We’re shitty people Joel, it’s been that way for a long time.
The whole “post-apolcayptic survival horror” premise has been done many times before, by many iconic franchises, but never has it been done in quite the way Naughty Dog have done it in The Last of Us. The year is 2033, and we’re twenty years removed from the outbreak of a mutated strain of Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, which all but destroyed the world as we knew it. The fungus’ rapid spread has turned the vast majority of humanity into violent, murderous, zombie-like creatures. The once-great and powerful United States of America now looks more like the Amazon rainforest; plants and weeds have encroached entire cities, growing through cracks in walls, floors and roads, and the aforementioned “cordyceps zombies” lurk around streets, corridors and houses looking for the next poor bastard to sink their teeth into.
Those in the minority of humanity, who have been lucky enough to avoid infection for all these years, are faced with a choice: submit to the tyrannical, overzealous and oppressive rule of the overly-militant government and live in “quarantine zones” dotted around the country, or take your chances on “the outside”. The quarantine zones offer a degree of safety; residents are protected from the fungus and what it causes not only by the military presence, but by scans administered to anyone who attempts to enter a quarantine zone legitimately. However, rations are often withheld to maintain supply and there is a strict curfew in place with no second chances. Sounds pretty shitty, but it’s better than what awaits on the outside. Survivors living on the outside must not only deal with the omnipresent threat of the Infected in their various forms, but other groups of survivors will do just about anything to procure supplies for themselves, with a callous disregard for the safety of anyone who might get in their way.
In a nutshell, The Last of Us is an absolute masterpiece, an incredible culmination of stunning graphics and presentation, a brilliantly written, emotionally intense story and fantastic third-person gameplay that compliments it all perfectly. We take control of a grizzly, hardened, middle-aged survivor named Joel, who was driven from his home in Austin, Texas by the plague and now lives out his life in a quarantine zone in Boston, Massachusetts. Along with his partner, Tess, Joel makes his living smuggling weapons, ammunition, rations and other supplies out of the QZ to paying customers on the outside, via a network of underground passageways; he’s not entirely proud of it, but it ensures his and Tess’ continued survival. The pair make a deal with Marlene, the leader of a militia group called the Fireflies, to transport a young girl named Ellie from the QZ to the Capitol Building, and eventually across the dilapidated ruins formerly known as
Prince the United States of America.
The relationship that develops between Joel and Ellie over the course of their cross-country journey is the driving force behind the brilliance of The Last of Us’ story. The pair don’t see eye-to-eye at first, with Joel more than willing to remind anyone who will listen that he didn’t want to take the job and Ellie thinking he’s just a stupid old fart, but the pair eventually begin to resemble father and daughter. As they traverse the ruins of Boston, Pittsburgh, the banks of the Snake River, the University of Eastern Colorado, and eventually Salt Lake City, the always-inquisitive Ellie quizzes Joel on subjects including the world before the outbreak, his past and why the hell he won’t give her a gun so she can be more useful. Like any good “father and daughter”, they do bicker on occasions, and it’s at those points where we see just how well Naughty Dog have done with their characters: not only are the arguments incredibly believable (thanks to brilliant voice acting), but in gameplay, Ellie really shows her age. She starts to speak really sharply and snidely to Joel, takes her time fulfilling his requests for assistance and lags behind when they’re moving around the environment. The game spends so much time developing its cast of characters that the player is convinced to feel an emotional attachment to each and every one: not only do the game’s many emotional events leave a distinct mark because of this, but the intensity of the gameplay is amplified by the fact that you just don’t want any harm to befall them.
The Last of Us doesn’t really exude hope and optimism, and throughout the game players will run into countless people who are out to get Joel, Ellie and whoever else might be out there. As such, a feeling of hopelessness and impending doom pervades every action, every cutscene and every waking moment of gameplay throughout the game. The sound only helps that along; one can’t go for more than a few seconds without hearing a (pardon the clichè) “bump in the night”, a blood-curdling scream or the familiar sound of the Infected, trying to use their crude echolocation to find and feast on some living flesh. Because of that, every time one opens a door or turns a corner there is a looming sense that there’s going to be a horde of Infected standing there waiting to tear you apart, or a group of survivors who want nothing more than to exterminate the great threat you pose to their wellbeing. Of course, by holding R2 Joel (and later, Ellie) is able to focus his hearing, providing a limited (by distance only) glimpse of what type of enemy he is about to face, where they are, and what they’re doing at that moment. This gives the player a decisive edge over the enemies, be they human or Infected, and is often the difference between life and death.
