QCF: The Last of Us

n the dilapidated remains of crumbling edifice that provides the little refuge in the quarantined limits of Central Boston, a man awakens suddenly. His eyes emit a strong sense of fatigue -- the fatigue of survival. After 20 years of hardship that warped and conditioned an earnest man into a smuggling misanthrope, he stumbles upon a job opportunity that proves to be bigger than himself, a journey that unfolds an experience more human than anything that has ever been inside of a PlayStation 3 before it.

It seems like this generation, developers are creating apocalypse games like there’s no tomorrow. Yeah, I know -- it’s an awful fucking joke, but hey... all humor aside, it’s unfortunately true and has endured to morally bankrupt the concept as a result. Naughty Dog took it upon themselves in 2011 to develop a dystopian future, one that’s severely deteriorated of morality or will to live. Only survival remains, taking the genre to an entirely new element beyond the doom and gloom of civilization merely collapsing.

The Last of Us places players in the company of a 14-year-old girl and 48-year-old man as they weather the odds towards a common goal. In the process of their perilous journey they gradually teach each other what is to be human again. Simply put, The Last of Us, being nothing short of a masterpiece, has set a new standard for video games.

Naughty Dog is no stranger to character development. Say what you will about the thin foundations that supported the suspension of disbelief in the pulpy narrative of Uncharted, or limited substance or appeal to a plot drowned in a palate of dark and edgy anti-hero clichés in Jak and Daxter, but the argument is hard-pressed when it comes to challenging the very appeal of those characters. The finite details found in the personality of The Last of Us cast encompass the extents of the most genuine portrayal of the human condition in the midst of extinction.

Keep in mind, all of these elements are familiar: The companion element, the journey to a far off destination, the odds, and yet they all felt new again because these characters took these tropes and made them feel organic. The storytelling devices are minimal and subtle, the lack of MacGuffins and the brief yet effective use of audience comprehension refines the scripting and pacing into an oiled machine of fiction. Every deliberate moment prioritizes the characters instead of the story, be it aloof dialogue or significant context of personality, or history that successfully puts the player right behind the duo. Interactions possess a certain anxiety that believably builds an immersive bridge of captivation. These particular instances are drawn out when you encounter enemies or individuals that demand an immediate and often time’s hostile response in order to keep Joel and Ellie safe, and the constant struggle of being virtuous versus practicality is especially compounded when it’s happening in the company of a teenager who’s still making sense of everything.

The overall direction and acting portrays a wide spectrum of psychological elements exchanged between Joel and Ellie, or how they socialize with the world and those that live in it. The experience stands toe-to-toe with any contemporary masterpiece before it, and then some, including film or literature.

The graphic nature of the group’s voyage is impactful, to say the least -- the question on whether or not moral ambiguity exists in a setting like the apocalypse may be debatable... and then you see Joel carve out someone’s jugular in spite of the desperate pleas for mercy while Ellie witnesses it all, no less. The tone of Joel’s actions are established very early in the game. His callous approach towards humanity has festered into a homicidal apathy. Terminating anything that threatens him eliminates any danger that comes his way, which ensures that a tragedy will never happen like the time that he did hesitate. Ellie’s views are a bit more eschewed; she simply sees the distinction of killing who they must as the martial law that she was born and raised in. The brutality of Joel’s attacks still stun Ellie as she feels the vitriol behind his killing. The graphic violence gradually builds into a deeper meaning that feels tragically human. Gradually, the roles behind the killing reverse, Joel’s animosity is dialed back and redirected—Ellie slowly becomes consumed with rage, as the lifestyle and brutality of mankind on the outside of the quarantine zone affects her; the ludonarrative dissonance is nearly non-existent because of these deeper meanings.

The characters take center stage of course, but the real supporting actor in The Last of us is the game's detailed world. The stage design and elements down to the very last asset. Finite features you would normally overlook like gusty, torn upholstery to dust particle and consistently dynamic lighting bring a vibrancy that enforce to the attention of detail that the fiction serves to introduce the world. The fake remains of corporate America and media of the past is emulated to an alarming authenticity that serves to eek Ellie’s impression on what kind of man Joel was before Doomsday, or her curiosity towards a time when there wasn’t a fungus-covered monster trying to eat you every other second. While the stage design is immaculate, the architecture in its design towards the engrossing combat supplements one of the most engaging third-person action systems in video game history.

