*Authors Note* The Last of Us is a Playstation 3 exclusive game. Some spoilers are contained within this review so tread carefully if you do not wish to be spoiled.
Coming from Naughty Dog, the developers of Uncharted and Jak & Daxter is The Last of Us, and it differs greatly from their past games. We know Naughty Dog’s past games to be action packed, humour filled with positively framed narratives, The Last of Us chooses not to follow in its predecessors footsteps, presenting a gritty, depressing tale set in a post-apocalyptic world with the human race struggling to survive.
Society fell apart 20 years ago as a result of a fungal infection that spread throughout the world rapidly, turning those infected insane within two days of infection, making them hungry for human flesh. Quarantine zones have been set up in locations around the world to keep as many people as possible safe. This is where you are introduced to Joel, a man hardened by loss as a result of this infection, and your lead playable character. Joel has been working with his partner Tess as smugglers who have been trading with survivors from outside of the city, and following an attempt on Tess’ life the pair find themselves embroiled with the attempted killers, but also with a group known as the Fireflies, who, once Joel and Tess catch up with them, present them a deal – Double the smuggled cache they want in return for the transport of a 14 year old girl Ellie to a smaller group of the Fireflies located elsewhere. Ellie, you learn was bitten by infected three weeks before, but in stark contrast to everyone else, she has not become infected in the short two day timespan like others, leading the Fireflies to believe that she may just be the cure the world has been waiting for. Naturally, the plan doesn’t go to plan however with the Fireflies having already abandoned the site that Joel, Ellie and Tess travel to, leading Joel and Ellie on a journey across various locations in the United States to track down the Firefly group.
The game does not pull any punches, it is an expertly crafted character story that keeps you attached to characters at all times, both Joel and Ellie, as well as other periphery characters you meet along the way, so the moments when you part ways with some of these pivotal characters can become quite emotional, and in a couple particular scenes – distressing. This is a gritty world, with little happiness contained within it, but to witness the growth of Joel and Ellie’s relationship is truly astounding as the pair really struggle to agree and respect each other early days, but as time goes on, experiences make the pair closer to the point where they rely, care for and fight for each other.
That fighting extends into the gameplay, with a huge emphasis on survival of the fittest, Joel will be forced to scrap and scrounge to escape dangerous scenarios. There are two different types of scenarios you will find yourself in, the first being the typical encounter against human opponents. These are not simple run and gun, cover based encounters, stealth is a major component, and if you run head long into enemies it will inevitably result in death. Joel has a number of resources at his disposal, bricks and bottles can be thrown to distract or lure enemies, molotov cocktails, bombs and smoke bombs can be made and thrown at enemies to kill or obscure their line of sight and melee weapons can be modified to attach blades to them providing one hit kills. The human enemies are smart too, they will split up and attempt to corner you, they’re loaded with guns and if you’re not careful you will run out of ammo and resources, making an encounter ridiculously difficult. Stealthy movement is key, slinking from cover based locations and sneaky takedowns will make survival much easier, but also if you are effective, it can mean you can sneak past an encounter entirely.
Alternatively you could also be taking on the infected, and there are four different types you will be encountering, the first are the lowest level form of infected referred to as Runners, these are humans who have only recently become infected, in some cases they will not move as the human host is still fighting infection, but if they do cave in, they will sprint at Joel headlong making easy kills. Stalkers are similar to Runners but skulk around taking cover if necessary, and just like Runners, can be snuck up on and strangled to death. Things take a jump from here though with Clickers and the heavy opponents named Bloaters. Both Clickers and Bloaters have suffered prolonged exposure to infection, deforming their faces, removing their sense of sight and they move around making clicks to see obstacles (like bats use sounds to see). Both variations will inflict one hit kills if they get their hands on you so slowly crawling past them is pivotal, conversely you can shoot or shiv them clearing the area. Bloaters though, once they detect you, have the ability to fire infected spores at the player inflicting severe damage. Encounters with infected, especially with the Clickers and Bloaters are certainly the most anxious and nerve-wracking moments within the game, and do not be surprised if you die often for making the smallest poorly thought through decision.
