The Last of Us reminds me why I play video games: for a truly unique experience that no other medium can deliver.
From the immersive storytelling, to the pulse-racing gameplay, to the unexpectedly groundbreaking multiplayer – everything in Naughty Dog’s fantastic PlayStation 3 swansong fits together seamlessly, like cogs in a well-oiled machine.
Although the post-apocalyptic setting is a heavily recycled concept, The Last of Us does enough with it to make it feel unique and fresh by introducing Clickers: humans infected with a virulent fungal strain called Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis. However, the setting merely complements the game’s magnificent story. The Last of Us pulls no punches: it begins with a surprising amount of heft and maturity and an introduction that you’re unlikely to forget long after playing, before propelling us 20 years into the future.
It’s here where you get to see the ultimate result of the initial outbreak – society has collapsed, and a totalitarian regime holds sway over a desperate population. Civilization is in ruins, food and resources are scarce, and nature has begun to reclaim what was once the sole dominion of mankind.
You’re also re-introduced to Joel, who has been reduced to an emotionally empty and withered version of the man he once was following the events of the prologue. Soon after, he meets Ellie, who as well as being the central focus of the game’s story, acts as a window through which you get to know the world.
This makes for a unique dynamic, as you see how Ellie’s view of the world is such a stark contrast from modern teenagers such as not understanding the concept of a job, why a girl would choose not to eat to lose weight, or why it mattered which skirt went with which shirt. Her common sense is not our common sense; her world is not our world.
When Joel and Ellie first meet, Ellie tries to stab Joel with a knife; needless to say, they don’t get along. However, they’re forced to cross the country together so that Joel can safely deliver her to the Fireflies: a group of activists seeking a cure for the infection. As the pair spend more time with each other, their relationship grows, and through their interactions with each other you grow to care about these two most unlikely of companions.
Naughty Dog performs an effective job of making these two characters – and the world around them – feel grounded and real, through a combination of motion capture and great voice acting, as well as a keen eye for detail and artistic design; both leads’ performances are believable and easy to connect with, as they react to their environment in a way that you would expect from any actual person in real life. This makes Joel and Ellie’s eventual bond feel that much more emotionally involved, as they find in each other what they’ve both needed all along: something worth fighting for.
And they need to fight for it. While there are plenty of quiet moments filled with emotional tenderness and affection, Naughty Dog has contrasted them with utterly brutal scenes of violence. Not just in your confrontations with the Clickers, either – which are suitably horrific and chilling – but by pitting you against other human beings, people driven to perform terrible acts through sheer desperation.
The gameplay creates an atmosphere that effectively portrays the tone of brutality and mercilessness that underlines this world. While you spend plenty of time in combat – be that melee or ranged encounters – resources in this apocalyptic vision of the future are scarce; just as often, it’s better to sneak past enemies instead of engaging them directly.
The Last of Us plays like a stealth game, then, as you’re encouraged to stay undetected while taking out humans and infected. Joel clings to any object nearby, using it as cover to avoid detection and gunfire. When crouched, you move more silently, and creeping behind an enemy unnoticed allows for a slow but silent takedown. When you are detected, enemies often react intelligently, working together to bring you down.
While the Infected are predictable in their behavior – usually simply running straight at you – when it comes to humans, you’re kept on your toes. Enemies will flank you, become more aggressive when you kill their allies, and beg for mercy before dealing the final blow. As for Ellie, she will alert you to nearby enemies, give you a medkit when your health is low, and occasionally kill an enemy on her own.
The game shines not only in combat, but during the quiet moments as well. Ellie might crouch down to tie her shoes or stop to tell a joke, and it becomes easy to forget that she’s not a living, breathing person but a collection of polygons, textures, AI and scripting. The immersion is broken occasionally during the stealth sequences; Ellie will sometimes walk right in front of an enemy without being seen, or shoot a nearby opponent while you’re trying to hide. These occurrences are rare however, and don’t ruin the experience.
The game’s graphics are near flawless. Some minor issues do exist – textures are often low-resolution when you get up-close and personal, there are some clipping issues with characters’ limbs passing through each other or geometry, and there’s the occasional bit of texture pop-in. But they are far and few between, and never threaten to spoil the overall beauty of the presentation.
Unusually for a post-apocalyptic game, The Last of Us is gorgeous and colorful throughout. While other titles such as Resistance and Fallout are obsessed with a palette of browns and greys, The Last of Us puts more emphasis on how the world has been reclaimed by nature. Buildings and streets are covered in lush vegetation, and wild animals run free. Sunlight reflects differently off of each surface, and only the parts of your clothing that touch water will get wet. You can notice distinct details and blemishes on the characters’ skin and hair, most noticeably during cut scenes. Even small trails of blood can be seen streaming down Joel’s face after taking a beating.
Gustavo Santaolalla’s musical score features heavy use of acoustic guitar and successfully evokes the feeling of being on a road trip. When more traditional orchestral bombast comes to the fore, it feels organic rather than forced. Elsewhere, the voice acting is superb. Tory Baker (who took over from Mark Hamill as the Joker in last year’s Batman: Arkham Origins) turns in a heartfelt and convincing performance as Joel; but it’s Ashley Johnson who steals the show, effortlessly making you warm to Ellie and grow to genuinely care about her. The script – as you would expect from the studio behind Uncharted – rarely falters.
Once you’ve concluded the 10-or-so hours it takes to finish the game’s story – and had time to absorb the sheer emotional power of its climax – there’s the multiplayer modes to look forward to. Far from feeling like a tacked-on afterthought, multiplayer in The Last of Us is hugely enjoyable, with some innovative ideas.
Like the campaign, the multiplayer is violent and brutal, dividing players into two teams of either Hunters of Fireflies. Matches play out almost like extended bouts of hide-and-seek with guns across two game modes: Supply Raid and Survivors. Supply Raid is effectively a deathmatch. Supplies are scattered around the map to craft items, and your team has a shared pool of lives. Survivors is similar, but each player has just one life, with the victor determined by the best 4 out of 7 rounds. The Last of Us’ multiplayer is almost unique in the way it employs the desire for stealth, teamwork and strategy to succeed, in contrast to the typical running-and-gunning found in most other online shooters. Fun and addictive, the online modes add plenty of replayability to an already timeless experience.
The Last of Us immersed me so much in its world and story that I lost track of time and my surroundings while playing it, and became fully immersed in the watching as the relationship between Ellie and Joel took hold. The game excels in putting its emphasis on telling a great story, and while there is plenty of action it’s the writing that sticks in the mind long after completion. The gameplay, while building on time-worn mechanics seen in many other titles, has enough of its own ideas that it feels fresh and invigorating, adding fuel to the fire of what makes the game’s world feel dangerous and alive.
The moment I put down my controller, I was overcome with a flood of emotion – contentment, joy, and sorrow that the story had to end. Naughty Dog has succeeded yet again in delivering a superlative gaming experience. The Last of Us delivers a heartfelt story that makes you truly care about the characters and what happens to them, and a rich, multi-layered world that convinces despite its fantastical premise – and that’s not something which happens very often.
The Last of Us is unique and special, quite easily one of the most memorable experiences of the last generation, and will surely be the title that many look to in future when asked to name the definitive PlayStation 3 game.