Pros - Gripping and emotional story, stunning visuals and audio
Cons - Could have been scarier in places, AI is glitchy
Naughty Dog sure know their way around a third person action game, as it has pretty much been their bread and butter for the past few years. With their most recent success coming in the form of the Uncharted franchise. This was of the main things that drew me to their latest offering, The Last of Us, available for Playstation 3. Another reason why I picked up a copy was the fact that I love anything post-apocalyptic, but very few games in this genre manage to show the desperate struggle to survive that would accompany the end of the world as we know it. One thing that I was worried about when I picked up my controller was that The Last of Us wouldn’t be able to live up to the hype that had preceded it’s release, we were treated to a lot of promotional material and usually the final product doesn’t live up to our expectations. With The Last of Us, however, I believe it deserved even more hype.
The Last of Us begins just before the event that pretty much wipes out the human race. We start off controlling Sarah (the daughter of the game’s main protagonist, Joel) as she looks for her Dad. After meeting up with Joel and his brother Tommy, the trio of survivors try to make it out of the city that is now swarming with the infected, who have a virus that makes them act aggressive towards the non infected and pass on the virus through biting them. This part of the game explains what happened during the event that changed the world, which is a nice touch as we get to see this first hand rather than just being told about it through character dialog as you journey through the game. After a very emotional cut scene (get your tissues at the ready), we jump forward 20 years to the Boston quarantine zone. Joel is now a smuggler, and along with his friend Tess, is trying to find a man called Robert, who sold guns that were promised to them. After a violent confrontation with Robert and his men, Joel and Tess find out that he sold their hardware to a resistance group known as the Fireflies. The leader of the Fireflies, Marlene, offers them a deal, sneak a teenage girl, Ellie, out of the city and she will give them double the weapon cache that Robert promised them. What could possibly go wrong?
The story is one of the biggest highlights of this game. When first meeting, Joel is very abrupt with Ellie, seeing her as a job rather than a person, but as the game continues you see a bond start to grow between the two and it becomes apparent that Joel will do anything to keep Ellie safe, and vice versa. The main premise is nothing that we haven’t seen before, a girl tries to break down the emotional walls of her companion, which he has put up after years of loss and pain. What The Last of Us does differently though is that we 100% believe in their bond. We don’t just know that they care for each other because we are told through cut-scenes and dialect, you can feel them growing closer and by the end of the story you too will feel like you have become emotionally attached to the protagonists as well.
Using a basic but effective control system, which can be mastered in a matter of minutes, is a great move by Naughty Dog as you will often find yourself surrounded by enemies and will have to react quickly if you want to survive. One aspect that is used repeatedly is the covering system – rather than having to hold a button, like in similar games, crouching behind an object results in Joel automatically pressing himself against it. This is a great help during fire fights or when planning a stealth take down, as you will already have enough to deal with, without having to keep a finger constantly pressed down on a shoulder button, and being that you will spend a lot of you gaming experience in this position, your finger will be grateful of this little luxury as well. This unique feature is used to show just how important Ellie’s survival is to Joel and how much she looks to him for safety - when entering cover mode Ellie will move in between Joel and the item you are taking shelter behind, this is a really subtle way to show their connection, one that I have never seen in a video game before.
Another stand out feature is the enemy detection system, which you will be happy of when surrounded by infected. Like most of us out there, Joel doesn’t have a built-in radar system that lets him know when there is someone wandering around a mile away, what he does have though is a pretty good set of ears. Joel can crouch down and listen out for any potential threats in the nearby area, which can be an absolute necessity when there isn’t much light and you want to find the safest route out of your current predicament. However, if your enemies aren’t moving or talking/groaning then you wont be able to pick them up, which means that Joel’s ‘sonar’ hearing is only meant to be used as an aid, and you will still need to keep your wits about you. The sonar can be upgraded, along with some other abilities, by collecting pills and spending them on what you wish to improve. The upgrading aspect doesn’t go in to as much detail as other games, but it is more than enough for The Last of Us.
As you have probably worked out by now, Joel knows what he is doing out there, it’s the other people in the game that don’t really have a clue. It is of course a good thing that your companions take care of themselves as you will have enough to deal with, but it appears that they have next to no awareness of their environment. In a section during the game where you will be walking through a graveyard full with a group of infected called “Clickers” (that make a clicking noise as a kind of bat like sonar due to being blind), I was sneaking past, trying my best to survive another day, when I get to a locked gate, and one of my companions pipes up with “I have a key to that gate” and charges straight over to me walking in to 2 Clickers in the process, neither of which reacted. It seems like the developers spent all this time making sure that Joel was taken care of in terms of environmental awareness and had totally forgotten about everyone else. This doesn’t really take much away from the game as you will spend most of the time more concerned with what you are doing to notice what everyone else is up to, but when you do notice it, it really feels like a “What the hell was that?!” moment.
One area that The Last of Us doesn’t slip up on in any way is in the visual department as the world you journey across has been beautifully brought to life. Travelling through cities that are full of derelict buildings, the type of thing that you would expect from a city that has been left to ruin over the 20 years, however, what Naughty Dog have done differently to a lot of other post-apocalyptic titles on the market, is showing that nature has started to re-claim the cities. At times you are venturing through a building and will notice trees and other foliage creeping through the cracks to reclaim what was their’s in the first place. Joel and Ellie will sometimes take a more scenic route which are also stunning to behold, they feel peaceful and tranquil, where as the city puts you on edge, as you are totally unaware of what may be lurking around the corner. Not only have the environments been beautifully crafted, the characters themselves have also been painstakingly brought to life. Usually the main characters are the only ones that get beautifully rendered, but here, all characters you encounter have a unique feel to them. The only time that you will see character repetition is meeting the infected and guards that you will encounter, but being that there are so many and that you only see them for a few seconds it is totally forgivable, as most people aren’t going to be sarcastically thinking “Wow never seen this guy before” whilst sticking a shiv in his neck.
Audio is also wonderfully used to set the mood of the desperation. Entering a building and hearing the distinctive clicking of the infected waiting to attack, or the voices of nearby hunters, you then look for somewhere to hide. Music also plays a massive part portraying how the characters are feeling in a subtle way, simply as background music. Brilliant voice acting to fully brings the characters to life when the voice actors Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson (who lend their voicing talents to flesh out Joel and Ellie respectively) manage to let us know exactly what their characters are feeling, which can be quite rare in video games.
The only way that Naughty Dog could have made The Last of Us a better title (which is a big ask as its close to video game perfection) are the parts in the dark surrounded by clickers could have been a little scarier – there could have been something more there to make panic really set in whenever you are in this situation. If you have played the game on the survivor setting could you let me know in the comments section below if you fear increases with the level of difficulty.
This title is as close to gaming perfection than any other video game I have played before (and that’s a lot) and even with the set backs it won’t ruin your experience and make you want to put down the controller. The only reason that it should be over looked is if the world really does come to an end, but even then I would still recommend having a quick adventure with Joel and Ellie, your family will be able to fight off looters for a couple of hours without you.