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The Last of Us
Score: 100%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment America
Developer: Naughty Dog
Media: Blu-ray/1
Players: 1; 2 - 8 (Online)
Genre: Action/ Survival Horror/ Online

Graphics & Sound:
When I finished The Last of Us, I didn't feel the sense of accomplishment that I so often feel when I complete a game. Instead, I felt drained, worn-out, exhausted. A few hours later, I'd realized that this feeling came from the fact that I'd never had my emotions put through the wringer like this, at least by a video game. The Last of Us is an intense, incredible, deeply-moving experience that has a lot to say.

When it comes to the setting, The Last of Us doesn't tread any new ground. Post-apocalypse America is nothing new; neither is the whole motif of nature taking cities back. However, this is a Naughty Dog game, and as a result, it is best in class. Details are absolutely everywhere, and the game is designed to reward players who take the time to explore this world that has been so painstakingly created. Character models are instantly unique, and the motion-capture animation is as real as it gets. There's a great deal of subtlety in the acting; in a world where emotions are weaknesses, the internalization of grief and sadness takes a serious amount of understated effort, which the game perfectly captures. These moments can come and go in the blink of an eye, just like in real life. The infected are hands-down the most horrifying zombie-type monsters ever conceived for a game. The fungal-infection idea is not only clever, but somewhat grounded (Cordyceps is a real fungus, and it can infect living things), which makes it all the more unsettling. Normal infected look like soulless husks. Clickers are creepy humanoid monstrosities whose heads are overgrown with fruiting bodies. And there's one more, which you'll have to discover for yourself.

Masterful sound design rounds out the package, with its two main leads turning in stunningly powerful voice and motion-capture performances. Between this game and BioShock Infinite, 2013 is going to go down as the Year of Troy Baker. Joel's gruff Southern drawl conveys a sense of world-weariness and deeply-buried grief. However, Ashley Johnson delivers the key performance as Ellie. In a medium where child characters are all-too-often portrayed as helpless individuals, Ellie follows the recent examples of The Walking Dead's Clementine and BioShock Infinite's Elizabeth by being, well, real. Gustavo Santaolalla's masterfully minimalist soundtrack establishes a memorable leitmotif and covers all the emotions that the post-apocalypse can inspire. Fear, hope, sorrow, joy. It's all here, communicated in the universal language of music.


Gameplay:
The Last of Us takes place two decades after a worldwide pandemic involving a hostile and very real fungus known as Cordyceps has driven mankind to near-extinction. Civilization has been reduced to two extremes: quarantine zones kept in line under martial law and the lawless wilderness, where Infected individuals and bandit gangs alike prey on the weak. This is a hostile and incredibly bleak world, and the game introduces this fact to you very early on. A mild fever is a death sentence for anyone living in the quarantine zones, and the Hunters roaming the untamed urban wilderness will (and do) kill innocents just for the resources they might not even have.

You play as Joel, a smuggler hailing from Austin, Texas who has relocated to a quarantine zone in Boston, Massachusetts. Joel's got a past, but he keeps it buried, as he believes it's the only way to keep surviving. He and his partner Tess make a living (if you want to call it that) trading with survivors who live outside Boston's quarantine zone. Guns, medicine, ammunition, you name it. If the price is right, Joel's your man. When a weapons cache promised to the duo ends up being sold to another buyer, they hunt down the buyer to retrieve their guns. Turns out the buyer is none other than Marlene, the leader of an insurgency group known as the Fireflies. She offers Joel and Tess a deal: if they will smuggle a package out of the quarantine zone and deliver it to a group of Fireflies camped out in the city, Marlene will return and double their weapon supply. Of course, nothing is as simple as it sounds, and before long, Joel finds himself on a cross-country trek with his young charge.

The Last of Us is primarily a survival game. As Joel, you explore your surroundings, finding ways to progress and searching for supplies to help you keep the edge over everyone (and everything) that wants to kill you and Ellie. Joel will frequently come into contact with others, whether they're friendly, Infected, or hostiles. Stealth is generally advised, but realistically, it isn't a completely viable strategy. This world has culled out the weak and unobservant, and only the strongest remain.

So yes, you will be forced to kill -- often. The Last of Us has a combat system built on three pillars: stealth, melee, and firearms. You will have to use all three of these to survive. All three of these gameplay styles mesh beautifully into a cohesive gameplay structure. But what's particularly incredible about The Last of Us is in its depiction of violence. Not only is this Naughty Dog's most violent game to date, it's one of the most violent games ever made, period. This isn't a shooter that has you mow down legions of faceless soldiers. The grisly, ugly, almost-intimate deaths depicted in this game are more akin to the scene in Saving Private Ryan that involves a slowly descending knife and a German soldier imploring his victim to give up. Pipes and gunfire reduce heads to chunks of viscera, and blood pumps from severed necks in disturbing pulses. The Last of Us does not revel in its violence; once the chemical high of the kill dissipates, you're left with the aftermath. And it is devastating.

