Over the past five years or so, the gaming landscape has been inundated by post-apocalyptic and/or zombie themed games. More often than not, these games range from mediocre- a la ZombieU -to downright awful, like this year's Walking Dead Survival Instinct. But occasionally, the industry strikes gold with brilliant experiences like Fallout 3 or Metro 2033. These games tap into what can make the genre really special; a sense of survival and desperation in truly hopeless situations. This year, developer Naughty Dog released The Last of Us, a game quite unlike anything they've ever done before. While some were apprehensive at the prospect of the studio that brought us Crash and Jak tackling such heavy subject matter, in the end they delivered more than anyone expected them to. The Last of Us is a prime example of the post-apocalypse genre done not only right, but masterfully.
The story of The Last of Us is a simple one; a smuggler named Joel must transport a girl named Ellie cross-country to a mysterious organization, get paid, and get out. For any readers sake, I refuse to elaborate on the story any more. Ruining the story of The Last of Us even a little bit would be doing it a great injustice, and this is really a game best experienced without foreknowledge. What I CAN say, is that The Last of Us delivers a heartfelt story that is all at once emotionally engaging, unpredictable, and wonderfully simple. None of the situations that Joel and Ellie encounter ever feel contrived. Each scene and chapter has an organic flow that makes the story consistently believable, even if their plight is extraordinary.
The excellent story of The Last of Us is only heightened by excellent performances across the board. Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson deliver incredible performances as Joel and Ellie respectively. Joel's no-nonsense, badass manner is never the focus of his character as it would be in other games, and Ellie is a strong female lead in a game full of them. The characterization and writing of every character focuses on deeper, more human aspects rather than skin deep, at-a-glance features. Whether it's a hesitant pause before a reply or an unintentional brush of a watch, every performance compliments the character's writing in a way that makes each character believable, likable and almost tangible.
The Last of Us may be an amazing storytelling experience, but a game is nothing without it's gameplay. More often than not in post-apocalyptic games, the action clashes with the tone of the situations at hand dramatically. Whether it's zapping zombies with electric machetes in Dead Island or whacking them with an indestructible Cricket bat in ZombieU, the players agency within the gameplay never really feels like it matches the dire circumstances presented in the story. The Last of Us bucks this common issue by mirroring the desperate struggle of Joel and Ellie in the story with equally desperate feeling mechanics. Between the game's scavenging and crafting mechanic, it's difficult over the shoulder shooting and the brutal melee combat, everything fits the tone and feel of the game impeccably. Occasionally, Joel may get attacked by a horde of clickers (the games excellently modeled zombie-substitutes)and have to make a mad dash just to survive. These moments, while intense, can pose a problem for the games framerate. While mostly steady, it an drop into the low 20s when situations get to hectic. This isn't a massive issue and doesn't do anything to hurt the overall experience, but it is worth mentioning nonetheless.
Naughty Dog has always delivered impressive visuals with the Jak and Uncharted series, and The Last of Us is no different. Whereas in most post-apocalyptic games, there may be a smattering of boring brown or gray buildings occasionally covered with the red blood of zombies, here there is a beautiful array of colors and aesthetically pleasing art design. Every location Joel and Ellie visit has a unique flavor and feels like it could really exist outside of the game. Character designs are also gorgeous and incredibly animated, always reflecting the characters mood or situation with appropriate animations. Lighting is one of the most impressive aspects of the visuals however, as shadows are cast along the wall or the sun beats down through some trees in the woods. Every piece of the visuals eventually come together to form a wonderful looking game that is always pleasing to look at.
The general consensus when The Last of Us multiplayer was unveiled was that it was unneeded. Naughty Dog was trying to craft an incredible story driven experience that would set it apart from any other game, and multiplayer had finally reared it's ugly head to ruin the day. Even I was skeptical when first booting up a match. I am glad to say, then, that The Last of Us' multiplayer mode not only does what it sets out to do well, but actually compliments the incredible single player mode. Naughty Dog could have gone the Call of Duty route, turning every match into a massive bullet storm and ruining what made the singleplayer campaign so special. Instead, they took what set the singleplayer experience apart from other games- a sense of desperate survival, of scavenging for already limited supplies and engaging in struggles with opposing factions just to continue living- and transferred it over to the multiplayer. Ammo is always limited, supplies are easily used up, and the crafting system still lives on. Traps are deployable, stealth is advisable and death is inevitable. Although it can suffer from typcial multiplayer issues (poor sportsmanship, cheating, etc), it doesn't feel like a separate mode from the singleplayer, but rather an extension if the universe established there.
Naughty Dog has crafted the ultimate post-apocalyptic game, one I had always dreamed of and now have. Is is an incredible feat of storytelling, engineering and character performance. No amount of superlatives heaped on it could ever do it justice, so do yourself a favor and go experience The Last of Us.