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The Last of Us (PlayStation 3) artwork

The Last of Us (PlayStation 3) review

"The tension I felt while playing is like nothing I've ever experienced."

There is a lot to love about the Last of Us. The environmental design, the sound, the voice acting, and the story are all superb. The game play is tense and challenging without being unfair, though at times I screamed the opposite as Joel's neck was torn open by a Clicker I thought I'd distracted. The whole of the game, however, is a feeling of near-overwhelming tension from the moment the game loads until the final credits roll.

The tension I felt while playing is like nothing I've ever experienced. Creeping down an abandoned subway tunnel full of Clickers who can one-hit kill you is already a nerve-wracking experience, but the game makes smart use of checkpoints to punish the player's recklessness without heaping too much frustration on the inexperienced. If you die in the first encounter or two, that's a minor setback. On the other hand, as I was nearing the end of said subway tunnel, I realized I was both completely lost and loaded up with good equipment I had found while getting completely lost.

All at once I felt a knot in my stomach. If I died at that moment, I would lose all that good loot and also be forced to play the entire area again, about as haplessly as I had in my first foray into the tunnel. I was frantically trying to find the exit, while at the same time desperate to stay hidden. Throwing around the ample supply of bricks and bottles was enough to distract the Clickers, but I couldn't help but think that I would soon run low and be forced to use up my acquired shivs (a one-use item and the only way to stealth kill Clickers) of which I had very few.

The design of the area had me baffled. Normally in a game's tunnel level, it's a straight shot with the occasional twist and turn (Halo 2 even gave you a vehicle for theirs). How it is possible to get lost in that? It comes from designers who don't follow a template. They didn't do a "video game version" of a subway tunnel, they drew from real life subway tunnels, adding in the collapsed supports and side utility rooms to give more hindrances and opportunities for exploration than you would expect from what is normally a transitional area. As a result, my exploration was more accidental than anything else. I explored because I truly did not know where to go next! Afterwards, I was glad I did explore and grab some loot, but at the time I was more terrified that I would have to repeat the section and miss all this loot the second time around.

The subtlety of the sound design also helped to build that mounting tension I felt. The music is used with the lightest touch throughout the game. I couldn't tell you what music was most prevalent simply because I almost never noticed it. As opposed to Bioshock Infinite's shrieking violin to indicate combat, I was more focused on the harsh explosions of gunfire (few and far between when I had so little ammo to spare) in the more combat heavy encounters. And, in the example of the subway tunnel, I could hear the Clickers' groaning alongside Joel's heavy breathing, punctuated now and then by a smashing bottle I'd thrown across the room and the subsequent explosion of screeches as the Clickers hurled themselves towards the sound. I don't even rightly recall if there was music because I couldn't hear it over the blood pounding in my ears.

For those who have played the game, you know that this section was actually very early on in the game. It's often the case that developers will load up the front end with the game's "best moments" because they know so few people will finish. The Last of Us, on the other hand, never let that tension drop. A dark, scary tunnel is an expected location for cheap scares, but what about a university campus? Or a suburban neighborhood on a bright, sunny day? Or a liquor store? The Last of Us does not shy away from throwing you into a large number of varied locales all of which feel like they were crafted from the ground up. Like the subway tunnel, the environments feel familiar and real. Itís a nice, subtle touch, but all of that is useless and lost on the player if the characters suffer as a result.

This attention to detail, however, is absolutely extended to the characters as well. Just as the environments are far from the painted backdrops of a melodrama, Joel and Ellie feel like real people with all the flaws that would entail. Without spoiling anything, Joelís character arc is patiently beat out so that the player never feels a jarring disruption to the experience. He changes, as a good character should, but itís because he has both the emotional depth of a real person and takes the agency one would expect of a protagonist in the face of adversity. Witnessing his pragmatic and oftentimes brutal response to situations is both disturbing and understandable given his experience in this harsh, bleak world.

Ellie, surprisingly, is actually the more interesting of the two characters. I normally canít stomach children in any fiction because they are oftentimes underwritten and uninteresting. They lack life experience and depth because, frankly, writers underestimate the emotional intelligence of folks so much younger.

Ellie suffers from none of these issues. She has grown up in this bleak world, and it shows in her profane vocabulary as well as her oftentimes violent disposition. At the same time, there is a real innocence to her that is hard to pin down. Most of her time spent with Joel sees the two at odds, but from the beginning she is more trusting and hopeful than one would expect given the dire circumstances. Joel has given up hope, but Ellie clings to it more than she is willing to let on. The mere fact that she trusts Joel at all marks her as a bit more naÔve, which, while it is technically a character flaw, makes her far more sympathetic. This is a character done right Ė she has flaws and characteristics that influence her, but donít define her. If you canít boil one of the characters down to a five word description, thatís usually a good sign.

I played this game on the edge of my seat. I had to know what happened next, even though part of me wanted to stop and play something, anything else and avoid the tension and bleakness for just a little while. The satisfaction that comes from completing an area is addictive, however, as even if you left one or two enemies alive, itís enough to know that you survived and that you can keep going towards the gameís conclusion. Not knowing what that will be is so important, however, that I wouldnít dare spoil it for you.


Clayton's avatar
Community review by Clayton (October 25, 2013)

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Germ posted October 25, 2013:

I like this review. You really hit what worked in this game and I like your assessment of the areas not being video game versions of what they should be.

There is a small typo in paragraph three, you forgot the 'b' on 'bricks'.

Anyway, I like your thoughts on this game. Good stuff.
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Clayton posted October 25, 2013:

Thanks for your kind words! I edited the typo you noticed, I really appreciate the heads up.

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