Twenty years have passed since an infection started turning people into mindless monsters and in that time the world has changed significantly. This is the world that the characters of the Last of Us inhabit; it is an unforgiving and cruel world with little hope for a better future. Needless to say the atmosphere of Naughty Dogs latest is a far cry from their celebrated Uncharted series, but that doesn’t stop it from being just as brilliant.
Gone is the care free globetrotting action and humour of Nathan Drake’s trilogy, this time the stakes are higher but the tone is much more personal and subdued. One carry over is Naughty Dog’s talent for excellent gameplay and impressive story telling though. Both these parts are rather distinct from the developer’s previous titles however, but the quality is just as high. In many ways these aspects have matured and have become more harmonious, there is no longer a large gap between story and gameplay as the two complement each other to create one cohesive experience.
In every aspect the Last of Us is truly impressive; it’s beautiful to look at, fantastic to play and even sounds superb. It’s a landmark achievement that is only lessened by a few missteps and issues, and is above all a game you can’t afford to miss.
The story of the Last of Us focuses on the journey of two characters in this hellish setting. The conceit being that the player character Joel has, due to circumstances I won’t reveal here, been charged with the mission of smuggling a fourteen year old girl (named Ellie) across the United States for the good of humanity.
Put this way things sound rather formulaic and clichéd, but this is no way the case. Protagonists Joel and Ellie are archetypal to a certain extent, but their most prominent characteristic is their realism. The two protagonists are two of the finest characters to exist in any game, their standout feature being their consistency.
Both characters have arcs which make perfect sense and every action they take and every word they speak makes sense according to their set motivations. Put plainly, both characters are effortlessly realistic and feel wholly genuine. Both characters are also incredibly interesting and have very different outlooks, it’s a standard odd couple set up but the inevitable bonding between them is well paced and doesn’t fit neatly into what you would expect from this genre. It’s not a typical tale of two different people who find some common ground and learn to get on, the two characters definitely find something in each other but it’s never straightforward or wholly simple.
These are complex and fleshed out characters that don’t fit neatly into boxes. Ellie has never known the world to be any different and behaves thusly, her actions and her maturity make sense for somebody with this background but there is still a child there. She embodies hope and innocence as well as reflecting the corrupting influence of this desolate world, and is truly interesting because of this. Joel is rather different, he is not your normal video game protagonist, plot details may have placed him at the head of a mission to save humanity but such a goal isn’t his main interest. He is defined by past trauma, a broken man who has achieved his survival by any means necessary and one who places his own needs before those of others.
The plot takes this unlikely pair in many interesting directions as it spans over a year’s journey filled with landmark events and memorable moments. The game weighs in at up to fifteen hours, and to a great extent deserves this length. It’s a pleasure to spend this amount of time with the cast as their arcs manage to effectively cover the entire period. Though some gameplay sections feel a bit padded the story just doesn’t, some bits are slow or meandering but this is always purposeful.
This approach helps to set the tone and build up characters, there are twists and turns and false climaxes but everything falls into place when viewed as a whole. This all ends in a thought-provoking and perfectly crafted ending that makes perfect sense within confines of the game and its characters. The story and characters always go where they need to go, this is not to say that the plot and the players in it are predictable (far from it), they merely make sense and every new event fits perfectly as a piece in the larger picture that is the Last of Us.
Of course these superb characters and this unparalleled story telling is all underpinned by gameplay. It’s easy to talk about the Last of Us like it’s a text to be analysed, focusing purely on atmosphere, characters and story while neglecting to mention the parts where it is fundamentally a video game. To do so would be to miss out on a large part of the experience though, and to forget the part which makes the whole experience work.
Make no mistake, the Last of Us is a video game and that is why it is so effective and that is why it works. The gameplay is not a distraction between short films; it is the core part which makes those short films work. You could describe the game as third person shooter, but this doesn’t quite encompass everything about the game, above all else the Last of Us is a survival game and this is highlighted in gameplay as well as in cutscenes.
The world is tough in this game, and the gameplay is equally tough. Perhaps the most admirable part about the game is quite how neatly combat encounters and gameplay segments match up with non-interactive story segments.
The world and characters in the Last of Us are for the most part the same in cutscenes as they are in gameplay, and this is a claim you can make about few games. Enemy encounters are tough, tense and stressful in the way the story demands them to be and though certain game conventions can get in the way, all of these foibles are ultimately excusable.
This isn’t a game you can just shoot your way through, you have to play smartly and you have to think on your feet. The tools at your disposal are a lot more complex than mere aiming and shooting, there is resource scavenging, crafting, stealth and limited melee combat. All of these are not just viable options, they work together as the best way to survive, and using everything at your disposal makes the game feel incredibly flexible and is by far the best way to play.
Stealth is a viable option, but stealth isn’t always an option, sometimes you will have to kill to progress. This may not always make sense at the time, but it makes sense in regard to the character you are playing as and the world you inhabit. The world is dark, gritty and most of all violent, to survive in it you have to match it and this point is hammered home by the games combat.
Combat in the Last of Us is unapologetically brutal, but it isn’t gratuitous. The world is in a sorry state, conventional weaponry is hard to come by (though you still build and maintain an impressive arsenal) and brutal tactics must be adopted in order to survive.
Bricks, planks of wood, bottles and bits of pipe are as handy as any gun, and you will use them just as frequently. The story goes out of its way to highlight the fact that we do what we can to get by, victory is achieved by the skin of our teeth and we must rely on what we have. This is echoed in combat scenarios as battles often become frantic and desperate as you have to change tactics on the fly, and rather than detracting this actually adds to the experience.
