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The Last of Us Review: Naughty Dog’s Magnum Opus
What constitutes a masterpiece? While the answer to this question may be as varied as the number of people you’d ask, one thing is clear: you know one when you see it. And even from the very beginning of the game, it was made clear to me that Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us is nothing short of a magnum opus.
It’s hard to even gauge where to begin this review outside of saying that the game is beyond good. Truly, it accomplishes greatness with a sort of grace and style the likes of which will undoubtedly be remembered with some of the greatest video games of all time. In fact, the game is so good that it all but transcends classic gaming conventions to deliver a master example of the power video games possess of being a narrative juggernaut.
The Last of Us takes place in a post-pandemic world filled with people infected with a mutated form of the Cordyceps fungus, a parasitic organism that consumes a host and takes over its mind to control its very actions. Eventually, the fungus will inhabit the body so far as to grow out of the host itself and lead it to a place where the fungus can eventually kill the host and grow unfettered.
Sounds horrifying? It is. And it’s made even worse when taken into consideration the fact that the infected in the game are self-aware.
Players spend the majority of the game as Joel, a man riddled with demons and struggling to justify his morally gray actions as a survivor. He is essentially a smuggler, paid to transport shipments of supplies under the noses of the quarantine zone-running military running amok.
It’s during the beginning that Joel is asked to transport a unique bit of cargo: Ellie, a fourteen-year-old girl with a deadly secret whose life is more valuable than it might seem on the surface. From there, the game follows the journey of the two across the country as they encounter everything from the grotesque infected to deranged survivors.
It’s not enough to say that the game’s story is good. It is, quite simply, one of the greatest stories ever told not only in video games, but in any form of entertainment media. The world has its own fiction and feels tangible and desolate, the story pacing combines a perfect blend of quiet moments and grab-you-by-the-throat action, and each of the characters in the game feel multi-dimensional and human in ways that both draw you to them and leave you repulsed.
Joel and Ellie in particular are the two characters you’ll spend the most time with and be drawn to the most. While they initially want nothing to do with each other, their combined struggles and triumphs unite them in a deeply personal and endearing father-daughter relationship that absorbs you and leads to you sympathize with them and their situation. From the dialogue to the facial animation, the two main leads are especially well-realized and easily make up the strongest part of the game’s overall plot.
It should be noted that The Last of Us does not in any way borrow from the feel-good fun of the Uncharted series. Rather, it’s a dark and desolate tale expertly detailing the desperate struggles of people questioning their own sense of humanity as they do whatever they must to survive. It’s thought-provoking, tragic, deep, and at times outright gut-wrenching. You won’t leave the game with a smile on your face, but you may gain some new perspective on humanity that didn’t exist in your mind before.
On top of that, the amount of detail poured into the game is staggering. Collectible notes and documents detail the struggles and conflicts of survivors long gone, environments are set up in a way that is both tragic and beautiful, and even the smallest of character interactions reveal different sides of each character’s unique personality.
It’s because of this eye for detail that the game succeeds in pulling you out of reality and into its own world. So much so, in fact, that it was often strangely difficult to return to real life after shutting the game off for the day. It’s an amazing feeling when a game can suck you in in such a manner, and The Last of Us managed to do it time and time again without batting an eye.
The game’s combat itself tends to get a bit repetitive toward the end, but its open-ended opportunity allows you to plan ahead of a situation and treat each encounter like a puzzle. Different enemies have varying strengths and weaknesses, so you’ll need to be mindful of what you can and cannot do when heading into an area filled with a variety. The game largely stresses stealth and the use of distraction techniques to take out enemies one by one, since its comprehensive crafting system and supply-scavenging mechanics allow you to make bomb traps, mask visibility, craft health kits, and create makeshift knives for silent one-hit kill takedowns.
Each of the design choices in combat have also been carefully weighed to suit the characters. Joel is an older man who has seen better days and has killed his fair share of people. As such, he doesn’t have the limber agility of an athlete, can barely jump and climb, and isn’t afraid to use brute force in order to take out enemies.
Combat can be stressful and requires you to limit how many items and supplies you use, simply because what you scavenge throughout the world is limited and won’t necessarily arm an entire division of infantry as so many other third-person action games are wont to do. Still, it adds to the detail developers put into the game, as it is reflective of how sparse supplies would actually be in a post-pandemic situation.
Combat is fun and offers you a lot by way of options, but perhaps its biggest strength is its ability to never truly draw you out of the overall game experience. Whereas other story-driven games use combat to drive you from cutscene to cutscene, The Last of Us feels like one solid and cohesive experience throughout its entirety. Such a feat is not only impressive, but speaks to the power that games can have as an interactive storytelling experience.
Of course, there are times where some things go a bit funky, such as when AI runs blatantly out in the open during stealth segments or arms and legs occasionally clip into walls or other obstacles in the world. But these are mere oddities that only stand out due to the amount of detail poured into the rest of the game and have no negative bearing on the experience as a whole.
Multiplayer is deserving of a mention here as well, since it is a surprising hidden gem on the game disc. While many are quick to write off multiplayer in single-player dominant games, it’s a tad disingenuous to ignore this one completely. In multiplayer, you’ll pick one of two factions and team up with other players to scavenge for supplies and eliminate the opposition. Sure, it’s a fairly standard team deathmatch dynamic, but the same ideas of stealth, scavenging, and crafting all make an appearance in the mulitplayer, lending it a unique take on the mode that makes it both strategic and engaging. Add to that a meta game of survivor camp maintenance and a mode that allows for no respawn after deaths, and you have an experience that delivers the same adrenaline-pumping action as the single-player campaign.
As stated before, the detail in The Last of Us is breathtaking, and the presentation reflects this well. Environments are carefully crafted to be unique and to add to the game’s already bleak and powerful atmosphere, sound design is flawless and adds to the gameplay in stealth situations, and the voice talents of Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson are compelling and believable in their own right. It’s through the game’s great use of detail in its presentation that the world itself almost becomes a central character to the story, driving you to explore it and get to know it better in order to understand the survivors and what they’ve been through.
So while the definition of a masterpiece might be an admittedly abstract and subjective one, it’s hard to deny once the end credits roll that The Last of Us isn’t something truly special. It’s Naughty Dog’s magnum opus, a fitting swan song for the PlayStation 3, and clearly demonstrates the potential that video games have for delivering powerful and compelling narratives.
During the end of the game, Joel tells Ellie that the trick to survival is to keep finding something to fight for. And while you can draw parallels of this sentiment to many of the game’s characters throughout the story, there’s a strangely personal attachment to this idea that the player develops as well. Yes, the game is hard, and yes, the story is a painfully tragic one. But there’s something special about The Last of Us that drives you, engages you, and keeps you going despite how difficult it may be. It’s because of this that The Last of Us is deserving of the label of masterpiece, no matter what the definition may be.