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Review: The Last of Us

Ellie and Joel in The Last of Us

It’s been called the Citizen Kane of games, and has certainly generated enough buzz that the game industry has talked about little else for the last two months or so, but how does Naughty Dog’s ambitious shooter measure up once we get behind the glowing reviews and paid advertisements (and a few mixtures of both)?

Honestly, it measures up pretty damn well.

Right from the get go The Last of Us was a strange title for me. While I’ve played survival FPS games in the past, it’s not a genre I have a massive amount of experience. While I do happen to own a PlayStation 3, I do most of my gaming on my 360. And I flat out just don’t like zombies (not that I have any psychological issues with them, I just think the concept is a bit played out in this day and age).

Those negative points aside, I was a pretty big fan of Uncharted (even if I wasn’t over the moon about the third instalment) so I figured I owed it to Naughty Dog as a studio to check out their latest offering.

And it did not disappoint.

As I’ve said in a previous article, The Last of Us uses its story and relationships to hit you hard and fast. (minor spoilers) The fact that Joel loses his daughter (who you get to play as) during the prologue of the game and this frames the 20 year time gap between the infection breaking out and the period of time in which you play the game is a crash-course in character development. We know exactly what is haunting the main character we play as, we lived it before the game even began (end spoilers).

The Last of Us takes place 20 or so years from now, in a world on constant guard against the infected hordes of a nameless disease. Avoiding yet another trope alongside the dozens that it manages to steer clear of, the word “zombie” is never used – and so instead you are facing “runners” or “infected” for large sections of the game. Most of the time you spend facing other survivors, and the game is quick to point out that whatever rules humanity had back before it was threatened with this pandemic no longer apply.

You play as Joel, a gruff mercenary who is paid to undertake the transit of a 14 year old girl called Ellie – who in turn has a mysterious secret which makes her hunted by the remains of the American military, on top of being the target of any group of hostile survivors (or “hunters”) you come across as well as the good old not-zombie infected as well.

Basically the entire world is out to get you, and it’s up to Joel’s survival skills and whatever remnants of supplies you steal from this broken world to get you through. How exciting.

The majority of the game plays out through either exploration or FPS segments. The areas are usually sandboxes (although corridors are also sometimes used) and there is plenty in the world to be found and explored, as well as puzzle areas which need to be found in order to progress. The game is level based with heavy use of cinematics (someone totalled up the cinematics on youtube and they were around 3 hours all up across the game) to drive the story. This works to the games advantage as the story works as your main driving factor as the game goes on, without it the 17 odd hours of shooting gameplay could easily grow stale but assuming the narrative can hold your attention it should virtually fly by.

One particular thing to make a note of is the difficulty. When The Last of Us was originally shipped to testers the creators found that more experienced players could defeat the enemies so easily that they were ignoring other aspects of the game like the crafting system, so instead they decided that the games token enemy, the clicker, would kill the player instantly if it ever managed to get its hands on them – effectively breaking the horror game trope of a zombie repeatedly grabbing at the player while he rapidly mashes a button to escape, which can be shocking but isn’t all that scary in the long run.

Speaking of Clickers, they mark another interesting interpretation of what I view as a particularly stale genre. Completely blind, they see via echolocation (like bats) and so are attracted to any sound made by the player. This creates particularly tense situations where a regular zombie (or “runner”) and a clicker might be sharing the same space, meaning the player has to work out which of the two enemies can see him and which will be the more threatening. It’s these kind of supply-reliant scenarios that make up the majority of the gameplay, forcing the player to choose between a risky stealth manoeuvre to escape or using up precious resources like ammunition or items in order to take down the enemies ahead.

While the crafting/survival gameplay is well crafted, encouraging the player to reinforce their weapons as they progress and to constantly explore the world around them in order to find ammunition and other supplies (which are also quite rare to keep the focus on survival tight) – The Last of Us really shines in its character development and story delivery. It’s been frequently compared to Bioshock on this note and it’s easy to see why – both of these games are simply miles ahead in terms of story, redefining the line between gaming and cinema and forcing those of us who write reviews to wonder how to judge these “cinematic games” alongside less developed examples in the genre.

But while Bioshock is the more visually stunning and conceptually unique of the two, The Last of Us is quietly confident – letting the dark tone of the story and the violence of the gameplay wear away at the player in support of the general premise of the story and the world it inhabits; constantly showing and telling the player that this is a world where the horrifying happens daily, and only those willing to put everything on the line can survive.

Really what it comes down to is that while an extravagant game like Bioshock tries to reinvent the wheel in terms of sophistication of concept, the Last of Us takes a genre which is tried and tested and somehow makes it feel completely different – creating characters we learn to love across the long journey to survive they endure and by doing so making the consequences of their actions so much more real than what the characters might have to endure in less developed zombie titles like  Left 4 Dead or Dead Island.

All in all, The Last of Us is a game which has been honed in almost every aspect – and has virtually no weakpoints. The gameplay is slick and unique, yet also understandable and easy for players to pick up. The difficulty is challenging, but not alienating. And the story is beyond anything I would expect to find while holding a controller. In a way, the contrast between the extremely high quality of voice acting and story development and the acceptably polished level of gameplay is the biggest complaint I can make – while the gameplay was great, the story was amazing. But I’m not about to mark down a great game due to a story which was virtually once in a lifetime, so I have to say all up The Last of Us is a game which delivers the complete experience – and then some.

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