Forever associated with Nathan Drake and the Uncharted franchise, people seem to forget that Naughty Dog have been around a long time, and already proved their ability to adopt new hardware and utilise it to provide radically different experiences for the player. From the legendary Crash Bandicoot to the popular Jak & Daxter and globetrotting adventures of Uncharted, the team have consistently made great games. Does their post-pandemic The Last of Us match, or perhaps exceed that bar of quality? Read on to find out.
The cordyceps – a parasitic fungi that infects the brain of its victim, controls their behaviour and transforms them into grotesque, aggressive monstrosities. That’s the threat faced within the reality of The Last of Us. The fungi exists in real life, but the specific species that was the inspiration for the story’s menace only targets ants and other arthropods/insects. The theoretical possibility of it jumping over to humans is quite frightening, and is thus an effective basis for the pandemic that causes “the apocalypse” in the game.
20 years after the outbreak in a time of martial law, Joel (Troy Baker) and Tess (Anna Wersching) – black marketeers within Boston’s quarantine zone – have a snake in their midst; someone who’s sold their guns without permission. The duo seek him out with vengeful intentions, and in doing so come across Marlene (Marle Dandridge), the leader of a resistance group called the Fireflies. They make a deal to smuggle something out of the city for her: a girl named Ellie (Ashley Johnson). At this point, so many questions arise, most pertinent of all: who is she to Marlene and why is she so important?
With such a character/story driven title such as The Last of Us, I find it hard to talk about any plot point outside of this setup. There are so many twists and turns in the players’ journey…almost everything is a spoiler! Just know that this is a tale that you will not soon forget. The relationship between the main protagonists is the focus. Outside of Heavy Rain, I haven’t seen a game tackle the kinds of themes that The Last of Us does, and convincingly at that. In fact, it’s probably the preeminent example for the industry. A warning: it often times can be quite depressing and emotionally draining, which is due to its relatable nature and expertly written script.
Joel can handle a gun, that’s for sure. Being involved in the black market for years, he’s surely been at both ends of the barrel. You start off with a pistol – naturally – with new mechanics and combat elements being introduced over the course of the game at a great pace. Weapon sway is heavy at first, but can be improved – through finding and applying “supplements” (signified in the game world by a pill icon) – along with other attributes of Joel’s like maximum health, “listen mode” distance (“listen mode” allows you to track enemy silhouettes through walls), shiv skills and more. This can be done from your backpack inventory (the “select” button).
Also accessible from your backpack inventory is the crafting mechanic and collectibles. Crafting is an integral part of the gameplay. Throughout your travels, you will find ingredients such as binding, blades, rags and explosives that can be used to make very useful items. There are offensive and defensive items, which will generally share the same two set ingredients that must be possessed in order to craft either one. So you must decide: “do I want to use one binding and one alcohol to craft a health kit, or a molotov cocktail?”. It all depends on your play-style; if you go out guns-blazing, it might be smart to have some health kits handy.
You have the options to play through, from beginning to end, stealthily or otherwise. Ellie sometimes gets involved in the combat by throwing nearby bricks or bottles at the bad guys, which you can also do to momentarily stun them, or as a method of distraction. Melee weapons can be found throughout and degrade with each hit, but can be modified through crafting to become more deadly or durable. “Dynamic stealth” as Naughty Dog call it, allows you to break line of sight and re-enter a hidden state. However, enemies won’t be quick to let you off the hook, with each type of adversary bringing their own unique challenges.
On the infected side, “runners” are fast and travel in packs; players can feel more comfortable taking a head-on approach with them and going to town with their bat or what-have-you. “Clickers” have completely impaired eyesight, rely on sound and will kill you instantly if they grab a hold of you (sneaking is a must). “Bloaters” are stronger, more resilient and throw spore bombs (for lack of a better term) which damage your health. Situations where the immediate area is infested with these infected have a horror-feel and occur in darker locations, so the flashlight becomes a significant tool…just don’t shine it on a “runner”.
Human enemies – “hunters” – are equipped with everything from weaker 2×4’s to a variety of guns. They are much smarter in the sense that they will audibly communicate with each other, attempt to flank you, return to the last spot they saw you when in-tow and react to you, your actions and the world around them. While you can’t grapple-kill a “clicker” (without a shiv upgrade), you can always “acquire” a human shield and perform a non-lethal or lethal finisher from that position. Tense is the best word to describe each and every encounter, with real strategy being necessary to survive them on higher difficulties especially.