Adding depth to the gameplay is the crafting option that we’ve previously outlined. Resources such as shivs, bombs and health packs can be crafted from resources scattered throughout the world, so it is imperative for the player to explore the environment and accumulate as many items as possible to craft these tools. Be careful though because the game does not pause to look after players who are crafting and if an enemy wanders through while you are perched in plain sighting messing around in your bag then you become an easy target. Your guns can also be customised to boost reload speeds and ammo capacity with parts you collect around the world, but it is not only guns, supplements also scattered around the world can be accumulated and used to improve Joel’s crafting and healing speeds, to his maximum health and listening range. For a linear game, a lot has been done to provide power and options to the player.
The Last of Us is a technical marvel, from the stunning visual design in both the artistic and technical standpoints to the hauntingly beautiful soundtrack from Gustavo Santaolalla that rises as the action heats up and subsides when necessary. Never before has a linear world been so fleshed out, from actions and conversations of locals in the quarantined streets, to the propaganda and statements made by the Fireflies that are plastered throughout the cities. Posters remain stuck to walls, showing that the world once was as we know it to be adding extra gravity to the circumstances that the world now finds itself in. Characters are incredibly realistic, from their design to the dirt and grit that builds up on them over time, the infected look decidedly dangerous and the level design is excellent.
With The Last of Us putting a massive emphasis on story and character development it is critical that the actors do their part, and the jobs done by Troy Baker (Joel) and Ashley Johnson (Ellie) put in A-grade performances, really selling the drama and conflict that goes on within the world. What has also been integrated very well is the dialogue that goes on between encounters, conversations that Joel, Ellie and others have over their travels really makes the player invest further in the character lives.
The game is possibly the best case example for a game that addresses the regular concern in gaming relating to ludo-narrative dissonance. What we tend to associate with most games, is a disconnect between the story and gameplay, because where the story may dictate that the characters are opposed to violence against humans, when the player progresses, the gameplay cornerstone is to massacre hundreds of people. This disconnect can remove a player from the story that the developers are trying to tell, however in The Last of Us, the world has been designed in such a way that whilst we recognise that the characters do not wish to kill, they know that in order to survive, they simply must, leading into the violence shown in the gameplay. On the other hand however, the option to avoid combat is there also allowing players to escape this moral dilemma if they feel opposed to it. All of this really adds to the immersion of the game with the only breaks in this coming as a result of some minor technical issues where enemies will not detect nor respond to the sightings of Ellie or other characters, which comes across as a bit clumsy on the rare occasion that this happens.
Factions is the final component of The Last of Us which makes up the multiplayer mode. You align yourself with either the Fireflies or the Hunters and progress through 12 weeks leading a clan of survivors through the world. Each match equates to one day and parts you collect attribute to your clans growth. Item caches are scattered throughout each map that can be collected for easy parts, but kills also net you parts as you loot the corpse of your victim. Random events occur that will threaten your clan and this means that in your next encounters you need to achieve one task out of a certain list of goals, by succeeding in this you will reduce the damage done to your clan. These events occur more and more often getting more difficult, adding extra pressure and stress to the 12 week duration. The game utilises much of the same mechanics of the main game with the load outs and scoring systems similar to the biggest multiplayer games in the industry today, but the overall effect on the clan over the 12 weeks is what separates The Last of Us’ multiplayer from the remainder of the pack.
The Last of Us is without a doubt the defining game of this generation, it demonstrates how far the video game industry has come in terms of storytelling, both overall and in character narrative, but also in terms of gameplay, where a linear game can provide such diversity and choice. Supported by an excellent multiplayer mode, incredible sound and visual design and you have one of the best games of the decade on your hands. The Last of Us demands your attention and is the crowning jewel for any Playstation 3 owner, a game that should make everybody else jealous.