When I sat down to play The Last of Us I was hesitant. It’s a game from which I’ve grown to expect so much that I was afraid it wouldn’t meet my lofty expectations. Naughty Dog have shown that they are capable of creating incredible games, but I was scared that perhaps this time the game wouldn’t live up to the insane amount of hype surrounding it. Well, that’s the last time I’ll ever doubt the frighteningly talented people at Naughty Dog.
Set in post-outbreak America, The Last of Us is a game like no other. It is a perfect blend of near-flawless gameplay and absorbing narrative. From beginning to end you won’t want to leave the world Naughty Dog has created, and that’s not something I say lightly, because this world isn’t a nice one; it’s a lawless world full of danger, fear and silent beauty. The outbreak of a deadly virus has pushed mankind to the brink: humans have survived but humanity hasn’t. Society soldiers on in military run safe-zones, but that ‘safety’ comes at the price of freedom. It’s in one of these walled off safe-zones that we meet Joel, our protagonist.
Joel is a survivor. He does what he needs to do to ensure he makes it through each day, and it’s easy to see that he’s a man who’s desperate to preserve some shred of humanity. There's nothing heroic about the actions he takes, and that’s what makes him such a compelling character. We can root for him because we can see he doesn’t take any pleasure in what he does. He’s forced to do things that many of us might frown upon, but Joel doesn’t have the luxury of choice. In his world it’s do or die, and when you do take gruesome action there’s no glory or victory cheer, just grim acceptance and a begrudging understanding that survival isn’t easy, for Joel or for the player.
Amongst other things Joel is a smuggler, and early on in the game he reluctantly accepts the task of transporting a 14 year old girl across the ruined remains of America. It’s at this point we are introduced to Ellie, a child who was born during the pandemic and has no recollection of the world Joel remembers. Ellie will often ask Joel about life before the outbreak, and it’s interesting to see these two characters, who have such contrasting memories and knowledge, bounce their thoughts off of each other. Seeing their relationship evolve and develop over the course of the game is emotionally engrossing, and it’s a relationship that works so well because of the way the characters have been constructed. Ellie and Joel are some of the most believably human characters I’ve ever encountered in a video game, and enormous credit must be given to the animators and the voice actors who brought these characters to life. Their skill has ensured that Ellie and Joel will be remembered among the most important and memorable duos in gaming history.
A great companion can quickly turn into a nightmare if they aren’t smartly integrated into the gameplay, but fortunately Ellie doesn’t suffer this fate. The developers have rather wisely chosen to make Ellie invisible to enemies, meaning that there is no chance of her blowing your cover when you’re attempting to sneak past some unsavory humans or infected. Unfortunately, this may lead to one or two instances where Ellie is caught out in the open, in full view of enemy AI, but manages to remain completely and inexplicably undetected. It’s far from being a big major complaint, and it only happened a couple of times during my playthrough. However, when it does happen it completely shatters the illusion of gritty reality that The Last of Us works so hard to create.
It’s a reality thats dark, harrowing and at times hard to endure, but it’s a reality that has been beautifully realized by Naughty Dog. The Last of Us is one of the most graphically stunning games of this generation and every single environment looks breathtaking. You’ll often find yourself pausing just to take in your surroundings, and thankfully the game is brilliantly paced, so you’ll have enough time to absorb every lovingly rendered inch. The beauty found in The Last of Us is coupled with a poignant sense of irony, as it’s only after the fall of society that we get to see the world in a truly serene state. The fact that Joel and Ellie might be among the last people to see our planet in such a way gives a profound weight to the gorgeous environments on show.
Accompanying those impressive visuals is an equally impressive soundtrack. Gustavo Santaolalla has created a score that is the perfect companion for your journey throughout the haunting corpse of post-apocalyptic America. Never overpowering but ever present, the soundtrack constantly enhances the experience, and it’s clear that Santaolalla understood exactly what he needed to do in order to create an OST that would seamlessly merge with all of the elements found within The Last of Us.
A well presented game, even one as brilliantly presented as The Last of Us, can hit a dead end if the gameplay isn’t up to the same high quality standard. You wont be surprised when I tell you that this isn’t the case with The Last of Us, and once again Naughty Dog have delivered more of the delightfully polished gameplay we’ve all come to expect from them.
The Last of Us is a pleasure to play, and it’s the first game in a long, long time that has managed to genuinely scare me. The encounters with the infected are consistently nerve-wracking, and whenever you realise you’re about to deal with them again, a sense of dread will begin to set in. There are different varieties of infected, each representing a different stage of infection, and these varieties ensure that you’ll need to think very carefully about how to deal with the plethora of situations you'll encounter.
