Post-apocalyptic, end of the world settings have been predominant in recent years, the source of a wealth of high impact fiction across a range of media. From The Road, to Fallout, from The Walking Dead to The Passage, there is something about the breakdown of society that appeals to telling human stories. Naughty Dog, after wrapping up Uncharted 2, clearly wanted to take their abundant talents in this darker direction, and have crafted a superlative videogame that showcases the strengths, and some of the weaknesses, that made the Uncharted series so excellent.
The human world has been ravaged by the presence of a fungal parasite, (terrifyingly based on a real world fungal parasite that actually exists in nature, though thankfully limited to affecting insects and arachnids), causing an apocalyptic meltdown of society. Twenty years into this meltdown, the main character of career smuggler Joel, through a series of events largely out of his control, is reluctantly obliged to smuggle and escort a young girl named Ellie out of the ravaged city of Boston, on a journey that will eventually take them halfway across the USA. Joel is a damaged, irascible and morally murky character, and the developing relationship and interplay between himself and his young, headstrong and surprisingly foul-mouthed charge is the core focus of an absorbing, taught and ultimately draining experience.
Famous for their use of motion capture, the team at Naughty Dog’s writing is taken to a level even beyond Uncharted. This is supported by the performances, which are universally, absolutely excellent. Troy Baker is fast become the new Nolan North, and his role as Joel is stellar. It is not just himself and the superb Ashley Johnson as Ellie; every single character they come across is performed to the highest standard, particularly the part of Tess, one of the strongest female characters in a videogame I’ve ever seen. Also deserving a huge mention is the music, a sparse minimalist score, with simple guitar twangs and quiet strings punctuated by stretches of effective silence, complimenting the general sound design superbly. The only criticisms in terms of audio is the repetition of incidental dialogue from human adversaries during confrontations, but this is a small price to pay considering the scope of the game as a whole.
The world Naughty Dog has created is a world away from the breezy, boy’s own adventure style of Nathan Drake’s escapades. Gone are snarky asides, bombastic set pieces and over-the top action. In comes fraught avoidance, sneaking around and fumbling combat of an underpowered protagonist. The huge body count remains however – if there is one thing that links the two games, it’s violence. The Last of Us is an unremittingly brutal world, one of bashed heads, torn flesh and gurgling vocal cords. Joel himself holds no quarter when dishing out punishment to his victims, and finds himself on the receiving end of some of the most horrific death scenes seen since Dead Space if you make a single wrong move.
Despite the grim tone, the game looks positively gorgeous, possibly the finest looking game on current generation technology. The environments are incredibly varied for a game about the apocalypse, and thankfully move away from the burnt out browns of other games of this ilk; the array of areas that Naughty Dog have crafted, from run down cities, to snowy wilderness, add to the sense of pace that reflects the progression of the ever changing, ever developing narrative.
In terms of story beats, the pacing is incredibly masterful. One thing that the Uncharted series got absolutely right was the use of quiet time. Remember the village in the Himalayas in Uncharted 2? Or (in my humble opinion) the even more effective desert sequence in Uncharted 3? The Last of Us is peppered with such moments, that don’t force the player to move on, to drink in the world and take stock, a break from the draining and exhausting conflict that the games offers. The opposite highs are far last spectacular in terms of energy and bombast, but they are equally as exhilarating, though for different reasons. This is a world of struggle, of living on the edge, and of living like rats, in constant fear of the threat of the infected.
These are not zombies. They are, to all intents and purposes, alive, just overcome and controlled by the horrific parasite that mutates them in a variety of ways. The disgusting fungal growths that cover victims perhaps as most horrifically presented in the form of the clicker, the blind infected whose heads have exploded from the inside with growths, and who use sound to find prey. Encounters with these enemies are fraught with tension, as stealth and avoidance are paramount; if one of these gets their hands on you, it’s a one hit kill.
