UPDATE: I've finished the game and it's as excellent as I thought it would turn out.
So I have to be totally upfront with you -- I haven't completed "The Last of Us" yet. You can blame E3 for this one. However, I did manage to marathon about 9 hours of it last night just for you! But sadly, the call for sleep finally hit me around 4 or so this morning. So with that said, this isn't a review so much as an extended impression.
Even with the few hours I've played, "The Last of Us" has so far presented one of the best gaming experiences I've had on the PS3. Naughty Dog has strained out every ounce of Sony's 7 year old system and put out a fantastic, narrative driven and genuinely horrifying, and at times emotionally draining game.
The most prominent aspect of "TLoU" is the character development. I feel like the last year on gaming has been one of the best for strong, narrative focused games. TellTales' "The Walking Dead" and Irrational’s "Bioshock Infinite" have both reaffirmed the necessity for powerful lead characters amongst a narratively intriguing backdrop. "Last of Us" hits you right in the gut from the outset. I won't go into in spoilers, but you don't even really "play" the game in the first hour as so much as "experience" it. It's tough to put in words, but Naughty Dog clearly wanted to lay it all out for you and let you just feel the hopelessness, loss, and desperate struggle to survive. The first moments set the tone perfectly -- this is going to be one hell of a ride dramatically.
It really starts with the characters. If Nathan Drake is ND's devil-may-care, charming, adventurer then Joel is the overdone, tired old killer, who's just a survivor. The events of the fungal apocalypse have worn him down to a shadow of a human -- only living just to live. After the world goes to hell, he's set himself up as survivor on the fringe of society. He's a smuggler now -- but he's also had other, more grim occupations.
Ellie, on the hand, provides a foil to Joel's arms-length emotional distance. She’s never known a world without infection and it shows in her mannerisms. She's still a young girl but has been forces into adulthood by the circumstances of reality. This comes out in several ways during the game -- most through optional dialogue prompts -- where she remarks on Joel's brutality with astonishment but with a reasonable understanding of why things have to go down the way they do. Sneak up behind a guy and tear out his throat with a shiv and she'll squirm out a "Jesus, Joel!"
Alternately, Ellie has a youthful optimism -- if it can really be called that given their fate -- and bravely puts on airs about the death and hopelessness surrounding them. At some point in my time, Ellie managed to swipe one of those dumb "101 Goofy Jokes" books full of lame puns and riddles and periodically prods the old dog with terrible jokes. To Joel's chagrin he slowly opens up to her as a pseudo father figure. These two have genuine, human interactions and the VO provided by Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson is frankly some of the best acting in games.
Furthermore, there's little dissonance between Joel's (the player) actions and how the story unfolds. You're a killer in the very strictest manner. Joel has a past he's not proud of but at the same time one that he's rationalized in his mind. The world has changed and humanity along with it. This is evident in the dozens of monsters -- both human and creature -- that he'll have to mercilessly eliminate by any means necessary.
The story set up is fairly simple -- Joel has been tapped to smuggle Ellie to a secure location. It's not important why but Joel is none-to-thrilled about having a kid tag along. Unfortunately for them, certain events thrust them together and the soon learn to just deal with it. The interactions between Ellie and Joel, along with characters you'll meet, really drive the game. Conversations are mostly handled while scavenging and during some of slower moments of puzzle solving. Occasional cut scenes fluff up the narrative and you'll soon start to develop feelings for these two as they struggle and survive. It's actually very endearing and you can tell that story was at the top of the list at Naughty Dog.
Combat is not fun. From a game's perspective, it is... but it's not enjoyable. Joel doesn't take any pleasure from beheaded a zombie or lighting a guy on fire with an improvised explosion. It's a means to an end. It's rote and it makes Joel just as scary as anything bumping in the dark. More often than not Ellie will comment on it, but Joel will quickly dismiss this necessity of life. Other characters you encounter have the same philosophy. It's gotten so routine that they aren't even scared of losing their human side anymore -- it's already gone.
Mechanically, however, combat is brutal and harsh. It's also incredibly deliberate -- demanding focus and clamed nerves. Mistakes are quickly punished with huge chunks of health lost. Equipment is scarce and every shot must count. There's some room for error, however, and if you do manage to biff an attack it's not all lost. "The Last of Us" is more often than not about situational awareness. Patience is a virtue with sudden death for those lacking. Joel is an experienced fighter and has honed his observational skills to the fine edge. Able to hear where enemies are, you can sort of "see" through walls to properly assess the best plan. Sometimes it's sneaking by but it's been my experience to contrary. It's kind of hybrid sneaky combat, you'll want to take out as many as you can quietly and carefully move from cover to cover waiting for the perfect time to launch and all-out assault.
Aiding you on your trek are a litany of junk that Joel can use to craft new supplies. Interestingly, creating one might mean not being able to craft another. For instance, Molotov cocktails and med kits both use rags so you'll have to choose which one you need more. I'm been playing on Normal, and for the first few hours, gear was scarce -- enough so that I had to make several difficult decisions about what to craft. Additionally, bullets and arrows hit a kind of sweet point where I at least had a couple of shots left, though the magazine was rarely ever full. I tend to lean towards the hoarder side of things in games, so now I'm finding plenty of supplies to help me out that I haven't felt like I was running on fumes. I've been told that harder difficulties severely limit what you can find, so if you're like me, maybe you'd want to give Hard a try to get the full effect of a strapped survivor.
As I mentioned, I'm only a little over what I assume is the halfway point of "The Last of Us." So far it's completely floored me and I've been anxiously awaiting to finish it. It's absolutely gorgeous game -- seriously, these are the best character models and animations I've seen on the PS3. The staggering amount of detail depicting the collapse of society is amazing. I can't number how many times I've rounded a corner and was wowed thinking that someone spent time on such little details -- even in places you don't have to search. The art department has pulled out all the stops and pushed the PS3 to it's limit and it tells.
Phew -- for not having even finished it yet I can say that is probably going to be a must buy for PS3 owners. If you love games with strong stories with real, earnest characters then you should stop reading now and go pick up a copy. It's available right now!
"The Last of Us" is a gut-wrencing, heart rending journey of a lost father and brave young woman. The gruesome, throat-clutching action compliments the story without pulling you away your immersion. Joel is not a good man, he's not evil either. He's just a survivor. His relationship with Ellie seems to be one of the most earnest one's I've experienced in video game and has they grow together, you'll start to feel for their struggle. The characters have been beautifully written and the voice acting is beyond comparison. It really shows when a studio devotes their entire efforts to bring the absolute best that video games have to offer. This is a must buy for anyone that loves fantastic and emotional stories and polished, effortless gameplay.
["The Last of Us" Score 5/5]
"The Last of Us" is available today, June 14th right now for PS3. Review copy provided by Naughty Dog.