I purchased The Last of Us at the same time as I made my Playstation 4 pre-order, Sony’s successful E3 showing solidifying my choice of next-gen platform. Playing The Last of Us has made me incredibly excited for what the developers Naughty Dog can do with a super powerful next gen system, it made me wonder if the next gen is really required to be able to create experiences as enthralling and emotional as the journey that The Last of Us takes you on.
The game chronicles the journey of Joel and Ellie in a world where a large amount of the population have succumbed to a fungal infection that has turned the population into aggressive, bloodthirsty beings. Ellie has never known the world before the outbreak, and has grown up to be able to survive in a way that betrays her 14 year old age. Joel is brought in as her protector, an older and more experienced survivor who has lost a lot due to the infection.
The relationship between these two characters is what makes The Last of Us truly special. They play off each other throughout the game, their roles reversing constantly and their attitudes to each other evolving in a natural and realistic way. This is helped no end by the incredible quality level of the digital acting going on in the game. We’ve seen impressive motion and performance capture in games before, but this game takes that to fantastic new heights. These are as close to real people as you can get on a current gen console, plain and simple. Everything from subtle facial expressions to incidental animations just makes the characters radiate realism from every digital pore. Subtle things like the way that Joel puts his arm around Ellie as they both hide behind cover, seeing the fear in their eyes as Clickers pass inches from their hiding spot, Ellie’s exclamations as Joel puts a tire iron through a hunters skull make you invest yourself more and more into these characters.
In case you hadn’t picked up on it yet with the head v.s. tire iron scenarios, Last of Us could not be more different from the Uncharted games. While Drake’s stories are very much summer blockbuster Indiana Jones tales, full of wisecracks and happy endings, Last of Us is a brutal and unforgiving tale about two people doing everything they can to survive. Defining Joel as a “hero” in the traditional sense is very tricky. He has done some pretty terrible things in the past, and indeed during the game. There is no black or white in this world, everything is shades of dark and oppressive grey, where the remaining population is just doing everything the can to just get through another day.
While the morality of the characters is murky at best, the environments themselves are the exact opposite. The amount of colour and detail in the environments is staggering. While the Uncharted games have shown what the Playstation 3 is capable of, Last of Us blows those titles out of the water. Every single inch of the world has been paid massive amounts of attention, with each room telling a miniature story about the countless unlisted that have had to survive just as hard as Joel and Ellie.
Gameplay wise, the Last of Us is a little more recognisable as a Naughty Dog game. This is a third person mix of combat and stealth, where the decision about which of the two is used is dictated by the adversaries, your supplies and the environment. The gun play seems tighter than the Uncharted games, and the melee is brutally effective. While stealth in these types of games can be a tightrope between making the player vulnerable enough to stay tense yet powerful when they choose to make their move. Last of Us walks it pretty well, with only a few encounters leaning on the unfair side. For most of the game you are travelling with AI controlled characters, which are very useful in a fight most of the time, and don’t need constant attention and protection. Last of Us solves a lot of these problems by making your companions essentially invisible to your opponents (a la Bioshock Infinite). While this saves you from having to babysit Ellie and not being frustrated when the AI falters and runs her straight into a hunter, it can take you out of the experience for a moment. There were a few moments while hiding, waiting for an enemy to pass where Ellie decided to go for a jog in circles round the infected as it plodded onwards oblivious. This is not a huge complaint though, and it does show the quality of the experience as a whole that these very minor things are what stands out.
Massive amounts of praise has to be given to Naughty Dog for making creatures that are scary to fight. As a veteran of both the Silent Hill and Dead Space series, the Clickers might be one of the most terrifying foes in a video game I have encountered. While Silent Hill chooses to make its creatures grotesque and disturbing by tapping into specific areas of your psyche, Clickers are terrifying purely because of gameplay mechanics. If Joel is grabbed by a Clicker, it’s game over. I cannot remember the last “one hit kill” creature in a game that was not a boss character, and it makes them immediately more tense to fight. Combined with the fact that they do a fantastic job of veering away from their patrol routes with unpredictable turns and jerky movements means that sneaking up on them from behind (the only way to take them out silently) is tense and unpredictable every single time.
Even though by the end of the game you do end up with a small arsenal of weaponry, ammunition is in scarce supply, to the point where stockpiling just 12 bullets for a pistol is enough to make you feel like you can take on anything. The first time you try, however, you are promptly smacked back down to earth. Normal infected can soak up a good 3 or 4 bullets to the chest before going down, meaning your 12 bullets don’t go far when you have a pack of screaming infected zeroing in on you. Your other options are melee weapons that break after a unfortunately small number of uses, or an array of hastily constructed weaponry. The supplies that you gather during your travels can be combined to produce home grown munitions. A blade and some duct tape combine to make a shiv. Explosives and sugar combine to make a line-of-sight blocking smoke bomb. Alcohol and a rag can make a molotov cocktail, or can make a first aid kit depending on how desperate your current situation is.
While there has been a trend in recent years of developers wedging multiplayer into titles where the gameplay is not conducive to such modes, there have been notable exceptions (I played the Mass Effect 3 multiplayer for a lot longer than I expected to). Last of Us looks like it could be one of those games. The multiplayer draws a lot of parallels to Counter-Strike, with no respawns on death, an in-game store with currency accrued through personal and team performance and a slower more methodical pace that your average action multiplayer, driven from the fact that a few carefully placed shots are enough to take a player down. Last of Us manages to transfer a large amount of the tension and patience from the single player into it’s multiplayer modes, where even spectating after your untimely demise is fun. Wrapped around this gameplay is a meta game that ties into the fictional world, where your victories or defeats in matches result in supplies for your camp of survivors (who’s names can hilariously be pulled from your Facebook friends), with prosperity resulting in more people joining the camp, meaning your next match has to bring back more supplies. Your progress in multiplayer in regards to unlocking weapons and perks is tied to how long you can keep your camp alive and healthy. Each match translates into a day for the camp, with the aim to get your survivors through 12 weeks. Survive two weeks? Have a shotgun for your troubles. Four weeks? Here’s a new hat for your character. While it is all essentially just a convoluted XP system, I fully appreciate the effort put in to provide a game relevant context for a mode that quite easily could have been a check box on a list of features.
The Last of Us is a dark story of two people surviving in a world where society has fallen apart, and every bit of it is out to kill them. The utterly gorgeous world is contrasted by the brutal nature of those who inhabit it. It makes saying that the game is “fun” in a traditional sense very difficult. There were many times during the course of my play through where I had to put down the controller, due to a mix of emotional exhaustion and being on edge for extended periods of time. I even forgot to breathe during key moments of the story. While it is down to you to decide if this is something you want to subject yourself to, I would say that this is a required title for anyone who owns a PS3. You will not find more engaging characters that you want to invest in, or a world so packed with detail and environmental storytelling, on this generation of consoles.
Why am I buying a Playstation 4? It’s because I want to see what Naughty Dog do next.