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The Last of Us

Game: The Last of Us
Developer: Naughty Dog
Publisher: Sony
Year: 2013
Reviewed: 2013
Platform: PS3
Genre: Third Person Shooter / Stealth / Survival
Reviewer: ValkyrDeath

For the first third or so of its length, The Last of Us is a very good game. The combat works well, the world is immersive, everything is polished and professional and the storytelling is effective. After that first third however, well… it gets even better.

Made by Naughty Dog, the developers who created the Indiana Jones-inspired Uncharted series, The Last of Us takes on a completely different genre. This time, we’re in the territory of a post-apocalyptic zombie infested world. It’s not exactly the most original setting around, but I don’t think it’s ever been so well portrayed, especially in gaming. The story follows Joel, a survivor managing to stay alive in the ruins of civilisation by working as a smuggler. He’s soon tasked with “smuggling” an unusual cargo, a young girl called Ellie, for reasons which aren’t immediately apparent to him. The game follows their trek across America and their encounters with various other survivors as well as the infected zombies.

The Last of Us
You wouldn't like him when he's angry.

One of the things that sets this apart from the usually bland and boring zombie genre is the sense of believability they’ve given it, not only in terms of the characters but in the situation. Zombie fiction has gradually been moving towards this, with the original randomly resurrected corpses being replaced with humans infected with invented diseases that drive them mad. The Last of Us takes things a step further by being based on a mutated form of something that actually exists. Here, the spores from a mutated form of the Cordyceps fungus have started infecting humans, taking control of their bodies and making them focus on spreading the fungus. This fungus is real and really does take control of bodies while killing them, although thankfully they only affect insects and similar small creatures. At the moment, anyway.

In terms of setting, we’ve got the cities reclaimed by nature trope. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before in other games, but that doesn’t stop it being extremely immersive. In terms of its world building, it’s reminiscent of Half-Life 2, which can’t be a bad thing. There’s great attention to detail everywhere, making every location you visit feel like a real place rather than just a level designed for gaming. Buildings are laid out convincingly, with bedrooms in houses having personal touches such as posters on the walls, abandoned offices containing desks with family photos on and shops still with leftover goods lying around. You often get a sense of some of the events that went on in these areas just from the environment itself. And the overgrown streets and ruins are so well done that it often looks quite beautiful, in its own bleak way.

Most of all though, the game focuses on characters and relationships in a very human way. In trying to survive, traditional morality has pretty much been abandoned. There are very few actions that can be judged by any sort of clean cut good or evil distinction. Most people who have managed to survive have done so through necessarily unpleasant means and Joel is far from a conventional hero. More often than fighting zombies you’ll find yourself encountering other survivors, some hostile and some not, and much of the game is spent fighting human opponents who have various reasons for attacking. The central relationship is obviously that between Joel and Ellie, and it’s very well written. It develops naturally as the characters grow to rely on each other more and more as the game goes along. Joel is voiced perfectly by Troy Baker, who seems to be getting all the best roles this year with this and Bioshock Infinite, while Ashley Johnson is equally excellent as Ellie. The other friendly, or at least less hostile, survivors each provide their own short story too, and these are as well developed as the central characters. At one point you encounter a survivor called Henry and his kid brother Sam, and it’s around there where the game tips over from very good to excellent. The events that occur are almost always brutal, often emotional and sometimes shocking, but they all feel like they’re rooted in the personalities of the characters.

The Last of Us Horse Riding
Shockingly, they haven't allowed me to spend my real money to get armour for the horse!

The combat initially seems similar to Uncharted but it doesn’t take long to realise that it has far more depth to it than that. It has been developed to have more variety and to fit into the more survival focused setting of the new game. It’s set up in a way that forces you to adapt to the situation at hand, and any attempts to just pick a gun and shoot everyone with it will quickly lead to your demise. You have access to the various guns that are familiar to anyone who has ever played a shooter, and also impromptu melee weapons that can be picked up wherever you go. These can be anything from planks of wood to tyre irons and baseball bats, but they all break apart after a few hits, meaning you can’t rely entirely on these either. Melee combat is extremely brutal, but it can often be the difference between success and failure, as ammo is usually in short supply. Other than these, items can be collected which can be used to create makeshift weapons and items, such as health kits, Molotov cocktails and nail bombs. Melee weapons can also be upgraded, by simple means such as adding nails to the end of the plank, to give them a couple of one hit kills before they deteriorate. Making use of all of these tools (other than smoke bombs, which are pretty much useless) is vital to get through the various battles you’ll face. It feels far more like a game of survival than most of the supposedly “survival horror” titles of recent years.

