Story trumps scarcity in survival masterpiece 'The Last of Us'
You need to think to survive in “The Last of Us.”
If you approach every problem with guns blazing, you’re likely to end up as food for the “infected” in the post-apocalyptic shooter from Naughty Dog.
The PlayStation 3 exclusive forces you to make the most of your weapons, your resources and the environment to survive. Sure, other games have done this, but “The Last of Us” does it exceptionally well. And it wraps its intense action into an enthralling story.
The game tells of a cross-country trek amid a plague that has turned most of the population into zombies — although the Z-word is never mentioned in the game.
For most of the game, you play as Joel, a tough Texan who has lost much to the plague and tends to attack problems with a heavy dose of brutality. He’s accompanied by Ellie, a 14-year-old orphan who’s just as tough as Joel but not nearly as bitter.
Joel and Ellie begin their journey in an Eastern city where the military runs a walled quarantine zone. While it keeps the people safe from the infected, martial law is oppressive enough to provoke action by a band of freedom fighters, known as the Fireflies. These are the folks who send Joel and Ellie on their way westward.
During their travels, the pair encounter an interesting collection of friends who help them on their way and foes who see them as prey. While a good number of their enemies are infected with mutation-causing spores, some of the nastiest haven’t been touched by the plague. These human foes usually keep a good watch, cover each other and attack at a distance, making them very difficult to take out without a crate of ammunition. Of course, that’s something you don’t have in “The Last of Us.”
Much of the game’s pre-release publicity focused on the scarcity of ammo, which forces you to approach encounters in ways that don’t involve a blizzard of bullets. However, this isn’t exactly groundbreaking. Ammo shortages and alternative methods of attack are key elements in this season’s “Metro: Last Light” and “Dead Island: Riptide” as well as last year’s excellent “Dishonored.”
But even though it isn’t new, it is handled well and helps make the game one of the most interesting and enjoyable to come out this year.
Most encounters with one or two enemies can — and probably should — be handled with your fists, a handy stick or a metal pipe. Don’t waste your precious bullets.
In most other battles, stealth is important. You’ll need to avoid or sneak up on as many enemies as possible. Dispatching them silently by choking or shooting them with arrows is advisable.
A more complex encounter might involve choking an outlying opponent, throwing a bottle to distract another before whacking him with a club, hurling a makeshift bomb to wound a particularly tough-looking foe and then relying on firearms to finish the job.
Although ammunition isn’t plentiful, you do collect a lot of weapons. A few bullets or shells in each one can go a long way. This allows you to rotate among your shotgun, rifle and assortment of handguns during the course of battle. Using this method, along with stealth and a trusty metal pipe, I was rarely low on ammo except at the end of two or three major encounters.
While you’re doing all of this, Ellie isn’t off to the side cowering behind a tree. She is a dynamic part of the action, hurling bricks to distract enemies or blasting away with a pistol. Though she’s not quite as helpful as Elizabeth from this spring’s “BioShock: Infinite,” Ellie could be her younger sister.
Although a large percentage of the game involves fighting, there’s also a lot of story and character development that unfolds during the trek. Gamers familiar with Naughty Dog’s “Uncharted” series would expect as much. “Uncharted” delivers a fascinating set of stories packed with intriguing characters. “The Last of Us” follows the same path.
The story is well-paced, alternating between hope and disappointment seasoned with a good dose of grit and determination. It offers an abundance of action as well as plenty of interesting conversations and time to take in the post-apocalyptic landscape. Since the game is so story-driven, it is also very linear. You can explore side passages and take less-direct routes to attack your enemies, but all of the action is confined within the loose boundaries set by each mission.
As the tale progresses, we learn a lot about Joel and Ellie through their actions, reactions and conversations. We also learn a good deal about many of the secondary characters, too. It’s easy to become attached to some — and detest others.
The graphics are phenomenal. Renderings of faces are incredibly lifelike, and animations are among the most realistic I’ve seen. The settings are wonderfully detailed, providing an excellent — though unsettling — portrait of a post-apocalyptic America. Streets are filled with rubbish, buildings are vandalized and rooms look like they’ve been lived in and looted.
The game isn’t perfect, but most of the problems involve discrepancies between real-world logic and what you see on the screen.
For example, if you’re hiding from an enemy, you’ll be fine as long as YOU remain unseen. It doesn’t matter what your allies are doing or where they are. It’s not uncommon for Ellie to be “hiding” in a spot that’s plainly visible to patrolling guards, but you both remain undetected since Joel is hidden.
Also, despite the fact that the scarcity of ammo makes encounters more intense and interesting, it doesn’t always make a lot of sense in the context of the game. It’s pretty common to be chased by police, soldiers or thugs with firearms, but you can’t always collect bullets or shells from their bodies — even when they haven’t fired a shot.
I realize that I’m being pretty picky at this point, but the inability to find something more significant to complain about just shows how good the game is.
“The Last of Us” earns its mature rating for blood and several brutally violent scenes.
Bottom line: “The Last of Us” delivers intense action, a great story and sympathetic characters in one of the best games of the year so far.
Platform: PlayStation 3thelastofus.com