If there’s one aspect of gaming that’s really come into its own during this console generation, for me it’s storytelling. Books, television shows and films have been able to totally immerse us in their worlds by crafting gripping narratives and filling them with characters that we can relate to, that we’re interested in, and, most importantly of all, that we care about. Games like last year’s The Walking Dead have epitomized how storytelling can bring so much to a game that suddenly engaging and complex gameplay systems seem to not even matter, and yet even blockbuster titles like Halo 4 have attempted to set themselves apart from their rivals by bringing the characters to the forefront of the narrative. The Last of Us represents the perfect marriage between storytelling and gameplay, and with this Naughty Dog has completely reinvented the style of game it helped pioneer and consequently produced arguably the finest game of its generation.
The Last of Us is, to put it in its simplest terms, Naughty Dog’s take on the zombie apocalypse. But, rest assured, Uncharted with undead monsters this most certainly isn’t; there aren’t incredible set pieces around every corner, and the protagonists certainly don’t approach each situation with a wink, a smile and a witty remark – whilst Uncharted is a series undoubtedly fixated with placing the intensity and explosiveness of a Hollywood blockbuster in the control of the players, The Last of Us is a different beast entirely. It’s all about survival, rather than approach each encounter with expectant glee and excitement, you find confrontation a reluctant necessity, with every spared bullet and healing kit greeted with a sigh of relief. The world of post apocalyptic America is not one to trifle with; it feels real, and every bit as dangerous as you’d imagine it would be if it was.
Fungus is the root cause of the state of the world you find yourself in, a world ravaged by an infection that leeches inside the brain functions of its host and turns them into a variety of gruesome individuals depending on the length and severity of their infection. However, much like the aforementioned The Walking Dead, The Last of Us isn’t really focused on the origin of the virus or even how society fell, but how the survivors must learn to live with it. A harrowing prologue that has been known to bring grown men to tears is the only onscreen insight you’re given into how post-apocalyptic America comes to be, with further knowledge gained from collectible artifacts left behind. What is apparent is that the world is a shadow of what it once was, with buildings teetering on edge, plants and fungus enveloping every structure in sight, and humanity broken up into factions and the occasional remaining military outpost. It’s an incredibly detailed setting and a fully realized one at that, one that feels totally convincing and feasible, and one that plays host to a journey you won’t soon forget.
This journey is played out in the shoes of Joel, a 20 year veteran of the end of the world who we’re introduced to in the aforementioned prologue, but who has changed an awful lot since. Your main accomplice during your quest across the states is Ellie, a 14 year old girl, the significance of that number being that she was born and raised in this post-apocalyptic America. She’s bullish, she’s feisty and incredibly likable; like Joel and every other character you encounter she’s wonderfully written and brought to life by incredible motion capture and equally impressive voice work. Ellie is important for reasons that won’t be gotten into here, but suffice to say you’re tasked with delivering her to one of the factions attempting to establish order where there is none, and this forms the context for you to embark.
Embarking on this particular adventure, if you can even call it that, is one that will be the cause of significant trepidation among most players. The Last of Us can be a brutal game at times; ammo is scarce, enemies are mostly smart and always aggressive, and mastering your equipment is a must. Your equipment – health packs, molotov cocktails, nail bombs and the like – all must be crafted, and in real time at that. If you wan’t to switch weapons, use a workbench to upgrade them or craft equipment you cannot use any sort of pause menu, but rather you have to access your backpack and trawl away desperately as you hope to God that angry humans nor crazed infected stumble across you as you work. It’s tense as anything, and it extends to the combat itself. Guns feel as deadly as they should to both you and your enemies, as do the fantastically satisfying bow and arrow and the tremendously effective molotovs and nail bombs. You’ve certainly got some options to play around with, and it’s refreshing to see a game that doesn’t restrict the amount of weapons you can carry – as if you’d be picky about how many weapons to take with you when there are monsters and psychos trying to kill you at every turn, right? Playing on the lower difficulty settings where enemies are weaker and the salvage and ammo you need for your equipment and weaponry is more readily available can have you feeling like a patched up Batman at times, but on the higher difficulty settings there are times when you will genuinely feel helpless, and to be fair this feeling is apparent at times even on Easy and Medium – it’s a tough life for sure.
