When Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was first unleashed upon the PlayStation 3, Naughty Dog managed to take the best aspects of the Tomb Raider formula and made it better by building on it with likable characters and Indiana Jones-esque hijinks. With The Last of Us, they have once again reinvigorated a flagging genre, the third-person survival shooter, by making it serious, personal, and scary.
Developer: Naughty Dog
Genre: Third-Person Survival Horror/Tearjerker
Release Date: June 14, 2013
ESRB Rating: Mature
“We’re shitty people, Joel,” says Tess in the opening hour of the game. “It’s been that way for a long time.”
Welcome to the grim future of mankind. This is not an Uncharted game with zombies added to the mix. Whereas that series drew its inspiration from action-adventure films, The Last of Us has its roots in Cormac McCarthy’s evocative novel The Road, rather than the tepid zombie titles of late, such as the middling Resident Evil franchise and Deep Silver’s buggy Dead Island and its lackluster sequel, Dead Island: Riptide. In fact, the developers have taken a leaf from The Walking Dead’s book and avoided the use of the word “zombie” altogether. Here, they are “Infected,” those exposed to the parasitoidal fungus spores that have wiped out most of humanity. As the fungus grows, it mutates its Infected host further, until they transform into creatures known colloquially as “Clickers,” named after the creepy sound that manifests from their malformed mouths.
It is the sound design where the game excels, and credit should be paid to Lead Sound Designer Phillip A. Kovats and his team for wringing every last gasp of tension out of each footstep, shriek, and echo. Accompanying this is Academy Award-winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla’s minimalistic score, reminiscent of his work on Brokeback Mountain and The Motorcycle Diaries. Here he uses wistful, long strings, and solo guitar riffs to mirror the plight of the characters and the world they inhabit, sometimes interrupting it with a sudden energetic strumming that gets the blood pumping. With the gritty taste of adrenalin stuck firmly in my mouth, Naughty Dog pushes players deep into dark and claustrophobic environments that manage to elicit a genuine sense of fear for survival. There are points in the game where you naturally turn off the torch as a knee-jerk defense mechanism, and desperately stay still in the vain hope that the Clickers did not hear you kick over a bottle.
Like zombies, the fungal infection spreads from being bitten by the Infected or the Clickers, and we soon learn that Ellie is “infected.” Only she has not transformed. She is immune. Enter Joel, a forlorn father figure who has lost his daughter, charged by the political activist gang known as the Fireflies to take Ellie across the country. As with the greatest heroic journeys, Joel initially turns down the quest, but is persuaded by his gun-toting partner, Tess. As Joel and Ellie trek across the remains of civilisation, the bond that forms between the two begins to strip away the cold hostility that has gripped both for so long. And it is a long trek across America without supplies. The one thing that took me by surprise was the time scale of the game, spread out across an entire year, broken up into seasons. The sense of urgency never relents, but nor does the sense of realism. While the developers must have been tempted to cut corners, and the time it takes to cross America largely on foot, instead they use these harsh conditions to further the brutality of Joel and Ellie’s story.
The gameplay is largely divided into two categories: explore or fight. If there was one criticism of the game, it is that the puzzles during the exploring phases are repetitive, and involve using ladders to climb walls or bridge gaps, or finding a raft to get Ellie across bodies of water as she does not know how to swim. However, they are spaced out and varied with just enough detail so as not be tedious. The fighting mechanics, on the other hand, is where the game truly comes to life. The AI of the enemies, whether they be human, Infected, or Clickers, keeps you on your toes. The characters often deviate from the path you expected them to take, adding a sense of urgency to stealth attacks. Weapons are sparse, as is ammunition, which forces players to either sneak or use hand-to-hand combat. Joel can only hold what he could realistically carry in his backpack, including supplies. Weapons and explosives such as smoke bombs and molotovs can be crafted from items found in the environments. Naughty Dog has mercifully kept the crafting system simple so that each item only requires two elements. This leads to some interesting choices. For example, both the molotov cocktail and the first aid kit require alcohol as an ingredient, leading to desperate decisions. Do you heal yourself or burn your enemies? Likewise, you can fashion a shiv that can be used for a stealth kill or to unlock a door before it bends out of shape. Do you hope that the locked room has a stash of supplies, or keep the shiv for when a Clicker comes calling?
And come calling they do. The Clickers sense sound far better than other character types, so the player must move slowly to evade them. Joel also has a “sound” sense, similar to Batman’s Detective Mode in the Arkham series, but better paired with actual gameplay rather than having to flip between the two. It is also very restricted, as Joel is not a superhero, but a survivor. The reach is limited, and if an enemy is still, you cannot sense them before they are already upon you, when you are forced to kill them or be killed.
The game is exceptionally violent, and visits some deep and dark places, both literally and figuratively. Joel and Ellie are flip sides of the same coin; the former being a tough, surly brute, reborn in this post-apocalyptic world from a womb carved out of hate and loss, while the latter’s childhood has been eroded by this harsh environment. They help each other grow along the road, while being forced into horrible, and often bloody, situations. Ellie occasionally reads from a joke book she scavenges, but there are no cheeky, Nathan Drake-style quips to be found here. The fact that Nolan North is cast as a major antagonistic character only serves to underline the distinction. It is a sobering affair, and it is oftentimes outstanding that Naughty Dog manages to keep the whole thing grounded given the sheer scope of the game.
While the nature of the catastrophe that transpired is always hinted at but never explained fully, there are enough clues that allow you to fill in the blanks. Graffiti on walls capture the drawn-out conflicts between citizens and authorities that ravaged cities. Yet it is the little poignant moments that prove the most memorable. At one point in the game, you discover a child’s drawing of their “protectors,” all of whom are long since dead. And when Ellie spots some beautiful wild animals roaming around a city, it offers a glimpse of beauty in an otherwise bleak existence.
Yet despite how much attention has been given to the single-player story, the multiplayer matches feel oddly relevant to fleshing out the world of the game. Here, Survivors are pitted against the Fireflies gang to claim territory and resources. The multiplayer strips back some of the abilities, such as the sonic hearing, which now only works in small bursts. Just as in the single-player campaign, crafting weapons and being stealthy can save your life and that of your team, giving you the advantage. However, without the drive of the main game narrative thrusting the action forward, the multiplayer can feel a little bit repetitive at time. With the next-generation focus on social media integration, Naughty Dog has already started playing about with some features. If you connect the game to Facebook via the PlayStation Network, your camp will grow with your friends, and in between games you receive updates on what they are doing. It was rather amusing to find one vegetarian friend was apparently skinning a skunk, while another friend was cleaning the latrine.
To say that The Last of Us is one of the most important games going into the next generation is not an understatement. It is the perfect blend of enormous playability and stunning graphics fused with a serious, sprawling but most importantly, human story. It manages to scare and amaze in equal doses, slipping under your skin. The character development is such that Joel and Ellie remain with you days after you have left them to their fates. There are genuine moments of heartfelt loss, as well as grains of humour in between the grim settings. It captures the best of humanity, a rare beacon amidst a sea of chaos and social truths, a requiem for a dark future. With it, Naughty Dog has cemented its reputation as not just game developers, but storytellers. No matter what the next generation brings in terms of graphics and online multiplayer, it will be the single-player story that drives gamers to not only finish a game, but relish the journey.
Review Disclosure: A retail copy of The Last of Us was purchased by Warp Zoned for the purposes of this review.