With the PS4 on the horizon and the attention of the gaming world turning to the next-gen, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the PS3 was finished. That couldn’t be further from the truth, at least when it comes to Sony. PS3 support is still high on their list, with Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us being a prime example of that. Coming on the back of the extremely popular Uncharted games, has Naughty Dog produced another epic for Sony’s console? Read on to find out.
Game: The Last of Us
Developer: Naughty Dog
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
This review contains no spoilers.
Every so often a game comes along that pushes the boundaries of storytelling in our beloved pastime. A title that shows people that not all games are about shooting aliens or futuristic soldiers, and their stories can be as engrossing as the best movies and books. The Last of Us is one of those games, featuring a story that grabs you emotionally and makes you genuinely care about the characters that reside in the world. Two in particular, but more on them in a moment.
The setting is great too, almost believable in strange way. A world that has been ravaged by a cordyceps-type fungus, killing millions and turning them into grotesque infected beings. The remaining humans left struggling to survive in quarantine zones, not only fearing the infected but certain remaining survivors too. If that sounds bleak, well, that’s because that is exactly how the world in The Last of Us is. Naughty Dog does’t pull any punches, so if you’re expecting a tale with plenty of humour and quirks like Uncharted then you’ll be in for a massive surprise. At times, what unfolds before you eyes is utterly breathtaking. I’ve been playing games for more than 20 years now, and I can’t recall a story that hit me as hard as this. Parts of it were on my mind days after I had seen the credits roll.
There are many reasons why I felt the way I did, but after thinking about it only one felt right. Well, two, to be exact. Joel and Ellie. They are the main reason why the story carries so much weight. Naughty Dog has stated many times that they were inspired by the likes of ICO, and you can certainly see how Fumito Ueda’s epic has inspired the relationship between Joel and Ellie. They are both brilliantly realised characters, each with their own interesting back story. This might sound weird, but as you play though the game you feel more and more like you are Joel. You feel his struggles, and eventually Ellie’s too. In fact, you reach a point where you genuinely start to care about Ellie and what happens to her. It’s just amazing to think that a game can exhude such strong feelings and emotions, yet The Last of Us does it with stunning ease.
Gorgeous. Wait, no. Absolutely gorgeous. Naughty Dog has pushed the PS3 to its limits with The Last of Us, bettering their work on any of the Uncharted titles. The cutscenes are just sublime, with incredible detail on the character models and surrounding environment being the standout elements. Things don’t get any worse when you’re playing the game either, it’s just spectacular. The world is filled with little visual touches like the sunshine glistening off the frightengly real-looking water or the dust covered records in an old music store. Hell, even a minute detail like Joel having the exact same weapons on his back that also feature in his bag/inventory is an incredible touch. Animations are the usual high Naughty Dog standard too, really bringing both Joel and Ellie to life.
For a game with such a bleak setting, there is a surprising amount of colour present in the game, almost reflecting the hope that resides within Joel and Ellie. When you’re outside during the day, you’ll almost want to stroll around and take in the world around you. It looks that damn good. The night sections are no slouch either, with the visuals helping to create a tense, panic-filled atmosphere in the appropriate sections. Staying on that dark topic, the visual design on the infected is just out of this world. It’s an oxymoron, but they look disgustingly beautful. In all honesty, I could go on for a while about how good the game looks. It just never fails to amaze you and is a true visual tour de force.
With the audio, it’s probably best to start with just how good the voice acting is throughout the game. Even the secondary characters are voiced extremely well, lending some real weight to their performances. In fact, one secondary character almost steals the show from Joel and Ellie. Key word there? Almost. Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson are amazing as Joel and Ellie, so much so that they will be remembered for quite a while. Baker also voiced Booker DeWitt in BioShock Infinite, but to most people he’ll now be known as ‘the guy who voiced Joel in The Last of Us’. The same sentiment applies to Johnson. No matter who she voices in another game, after you play The Last of Us, you’ll recognise her as Ellie.
Outside of the voice acting, the soundtrack compliments the game’s subject matter and tone incredibly well. The main theme in particular, the one that features in several pre-release trailers, is just a pleasure to listen to. It’s haunting yet beautiful at the same time. Another haunting aspect of the audio is noise that the enemy type known as the Clickers make. It’s so incredibly eerie that everytime you hear it a slight shiver will go down your spine.
Forget Resident Evil or Dead Space, The Last of Us is a survival game in its purest form. Whether you’re sneaking past infected or in a brutal fight with other humans, the focus never shifts away from surviving in the fungal-filled world. Yes, it’s Naughty Dog, but what you have here is a massive departure from any of the Uncharted titles. You have stealth which is right up there with the likes of Splinter Cell or the Batman: Arkham games. It’s not a core mechanic, one which the game relies on, but it would still put some pure stealth titles to shame. The comparison with Rocksteady’s Batman games might sound strange to some, but it’s an obvious one due to Joel having the ability to listen to the whereabouts of enemies. However, you’re only ever told the position of enemies if they’re in your listening range, meaning it’s slightly less useful than the Dark Knight’s ability, but makes the game slightly more challenging in the process. You can even turn it off in the options, so if you want the ultimate hardcore experience Naughty Dog has you covered. Using stealth to quietly move through an area filled with infected is anything but easy. It’s a true test of your nerve and ability to stay calm because if you panic, it’s almost certainly game over for you. However, if you do manage to slip past without being noticed, whether it be just sneaking past or sticking a shiv down an enemies throat, the sense of relief and achievement is on another level.
