One mistake. A single false step. A solitary miscalculation and that’s it – it’s all over. In a world where a fungal plague has ripped civilization to shreds and pushed humanity to its very limits danger awaits around every corner: whether it be the rabid infected, our savage brethren or just mother nature flexing her muscles after a score of challenging abyss where everyday could be your last.
We’ve never seen anything like The Last of Us; an emotive yet brilliant understanding of narrative and gameplay. Whether it’s the raw feeling of terror when you’re truly isolated from the world, the necessary brutality of every encounter, a slow-burning relationship drowned with nightmarish memories of a time long gone, or the euphoric relief of making it through another day, there is nothing quite like Naughty Dog’s stunning adventure.
Taking survival horror back to its roots, lead protagonists Joel and Ellie aren’t confronted by the sort of cheap scare tactics that we’ve come to expect and, personally, loathe. Fear and the likelihood of death are constantly bubbling at the surface as encountering enemies, whether hostile survivors or those damned to a life as an infected and deranged killer, is an event dealt with as efficiently as possible. Although the outcome in a digital world is nothing more than restarting at the previous checkpoint, there is no pulsating desire to perish.
It’s a strange sensation to actively dread dying within a game, despite the lack of any overarching penalties for doing so. Other than the general viciousness of having a chunk ripped from your neck or a machete landing firmly on your collar-bone, it’s the emotive connection with Joel and his adolescent companion Ellie.
Born before mankind’s mass extinction by a parasitic fungus twenty years prior, Joel lives the life of smuggler in a small quarantine zone in the outskirts of Boston, surviving as best he can with partner of circumstance Tess; meanwhile, Ellie, a fourteen-year old conceived and born in this new world, becomes the cargo of a trade between Joel and a group of insurgents named the Fireflies.
Events unfold, of which I won’t spoil, but a bond forms between the two that goes on to establish itself as one of the most potent and powerful relationships in videogames. A pairing that starts out frosty at best slowly thaws to melt into kindredship based upon loyalty, trust, love, hope and the raw human instinct to survive.
It’s a harsh and unforgiving world; one that has seen Joel lose everything and one that Ellie has never had anything. A dynamic between their contrasting views of life and a differing understanding of things in the environment oscillates between intriguing and heart-wrenching. Museums and movies are unknown entities to Ellie, things to marvel at, but for Joel they are just a reminder to a life that has been destroyed. However, Ellie’s grown up in these barbaric times; she’s seen more at fourteen than most have in a lifetime – plus her lavish use of curses and understanding what the torturous future holds means she could have been mistaken for someone more than twice her years.
In this turbulent time, combat is ceremony of danger where, unlike most videogames, encountering two enemies at once is challenging, let alone a dozen. Eliminating all that lay before you is a choice that is often avoided, with silence and darkness keen allies in your focus on stealth. Crouching up on your foes and quietly dispatching of them is the preferred route, though often a non-lethal or highly lethal approaches work just as well. If you prefer to stay well away from everyone else then most areas can be cleared by tactically misdirecting adversaries by throwing glass bottles and using the cover around to slip past undetected.
“The Last of Us is not just something utterly special, it grants a shuddering glimpse of a different world, a savage world. It makes you feel totally isolated from the rest of the world, where any action could be your last.”
Likewise, you can engage in a firefight against human hostiles or try to fill the infected with enough lead before they sink their rotting teeth into you. It’s a tactic that you’d struggle to use exclusively though given the sparseness of ammo throughout the game – to the degree where having enough bullets to be in double figures makes you feel like a killing machine. The variety of weapons is wide enough to be satisfying without being ridiculous given the scenario, whilst recoil and targeting are pleasing. Crafting items from collected supplies grants the use of a flesh-burning Molotov cocktail or a life-saving medikit and offers a practical use for wide-reaching exploration.
There’s a brilliance when opting for complete silence, stealthily killing, or shooting all before you as they are equally exhilarating. Choosing when and how to take out which enemies, if at all of course, is vitally important, and with the threat of death hanging over your head at all times it can become a heart-pounding experience. Joel’s ability to listen and determine where foes are – via a feature called Listen Mode – is extremely useful without feeling overused or overpowered; it becomes a core mechanic that, though it’s stripped from you on Survivor difficulty, is not something you want to be without.
A wonderfully even pacing is established by equal parts exploration, platforming and combat, as ample portions of the plot unfold during scenes with Ellie. You’re given sufficient time to roam the simply stunning world that Naughty Dog have created; time to soak up the atmosphere, the attention to detail and the post-apocalyptic nature. However, it’s a world that is trying to burst from the confinements of current generation hardware. Animations – both body and facial, lighting, textures and effects are not far from next-gen quality which does make you wonder what could have been if The Last of Us launched six months later on the PlayStation 4.
Despite this muse, The Last of Us is one of the most visually comely games to hit the market; without wanting to be verbose, it is something to behold. Mother Nature has reclaimed the world with ruins devoured by plant-life, the signs of abandonment of towns as clear as the glistening sky, and the effects of at times harsh weather conditions utilised effectively through the four seasons.
It’s not just an ocular feast either as the auditory accompaniment by both Gustavo Santaolalla’s powerful soundtrack and the incredible voice work from a cast that includes Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson creates an experience unlike any other. The sound of a clicker is enough to send waves of panic through your body, whilst the warm glow of the sunlight arching down over a deserted street is oddly soothing given the scenario.
As very much a complement to the single player portion of the game, The Last of Us does sport a strong multiplayer component. Entitled ‘Factions’, has align to one of two sides – which you then stick with for the foreseeable future, as you attempt to survive and expand your clan.
The usual customisation options (hats, masks, helmets, etc) are unlockable and equipable as you progress, as are weapons and skills. Remaining true to the single player though, bullets are in short supply and the pace is somewhat slower than other third-person multiplayer games. Listen Mode features but has a limited use to keep things balanced. It does mean that remaining silent and hidden can be extremely useful if enemies are unaware of your presence and add a hugely tactical element to the four-on-four encounters.
You have a set of other survivors within your clan that you need to gather resources for as you try to survive for twelve weeks. Each match represents a day with what you do in battle translating into supplies. Downing and executing enemies are good of course, but reviving, crafting and staying alive are just as vital to earning supplies.
This is achieved within the Supply Raid or Survivors – the two game modes. The former sees players scavenge for supplies with a 25 life limit for your team, with the later grants a single lift per round for seven rounds. The eight player limit – four on each team – means that matches never feel crowded or overly frantic as stealth will often give you the advantage.
Factions is certainly the side salad to the single players main course but it is well worthy of your time. An interesting take on progression is boosted by the superb controls and mechanics of the single player.
Naughty Dog are masters of storytelling, but also have the gameplay prowess to back it up and The Last of Us has it all. Heart-racing gameplay that will have you on the edge of your seat, an emotional and gripping narrative that focuses around the relationship between Ellie and Joel, perhaps the best graphical fidelity we’ve seen on this console generation; all which leaves you feeling both amazed and shocked.
The Last of Us is not just something utterly special, it grants a shuddering glimpse of a different world, a savage world. It makes you feel totally isolated from the rest of the world, where any action could be your last. And there aren’t many of us left. The human race is on the cusp of extinction, but if they have to be the last of us, then Joel and Ellie are as good as you could hope for. Their adventure is not just genre-defining or even the high-note of the generation, it’s a key title for videogames – one that we will look back on in a decades time and cite it as the one that changed things.