Naughty Dog is a developer that exudes greatness, growing from humble roots in to to creators of outstanding brilliance. Their PlayStation journey began back in the early days of the PS1, where they were responsible for the charming platform classic Crash Bandicoot. When the next generation rolled around they switched gears creating the varied and the successful Jak and Daxter series on PS2. Their PS3 days once again started something new resulting in the Uncharted series whose second and third instalments where met with monumental critical success, now they’re considered modern classics. So here we stand on the cusp of another potential classic from a company that consistently build wonders, this time in the form of survival horror action game: The Last Of Us. Question is could they pull it off again? Oh boy could they.
The Last Of US is Naughty Dog’s go at creating a survival horror experience and the success they’ve had in crafting a deeply atmospheric bleak world is unprecedented. The Last Of Us is easily one of the best titles of the genre ever created creating one of the most tense atmospheres in gaming. Not only that it easily sits along side and arguably above PS3′s best exclusives; effortlessly standing out as one of the top experiences available this generation. There’s no doubt in my mind in years to come it will be remembered as a classic along side some of the other most important titles in the medium’s history.
Set in 20 years in the future The Last Of Us takes place on an Earth whose human population has been ravaged by the outbreak of a fungus – the cordyceps - that infects humans, high-jacks their brains turning them into shuffling distributors of the ailment that has befallen them – aptly named the infected. There’s nothing in the game that directly states how fast the world fell to pieces or exactly how the outbreak started, but hidden artefacts set the scene which unravels the mythos revealing information like estimated death/infection tolls. Only a few pockets of government remain in the United States – the quarantine zones, but even here hope is in short supply – along with everything else. What remains of governmental regime’s have become more oppressive and the lights of civilisation grow ever dimmer. Those who survive outside the QZ’s are mostly self serving opportunists, humans who’ve fell back on their pack mentality and, without morals it’s everyman for themself.
In this scarred, broken and sad world players are cast as a man who it’s a mirror image – Joel. Joel is a survivor living inside the Boston QZ as a smuggler, he’s a broken man whose only purpose in life is to survive, having given up on everything else. During the twenty years since the outbreak Joel has continued to live where so many died or succumbed to the infection, and it’s a sorry existence. Explicit details of what he’s done to carry on are never given but little hints are provided. His world is turned upside-down when he’s partnered with a spunky teenager – Ellie. Ellie is a fourteen year old girl, she’s no concept of life before infection, the drab sadistic world is all she’s ever known, her naivety of the crumbled civilization is not something Joel shares. Starkly contrasting from the misery around her Ellie is a cheerful companion who’ll often poke fun at her elder for being so down the in the dumps and she can be regularly heard mimicking guitar riffs to herself. The duo soon find themselves becoming reliant on one another during their year long trek across the USA.
Joel and Ellie’s relationship is the cornerstone of the whole experience, it’s so deep, engaging and captivatingly heart warming to watch as they build their relationship from cold companions to close friends in world characterised by destruction. Ellie in particular is the reason the dynamic works so well. She’s an undeniably likeable companion whose foul verbal exclamations, naivety of the world before the infection and good humour should never fail to raise a smile. Throughout their adventure the duo meet a host of great supporting characters who all perfectly fit into their roles, all add layers of believability to the story – they’re no tacked on forgettable faces to be seen here.
Despite being narratively inspired by traditional post apocalyptic zombie stories The Last Of Us tale is masterfully weaved in such a way that genre cliché’s are rarely adhered to offering up more dizzying surprises than mundane “I saw that coming” moments. The game provides a constant barrage of intense dramatic moments all orchestrated to such perfection that they land like sucker punches to the gut overwhelming with emotional beats.
All of the dark, lonely and scary atmosphere that is present in the story and world is reflected within the gameplay experience, it’s this well constructed blend that causes The Last Of Us to really shines. As expected scavenging is important to prolonged survival in the post-apocalyptic setting, as such players will often find themselves rooting through old buildings and often peoples homes for integral supplies. Whilst digging through peoples personal effects Joel will often find notes or letters that demonstrate individuals more personal connection with the outbreak. The tid bits regularly don’t add to the main plot arc but their addition immeasurably adds to the believability of the world. Drawings from children are pinned to work offices; belongings are scattered through houses all of this makes the cities feel so much more like a living world turned stone dead.
