I'm going to start this off by saying I have a love/hate relationship with this game. And it has nothing to do with the game, it's my own personal ticks that get in the way of my being completely in love with it. I own Jak & Daxter 1 through 3, and Uncharted 1 through 3, so I'm pretty familiar with the Naughty Dog style, and how it's evolved. Hell, Uncharted 2 even has a permanent place in my top 10 favorite video games list, and I own the $50 art book from that game. It's safe to say I love the detail that Naughty Dog has put in the games they've released on the PS3, and The Last of Us is no different. So, with that said, here's what I thought about the game itself.
As you can tell from the rating system I adopted from IGN, I've given this game a 9.5/10. The Last of Us is both amazingly depressing and terribly uplifting. It shows us that while there is a lot of evil and rationalizing evil acts in the world, made extreme by the circumstances of the game's narrative, people can still commit good deeds. This game tells us that not everyone is evil, neither are they good, but people are defined, and can be redeemed, by their actions.
The game play is very subtle and interactive. I personally, all the way to the end, had problems remembering which button did what, but that's because the last games I played before this were Mass Effect 2 and 3, another game series where people question the ending and how it makes them feel about the rest of the game. For the record, I actually like the end to ME3, but it still hit me hard at the time. The Last of Us is pretty similar to that. Anyways, one thing I loved about the game play was that, in a lot of cases, you really needed to use the stealth maneuvers because you just couldn't go in, guns blazing. Uncharted is like that, but in that game you didn't have mushroom zombies that could instantly kill you. The best part about the stealth game play is the listen function. I love this, and I really hope to see something similar in other games. Using this listen function, you can tell where enemies and friendlies are, but only if they make sound, like talking. The other bit of game play that is new since the Uncharted series is the crafting option. Using materials found in the world you can create bombs, shivs, and medical supplies. Compared to other games this is very simple, but it works because it's pretty clear that The Last of Us is intended to be a very cinematic experience.
The graphics are absolutely beautiful. Naughty Dog has proven again and again that they are one of the best, if not best, studios in terms of animation, character design, and environmental design. But what makes The Last of Us so much more engaging than Uncharted 3 in terms of design is its realism. Because you go to Boston, Pittsburgh, Salt Lake city, and several places in between, you get a sense of how this is the real world, and you care about what has happened there. Each city and town has its own personality that comes out in the design of the buildings, cars, and even trash sitting on the streets. However, because these places feel so real, a sense of wonder is lost. There is still wonder at how all these places can be abandoned, like when we first say London in 28 Days Later, but after a while we as an audience can get overwhelmed by the destruction. But, from how I see it, that's the point. The whole world is gone, replaced with a wild, almost alien landscape to what we're used to. In Uncharted we saw ancient temples that were pure fiction, in The Last of Us we see the real world, after people have abandoned it. If you like the look I would recommend checking out History's Life After People series, which explores just that.
After this point the only way I can talk about this game is by giving away minor spoilers, but I'll do my best not to spoil too much.
Honestly, I've given this game a 9.5/10, but, there are some minor things that bug me. I understand what the literary reasons are for the decisions the lead character, Joel, makes in the game, but I don't have to agree with them. But because this is a game, not a film, it makes it harder for us as the audience to accept everything Joel does , and I've realized that's the point. The Last of Us is beautiful and amazingly artistic, but the point of the game is to make us take a harder look at ourselves and our society by fictionalizing the most extreme of circumstances. I disagree with the ending, and because of that disagreement I feel different about the whole experience. I'm glad that Joel loved Ellie enough to save her, but the decision he made was quite suspect. But, that's what makes him human, isn't it? And, in a way, the game is showing that Joel, despite all the bad he's done, he's not only done it for survival, but also for love. There are several points in the game where Joel makes a decision based on his love of the individual involved, even though he wouldn't have done so in the first place. He takes Ellie as a final request to his partner (and likely lover) Tess, he continues to travel with Ellie when he could have given her to his brother, and saves Ellie in the end of the game. There are other examples too, but I'd really recommend playing the game if you want to know more. The point is not that Joel is right, but that he believes he's doing the right thing, and that all of his efforts are to keep Ellie alive and safe. He doesn't start off loving her, but after a year of travel, both Joel and Ellie come to realize they need each other, for reasons more than survival. It's an extremely strong narrative of a love between a parent and child, even though that's not how these two start.
Okay, this is the biggest spoiler of the end game. You are warned.
The only problem I have with the narrative is Joel's choice at the end, to save Ellie. He learns that to make the antidote, the doctors must reverse engineer it from Ellie's brain, basically killing her to save humanity. To save her, he has to fight his way through the hospital, killing several soldiers, and one surgeon, to save her. I can see, from a literary standpoint, why they chose this ending. Throughout the game's narrative it's been shown that in this world government organizations cannot be trusted. Actually, the only groupings of people the game shows can be trusted are Tommy's people at the power plant, and even they have to fight off bandits. Speaking of which, Tommy makes a point that it's just part of life to deal with the infected now. I like this, because the game is telling us that there is no point to treat people inhumanely. Everyone has to survive, to live, and the only way we can do that is if we trust each other and work together. Joel doesn't choose to save Ellie because he distrusts the Fireflies, he does it because he loves her. Granted, if this group did invent an antidote, they would become the new world power, and all kinds of new problems could arise, but that's all moot because they, in fact, did not create an antidote.
In the end, I would have liked to see more background story from each character, but even so, the story is still amazingly well written and presented. Like the Uncharted series, The Last of Us is a must-play for anyone who is a video game fan. And for those of you who don't like games, you can watch the majority of the game's cinematics and talking scenes and get a lot of the same experience. Honestly, that's the only downfall of Naughty Dog's PS3 titles, is there almost isn't enough gaming to these games. They are an interactive experience, meant to tell a story and engage the audience, and that's the strength of video games as a genre, over films or television. You may not play The Last of Us for days on end like other games, but it will definitely stick with you for a long time to come.