The Last of Us features an online component that is destined to take root, even though the PlayStation 3 is nearing its twilight years. The setup is similar to that in Uncharted; you level up your player and customize using modifiers and boosters. Everything is wrapped up in a mode called Factions. In it, you choose to fight for the Fireflies or the Hunters and participate in two types of matches: Supply Raid and Survivor. Each of these modes lives up to its name.

Supply Raid charges your team with the acquisition of the supplies your group needs to survive. Collecting the supplies is the primary goal of both teams, so rest assured that there will be blood. Narratively, the supplies you gather are meant for your team, but if you're forced into a situation where the only alternative to death is to sacrifice the rag and alcohol you found to create the molotov, that might save your life. Naturally, online competitors are much smarter than the goons in the single player. Lone wolves are killed quickly, and teams who work together survive together.

Survivor is more straightforward than Supply Raid. This mode is all about being the last man standing. There are no respawns, and winner takes all. Killing and looting your enemies and finding supply chests are the main objectives, much like Supply Raid, but the emphasis is shifted slightly towards the action, which is as taut and intense as it is in the single player.


Difficulty:
Being a Naughty Dog game, The Last of Us can be quite challenging. However, it isn't as tough as the Uncharted games. Joel is an animal, a survivor who has been able to defend himself from a world that is always trying its hardest to kill him.

Challenge can come from unexpected places in The Last of Us, mainly in circumstances when you want to play a certain way. Regardless of the difficulty level you choose, it is nearly impossible to get through the game's several intense enemy encounters through stealth alone.

The enemy artificial intelligence is smart and observant. If a part of you is exposed, someone will notice. That being said, the illusion is often compromised by the friendly A.I. Ellie can (and does) get Joel out of seemingly unwinnable situations, but several of the rules regarding stealth simply don't apply to either her or any of the other companions you'll travel with over your journey. This doesn't ruin the game, but it's hard to ignore for too long.


Game Mechanics:
The Last of Us goes out of its way to convince you that Joel is not Nathan Drake. His health does not regenerate and he's incapable of making the physically impossible leaps that the Uncharted star is famous for. While Drake is able to snap necks within a second's time, Joel is dealing with individuals who will fight tooth and nail until you finally see the light leave their eyes. Every core mechanic in The Last of Us is about survival, in one way or another.

You will spend some time shooting guns in The Last of Us, but it is not a shooter. Ammunition is scarce, even more so than in early Resident Evil games. At the beginning of the game, Joel isn't a crackshot; his aim is unstable, and even a shot that looks like it should hit might be way off. So Joel must be more realistic when it comes to his own survival. Every enemy encounter sees Joel and Ellie outnumbered, so charging in headlong is a certain death sentence. Instead, the best way to get through these situations is to pick them off one by one until you are seen. Once combat erupts, things get fast and brutal very quickly. Joel has several tactics at his disposal, though; he can grab a random bottle or brick, hurl it at his attacker's face, and finish him with a pipe to the head. He can use the environment to execute some incredibly nasty kill moves. Or he can simply grab a molotov cocktail and wait for his enemies to bunch up. The combat in The Last of Us is nerve-wracking, gruesome, and pure.

A good bit of down time is scattered through the game's nearly twenty hour length, and players who use that time wisely will have a serious advantage. Scavenging is a must in this game; you can find resources such as cloth, alcohol, blades, sugar, binding, rags, and explosives. Several recipes exist for combining these resources, and you'll need to make use of all of them if you want to survive. On the default difficulty, it's a great idea to keep crafting; resources are everywhere if you're willing to search for them.

At times, Joel will find medicine lying around. These are supplements, which can be used to upgrade Joel's survivability. For example, one upgrade might lessen the amount of weapon sway, while another might increase Joel's maximum health.

Weapons can also be upgraded. As you journey from New England to the Midwest, Joel stumbles across parts and tool chests. There are five tool chests in the game, each one granting a new level of upgrading abilities. As long as you're at the proper level, and as long as you've got the parts, you can upgrade just about every weapon in the game.

The Last of Us isn't about the rewards of survival, but rather the cost of it. As of this writing, it is unquestionably the best postapocalyptic game ever made. Its story is simple but resonant, the gameplay is sublime, and the level of talent on hand is simply incredible. This is the defining moment of the PlayStation 3.


-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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