The Last Of Us – Review
Let’s cut to the chase. The Last Of Us is the best game on PS3. Period! Don’t be so surprised, you only have to look at developer Naughty Dog’s track record this generation to get an idea of the quality of their latest. Having already created the PS3’s two most essential games, the now double-team studio have surpassed themselves for the third time in a row with a game that brings everything they’ve learned from Uncharted, such as the storytelling, the characterisation and those almost next-gen-worthy graphics, to as near perfection as gaming has ever been. Never mind the best game on PS3, this is THE game of the generation.
Okay, so the zombified post-apocalyptic setting and man-escorts-girl-to-safety storyline may not scream originality, a criticism you could just as fairly level at Uncharted but, like those games, The Last Of Us takes inspiration from a number of well-established properties to create a superior whole. No Country For Old Men, The Road, I Am Legend – Naughty Dog have had no qualms in admitting to where they’ve taken their leads from. Grizzled survivor Joel has to guide feisty fourteen year old Ellie across a deceptively-beautiful American wasteland, bringing to mind Ninja Theory’s underrated cult classic Enslaved (funnily enough, that game’s lead designer also worked on this) and, for what is at first unknown reasons, simultaneously protecting her not so innocent childhood from the worst of humanity and fungus-infected crazies. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, and yet it’s probably unlike anything you’ve ever played.
Yes, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking this is just Uncharted with zomboids, but that mentality couldn’t be any further from the truth. Mechanically, it may share more than a few strands of DNA with Nathan Drake’s pulp action-adventures (clicking L3 to look at highlighted points in the scenery is the only device lifted outright, though), but if you approach any situation as the roguish treasure hunter would you’ll be hitting restart many a time, while the tones of the two are at complete opposite ends of the cinematic spectrum. Nathan Drake will perform death-defying stunts, kill hundreds of evil henchman and crack a joke all in his stride. Joel will struggle to take down a lone man let alone a mob of them, patch himself up afterwards and wipe the sweat from his brow. The men you’re killing here aren’t your standard Rent-A-Goon cannon fodder; they’ll fight for their lives, or die trying, and even if they do deserve it you can’t help but feel a little bit guilty having watched the life vanish from their eyes as you choked them to death. Direct confrontation isn’t to be engaged in then, it’s to be avoided.
Suffice it to say, stealth is your friend. That’s not to say that once the bullets start to fly it’s a manual instant restart, because Joel can certainly handle himself in a jam, fisticuffs or otherwise. Always best left as a last resort, you can initiate a punch-up when anyone’s too close for comfort. He’ll use his fists if he has to, but it’s always best to arm him with a 2×4 or metal pipe for faster and more efficient killing. Failing that, you might witness one of several contextual takedowns, Joel smashing faces on cupboards, shelves or anything else in touching distance. Choose to fight fire with fire and it’s just as nasty. The game’s concise selection of guns erupt with a thunderous crack leading to an immediately-devastating wallop on the target, even if the aiming doesn’t quite feel as weighty as perhaps it should (bump the sensitivity down a couple of notches for the best result). This is no stop-and-pop cover-shooter, though – there’s no sticky cover system, no regenerating health, and no near-infinite supply of bullets.
You’ll find more ammo in a single chapter of Dead Space 3 than you will in all 17 hours of The Last Of Us, and with a deliberate off-putting sway to Joel’s aiming (until steadied with supplements, that is) there’s even more reason for keeping an itchy trigger finger under control. Luckily, the game’s stealth systems are more than strong enough to carry you through. When crouched, Joel will instinctively reach out and press himself up against cover, much like rebooted Lara Croft, allowing more mobility to move around the spacious environments. Often, levels are wider and denser than anything you’ve seen in Uncharted so far, occasionally bringing a welcome addition of verticality too, so there’s room to lose your would-be pursuers with some light-footed quick thinking. If you do get spotted, a subtle sound effect acts as an early warning system; you only have to break line of sight and enemies will reassess the situation and begin hunting for you just as you start hunting them – hunters and hunted are one and the same in this world. It’s less of a shoot-em-up and more of a hide-and-seek-em-up, demonstrated masterfully during a memorable late game boss battle of sorts.
