First thing’s first. The Last Of Us is not a ‘fun’ game in the truest sense of the word, this is not a game that will cheer you up if you’re in a bad mood, this is definitely not a game to pick up and play in small chunks. With The Last Of Us, Naughty Dog (creators of the excellent Uncharted series) have envisioned something that is much more of an experience, something much more visceral than your standard AAA affair. This is the Playstation 3’s masterpiece.
Set 20 years after a major pandemic threatens the entire civilised world, you assume the role of Joel, haunted by his past and unfortunately now his oblique present, he is a survivor, living in a quarantine zone, taking odd jobs to get enough food and supplies to survive. The game establishes an existing relationship fairly quickly and it’s from here the wheels are set in motion for one of the truly great narratives experienced in a video game. Right from the off we are on Joel’s side, he is an extremely likeable character and it’s one of the games great strengths that it’s so easy to invest in Joel’s emotions. If this came across as forced, or hit a few bum notes, then the whole game could have collapsed, fortunately though, the writers have done such a good job with the script, everything comes across as genuine.
Naughty Dog have borrowed heavily from many traditional apocalypse tropes, but instead of coming across as mere copying, what is delivered is a much more refined experience. At times it feel’s a lot more real than anything The Walking Dead could come up with. The world feels previously lived in, it feels decayed and there’s a palpable sense of tension in every single moment. You never know when you’re safe.
Though a lot of the preview trailers would have you believe that the main enemy in the game here is the infected – humans infected with a spore virus – the more action oriented parts of the game involve human’s. You will face off against a variety of human enemies, but combat is always intense. There is an extreme sense of satisfaction when finishing an encounter with a group of enemies. Combat is fraught on all occasions with ammo a scarcity, a lot of fights often resorted in melee attacks through desperation. You can also choose to stealthily make your way through encounters, and when you can pull off a room full of silent take down’s the game truly shines. There’s a sense of triumph found usually only in the more dedicated stealth games such as Hitman or Metal Gear Solid.
You will also face off against a lot of Infected, coming in various guises, the one’s you’ll encounter most, recently infected and ‘Clickers’ are truly terrifying enemies. Recently Infected humans are very much like the zombies encountered in a movie like 28 Days Later, they’re fast, and they want you dead, these encounter’s are extremely fraught, with you having to resort to desperate attacks and choices with a scavaneged pipe or using the last of your ammo. Encounters with Clickers are a lot more tense and slow. They can not see, and thus react purely to noise, make any noise louder than a whisper and they will hunt you down and find you. They can not be killed with your fists, they take quite a few bullets to put down, but if you can sneak up on one, a shiv will despatch them pretty quickly.
Anyone who has played the Uncharted series will feel familiar with the games combat mechanics, Naughty Dog have borrowed a lot of elements from their other popular franchise, and this is to good effect. Uncharted’s combat engine was great, visceral and never felt overpowered. This translates even more so in The Last Of Us. Joel never feel’s overpowered, and his shot’s re never overly accurate. Again, this adds to the tension, you never go into a fire fight knowing you’ve got the upper hand. Stealth in almost all scenario’s is recommended. Aiding with Stealth is Joel’s ability to focus his hearing (holding R2 turns everything black and white and highlights enemies through walls). Though some may find this a bit too ‘video gamey’, I found it helpful on a lot of occasions, and it often means the difference between getting a heads up on a nearby Clicker, or getting a nice chunk taken out of your neck.
You will spend a lot of your time in The Last Of Us scavenging for supplies, whether it’s bindings, blades, or alcohol. You can use all of these to craft items for Joel to use, such as first aid kits (that’s right, no automatically regenerating health here!), shivs and even molotov cocktails. Using your equipment in the right way is key to survival, do you use bindings and a blade to make a shiv, or do you upgrade your melee weapon for a one hit kill? Do you use bandages and alcohol to make a first aid kit or a molotov? The choices with crafting are reflected elsewhere in the game, with the aforementioned choices between stealth and gun fire in combat, there’s also usually a lot of room to explore, or you can just get on to your destination.
I’ve gotten quite a way into this review and I haven’t even mentioned what I believe to be the best part of this game. That part would be Ellie, your constant companion through this journey. Ellie is your charge throughout the game and whilst a lot of other games have failed when you’re forced to work with a companion (i’m looking at you Resident Evil 5), The Last Of Us pulls it off perfectly. Ellie never gets in the way and her observations on the world are brilliant. Ellie is learning a lot as she goes a long and it’s often charming listening to her remark over small things such as an abandoned music store being ‘sad’. Ellie was born after the outbreak so knows nothing of the previous world. This adds a great dynamic and contrast with Joel, who has become hardened by knowing both sides of the coin. Ellie pushes this game apart from other’s of it’s ilk. You feel like you constantly need to protect her, yet she never get’s in the way, it’s a true tip of the hat to Naughty Dog that they have pulled this off without any annoyance.
Graphically, this game is gorgeous. The City is an overgrown mess but there’s detail everywhere, the world feels lived in and it thus feels decayed in it’s dystopian state. This sense of realism is backed in no small part down to some absolutely brilliant motion capture and voice acting. Just like Uncharted before it, Naughty Dog have found a way to really make these animated models look and feel like they’re interacting with their environment in a true to life manner. It’s the small touches that make a difference, from dust being kicked up around you, to Joel leaning his hand on something when you’re near it. If the game wasn’t presented as well as it has been a lot of the tone could have been ruined.
Nothing is nice in The Last Of Us. Stealth kills are a visceral mess, gun shots are inaccurate, the world is decaying and human are a cynical nightmare. The Last Of Us is an experience unlike nothing I’ve encountered in a video game before. Fallout 3 managed the post-apocalypse world excellently but lacked a true sense of realism. The Last Of Us draws you in and doesn’t let you go. You will be on edge the entire time you play. Sound is important, so play it loud, and play it in the dark. With the PS3 coming to the end of it’s life cycle, and with Naughty Dog’s next game likely to be on the PS4, you owe it to them to play this game now, and experience what this world has to offer.
*Thank You to SCEE for providing us with a copy of the game to review.