I would be a fool, a liar, and a contrarian lout to point fingers at the landscape of reviewers, snarl angrily, and with a nasally voice shout that The Last of Us isn’t a damn good game. It is.
But I would also be a fool, a liar, and a conformist hack to say that it deserves a perfect score. It’s not perfect, despite the exceedingly stellar visuals, the interesting crafting system, and the wonderful pacing. Pabst Blue Ribbon hadn’t yet kissed my lips, but I’m not one to agree with such aggressive pandering that The Last of Us is the Citizen Kane of gaming, that Joel is some grizzled Orson Welles, and Ellie is some foul-mouthed sled.
Sorry, I’m being rude. I can understand why the game is given a streak of 10s and almost 10s. I can understand why the unified joy of reviewers at The Last of Us is manifest through big green numbers and letters as well as stains on their pants. It’s a good game. It’s a very good game.
But it’s not a perfect game. There are some very good – perhaps overwhelmingly good – parts to The Last of Us that are big, foundational components for blockbuster games.
For instance, its writing. The Last of Us is an unabashed love song to tragedy, all too willing to stitch together a caring, dainty backdrop for any character and then destroy it. Though it isn’t so ruthless as to put every named head on the table, the game skirts the fine line between the Fable 3 type of cartoonish character death and the Mass Effect 3 type of sociopathy. Instead, it makes you care about these people. It makes you try to care about them. It tries so damn hard to light a small fire in your heart, that when their eyes flutter or a frown emerges from the corner of their lips, you feel it. It tries to make you give a shit.
Sometimes the game succeeds exceedingly well at this. Joel, the grizzled protagonist of ambiguous southern origins, is a man whom you see slowly lose his grizzledom. Over the course of the game, he quickly goes from zero to hero, if zero was “a man with a dead daughter” and hero was “found a new one.” Ellie, on the other hand, is a sailor reincarnated into the body of Ellen Page. But all joking aside, you get the idea very quickly that they’re good people, they’re nice people. They just happen to infuse the shittiness of the world around them into their character so well that they aren’t overly emotional or overly angry or overly bratty – they’re just people in terrible situations.
That’s something I must commend Naughty Dog for accomplishing. Unlike many protagonists, they don’t have the naivety or obligatory “I believe in mankind” speech. Both of them are survivors, both of them are stuck in an oppressively hostile environment, and both of them are avatars of suffering in very different forms. There’s no pitter-patter of cutscenes, awkward transitions, or overlong stares at photographs (well, maybe one). Everything is succinct. Most cutscenes do not have the wily trickery of mood music to make me feel terrible; the scenes are terrible enough, with only the conviction and the pain in the voices of the characters accentuated by minute twitches and movements in astoundingly complex body language.
The game is visually striking. Instead of a wash-out palette with twenty varieties of grey and beige blanketed in bloom, the world of zombified America is vivid and lush. Green dominates the palette as overgrown concrete and broken glass stand as relics to long-gone human dominance. Mixed in with flora and fauna are red and brown fungi, signifying the length and amount of infestation. Corpses dangle from the roofs and bodies float ominously in the water. Vomit-coloured sacks riddled in alien, tumorous design cling to the walls. Dense fogs made of spores hang lazily in the air around abandoned cafes and restaurants. The whole country is the suck.
Despite its impressive visuals, The Last of Us lacks creative or compelling monster design. Sprouting from the eyeless faces of those unfortunate enough to have been taken over by the vile Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis (the mutated strain responsible for such widespread destruction) are branches of clicking appendages like crowns upon bloated torsos. You can see the zombie influence on some of them – the stalkers and runners, for instance, are as zombie-like as you’ll get. The Clickers and the Bloaters are different, reminiscent of the Flood from the Halo series.
But even though The Last of Us uses a slightly different set of ‘zombies’ than its survival horror counterparts, all you experience is unabated viciousness. There’s no dark serenity that comes with Ophiocordyceps’ infection, no eye-of-the-hurricane level of quietness. The infected are just feral monsters placed on a map at inconvenient juncture; you don’t get the sensation that this is a world that’s not only unshackled from human dominance, but has reclaimed it as well. It feels shallow, considering the naturalness of such a mutation and the variety of directions this game could have gone and how many different atmospheres that could have been made.
Additionally, The Last of Us doesn’t reconcile the stealth and escort parts of the game very well. One of the most confusing parts was the subway tunnels escort, where you had to guide two non-player characters through a group of Clickers and Runners. Despite the NPCs behind in the face of the enemy, nobody bat an eyelash. But when you were caught, then you were in trouble. There’s a sort of dissonance in that scenario where the immersion seemed compromised. But that was rare – other times the escorts did care, and I couldn’t figure out why such inconsistency existed.
On normal difficulty the loot was far too much. Even with a run-and-gun type of play, I ended up finding a lot more ammunition and items than seemed plausible, especially in a world that so readily touted scarcity. I was loaded to the brim with components and crafted far too many items I didn’t really need, and it got even worse when I was playing a more stealthy character. Someone might point and argue that having too much loot may not be a bad thing, and I would agree, but it compromises some of the feeling of bareness that everything else exudes. Others may argue that a good amount of supplies give me more flexibility to try new things, but I shouldn’t have to force myself to try something new. It should be accommodating and natural, not because I have too much loot.
Lastly, though it’s sometimes touted as a survivor horror, it isn’t that frightening. The intense moments where you begin to sweat and are stuck on the edge of your seat is punctured by long arcs of character and plot development. Furthermore, the game adopts a more stealthy action adventure approach during the lengthy moments where you fight raiders and bandits, throwing out the horror dimension entirely. Additionally, the infected can quickly become more of a nuisance than an actual threat. For instance, Runners are never that much of a threat. Clickers can be at some moments in the game, but their vulnerability to homemade shivs makes them just as susceptible to careful play. The only threats are the Bloaters and Stalkers, but they tend to arrive in semi-scripted areas, and they’re hardly the slow, creeping monstrosities that populate more terrifying games. It’s less of a horror game and more of an action adventure game that has some potential for horror elements, but steers a bit off from that direction.
One surprising component was the Multiplayer. I heavily recommend you play the Survivors option, primarily because of its one-life-per-player game style. Though the Multiplayer is a bit simplistic, the sensation of playing against human enemies where everyone only has one life provides a adrenaline rush I never expected from The Last of Us. While I doubt the multiplayer’s long-term lasting power, getting a group of friends together to play the multiplayer is a worthwhile endeavour that I strongly endorse. It forces strategic, team-based play on top of a lot of communication.
So, in a nutshell, what is the Last of Us? Is it the perfect game that descended from heaven and is ready to take us to the promised land? Hardly. The Last of Us has too many flaws and flip-flops far too often in both its atmosphere and gameplay for me to cast aside its collective foibles as uniqueness. But on the other hand, I’d be hard pressed to find recent games that stand up to this level of detail, emotional sincerity, and unrelenting earnestness and love for mature narrative.
The Last of Us doesn’t bring in anything new, and it stumbles a bit in terms of getting that hundred percent perfect balance of ludonarrative immersion, but what it lacks it more than makes up for in strong fundamentals. It’s a gripping juggernaut of a tragedy, unrepentant in showing the fierceness of Mother Nature’s reclamation of Her domain as she gives humanity the finger.
And you know what? That’s all it needs to be.
4 / 5