The game also has a greater focus on stealth. Rather than cover just being there to duck behind in a gunfight, the ubiquitous low walls can also hide you from view to allow you to sneak up on, or completely past, the many enemies. The game has managed to come up with a perfect cover system that doesn’t involve having to press a button to glue your character to the wall too. If you’re crouching behind a wall then the game will assume you’re in cover, as long as you don’t do anything to reveal yourself. There’s a concession to convenience here too, in that Ellie is basically ignored by the enemies when you haven’t been discovered, meaning she can’t give away your position if you’re trying to sneak through an area without combat. It’s only occasionally noticeable when she walks in front of an enemy who fails to notice her, but it’s certainly better than being forced into combat through no fault of your own as would often be the case in games. For ranged combat you also have a bow and arrow for silent kills, though it takes care to use since if you don’t get a direct hit and kill the enemy in one shot you’re likely to set them to attacking you.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the combat is that you’ll probably spend as much time fighting other human opponents as you will fighting zombies. The sections with the zombies are more effective from being used sparingly. Most of the zombies you encounter are of the normal common-or-garden variety. The sorts you see every day walking down the streets. They’ll come at you and try to bite you in the neck (isn’t that vampires?) but are relatively easy to dispatch. If one grabs you, you’ll have to rapidly press a button to escape, but they’re only really dangerous in large groups.

Far more dangerous are the zombies that have reached the next stage of infection. Known as “clickers”, the fungus has started to visibly spread all over them. Their name comes from the fact that by this stage they’re blind and navigate by making clicking noises as a form of sonar. They’re very tough opponents and are very resistant to melee weapons unless you take them completely by surprise. You can kill them stealthily with a shiv, though it’s risky since their movement pattern is unpredictable and they can turn around at any moment, meaning you have to be ready to freeze. You have to move very slowly when they’re around to avoid making any noise.  They tend to appear in groups scattered around an area too, so alerting one can lead to an intense desperate battle for survival. The moments where clickers turn up are often genuinely tense and unnerving, and their clicking one of the more memorable and distinctive sounds in gaming.

The Last of Us
Dilapidated corridor, no lighting...nope, can't see anything dangerous happening here.

There is a downside to the clickers though, in one of the games less successful moves. If they get close to you and manage to grab you, it’s pretty much an instant death. If you have a shiv, you have a fraction of a second to use it before they kill you, though it automatically breaks and often doesn’t kill the clicker, only pushing them away for a couple of seconds. That would be enough if not for the fact that there’s usually another clicker waiting behind you to grab you the instant the first one is gone. At times it felt like they were playing pass the parcel with Joel. In stealth areas this isn’t so bad as long as you’re careful, and deaths are usually your own fault. There are occasional areas with enforced combat though, where you’ll be defending a small area, and there are often clickers scattered throughout large groups of normal zombies. You’ll often be engaged in combat with one when a clicker comes up and kills you, and there’s nothing you can do about it. It doesn’t happen often, but the fact that it happens at all is annoying enough.

The pain of this is lessened slightly by the checkpoints, which for most of the game are very generous. Usually they’re only a couple of minutes apart at most and you rarely have to replay much if you die. There are occasional sections where a couple of the checkpoints are spaced more widely, but thankfully it never caused much of a problem.

Aside from combat, there are quite a few areas where you’ll just be exploring, finding a route or interacting with other survivors. Getting around often involves simple environmental challenges. Some areas are flooded and Ellie can’t swim, so you’ll spend some time finding ways to get her across. Other times you’ll be moving ladders or planks to climb to new areas or cross from one area to another. They’re usually quite straight forward, but break up the gameplay and allow time to focus on the atmosphere and the details of the post-apocalyptic world they’ve created. It also adds emphasis to Joel and Ellie’s growing dependence on each other, as they boost each other up onto ledges and help each other across hazardous terrain.

There are a couple of ways to make a great game. One is to come up with a great original idea that’s never been done before and to implement it well enough to impress everybody. The other is to take an established genre and to make a game with a high level of polish and quality to the point where it makes that genre seem fresh again. Naughty Dog seem to have built a career out of the latter, and The Last of Us is probably their finest work to date. The people in the story feel very human and the plot builds to an amazing conclusion that’s perfectly in character for everyone involved and which avoids the standard generic Hollywood-style ending. It’s a game which, while there are odd flaws here and there, is a thoroughly immersive experience throughout its sixteen or so hours, and which comes highly recommended.

Save System Review: Checkpoints, mostly very well spaced but with occasional lapses.
Graphics: Very good high quality graphics, and the art design is absolutely perfect, creating an immersive atmosphere.
Sound: Perfect voice acting and excellent sound effects, with the noise made by the clickers being particularly effective.
Bugs: It was mostly find, but I did have problems twice. Once I was walking along when the screen suddenly went black and it started reloading the last checkpoint again, and another time I got stuck while in water and couldn’t move, so had to reload myself. Both times I at least only lost a few seconds of progress.
Gameplay: A good combat system that makes you adapt to the situation and use whatever you have to hand, only really spoiled by the instant death attacks.
Storyline: It starts fairly generically but the characterisation makes it rise above that to turn into something far more impressive, culminating in an amazing ending.

Arbitrary Final Score: 4.5 stars

If you like this, you might also like: Uncharted series, Half-Life 2, Bioshock Infinite

There's not mushroom left in the zombie genre (yes, I did use that awful pun) but did Naughty Dog manage to make a game that grows on you? Tell us what you think in the forum!