Similar to my Soul Sacrifice review, I am going to go into as much depth as possible for prospective buyers of The Last of Us. I will keep the entire review as spoiler-free as possible, and I will warn you in advance if I say something that may be viewed as a minor spoiler. This is going to be a LONG review (that's what in-depth means, right?) so buckle in and let's get started.
The Last of Us
Available on: PS3 (retail disc or Day-1 Digital)
My total play time: 34.5 hours total so far. 14.5 hours (Normal; beaten), 14 hours (Survivor; beaten), 6 hours (multiplayer)
TL;DR - equal parts story, gameplay, graphics, and multiplayer, this game is the complete package.
The Last of Us is, first and foremost, a game. And even if you strip away the presentation, the voice acting, and the storyline, Last of Us is still an incredibly good videogame. It's easy to tell that Naughty Dog took the best aspects of Uncharted and cut out the fat.
Your time spent in Last of Us consists of climbing, exploring, fighting enemies (either through melee, stealth kills, or with firearms), sneaking around, solving puzzles, and crafting new items. Based on my total play time, I would say that I split my time three ways: 30% exploration, 30% all-out combat, and 30% sneaking (and 10% retrying after I died). Now that I'm replaying it a second time (on the hardest difficulty, Survivor), I'm noticing that there is a lot of freedom in how you approach a particular situation. Stealth is king, but it is also quite hard staying completely hidden and sneaking through an area, so I often found myself using stealth in the midst of battle to get the jump on enemies. Combat and stealth each have nuances. For example, when forced to travel through an area full of Infected, you can avoid them completely by throwing objects into the other room to distract the Infected with the noise. To a lesser degree, the same tactic works on human enemies. In battle, you can throw molotovs, bash enemies with metal pipes, and of course shoot them with a gun. For firearms, you have at your disposal pistols, rifles, a bow, a sawed-off shotgun, and a few other weapons that I don't want to spoil. The bow is one of my favorites because, yes, you can use it for stealth kills without alerting your enemies (unless you're seen or they see the dead body). All things considered, Last of Us is a very competent 3rd-person shooter. Because it's easy to die and healing takes about 3-5 seconds in real time, the combat reminds me of Dark Souls. No, not because you're swinging a sword or fighting dragons. It reminds me of Dark Souls in the sense that you have to carefully weigh your options before diving into combat and you can't simply brute-force your way through most situations. You have to be smart.
And everything gets deeper when you add in the fact that supplies are limited and you often have to craft your own medkits, shivs, and bombs on the fly with random stuff found throughout the level. Unless you're playing on the easiest difficulty, you can't go guns-blazing, and even then, your carrying capacity makes it so that you will never have a massive supply of ammo. The crafting forces you to make tough choices. You only have enough supplies for either one medkit or one molotov. Which one do you choose? You only have enough blades for either a melee upgrade, a shiv, or a nail-bomb. Which one do you choose? Supplies are never in abundance, especially on the highest difficulties, which is why avoiding combat altogether is probably the best bet. This isn't Uncharted. You won't be jumping behind .50 cal machine gun turrets, throwing grenades willy-nilly, or firing rocket-launchers at flying helicopters. This is not a Hollywood action game. Last of Us feels much closer to 28 Days Later or Cormack McCarthy's The Road in terms of desperation. You will never be a super-human zombie-slaying hero. At best, you'll simply survive one more day.
On that note, Naughty Dog did a great job of keeping the battles fresh. (Minor spoilers) You'll typically be fighting either a military faction, bandits (called Hunters), or the Infected. There are a few different types of Infected but this isn't like Resident Evil where you run into a massive 2-story-tall beast that you have to destroy by shooting the pulsating red blob in the middle. In the same way, your human enemies never employ the super-annoying "Heavy" soldier with layers upon layers of impenetrable body armor. All the enemies feel grounded in reality. They are as vulnerable and desperate as you. The AI is pretty good. Enemies search for you, gang up on you, bum-rush you with melee weapons (if you're not wielding a gun). Enemies retreat and regroup and try to outflank you. Enemies throw molotovs at you if you stay behind the same piece of cover for too long. Enemies give covering fire to one another. If you're out of ammo and your gun goes "click", your human foes will shout out to their buddies "He's out of ammo! Let's get 'em!" It's pretty cool to see the AI at work. For me, I had the most fun sneaking around Batman-style and silently dispatching my enemies, but ymmv.
