July 1, 2013 by Tim

Over a week since I finished the main campaign for The Last of Us, and I’m still playing multiplayer. Nightly, and for hours at a time. Not only is that a huge surprise in general, but ringing endorsement for how much Naughty Dog got right in comparison to their earlier attempts at multiplayer add-ons.

I think I maybe sunk 2-3 hours, tops, into Uncharted multiplayer. It was an interesting and brief distraction, a sort of “I finished the single player, and the disc is already in the PS3, so why not” sort of thing. But the Last of Us has latched onto something fundamentally enjoyable. And while it’s not perfect, my time with it will easily equal, or perhaps exceed the hours I sunk into the campaign. For a game I bought solely for the campaign, that’s an incredibly pleasant surprise.

For the record, I play strictly Survivors. That’d the mode where it’s your goal to eliminate the enemy team, and you only get one life per round. I tried the other mode, with respawns, and it doesn’t compare. The limited life in Survivors promotes the sort of gameplay where The Last of Us shines: nerve-wrackingly intense tactical battle.

The random nature of the items you loot, leading to being able to craft who-knows-what in any given round, leads you to think and plan on the fly. I love getting the materials in my first two boxes to make a bomb, but sometimes all I can conjure up is a smoke grenade. So now I have to factor that into my short list of available tools.

And you really have to use everything at your disposal to succeed. Ammo is scarce, and only replenished by spending precious Parts (currency earned through the matches) or looting off of dead bodies. Survivors matches are a best of seven rounds, which provides not only ample opportunity to decide what to spend your limited Parts on, but also makes for some great comebacks.

While the matches themselves are amazing, it’s the entire multiplayer meta-game behind it which elevates the experience to memorable. You pick your faction, and are given a small group of (theoretical) survivors to care for. These people exist only on paper (though the game allows you to populate them with names from your Facebook friends list if you want), and survive or die through your multiplayer efforts alone.

Each game equals 1 day or survival, and if your group can survive until twelve weeks… I don’t know. I’ve only gotten to nine weeks. All the game’s ranks and perks are tied into how many supplies you collect, how long you survive, and how many followers you can maintain.

Do well in a match and not only can you feed all of your camp, but new survivors will swell your ranks, granting you one-use bonuses in-game. From time to time, a mission or quest will pop up, which essentially threatens your band of survivors. How well you do at your chosen task over the course of three games determines how well your camp fares against whatever tribulation it faces. You have some control over the mission parameters… you can decide what tasks you must complete, be it performing X number of special executions, or X number of kills with a certain weapon, etc.

Occasionally one of these missions will threaten your entire survivor population unless you can diffuse the damage by succeeding at your goals. Those three games become seriously intense. I fell one objective shy in my three-game set, and my entire camp was wiped out. You then have to start from Week 1 Day 1 with a new group.

One of the most successful aspects of the multiplayer, I find, is that in a match, whether you win or lose overall is mostly inconsequential. Of course it’s nice to win, but your actual performance is king here. Even if you lose the match, if you’ve collected enough supplies to feed your camp for that day, you’re all good. This not only makes things a tad less frustrating, but it promotes intelligent gameplay over reckless firefights. You may be the last person standing against four enemies, but if you can take even one of them down with you, that’s more supplies for your camp. It all matters.

What’s more, all of the weapons feel fair and balanced for the most part. All of the guns have their strengths and weaknesses, and you have a lot of flexibility in designing your custom loadouts. With ammo so limited, fist fights are common, and since upgraded melee weapons are both rare and one-hit kills, they can sometimes turn the tide of an entire match. There’s obviously a small measure of randomness involved, as you’ll never know what materials you’ll find in a box, but overall if you lose, it’s because the other team played better than you did.

I do have a small issue with the game’s matchmaking… more than once I’ve seen two or three people ranked 20+ matched against a team of rank 5’s. And while the game does rely mostly on player skill, there is a clear advantage to being higher rank, including more loadout points, and skill unlocks. In just about every lopsided match I’ve seen, the higher rank team annihilated the lower ranked one. Often in a shutout. If the game is going to mix ranks together within a game, it needs to try better to distribute them amongst the two teams as well.

Losing my 75 survivors was a bummer, but I’ve already started over and I’m looking forward to trying again to survive the full twelve weeks. For what I had assumed was going to be a thin multiplayer mode tacked onto a great story has really turned out to carry its own weight and then some.

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