The Last of Us is an epic tale of survival and friendship set 20 years in the future after our present day society has succumbed to a fungal outbreak, turning normal everyday human beings into psychotic murderous savages - or worse. It is truly a testament to just how far a current generation console can be pushed graphically, and as a result brings a tale with as much emotion, depth and realism as anything Hollywood can offer.
In the near future, one unlikely anti-hero is tasked with protecting a young girl who may just be the key to, and in turn the saviour of, mankind. He stops at nothing to keep her safe as they travel the country, taking her from the safety of the resistance into the unknown landscape of a dying society and beyond - actually, that's the plot of the 2006 movie Children of Men, but this exact plot blueprint can easily be transferred over to The Last of Us, just with one ever so slightly different feature - the nature of the apocalypse.
The unique selling point of The Last of Us, since it was first glimpsed back in 2011, is the immersive storytelling it provides. Despite the aforementioned similarities with a certain movie, it succeeds in fleshing out a unique and thrilling tale through believable and sympathetic characters in a fully realised world left to rot.
Central to the story is Joel, a man who has lost everything and, 20 years on from the outbreak, is doing what he can to eke out a living and survive in a quarantined zone governed by a brutal martial law. Soon after venturing outside with his partner, he is lumbered with a spritely young kid overflowing with attitude named Ellie, whose name and face are definitely not based on actress Ellen Page in any way. Ellie, being just 12 years old, has never experienced life as we now know it, and her ignorance of the pre-outbreak world provides a beautiful and innocent contrast to Joel's world-weary, all too familiar knowledge of it.
The pair's relationship is one of the best-written in any game in recent history, and one that develops steadily over the course of the adventure. Rarely dialogue-heavy, their interactions are largely made up of some side comments uttered as they are just walking from A to B, or when Ellie ponders over the world she never knew, Joel provides his pessimistic reasoning behind why people used to do what they did. Shopping, going to work, staying in hotels, going on holiday; these are alien concepts to the young girl, but memories taken for granted that Joel would quite happily forget about.
Nothing about the pair is force fed to us. We glean little titbits of information about Joel's life pre-outbreak, and pity the poor soul who had to lose his values to survive in the new world lost to infection. Ellie's troublesome upbringing is hinted at too, but never rammed down our throats. These are people who don't gel well with others and are not great conversationalists, and as a result so much more is said when they say so little.
The world the pair spend the entire game traversing is dank, flooded, overrun by nature - and is absolutely gorgeous to look at. Developers Naughty Dog have pushed the boat out with their attention to detail with this theoretical world which humans have just stopped maintaining. Concrete buildings are wrapped with weeds, and grass is fighting its way through the cracks. Subways and streets are flooded after nearby rivers and sewer systems have overflown and burst. Every inch of The Last of Us is rich with detail, providing a living, breathing apocalypse you can't help but gawp at. If only all apocalypses were like this. Catch the right angle, and you can easily see the freckles on Ellie's face and the individual hairs in Joel's beard. The graphics on show are consistently sublime.
So, we've established that The Last of Us is graphically excellent and the narrative is something to behold. Frankly, having been drip-fed bits and bobs about the game for the last two years, that was something of a given. But how does it actually play?
The core gameplay, specifically the stealth and combat, is exciting, albeit familiar territory. Disappointingly, The Last of Us doesn't really bring a great deal of originality to the table in this respect. Sneaking around behind people or the infected feels very much identical to the original Splinter Cell, and 'hearing' people through walls (displayed as a light silhouette) is little different to marking people with binoculars in Far Cry 3. Having said that, tension is always rife as one false move can break your cover and have you fighting desperately for your life, or in mid-fist fight picking the right time to duck out of a punch and leg it to safety as you heal yourself.
A nice little feature has you managing your rucksack, selecting weapons, crafting nail bombs or using medikits in real-time, so a desperate attempt to heal, or even to switch between weapons, is fraught with tension and sweaty-palmed anxiety. Those familiar with ZombiU will understand the necessity for the player to learn the menu mechanics off by heart as you cannot afford to waste time fumbling about. Your ability to navigate the menus can often be the difference between a shotgun in the face or being bitten by an infected mutant.
To become a better survivalist, it really pays dividends to explore the world whenever you get the chance. Despite being fairly linear in nature, the individual, expansive areas are crying out to be explored thoroughly, not just because they are so nice to look at, but also as they are occasionally littered with everyday objects Joel can use to survive. Rags, scissors - even sugar - can be used to construct makeshift weapons. Nothing quite so satisfying as Dead Rising 2's 'gaffa tape two chainsaws to an oar" level of weapon crafting, but more contemporary nail bombs, molotov cocktails, and even the old faithful scissors-through-a-baseball-bat to give your boring old regular baseball bat a bit more oomph.
