Naughty Dog’s acclaim stems from many years of game development, having pushed the likes of Crash Bandicoot, Jak & Daxter and the more recent Uncharted series into our home systems. It’s a reputation that’s been well-earned through a winning combination of gameplay and cinematic storytelling. Expect this formula to continue in The Last of Us, which not only blurs the boundaries of what we thought the PlayStation 3 could accomplish, but succeeds in delivering a captivating tale that sticks with you long after the credits have rolled.
Developer: Naughty Dog
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Platform: PlayStation 3 (Reviewed)
Players: Single-Player, Multi-Player
Genre: Action-Adventure, Survival-Horror
Release: (WW) June 14th 2013
[NOTE: This review is based solely on the extensive 18-hour single-player campaign experience. ]
It’s likely that you’ll have already seen a number of perfect tens peppering the internet before skipping ahead to check the score at the bottom of this review. The truth is that while The Last of Us is one of the edgiest, most atmospheric and downright creepy experiences out there, it really won’t be for everyone – this is a quest for survival set in a world gone to hell that’s about as bleak as you can get, shaming modern horror games without neatly slotting into any one genre. It never pulls its punches either, presenting the worst aspects of humanity in their purest form. Not all is lost in the world of The Last of Us however, which is exactly what gives the story its gravitas and pushes our heroes forward… it’s that little thing called hope.
You’ll genuinely feel for the pair as they struggle throughout the game’s 18 hour storyline. Joel is the tough guy with a good heart, while Ellie is his 14 year-old charge who presents a mystery of her own. The interplay between them is what rockets The Last of Us to new heights, even if the meat of the gameplay is enjoyable in its own right. The fear of the unknown, turning the corner and going from hunted to hunter is what separates it further from the humdrum of other games. The sense of dread remains with you even in the most beautiful places, where you may (or may not) be given some time to take a breath and restock.
This is an adventure that’s been praised since its reveal and it’s all too easy to see why. At time of writing, The Last of Us stands in the upper echelons of what console gaming can accomplish from a graphical standpoint, with minor details complimenting the foreboding atmosphere as a whole; abandoned homes tell the story of a sudden event that ended life as we know it, the sun’s rays glint through the trees as you step through a huddle of fireflies, plus a lot more for Ellie to comment on as she discovers them for the first time. Character expressions sell the drama without question and not a single line of dialogue falls flat – once again, Naughty Dog is the master of its own brand of storytelling.
For the most part you’ll be walking, jogging and even swimming in search of anything to aid you in your quest, of course with the game’s greater goal in mind. Collecting scissors and a club allows Joel to develop a lethal melee weapon, for instance, while other materials can be recovered to craft flaming molotovs, deadly explosives, shivs for sneaky kills, and health kits as you see fit. At first you might consider shivs to be the only tools of necessity, but you’ll soon want to experiment with your makeshift arsenal as things begin to heat up.
You’ll need to think and move on the fly when enemies begin their approach, having used your downtime to craft, reload and heal yourself for the coming battle. This is a stealth game for the most part and you’ll find plenty of bricks and bottles to aid you in distracting foes when the time comes. It can still be incredibly challenging, with most human encounters still resulting in a brutal mix of fisticuffs and weapon-play. Skulls crack, bodies explode into piles of red goo and each weapon has a sense of weight and feedback. Ellie’s reaction to a nasty kill only serves to make things more visceral – and if we’re honest, more satisfying – as everything feels personal and somehow never leaves you desensitised.
It would have been near-impossible to stay unseen using only your eyes and ears, and no one knew this better than the folks at Naughty Dog, who saw fit to include an upgradeable ‘spidey sense’ which allows Joel to locate danger based on sound of movement. Not every enemy will show up however, occasionally lying in wait, undetectable until they decide to strike or you spot them first. It might not be realistic, but it’s a welcome addition all the same. Stealth is methodical, while combat is often a panicked and ‘in the moment’ affair, so you should expect a restart or two after fluffing a room and being caught off-guard.
It’s safe to say that zombies have been done to death in games over the last few years, but actually, The Last of Us manages to sit apart from the rest by using them sparingly and only at the right time. Remain silent and the Clicker (a blind creature that roams the halls via echo-location) simply won’t spot you, though Stalkers attack in a frenzy that alerts other infected and causes them to swarm your position. Facing Clickers in a combat situation can be especially hair-raising without a shiv in your inventory; allow it to get too close and it’s an immediate case of lights-out for Joel. At no point does this adventure come off as a zombie game in the classic sense, making the infected a more frightening foe yet less clichéd than the run-of-the-mill hordes we’ve seen before.
So it’s tense, dramatic and pretty. What the game isn’t is perfect, with a number of technical glitches standing in the way. Characters fazed through each other, scripted events failed to activate and we even lost our health and breath bars until rebooting… all in a single playthrough. Certain moments can frustrate more than they ideally should, notably later on when you find yourself in a sticky spot with abundant, gun-toting enemies and barely a thing in your inventory. The game can sometimes take a turn for the mundane as well, tasking Joel to find wooden pallets and move ladders so often that it kills the momentum dead in its tracks.
Supporting cast members may come and go, but it’s the trial of Joel and Ellie that makes The Last of Us so absorbing. It’s an emotional ride full of ups and downs that, crucially, will leave you wanting to play through again on the New Game Plus with your upgrades intact. Once again, it should be reiterated that the game probably won’t appeal to everyone, but with a single-player campaign that’s twice as long as many other full retail releases, any technical flaws that aren’t game-breaking can and should be forgiven. Sony has sent its console off in style, and regardless of whether or not it marks the very best of this generation, you owe it to yourself to try The Last of Us.
9.0 – Excellent. Fun, enjoyable, engaging, and memorable but is missing that little something that will make it exceptionable. People will fondly talk about this for generations to come.