Name: The Last of Us
Developer(s): Naughty Dog
Publisher(s): Sony Computer Entertainment
Age rating: 18 (PEGI)
To the untrained eye, it’s just another third person cover shooter. A man crouches behind a low wall, gun in hand, as an armed bandit scans the area a few metres away. Suddenly a young girl sneaks up and takes cover with the man, but there’s only room for one of them. Instead of one of them being pushed out of the way, with the AI character forced out into the open, the man puts an arm out, and the girl shelters against him. It all looks so natural, so is The Last of Us the classic we’ve been promised?
The Last of Us is a complicated game hidden behind a simple visage, although there’s nothing simple about the technically staggering presentation, with Naughty Dog finally wringing out the last drops from the PS3’s aging architecture. Let’s get visuals out of the way first; they deserve a mention, but they’re a small part of the whole game.
Graphically, this is a stunning game. Somehow it makes a step-up from Uncharted 2, arguably one of the best looking console games ever. Forests, cities, snow and more are all rendered wonderfully, while clever use of lighting makes the most of what the PS3 can do. Admittedly, top end PC visuals are ahead of this, and a couple of times the draw distance failed, causing texture pop-in on a few distant background objects. These instances were few and far between, though, and you’ll never find yourself wishing that this was a next-gen game.
Impressive, too is the detail of the environments. Huge numbers of empty rooms, filled with unique assets, occupy the game. It’s all designed to make the player feel like they’re not simply in a box, being herded forward, and it’s a terrific touch. Naughty Dog has used all their experience to build an immersive world, refining on their past work, and it’s certainly successful from a design perspective. It’s a reminder that, as the PS4 approaches, there’s still life in the old black box yet.
It’s a good metaphor for the game’s protagonist, Joel, a weathered 40-something who can still mix it with the young‘uns who mostly inhabit the game, though his limitations are clear; he certainly feels and controls like his age, with heavy, world-weary movements, though these never annoy.
Let’s clear one thing up right now; this is not Uncharted. Don’t expect bombastic action, or Joel leaping around like Nathan Drake, nor shrugging off bullets like they’re nerf darts. This is a subtler, more realistic, more mature approach to gaming that I don’t remember seeing in a triple-A title for a long time, if ever. There’s a multiplayer element of course, as seems arbitrary in games nowadays. It’s a nice addition, feeding off the style of the single player campaign and making a nice change from the Call of Duty run and gun variety. It even has its own little storyline to keep it engaging. However, as with any Naughty Dog game, the single player is what you pay the money for.
In short, it’s well worth your cash. This is a game that stands on its plot, so I won’t give too many details away. Suffice to say, the world’s gone to hell in a handcart, infected mushroom zombies roam the Earth, and Joel is tasked with escorting a 14 year-old girl, Ellie, across America.
“One long escort mission!?” This might not be to everyone’s taste, but there’s no denying Ellie is perhaps the strongest female character to ever grace a videogame, and she certainly isn’t a hindrance. Sure, she’s naïve at first, but she learns and becomes capable enough to survive even if Joel wasn’t there. Indeed, after Uncharted’s approach to women, with Chloe in her spray-on jeans, The Last of Us is refreshing, with a number of female characters, all with agency and capability. Ellie’s appearance on the game’s box next to Joel signifies this; she and Joel are co-protagonists, something unthinkable in the videogame industry. Neil Druckmann, creative director at Naughty Dog, even confessed that the developer had to fight pressure to remove Ellie from the box art, since it’s a common conception that women on game boxes damage a game’s sales.
It’s one of the many ways in which The Last of Us subverts videogame stereotypes. Even the trend for regenerating health is bucked, with medpacks being the primary way to regain strength. Coupled with a crafting system which relies on scant supplies, and every encounter becomes a tense affair, in which firing your gun is often the last option, not the first, particularly when it’s so easy to be overwhelmed by even a small group of enemies. Being seen can easily lead to death. Stealth is the name of the game here.
As with many elements in The Last of Us, everything would fall down if the stealthy approach wasn’t satisfying. However, what we have here is a terrific, yet simple stealth system. The genuinely scary and dangerous enemies are just about intelligent enough, reacting realistically and responding to noises, allowing for the creation of distractions from thrown objects like bottles or bricks. If a comparison has to made, perhaps the Batman games are similar in the way in which you clear a room. Much has been made of the brutality of the violence in the game, but it never feels gratuitous, and makes each takedown feel realistic and worth the time invested to set it up. Quite simply, gameplay is a lot of fun.
