The world Naughty Dog has crafted, and the mechanics that support it, make survival feel like a wholly essential extension of stealth gameplay. Joel is a badass, however, he isn’t the same type of badass that Adam Jensen or Corvo Attano are.
Inventory management plays a crucial role in Joel and Ellie’s survival. Crafting, as a mechanic, has never been something I’ve been a fan of. Years and years of item hoarding in games have trained us as players to fear the use of items, thinking we might need them later. Crafting generally makes this trained behavior worse, since it usually requires us to routinely take leaps of faith with the precious resources we’ve been collecting. In The Last of Us there are no such leaps, and thankfully, no recipes needed.
To craft you merely select the item you’d like to make and it makes it, assuming you have the proper salvage. It’s simple and unlike many games with crafting systems it is a normal function you’ll use all of the time. And it all happens without the benefit of a pause screen. Naughty Dog has made inventory management stressful, but stressful because you’re forced to craft items on the fly and juggle weapons during combat, not because it’s difficult or there’s any unnecessary menu-diving. The stress is appropriate, and in this case welcome.
On Normal difficulty most players will likely find The Last of Us hard in the beginning and easy in the end. Supplies aren’t exactly plentiful, especially when compared to other modern action games, but diligent players should have a sufficient cache of ammunition by the game’s conclusion. Part of this has to be attributed to the game’s difficulty curve in reverse. As you get accustomed to how the infected enemy types work you shouldn’t be surprised to die, a lot. Most infected enemies are essentially blind, requiring a significant amount of unlearning normal videogame stealth conventions, such as not needing to turn your flashlight off while sneaking around Clickers. But as you gain confidence in the world, learning how it acts and reacts, you feel more and more sure of yourself as you glide from choke-out to shiv to brick-to-the-face.
What’s fascinating about learning to play The Last of Us is how its mechanics reflect its messages. The first time you crack a 2×4 over a human enemy’s skull it is a horrific, brutal scene to digest. But this is exactly how Joel has survived for the last 20 years. It doesn’t affect him in the same way it affects you, or Ellie too. Like Joel you learn to accept these horrors of survival, all the while you’re becoming what Joel already is: an efficient, methodical killer.
“Multiplayer provides a theater for both brutality and camaraderie”Like the previous two Uncharted titles, The Last of Us also delivers an impressive, though wholly unexpected, multiplayer component. Crafting and teamwork are staples of every successful match, as most players attempting to lone wolf are dropped with gunfire and finished off with a boot to the face. The 4v4 matches are always an intimate affair, providing a theater for both brutality and camaraderie.
Naughty Dog’s commitment to its single player fiction and mechanics is impressive. Players choose a faction in the beginning, either the Hunters or the Fireflies, which are both prominent groups in the narrative. From there a meta game is laid out, exchanging the expected progression points of modern multiplayer for parts and survivors. Parts lead to the same sort of unlocks you’d expect, allowing you to further customize loadouts, but survivors give you a personal stake in multiplayer – something other than your kill-to-death ratio.
Depending on the amount of survivors you have, and your performance match to match, your clan will grow or shrink as people come aboard and others die to infection and starvation. In a bizarre twist your clan can be populated with your Facebook friends list, which is a hilarious and awesome use of the service (it posts nothing to you or your friend’s walls). In between matches a ticker updates you on things happening in your clan, and it’s oddly comforting to know when your real world friends are grilling up some rat or working on a generator. None of this stuff really means anything, but it’s thoughtful and it sprinkles just enough context on multiplayer to make it that much more than it already is, which is deliberate and awesome.
The Last of Us is a sobering conclusion to Naughty Dog’s relationship with the PlayStation 3. It is the studio’s finest game to date, marrying gameplay and fiction better than any of the Uncharted games. It’s sometimes haunting, sometimes beautiful, but more than anything else it feels real, and both you and Joel are very much vulnerable to it.