When civilization crumbles, what will be left of humanity, and what is the cost of survival? Those are the questions at the heart of The Last Of Us, the new post-apocalyptic epic from Naughty Dog, creators of the outstanding Uncharted series. A mutated fungus has caused great swathes of the population to become the gruesome ‘infected’, with the last remnants of the human race forced to become practically feral to survive. Those expecting the wisecracking tone of the aforementioned Uncharted will find little comfort here – The Last Of Us is brutal, gruesome, and quite extraordinary.
Within the first few minutes it becomes clear that The Last Of Us is an exceptional work. The opening sequence alone, as main character Joel is violently introduced to the emerging chaos, is outstanding in terms of narrative and emotional pull, whilst retaining great gameplay standards. The sound design is absolutely first rate too, its subtle use building tension and expanding scenes. Throughout the game the story and atmosphere is developed with real class and confidence; peripheral NPC action expands on this ravaged world, making it feel very real and intimidating. The visual design is also quite beautiful in its representation of decay, as nature reclaims the city after two decades since the fall of civilization. In truth, The Last Of Us owes more of a debt to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road rather than Uncharted, with a beautifully melancholic score and tone embedding the mood. It is never once forgotten that this is a world that has seen great tragedy and despair, with the last dregs of society just struggling to survive.
Those familiar with Uncharted will be comfortable with the gameplay (especially the platforming sections), although the shooting and cover mechanics have been slightly refined. One very nice touch is Joel’s enhanced hearing mode, which works as a sort of sonar when activated, allowing him to ‘see’ enemies through walls. The game encourages the use of environmental objects, such as bricks and bottles, in combat, and stealth is very much the order of the day. Rushing into a situation guns blazing will be rewarded with a quick death; patience is a must here. Health kits take time to craft and use (there’s no chance for quick patch ups in the middle of a fight), and as such intelligence and an alternative approach is usually called for. Ammo is also incredibly scarce, so the game forces a more measured stealthy style of play. It pays to be thorough when travelling through the game’s locales – useful items can be scavenged from the darkest corners. The crafting system, where shivs and health kits can be made from scavenged parts, is well thought out and in keeping with the narrative. Choice is a key factor – health kits or Molotov cocktails can be made from the same parts, so a decision has to be made as to which would be most useful or beneficial. There is little room in Joel’s backpack for hoarding items either, so the game encourages thorough exploration throughout to keep him stocked.
There are many sections where The Last Of Us is genuinely terrifying, with the sparse sound design ramping up the tension. A breed of ‘infected’ known as ‘clickers’ provide much of the fear factor, hunting Joel and Ellie with their hearing alone. Stealth is absolutely called for when dealing with these formidable threats, and a nice character touch sees Joel place a protective arm around Ellie if close enough to her behind cover. The general behaviour of NPCs is one area where The Last Of Us is less than perfect, however. Quite often during a tense moment one of the accompanying NPCs will speak a little too loudly or go blundering in to a fight, drawing the attention of ‘infected’. Other times, an NPC will make a loud remark right next to a ‘clicker’ on the hunt and will be completely unheard, while a slight movement from Joel will alert the creatures to his presence. These small niggles (and this is nitpicking in the extreme) do interrupt the atmosphere that the game has so far worked so hard to build – an uncomfortable reminder that this is just a game after all.
As is de rigeur for most games now, the multiplayer mode is perfectly enjoyable, although completely unnecessary. As one of the Hunter or Firefly factions, the aim of the game is to wipe out your opponents to enable your team to scavenge the lion’s share of supplies. It’s fun although rather one dimensional, and one can’t help but wonder whether a few ‘infected’ thrown into the mix would have livened things up. As it is, the multiplayer is a fairly standard team survival shootout.
Back in the main game, when Joel does kill one of the gruesome ‘infected’, the feeling is not one of frivolity or joy. He doesn’t enjoy what he has to do to survive, and The Last Of Us makes sure that each time he has to kill it is as unsettling and grim as possible. Among the gloom however there are some lovely moments of levity and dark humour, well brought to life by the universally excellent voice acting. This is a game that takes itself very seriously, without forgetting that games are meant to be enjoyed. The journey of The Last Of Us is one that will hopefully stay with gamers long after the credits have rolled, serving as a brilliantly brutal meditation on the lengths humanity will go to for survival. The word ‘masterpiece’ is thrown around a lot, and unfortunately The Last Of Us is no masterpiece, but it is possibly the closest any developer has come this generation with a AAA action adventure title. Leave it to Naughty Dog yet again to show the rest how it should be done.