Developer – Naughty Dog
Publisher –Sony Computer Entertainment
Platforms – PS3, PS4
Back in 2013 the internet exploded with praise for The Last of Us. It received multiple 10/10 scores and Game of the Year awards, and I’ve been looking forward to finally playing it for a long time. When that much praise comes behind a title there’s a degree of resistance that comes along with it, a challenge to decide whether the game truly deserves the labels it has received. While I’m not quite ready to give it a perfect score, The Last of Us earns a great deal of the hype it has garnered, providing remarkable characterization and storytelling as well as attempting a mildly different take on the often-explored zombie apocalypse scenario.
When the infection began, no one escaped unscathed, and in the twenty years that followed civilization as it was known had all but disappeared. Forced into quarantine zones to avoid the mutant fungus turning people into cannibalistic horrors, Joel Miller is just one of many trying to get by. Despite acting as a smuggler, Joel is surprised to be asked to get a lone teenage girl out of the city and is vehemently opposed to the idea, though circumstances force him to take on the responsibility. The girl, Ellie, is valuable to a resistance group known as the fireflies, being the only known human to have survived being bitten, and may be the world’s only hope for a vaccine. She and Joel must cross the bandit- and infected-ridden remains of the US to reach their goal. It might be easier if she didn’t remind Joel of the daughter he lost back at the end of the world.
The Last of Us may seem a little unique to begin with, given its use of fungal spores that spread infection and various developmental stages of infected such as Clickers, which have no sight and use echolocation to find survivors. Make no mistake, though, this is a zombie game and more or less plays like any other one for its first few hours. In fact, other than those two features I’ve mentioned, it doesn’t bring anything new to the table at all. We’ve seen that humanity is often more dangerous than zombies, we’ve seen the struggle to protect the one individual with immunity and we’ve seen ruin-crawling, supply-scavenging and undead-blasting games before. So what makes it all special?
The answer to that has a number of aspects to it that all come together to reveal that The Last of Us’ quality of storytelling and character interactions transform an overpopulated genre into something enjoyable and fresh. All of the characters you come across, not just the main ones, have a level of believability that allows them to bring something important to the experience. It’s not that there are any incredibly entertaining personalities that stand out and drag the game into the spotlight, so much as the normality of their reactions to the events of the story that captures you. I was especially impressed by Ellie, who has the maturity you might expect in someone who had grown up during that time but also shows the inexperience and childishness of a person of her age. Joel may be a little generic but his gruff voice and development from disinterest to tentative caring play the perfect partners to just about everyone else involved.
The story plays as an episodic experience, with each new season presenting a new tale that serves to introduce new characters as well as deepen the connection between old ones. There are notes and letters scattered around that fill the role of world-building but I wouldn’t say they make a massive contribution to enjoyment. Without spoiling anything, the various plotlines don’t do anything that hasn’t been done before but do their job incredibly well and are enjoyable to play through once you’ve made it past the beginning of the game. The ending is tasteful and satisfying without being something that will really get you going; by the end of it all I missed the characters a little but didn’t have that deep feeling of loss that the absolute best stories give you. Having said that, there’s some DLC available that I would have been keen to play if it weren’t so expensive for what it was.
Gameplay consists of alternating between sneaking past zombies/baddies and shooting the hell out of both with a variety of weapons. It takes a little while to get used to what you can and cannot do, with certain enemies having the ability to insta-kill you, but plays as well as any other third person shooter out there. It’s worth mentioning that I was impressed by the use of environmental features in melee takedowns though, so there’s that. I do have to complain about the AI here, however, as well as some design choices. While you’re sneaking about your companions will often run directly in front of enemies and mysteriously not be seen. Similarly, there were multiple occasions where strangling a guy to death directly in front of his buddy didn’t seem to raises any sort of alarm, presumably because I was just out of their detection range despite the fact that I was in plain sight. When sneaking, if you move a teeny bit too fast you can alert nearby Clickers, but having a vicious firefight just upstairs won’t worry them at all because you’re technically out of their zone. While they may have been small problems with little effect on the gameplay, it was all a little jarring considering how realistic the story and characters try to be.
Other issues I had include the fact the exploring never felt particularly rewarding. I mean, yes, there were supplies you could use for the crafting system but they were pretty plentiful without going searching. Often I would find nothing at all in areas that screamed “explore me”, making the whole process of searching somewhat tedious. Additionally, there were several occasions where I accidentally picked the “right” path and was locked out of areas I had planned to go back to. You can also find materials for upgrading both Joel and his equipment. The gun modifications are standard fare but the character improvements weren’t very impressive, adding little to the gameplay experience. As a final note, the game does tend to get a little repetitive in places; you might go through a sewer with zombies that has a water puzzle, some ruins with bandits and then another sewer with zombies in it that has a water puzzle. Rinse, repeat.
On the flip-side, there are also some fantastic scenes that do a stellar job of showing just how far gone civilization is. Herds of giraffes that have flourished after being released from the zoo, sunset vistas overlooking the ruins of a city. Good stuff. The visual design of the game is top-notch even if dilapidated buildings and sewers don’t exactly make for appealing scenery. The characters especially look wonderful and more so in their pre-rendered cutscenes; my only regret in this area is that I did not play the remastered edition. The voice acting is of as high a quality as you will find in a game for each and every character, so major kudos there. As for the soundtrack…well, it’s a soundtrack for a zombie game.
Summary – The Last of Us may not do anything new but what it does do is done well enough that it deserves a great deal of the praise it has received. It takes many of the zombie apocalypse ideas we’ve seen before and adds believable characters with incredibly well written relationships and experiences. The plot takes a while to warm up but is well worth the time it takes to do so due to the quality episodic storytelling it exhibits. Despite some complaints regarding its gameplay, the majority of The Last of Us’ features in that department are solid and, coupled with great technical aspects and aforementioned story and characters, earn it a definite recommendation.
Score: 8.5/10 – Good