Review: The Last of Us

I don’t usually write about videogames, but rather than blast a few dozen tweets or a super-long FB update, I thought I’d say a few things about The Last of Us, the latest game from the people who made the Uncharted series.

Shorter me: this game is excellent and if you have a PS3 I’d recommend buying it.

Longer me follows.

Basically, this is how the last few evenings went for me this week:

1) Open beer.

2) Turn on PS3, start playing The Last of Us.

3) Totally forget about beer.

4) Discover flat beer when it’s time for me to go to bed, wonder “where did that come from?”

TLoU is a zombie apocalypse survival game from Naughty Dog, which means at times it’s really more of a remote-controlled movie than something like Red Dead Redemption. At that link, you’ll find Navneet Alang asking whether videogames need to be put on rails to offer the best narrative experience. I’m not going to take a position (nor, really, does Nav) but I will say that TLoU shows that this isn’t just a gimmick that worked with the Uncharted games: TLoU is easily one of the most compelling stories I’ve enjoyed on the PS3.

To put it in one perspective, if you have to choose between buying TLoU or watching World War Z to get your fix of zombie apocalypse, it’s not even close: on its storyline alone the videogame wins hands down.

And just as importantly, it overwhelmingly (though not completely) works as a game. As far as gameplay goes, the biggest difference between TLoU and Uncharted is that while Nathan Drake largely gets to spray bullets with sociopathic mirth, you spend the entirety of TLoU counting every single bullet (or arrow.) A single missed shot is occasion for an obscenity, and more than a few misses probably means your untimely demise is at hand. This can be frustrating, but in a game where save points are common it’s one way of maintaining the tension.

So combat, rather than being a matter of running into the fray guns blazing (which is fun!) ends up needing to be thought through one step at a time. The additional need to build weapons and health kits out of spare parts is something that takes some time to get used to, but by the end of the game becomes second nature.

It’s not a perfect game: like other Naughty Dog releases, there are plenty of times where the puzzles you need to solve feel less like a natural part of the story and more like padding and make-work. And there’s the obvious point that if you’re not a fan of Naughty Dog’s style of storytelling, where you spend as much time as audience as you do as participant, then you’re probably going to have a problem with this game: it leans more heavily on its script than any of the Uncharted games.

I’m a big fan of the way Naughty Dog tells stories, and even I felt a creeping urge to roll my eyes and mutter “oh well I guess I’ll sit back for a bit”. But that urge was usually shouted down because really, the story those moments serve works incredibly well.

While I don’t want to spoil the game, it would be unfair to not talk about the story in a bit more detail: you (mostly) play the game as Joel, a father who survives his daughter being killed at the outbreak of the zombie plague. Joel meets Ellie, a young girl immune to the disease, from whom a band of survivors want to make a vaccine. Broadly, the story is about getting Ellie from Boston to safety out west, and the bond that develops between Joel and Ellie.

The transformation of the relationship between Ellie and Joel is one of those things that makes the game special: the writing is note-perfect and the actors deliver it perfectly. It’s not exactly a breakthrough in story-telling (hello, True Grit), but to execute an old standard well is its own kind of work.

The last thing I’ll say about the story is how the viscera of modern gameplay is used well to reinforce the brutality of the story. Blood and body parts go flying not just for decorative purposes but because that’s the kind of person Joel’s had to become to survive. Everything about the game is intentionally brutal and messy to reinforce the world that we’re immersed in. And we’re really not spared the psychological consequences of this much brutality on the characters. (For example, if you’re willing to spoil one of the chapters of the game, read there..)

The Last of Us could almost be a success on technical grounds alone: it is simply a beautiful game and the increasing quality of motion capture makes the animation really excellent. (To the point where I seriously wonder what the point of getting a next-generation console will be.) More importantly, it offers an excellent story told through far-above-average gameplay.

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