The Last of Us is a journey and one which you will remember for a long time indeed. But more than just a journey of getting from point A to point B, The Last of Us is as much an emotional and mental voyage as it is a physical one – well, virtually so.
I approached this game with high expectations, having been waiting a year for its release since the initial announcement at E3 2012, and boy was I not disappointed. I mark a good game by its story and The Last of Us delivers this in spades, taking you on a trek across an America ravaged by a world-ending event. But unlike the brown and decaying world of Cormac McCarthy’s brilliant novel The Road, this is a place where nature is taking back its hold, a landscape full of colour. In other words, this is a world of potential hope, where things can be better than they have been in the past.
The Last of Us is one of the Playstation 3’s swan songs and quite simply a beautiful game. Naughty Dog has shown its skill at creating a gorgeous setting for your adventure just like they did with their Uncharted trilogy – an utterly brilliant series which I cannot recommend enough. It’s not just in the broad strokes of mountains and cities stretching into the distance which make this game shine, but in the fine details; the way the plaster has broken from a wall; the way the sunlight breaks to momentarily blind you; even the fingernails on a character’s hand!
I can count only a small number of games which have brought me close to tears by the way the story and characters affect me: the Mass Effect trilogy, Journey. And similarly the number of games which fill me with fear and dread to open that next door: Silent Hill, Dark Souls, F.E.A.R. The Last of Us made both happen within the first five minutes! I won’t spoil it for you, but that moment when you think the worst has passed only to have it snatched away is a sneaky trick which works oh so well. Suffice to say, Naughty Dog has crafted a masterpiece of storytelling which makes you emotionally invested in the characters and crescendos to an intense but bittersweet conclusion.
Your protagonist for the majority of the game is Joel, a middle-aged man who has been left scarred and broken from the world-ending event. He is a flawed individual and you initially find him difficult to like, but perhaps only because he is no stereotypical hero but simply a man trying to survive whilst suffering from his personal daemons. In fact, that bittersweet ending tells you so much about the character of Joel; he’s always fighting to stay emotionally distant, to protect himself from hurt. You see him begin to hope, to care, which only leads towards the realisation that, selfishly, he refuses to let history repeat itself. The story has built up your investment in the characters and you can tell what Joel is thinking, not only by his words and actions in cut-scenes, but even in the way the items you pick up allow you to be the brutal, one-man killing machine you want him to be under the circumstances.
Whilst you mostly control Joel, you really see the world through 14-year-old Ellie, Joel’s companion and the reason for his odyssey across America. To Ellie, who has grown up in this dystopian world, life outside the quarantine zone is dangerous yet beautiful – her delight at the wild animals you observe is both wonderful and poignant. Much like Joel, Ellie has her own emotional journey to take and you watch as she grows from a girl to a young woman who is moulded by the harsh environment surrounding her. An intense moment in the middle of the last third of the story is perhaps one of the most telling in the entire game and sums up The Last of Us brilliantly – you do what you must to survive.
Whereas Joel is cold and distant, Ellie is warm and friendly. Aptly this makes Joel’s actions throughout the game cold and calculated, whereas Ellie is much more emotional and consequently, brutal. With Joel, killing becomes a routine but with Ellie, it’s so much more than that.
Gameplay is the only part that lets The Last of Us down, but to say that the gameplay is still stellar gives you an indication of just how sublime this game actually is. Control is slick and precise as you navigate the world. Sequences swap between exploration, stealth and combat. The moments when you have to decide whether to sneak past the Clicker – an infected who is blind but emits an eerie, shuddering clicking noise in order to navigate – or use your short supply of bullets to take it out, running the risk of attracting more of the infected, is tense. The game does throw you a bone however with the ability to stop and listen to your environment, allowing you to see enemies through walls and giving you the opportunity to better plan your attack. However, for the sake of immersion, you can switch this option off for a more realistic experience. And it’s in this breaking of immersion where the gameplay is a let-down. It doesn’t make sense why – in a sequence where you’re meant to be silent in order to sneak past infected – your companion is commenting away, or how enemies only seem to react to your presence and not the presence of your companions. Now I suppose creating an AI good enough to actually simulate companions which are as skilful at keeping their head down as you is quite a big ask but still – it would have made the game so much more. Nevertheless, if you can look past these discrepancies then you will enjoy The Last of Us as much as I did.
Survival in this harsh landscape involves rummaging for supplies wherever you are. A simple but effective crafting system helps to emphasis the scarcity of items in the world, only allowing you to hold three of each supply and then, once crafted, only three med kits, shivs and homemade bombs. The game never stops; entering your backpack to craft items or look over notes and other collectables does not pause the action, which adds an extra consideration when in the middle of a fire fight, realising you just used your last med kit and desperately needing to make another. You can improve Joel’s skills along with upgrading your weapons, the latter only at the few and far between workstations. However, with such short supplies it’s impossible to fully max out your skills and weapons in one play through, making every choice an important one. Additionally, there is a plus game, allowing you to carry over your skills and upgrades to a plus mode.
The Last of Us is one of the most incredible games ever made. It stands in my top five of games series – the Mass Effect trilogy, the Uncharted trilogy, Half-Life 2 and Shadow of the Colossus – and to say now two of my entries in the top five are by Naughty Dog just goes to show how much I love them. I cannot wait for what they dream up next!
Tom Holland – Geekzine games writer