And this is why you don’t stick to your guns. Naughty Dog was on a roll with Crash Bandicoot: all at once, it seemed, they’d given Sony a mascot and redefined the platformer. Two sequels (and a kart-racer) followed. Rather than eke out a living on less and less rewarding terms, however, they changed gears, taking what they’d learned about platforming and racing and adding guns and exploration to create Jax & Daxter, borrowing from the open-world of GTA to expand the series into a complex trilogy. Again, these developers might have comfortably produced like-minded sequels, but instead they redefined for a new console generation, maintaining much of the cinematic scope of Jax but setting it against a realistic universe for the Uncharted games. Once more, despite increasing sales (and graphics-pushing design), Naughty Dog paused (pun intended) to evolve once more: The Last of Us, an even grittier, more realistic action game that borrowed the companion mechanics from their previous trilogy and added zombies, stealth, and enough tension to make Resident Evil roll over in its grave.
So, what makes The Last of Us an instant classic? First, there’s a compelling story to easily rival that of The Walking Dead; spread over four seasons (acts), the game isn’t just a cycle of scavenging, sneaking, fighting, and fleeing, but rather an exploration of the deepening relationship between the two protagonists, Joel and Ellie. The action sequences have lasting repercussions–and because there’s a constant presence there to bounce off of (as in Ico), these emotional shifts are more readily apparent than in, say, the recent Tomb Raider reboot. I’m not saying that a player can’t bond with an avatar, or feel empathy for their situation, but it’s somehow not just easier but more natural within the richly defined world of The Last of Us. Joel isn’t just a gruff smuggler; he’s the man who watched the military shoot his uninfected daughter twenty years ago, during the chaotic onset of the zombie plague. Ellie isn’t just an angry little girl, nor is she just a plot device–the only person that’s immune to the virus–but the person who has watched every friend she had died, while she continues to live. They don’t warm up to one another immediately, and once they start getting alone, they still have their share of disagreements, but thanks to the 15-20 hour game, there’s time enough to develop these nuances.
What else? Well, there are stealth mechanics here that put Metal Gear Solid to shame. There are no maps or HUD icons; instead, Joel can use a form of echolocation to hear where movement is coming from–similar to what one assumes Daredevil does. This is important as ammunition (and silenced weaponry) is far rarer here than in any other apocalyptic game I’ve played–only Metro 2033 comes close. Throwing bottles or bricks to lure enemies out into the open, playing their suspicion of your last known location against them so that you can flank and strangle (or shank) them, and then using those bodies to bait out additional enemies isn’t just a strategy: it’s often the only strategy. (This is especially true on Survivor mode, which limits bullets and removes the echolocation.) Resident Evil and Dead Space have all embraced being cooperative action titles: good for them, I guess, but great for The Last of Us, which actually plays like a survival horror game.
The graphics are impressive, especially the long-distance rendering–the scope of overgrown Boston and Pittsburgh, the accurate-seeming scale of a college campus, the verdant and horse-beaten back-trails of Wyoming. The weather effects are noteworthy, too, from a mid-blizzard rescue to the way the sun sparkles off a hydroelectric dam or toxic spores gather and smog up your gas mask. Even the short swimming sequences are something special, even if it’s hard to pay close attention to them when you’re struggling to breathe. (Special credit to director Bruce Straley; now I know why navigating and fighting my way through overgrown cities reminded me so much of the under-appreciated Enslaved: Odyssey to the West.)
But here’s the most important part–and it’s what I would’ve started with, if I weren’t afraid of spoilers. After literally creeping through dank sewers so as to not alert the blind Clickers to your presence, outsmarting a psychotic cannibal in his own restaurant, and narrowly escaping a horde of Infected Runners, there’s a moment of sublime beauty, the sort of tonal scripting that Naughty Dog has gotten so good at. There’s a cluster of giraffes wandering through the streets of Salt Lake City. It’s that beauty, that did you see that work in the midst of all these other unyielding horrors that makes a game worth playing, that elevates it beyond a series of levels strung together by how well you can swing a plank and turns it into an experience. Dead Island let you wander an entire island, but never gave you anything close to this; Far Cry 3 had beautiful effects in its terrain, but by turning its animals into to-be-skinned parts, made it hard to admire them. It has to be about more than killing things; it has to be about really seeing things in a new light. And let me tell, even at its most dim and gruesome, The Last of Us is brilliant.