The Last of Us is a game that could have been another Uncharted, Naughty Dog could have pumped out a similar game to their previous best, though this time with zombies. However, even with so many easy ways out, The Last of Us never allows itself to stoop so low...
You play as Joel, 20 years after the fungal outbreak that has destroyed America, and brought with it the rejuvenation of plant life. He is entrusted (for various reasons that will not be spoiled) with Ellie, his task is to take her to a militia group known as 'The Fireflies', who fight back against the military that have taken control of a majority of the population, organizing it in disagreeable ways. This is what leads to an adventure, spanning a year, split into the four seasons.
Winter is the portion of the game that stood out to me the most.
Throughout the game you'll be treated to the stunning scenery of organic life reclaiming what was once lost, this makes for arguably the best looking game on the PS3. Yet there are still moments where you can see the limitations of the 7 year old console, blurry textures and a few dips frame rate, especially in areas with the impressive water and lighting effects. Furthermore, the advantage of the timespan of this journey is played to full effect, with obvious changes in weather and atmosphere that really make the most of it's theme of nature.
At the heart of The Last of Us is Joel and Ellie, the two protagonists of the game give life to otherwise lifeless situations, commenting on various things in the detailed environment. The conversations between the two, especially when Ellie asks Joel about things that were typical in life before the outbreak. Small touches like this are what build these characters, making you care about them because you know how hopeless everything else is. In the midst of this, Ellie is a beacon of hope; even though she is far more hardened than your usual 14 year old. It is her gleeful remarks at what we take for granted, that not only reinforces just what the world has become, but also what we can salvage and preserve for possible future generations. Giving you an incentive to protect her, although she can't be killed for the most part.
You will probably relate far more to Ellie than Joel.
An important aspect to this is the lack of dissonance between the cutscenes and gameplay. Almost everything that happens in the gameplay is acknowledged in the cutscenes and vice versa, you won't find any strange mood swings here; if Ellie gets annoyed at Joel in a scene then she will present that through physical and verbal actions in-game. This is one of the most important things in the game to me, and if you would like to read more about it then please refer to my last article, in which I also discuss this...
Some may complain about the lack of choice in the game, however, these characters have been written in a specific way, their actions make sense given their personalities, and to give you some sort of moral choice would go against that. You don't need choices to make a narrative truly compelling or ripe for a game, and Naughty Dog proves this by having Joel and Ellie be two of the most interesting people I have ever come across in any game. The chemistry between them drives the game and you forward, and it's all done beautifully, with Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson giving their absolute best in every scene.
Finally, let's get on to the gameplay, I know it's hard to believe it exists when there's so much outside of it! Nevertheless, this experience would fail in my eyes if it wasn't backed up by some interesting, albeit not very innovative, gameplay. Luckily, The Last of Us delivers tight controls and a 'stealth' mechanic that feels unlike almost anything else. I say 'stealth' because Joel is no Sam Fisher, you don't stick to cover, nor do you have the ability to roll or even walk while crouching very fast. Due to this, you must plan out things before hand, very rarely are you able to go from one hiding spot to the next with quick timing. This leads on to the aid of the game: Joel's listening ability. With this, Joel is able to visualise the area by listening to footsteps, people talking, or clickers clicking. At first I felt that this would be overpowered, however, the fact that it uses sound that isn't always present and has a distance limit. Listening, among other aspects of Joel, such as health and weapon sway, can be upgraded through pills you acquire. This doesn't necessarily make sense in the realistic world created, but it's satisfying progression and rewards those who explore.
The Last of Us features some of the most intense combat ever.
Every kill has an impact, Naughty Dog has pulled off the feeling of doing what you have to in order to survive perfectly. Most of the time I found myself not wanting to engage in combat, not just because it could waste valuable supplies, because I don't want to kill guys that have been talking about how they found some bacon. Not only do the main characters in the story feel human (due to the voice acting and motion capture), but the enemies do too, calling out to each other about how they should tackle Joel. Unfortunately, this makes the glitches in the AI all the more apparent, completely making immersion sometimes; more than once I had guys get stuck in doorways walking back and forth. Their field of view is painfully low as well, there were so many times where I felt I should have been spotted, yet they just continued to casually walk by... when it works it's incredible AI though.
Another strength of the game's combat is the crafting system, enhancing the survival theme. You aren't able to pause the game and craft medkits instantly, instead you must find a place where you will have enough down time to craft the items you find the most important at the time. Items share the same resource type, forcing you to carefully decide what to create for each situation.
Like the rest of the gameplay elements, the crafting isn't anything new, still, like the others it manages to be pulled off at the highest calibre. Joel doesn't feel like an insanely powerful human being, capable of pulling off amazing feats, he's just an average man. You don't have perfect aim, perfect movements or a perfect personality. These imperfections improved my time with The Last of Us just as much as the perfections; it made it a different game than so many others at the moment, not afraid to put the player at a disadvantage.
The game isn't afraid to slow down and let you just look around.
The infected barely cross my mind, for about ½ you are fighting humans, although when you are thrust into sections filled with terrifying Clickers (who use echolocation like bats with a clicking sound) a surprising amount of patience is needed. Not only must you crouch, but the thumb stick can't be pushed all the way, this forces you to have steady hands despite the horrible noises coming from all around you. The developers knew that this would be a tougher challenge, and all too often do we forget that there is space in between an analogue stick being stationary and pushed all the way to the edge. As if that wasn't enough, Clickers are a one hit kill, and when surrounded by a pack of Runners (stage 1 infection) time is short and you're often forced to expending a lot of ammo to make it. These horror elements always add to the game and never outstay their welcome, it's a not-so-delightful balance between horror, calm scenery and hostile humans. We are treated to the same excellent pacing as seen in the Uncharted series, one of the few aspects carried over from that franchise.
The Last of Us transcends what it so easily could have been, though not with grace, but brutal violence, death and enormous amounts of tension. Naughty Dog has gone about and beyond, whilst not being afraid to take it slow for long segments that punctuate the intense action. It is this and so much more that make it an incredible game, one that you absolutely must play. So much so that I could go on for about three more paragraphs about the little touches and animations. Glitches and problems with AI prevent it from being a 10/10, but it's damn close...
Written by Ben Lucas (@TheYouthfuls)