In development for almost five years, from the makers of one of the most highly acclaimed series in recent times in the form of Uncharted
and backed by a massive global promotional campaign, The Last of Us
is finally here to help you while away the final days of the PlayStation 3.
So is it any good?
In a word, yes. There’s no denying that this blockbuster title is among the more impressive games I’ve played this year, presenting an unmatched dramatic experience wrapped up in a level of presentation earlier generations could only drool about.
But, because I can’t stop myself there, I’m also going to delve into those less shining moments, sifting through the frustrations and tonal inconsistencies which make the result slightly less than the sum of its no doubt stellar parts.The Last of Us
is set 20 years after a terrifying infection which brought the world to its post apocalyptic knees. A fungus infected the brains of millions, driving them insane and adding to the bloodshed as major cities fell and families were ripped apart by tragedy.
Two decades on, the survivors cluster together in isolated regions, in the fortified remains of cities, and try to persist. There are flickers of hope in the wilderness but everything is being worn down by the pestilence, by the knowledge that a single bite could take your loved ones in a moment, turning them into mindless, ravaging beasts.
It’s not a unique setting for a video game, movie or book but the team at Naughty Dog
goes out of its way to invest this shattered world with enough subtle detail to give it a real identity. The abandoned homes you’ll visit throughout the game are littered with the remnants of lives cut short by horror and everywhere you’ll find traces of desperate last stands, of men and women and children who couldn’t survive against the onslaught.
It’s never less then evocative, enhanced by hand written notes and audio logs left behind and brought to life with Naughty Dog’s
own versatile engine. While the in game graphics can’t match the stunning higher fidelity cut scenes, the world is impeccably crafted with unique assets in every section and a huge variety of locations to explore in this sprawling narrative. Add in movie level sound design and an emotive score from Oscar winner Gustavo Santaolalla
) and you’ve got a premium technical package.
But The Last of Us
is really about the story and its here that Naughty Dog
finds its biggest success. Joel may be the controllable hero of the piece but this is Ellie’s tale and she drives every element of the narrative from beginning to end. The journey takes Joel on a long and dangerous journey to deliver the girl to a group called the Fireflies for a purpose even she doesn’t fully understand.
Ellie’s presence means you’ll rarely spend any time alone in The Last of Us
, with the 14 year old tagging along through every terrifying moment and additional characters sometimes dropping in. It’s her banter which helps to keep the reality of the game to the fore, a girl who has never seen the outside world, who wasn’t born when the life we know was destroyed.
Through her influence, we’re forced to take in sights in a new way, to drink in the blasted vistas and linger where the game wants you to. More than anything else, she is the agent which drives your experience, often leading the player by the nose and even dropping hints if you’re stuck for more than a few moments.
The lengthy campaign (it took me 14 and a half hours to complete on normal difficulty) gives you plenty of time to see the relationship between Joel and Ellie change and grow. And there’s some remarkable depth here, as well as a willingness to deal with dark material and a raw antagonism which puts it several steps above the average AI partnership.
There are some harrowing moments in The Last of Us
and while they don’t all involve Ellie they tie into a thematic whole which deals with loss and family and fate, making some of the later portions of the game (which I won’t talk about here) all but impossible to bear. It’s an unusually intense engagement and something which is just another example of the increasing maturity of the gaming experience.
With so much time spent on the story and presentation, you’re probably wondering how the game plays. As a third person action-adventure, The Last of Us
feels most like a kind of lumbering Uncharted
to begin with. Joel isn’t as spry as Nathan Drake but feels like he might share some animation routines, while there’s much jogging and clambering and fisticuffs to get to grips with.
But this is a more dangerous world than anything Drake ever had to contend with, and it soon becomes clear that a more considered approach is needed if you’re planning on staying alive. It’s always clear when you’re about to enter a violent encounter, with audio cues from Ellie or a snarl from a nearby enemy, giving you a chance to choose your tactics.
Punching is often necessary Enlarge
Despite what you might have heard in the previews, there’s plenty of ammo in The Last of Us
, you just have to be careful how you use it. You’ll gain access to almost a dozen weapons for putting lead (or arrows) into things and enough ballistics to get yourself out of trouble without too much hassle.
Ideally, the game is meant to be played in a somewhat stealthy manner, with silent takedowns a must against human enemies and the fresher infected foes called runners. Entering a new area, you’ll use the listening mechanic (which shows you the location of nearby enemies) to scout and plan your movements, ideally whittling down the opposition before taking on larger groups.
This makes the action more intimate and tense than in NaughtyDog’s
previous titles. You’ll murder baddies who were chatting to their friends moments before up close and personal with shivs, blade-topped baseball bats and even your bare hands and the game works hard to make you feel their demise. Enemies fight for breath just the way you do, creating a grim intensity to the battles which is always effective.