RPG elements creep through as well, as gradually Joel can level up his abilities over time. His levelling heavily depends on your desire as a player to scavenge through the world, as pills required for honing your crafting speed, maximum health, etc are scarcely found and are rarely plentiful.
Enemies throughout the adventure come in a few different shapes and sizes. You have your regular old human beings, whether they are scavengers picking off tourists for their wares, or military types after you for breaking your quarantined zone's curfew. Then you have a mixture of poor bastards who have conceded to the spores infecting mankind. These include what Joel refers to as Runners, your less harmful sprinting zombie-like mutants, very much like the ones from 28 Days Later. These can be dispatched, should you need, by a few well-placed punches to the face.
Next are the terrifying Clickers, blind mutants who have been infected for so long that growths have taken over their faces and so can no longer see. Named Clickers because of the blood-curdling clicking sound they make whilst roaming about, they rely on their heightened sense of hearing to seek you out. You are forced to sneak like you have never sneaked before as killing these ones off is a much harder ordeal than with the Runners, and as soon as they are alerted to your presence your chances of having your face ripped apart are vastly increased.
Then comes as close to a boss-type character as the game gets - the Bloater. A monster exposed to years and years of infection that their entire bodies have become... bloated, and their skin is so tough they conveniently require many more rounds to kill than the others. The harder levels are undoubtedly the ones that mix the types of enemy you have to face, and hearing them make their own noises and watching how they move at a distance is a skill you must learn quickly so you can devise a battle plan before taking any of these things head on (or strangle them from behind).
Ultimately, The Last of Us is a fairly linear game with a good story and fun but familiar sneaking game mechanics. Combat is visceral and gloriously violent, whereas the guns at times leave a lot to be desired. Shades of Naughty Dog's Uncharted heritage scream through the shooting sections; two face shots and a neck shot, and not only does my human foe still live to tell the tale, but he keeps poking his head in precisely the same spot where he has been shot three times previously. Short-range rifle blast to the balls? No worries, a minor inconvenience that has your opponent wince for a second before running about as merrily as before. A point blank shotgun blast to the torso of an infected human can at times do little more than push him back half a metre before he lunges forward and starts tucking into your guts (note - the infected are just as killable as regular humans, you can even strangle them to death).
AI leaves a lot to be desired a fair amount of the time, too, as human enemies patrol rooms and corridors as uniformly as the mindless infected. Often a guy on patrol will be so fascinated by the corner of a room that he will stand facing it for a full minute, allowing safe passage past him, or an easy target to sneak up on and dispatch. Your teammates, Ellie mainly but also other characters who join you along the way, often can't make up their minds where to stay in cover and will run wildly back and forth between posts, supposedly breaking cover. But the AI for some reason considers Joel as the only threat, certainly the only visible one. I had Ellie sprint directly into a Clicker with no consequence, and a patrol of three hunters specifically looking for Joel and Ellie walked right into her and didn't notice. With a game as amazingly immersive as The Last of Us, little things like this really break the reality and illusion that you are experiencing a truly realistic and finely-tuned game.
Are these niggles enough to detract from the overall experience? Strangely, no. My initial reaction was one of disappointment for these very reasons I experienced within the first couple of hours, but soon I became utterly engrossed in Joel and Ellie's relationship, and accepted the gunplay and AI for what they were. The Last of Us then grew rapidly on me like weeds on apocalyptic houses. The graphics are easily among the best ever seen so far in any game, equalling Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots in voice acting, acting animations, face mapping and sheer ability to tell a great, epic story through the gaming medium. The gameplay itself won't win any awards for originality, but the overall feel of The Last of Us as a whole is a phenomenal achievement by all those concerned in its creation.
There is a multiplayer mode for those interested in extending the themes from the single-player campaign, as you become a member of either the Hunters or the Fireflies factions. Naughty Dog promises this to be 'the best multiplayer yet' as you have to work as a team, sticking together and providing cover as you take on your opponents in trying to be the first to reach a number of supplies, and once they are all found it's a sudden death fight to the bitter end. It sounds exciting and more than just a pointless add-on to the single player mode, with elements of the Gears of War 3 and Max Payne 3 multiplayers present. Whether or not this will last the test of time remains to be seen, but this is one of the few games where the solo campaign is the main reason to own the game.
The Last of Us is incredible. Does it provide fully immersive storytelling and intriguing, likable and complex characters? Yes. Is it graphically superior to anything else you've played? You bet. Is the gameplay original and will it change the way we play these sorts of games in the future? No, you've played a few games that feel very similar to this before. But the overall product is polished off so well that you can just enjoy the ride, so sit back, strap yourself in and prepare yourself for an emotional rollercoaster and nail-biting terror.
The Last of Us (Reviewed on PlayStation 3)
Excellent. Look out for this one.
The Last of Us is an epic tale of survival and friendship set 20 years in the future after our present day society has succumbed to a fungal outbreak, turning normal everyday human beings into psychotic murderous savages - or worse.