Published on October 26th, 2013 | by Andy King4
Review: The Last of Us
You’re a real fungi to be around Joel!
Very little of my time is taken up playing on the consoles these days as PC games are varied in number and some vast in scope all without hogging the living room TV. So to take time out and invest in an exclusive PlayStation 3 release is very rare for me. I’d been following Naughty Dog’s The Last Of Us since announcement with eager eyes, so when the opportunity arose to allow me to invest fully in playing a title I jumped at the chance to move the sofa, angle the TV and set up provisions… and I’m glad I did as The Last Of Us managed got deep under my skin and into my brain like a parasitic fungus – without the consequences.
The story starts from the point of view of a hard working and loving father named Joel on day 1 of a strange infection that’s spreading. Then after a traumatic event we jump 20-years into the future. The world has gone to hell with the government imposing strict marshal law and undertaking brutal attempts to control the spread of the infection, which has lead to a group of anti-government militia called “The Fireflies” who are seeking an end to the military’s rule. The Fireflies hire Joel to drop off a ‘package’, a girl named Ellie. Ellie is a savvy world hardened potty-mouthed 14-year-old girl who may hold the future to ending the blight that’s been infecting the world for two decades.
The post outbreak world can be a lush and beautiful place. People (for the most part) have left the towns and cities allowing nature to overgrow and reclaim the world. In one scene a heard of giraffes can be seen walking through the streets imaginably escaping a zoo to prosper uninterferred. The reason for evacuation shouldn’t be overlooked. A mutated parasitic Cordyceps fungus has leapt from insects to humans. The fungus travels in spores that when inside a human body (via bite), head for the brain driving the host mad and guide the infected to propagate the parasite’s spread further. These infected come in a number of shapes and sizes, but the later stages of the infection have the host grow large fungal growths from the face which render them blind but allows them to use echolocation (a series of ‘clicks’). Although the multitude of infected entities are deadly, perhaps the ruthless humans may be Joel and Ellie’s deadliest threat. Roaming opportunist gangs of hunters and cannibals keep the pressure on the couple as they try and reach their destination.
Combat is intense and brutal showing off the real struggle for survival. “It’s them or us” and “be or be killed” seem to be the games underlying themes. Hand-to-hand feels intimate and each blow feels gut wrenching as you make each concussive strike. Environments are almost like an extra character to the game as contextual fighting allows you to use objects such as walls and tables to give a greater sense of interaction and realism (but also keeps things more interesting). Stealth is a big part of the game coupled with the environment and thankfully a ‘Listen Mode’ is present that allows Joel to focus on (i.e. see through walls) the enemies movements as silhouettes. Sneaking allows you to flank the enemy to get closer or perform a take down (be it a silent choke hold or a fatal swing of an axe). The problem with this tactic is is that the enemy does the same. Thankfully Ellie will aid you when possible by suppressing the enemy by throwing bottles and bricks or by shouting and warning you if they’ve managed to flank you and are coming from behind. As well as combat support Ellie will also give you supplies that she finds or when boosted up to higher levels flick switches or drop down ladders for you to climb. Ellie’s help comes with a price as it is possible for her to be killed so you always have to be mindful of your companions location. Thankfully the AI does a decent enough job to feel natural with non-player characters walking around autonomously and seeking cover naturally (not just stick to your back side or get in the way).
In addition to melee attacks thankfully throughout the game Joel acquires a number of weapons (such as pistols, rifles, a bow… and even a flame thrower!) as well as tools that allow him to craft items such as smoke bombs, explosive traps and Molotov’s. The controls at first were a little cumbersome and fiddly (especially as your arsenal increases in size) but after a few hours of crafting and learning how to change guns quickly they became intuitive. Thankfully as ammo is so sparse being able to change weapons and equipment on the fly is an essential skill when being inundated with the enemy.
This relying on another person (be it AI) really builds the bond between the characters as you progress the game – so much so it can be tough to deal with some of the consequences that occur. This emotional depth is key as you build up a relationship with Ellie and Joel (not to mention a number of other characters) over the course of the game and care for them. This investment really pays off as makes this total immersion palpable.
The gameplay itself shifts between drama, exploration and combat so well and frequently that you are never bored. The map designs feel natural and flow well as I hardly ever felt lost or not knowing what I was supposed to do to progress in the game. In addition The Last of Us doesn’t rely too heavily on the “end of level boss” trope, instead opting for a chapter ending set piece. Be it running for your life, or sniping hordes of enemies to protect your companions, it’s never a dull moment.
As the game progresses you see Ellie more and more as the protagonist of the story – even getting to control her at points. This is important as technically the game is about her and her journey. Ellie learns to shoot, hunt, overcome some quite harrowing experiences and more importantly survive. I’m sure a possible sequel to the game will be for the most part from her point of view.
The game could have so easily of been a cheap zombie knock-off, but The Last Of Us‘ characters and world have been fully fleshed out. Look at an in-game newspaper or read a note left by a family in one of the many abandoned houses and all of which add substance to what it must be like to live in this world. Contextual and theme wise you can clearly see inspirations from the films No Country For Old Men and The Road (not to mention AMC’s The Walking Dead) which is never a bad thing. On the subject of No Country, The Last Of Us (as the film did) uses music sparingly. So much so it’s difficult to pin down if the game had a soundtrack (which it does – and is excellent). When you do hear it, it’s quite simple and slow in pace but intense. A special mention has to go to Gustavo Santaolalla’s score.
Although the game is cut scene heavy this does give a true cinematic feel, further added by some excellent voice work and motion capture. Each captured shrug or micro movement can be detected adding to a character personality. Graphically The Last Of Us looks impressive on the soon to be replaced PlayStation 3’s tech. Great use of depth of field and lighting add suspense and build tension especially when underground and you can see individual spores in the air.
In addition to a single player story, a multiplayer mode (dubbed “Factions”) is included. Endeavouring to not just be another straight team death match game, Factions allows players to lead a clan of survivors through the world over a 12 week period. Each match played counts as one day and gives the opportunity to gather supplies and further expand the clan’s progress/growth. Throughout the match events will occur that will threaten your group (such as bandit attacks or infections). Although the single-player story is so strong, the addition of multiplayer content adds additional longevity (despite having enough hidden content in the single player to keep you replaying/reliving the experience).
The Last Of Us is out now and exclusive to PlayStation 3.
Summary: Naughty Dog's The Last Of Us is an excellent cinematic survival/survivalist horror story. It's a benchmark title for any current generation system, not just the PlayStation 3. Certainly one of the best games of the year.