Developers: Naughty Dog
Publishers: Sony Computer Entertainment
Ellie doesn't know what an ice cream truck is.
Here is a girl bewitched by the beauty of the outside world, with Mother Nature doing Her very best to reclaim the land Mankind defaced with buildings and roads and vehicles and homes. Here is a girl who likes to take stock, pausing to reflect upon stunning vistas just as much as she stops to draw breath and sigh after we've murdered another band of raving wastrels. Here is a girl who scoffs at the notion that a child could be preoccupied with relationships and clothes. Here is a girl who cannot swim. Or whistle.
She's lived a sheltered life, has Ellie. And yet circumstances force her to join up with Joel -- a man who's seen far too much. Ambushed by apoplectic raiders a third of the way into the game, Joel reveals, after snapping their necks and smashing the skulls, that he's been on both sides of such a conflict.
As with most post-apocalyptic tales, The Last of Us has much to do with Man's inhumanity to Man when the chips are down, and surviving is the only thing that matters.
The stage is set, after a gruelling prologue that hits harder in ten minutes than many stories do in their entirety, twenty years after a fungal virus has ravaged the Earth, turning the infected into marauding monsters and hyper-aggressive beasts, with the remaining pockets of humanity scraping by however they can, with some rendered positively feral by society's complete collapse. Joel is a black market smuggler of sorts, taking on odd jobs here and there to make ends meet, and Ellie, to all intents and purposes when they meet, is just another job: human cargo that needs to be escorted out of the Quarantine Zone they inhabit on the East Coast of the States.
Joel and Ellie's relationship starts off antagonistic, but that's unsurprising given the disparity in their natures. But Ellie, whilst marvelling at the world she discovers beyond the crumbling walls of the QZ, is no incapable, passive companion. She is plucky and headstrong, and she's done her fair share of surviving herself, but much like Elizabeth in Bioshock Infinite, her naivete allows for some bittersweet context to a narrative that embraces some extremely dark and, on occasion, downright evil tones.
So much of the game is spent simply travelling -- walking around desolate locales and abandoned urban areas -- and soaking in the world. The game's upgrade system, which sees you scavenging bits and pieces to boost weapons, personal abilities, and little collectables, greatly encourages exploration. Optional little interactions between Joel and Ellie pop up in certain areas too, and Naughty Dog spend a great deal of time playing on the differences between the two characters, exploring the nuances to their personalities, and really making you care about them, Ellie in particular. Thus, when the proverbial hits the fan, which it does frequently, it hits hard.
Speaking of which, it's wise to assume that nearly everyone that you come across wants to kill or eat you, and you can align the adversaries in The Last of Us into two distinct categories. First of all, there are the human enemies in the game: bandits, soldiers, mercenaries, or occasionally fellow wanderers just like Joel and Ellie. They'll come toting melee objects and handguns to begin with, then shotguns and automatic weapons later on. Then there are the Infected lot: Clickers, Runners, and Bloaters. The Runners will after you in numbers, mindlessly swarming you in simple-but-effective fashion. Clickers, creatures who can only navigate by aural means, are much hardier, and will kill you instantly if they get too close. The Bloaters, a little like the Boomers in Left 4 Dead, are grotesque bullet-sponges who have an uncanny knack of raining down spore-ridden grenades on you should you be discovered.
Being a game with survival at its core, though, confrontations are often surprise affairs, and ammunition and items can be incredibly scarce. The Last of Us does an excellent job of encouraging you to really scour the environment for every last bit of salvage you can find, because absolutely every bullet you fire and shiv you construct will be vital. However, for much of the game, direct combat can be avoided. There's no dedicated cover mechanic in this game, with Naughty Dog instead opting for something a little more dynamic, like Tomb Raider's crouch. It's not quite as smooth in this game as it was in Crystal Dynamics' effort earlier this year, but it makes for thrilling encounters.
That dynamic crouch allows for ultimate freedom of movement, and fast flanking is a crucial skill that must be appreciated and mastered quickly. Bricks and bottles can be thrown to manipulate and misdirect your foes, and occasionally popping up into view before rapidly crouching and moving on to a better vantage point can be very useful. Instead of the typical third-person shooter action you might find in Uncharted, this game tends towards areas as chess board, with you rearranging the pieces in the vicinity to suit your ends, whether that be fight or flight.
It's an incredibly tense game, built upon a foundation that dictates you're always outnumbered and outgunned. There were frequent moments where I could hear the blood pounding in my ears as I waited for a Clicker to stagger on by, or prayed that a pair of Bloaters would follow the sound of the bottle I had cast in the other direction, as I had only one round for my shotgun, and a smattering of arrows for my bow.
