If Naughty Dog could bottle up the magic formula that it somehow manages to concoct each time it produces a new game, there’d be a stampede of developers queuing for a sip. As we’ve seen from the gorgeous triple-A productions of the Uncharted series, cold hard cash obviously helps to sweeten the ingredients, but Naughty Dog also knows what it takes to make a great game and creates experiences that stay with you long after you’ve finished, stories that engage, and worlds so captivating that you can quite happily spend a chunk of the campaign staring all doe-eyed at the detailed scenery around you.
With so much pressure on the Santa Monica-based studio to produce a game that lives up to its illustrious back catalogue, The Last Of Us has a lot to prove. Just how do you create a title that lives up to the Uncharted series? Well, it turns out that all you have to do is create a game with a totally different vibe, while ensuring that you meld any new ideas with everything you’ve learned from past games: strong story-telling, emotive characters, great level design and standout moments that make you forget that you’re playing a video game. With all these ingredients combined, you get a complete entertainment experience.
Though the tale told in The Last Of Us is much darker than the Uncharted series, just like Nathan Drake’s adventures, this is an entertainment package that pretty much feels like you’re watching a great movie where you’ve landed the starring role. The Last Of Us is a survival action adventure that takes place following the outbreak of the Cordyceps plague which has decimated mankind. Pockets of survivors exist in Quarantine zones manned by the government, while off-shoot militia groups such as The Fireflies live outside of the control zones in Boston. The big threat to them all is the parasitic fungus which has taken hold of society and controls the nervous system of humans, turning them into zombie-like creatures with fungal deformities that have a penchant for human flesh. Once bitten by an Infected, humans then turn into these hellish freaks.
The game follows the plight of a number of characters trying to survive the plague and fight off the influx of the Infected, but it largely concentrates on the relationship and journey of Joel, a father who spends his days dealing in arms and drugs in Boston’s black market, and Ellie, a 14 year-old girl who he gets forced to take with him across the city as he heads for the base of the Fireflies. Heading out of the quarantine zone is extremely dangerous as the streets are full of Infected and dangerous groups of humans who will do anything for survival, but it turns out that there’s good reason why Joel has to risk taking Ellie on this trip. It’s this twist (no spoilers here) that helps you understand just how precious Ellie is.
The Last Of Us starts with a bang with the introduction of Joel, who looks like a rugged, tougher Nathan Drake clone complete with life-worn face and suitably aggressive beard. As an explosion breaks out across the city and a TV report reveals that something serious is brewing that will effect mankind, we immediately learn about Joel’s circumstances prior to the spread of the fungal disease and discover what has made him such a tough character. From here on in, we immediately empathised with Joel’s plight and were instantly hooked by his strong character. 12 years after the initial cinematic and heart-wrenching opening, we fast forward to Boston and the Quarantine Zone.
Joel starts off the game as a ruthless character totally out for himself, and it’s no surprise considering the harsh environment where he now dwells and the suffering he’s already had to endure. This is a man who knows what the planet was like before the plague so it’s no wonder he’s bitter and angry at the world. We see this attitude portrayed through his relationships with various characters; including Tess who he works alongside in the Black Market, his brother Tommy, and Ellie, though his personality evolves as things progress drawing you deeper into the narrative and his motivations.
Joel can’t stand Ellie to begin with, but the constant interaction between the two, the moments of reflection where they’ll sit down and chat, and the drama that unfolds every step of the way, helps cement their relationship. Ellie is an immediately likeable character, a strong-minded girl born into the plague who starts off as a vulnerable child but soon grows in maturity, determination and strength. The bond between the two slowly deepens to the point where you really begin to care about their characters and what might happen to them. There are genuine moments in The Last Of Us where our heart strings were tugged, or we found ourselves open-mouthed at what was unfolding.
So…the characterisation is excellent, a real driving force behind the game which works extremely well alongside the storyline which could easily be made into a T.V. show or film. The voice acting is superb across the board with highlights coming from Joel and Ellie, plus an excellent cameo role by the superb Nolan North (Nathan Drake in Uncharted) – who isn’t the good guy this time around. Indeed, the audio as a whole plays such an important part in creating an atmosphere of tension and fear throughout the streets and sewers of Boston.
The atmosphere around Boston is one of quiet tension. Streets are deathly silent yet it’s clear this was once a bustling city due to the amount of abandoned cars and buildings, each one of them explorable. Such is the feeling that something could happen, or spring out at you at any moment, we spent a large amount of our journey crouched as it softens the noise of footsteps which can be heard by human enemies or the Infected. The groans or the clicking sounds that some of the Infected make (the Clickers) can be extremely unnerving when they pierce the silence, which helps to create a tense atmosphere that you could cut with a knife.
In terms of the soundtrack, less is certainly more as you explore abandoned apartment buildings silently with only the sound of your footsteps for company; though the occasional scene-setting fanfare from the Academy Award winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla helps build tension and adds contrast during moments of reflection, dialogue or bouts of action. Overall though, there’s a real feeling of complete abandonment across this once-bustling city, thanks in no small part to the stunning level design and graphics.
The sense of scale across the city and the level of detail on every single street, each room you visit and every rooftop you scale, is unprecedented across the entire campaign. The PS3 must have been pushed close its limit to produce what can only be described as one of the most impressive video game environments ever to have been created. Though you’ll eventually follow a linear path, there’s so many places to explore off the beaten track, across overturned buses, through toy shops with shelves filled with goodies, through dense woodland and in and out of every finely-detailed room in huge multi-story apartment blocks.