Outside of combat and scavenging/crafting, Joel and Ellie interact in a variety of ways, commonly in efforts to overcome traversal obstacles. You will find yourself boosting Ellie up, carrying and placing planks and ladders, diving and swimming through the water with a palette to move her across on (she can’t swim…what a burden…). There are also talkative moments where you can engage in “optional conversations” that add a little extra context to the subject and their relationship. There is also a total of 140 collectibles to find, including various Artifacts (letters, mementos, recordings, etc.), Firefly Pendants, Comics (Dark Horse stamped comic books under the title “Savage Starlight”) and Training Manuals.
Training manuals add bonuses such as extended smoke screen time or additional hits for your melee weapon. The final form of upgrading is achieved at tool benches strewn across the lands. Along the way, you will scavenge parts and toolkits (5 in total). You can then spend these parts to add gun holsters, increase clip sizes and a myriad of other abilities specific to each weapon in your inventory. The number of toolkits you possess determines what level of upgrade you can initiate. All the various enhancements mentioned, once completing the story, will carry on when starting a New Game+ (only at or below the difficulty option you beat the game on initially).
As you may tell, gameplay is incredibly deep for this genre of game, although this kind of game has rarely been seen. I wish I could offer some perspective on the multiplayer aspect, but I did not receive an online pass with my press review kit (bit of an oversight Sony!). However, I think it’s safe to say that nobody is buying The Last of Us for the multiplayer, which is not an insult in any way! The single-player campaign will keep you busy for upwards of 18 hours (if you are searching for every collectible) so it is well worth it on that front alone.
The Last of Us is one of the most stunning games on the PS3, if not the most. The environments – through being rarely populated with any sort of human presence – can be appreciated for their own beauty without distractions. The amount of detail that went into dressing each location is indicative of the dedication of the team. From the overgrowth and all-but-abandoned cities to the wilderness and quarantine zones, it ironically feels like a living, breathing world, even though only 10% of its population has been left living and breathing.
The cutscenes and performance capture is top-notch; a marked improvement over Uncharted 3. The expressions that are conveyed, almost by the eyes alone, rival any other title, and are nuanced – a key difference between this and the occasionally goofy, over-the-top facial expressions of Nathan Drake and his comrades. The lighting system brings a level of realism and adjusts as you enter differently lit areas, much like your eyes would adjust in real life (although almost instantly here). I encountered a couple visual bugs, such as the flames not appearing from the end of the flamethrower, and rare artifacting when using the flashlight in certain areas.
A large part of what makes the story of The Last of Us so impactful and moving is the stellar score by 2-time Oscar winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla (Brokeback Mountain, Babel). The music heightens the sense of hopelessness and loneliness, enhances the sadness felt during the most tender, human moments, and even uplifts in the very few moments of serenity. The ronroco – a Spanish-origin guitar that the Argentinian composer favors – is heart-wrenchingly beautiful. The voice acting is equally impressive, and that goes for the whole cast.
Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson deliver their performances of main characters Joel and Ellie with such realism and emotion. There’s also a key character that reintroduces Naughty Dog fans to a certain, now iconic, voice actor. All bases have been covered in regards to the sound effects, from the sizzle of charred bodies to the clatter of dropped bottles. Meanwhile, the crazed grunts and whispers of the “runners”, the clicking of the aptly named “clickers” and more beastly sounds of “bloaters” aid in making the infected truly petrifying. I experienced one specific instance where walking too close to the rear wall of ‘Bill’s Bar’ would initiate the exterior’s ambient track, which is undoubtedly a simple node placement issue within the game engine’s editor.
The Last of Us is the most tense experience I’ve ever had in playing a video game, and is definitely in the top 2 on my list for most emotional and powerful storytelling for the medium. Ever! When considering the depth of combat, the harmony of the various mechanics, the brilliant performance capture, script and lasting impressions, it is fair to call this the best, defining game for the PS3. A new franchise is born amongst the remains of human civilisation.
For me, Naughty Dog have taken their place among the likes of Rockstar and Valve in being unable to make a bad game. Just to see what they can do in the next-gen is reason enough to buy a PlayStation 4. My final thought is: “I want to spend more time in this beautiful wasteland!!” and can’t wait to see what the announced single-player DLC will entail. The game is gruesome and mature to the umpteenth level, but every PS3 owner should buy this game!
Capsule Computers review guidelines can be found here.