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★★★★★

The Last of Us

Naughty Dog and Sony Computer Entertainment

Released June 14, 2013

PlayStation 3

There’s a feeling in the pit of my stomach when I reach the end of a really good book. It’s hard for me to describe it to another person unless they too have felt it before — it’s like emptiness, a dull pain, a longing for the story to continue. It’s a shock to the system, a natural psychological response to having the environment and characters that you’ve immersed yourself in suddenly ripped away. It’s an absolutely horrible sensation and if, in the future, I forbid my children from going to school and decide that they should remain illiterate for all of their days, you won’t have to look further than this paragraph to know my motive.

I can count on one hand the number of video games that have induced this feeling in me. The Last of Us is one of them. And because it belongs to such a rarefied club, I can’t help but compare it to its fellow club mates, particularly the other most recent addition, Bioshock Infinite.

The short (and unsatisfying) summary of the comparison is this: in some ways, The Last of Us is better, and in others, Bioshock Infinite wins out.

In both shooters, you play ShotgunTotey McMurkyPast, the ever-useful everyman sent reluctantly to escort and protect a special young woman through a dangerous and hostile environment. As you travel through the game’s steampunk/post-apocalyptic dystopia, you defend her from the depredations of both your fellow man as well as animatronic, chaingun-wielding U.S. presidents/zombies and form powerful emotional bonds.

Where The Last of Us pulls ahead is in the area that both games are notable for: the strength of their narrative. Bioshock Infinite was a great story. But outside of the relationship between the two main characters, nothing else was really built upon in Bioshock Infinite. Most of the supporting cast could be adequately described with one word, whether it be greedy, religious, or racist. Meanwhile, in The Last of Us, even the worst antagonists still show glimmers of humanity; they’re multifaceted and nuanced in a way that Bioshock Infinite didn’t even attempt. The world feels more real, as if it’s not just a backdrop for your giant escort quest in the sky.

Beyond the ancillary characters, I think the basic nature of the two storylines gives The Last of Us a natural edge in engaging the player. Bioshock Infinite was more of a thriller — it kept you on the edge of your seat because you wanted to figure out what in the hell was going on and see what was going to happen next. The Last of Us is more of a drama. Comparing the two is a little like comparing Memento with Schindler’s List — I like both movies, but when it comes to tugging on the heartstrings, Schindler’s List and it’s genre just has too many inbuilt advantages to call things a fair fight. And so it is with these two games. Bioshock Infinite’s ending was a neat twist to a winding maze. The Last of Us’ ending kept me up at night pondering morality.

In many areas, I consider the two games equal. Like Bioshock Infinite, The Last of Us is superlatively written and voice acted. The haunting, frisson-inducing, acoustic-guitar-centric soundtrack of The Last of Us is at least on par with the ‘old-timey versions of modern pop songs’ of Bioshock Infinite. The graphics of both games are amazing, whether it’s in the close up character detail or the far away backgrounds. Both have similar play times — I’d estimate an average playthrough of The Last of Us to take about fifteen hours.

Where The Last of Us stumbles is its gameplay. Bioshock Infinite seemed to have a lot of good ideas that never quite got there, primarily because the game was never difficult enough to challenge the player to use all the features. By contrast, The Last of Us is a sufficiently difficult game, but, partly as a consequence, it is random and frustrating.

For example, some of the zombies you face can kill you in one hit. And as you attack them with a bat or pipe, there is a random chance that they will simply parry your attack and instakill you. Getting into cover is hugely important, since it means you are hidden from vision and shots fired on you have a large chance to miss. But it’s glitchy as well — sometimes your character just doesn’t seem to get what you’re trying to do. Or, you’ll be pushed out of cover when one of your allies joins you in hiding behind your wall. The contextual commands are also very frustrating — I failed one section several times because the triangle button is both “kill this guy silently from behind” as well as “noisily pick up this off-screen brick.” The list of problems goes on: ladders seem inordinately hard to climb, grenades will bounce backwards after colliding with a rag hanging from the ceiling, the puzzle sections are blindingly simple, the enemy AI is downright doltish, throwing bottles to distract enemies seems to have a random effect on their patrol paths that only occasionally includes investigating the area where the bottle landed, and I once teleported myself out of a mini-boss fight when a desperately thrown smoke grenade seemed to trigger some sort of “all of the zombies give up and you win” condition. On easier difficulties, some of these problems can be ignored by simply traipsing through the game murdering everything with a hail of gunfire from your well-stocked arsenal. On the harder difficulties where you’re constantly low on supplies, the functionality of stealthing, making stealth kills, and coming through in the clutch against zombie hordes becomes crucially important.

Much in the same way that Bioshock Infinite can be forgiven for only developing the two main characters (it’s arguably intentional that the writers wanted you to feel like those two were the only real people in the world), I’m ready to forgive The Last of Us for some of the frustrations of its gameplay. In a sense, criticizing how The Last of Us plays is a little like criticizing the gameplay of Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Yes, it sucks that scary enemies are killing you in one hit and you feel powerless to stop them. But the point of both games isn’t to make a hyfy shoot-em-up that’s fun to play. The gameplay is subordinate to the larger goal of setting a mood. The Last of Us accomplishes this in spades. Zombie sections are tense — when you’re creeping through a dark and heavily infested basement with only half a clip left in your pistol, every step feels like life and death. After every section I’d have to consciously relax my muscles before I exhausted myself.

In the end, The Last of Us, like Bioshock Infinite, is a game carried by its story. It has weaker weaknesses, compensated for by stronger strengths. Comparing the two seems futile — despite the superficial similarities between the two games, at their heart they belong to very different genres. The only true commonality is that if you value good story telling, you should enjoy The Last of Us as much as Bioshock Infinite.

And of course, whether The Last of Us is the best game released this year or only the second place is somewhat irrelevant for you, the video game consumer. Whatever the final verdict, The Last of Us is worth paying full retail price for, and deserves to be played by every gamer out there.