Water has seeped into the city and foliage spreads likes weeds over buildings and abandoned cars to create a realistic post-apocalyptic scene where practically every inch of it can be explored providing you’re willing to root around and get your hands dirty. You’ll be diving under water to find your way around obstacles, jumping on the top of overturned coaches and scouring the environment for any objects you can use to scale otherwise unreachable places. Indeed, gameplay switches between these slow bouts of exploration, some light puzzle solving and plenty of hard-hitting combat as you attempt to navigate the city to reach the domain of the Fireflies.
Exploration is a key part to your survival in Boston. The Infected lurk everywhere as do rival factions with their own agenda. Ammo is deliberately scarce yet finding just one single bullet can save your life. This means you spend a lot of time searching through rooms in abandoned buildings and down side-alleys where the reward for exploration also comes in the form of items such as rags, alcohol and nails which can be combined to create weapons and aids such as med kits, Molotov cocktails and smoke bombs.
The crafting system is very basic but it’s deliberately accessible and designed cleverly in a way that you can do things quickly on-the-fly, which becomes an important part of the gameplay and ensures you’re not drawn out of the experience and spending time sifting through menus. There’s benches dotted around Boston too where you can upgrade weapons from tool parts that you find while exploring. Upgrading reload times, clip size and so on becomes increasingly important, especially when you’ve got half-a-dozen Infected running toward you. Consequently, exploration consistently plays an important part in the game, and why wouldn’t you want to explore every inch of this great looking world?
The weapon-set is your standard fare with shotguns, bow and arrows, assault rifles and even flame-throwers making an appearance, but there’s enough variation here to ensure you have multiple ways to tackle the enemy. And tactics really do come into play when you approach an area where Infected or guards roam as you choose from tactics like blasting enemy heads clean off with a shotgun, sneaking up on guards and shoving a Shiv through their neck or chucking a Molotov cocktail from a distance to set a group of enemies on fire. In addition, there are also items such as smoke bombs for stealth, nail-bombs for killing multiple opponents and bricks to stun the enemy. The death animations are grisly but there’s nothing more satisfying than blasting the head of a Clicker straight off with a shotgun and watching the wall behind him become stained with blood.
Combat is brutally satisfying and close quarter fights are the most impressive as you use makeshift melee weapons to crack skulls. Fights can also be context sensitive, so a tussle can result in you smashing an enemy’s head against a desk, or ramming a nailed plank through his skull as he slides down a wall. Combat is bloody and ferocious and definitely has a ‘The Walking Dead’ vibe about it, which makes combat, in general, extremely satisfying. Creeping through an Infected area with little ammo is tense and exciting and there’s plenty of opportunity for stealth play (perhaps throwing a bottle as a distraction), or all-out combat, depending on your preference.
The encounters against human opposition aren’t as exciting as when up against the Infected and generally follow tried-and-tested cover and shoot mechanics. Subsequently, we were surprised to discover that there’s just as many humans as Infected outside of the quarantine zone that you have to fight. There’s only a few variations of Infected too and not as many as we would have hoped. Some are armoured and take more hits to kill, the Runners do as their name suggests and run at you when they see you, Clickers respond to sound, and the huge Bloaters are tough to kill, spewing deadly spores at you. The first time we fought a Bloater felt like it was going to be the first of many mini-boss battles against the Infected, but it turns out that’s the most vicious un-human enemy the game throws at you. The challenge really comes in the volume of enemies rather than their variety.
Nonetheless, there’s plenty to enjoy about the combat and there’s some enjoyable bouts against human enemies alongside typical Naughty Dog-style on-screen prompts that you have to follow when up close and personal. There’s also light puzzle solving elements too which serve to break up some of the slower-bouts of exploration where you’re just roaming around scavenging. This is really where the game starts to lose points and prevents it from being a title that is truly great in all areas.
If you’ve played the demo, you’ll have had a hint of what’s to come with the use of ladders and planks becoming a frequent and predictable occurrence. If you’re not searching for ladders to prop against a wall, or a plank of wood to lean across a gap, then you’re looking for a make-shift wooden raft to carry Ellie across water (she can’t swim) so she can reach an area where she can drop down a ladder for you. There comes a point where it all gets a bit predictable and as soon as you come across a scenario that involves water you know there’s going to be a makeshift raft ready-made that you need to search for to get Ellie across. It would have been nice to have seen much more variation in terms of the environmental puzzles, or even ditch half of them completely.
Exploration can also be very dull once you’ve explored an area for the umpteenth time and still have no idea what to do next. I found myself trapped on a few occasions and only found my way out of an area due to a pure fluke. There’s one particular area where you need to find a large industrial rubbish bin in order to push it through a set of gates to get to the next area. The problem is, you won’t know this solution, so many will trawl that huge area for a long time to find that bin. The phrase ‘needle in haystack’ springs to mind. You could argue that this is all part of the challenge of survival and having to survey an area for objects to help you, but there comes a point when searching for something when you don’t know what it is gets frustrating.
Nevertheless, The Last Of Us offers a package that is hard not to turn down and one that every PlayStation fan of the genre should experience. The game world is huge and consistently impresses with its design and graphical prowess, whereas the narrative and the evolution of the characters blows away the cobwebs of some of the repetitive bouts of puzzle-solving and slow bouts of exploration.
The Last Of Us is a game that offers an engaging and emotional journey that shifts in tone and pace, from quiet and poignant moments of reflection between characters and their situation to action-packed sequences that can leave you emotionally drained or grinning from ear-to-ear. Quite simply, Joel and Ellie are the best pairing to have graced this console generation and The Last Of Us is a fitting tribute to PlayStation 3 in the year when we usher in the next generation of consoles.