Being as tough as it is, stealth becomes absolutely key to your survival in The Last of Us. Sneaking up behind human enemies will often result in a brutal execution via hands or shiv, but a few of the infected enemy types require different tactics. Clickers are probably the most disgusting enemy you’ll face in terms of appearance, and, at least on early on, they’ll kill you instantly if they get their hands on you. On the other hand, they’re blind, but do have incredible hearing, which makes sneaking at a snails pace a necessity at times. The Bloaters are similarly deadly and will require the most powerful equipment in your arsenal to take down. When you’re faced with two of those bad boys at a time I recommend saying a quick prayer. Having said that, they can also be susceptible if you manage to sneak up on them before chucking a few nail bombs at their behinds, and like every other enemy you face you’ll often find Joel’s listening ability incredibly useful when you encounter them. Holding down L2 allows Joel to sneak around and use his listening ability to effectively see enemies through walls; it feels a little bit ‘gamey’ in an experience that is otherwise pretty grounded, but it’s a clever way of allowing you to move the odds in your favor when faced with a large room of enemies. Using distraction techniques like throwing bottles and bricks is also key during these situations, and can give you a further tactical edge, whilst adding to the feeling that The Last of Us often resembles more of a survival horror game than an action adventure or third person shooter. Ellie too won’t hesitate to make use of bricks, bottles and eventually guns when the time comes, which can help you escape from tight spots when all hope seems lost. Ellie is really awesome, at one point you can even hit a button to give her a high five!
Ellie isn’t just a welcome ally in combat scenarios, she’s also just welcome company during the game’s quieter moments. Naughty Dog give you plenty of opportunities to just soak up the atmosphere of the world and explore every nook and cranny of the intricately rendered environments the game places you in, and it’s during these moments that Ellie will strike up conversation on all sorts of topics, and not only will you get to see her playful innocent side as she nerds out over long lost comics and gets nostalgic over old music records, but also gain an insight into her life thus far in a way that makes you care. Both Joel the character and you the player come to care for Ellie over the course of the game, in a way that’s somewhat reminiscent of the way you and Lee Everett came to care for Clementine in The Walking Dead. It’s in these moments that the writing and acting performances really shine through.
Naughty Dog have succeeded in bringing this cast of characters to life in the same way they succeeded with Uncharted. Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson are the stars as Joel and Ellie respectively, and both do a wonderful job of bringing their characters to life, as do the entire cast. There are moments both within the game and during the cut scenes that will make your jaw drop, breath stop, and maybe even your eyes well up because these characters feel so real and the narrative takes them to such dark places. It’s a strange feeling to see the character you’re controlling as a total asshole, but that’s the fact of the matter, and you’ll probably find yourself emphasizing with Ellie far more; Joel is a veteran of this world, Ellie, like you, is out in this world for the first time and at points is just as taken aback as you’re likely to be. It’s a grim tale for sure, as it should be, and even the ending could be best described as ‘grey’. Happily ever after this isn’t.
What isn’t simply ‘grey’ is the game’s look – The Last of Us is a stone cold stunner. Characters look and feel so real, possibly providing the most convincing facial animation yet seen in a game, whilst the infected look suitably horrific. Animation is absolutely top of the class, and the environments are meticulously detailed. Sure there are some flat textures here and there and some AI oddities on occasion, but when you consider we’re only four or five months away from the successor to the console that this game out for, it’s quite incredible to see just how much Naughty Dog has managed to squeeze out of this aging hardware. It’s the best looking game on the PlayStation 3, and might be one of the best sounding too. The voice acting is obviously superb, and the sound of the Clickers will haunt your dreams for nights on end after the credits roll. The music is provided by Oscar winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla and it shows; it’s haunting, it adds weight to the emotion of several key scenes, and, just like the story and characters, it’s totally memorable.
Topping off one of the best single player experiences of this generation is a robust multiplayer suite, which works in several of the gameplay mechanics from the main game to deliver online competition quite unlike anything else. The real time crafting is present, and ammunition is scarce, which gives the matches a fair share of tension. Both game types stress survival too, with a set number of lives shared between each team of four, ensuring a careful and methodical approach to combat online. Your results contribute to your score in the wider metagame, as you look to aid your chosen faction’s survival hopes. As this progresses you’ll be given tasks to complete within matches, such as kill a set number of people or collect a set amount of salvage, and all this adds up to aid you and your group’s progression. It’s well put together and genuinely enjoyable despite the tension, and any multiplayer mode that incorporates Facebook in a way that isn’t spammy or annoying deserves major kudos.
Ultimately, though, the multiplayer is simply the icing on top of what is a quite incredible cake that Naughty Dog has cooked up for it’s swansong on the PlayStation 3. Sure, it’s a cake filled to the brim with death, violence, darkness and tears, but the taste will linger long in the memory. It’s an incredible experience, not just an incredible game, and one that stands tall as a shining example of perfectly synchronized storytelling, character work and gameplay, which is all presented in a stunningly well realized world.
Check back for more news and reviews right here on HSR.