Something Naughty Dog nails is the feeling that things can go wrong at any second. It’s almost unavoidable to get jumped at some point, a solitary man you’d forgotten about or weren’t even aware of having snuck behind you to bloody your nose. But don’t forget you can just as capably turn the tables back in your favour, as already cited. Plus, being unexpectedly sprung upon is an important lesson to never let it happen again. Providing they’re within a certain radius, through Listen mode you can keep tabs on enemy whereabouts. Cynics will be quick to call it a Detective Vision knockoff, but Listen mode is a genuinely valuable tool, not shoehorned in simply because it’s fashionable. Holding down R2 turns the screen monochrome as Joel listens out for the nearby pitter-patter of footsteps, marking an outline of the perpetrator through solid walls. This is no game breaker, though. It is unlimited, but it is by no means a “win” button. Its uses are practical, not there to cover up lazy design choices, of which there are none, by the way.
Of course, it’s not just the sound of feet hitting the floor that you’ll need to listen out for, oh no. By far the worst sound in the game is a noise that’ll haunt you for months; a noise which, when heard, means it’s either time to be very still and quiet, or run for your life. You see the infection that has brought mankind to its knees, a class of Ophiocordyceps unilateralis fungus that has, until now, only ever affected insects (David Attenborough fans will likely have seen it in action as part of the BBC series Planet Earth, itself the jumping off point of The Last Of Us’ creatives), attacks the host’s brain and turns them into mindless, repulsive and lethal killing machines.
There are three primary stages of infection, with a fourth only served up for special occasions. Runners are stage one, who don’t appear to show any physical signs of infection (except of course, you know, the bite marks), are usually found in packs and, as their name suggests, will sprint after their pray. Stage two are the Stalkers – quick and agile, these guys will hide behind cover in an attempt to ambush you, while the fungal growths protruding from their faces makes them distinguishable from the Runners. And then we have stage three…
Clickers. After prolonged infection, the fungus will violently burst from the brain with brute force, digging its way through the mouth, nostrils and eye sockets, rendering the host blind. Lucky for them, and unlucky for us, their hearing is impeccable, using clicking noises as echolocation to track you down, so when you hear that excruciatingly croaky clickety-click-click, you know they’re looking for you. Soft and slow movements are the order of the day here, because if you let one of these Mushroom Men catch you it’s game over. Death is quick yet far from painless; the screen suddenly cutting to black the instant you see Joel’s neck get ripped out. And that isn’t even the worst death animation! Let’s just say, when you encounter one of the bigger boys, it’s worth just once to let them catch you.
With Clickers meaning instadeath, there was always the danger it could bring the game down. Not so. They’re used economically, making appearances at the right moments and never in too large a number at a time. Plus, their disfigured nature means they’re pretty slow movers, but that’s no reason to underestimate them, especially when you’re dealing with Runners and Stalkers as well. It takes a good couple of headshots to bring a Clicker down, or a few almighty swings of a melee weapon when in open combat. Otherwise, to take them down silently you have no other option but to use a shiv. The problem is you can only carry three at a time and, until you learn to craft them better, they’re a one-use-only tool. Shivs are a quick-and-quiet means of killing all enemy variants, not just Clickers, but they’re also used to force open otherwise-inaccessible doors where you might find some much-needed supplies. Weighing up the odds as to whether taking out a Clicker is better than saving a shiv for a potentially more urgent or worthwhile use later on is a tough mental dilemma.
Surprisingly, dealing with lower-level infected can at times be even more complicated and daunting than Clickers. Lest you forget, Runners and Stalkers still have the use of their eyes, so the slow and silent tactics will only get you so far. Throwing bricks and bottles scattered around the environment as a distraction will work most of the time but can create a bottleneck if you’re not careful. As with humans, using Listen mode to spot a target who has unwisely strayed afar and moving in for a silent takedown is often the way to go. But Joel’s no superhuman, and he’ll take up to three times longer than Sam Fisher, James Bond or Nathan Drake would to strangle someone, so there’s always the risk of being caught in the act. Regardless, whether you’re fighting non-infected or not, going loud or staying hidden, combat is dangerously intimate, brutally bloody, and uncomfortably unnerving. It’s hand-sweatingly gripping stuff.