Then you have the gun and melee combat, which is brutal and visceral to say the least. In most instances, stealth is probably the best option due to limited ammunition and supplies, but sometimes you will have to engage openly with the enemy. This might be through necessity or just because you messed up, either way it’s an amazingly intense experience. The gunplay is a massive step up from Uncharted 3, with each weapon having its own distinctive feel. The power weapons such as the rifle and shotgun are particularly brutal, making you almost feel every shot you plough into an enemy. There is a slight cover shooter aspect to the gunplay, but it’s not central or even absolutely necessary. The fact that you take cover naturally, depending on your proximity to an object or if you’r’e crouched, it takes away a certain repetitiveness and lets you focus on what actually matters. If the gunplay is brutal, then the melee combat is about as visceral as you can get. Pipe, bat or plank, each weapon packs a punch. That applies double when you upgrade them, but more on that later. Even more so than the gunplay, you feel every hit you land on an enemy. Melee weapons do eventually break though, so you do need to pick and choose when you use them wisely.
The AI, especially for human characters, plays a massive part in making these encounters so intense and memorable. Enemies will react to pretty much everything you do, which makes for some very interesting battles. For example, that click when you try to shoot an empty gun, it will alert enemies all around you. They won’t just blindly charge at you though, far from it. They’ll strategically flank you, making you think long and hard about your next move. As stated earlier, the focus never shifts away from survival. Ellie’s AI is also very impressive, almost the highlight of this particular facet. Not once will you need to babysit here through an area, she more than handles herself throughout the game. In fact, on quite a few occasions she’ll end up helping you. If you’re focusing on an enemy in front of you and another is sneaking up behind she’ll shout to grab your attention, telling you where the enemy is coming from. Not just that, she’ll provide you with ammo she finds and throw bricks at enemies if you’re in a tricky situation to buy you some time. It’s incredible to come across an AI companion that compliments the main player and is useful when needed, but Ellie is exactly that.
The final string in the bow comes courtesy of an excellent upgrade and crafting system. As touched upon earlier you are able to upgrade weapons by finding supplies littered throughout the world. Scrap metal and tools allow you to upgrade weapons at designated workbenches, whereas glass and nails give you to ability to craft a modded pipe or bat for added and more brutal damage. As long as you have the right materials, you can also craft medical kits, shivs, molotov cocktails and nail bombs. It’s down to you what you do with the supplies, but you have to give it some thought at times. Do you craft molotov cocktails to aid you against a group of angry survivors now, or do you save some material for a medical kit that you might need later? The choice is difficult at times, but just like everything else it brings the survival aspect to the forefront. The best thing about the upgrade and crafting system is that it is grounded within the world, it doesn’t feel out of place. You craft objects using materials you find lying around and you do it all in real time. The game doesn’t stop for you, there’s no pause. You’re always kept in the wonderfully crafted world. It’s incredible. Everything, everything about the game is just incredible.
On the normal difficulty you can expect The Last of Us to take you around 12 hours to complete. There are harder and easier difficulty levels, but the new game plus mode is where the single player gets its staying power. As you’d expect, this mode allows you to take all of your upgrades and gear into a brand new playthrough. Whilst you’re certainly welcome to play this on normal again, I’d recommend going through on a harder difficulty setting to experience the more challenging AI.
A multiplayer player mode is also present and it’s surprisingly good. It’s a clever extension of the single player universe, set a few decades after the events of that particular mode. Much like the single player campaign, the multiplayer is all about survival. It’s all based around team play, with a maximum of four players allowed per team (Hunters or Fireflies), so a maximum of eight in one match. Your goal as a team (clan essentially) is to survive for 12 weeks, winning matches by doing better than the opposition and gaining supplies. Don’t worry, you don’t have actually play 12 weeks worth of matches as each match counts as one day. You can do this in two modes, Supply Raid and Survivors, the latter of which doesn’t allow you to carry over items when you die or respawn. As stated earlier, it’s an interesting extension of the single player universe, but let’s face it the campaign is the main attraction here.
Very few games have the power to engage you on both a gameplay and narrative level, yet The Last of Us does both with ease. There are several moments that will stay with you long after the credits roll. It’s that damn powerful. Not only does it breath new life into a genre, it redefines it and sets the benchmark. Put the fact that it’s a game to one side, The Last of Us is just an incredible piece of entertainment and another masterpiece from Naughty Dog.