A year ago if someone had told me that Naughty Dog, developers of the action packed Uncharted series would be crafting this generation’s finest survival horror game, I probably would have scoffed at them. I mean these are the guys who’ve accosted your senses with high-octane, explosive action, all while literally redefining the term “cinematic event”.
Yet, somehow, The Last of Us exists. Like the Uncharted games, The Last of Us is a beautiful game boasting of stellar production values, but where the Uncharted series has been rather light hearted, The Last of Us is like a kick in the gut with its bleak, violent themes and terribly morbid plot. It’s one of these games that’ll play on your mind much after the credits roll, and I can’t remember the last time a game had such an effect on me.
Much like Will Smith’s I am legend, The Last of Us (TLOU) takes place in a bleak, post-apocalyptic future where humanity has nearly been wiped out by an infection that converts humans into horrifying, zombie like creatures. Unfortunately, we’re given no further explanation on the cause of this virus, but on the plus side, you do kind of experience part of the apocalypse as it unravels first-hand. The humans that have survived this terrifying future are no different than the creatures, who in the name of survival, loot, torture and murder innocents, proving that when the brown stuff hits the fan, humans are the most dangerous species after all.
You are sent into this bleak world as Joel, a hardened, haggard and at times, ruthless survivor who’s tasked with escorting a young girl named Ellie to a group of rebels called the Fireflies. Like all odd friendships, you don’t exactly get along with her like a house on fire initially, but slowly, Ellie breaks through Joel’s gruff exterior by displaying her stones, grit and loyalty. To be honest, I liked both characters from the get go even though they have certain behavioural flaws. And while she may seem like a sweet, timid girl, Ellie is fully capable of handling herself in the hairiest of circumstances.
Her chemistry with Joel also feels extremely natural thanks to some stellar voice acting by both her and Joel’s voice actors. Watching them indulge in light hearted conversations about the days gone by is guaranteed to bring a smile to your face. And just as you let your guard down, thinking that both these travellers can finally enjoy a happy moment, the game pulls the rug from underneath your feet pummelling you over the head with a horrific event. TLOU is unrelenting in its pace and narrative, proving that there are no happy endings in the apocalypse. And even though the plot can get a tad predictable at times, it’ll still retain your interest simply because you’re so emotionally invested in both characters. I wasn’t too happy with the ending though, and would have preferred a choice in the final outcome rather than being funnelled through the writer’s vision.
As far as gameplay is concerned, TLOU isn’t your conventional third-person cover based shooter, and I cannot stress this enough. If you treat this game like one, and decide to rush a mob of even five enemies, chances are you’ll die horribly – real fast. TLOU abides by the fundamental principles of survival horror where every enemy encounter is extremely tense. Rushing them head on won’t be an option till you amass powerful weapons, and bump up Joel’s stats significantly, so for the first few hours, your best bet would be to take as many out as possible silently before engaging in combat.
Like Batman, Joel’s keen sense of hearing allows him to see through walls, and while you may think this would dumb the game down, it really doesn’t. If anything, it’ll help your odds of survival against enemies that can kill you off in one shot. Even during stealth, you have to time your kills carefully, as Joel goes through this long animation of choking someone out, during which he is vulnerable to gun fire.
Unfortunately, you cannot hide the bodies of dead enemies (I found this rather odd), so make sure they’re killed in a relatively secluded place, or if you’re the devious kind, leave their bodies out in the open to lure other enemies towards you. As much as the game favours stealth, the system does come apart at times. On more than one occasion, I noticed enemies not reacting appropriately when I quite loudly strangled someone not more than two feet from them. And then at times, no matter how efficiently and silently I killed, enemies miles away knew exactly where I was hiding. Another amusing issue I encountered multiple times was that enemies would be pretty oblivious of Ellie’s presence, even though she’d be visible in plain sight. I’m guessing this was a conscious decision made so that players don’t get frustrated by the AI controlled partner, but it still does tend to disrupt the game’s otherwise perfect atmosphere.
Combat in TLOU consists of both ranged and melee varieties. Ranged combat once again isn’t as easy as say Uncharted 3 wherein you can take on an army of people in one clip. You have to make every bullet count, so you really need to line your shots up perfectly. Even devastating weapons like the shotgun are extremely effective only at close range, so you’re always on your toes thinking of the best and quickest way to eliminate your foes. Scavenging supplies from the game world allows Joel to upgrade the power and effectiveness of his weapons, and in this game, you really need to pick and choose wisely, because like I’ve said multiple times before, supplies and raw materials are scarce so don’t invest in stuff you’re not too interested in.
Scavenging for stuff in TLOU is detrimental to survival, because unlike other action games, you don’t gain experience for killing things or performing objectives. You can upgrade Joel’s abilities, yes, but that’s only if you are able to find the pills required to do so. Since raw materials are scarce, you’ll constantly have to make choices about what you craft. Would you like to create health kits or molotov cocktails that can wipe out multiple foes in one go? Are you going to go in for smoke bombs that can hamper enemy vision or would you rather make a nail bomb that can obliterate anyone that passes by it? Besides these choices, you’ll also have to be careful about where and when you craft as all of that is done in real time, which means the game doesn’t get paused as you sit down to craft items or even heal yourself for that matter.
Besides your run of the mill arsenal consisting of a revolver, pistol, shotgun, bow, hunting rifle, etc. TLOU features the most satisfying melee combat I’ve experienced in recent times. It seems Naughty Dog was inspired by games like Manhunt and the Condemned series where you can literally feel, and reel back in horror at the sound of a 2×2 smashing someone’s skull in, or a steel pipe for that matter, obliterating an enemy’s cranium. On the flip side, there’s no block or counter key so if someone starts swinging at Joel, you’re only option is to run away momentarily.
TLOU is a beautiful game, and much like the Uncharted series, it pushes the PS3 to its very limits. The game’s art style complements its bleak setting perfectly, and you’ll move through a bunch of diverse urban and rural locales to get to your goal. The amount of detail you’ll experience in every level is insane, although that detail does come at a price. The game quite often suffers from minor clipping issues, delayed texture loading and a severe lack of anti-aliasing in certain areas.
I’d also like to give a special mention to the game’s sound that’s right up there with the best in the business, or in this case, is the best in the business. From enemy shrieks that will plague your sleep to the thunderous roar of a shotgun tearing an infected in two, TLOU’s sound is undoubtedly extremely impressive.
I’ll be honest; The Last of Us isn’t for everyone. It’s super violent for starters, so if you’re the queasy kind, you won’t make it too far. It’s also very slow paced with a rather strong emphasis on stealth, so if you try and play it like a regular third person shooter, you’ll die a lot, and in turn get frustrated real fast. And then, there are segments, when you’re just walking around, talking to Ellie while scavenging supplies from abandoned houses.
That being said, once you get accustomed to the game’s pace, you will appreciate, and love it for what it is, and more importantly, the gameplay mechanics it brings to the table. None of them are unique per say, but the way Naughty Dog ties it all together makes The Last of Us an unforgettable experience.
NOTE: The game’s multiplayer mode wasn’t tested as the servers weren’t up at the time. Stay tuned for a hands-on with TLOU’s multiplayer next week.