It's also an incredibly brutal game. Melee combat is violent and visceral, though it might perhaps have been more offputting had I not played Metro: Last Light a few weeks ago. Bats and planks and pipes can be upgraded with scissors and knives to make for instant-killing clubs. The sound design is phenomenal, and that only serves to enhance every crunching blow and every sickening snap. I got used to it fairly early on, and that worried me a little given how over-the-top this game has gone in an effort to be brutally arresting (we'll save that for a later op-piece), but then Joel got cornered by a Bloater, who prised open his skull by ripping his jaws apart to a cacophony of squelches and wet tearing sounds.
The aesthetics are strong across the board, and Naughty Dog have really ridden the PS3 to near-breaking point with this game, typified by the single 35-second loading screen at the start of the game. There's a fair amount of pop-up that occurs out in the open, verdant countryside locales, but by-and-large you'll be regarding things with a dropped jaw as a result of how good this game looks. When the vistas in the game stop Ellie in her tracks, chances are you'll be right there with her. The soundtrack is near-perfect too, drifting in and out at just the right moments, and allowing the world to live and breathe around you for the most part.
Much has been done to safeguard immersion in that respect, and it's evident elsewhere with the lack of loading screens beyond that first one off of the main menu, a HUD that disappears quickly whenever you're not in combat. But there are a few things that serve to burst the bubble every once in a while. The AI, whilst occasionally fantastic, can also be wildly inconsistent. The worst culprits are actually your sidekicks, who'll occasionally run out in front of soldiers and goons. Enemies won't spot them, though, as long as the active player character is hidden, which makes good sense, but is also visibly ridiculous.
Additionally, there are moments in the game's final third where Naughty Dog present you with a horde or two to repel, or a shooty-shooty-bang-bang gauntlet to run. Being that neither Joel nor Ellie are capable of taking much damage, and that the aiming mechanism appears to be shakier than the arm of crack addict who's gone cold turkey, these sporadic, forced combat scenarios prove to be trial-and-error areas of frustration. There are several parts where you absolutely have to kill everything that comes at you, and though these perhaps make contextual sense given the situation, the tension quickly turns to annoyance at the cheap nature of some of the deaths. Checkpoints are frequent, fast, and fair, but that's not really the point. It's in moments like this that features such as not allowing Joel to retrieve the weapons of downed enemies really become an issue.
Finally, let's make no bones about this: The Last of Us does little to advance storytelling in games, it simply re-enforces and polishes up the cinematic approach that Naughty Dog took with Uncharted. There's nothing wrong with that per se, and this is arguably the best story that Naughty Dog have ever told, but I found it hard not to feel a little alienated by the lack of player agency in a narrative so heavily focused on morality. There are some moments in this game of real darkness, and some incredibly hard choices that have to be made. But most of them are made in cutscenes, if not off-camera completely. And in settings that have become incredibly familiar, at least in tone and (actually quite often) content, thanks to a certain post-apocalyptic Telltale series, I found myself wishing that there was some way in which I could impact the world.
Joel's mantra throughout is "no other choice", and the linearity of the game certainly reflects that. The final climactic decision is deliberately removed from the player's hands, to make for a twisted conclusion that sticks in the mind. But it's nowhere near as impactful as it might have been had Naughty Dog given players options. The nature of interactivity -- dictating the movements and motions of Joel and Ellie -- allows for a great deal of immersion, and that's explored fantastically, but the lack of choice in a genre that's frequently laden with such opportunity presents a barrier that breaks the spell at times. The game left me feeling cold at the end, and wanting a hug, and despairing for humanity. But it didn't make me necessarily think or feel or wonder in the way The Walking Dead or Bioshock Infinite or any Fallout game did. Of course, it's not about you or I; it's about Joel and Ellie, and their story is masterfully constructed.
It's a ripping yarn, and that's the main thing, isn't it.
- Cracking story
- Fantastic visuals
- Exceptional sound design
- Outstanding voice acting
- Genuinely tense and thrilling at times
- Interesting multiplayer*
- Death is in no way punishing
- Which allows for some cheap combat moments
- A few little immersion-breaking niggles to combat
- Light-puzzling with ladders and rafts is awful and needlessly repetitive
- Little significant player agency
The Short Version: The Last of Us tells a cracking story, but it does so in such a heavy-handed way that it's difficult to feel totally engaged come the conclusion. Well paced, superbly written, and boasting some of the best visual and audio work of this generation, Naughty Dog have once again produced a fine game. This is linear blockbuster gaming at its best, and it dazzles the senses. even if the form disappoints the mind a little given the genre.
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*A Note On Multiplayer: The Last of Us actually does a good job of making its multiplayer component seem relevant to the entire ethos of the game's singleplayer component, something that Tomb Raider rather spectacularly failed to do. Once again, survival is the order of the day... or twelve weeks in this case. Based around team play, you can choose from Fireflies or Hunters, you form a clan with three other chums, and you're gifted a bunch of survivors to look after. Win matches and you earn Supplies for your clan with kills and assists and nifty crafting. Better yet, achieving certain community milestones will unlock more guns, outfits and abilities for you and your chums.
We'll be exploring this in more detail over the coming weeks, so expect a Dealspwn Playthrough or two.