The mob encounters provide a level of complexity that has never been explored, much less executed to the extent in which The Last of Us carries it. The direct resonance between the environment and your skill instinctually manifests with every playthrough, dynamically changing between approaches based on what’s available to you. Joel has the ability to hear for enemies around corners. Listening will switch views that signify the positions of your foes from the smallest noises; if you can’t hear for anyone, throw something and draw them out. Combat is just that flexible. The same finite details that litter the environments are constructed within combat, throwing a brick against the wall, opposite of the end you’re targeting so that you can distract your foe’s allies long enough to tackle them into oblivion and reposition yourself against the numbers again feels gratifying. The ease of crafting items adds to the seamless nature. With you having full control of Joel, your micromanaging your options behind cover achieves a sense of earnest tension while maintaining your capability of keeping control.

Infected encounters have the same complexity, but you’re limited to experiment since the consequence of failure is far more drastic than your batch of despicable drifters. All the classes of infected are incredibly aggressive, never letting up and quick to attract more of their group to your position, so stealth is almost a requirement early on before you can improve your abilities and equipment to change up to additional methods of attack. The special classes of Infected, the Clicker and the Bloater, are the most menacing of encounters since they have the knack for instantly killing you within arm’s reach. The room for mistake is reduced greatly, but never to a frustrating degree, as you can evade and make use of crafting items such as smoke bombs and Molotov cocktails to buy time. These moments create a great deal of additional stress, but the staggering attempts to evade and regroup a strategy have never felt more engaging in-game like they do in The Last of Us.

The barrier of entry for shooting mechanics is a harsh one, but thankfully gets better with time and goes from being tolerable to enjoyable as you advance. The sway of gun aiming feels realistic and, again, feels like a deterrent to shooting, reducing gun play to a last resort, but Joel and Ellie will end up using their guns more and more as the game advances. There’s really no way to avoid the flaw in its mechanic. To highlight, there’s no way to blind fire behind cover or fire from the hip; you must always get into a pointing stance. These factors completely eliminate any close encounter from turning into a bullet affair, and will leave you twice as vulnerable against infected that instantly kill within arm’s reach. Progressing through the game will allow for upgrades that improve the performance of your gun, and the same goes for aiming and recoil. However, relying on guns for the majority of the game can prove to be troubling experience, and these flaws are apparent when you’re forced to contend with a forced enemy encounter that you can’t avoid (yeah, they’re in there unfortunately).

Melee doesn’t exist to supplement gunfire; it works as a successful alternative and feels seamless when you trade between them. The melee is engaging in the fact that it contextually responds to the architecture and objects within the stage. Attacking an enemy against a wall allows for you to grab them by the back of the neck and smash their cranium against said wall, or just beat them senseless against any adjacent furniture, building on the organic tone the game sets to create. Running up against an enemy to get the jump on them will also allow for you to grab them hostage and then allow for other options between propping them for shield behind gunpoint or just for intimidation. Hell, you can always just strangle them, too. Getting more hands-on doesn’t play out to be a chore, and only adds to the palate of combat.

Companion AI is another small criticism, as they don’t always correlate to what you’re doing on-screen. When AI shadow you behind cover, they can get in your way of movement or ruin your chances of evasion if you slip up and get spotted, immediately get trigger happy instead and alert every threat to your position. On the flip side, companions can make all the noise they want to and it won’t draw any attention; it’s only when you directly do something that would cause any commotion that will alert any of your nearby opposition -- it kind of removes you from the realistic setting the game labors so hard to build but factoring their noise would only complicate combat to a whole other level. The puzzles involving climbing can be a bit hard to shallow at times when you compare them to the structure within arena setups for fighting, but they’re mostly enjoyable rather than forgettable.

The ladder segments never really break away from the linear path all that often, but they do get creative with some alternative positions for collecting. However, the ladder is never too far behind from where you need it. Other puzzles involving Ellie’s inability to swim get more creative, but they all play it pretty safe -- the environment has so much personality, and it’s a small shame more couldn’t have been done to interact with it.

Like Bioshock Inifinte, The Last of Us will intrigue scholars and philosophers for years to come, and stands as a benchmark towards the evolution of video game design, and all of the territories it has yet to explore. If you can only play one game this year, make it The Last of Us

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Reader Comments (1)

Great write up, George! Though I will say, The Last of Us owes a lot to games like System Shock 2 and the original Deus Ex as far as it's enemy encounters go. It definitely perfects and expands upon what games like that have accomplished, but it's complexity isn't going into entirely new territory.

Seriously though, what a game! So many amazing "Resident Evil 1 ~ Dog Through the Window" moments that I'm sure I'll never forget.

June 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMoosiferX
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