System: Playstation 3
Release Date: June 14, 2013
MSRB Rating: Mature
The Good: Genuinely emotional story, amazing character development, great acting/voice acting, gorgeous graphics, excellent level design, true artistry in every aspect of its design
The Bad: Functional but shallow development system, no storyline-based choice
Final Score: 9 out of 10
For years, the debate has raged on whether or not videogames should be considered art in the same way as movies and tv shows. Some games have stepped up and given audiences more than just a game in hopes of answering this, but none have ever done it with the depth of thought, beauty, and lingering potency of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us. In the about fifteen hours that it lasted, it kept me thoroughly engaged, excited for more, and, most importantly, emotionally invested in both its plot and its characters.
The premise of the game has been seen frequently in modern media: an epidemic has broken out and turned most of the world’s population into blood-hungry zombies. As Joel, you are tasked with caring for a fourteen-year-old girl and getting her across the country to safety. This is where similarities to what you’ve seen in the past end, however. Unlike most videogames, instead of focusing on the shooting, violence, and bloodshed, The Last of Us works hard to build player investment in its characters and uses the zombie apocalypse context to give a very adult meditation on the highs and lows of the human spirit in the face of overwhelming tragedy. Within its first fifteen minutes, I literally had tears in my eyes, and by its heart-rending and thought-provoking end, I felt a closeness to Joel and Ellie that I’ve never felt towards any other videogame characters.
The game world is gorgeous and largely believable, and it feels alive as you move through it. One of the themes is finding beauty in the face of darkness, and The Last of Us allows for this both through the story itself and by the absolute detail put into every environment. I saw very little repetition, and every area had its own unique feel that added to the depth of the world. It is absolutely the most beautiful game I’ve seen on PS3 to date. While finding supplies is an important aspect of the gameplay, I often found myself exploring just to see the breathtaking surroundings and Naughty Dog brilliantly scattered visual stories throughout the game. Every environment speaks about what happened there in the past, and it is this level of detail that makes the game world ring so true.
But beauty can mean little in a game where the levels make gameplay tedious or annoying. Thanks again to the skill of the development team, this isn’t a problem in The Last of Us. Every level is carefully crafted to allow players to choose how they want to approach any given situation. There are creative places to take cover or create a strategic advantage if you want to play the game as a shooter. If you want to go the stealth route, I found the stealth system to be as deep as any Metal Gear game. If you want to play it as a brawler, as long as you’re strategic about it, you can do that too. The Last of Us is designed to create great moments within the gameplay itself, and some of my best memories with the game come from stealth moments that truly scared me or brawls in which I felt I did something awesome. Even better is the fact that the game doesn’t rate you on how you approached a level, and as my involvement with the characters grew, I found myself shifting between strategies based on what I felt was the best way to keep the people I cared about safe.
The highest praise I can give this game though is that I believed in the characters. Through every aspect of the gameplay, I felt like Joel and I was able to do the things I believed Joel would do. As I guided Ellie through each area, I grew increasingly attached to her because I had to work to protect her and she was actively learning and becoming better at assisting me. By the second half of the game, I had become so attached to this secondary character that I genuinely felt in danger when she wasn’t around, and I worried about what might be happening to her when we were apart. These are things that TV and movies simply can’t do, and if creating emotion isn’t what art is all about, then I have no idea what it is. Bioshock Infinite was given many kudos for creating a secondary character that you want to have around and who is genuinely beneficial to gameplay. The Last of Us blows Bioshock out of the water and easily stands as the new standard for secondary characters.
My biggest complaint with The Last of Us is that, in terms of the storyline, there is absolutely no player choice. You can choose how you want to proceed in each level, but nothing you do ultimately changes the ending or the linear flow of the story. A few years ago this might not have been such an issue for me, but in our post The Walking Dead, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and Dishonored world, there were many moments in The Last of Us in which I was wishing I was being given the hard choices rather than watching Joel make the choices for me. Don’t get me wrong, the story is amazing and genuinely powerful and I loved every moment of it, I just couldn’t help but feel that this was a missed opportunity in a game that otherwise sets the bar for videogames as art. And just as a note, the first half of the game is fairly traditional in terms of an apocalypse story, but stick with it—the second half gets brilliantly original and intensely engaging.
My only other complaint was that the character development system was a little shallow compared to other contemporary games. The Last of Us allows you to craft items based on supplies you find, and you can put points into various aspects of your character or weapons to become stronger or better at certain skills. I’m glad this was in there, and I crafted a lot of items, but for the most part the crafting system basically worked as a store that went with you. The required supplies were always pre-defined, and there are only ever five items that can be crafted. As for the points put into improving your character or weapons, there was only one skill that I actually felt was necessary to my character, and the weapon improvements were necessary if you wanted the weapon to be effective at all. I just didn’t feel like this system allowed for any creativity on my part, and I also didn’t feel it would genuinely affect how anyone plays the game.
Looking at the overall package, these complaints are minor. The story is thematically deep and thought-provoking despite the lack of choice, and, given the amazing level design, the shallow system can be overlooked since how players approach each situation is where true player creativity comes in. The shooting is tight and well-done, the stealth system works great, and the teamwork aspects with Ellie make the gameplay itself an integral part of the story. This is a game I will remember for a long time and I’ve already been encouraging everyone I see to play it. For the first time in a long time, a game has transcended the confines of gaming to become an experience no one should miss.