Puzzle-solving and exploration were the two big surprises for me. Unlike Uncharted, which has you climbing 300-foot-tall statues to hit a switch, the puzzles in The Last of Us are grounded in reality. Grab a plank, prop it against a wall, find an alternate route, grab that plank, and use it to cross a rooftop. Stuff like that, okay? Yet, it fits. This isn't a game about heroics. It's about survival, and the puzzles reflect that attitude. You won't be climbing across archways or making impossible leaps across chasms. You'll be turning on generators to power doors, grabbing ladders, and stuff like that.
Exploration was the other big surprise. Sure, there are plenty of linear sections, but there's quite a healthy dose of alternative areas, even though you will eventually be funneled down one path to advance the storyline. (Minor spoiler) When your group first gets out of the city and reaches Lincoln, you find yourself on the main street. There are several buildings to loot, back-alleys to explore, and even a locked safe (gotta find that combination). Granted, these open-ended areas do not comprise the entirety of the game, but they are frequent enough to give you a real sense of scrounging for supplies. If you enjoy exploring, Last of Us won't be able to match games like Fallout or Skyrim, but it isn't as linear as Uncharted. The "treasures" of Uncharted also make an appearance, except this time around you'll be collecting notes, dog-tags, comic books, and stuff like that.
Throughout the storyline, you'll meet up with various people who decide to tag along. They never really get in the way, and they don't roll over and die all the time, forcing you to restart the section. Most importantly, they stay hidden. Sure, it subtracts a bit of realism (I've seen my AI companion dash in front of an enemy without being seen) but it also helps eliminate stupid situations where you're stuck in a battle or forced to restart a checkpoint simply because the AI didn't stay hidden. It's a compromise: sacrifice a bit of realism for better functionality. Your companions will also fight with you, although they typically don't flank the enemy or use advanced tactics. They will, however, perform stealth kills on enemies if you're also sneaking. They hold their own.
As you play, you'll be able to acquire upgrades. Some are gained from training manuals. You can miss these, so keep your eyes open, but the training manuals will do stuff like extend the area-of-effect for your smoke bombs or increase your healing speed or something like that. Joel can take pills to upgrade his stats like health, crafting speed, weapon sway, etc. When you find a work bench, you can spend scrap on upgrading your various weapons. Faster fire rate, longer range, less recoil, bigger ammo magazines, and faster reload are just a few of the options. If you choose to play New Game+ (which restricts you to the same difficulty), all of these upgrades will carry over.
One last thing about gameplay: Survivor mode (unlocked after you beat the game once) is easily the most tension-filled experience I've had in a videogame in quite a long time. Ammo is painfully scarce, supplies are very difficult to find, enemies are brutal, and the game rarely throws you a bone. It's not difficult in an unfair way. I can still get through entire sections without firing a shot, but it's not easy, and when I do complete a section, I breathe a sigh of relief. Additionally, you absolutely cannot go guns-blazing. You have to carefully weigh all of your options and plan ahead. There was a part where I was rather low on health and I only had enough supplies to make either one health kit or one molotov. I sat there for several moments, trying to decide which one I would need more (I ended up with the molotov and it got me out of a pinch). There was another part in the middle of the game when I had 5 bullets total. 5 bullets. That's it, and I was at a part with about 15 enemies. Sneaking and silently killing my way through that section as a sniper shot over my head was so intense, and Survivor mode is full of such moments. Survivor mode is definitely the way this game was meant to be played, and I would encourage everyone to challenge themselves and try to complete it on Survivor.
I won't go into too many details regarding the story. Instead, I will give some of my personal impressions and feelings. There are some very, very, VERY minor spoilers in this section, so skip to PRESENTATION if you want to maintain total media blackout.
The story is very good. It's good because it's well-written. There aren't a ton of mind-boggling plot twists, and most of the twists were pretty easy to foresee. Instead, Last of Us grabs you with the excellent voice acting and honest portrayal of its characters. These people feel alive and emotional, partially thanks to the top-notch motion capture and facial animations.
(Minor spoiler) Your mission is to escort a girl out of the city for an unknown reason. Your character, Joel, has done some smuggling in the past, so you're hired to take Ellie to safety. Of course, nothing ever goes according to plan, so you're forced to escort her for much longer. The game takes place over multiple seasons, so although you start in Summer, don't be surprised to see the orange leaves of Autumn or even some snow on the ground.