Many games offer numerous ways to approach a scenario but usually only have one in mind, and don’t encourage deviation. Games like Dishonored allow you to be silent or openly violent, but you are encouraged to do just the one and not make mistakes by the game’s story and by the way it rewards the player. In so many games failing at stealth feels like a failure in-game, Solid Snake is supposedly the best around but keeps getting rumbled by guards and security cameras if you don’t get things just right.
You can make your way through these games in this fashion, but doing so feels wrong. In the Last of Us that just isn’t the case. Once again the link between story and gameplay saves this and helps to make the overall package so much more impressive. An encounter will often start out promising and go downhill sharply, you will silently take out or avoid the first few combatants, but get caught out by a well placed foe and have to go on the offensive.
Ammo isn’t overly scarce but it is purposefully limited to make pure shooting never a realistic option, and to make it so you can’t just rely on one approach. This means when things get hairy things get very interesting, a clean combat section soon turns into one where you run off to desperately craft first aid kits to keep you alive while you flit between weapons in order to ultimately achieve your aim in an effective but desperate fashion. The improvisational nature of the combat is hugely enjoyable and the tools at your disposal are varied enough to support this. The best part though is that the story fits this mould by following up combat encounters with dialogue about how close things were. The script makes a point about how you have to adapt to survive and how encounters are never straight forward, and the gameplay echoes this superbly making for one of the best examples of open ended combat in any game.
This cohesion between world, story and gameplay is hammered home by the difficulty also. The Last of Us isn’t an overly difficult game, but it does provide a decent challenge even on the default ‘normal’ difficulty. Encounters are purposefully tough and seemingly designed in a way that you are supposed to die a few times. In the moment this can be a bit frustrating, one shot kill enemies and difficult early encounters can be an annoyance, but ultimately this is purposeful. This creates a sense of relief when you do get through something, and it makes victory seem earned and hard to come by. The characters often mention how they are lucky to have made it through encounters, and the nature of these encounters hammers this point home expertly. All isn’t perfect though, a few set pieces fall short for example. At one point the player is in a position where they have infinite ammo when shooting from a fixed gun, and though this is one limited segment it does feel more gamey and somewhat distanced from the rest of the game. The friendly AI is also incredibly problematic, and probably the biggest flaw in the game. This never hinders gameplay, but it does hinder the all important immersion the game works so hard to create. Your companions are mostly ignored by enemy AI, meaning the game is never a frustrating escort mission but also meaning that it loses some important realism. Ellie for example will crouch when you crouch in order to get around stealthily, but will not avoid enemies at all. In fact she is more than happy to just walk straight through them in a way which causes neither her nor her apparent foe any bother. If you break stealth things do become different, enemies will now target your friends, but not in a meaningful way. Occasionally you will have to save them, but it’s a rarity and an element that seems overly gamey when enemies that kill you in one hit hold your partner in a fundamentally safe embrace whilst a timer ticks down. If you don’t act quickly enough they die, but this never seems like a live possibility and detracts from the idea that you are very vulnerable and that a lot is at stake.
Other slight issues come in the form of drawn out sequences. At several points in the game there are light traversal puzzles, most of these are fine (good even) but a few become repetitive. Many focus around getting Ellie to cross water (she can’t swim) and all work out pretty much the same way and don’t add much to the overall experience. These moments are somewhat saved by excellent character interaction during them, but this dialogue could have accompanied more interesting moments rather than happening alongside repeated segments. Things start to feel slightly like a chore but these few falters are ultimately a very small issue that is heavily outweighed by how superb the rest of the game is. There is so much to love about the Last of Us, to the extent that its negatives don’t get in the way. It’s a shame these parts exist, but they don’t have a severe impact on the game as a whole.
On top of its sublime story, characters, gameplay and commendable and cohesive design the Last of Us is also a looker. The environmental design is exquisitely detailed in a way few other games are, and the art design is brilliantly inventive. Naughty Dog’s take on the disaster scenario is a rather fresh one, for example the world is overgrown and colourful and the infected are covered in fungi. The artstyle gives the game a unique identity, and is just downright fantastic. On top of this it is complimented with some of the best technical graphics on show on any system, characters move realistically, emote realistically and look pretty real. It may not look as good as top end PC games (on a technical level), but it’s the best looking console game released to date. Graphics are of course not everything, however in the case of the Last of Us they help a lot. Everything is so realistic that the realism of the graphics adds to the overall picture, rather than being something you have to overlook. Once again there is a clarity to the entire design of the game which is fed into from every angle, the Last of Us works – fundamentally – because it is a game. The world is so much more impactful because you are allowed to interact with it, and your interactions with it don’t seem distanced, they make sense in the larger context. The Last of Us is truly impressive on so many levels, and stands up as a perfect example of how to use the video game medium to tell a story and to evoke a sense of place. To an extent the Last of Us relies on pre-existing tropes already existent in film and literature, but the strength of its characters and the originality of the setting help it to rise above this and become something truly special.
There is so much you could talk about in regard to the Last of Us. The soundtrack is nothing short of sublime, the multiplayer is well put together and uses the mechanics of the single player to make for a relatively unique online experience (it is also a multiplayer in which survival matters and death carries weight, and impressive achievement). The upgrade system is meaningful due to costly upgrades that force you to decide carefully and crafting is well handled and cleverly implemented. There’s so much to praise and so little to condemn, the Last of Us is a truly special video game that is thought provoking, poignant and affecting in the way that only great art is. It is not just a great game; it’s an important game that will stand the test of time. Perhaps most interesting of all, it’s a big budget, high profile and mainstream title that has more depth and more to say than anything of that kind in other mediums. It’s a special game, and once again it’s something that you need to play.