It’s nice to see a developer attempt to create something outside its comfort zone. That is probably how Naughty Dog felt when it started work on The Last of Us. It’s certainly very different to the Uncharted series.
It all starts off with a slightly open window, in the Main Menu, that almost seems like an invitation to start playing. A slow music track plays in the background. It’s sure to make anyone feel isolated from the world. Perhaps even abandoned.
This window acts as a pathway to a world where humanity has almost been wiped out of existence. An infection caused by a parasite with a rather long name has swiftly infected most of the population. The remaining humans (most of them) now live within quarantine zones in fear of these mutated creatures.
The story takes place 20 years after the initial outbreak and follows the life of survivor Joel. It’s revealed that Joel is a smuggler who works together with his partner Tess. His whole life changes when he is given the task of smuggling fourteen year old Ellie across the country.
It’s this quest that continues to move the story forward. At first Ellie and Joel don’t exactly get along. However, they soon rely on each other and manage to work together as an efficient team. It’s their desire to survive that will make players eager to continue playing for hours.
Initially, it may seem like there isn’t much of a challenge. But the reason for this is that, like Joel eventually trains Ellie in how to protect herself, so do the developers to players. It’s easy to assume that playing through is a breeze after defeating the initial thugs found in the quarantine zone.
Anyone who thinks so is in for a shock when faced with the first infected human. There are various mutation stages and each brings a new challenge with it. Perhaps the most menacing of these is the Clicker. This disturbing creature uses sound to find survivors (blind due to infection) and can kill them with one bite. The Last of Us certainly doesn’t go easy on anyone who feels that going around carelessly shooting guns is the way forward.
Infected will overwhelm Joel and it will end up in a rather brutal death. Naughty Dog isn’t afraid of showing death on-screen – regardless of the victim’s age. Sometimes Ellie dies and the camera will literally zoom in on her being killed. It’s a tough love approach but one that will ensure players can face some of the grim challenges ahead.
Specially when faced with large groups of infected (or even humans later on). It’s certainly no laughing matter and it will require efficient use of every resource available. It’s often best to take on large groups by quietly killing each one.
This is possible thanks to an ability that makes it possible to know where enemies are. Yet again, this is done by listening carefully to any movements and estimating where enemies are. It will result in faint outlines appearing for any nearby enemies that make even the slightest noise.
Ammo and any of the more powerful makeshift explosives earned later on are limited. Resources are naturally scarce in a world where manufacturing has pretty much ceased to exist. So, it’s necessary to scavenge for items that Joel and Ellie can use to make items, such as health packs.
This is all done quickly in real time and makes it all the more thrilling to create items whilst dealing with enemies. In fact, most actions take place in real time and it makes a huge difference to how players approach different situations.
Given the setting, it’s no surprise that guns are the main focus of fighting. Joel eventually has an impressive arsenal at his disposal. But what counts is the ammo and that is obviously limited. What is so fascinating about combat is that there is more than one way to deal with enemies. It’s possible to grab less conventional weapons like pipes to hit enemies with. Silently approaching enemies from behind gives the option to take them out.
Shivs (makeshift knifes) have multiple uses such as opening up some locked doors. It’s one of the items that has limited use before it breaks. It makes the player think carefully before making use of such items. This is the true survival experience because there are times when characters must make the most of what little resources they have.
Certain items found throughout are also used towards upgrades for weapons and stats like health boosts. This is a good idea since it makes it more feasible to take on the increasingly aggressive enemies found.
The sections where the characters are fighting for their lives are intense. There is not a moment where it doesn’t feel like they are outnumbered or in impossible situations. Fortunately, all the tools available work exceptionally well. Using bricks and bottles found on the floor also act as good distractions to separate enemies, and essentially take them out one by one.
It’s impossible to not want to explore the many locations that Joel and Ellie travel through. The level of detail is nothing short of impressive. At the same time it’s also impossible not to fear what dangers may lurk ahead.
New game mechanics are constantly introduced to ensure that travelling through new locations doesn’t get repetitive. What is so wonderful is the fact that both work together to get through obstacles in the way. Sometimes Joel has to give Ellie a boost, so she can then throw down a ladder or any object that can help him get up. It never feels like a chore to get both of them through the many obstacles in their path.
It feels overwhelmingly sad to explore the empty streets and buildings of the once densely populated cities. Yet, it’s also these places that often provide the best views. Whole buildings covered in greenery or wild animals running around. It’s almost possible to forget the deadly dangers that lurk near, when faced with such views.
The various locations are designed with exploration in mind. There are multiple paths to see and players will surely like the fact that everything feels new and exciting.
It probably helps that Ellie feels the same way about the places she gets to see. She often engages Joel in conversation about the most random of topics. It’s a good idea to pair up two characters with such different backgrounds. Joel who knows what life was like before and has done unimaginable acts to survive and Ellie who is used to it, but is still blissfully unaware of the extreme lengths some will go to survive.
As a character, Ellie is very capable of holding her own. She also becomes more useful in combat as the story progresses. It’s touching to witness her growth from a sheltered teenager to someone forced to grow up in order to stay alive. Yet, she has many qualities that other survivors have long lost.
Initially, fighting humans isn’t as exciting as when fighting the infected. Specially as they fight in a more logical way. In comparison, the infected do not hold back and that is perhaps what makes them so terrifying. But this changes over the course of the story as the duo find out what extreme situations can do to humanity.
It’s an impressive feat that playing through the story with another character still feels frightening. There are also sections where they get separated. It’s absolutely terrifying to try and get through them without the comfort of Ellie’s voice or even humming.
It’s fitting that a video-game about the fall of humanity has a sombre soundtrack. Each music track fits right in with whatever scene it is being played in.
There is no holding back when it comes to the story. This is a tale of mankind in its darkest moment. There are times when it will feel brutal and savage. It will make you care about the characters and worry about them. It’s an unforgeable tale that feels just as compelling as finding out more about the disaster that wiped out most of humanity.
There are collectibles that give brief insights of what life has been like over the last 20 years. The heartbreaking stories of many who lost their loved ones. Lots of extra information that will provide answers to questions, like how humans reacted to the outbreak and estimates of how many remain alive.
Frankly, it’s not an easy game(even on easy!) for those not used to its tough love approach, but it’s one that is worth the pain. Some of the topics brought up will remain on the brain long(no pun intended) after it is finished and it’s designed to make players curious to play it again to find out everything it has to offer
There is also a multiplayer section called Factions, where two of the main groups are fighting for resources and territory. It certainly seems promising with two modes (Survivors and Supply Raid) to play.. The goal is to pick a side and try to survive (attempt to keep survivors alive each day) for a specified amount of time. The maps are quite big and the modes felt a lot like death matches. It’s a good addition for those inclined to try it. However, the real meat of the game is the story and that is what really matters.
The infected are the reason this game exists but it’s the two characters that make this so special. It’s a tragic outlook of a doomed civilisation that has been forcefully removed from their homes. It’s not only one of the best titles out this year but perhaps this generation.
Proof that Sony is committed to supporting high quality gaming and an stellar effort from Naughty Dog. It’s fantastic to play through the story told in The Last of Us. Easily one of the best PlayStation 3 releases and one that shows high budget video-games can also provide meaningful experiences.