Equally gripping is the story. Again, it’s not the most original, but Naughty Dog’s storytelling is unparalleled not just in gaming, but perhaps the wider media as a whole. Just as you think it’s descending into cliché it’ll subvert your expectations, constantly surprising and amazing you. You’ll play for hours on end simply because you want to know what happens next, where you will go, and what’s going to happen to these characters you’re so emotionally invested in. By the story’s midway point you’ll feel more for Joel and Ellie than you did for Nathan Drake and co after three entire games. Speaking as an Uncharted worshiper, that’s one heck of an achievement.
Troy Baker (heard earlier this year as BioShock Infinite’s Booker DeWitt) outdoes himself as Joel, while relative newcomer Ashley Johnson is an instant hit as Ellie, and watching their surrogate father-daughter relationship build stronger and stronger as the story unfolds is a heart-warming, and sometimes heart-breaking, delight. Indeed, some of the game’s best moments are the ones when you’re not running for your lives, all of which are just too damned good to spoil here. It’s a another testament to Naughty Dog’s talent that they can weave so many quieter moments in between such intense stints of high-intensity action and suspense.
The Hollywood-trumping script provides some well-timed and properly laugh out loud bouts of humour, with a few intentionally-bad jokes as well, only to seamlessly switch back into the rightfully 18 rated violence a minute later. Then there are the stories you discover from the game’s assortment of collectible, expanding your understanding and knowledge of the world in a more meaningful and effective way. Even if you weren’t looting every square inch in search of resources for the unobtrusive crafting system it would be worth a look just to find more of these, along with the myriad of Easter Eggs.
Naughty Dog are also a dab hand at pushing the PS3 to its absolute limit. Early next-gen games may not even be able to match this, which begs the question as to what Naughty Dog are capable of on PS4? You often hear people gushing over how incredibly detailed certain games are, but The Last Of Us puts them all to shame. From the opening minutes of the surprise prologue to navigating a ravaged and booby-trapped suburbia in a homage to Half-Life 2’s Ravenholm, it’s never anything short than a visual feast for the eyes. The season spanning storyline gives Naughty Dog’s art team plenty of scope to stretch their creative muscles, while Oscar winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla’s poignant soundtrack is just as praiseworthy.
It’s the most perfect game there’s ever been in my opinion, but is it without fault? Not quite. Post prologue, the first hour or two may prove to be a tad on the slow side for some, while the ending is likely to split opinion down the middle. The biggest culprits are some rare immersion breakers, though, which in a game such as this would be almost unforgivable. Almost, because even if Ellie and other AI companions may stamp their feet and speak too loudly, unbeknownst to nearby Clickers, or even blatantly walk through an enemy’s line of sight without raising suspicion, it never detracts from the sky-high levels of tension you feel as a player.
And then there’s the tacked on multiplayer which nobody wan… wait a minute, it’s actually not half bad. Maybe it’s not enough to keep you away from your online favourites, but a marginally-addictive metagame means it may be worth a look from time to time. Entitled ‘Factions’, it sees you create a clan of survivors and gradually expand that clan through progression. Kills, assists, revives, looting and crafting will all net you points, and at the end of each match they’re converted into supplies, ultimately bringing more numbers to your group. Two modes and seven maps means things get old sharpish, but at least it’s not the uninspired Horde mode we all feared.
But The Last Of Us won’t be remembered as the quintessential story driven game of its time for its better than expected if inessential multiplayer. It will be remembered for its mature treatment towards violence, for its ability to be more than another zombie apocalypse, and for its emotionally charged storyline with characters you deeply care about. It will be remembered as another masterclass in storytelling from one of gaming’s top studios for years to come, and it’s almost incomprehensible it’ll ever be topped. Naughty Dog, prove us wrong.Pros
- Characters you’ll love forever
- Industry leading storytelling
- Palm sweating combat, no matter what or how you’re fighting
- Hollywood-beating script and acting
- Looks to die for
- Oh, there’s even a non-annoying use of the Sixaxis
- Slightly slow start
- Some immersion breakers
- Ending won’t please everyone
The Last Of Us is a generation-defining masterpiece, an instant classic, an unforgettable experience. It’s a technical triumph, a visual tour de force, a mesmerising piece of interactive entertainment. Minor quibbles aside, there are only great things to say about The Last Of Us. Few games ever have or likely ever will have the same impact on you as this. Haunting. Engaging. Amazing. It redefines expectations as to what games can be, what they can do, and as we transition from one generation to another everyone needs to up their game.
Last five articles by Tim
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- Games Of Future Past
- Best of 2014 - The Survival of Horror