Video games and movies have a lot in common. Even more so when you consider that some of them cross over into celluloid way more often than they should (Metal Gear Solid 4, I’m looking at you). The Last of Us shares a lot with its Hollywood brethren. Namely near future, survival flicks like I Am Legend and 28 Days Later. And thankfully, not in the way 2008’s PS3 exclusive master class in stealth did.
No, you’re not treated to an overdose of cut-scenes or convoluted ramblings. Far from it. Instead, the nice people at Naughty Dog have gone out of their way to craft a world and fiction that feels genuine, authentic and downright believable. Here’s why.
The Last of Us is a tale set in the near future. Humanity has been overrun by a pandemic. Most of the populace is either dead or transformed into shambling monsters. The remaining survivors either live in quarantined military run areas or scavenge the badlands in hunt of stragglers and loot. In this chaos we see a resurgence of nature with trees, grass and foliage reclaiming substantial chunks of towns and cities creating a literal urban jungle. It’s under these conditions that we find ourselves donning the role of Joel, a hardened, resourceful survivor who appears to be approaching middle age and Ellie, a fourteen year old girl. Joel is obliged to a friend to help Ellie get in contact with the Fireflies, a resistance group fighting the military.
Considering that the main element of this soon to be released survival horror slash adventure title involves spores turning people into monsters, it’s executed in a way that makes you believe that this is a possible scenario. And it all begins with the presentation. Much like their prior efforts on the Uncharted series, the developers have managed to eke every last drop of computing goodness out of the PS3 and it shows. Every blade of grass and crumbling structure has a gritty, realistic look to it. The environments are outstanding. Ditto with the animations. They might not be as fluid as say, an Assassin’s Creed or Batman but they do an accurate job of representing how a haggard man would break someone’s head with a bottle. It helps that the character models look great too. Not just Joel and Ellie, but the assortment of human and non-human enemies to boot.
Without a doubt, this is one of the best looking game on the PS3. So good that even after seven years of the console’s existence, it does a damn fine job of showcasing the system’s graphical prowess. While I did face a perceptible drop in frame rate, these moments were few and far between. Considering that this was a beta demo, it should be fixed when the game hits the shelves, both physical and digital next month.
Technical magic aside, the way you control Joel further adds to the authenticity. On the surface, the controls would seem way too similar to Uncharted, a button to melee, another to move from one platform to another, a trigger to shoot. It appeals to muscle memory and had me thinking that ‘great this is Uncharted with zombies and a constant companion, which makes it Uncharted 4!’. I’ve never been so wrong.
You see, Joel handles much unlike everyone’s favourite explorer who isn’t Lara Croft. He can’t take on multiple enemies, and aiming isn’t as slick either. Nonetheless, he’s a capable combatant. While there’s a sense of smoothness to controlling characters like Drake and Ezio, Joel’s movements and attacks have a more deliberate sense of pace to them. He doesn’t feel like you’re controlling a tank but there’s an element of roughness to the proceedings that goes a long way in making you feel vulnerable. A good thing because if you go into a fight guns blazing, you will die. No two ways about it. Besides, what are the odds of a weighty, bearded guy in his mid to late thirties who isn’t Max Payne surviving a post-apocalyptic road trip by gunning down everything that moves?
Having said that, the game gives you the option of stealth as the levels are open enough to make it a viable option, and you have an ability called Listen mode that lets you focus on the sounds enemies make while turning the world monochrome. In spite of sounding similar to Detective mode in the Batman games, I ended up using it all of one time in the entire playthrough of two missions that lasted an hour. Reason being, the sound effects are brilliantly realised and you can hear the moans and groans of the infected and other survivors quite clearly without Listen mode. As the world of The Last of Us is strewn with trash such as glass bottles and bricks, distracting enemies for you to sneak past is never a problem. Simply pick up a brick, throw it and scurry across while your foes figure out what’s going on.
None of this makes stealth a cakewalk though. Each moment is an intense affair thanks to the fantastic sound design, immersive environments and queasy feeling of dread that you might bump into an infected opponent. As I found out early on, doing so ensures a quick, gory and painful death complete with artery removal.
For a game that keeps ammo scarce there are sections where you have no option but to fight. The demo had us up against a clan of looters hunting cities for survivors. It was during these moments that I found myself relying on melee attacks and a bit of stealth to sneak around these armed gun men and end them with a few satisfying punches. As mentioned earlier, Joel can’t handle more than one enemy at a time so there’s a bit of strategy involved in isolating one enemy and then getting to the next. Much like sneaking past monsters, it felt equally intense.
However The Last of Us isn’t just about sneaking and fighting. You can craft an assortment of makeshift, close-range weapons such as pipes with scissors, health items and even Molotov cocktails. It isn’t as detailed or comprehensive a process as Dead Island, but is fun all the same.
As for Ellie, she made herself useful by hiding in cover, distracting enemies and doing everything you wouldn’t expect an AI companion to do, i.e. be capable. Yes, we’ve had BioShock Infinite showcasing that, but it still is a wonder to behold. Furthermore, she helps flesh out the lore of the world quite a bit what with being born post-outbreak. The banter between her and Joel is stunningly executed, and does a good job of keeping you enthralled in a world brimming with decayed beauty. Without spoiling much, The Last of Us is shaping up to be one of the better realised games in terms of narrative this year.
All in all, The Last of Us is shaping up to be a stunning, yet believable piece of fiction. My only concern is if Naughty Dog would be able to sustain its pacing and emotional intensity till the end. But from what I’ve played, this is one title I’m definitely looking forward to. And you should too, regardless of what your opinion on Uncharted or Jak and Daxter is.