The infected humans who haven’t yet completely succumbed to the fungus can see and hear you, making it difficult to sneak past them. On the plus side, these are the easiest type of infected to kill, and they can even be dealt with by hand if necessary. The fully infected humans are known as clickers, and they are oh so disturbing. They represent the final form of infection and are suitably deformed, with huge mounds of fungus bursting from their skulls and a horrifying vocal range that makes nails on a chalkboard sound like birdsong. Fortunately, the faces of clickers have been consumed by said fungus, and they have completely lost their eyesight. This means they are a lot easier to sneak past than the other infected, although their impeccable hearing makes them a constant threat. What makes a clicker more terrifying to deal with than any other infected, though, is the knowledge that if a clicker grabs you, there’s no way to fight it off, and you’ll just have to sit there and watch as Joel is brutally mauled. The tense and terrifying nature of each infected encounter means that you’ll learn to treat these enemies with respect. If you’re not on the edge of your seat every time you have to deal with one of these adversaries, then you’re a braver man (or woman) than me.
Fungally compromised humans aren’t the only things out to get you, and with people, yourself included, taking ever more drastic measures to survive, you’ll soon discover that other humans can be just as deadly as the infected. The various gangs that walk the crumbling streets are interested only in looking after their own, meaning that you and Ellie are just another pair of walking supply bags waiting to be looted. The human AI are smart, and they’ll constantly try to flank you and make sure they have the upper hand. If they learn you have a gun they’ll quickly alert other members of their party, instantly changing the dynamic of the situation. It’s the little things that make the humans you face excruciatingly real, and watching someone beg for their life before you inevitably end it is a sobering experience. As I’ve said, you won’t take pleasure in combat like you do in games such as Uncharted or Call of Duty. It’s rewarding, but only because you know your actions have allowed you and Ellie to cling to life that little bit longer.
If you do choose to go in all guns blazing you’d best be one hell of a scavenger, and a pretty good shot. The aiming in the Last of Us feels ever so slightly off, and in tense moments you might end up missing a vital shot or wasting precious ammo. Of course, this adds to the ultra-realistic presentation of the game as Joel isn’t a trained firearms expert, just a guy with some guns. That being said, it could be a minor frustration to some gamers. To make sure you can afford to miss a few shots, you’ll need to search high and low for ammunition. The importance of bullets in The Last of Us cannot be overstated. They might not be used with frequency, but I can guarantee they'ill end up saving your life.
You can also scavenge for various components that can be combined to create a variety of useful survival tools - all of which must be crafted in real time. There’s nothing quite as heart-wrenching as watching Joel frantically piece together a molotov cocktail knowing that a group of armed bandits are just around the corner. Choosing what items to make with your limited resources is imperative if you want to survive. The components you scavenge have a variety of different uses, meaning that you must decide if you want to create an offensive weapon like a nail bomb, or something that will help you simply survive like a first aid kit. Balancing your offensive and defensive creations is paramount to success. If you do go scouring the environments for resources, you’ll often find tape recorders or notes left behind by other, perhaps less fortunate, travelers. These discoveries add another rich layer to an already compelling story, and you’ll definitely want to find them all.
After you’re through with the campaign it’s in your best interests to check out the multiplayer mode, entitled Factions. There's always an inherent skepticism when it comes to multiplayer being added to games that are, by-and-large, single player experiences. Multiplayer in The Last of Us doesn’t try to do something new, instead it wisely chooses to replicate the themes, motivations and gameplay encountered in the single player campaign.
There are only two game modes in Factions: Supply Raid and Survivors. Supply Raid is the more recognisable of the two modes, however to call it a straight up team-deathmatch scenario would be rude. In Supply Raid there are two teams of four players. Each team shares 20 lives between them and must work together to whittle down the lives of their enemies. It’s a cagey affair, and working together is a necessity. If you go rushing into encounters you will be swiftly punished. Tactical caution is your best weapon here.
Survivors takes the intensity of Supply Raid and doubles it. Here you must work together to win a best-of-seven series of games, however in this mode death is permanent. In order to win you’ll need to be meticulous, precise, and hope that you see your enemies before they see you. In both modes, just as you did in the campaign, you can scour the map for components that will allow you to create weapons and upgrades. This feature adds even more tension, as it’s impossible to know how dangerous your opponents are until it’s too late; I generally found that out by taking a molotov to the face.
Factions is a worthy addition to a terrific campaign. Most people will flock to buy The Last of Us in order to experience the story, and quite frankly I'd be worried if someone told me they'd done otherwise. However, that doesn't mean you should just ignore the multiplayer part of the package. Factions isn’t just a cheap afterthought that was shoe-horned in at the last second, and you’d be foolish to dismiss it as such.
With The Last of Us Naughty Dog have delivered a masterpiece in every sense of the word. They don’t just raise the bar for video games, they set a new precedent that all narrative driven games should be measured against. I’ve already heaped huge amounts of praise onto The Last of Us, and yet I feel like I could continue to conjure up new ways of explaining just how impressive the experience is. In the end, when I tell you that The Last of Us is not only the best, most complete, game of this generation, but also one of the best games that I’ve ever had the fortune to play, I hope you’ll realise how impossibly good The Last of Us is.
This review is based on a PlayStation 3 copy of The Last of Us, provided by the publisher.