Public service announcement: buy The Last of Us because it’s really good. If you need further justification, read on.
• Developer: Naughty Dog
• Publisher: Sony
• Reviewed on: PS3
• Release Date: Available Now
It’s not often that games like The Last of Us come along daring to shake up how things are done in games and this is a game that dares to challenge a few conventions. Naughty Dog’s new title supersedes Uncharted rather than simply follows it, builds upon the groundwork laid by it instead of attaching some new bells and whistles. It dares to be new and different and succeeds monumentally.
The game is set twenty years after a hyper-evolved form of cordyceps unilateralis destroys much of humanity and renders many of those left as infected, zombie-like monsters. The story here centres on Joel, a weathered and tired middle-aged man, and Ellie, a 14 year-old girl. The two are a clash of cultures, Joel yearning for life before the apocalypse and Ellie knowing of nothing but trying to survive. Their story and relationship are, without saying much, bold, brutal and unmatched by much else out there.
It all boils down to how the story is told. Rather than resort solely to cutscenes, *TLOU* allows Joel and Ellie’s relationship to develop through little moments in play. They might remark together about things in the environment, or argue about who gets armed with what. Ellie might even react negatively to how Joel dispatches an infected enemy or a particularly hostile survivor. Crucially, Naughty Dog have chosen to distinguish story from action where appropriate, keeping her all-but-invisible to the game’s foes. This can shatter the illusion of realism for a moment, but it’s forgivable when you consider the alternative. Ellie feels like the character Irrational wanted to create when crafting Elizabeth for BioShock Infinite: she doesn’t simply exist to throw ammo and loose change at you. There’s a feeling of genuine responsibility generated by the game’s penchant to throw you into constant danger.
Equally, the mechanics of the game are blended with the storyline in such a way that things generally considered as flaws or annoyances make total sense. Ammo is scarce – Resident Evil‘s caches are goldmines in comparison – and Joel is anything but a great shot making every bullet genuinely important. He’s also an average Joe when it comes to clambering up things, more often than not needing to seek out a ladder or plank to traverse gaps Nathan Drake would scoff at.
Many a developer will talk about “open-ended gameplay” but often games give you so many bullets that to attempt any other way of play is seen simply as experimentation or a waste of time. The Last of Us does not see open-ended approaches as optional. This is a game in which choice isn’t always available. Should Joel run out of bullets he can resort to crafting shivs or molotov cocktails using supplies gathered from the world. Some of those same supplies might even have to go on a first aid kit instead. These all require Joel to kneel down and open his backpack and the process takes real seconds to finish – even whilst enemies are advancing – meaning that it’s usually better to run and hide or turn and fight with your fists.
Even this isn’t always an option when faced with Clickers, hyper-infected enemies who swap the ability to see for acute hearing and insta-death sets of teeth. They can be distracted with a well-thrown brick or glass bottle, sending them packing to the source of the noise in a fury of howls and screams. Sneaking past huge areas filled with these are genuine heart-in-mouth moments, requiring a lot of planning and healthy use of Joel’s listening ability, allowing him to sense nearby enemies through walls. It’s worth noting that The Last of Us doesn’t use jumpy environment tricks and sound effect stabs to scare you. It doesn’t have to when it can craft tension with the precision of a surgeon.
The huge environments that Joel and Ellie traverse are linear, but camouflaged as large areas that may feature several enterable buildings and open spaces laden with walls and cars for cover. The detail and sense of awe is impeccable: every area is covered in lush greenery and trees encroaching buildings, huge branches and even entire trunks filling hotel foyers and office blocks. Coffee chains and arcades lie in ruin; houses are filled with notes and letters detailing the last thoughts of those since moved on or worse – some people even crop up again and again. The apocalypse isn’t just a setting – TLOU bestows the world with records of everything that came before and discovering it, piece-by-piece, enriches the world around you.
I’ve got a tasksheet in front of me from Sony. It details what I can and cannot say about The Last of Us and makes saying much else very, very hard. The storyline is incredibly powerful and Naughty Dog’s motion capture tech makes every moment very believable and human. The gentle acoustic score blends warmth and sadness all at once. Film-standard levels of emotion are on show in both the faces of the game’s characters and in the story that binds them all together, but the game doesn’t forfeit enjoyable mechanics in order to keep those levels high.
There are simply too many things to say about this game which are better experienced first-hand and it’s here that this review draws to a close. Many of you have already bought The Last of Us. Those who haven’t, should.