Naughty Dog studios have always been on the forefront of Gaming. While the studio’s initial Crash Bandicoot was enjoyable and immensely fun, it wasn’t something I direly wanted to play or loved. Well it wasn’t until Jak & Daxter came into play that Naughty Dog studios took its limelight and known to be one of the studios to watch out for. And it did happen soon after Jak 3 and Jak X Combat Racing and following Sony’s new flagship console, Playstation 3’s release, they came out with the ‘killer app’ for the console ‘Uncharted‘. On the surface it looked like Tomb Raider with a male protagonist but the more you play the more you start appreciating its gameplay mechanics, its well written characters and story. Naughty Dog’s games were being hailed both for its story and its cinematic gameplay. And in no time the studio started churning out Playstation exclusives while PC and Xbox owners could do nothing but drool.
Despite Playstation 3’s rich launch line-up, Uncharted definitely made its mark and even helped Playstation 3 sell better. I know people who bought the Playstation 3 Phat just to play Uncharted. Frankly there were much better games out there, some exclusives and some multi-platform, that could go head to head. Even Tomb Raider games started reclaiming a slice of the pie under the new direction of Crystal Dynamics. Call it brilliant marketing or not, Uncharted sprouted its own franchise. After its 2nd and 3rd outing, Naughty Dog set its foot firm as one of industry’s acclaimed gaming studios and then that inevitable question popped up. What Next?
Say hello to The Last Of Us. The Last of Us is genre-defining experience blending survival horror, action and RPG elements to tell a character driven story about humankind decimated by a modern plague. Cities are abandoned, getting reclaimed by nature and what’s left of the survivors are killing each other for food, weapons and whatever they could get their hands on. Joel, a ruthless survivor, and Ellie, a young teenage girl who’s braver and wiser beyond her years, must work together to survive their journey across what remains of the United States. Oh and btw this is not a review, I understand its too late for a review. Its a recollection of the more memorable moments from the game.
The Last Of Us clearly runs on genre cliches. How many games are there set in a post-pandemic, post-apocalyptic world? So how is this game different? It is undoubtedly a survival horror game which has all the elements set perfectly. But unlike any other survival horror, The Last Of Us has an enormous heart, characters written so well that you genuinely care for them and a great story to boot. As I lazily played through the initial minutes of The Last Of Us, I had not known what was in store for me. And it took me almost an hour to get the hang of it. By then I was so into it that I wanted to go on and on, to know how Joel and Ellie would survive the very evil world they were in or would they ever?
You play as Joel, a man ridden with the loss of his daughter. 20 years later Joel strives to survive as a gruff smuggler. Joel, in an unlikely circumstance, is paired with Ellie, a seemingly tough as nails 14 year old who has had her own deal of tragedies. Joel is assigned to escort Ellie to the Fireflies camp where they believe they could develop a cure for the infection that caused the outbreak. Of course Ellie cusses a lot and knows what kind of world she’s in. And Joel is hardened by the tragedies he’s been through; someone who’s brewed himself into being cocky and brawny. There are lot of nuances with these two characters that might put you off but together these two instills true emotions. Joel evidently is someone who has been living with loss and dread all his life and with him is Ellie who herself is dealing with loneliness…one could say she’s been through the same Joel had, but yet she chooses to mask it with a pretense of toughness. Thanks to Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson for breathing life into Joel and Ellie. Troy Baker has become a household name in videogame voiceovers now. This tall blonde guy has voice-overed more characters than you can ever imagine, even replacing Mark Hamill as The Joker. While Troy had already made his mark in the industry it was Ashley Johnson who totally blew me away. Ashley, whom I remember from Mel Gibson’s What Women Wants, plays Ellie the 14 year old and she’s unstoppable. Not once did it strike me that it was a 30 year old who had flawlessly stepped into Ellie’s shoes. Perfection!