It’s here we come to the depth of the game’s mechanics. After the first few encounters with infected and humans, you’ll feel like you’ve learnt all there is to learn about the intricacies of the game. Scavenge supplies, follow a linear path, and fight some infected or humans. To do this distract them, lure them away, choke them out from behind, and then you can continue on your way until the next battle. At first the formulaic nature of this made me query the storm of 10’s that the game was receiving from reviewers. It was about halfway through the game, in the ruined suburbs of a gorgeous Pittsburgh, that I started to understand and really enjoy the nuances. A simple mentality change, perhaps brought about by a few hours of experience, and suddenly from being the hunted, I became the hunter. When you look past the obvious options abound and there are always multiple ways to clear an area. Once, I allowed a bandit to glimpse me. He ran to where I had been, gun drawn, but I was long gone. My real target was his friend, who had been in the line of sight of the first bandit, but was now alone. Again, I recall the Batman games, and it’s impressive that a fragile character like Joel (at least in comparison to the Dark Knight), who can only take a few bullets, who can’t sprint away at any great speed, and who can’t take on more than one guy at a time, can feel so powerful. Here, it feels entirely down to your own skill and is thus immensely satisfying.
All these mechanics would make for an entertaining game in their own right. Coupled with one of the most breathtaking stories in my memory, and you have a strong candidate for game of the generation. I’ve used the word already in this review, and I’ll use it again to describe the story: mature. It’s a word that makes a lot of gamers cringe. Either a ‘mature’ story is po-faced and boring, or the word’s just used to justify a lot of gruff voices and blood. Here though, I use it without hesitation. The Last of Us has a story that is deep, that is difficult, and that will make you doubt your own morals and ethics. This, in a totally linear game, with no hackneyed ‘moral decisions that other games shoehorn in to try and appear… mature.
I’ve mentioned the basic plot, and I’ll make no attempt to spoil it. This is a game where the less you know about it, the better, and I would hate to spoil it. It’s enough to say that it’s gripping and rivals Red Dead Redemption in its construction and payoff, not to mention its emotional weight. Complemented by a sparse yet excellent soundtrack, and it’s impossible not to be drawn in.
Where The Last of Us sets itself apart is in the little moments. Ellie certainly isn’t vulnerable in the most obvious sense, but you learn to feel protective of her. At first, you feel that she’s just a badass teenage girl, before her character grows and you slowly become attached. There was a very clear point where I realised I cared; Ellie reveals during a conversation early on that she can’t whistle, and it seems like just another piece of throwaway ambient dialogue that games today are so fond of. Not the case here. Later, out of the blue, Ellie succeeds in whistling, and it was then that I found myself smiling and feeling proud as she excitedly talked to Joel about it. It’s small incidents like these which make The Last of Us truly remarkable and which help Ellie, and indeed all the characters, feel real. It’s a testament to the game that towards the end I cried at some giraffes. It’s not as daft as it sounds, promise. Part of the emotional attachment is down to the terrific performances of Troy Baker as Joel and Ashley Johnson as Ellie, not to mention the rest of the ensemble, including Uncharted stalwart Nolan North.
Really, this is what Naughty Dog does best: characters. In Uncharted, they made Nathan Drake, the perfect all-American, all-man, all-action hero, but still made you care as his love interest lay bleeding in the snow, and ultimately still made him feel human. In The Last of Us, Joel feels genuine and likeable. He’s not a superman; he even confesses that the only thing keeping him alive is “luck.” Despite this, he’s a father-figure, one who could convince their kid that everything’s going to be ok, even as everything falls apart. He’s real, and human. Ellie, too, treads a thin line. She could have been irritating, but comes out perfectly, emerging as one of the best characters to ever be in a videogame. Again, the best way to describe her is ‘human’.
It makes sense, therefore, that The Last of Us is about humanity. How fitting that it should appear simple and a little flawed on the surface, but be complex and brilliant in its depths. It’s a game with superb graphics, great gameplay, with an engrossing plot and characters that will live long in the memory. Any negatives are mild and dwarfed by the positives. It sits next to Red Dead Redemption, Uncharted 2, and Bioshock Infinite as the greatest of this generation. For my money, it beats them.
The human struggle, the good of the many, the needs of the few, survival, love, and in some respects what it means to be human. It’s a bold topic for a videogame to explore, but if Naughty Dog has proved anything, it’s that they’re not playing safe. Pretty good, for something that appears at first glance to be just another third-person shooter.
+ Fantastic graphics
+ Solid gameplay
+ A story that beats anything else ever produced
Summary: Arguably the game of the generation. Taking into account the Uncharted series, Naughty Dog’s catalogue alone is reason enough to buy a PS3, and The Last of Us is the jewel in their crown.
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