Platform | Release Date
PS3 | June 14, 2013
Developed by Naughty Dog
Published by Sony Computer Entertainment
20 years after a pandemic has radically changed known civilization, infected humans run wild and survivors are killing each other for food, weapons – whatever they can get their hands on. Joel, a violent survivor, is hired to smuggle a 14 year-old girl, Ellie, out of an oppressive military quarantine zone, but what starts as a small job soon transforms into a brutal journey across the U.S.
I experienced something quite exceptional with The Last of Us long before I’d actually put the game into my machine. Almost everywhere I went, the game was sold out. Between supermarkets and specialist retailers I couldn’t find a single copy on the day after launch. In the end I managed to grab the last box, paying more than I’d like, in a Blockbuster. That’s right, Blockbuster.
It has been years since I’ve struggled to get a copy of a game at launch. The last time I can remember was for the UK launch of Pokémon Red and Blue. What did this tell me about The Last of Us? It told me it was going to be something special, and everybody, from hardcore gamers to occasional dabblers, knew it too.
And it is. The name on the box goes a long way. The developers, Naughty Dog, have a near-flawless record when it comes to their back catalogue. Known for the Uncharted series in recent years, The Last of Us comes at the end of an era that the California-based developers helped define. Yet, for the people who arguably did big better than anybody else this generation, The Last of Us is a restrained, thought-provoking game.
Post viral/zombie apocalypse, the player takes control of Joel, a man who lost a hell of a lot during the fall of mankind. After some world building is taken care of, he’s paired with a young girl, Ellie, and the two set off to deliver her to a resistance group that promises to cure the world of the plague that destroyed it. So far, so Children of Men, and the comparisons to the Academy Award nominated picture don’t stop there. This is a game about a reluctant journey to save mankind when almost every member of it would gladly see you dead.
Gameplay typically fluctuates between survival based exploring, where the player sources supplies and solves environmental puzzles, and combat with a range of zombie and non-zombie enemies. The former is self explanatory, and although the puzzles are stripped and simplified versions of the type of predicaments Drake usually finds himself in, the latter gives them a sense of importance. Ammo is limited but the number of enemies is not.
Stealth is key. In some specific scenarios – such as when you face off against rooms crowded with blind infected whose attacks are triggered by sound – moving through an area silently becomes a matter of life and death. In others, it’s just the best way to avoid wasting ammo and supplies you will invariably need later. Skulking around behind cover is mechanically very similar to every other modern iteration of stealth gameplay, with a button press allowing you to hone Joel’s hearing to spot nearby enemies through walls. Replace that with infra-red goggles or a mini-map radar, and you’ve got a Splinter Cell game.
However, the well balanced volume of supplies, and the time restrictions on the crafting system plays with the post-apocalyptic environments to create a sense of need and desperation. There’s a genuine fear of discovery. You’re out here alone. Your health isn’t going to magically regenerate. A shotgun to the gut or a zombie chewing on your face means the end. It means the only hope of a cure will die too. For Sam Fisher, it usually just means that some rich guy escapes on a boat.
The manner in which the story is delivered is vital in creating this sense of desperation. There’s rarely a second wasted in the cutscenes, with taught writing delivering punchy messages and sincere stories of survival from a range of well-acted NPCs. These performances are genuine, although the damaged father/daughter relationship that develops between Joel and Ellie is easily the most affecting of them all. Voice acting is all pretty perfect. Character motivations feel realistic. The plot is exciting but not delivered with hollow, shock sensationalism. Other developers take note – this is how you tell a story using pre-recorded video and make it feel legitimate.
I’m reliably informed that parents will find the narrative particularly difficult to sit through without shedding a tear, but you’d have to have a stone cold heart not to feel similarly even without kids of your own. If you are ice cold then you’ll still get a lot out of it. The gameplay on offer here has been perfected by the developers over recent years. The reason I’ve always been a fan of Naughty Dog is not just because they create great games, but because they make it seem easy. The quality of the level design in The Last of Us is, in particular, a hallmark of the developers. Each location feels like the real world, whilst simultaneously being an ideal stage for action, and thrilling, dangerous exploration. The AI is just as believable.
If there’s a divisive element, it seems to be the multiplayer. Sometimes you can tell that in controlling Joel, you’re actually just controlling a hobbled, less agile version of Drake. Take the game online and it becomes clearer that a lot of code has been shared. I didn’t spend lots of time with the game in multiplayer and it’s arguably a mode that it just doesn’t need.
At the tail of the PlayStation 2’s lifecycle Naughty Dog recycled bits of the Jak and Daxter games to create Jak X: Combat Racing – a racing game starring the yellow haired character and his critter pal. It’s the only game they’ve made that you might struggle to recommend. At the end of the PlayStation 3’s era, they’ve reused bits and pieces once more, but this time have created something unique and brilliant. Yet, The Last of Us is not only a great way to go out – it’s one of the best games ever made for the console.