Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us opens with a sequence that’s perfectly written, acted and executed. “Perfect” is not a word to be thrown around loosely—like “outrageous” or “amazing,” it’s one of our most mercilessly abused adjectives—but having played through this segment several times now, I’m convinced that the word is justified. This ~10 minute sequence is simply masterful in its construction: the economy of the storytelling, the world-building taking place in details that seem packed into every square inch of the screen, the way it climbs a gradient from “ominous” to “disturbing” to “devastating” with Scorsese levels of precision. The sequence ends, there’s a smash-cut to the title, and you belong to the game now.
I’ve only played through the first few hours of Naughty Dog’s latest (it arrived Friday, and has likely destroyed countless gamers’ weekend plans in the time since), so we’re not here to review the game. BAD’s resident video game expert, Alex Riviello, was gracious enough to let me horn in on his territory for a moment to toss out some observations about the game’s first few hours and to see what you guys think of the game. I can only assume that anyone else playing through The Last of Us is as eager to talk about as I am.
One last thing before I run down a few observations, though: there shall be no spoilers here, particularly spoilers of the narrative variety (game functionality may get vaguely touched on), and no spoilers will be tolerated in the comments below. This is BAD, so I’m pretty confident there’ll be none of that douchebaggery to worry about. But still, for the record: respect your fellow gamers.
First: the way the game looks. We all know great games don’t get that way from hi-res textures alone, but I think we’ll all agree that a sharp look helps enormously with immersion, and The Last of Us is about as immersive as games get. Within the first few hours of the game, I found myself doing the exact same thing I was doing when I started Bioshock Infinite: I’d be moving my character along, and a few seconds later I’d realized that I was just kinda…standing there, looking around the environment. Not exploring, not looking out for enemies or supplies: just drinking in the mammajammin’ spectacle in front of me. Over and over again I’ve been compelled to spend time looking around these gorgeous spaces Naughty Dog has built, sighing at the TV like it keeps breaking my heart every two or three minutes. I shit you not: if I’d been in a coma for the past five years, woke up, and was shown this game by someone telling me it was next-Gen? I’d probably believe them.
Secondly: the writing and characters are top-notch, engrossing and immediately worthy of your empathy. If you’ve played through Naughty Dog’s Uncharted games, then you don’t need to be told how brilliant these guys are when it comes to delivering on any of these counts. Pound for pound, this company is the best in the industry when it comes to crafting the “cinematic experience” that so many other companies like to claim they’re capable of. Anyone expecting the Indiana Jones-flavored entertainment-coaster of the Uncharted games should put those hopes to bed right now, however: whereas Nathan Drake and Sully’s adventures are pitched at the tone of an unusually smart summer popcorn film, The Last of Us is more like 28 Days Later or The Divide (y’know, if The Divide was worth a shit).
And finally: the gameplay. They haven’t been lying to you: this is a survival horror/action game with stealth elements, and if you know what all those terms mean when they’re strung together like that…you know what to expect. To me, the game plays a little like a hybrid of the first Bioshock and Uncharted, with Bioshock’s sprawling areas designed with an eye towards multiple “solutions” for overcoming enemies combined with Uncharted’s gunplay. There's a sense of messy panic to the combat here that isn't present in the Uncharted games, and it's one of many , many elements conspiring to keep you feeling uneasy and hunted at all times.
Speaking of combat. There’s probably going to be a lot of talk about whether Bioshock Infinite or The Last of Us is more likely to be crowned “Game of The Year,” but for me The Last of Us is clearly superior. Ken Levine and company (for whom, by the way, I have tremendous respect, despite a few shitty things I’m about to say about ‘em) brought to life one of the most incredible, intriguing worlds I’ve ever encountered across any medium, established a compelling story within it that was constantly filled with surprises, gave the player an hour or so to get sucked into that story’s clutches…and then they asked you to shoot at it, over and over again, and they didn’t even bother to make the gunplay all that interesting. The Last of Us seems to have just as much combat as Bioshock Infinite, but it’s never boring or repetitive, and because ammo is so limited in this universe the game forces you to employ serious strategy and on-the-fly solutions to combat encounters. Y’know, kinda like the first Bioshock.
I’m interested to see how the rest of The Last of Us plays out. I’m also curious to hear the reactions of other people that’ve been playing the game this weekend: are you as impressed as I am with this thing? Are you somehow disappointed? Is this what you were expecting, or is it something more/less? How does it rank against the other games you’ve played in 2013, and how about that goddamn opening? Let us know below, but be forewarned: spoilers in the comments will be exterminated with extreme prejudice.