“Amidst the desolation and decay you’ll find lush, grassy overgrowth, rivers and wildlife. Between the windows of abandoned buildings you’ll see some of the most beautiful digital sunsets you’ve ever seen. “
Game: The Last of Us
Developer: Naughty Dog
Release Date: 14/6/2013
Sometimes its difficult to nail down exactly whether a game is good or bad. Just because something is technically or visually impressive doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be fun to play. At the same time, fun is a pretty subjective term and isn’t always an essential part of the experience. Some games even make their names by being deliberately difficult or unflinching in how they deal with their subject matter. It’s rare for a game to hit all the bases at once, so rare in fact that most critics would be hard pressed to name even one that manages it. A game that delivers mind-blowing visuals, perfectly tuned gameplay, a powerful, unflinching narrative told through the eyes of relatable characters that feel like real people is a true rarity. One that ticks all those boxes and is also fun to play? Well, that’s The Last of Us.
The Last of Us is the story of a world that has given up. Following the spread of a deadly infection, society has broken down completely, it’s bare bones being held delicately aloft by privatized military who, despite making efforts to keep the infection in check, do so through unsanctioned raids and merciless culling. A post-apocalyptic setting is nothing new for a video game, but there are few that feel quite as bleak and relentlessly hopeless as the one found in The Last of Us.
That said it’s the games first real triumph that such a dark, uninviting world feels as alive and staggeringly beautiful as this world does. Amidst the desolation and decay you’ll find lush, grassy overgrowth, rivers and wildlife. Between the windows of abandoned buildings you’ll see some of the most beautiful digital sunsets you’ve ever seen. Moments like these punctuate the air of struggle and suffering that at times feels like its threatening to consume you as you play, and its in these pockets of air that the games two protagonists, Joel and Ellie, just like you the player, find room to breathe.
Critics have been sparing with plot and character details since the reviews of The Last of Us started to trickle out and it’s important to understand why. This is a game that rewards you more the less you know going in. All you really need to know is the bare basics. Joel is a hardened survivor; a man who has come through the beginnings of the outbreak and struggled to survive as he watched the world change and deteriorate around him. Ellie, by comparison, was born into this grave new world and has never known a life outside of struggling to stay alive. Her unyielding optimism in the face of her harsh reality clashes with Joels bitterness and cynicism but over the course of the 12 hour single player campaign their relationship develops into one of the most meaningful and emotionally intense that this medium has ever seen.
As I’ve already mentioned, a post-apocalyptic zombie game is not exactly new territory and of all the areas Naughty Dog could have struggled to keep fresh, the creature designs were the ones I was the most worried about. The disease in question, a fungus known as cordyceps, is a slow burning fire, gradually festering inside its victims until eventually, if allowed to survive, it bursts through their faces in the form of what look like mutated mushrooms. Over the course of the game you’ll come face to face with infected at each stage of their infection. Runners, 28-Days-Later style zombies are the easiest to piss off. Simply getting their attention will send them screaming and running towards you to chew on your grisly hardened flesh. Then there are the Clickers, called such for the hideous, terrifying clicking noise the emit. These creatures can’t see and react only to sound, forcing you to adapt your play style when in their presence. The clickers are remarkably clever and react to even the smallest of sounds including the loading of your guns. It makes for incredibly tense sections of stealth gameplay that are more often than not, genuinely terrifying. Every time I saw the spores that indicated imminent Clicker arrival, I found myself almost unwilling to continue. It’s a testament to how much creativity went into doing something new with the established formula and how well Naughty Dog have succeeded.
Gameplay is divided up between platforming, exploration, stealth, gunplay and melee combat and frequently you’ll be handling several of these at once or at least within rapid succession of each other. The game allows you to mix it up and play it how you want to while also encouraging you to be creative with your items. Feel like blasting your way through a room full of Clickers? Go for it! But you better have enough ammo. Oh you’d prefer to sneak around them? That’s fine, just make sure you don’t step on those noisy pipes. The game feels like a strange mix of Uncharted, Resident Evil 4 and Heavy Rain. It weaves gracefully between its roles as third-person shooter, action-adventure and survival horror and somehow manages to keep them all working alongside each other. You’re options for dealing with any given situation are bountiful and, along with a new game + option, means the game has significant replay value.
I don’t expect many players to notice the games soundtrack and I mean that in the best way possible. Academy award winner Gustavo Santaolalla has carefully crafted a score that delicately reacts to the narrative without ever taking center stage. Instead of gushing orchestral strings and horns designed to influence the players emotions, the score takes a back seat to the characters involved and uses subtle guitar motifs to gently remind us that even in this broken world, you can still find beauty if you look, or listen, closely enough.
Grand, sweeping statements tend to be dismissed as generalizations. When we hear someone describe something as ‘the best’ or ‘most incredible’ thing they’ve ever seen, our gut reaction is to assume hyperbole and accept disbelief. I’m guilty of this myself, which is why I try pretty hard to keep my emotions in check when reviewing games. So allow to make this perfectly clear; The Last of Us is the best looking game of this generation. It is the most powerful narrative experience of this generation. It is potentially the best game of this entire generation and is absolutely the best game that the PS3 has ever seen and probably will ever see as it reaches its twilight years. If you own a PS3, you need to own The Last of Us. Even if you don’t own a PS3, you need to own The Last of Us.
The Last of Us is a masterpiece that will be difficult to match in this generation or the next. Naughty Dog have, once again, raised the bar.