If the insanely believable characters weren’t enough, the world was just as gorgeous, menacing and realistic as it could be. Take the so called infected for example, these are not your typical zombies and I reckon what Naughty Dog did to make it believable was just great. In The Last of Us, what you fight against are humans infected with mutated Cordyceps and these creatures behaves almost exactly like zombies. Its a refreshing take from the aeon-old ‘zombie’ formula. Just as vile are the human beings in the game who spares no time to kill and raid you of your belongings. Playing through the campaign leaves you in constant tension and when it all clears you remember you’d kept your breath in the whole time. You do get to have a brief breath of fresh air when Joel and Ellie explores through abandoned households salvaging items to improve their gear and medkits. Joel and Ellie keeps on chitchatting and those dialogues were some of the best efforts that Naughty Dog injected to make the experience, novel. The Last Of Us is the best thing that can ever happen to a game making it feel like you are living in your favorite movie.
Throughout the campaign there were countless touching moments and constant goosebumps were sprinkled in plenty. Its kind of how a movie would engrain emotions in you but as its a game, you interact with the world and the characters in it and get yourself immersed in the story twofold. There were scenes aplenty that could be considered as genuine tearjerkers…it still bewilders me as to how a videogame could do so… And I know I am not the only one…see the Penny arcade strip.
The campaign twisted and turned, taking Joel and Ellie to places unimaginable and myself as a player, there was loads to play, loads to revel in. And then it happened, amidst a mission Joel gets impaled, fatally damaged and as it would seem, it would have easily been a cliche ending. A loved one’s sacrifice, so that the other could get to safety but once again Naughty Dog surprised me letting me play as Ellie while Joel recuperated from his injuries. And the surprises never ceased. Who could forget the dreamlike Giraffe sequence or the very disturbing sequence where David was about to rape Ellie? Towards the last act, inside the Firefly camp, I hesitated to kill the doctors in the operation theatre and I thought I’d have to kill all the doctors and I did so to the second one and when I was about to shoot the third I had a glance over at the table and there was a button. As I held Ellie in my hands, I regretted that I’d to kill the second doctor. And from there onwards all I cared about was to get Ellie to safety past the labyrinthine hospital, past the deadly guards. As for the ending the choices Joel made…it were no different from what I would have made. Selfish indeed but yet what I thought righteous and as previously quoted, something I would have done myself.
What made me more inclined towards The Last Of Us was its pure melodious music. Composed by the Academy Award winner Gustavo Santaolalla, the score is just pure bliss. Often fluctuating between being melancholic and serene, his score gives that quintessential immersion that pulls you deeper, from which climbing out of it felt unnecessary. I still listen to the title track and there is this point where the heavenly strings goes, from being dramatic to a cheerful tune and then back to gaining its pace giving you a sense of both urgency and warmth. It was inevitable in creating the mood of the game and Gustavo’s score fit well in place with the visuals and gameplay.
The Last Of Us was in league of its own. Of course an imminent comparison would be Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead where you are stranded in a similar scenario with Clementine and Lee. Agreed, its a great game but the depth of The Last of Us couldn’t be found in Walking Dead’s cel shaded characters or campaign. The Last of Us is one of the reasons why we still play games and why there is still some hope left amidst the Kill Streaks and Kill Spree. Unlike other AAA titles, The Last Of Us was about love and companionship in the face of a world ridden with nightmares. It was about gnawing fear that accompanies the sheer horror of survival. Its about loss and coping, about why we choose to continue living when all hope is lost.
Remarkable, is a game that puppeteers your emotions in such a way that you start rooting for the characters you play and makes you question if they were indeed real. The Last of Us was an unforgettable experience and Ellie and Joel are so memorable its needless to say they’ll be etched in gaming history as well as my mind for years to come. Joel & Ellie will be THE characters that I’ll remember 10 years from now and maybe a little more than Booker Dewitt and Elizabeth. The reasons plenty, but had I to quote just one, Joel and Ellie are characters that we could genuinely, in contemporary times, relate to. Finishing the campaign I tried my hand at its equally good Multiplayer but alas, I found myself clamouring more of its singleplayer experience. This is one of the best games ever, toppling even the most acclaimed AAA titles out there. The Last of Us becomes a good excuse to own a PS3.