At the end of the Playstation 3’s life cycle, developer Naughty Dog released what is unquestionably that consoles defining video game in The Last of Us. It was not just critically hailed, but by many it was coined one of the greatest games ever made. It was such a profound success that one year later Sony rereleased the game with some slight graphical improvements for the Playstation 4 and again it was embraced by many as a masterpiece. Many of us who had just put the game aside on the PS3 bought in a second time just to have the definitive version of this game on our current consoles.
The Last of Us leaves an impression, a deep one. If you are a gaming enthusiast chances are you’ve already played this game and if you haven’t done so that’s probably intentional. The Last of Us is a title that commands recognition for its achievements. It is a hallmark of storytelling in the medium. But with the shadow of its sequel casting long on the horizon, how does the original game hold up to todays modern sensibilities? I gave the game one more play through before what is undoubtedly one of the biggest games of this year releases on June 19th. So take a trip with me back to The Last of Us, and for those of you who for some reason have not had the opportunity to give this game your time… well, you’ll see.
The plot of The Last of Us follows two lost souls; Joel, a smuggler living life detached from the rest of the world in order to protect himself from ever experiencing the pain of loss again, and Ellie a young girl who has never known a world before the sweeping pandemic wiped out most of human civilization. The pandemic came in the form of a cordyceps fungus which infected humanity and turned them into out of control violent abominations. The fungus attacks the brain and explodes outward from there, turning the infected into horrifying shells of their former selves.
Joel is charged with smuggling Ellie from Boston to Seattle to deliver her to a militia group known as the Fireflies in a desperate attempt to deliver perhaps the last hope for mankind to fight back from the brink of extinction. But the road ahead is unforgiving. This world is fraught with dangers and survivors live by a code of do what you must in order to survive. This pertains not only to Joel and Ellie but to the people they meet on their journey. Everyone you come across is at the razors edge, just hoping to survive one more day by any means possible. Joel and Ellie will meet drifters, families on the run, cannibals and more all with their own purpose of living to see another sunrise. While their actions are usually drastic or tragic the story of The Last of Us continues to constantly whisper in your ear “what would you do?” and encourages the player to rethink their perspective.
The Last of Us isn’t all about hopelessness though. As dark and draining as this story can be, there are so many looks at not only what it means to be human, but what it means to be a parent, a partner, and a friend. Through blood and tears Joel and Ellie come to find the truth of all things, that the only things that matters in this world are those you love. There is no pain great enough and no sacrifice too large that we wouldn’t go through to save those that mean the most to us, and that’s what The Last of Us ultimately is about.
But the story is something that is evergreen in the medium of video games, going back to play The Last of Us I was curious how it held up in terms of mechanics and visuals. By and large this game is still impressive visually, you can clearly tell that Naughty Dog is working with a better tool set these days as the characters and animations don’t hold a candle to more recent games like Uncharted 4. But the game is still beautiful, especially when it comes to the environments. The ravaged corpse of America is still impressive in scope and design as it ever was. Every empty building feels like something happened there long ago, the foliage and overgrowth that is slowly reclaiming the world is convincing and hauntingly still, and there is strong sense of presence that only Naughty Dog can deliver where everything you see feels like it belongs exactly where it is. A testament to the designers and artists behind this game.
Gameplay is probably the area where this game shows it’s age the most. Not to say that the moment to moment experience is flawed, but there are some things that feel outdated by todays standards. For example the reload button is the same as the fire button (R1) in combat, only you have to aim first to fire and if you press R1 without aiming you will reload. It never feels right and is something that would be better assigned to another button entirely. Also when not in combat or having a story moment there is an over reliance on moving crates, pallets and ladders to get around. Not anything to get too worked up on but by the time you’re wheeling your twelfth dumpster around to boost yourself up you begin to see the game through the experience and it takes you out of it.
All in all though it does hold up well, the combat scenarios are tense and sometimes scary. Joel uses a tuned in focus ability to hear what’s around him. This allows him to hear enemies that are around corners or hiding behind objects to allow Joel to be strategic with his attacks. This is not the kind of game where you will be running and gunning. Every bullet, baseball bat and molotov cocktail matters in this game so effective strategy is important.
When all is said and done, The Last of Us is still a benchmark when it comes to how to deliver meaningful, impactful stories in the medium of video games. It’s thought-provoking, uncomfortable, tragic and it delivers insight into the best and worst of humanity better than any game I’ve ever played. Simply put The Last of Us is one of the greatest games ever made.