In a time where basic necessities are in short supplies scavenging also serves a more practical purpose – crafting. Materials for crafting are carefully scattered in small supply. Used to make everything from health kits to Molotov cocktails resources are scarce and since individual components uses often overlap players must decide what is more important to them at any given time, as they never know when they may encounter more of the item. On top of that rare stashes of medication can be found that’s used upgrade Joel’s skills, there isn’t enough to max out Joel out in one play through so the decision must be made wisely. Further to that there’s salvageable materials that can be used to upgrade the in game arsenal of handguns and other firearms, again there’s not enough to max out on play through to make players consider their priorities. Resource scarcity means there’s never quite enough to be comfortable which adds spades of tension to the already dire atmosphere
Survival is a strenuous sobering task,especially when yours and another’s come into direct conflict – in this reality combat is aggressive and incredibly suspenseful, it really gets the adrenaline going. Killing someone is a significant act, not one to be taken lightly and The Last Of Us reflects that incredibly well. Unlike most games where foes feel like moving targets to be shot down enemies feel weighted; heavy. As Joel choke’s a human the life drains from their eyes as they fruitlessly struggle against their impending demise; gun shots graphically splatter through a body before it turns limp thudding against the floor.
The wasteland of America harbours two main adversaries, the infected that instinctively attack humans to spread their ailment and humans, who selfishly attack other survivors to increase their own chances. Which is more dangerous is very much a quandary the game presents to the player both narratively and in gameplay, what’s more the two type of AI react radically differently meaning tactics must changed depending on the engagement. The infected are predictable swarmers that over power the player in numbers, traps and stealth work well against them – particularly the terrifying clicker variant whose sight has been compromised leaving it to depend on sound alone. Humans on the other hand are violent and clever. They’ll try to flank the player sneaking around actively trying to form a powerful strategic advantages, not only that unlike the infected they’re armed with fire-power.
The way that every encounter is handled is left entirely to the player though usually a combination of strategy’s will be used. Stealth is perhaps the most viable option, it allows for numbers to be thinned out and preserves precious resources, bullets are rare and missing shots in key moments can mean the difference between life and death. If you feel sufficiently armed though guns-a-blazing is viable. Some encounters can even be snuck round entirely for those pacifists amongst you. A combination of all three used to their full effect is normally the answer. The controls themselves are impressively tight landing a head shot relies on skill with a heavy dose of sway thrown in for suspense, systems rarely get in the way and sneaking is well implemented and never unfair.
They’re a few issues of course earlier in the game friendly NPC’s seem to have a habit of getting in the way, allies also cannot be detected by enemies leading some unusual situations where Ellie will run in front of a guard and they simply ignore her. It does break the immersion somewhat but if it’s either that or have poor NPC’s break a stealth streak it seems like the right choice, before long it becomes unnoticeable. Such minor irritants are few and far between none of which take any substantial level of enjoyment from the experience.
In addition to an absolutely stellar single player campaign The Last Of US features a fully fledged online multiplayer mode. Such modes inherently raise worries that a games singe player experience will be compromised, rest assured that this certainly not the case in The Last Of Us. Whilst the online portion could be ignored fully and nothing would be lost it’s a strong addition to the package that successfully translates the world, tension and combat strategies onto multiplayer stage. The two online modes allow for players to combat each other in teams of four allying with either the fireflies or hunters – there’s no infected to be found here. Combat remains savagely brutal and tactical with an enjoyable depth not often found in a “tacked on” multiplayer experience instead it feels like a fresh expansion of already well established ideas.
The Last Of Us is a master-class in game design. In years to come gamers will recognise it as a high point in the industry to be likened to the ranks of Metal Gear Solid, Ocarina Of Time, Bioshock; it’s one of those experiences that shows the power of the medium. It’s ravaged beauty will draw you in, the pains and journey of it’s marvellous protagonists will keep you immersed. The savage shoot-out’s, brutal fistfights and ingenious encounters will keep players immersed start to finish. When all is said and done you’ll only want more, even it’s few small problems never build to a point where they’re a real problem. All in all The Last Of Us another classic, like everything Naughty Dog does, with this they cement themselves as one of, if not the best game developers in the industry. The Last Of Us is a classic and the perfect swan song for a generation, don’t miss it.