As well as guns you’ll also gain access to a bow and weapons you can throw, like the Molotov cocktail and bombs. These last two can be fashioned from items you’ll find in the world, via a fairly basic crafting system. Blades and bindings and other materials are cobbled together with a few button presses, something which happens without pausing the game so make sure you find somewhere safe. The same goes for healing via medkits, if you’re interrupted mid heal you’ll lose the benefits and the kit.
It’s certainly more punitive than most games but The Last of Us
is rarely as punishing as you might imagine. Most rooms contain some ingredients for you to pilfer (which seems unlikely after 20 years) so you shouldn’t feel the need to be too sparing with the special items - Molotov’s in particular can be a life saver with the fire spreading to multiple enemies. In addition, collected junk can be used to upgrade weapons at tool benches and supplements can be expended anytime to permanently boost Joel’s stats, like max health, crafting speed and weapon sway.
Enemies break down into three main types - Clickers who have been infected for a long time and seek you by sound, Runners who are relatively fresh and more resemble Danny Boyle’s
sprightly zombies and regular human enemies. Different tactics are necessary to defeat each type and the variety, as well as a slowly expanding collection of weapons, means that the fights rarely become too repetitive.
In terms of difficulty, there’s a definite challenge to The Last of Us
, particularly in tussling with the Clickers who will kill you in a single bite if they get up close. For the most part, you’ll fail because you made a mistake - making a noise and calling down a pack of Clickers or being seen by a human hunter - though some frustrating stealth sections can be trying.
So far, so positive but there’s definitely some trouble in paradise. For one, Ellie spent much of my game being extremely passive. The feisty partner you’ve seen in the promo material was nowhere to be seen in my playthrough, with not a single brick thrown for distraction and only one ammo drop. Arguably, that’s a function of my fairly defensive playstyle but, mechanically at least, there’s little to set her apart from AI sorts like Prince of Persia’s
Elika or even Half Life 2’s
Alyx. In many ways she’s little more than an exposition engine.
Ellie eventually manages to shoot stuff Enlarge
This issue extends to the implementation of other friendly NPCs that you’ll run into throughout. Much of the game involves moving silently from once piece of cover to the next, slipping past murderous monsters hell bent on ending your life. For Joel, this means taking care to not be seen or heard from any angle, constantly watching his back for signs of trouble. His companions, by contrast, haven’t got a care in the world - mincing around with thundering feet and flashlights ablaze, even running headlong into their would be killers without reprisal.
For a title so intent on creating a grim and serious mood, it’s a genuinely distracting, even ridiculous thing to witness. I understand why Naughty Dog
would choose to make your movements more visible than those of your potentially stupid companions but making them completely invisible and then also incredible passive is a shortcut to exasperation.
The enemies in general are more than a little simple minded, giving Joel the opportunity to strangle their mates in plain sight without making a peep. For a game that’s purporting to present truly ground-breaking artificial intelligence it isn’t half dumb at times. And for another element that feels ill-formed, you don’t need to look further than the shockingly rudimentary puzzles which require little more than moving a plank around or sticking Ellie on a floating pallet. Because she can’t swim.
My other major issue is more subjective and has to do with the overall tone and morality of the piece. Joel kills a lot of non-infected humans in The Last of Us
and while they’re certainly painted as villains and we’re rarely given a choice it starts to feel needlessly barbaric. In a world where humanity is on the brink of extinction, it seems like a resolution which involves less brutal murder would be a good way to help give us an edge against the infected.This hyper-violent aspect comes out full force towards the end of the game, a portion I’ve been explicitly asked not to write about. I’m happy to respect that wish but suffice to say I felt that Joel’s actions in the final third of The Last of Us were totally out of character and the lack of any freedom in the narrative forced me down a path that was manipulative rather than in keeping with the previous experience.
These issues would drag most games into mediocrity so it’s a testament to the overall quality of The Last of Us
that it remains a highly memorable experience. Naughty Dog’s
post apocalyptic world shines brightest in the moments when the story is allowed to flourish, when some downtime between frantic firefights gives Joel and Ellie a few vital seconds to bask in what little beauty remains in this ravaged world. Her first meeting with real life fireflies or a ride atop a horse, in a stunningly realised forest, are among these moments and they’re well worth experiencing for yourself.
There’s serious value on offer too, with a lengthy campaign and new game + available after completion plus two new difficulty modes, including survivor which removes many pick ups and your listening ability. It’s a hardcore challenge but one well suited to the grim reality presented by the game. And that’s not to mention Factions, the fully fledged multiplayer offering which I’ll review after launch as the servers aren’t ready yet.
It’s likely that The Last of Us
will prove to be an important title, though maybe not for the reasons you might expect. It’s a bridging moment between two console generations, a game which pushes the technology of the PS3
as far as any other title to date and a new franchise that will likely make the transition to the PS4
in the future. But, beyond the commendable dedication to the story and character and a mature and emotional approach to an unusual man/girl relationship, it’s far from an industry revolution. You’ll just have to settle for a memorable, intense and sometimes flawed experience instead.