It feels truly bizarre to say, in the dying months of this console generation, we’ve received some of the best of what this generation has to offer in terms of storytelling. Not so long ago, our esteemed editor Stephen Farrelly was singing the praises of BioShock Infinite
—a game that merged narrative and gameplay mechanics in a haunting way—and now it’s my turn to talk about how The Last of Us, like Infinite before it, has the potential to stay with you long after the credits have rolled; albeit, in a universe that feels worlds apart from the latest BioShock game, and yet intrinsically linked in terms of the narrative impact.
Naughty Dog is, of course, no stranger to developing games with strong characters, compelling plots and addictive gameplay mechanics all thrown together in a blender for Uncharted results. But as deserving as the Uncharted series is of praise—particularly in terms of cinematic gameplay—it feels like training wheels in comparison to the narrative and characterisation achievements of The Last of Us. If you’re a sucker for engaging characters and engrossing storylines, The Last of Us boasts one of the best experiences to date. But it’s also so much more than that.
The Last of Us is a third-person game that follows the post-apocalyptic plight of Joel and the precious cargo he needs to protect, Ellie. Joel has to escort Ellie across an American landscape that’s overrun with nature, ruthless humans and zombie-like infected people that are hungry for flesh. If you imagine The Road in game form, you’re on the right path. Naughty Dog has claimed that it is seeking to create a new sub-genre in this title—survival-action—and it doesn’t take too long to see the influences of survival-horror and third-person action titles, all the while still managing to play like it’s not a spin-off from the similarly viewed Uncharted series.
The survival aspects are there in terms of an emphasis on scavenging to find various items around the game world that can be used to make a handful of offensive and defensive weapons. Cleverly, there’s a crossover of ingredients, meaning that if you, say, want to build a Molotov cocktail, you’re doing so at the expense of building a life-saving medkit, and vice versa. The action component comes into it, though, when approaching features such as the torch that never runs out of batteries (even if you do have to occasionally shake your controller to fix a wonky beam). There are, also, parts scattered around the world that can be found to upgrade your backpack and weapons at workbenches, along with various forms of medical supplies to permanently affect things such as health, weapon sway and crafting duration.
This latter point is an interesting consideration given the reality that all crafting, healing and switching weapon slots is done in real time. What this does is add a satisfying tactical layer to any encounter, given that careful planning can quickly go out the window if you’re spotted by an enemy, or switching from stealthy to aggressive weapons on the fly. There are no hard-fail situations in The Last of Us, though, meaning Naughty Dog is actively encouraging you to experiment with stealth and aggression, along with the fertile grey area in between the two poles. Ammunition can be scarce, and fully armed foes refuse to drop usable ammo a lot of the time, but this isn’t quite I Am Alive in terms of scarcity of munitions.
But even the aforementioned careful planning is a necessary tactic for any encounter, particularly if you’re hoping to not alert enemies to your presence. Human (“hunters”, as they’re known) are a deadly threat because they work in groups and carry weapons, often flanking and calling out orders and warnings to each other as they hunt you down. Better still, their leaders are so much more than cardboard baddies, and prove to be fully fleshed-out characters that are more human than moustache-twirling evil archetypes.
As challenging as these human encounters can become, particularly for aggressive play styles, they pale in comparison to the often-horrifying moments of encountering infected foes. In a unique spin on the zombie zeitgeist, infected foes have a nasty fungal infection which, the longer they have been infected, results in different classes of enemy. At their most basic form, the infected are called Runners and, as the name suggests, sprint at you in a 28 Days Later-type fashion that makes fast aiming difficult—particularly in earlier sections of the game with basic weapons—and really adds to the tension of these encounters. Considering you have to aim before shooting—no Gears of War blind-firing here—this makes for edge-of-your-seat action. They’ll quite often bash into you and throw your aim, or grapple with you which can quickly leave you surrounded.
You can bolt from these encounters in the hopes of breaking line of sight, which will let you attempt to stalk your foes again, but this tactic is best used against human foes and isn’t as effective against sprinting infected. Clickers are by far the most terrifying addition, whose ominous namesake clicking sounds are used in a sonar fashion to detect your movement and also flag a challenging encounter before you even see them.
This is where Joel’s listening ability is most effective: a gameplay mechanic that lets you pull the right trigger to have a visualisation of what Joel can hear, even through walls. This mechanic can be upgraded, but can also be deceptive against human foes who quite often lay in wait and, thus, don’t show up in the visual depiction of enemies in the area who are making sound.
There are a couple of other enemy types that you encounter but, suffice it to say, in the latter levels of the game, it’s the areas that combine all infected types that are really challenging if you attempt a stealthy incursion. It’s not all about combat, though, as there’s a healthy dose of (minimally) challenging problem solving and very light platforming. These quieter moments are fantastic excuses for exploring this rich world, discovering what few supplies remain in the world that haven’t been picked up by other survivors and even chatting with Ellie and the other companions you sporadically meet in the course of your journey. Considering the boosts to Naughty Dog’s graphics engine, the facial animation adds a whole new level of believability, too, particularly during cinematics.
Naughty Dog also does a stellar job of ensuring that The Last of Us doesn’t feel like an elongated escort mission, and Ellie is far from your average damsel in distress. Despite her youth, her competency in dangerous situations is second only to her penchant for dropping f-bombs in such a way that you quickly fall in love with her character. In combat, she even collects loose bottles or bricks to throw at foes that often get too close for comfort, buying precious seconds to scamper away or land a deadly one-hit takedown with a viciously modified baseball bat. She even calls out enemy positions: specifically, enemies who may have gotten the drop on you and aren’t currently on your screen. This saved my life on more than one occasion.
Joel, on the other hand, should be a harder character to like given he is the poster boy for ultimate anti-hero, but you really feel for his plight in ways that would spoil things to explore further. The ending of the game is so pitch perfect yet so defiant of narrative norms that it will stay with you long after the credits have rolled.
With so much that Naughty Dog gets right, it’s hard not to feel a strong level of knee-jerk negativity to the sporadic appearance of problems, but mainly because they break the intense levels of immersion that persist throughout the campaign. The most notable detractor is the long loading times when you start up the game and first load a mission. These all but fade into the background once you’re up and going, much like the occasional noticeable appearance of graphics rendering, but it does suck when you just want to get back to that beautiful immersive experience.
While odd clipping problems and particular invisible walls are forgivable, the various AI fails are harder to excuse. Enemies seemingly treat your companions as ghosts, not seeing them in sneaking situations, which means that you’re not screaming at friendly AI for giving away your position, but it does make their presence feel hollow in these instances. There were even moments when I was directly in front of an enemy and remained unseen, or had a torch on nearby human foes who were still oblivious to my presence. When the enemy AI is in full swing, though, they truly are a force to be reckoned with, which is why these disappointments ring louder than they should.
All of these detractors pale in comparison to the overall achievement that is The Last of Us and, specifically, the wholly immersive narrative experience that’s dripping with atmosphere and character connectivity from the get-go. Unfortunately, multiplayer was unavailable at the time of review to test out, but even it looks like it will expand on the addictive core gameplay mechanics of the campaign.
When all is said and done, my 14 hours with The Last of Us (a relatively long experience for an action title), left me utterly satisfied with how the game played out. As the credits rolled, I found myself missing my time with Joel and Ellie, yet completely comfortable with the thought that Naughty Dog has forged a new IP where there doesn’t need to be The Last of Us 2. If there was, though, it would still be an exciting prospect, and it’s not often that you get to want more of an IP all the while being wholly satisfied if there’s never another game in the series.