In many of the games we’re used to playing these days, combat is often used as a filler, a moment of catharsis after an emotional cutscene or just a boring walk. However, considering that ammunition and supplies are in such short order in The Last of Us (melee weapons also have a finite number of uses before they break), combat – no matter the opposition – is quite tense and nerve-racking, offering no relaxation from the emotionally-taxing story. While there’s no shortage of people (and monsters) trying to kill you, it’s really quite hard to forget that each of these people are just like Joel; thrust into a hostile environment and forced to do whatever they have to do in order to live another day. Everyone you kill carries a certain weight, especially when you sit back and consider the fact that they could just be doing what they’re doing in order to provide another meal for their family, or just to get enough supplies to survive another difficult night on the outside – all of that just adds to the emotional intensity of the game in general (yes, I know, it’s just a video game… that’s what makes it such a damn good video game). Watching a survivor try to escape Joel’s grip as he strangles them, eventually drawing strained final breaths as they pass into the land of the dead, is something that will suck no matter how many times you watch it. In armed combat, human enemies will generally plan their attacks, attempting to exploit their (usually quite large) numbers advantage by working together; they’ll distract you while their buddies try to flank you, lay covering fire while a chosen few try to rush at you with a melee weapon of some description, block your exits or alternate paths, and weed you out of any little hidey-hole you manage to carve for yourself. In that way, fighting against human opposition is a bit of a puzzle – you’ve got to choose where to go, who to pick off first, what to use, and how you’re going to get out of there alive without wasting your oh-so-limited ammunition. It sounds tense, and it is, but damn it’s good.
The Infected pose a very different, entirely more nerve-racking challenge; unlike the other survivors, who appear to genuinely fear for their lives when you’re around, these poor bastards show no regard for their own safety, and a lot of regard for killing you. There’s no hiding behind walls and tables, no careful checking of corners, nooks and crannies, they just pace around being all Infected, rest standing up, and only show any aggression when they know there’s someone around who needs infecting. Unfortunately for Joel and Ellie, as the fungus festers in their brain they not only become stronger and more durable, but more aggressive in their attempts to spread the fungus to new hosts. The “lesser” monsters (I can’t bring myself to call them zombies), known as Runners and Stalkers, only take a couple of well-placed shots with any weapon (including melee) to kill, but it’s the Clickers – so far along in their infection that it has taken over their face, and they can no longer see or smell – that will haunt you for the weeks to come. They’re quite common around the place, and because most of their face is now fungus they rely on echolocation to get around; the clicking and gurgling sounds they use to do so are the stuff of nightmares and ghost stories. Clickers are completely immune to fisticuffs and take quite a number of hits from any weapon to kill, and it’s game, set, match if they manage to get their hands on you. To make matters worse, they rarely – if ever – hang out alone, so they’re capable of distracting you while the smaller guys run in and mess you up. You’ll also face seven “Bloaters”, people who have been infected for so long that it’s formed an “armour” of sorts around their whole body; the best advice here is to avoid them, or prepare to waste a LOT of ammo (they’re susceptible to fire though, so use that). Whether it’s just a couple of Runners or a massive horde of Clickers, fighting against the Infected – let alone being in the same room or even building as them – can be quite a nervous, uncomfortable experience; something that you won’t soon become accustomed to.
Even on lower difficulty modes (I played through the game on “normal”), it’s imperative that you think carefully before you do… well, anything. Aside from having very little ammunition and being outnumbered on just about every occasion, Joel doesn’t have the finest aim you’re likely to come across in a video game and he’s generally so damn nervous that the gun will sway quite a bit when you’re trying to aim; this is all especially apparent when you’re trying to shoot the Infected, who run like Captain Jack Sparrow, with a little more lateral movement. For all of these reasons and more, your best weapon throughout the cross-country journey is not a weapon at all… In nine out of ten situations, stealth can be used to curtail – or completely avoid – armed combat. The other survivors’ methodical, check-every-corner approach ends up working to the player’s advantage, making it quite easy to advance (quietly) into a good position, wait until your next poor, somewhat-unsuspecting victim is looking in the opposite direction, and strangle him to death without wasting your ammo. Of course, you’ll have to make sure that you’re not strangling a guy in his buddies’ line of sight, but that’s elementary. As for the Infected, even the Runners’ vision is impaired (the cordyceps fungus attacks the eyes first), and the Clickers’ aforementioned echolocation is quite crude, meaning that you’re quite easily able to either get up close enough to shiv them (or strangle the Runners/Stalkers), or sneak past without them even noticing. You can also throw one of the many bricks and broken bottles you find scattered around the place to draw the attention of both human and Infected enemies, which can be used in a pinch to relieve pressure or just to avoid having to try and strangle somebody.
Save for pressing ‘pause’, there’s no way to stop the action that is unfolding at any given time, and so the player must take advantage of lulls in the story to forage through corpses, drawers, cupboards and sinks for ammunition and various supplies. Whatever you find can then be put to use in the crafting menu, which allows Joel to channel his inner MacGyver and ‘upgrade’ his melee weapon, create a first-aid kit to heal his wounds or concoct various DIY weapons (shivs, nail bombs, smoke bombs or Molotov cocktails) to level the playing field somewhat. Supplements found along the way can be used to upgrade Joel (you can choose to upgrade his maximum health, crafting and healing speeds, the distance at which ‘listen mode’ will work, the number of times each Shiv can be used or grant him the ability to Shiv a Clicker when it gets its hands on him), while Parts enable you to upgrade your weapons in various ways. Joel is quite limited in what he can carry (a small amount of ammo for each gun, one melee weapon, one diversion, three of each crafted item and three of each “ingredient”), and each supply, supplement and part can only be used once, and cannot be retrieved once used; just like everywhere else in the game, taking your time to make the right decision is absolutely paramount. Of course, making the right decision is made a little harder by the fact that crafting is done in real-time, meaning that the enemies will continue to move around, plan, and/or attack you while you’re trying to put together that Molotov you want to use to clear a path, so make sure you take cover as best you can. You can take comfort in the fact that Ellie (and other companions you meet throughout the game) will try to cover you, but again, the enemy has a very distinct numbers advantage, and if the companion dies it’s game over for you as well, so it’s best to craft ahead of time and just hope you don’t need it.