There are also others such as runners, who scream and make as much noise as possible whilst tearing you apart, alerting the rest of their order to you fleshy presence. Then there are the bloaters, huge tanks that throw spore bombs at you. In terms of the variety of infected encountered, that’s about it; this is welcome, as the mix of the three is enough to keep you on your toes, and to dread every time you come across their pained and chilling screams.
Even more troublesome are the human enemies, ranging from groups of independent hunters, forced to band together and use extreme tactics to survive, to the over-zealous military forces trying to keep order in check at all costs. Stealth can also be used against these enemies, but combat is a more viable option, though Joel is no Nathan Drake – gun accuracy is low, switching weapons can be risky, and health drains rapidly.
Adding to this sense of realism is the UI, unobtrusive and reminiscent of Tomb Raider’s minimalist style. Menus are still inescapably presented, but the ways the inventory and crafting menus are accessed and interacted with add tension to proceeding. In a manner snaffled from Dark Souls, should you wish to swap weapons, or create new items, a quick push of the select button causes Joel to reach into his back pack, whilst the game continues. This forces you take stock at opportune moments and replenish, restock and prepare during down time. Even selecting the right weapons takes time in the inventory and can only be unlocked via upgrades.
Yes, there is an RPG-lite upgrade system in The Last of Us, which affects both Joel’s weapon proficiency and his own skills. The latter can be upgraded at any time with the collection and usage of pills, which upgrade the likes of his ability to ‘hear’ enemies at greater range, to use shivs on tougher enemies, or to increase his maximum health. Weapons can be upgrades at sporadic (and rather infrequent) workbenches to increase clip capacity, reload rate and the like. There is nothing earth shattering, but enough of a system is in place to allow you a certain amount of freedom in how you choose to approach the game and it’s various combat encounters.
Unfortunately, it is during these combat encounters that the game loses some of it’s otherwise glittering magnificence. Despite an improvement in the basic mechanics from their previous games, the confrontations sections are what let this otherwise exemplary game down. Combat just doesn’t seem fair, consistent or workable. Yes, Joel is just an ordinary guy, and the controls reflect this, but it just results in a less enjoyable experience. Stealth is meant to be an option, but is also a highly unreliable one. It is a system that doesn’t seem to have clear rules, and despite patiently exploring the options it has to offer, most encounters descend into fights, and the horrific death animations are something you will experience again and again.
Very often, these encounters, both with the infected and with humans, just aren’t fun. If it was Naughty Dog’s intention to make you dread, fear and feel sickened by the prospect and outbreak of violence, then they have succeeded admirably, because that’s the emotion I took away from this game’s enemies encounters the most. Encounters are also stymied by some poor enemy AI and more than a few bugs, which make understanding and learning these rules even more problematic, and assist in lifting the sense of immersion that Naughty Dog otherwise so successfully create.
Naughty Dog seems to want to move away from the simple label of game as much as possible, and create playable experiences that offer much more. Words such as immersive, visceral and emotional are thrown about so haphazardly by developers and publishers alike, but no other game has both striven for and successfully achieved a sense of all three. The studio has always been a very cinematically focused one, and has been associated with a certain overblown type of cinema-style spectacle. Here, they have aimed for a more understated, personal story, against the backdrop of the larger scale, epic, end of the world scenario. This is Naughty Dog at the top of their game, ratcheted up exponentially, showing of all that is good – and bad – about their game design. As a result of some frustrating combat, The Last of Us is most effective during the quieter moments, as well as during the character interactions and developments. When given the freedom and time to explore and drink in the gorgeously realised world, it offers an experience like no other. Sublime for the most part, ridiculous in a relatively few others, it is a game that fittingly closes this generation, and gives hope to the next.
MLG Rating: 9/10 Format: PlayStation 3 Release Date: 14/06/2013
Disclosure: Craig Hallam purchased a copy of The Last of Us. The title was reviewed over the course of 1 week on a PlayStation 3. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.