Obviously, not everyone will like the story, but I thought everything was very realistic, probably one of the most realistic stories in a videogame. Ellie and Joel are very believable and part of the game's pleasure is seeing how these two foster a friendship.
Another thing I enjoyed was that there wasn't really any filler. Each area feels like an integral part of the story. I can't think of a single part that feels thrown in just to make the game longer, and I should mention that it took me over 14 hours to beat the game on normal difficulty. 14 hours of non-filler gameplay is pretty dang good, I would say.
(This category covers graphics, sound, framerate, etc)
One of my favorite aspects of The Last of Us is the sound. Similar to how Dead Space used sound effects to scare us and keep us on our toes, Last of Us uses sound in a multitude of ways. There are a lot of subtle touches and the sound design is very well done.
Graphically, Naughty Dog is on the top of their game. While snobs might jab a finger at a few jaggies or some rough textures or geometry, it's silly when you look at the big picture. Last of Us is a true visual marvel, and it's running on a 7-year-old gaming system (just imagine what Next-gen will look like). The lighting effects are especially good.
Aside from the graphics, the details...oh goodness, the details. ND crafted everything from the ground up. Tons of little touches add realism to the world, and the same goes for your companions: their comments, their facial expressions, and their body language is the best I've seen in any videogame. (Minor spoiler) A great example of Naughty Dog paying attention to details is during a certain cutscene in the game. Ellie gives one of your other companions a toy as a gift. When I replayed the game, I wanted to see if she actually picked up the toy earlier in the game (it's from a very specific scene). Lo and behold, as I was walking away I saw Ellie coyly walk over to the toy and look at me over her shoulder. After I had walked to the other side of the room, she quickly stooped down, grabbed it, and rushed to my side, acting like nothing had happened. Those sort of details aren't going to be spotted by 90% of those who play the game, and yet Naughty Dog still made it a point to stay consistent.
I only ran into one glitch and that was when I was trying to melee an enemy and the enemy went invisible, so I was struggling against nothing (I died and the glitch didn't repeat itself). I also did have a sparse few upsets with the camera control, but this was typically if I was backed up against a wall or moving through a door at a weird angle. Other than that, I never ran into any other noticeable glitches or drops in framerate.
I spent the least amount of time on multiplayer, but I wanted to try it out so that I could let you folks know how it is. It's good, but the single-player is going to be your main reason for buying The Last of Us. Essentially, you build a "clan" and recruit people to your team. As you play through multiplayer missions, you'll acquire food, supplies, and new people who join your faction. Think of it as a persistent score-tracking. You can lose the long-term metagame by not gathering enough parts or by losing too many battles.
If you are worried that everything boils down to killing opponents, don't fret. You can find your place in a team by healing, giving items, scrounging for parts, acting as a spotter, and stuff like that. At the end of every match, your parts are totaled up and it helps contribute to your Faction. If you don't scrounge up enough food and medical supplies, the people "back home at camp" (you don't actually get to see them in combat) can get sick, starve, and die. However, if you keep people alive and continue adding to your faction, it will unlock special abilities and more powerful weapons. In other words, playing smart is what will help you in the long run. This long-term game is quite interesting. It's unlike anything I've played before, and I definitely like it.
Almost every nuance of the single player combat finds its way into the multiplayer. You still have to craft items (which occurs in real time, just like the single-player). Your ammo is limited. You can use your "listen" ability to spot nearby enemies, but it has a cooldown, so you can't spam it. Firing a gun and making loud noises makes you appear as a blip on the minimap, so stealth has very real advantages. The gameplay feels like a fast-paced Metal Gear Online: sneaking is heavily encouraged, sticking with a group of 2 or more is best, going on solo rampages is a death sentence, and engaging in prolonged firefights will probably get you killed sooner or later. I imagine that Naughty Dog will expand the multiplayer with paid DLC down the road, but for now, the multiplayer is a fun diversion.
This game is great. It really is. If you enjoy the Uncharted games and you want to dive into a tense, difficult game, The Last of Us fits the bill. It's a good shooter. It has a great story. It has great graphics, but seeing it all come together is a sight to behold.
While it could be argued The Last of Us has minor flaws, my justification for the 10/10 score is that Last of Us is unmatched in so many aspects. There are only a few games that set the bar each generation, and The Last of Us is one of them. The graphics, the challenging AI, the gameplay, and the no-filler story justify the 10/10 score, in my opinion.
If you have any questions, feel free to PM me or leave them in the comment section below (no spoilers, please).