Human enemies are SMART and require real skill to outwit.
Release Date: 14th June RRP: £49.99 Format: PS3 Publisher: Sony
Sometimes, you just have to cut to the chase: The Last Of Us is the pinnacle of traditional narrative storytelling in any interactive medium, and one of the finest games ever made.
What Naughty Dog, creators of the Uncharted series, have produced is nothing short of a masterpiece. As an example of apocalyptic fiction it doesn’t add a great deal to the genre, but what it does do is create a near-unprecedented sense of attachment to the characters, which makes every life-or-death encounter almost unbearably tense.
Joel and Ellie – the grizzled anti-hero and the young girl he must escort across the country to the relative safety of resistance group the Fireflies – are two of the best realised characters in videogame history. The writing and performances easily eclipse any of Hollywood’s mo-cap output, let alone examples from other games. Both exist in a world where moral absolutes no longer exist. At one point the game questions whether you’re actually the bad guy – an angel of death slaughtering everyone in your path. The truth is, in The Last Of Us, there’s no such thing. Everyone is doing whatever it takes to survive.
On a technical and emotional level, Ellie is one of the best AI companions ever. As a child of the apocalypse she is more prepared for the horrors ahead than you might expect for a girl of 14, but the contrasting world views between the pair are at the heart of the drama. By the end you will really care about Ellie’s safety, so much so you will not be prepared to sacrifice it at any cost. Cutscenes never fail to impress, but it’s the abundance of stolen conversations that take place simply while walking round the world that really help to build a convincing and unbreakable bond between the pair.
Your only hope for survival if a Clicker grabs you is a shiv to the neck.
The set up is zombie fiction 101 – think The Walking Dead meets The Road. A fungal infection known as the Cordyceps virus has wiped out most of the planet’s population, turning them into crazed monsters or, worse, Clickers – a second, exponentially more aggressive stage of the infection which renders the infected blind and capable of navigating only by sound. Sneaking round an abandoned train station doubling as a Clicker nest, tossing bricks and bottles as sonic distractions, in the early stages of the game had us concerned for our rapidly elevated heart rate. Compared to the ordeals The Last Of Us puts Ellie and Joel through later in the game, this early encounter is child’s play, but serves as a perfect showcase for the game’s solid stealth mechanics and stellar sound design. Get yourself a decent amp or a pair of surround sound headphones and the oppressive clicks, footsteps and screams, coupled with Gustavo Santaolalla’s sparse, sombre score will give you one of the most accomplished aural experiences in gaming.
The scares aren’t limited to encounters with the Infected, though; human enemies are as much of a threat and require an entirely different approach. It’s possible to go in all guns blazing as the enemies flank you from all sides, but it’s much more sensible to avoid combat wherever possible, particularly as, if you’re not prepared to scour every nook and cranny of the world, ammo can be scarce. Simply aiming a gun can be a treacherous business. Joel is no Nathan Drake-esque superman, so his aim sways, making simple headshots a real challenge until your abilities are upgraded later in the game. It’s never easy, which is what makes the combat so nerve-shreddingly superb.
What this means is that every encounter must be approached with caution. Joel can “listen” to his surroundings, which allows him to see the outlines of enemies through walls – an essential tool for survival. If worst comes to worst, you can fall back on a range of melee weapons – planks of wood, pipes and machetes – all of which can be strengthened using materials scavenged from the environment to create live-saving one-hit-kill weapons. Naughty Dog pull no punches in their depiction of the violence either – it’s uncompromisingly brutal. But for every moment of elation where Joel crushes the head of an Infected under his heel there’s a reality check as Joel, or Ellie, go beyond what is strictly necessary – both characters corrupted by their cruel environment.
One of your early objectives is to make it to that bridge. It won’t be easy.
The production values are sky high. Despite the horrors that exist in every dark corner of the unremittingly bleak world, The Last Of Us is exceedingly beautiful. It ranks among the most impressive looking titles on console. Set 20 years after the outbreak, the cities have fallen, most flooded and reclaimed by opulent nature. Walk through an abandoned coffee shop and you’re more likely to see a tree than any mugs.
The 15-hour story is full of genuine surprises and takes you to wildly different locations over the year-long journey. What sets the game apart from its peers is its pacing. It isn’t afraid to slow proceedings to a thoughtful crawl, and the game rewards you the more you’re prepared to explore, with insightful and touching conversations which can easily be missed triggered by objects hidden in the hefty environments. Scouring the landscape is essential for survival, because it’s the only way to find gear necessary for crafting health packs, molotov cocktails, nail bombs and shivs. There are also a bunch of collectables scattered around, including objects that allow you to upgrade your weapons and abilities. But the main reason to take a methodical approach is because The Last Of Us is not a game to be rushed through; it’s a game to lose yourself in.
The single player easily does enough to warrant a full five stars, but on top of that there’s a multiplayer, called Factions, which does an admirable job of following the single player’s key ideology. There are two modes: Supply Raid and Survivors, both of which are essentially team deathmatches focused on survival as much as killing. Supply raid gives each team a limited number of lives, while in Survivors there are no respawns, only three-minute rounds. The rewards for victory are survivors and supplies, which are accumulated over a series of matches and can be tracked via a menu. Oddly, you can also link your Facebook account to Factions and headshot people off your friend’s list, should you so choose. It has potential, but it remains to be seen whether the community will support it in the long term.
The multiplayer will likely do a decent job of extending the game’s longevity, but the highlight of The Last Of Us is unquestionably the stunning campaign – a generation-defining experience which sends the PS3 out on a high.