More than anything, combat is yet another (and probably the most effective) vehicle for the game’s main agenda: the advancement and development of the two main characters, as well as supplementary characters that they meet throughout their journey. Joel is particularly good at killing things and it’s something that he’s not really proud of, putting it down to “doing what he needs to do to survive”, but it’s the fact that other characters mention it and question him about it that makes it really hit home. We also watch as a 14-year-old girl is forced to grow up quite rapidly; Ellie goes from throwing in little comments like “ew”, “holy shit!” or “fuck, Joel!” when you kill something, to hunting deer and hacking people to death herself, but it’s those little comments she makes that remind you that she’s still just a young girl and she’s still horrified by what’s going on around her. Occasionally, after fighting the Infected, the poor girl will express her deep survivor’s guilt, being the one and only person in the world who hasn’t turned into a vile monster after having been attacked by one. The game does such an incredible job of fostering an emotional connection – a relationship, almost – between player and characters, that by the time you reach the end of your journey it’s hard not to fear what might happen to Joel and Ellie once the latter has been delivered to the Fireflies; the subtle, brilliant nuances that Naughty Dog have added to their combat sequences play a huge part in building that.
Along with an absolutely incredible story mode, The Last of Us comes with a brilliant, enthralling multiplayer mode that does a great job of echoing the ominous mood of the story. The game takes a far different approach to any multiplayer mode before it, with small player counts, larger maps and mechanics that lend themselves to stealthy, edge-of-your-seat gameplay. Players choose from one of two sides (Hunter or Firefly), and are thrust into one of the two game modes on offer: Supply Raid, a generic deathmatch with a shared life count and supplies strewn around the map, and Survivors, a best-of-seven series of elimination matches with no respawns. While Survivors forces the player to play as they would in the story, with every player on the map fearing the one mistake that could lead to their death, Supply Raid is a little more relaxed, right up until you reach the “Sudden Death” portion of the game. Various game mechanics – such as the fact that sprinting will result in the player appearing on the minimap – make it very difficult to create a loadout with no weaknesses, and each of the seven maps has the perfect balance of vantage points, flanking routes and places to hide out when the action gets too hot.
The shining light of The Last of Us’ online mode is the metagame that hovers over your every match. Your character assumes position as the leader of a band of survivors, charged with acquiring enough supplies to keep the group alive and healthy. Those supplies are acquired from the corpses of your enemies during online matches, as well as by converting parts that you collect throughout the match, either from the supply boxes or as rewards for acts such as crafting, reviving, healing and downing or executing your enemies. Your clan is able to recruit more members if you collect more supplies than you need in a match, or if you complete one-off challenges based around enemy attacks, invasions and disease outbreaks. The metagame does a fantastic job of bridging the gap between single- and multiplayer by carrying on the story’s notion that your actions are only as good (or bad) as their consequences; a game with five executions and no deaths (a kill-death ratio of five) could still result in the loss of survivors if you don’t go out and collect enough supplies. Unfortunately, there aren’t too many players in The Last of Us’ online playlists, which is a shame; that just means that so very many people are missing out on an incredible experience.
While the multiplayer is an undeniably incredible addition to the game (and probably the only thing stopping me from getting the Platinum trophy), The Last of Us is propelled into greatness by one of the best-written, most powerful stories I have ever experienced. Every word, motion, sound and theme is carefully engineered to induce an emotional reaction, and it feels more like an interactive movie than a video game. In every way, shape and form, this stroke of absolute genius has jumped right out in front of the competition not only for Game of the Year, but Game of the Generation; even the most anticipated game of the generation, GTA V, will struggle to remove it from that perch. If this is what Naughty Dog are capable of putting forth on the seven-year-old hardware of the PS3, I couldn’t be more excited for what they’ve got in store for us on the PS4.
Author’s Note: I sincerely apologise for the incredible lateness of this review; health and personal issues have caused the delay, and must now be addressed, haha. I should also mention that as with Bioshock Infinite, I reviewed the retail version (for PS3, obviously), purchased out of my own pocket, and played on Normal mode as mentioned. Links for picture credit are as follows: Aerok876 on YouTube, AFGuidesHD on YouTube, DARKWOLF_29 on YouTube, FPSGeneral (1, 2), Geek Exchange, Playstation Blog, Playstation Universe (PSU), IGN, Sticktwiddlers, The Last of Us Wiki.