An insidiously brilliant game that should infect every PS3 and serves as a high point for this generation of consoles
At its heart, The Last of Us is a tale of man versus nature, only this time nature has struck back at mankind with a parasitic fungus that turns humans into clickers, zombie-like creatures that hunt based on sound. Day of the Triffids and The Walking Dead come to mind, with all three sharing a kind of gritty, everyday horror despite their fantastical leanings.
Set 20 years after the initial outbreak, you’re thrown into a world that has accepted its fate and is trying to make the best of things. This provides a rich graphical vein of abandoned and collapsing buildings, resting at odd angles and covered in dense climbing plants. It’s grim at times, but there’s beauty here too. Sunshine dapples through trees and glints off flooded streets. It’s graphically stunning from beginning to end.
The game has beautiful, calm moments, you’ll want to stop to enjoy the scenery
You don’t get to explore at your own pace, though. The pacing is as tightly directed as Naughty Dog’s Uncharted games, or as the films and TV series it so obviously pays homage to. The spoiler-filled plot pairs main character Joel with Ellie, a teenage girl he must escort to safety, but we won’t reveal any more than that.
What the game lacks in freedom it more than makes up for in atmosphere, with audio in particular used to brilliant effect. Riffs of expertly timed music punctuate slower sections of exploration, while environmental effects like rain and lightning draw you into the world.
Joel and Ellie’s relationship is terse but forms the core of the narrative
A stealth-combat game at its heart, not dissimilar to Metal Gear Solid or Splinter Cell, The Last of Us provides a more varied challenge with its fantastical enemies. Clickers don’t react to fresh corpses and they often take repetitive loops throughout the levels, but human opponents are a different matter – they do react to bodies and hunt mainly by sight rather than sound. They also retreat from battles when hurt, panic when threatened and behave exactly how you’d expect in such a situation.
If you alert this many Clickers at once, you’ll want far more than just a pistol to hand
The camera sticks close and doesn’t flinch from some pretty intense violence. Stealth kills, vicious melee attacks, firearms and improvised explosive devices must all be mastered to survive. Combat has real tension and challenge, forcing you to replay some encounters until you succeed, but you’ll enjoy every minute of it.
The Last of Us consistently asks the question: who are the monsters here? You can’t help but feel a little sorry for the infected as you put them out of their obvious, shuffling misery; meanwhile the other humans you meet are rarely painted in a sympathetic light.
Combat is fast and brutal, especially against armed, human opponents
There are plenty of choices in how you approach each encounter, reflecting the day-to-day struggle that is Joel’s existence. If supplies are low then you’ll need to be very careful, using tossed bricks to distract your enemies and sneaking past them is often a better option than entering a gunfight.
The only annoyance we could find is how your AI partners often appear to make far more noise than you, yet never get spotted by the patrolling clickers. This also means you don’t feel concerned for Ellie, as she always stays out of trouble in fights.
Outside of combat, you can upgrade your weapons to fire more accurately or reload faster. The arsenal is small, so you also have to find materials to craft makeshift weaponry, but everything has its specific uses. Your own abilities, such as health or running speed, can be boosted using vitamin supplements too. These upgrades are the most game-like elements of an otherwise immersive story, but they still add a lot to the experience.
Joel is no Nathan Drake, but he still has to navigate a selection of basic environmental puzzles during the exploration segments. These largely involve moving ladders and boards about to reach new locations, as his ability to climb is fairly pedestrian, so you’ll need to use your brain to progress.
One of the larger areas to explore freely, you’ll need to eke out any supplies you find
Each area is rather small, but packed with detail. It’s usually just a couple of buildings at a time or maybe a small street at most, and even at its most expansive you’ll still find endless stairways blocked with piles of furniture, preventing you from exploring further.
Notes and letters are scattered throughout to round out the story, but the vast majority comes directly from Joel and Ellie as you explore. He remembers the world before, but Ellie grew up in this one and so is curious about our old culture. These exchanges are brilliantly managed and executed, providing background and character development between cut scenes.
Naughty Dog has taken its motion capture and dialogue recording skills and applied them here in a tragic world, to rugged, life-scarred characters struggling to survive and the results are everything you could hope for.
The Last of Us is not the second coming for video games; its gameplay isn’t ground-breaking and there’s nothing technically outstanding about it. However, it’s an incredibly polished and engrossing piece of entertainment that you’ll love every minute of.
Any game with a HBO-standard of plot and character development should be lauded, as they are disappointingly rare. The Last of Us certainly is of that standard, but even bereft of its great plot and dialogue, it’s also an excellent game in its own right.
It doesn’t have stand-out features, instead its brilliance comes from how well every part of it has been integrated. There’s a consistent feel across the graphics, audio, characters, story and gameplay. All the parts support the whole without breaking your immersion in an unforgettable adventure. If you have a PS3, or can borrow one, then buy this now.