Game Review: The Last of Us

So many zombies on screens at the moment!

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Platform:
PS3
Developer:
Naughty Dog
Rating: R18+
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I didn't have a regular case for the game.

I didn’t have a regular case for the game.

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This is it.
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Despite its expansive slate of rock-solid console exclusive franchises, blu-ray disc capabilities, the amazing benefits of Playstation Plus and the otherworldly, standalone magnificence of Journey, The Last of Us is in my opinion the most convincing reason yet, and perhaps ever, to own a Playstation 3. Super developer Naughty Dog have crafted a masterful blend of visuals, sound and affective storytelling that exceeds its highly acclaimed previous efforts thanks to some wonderfully balanced gameplay.

THE SET-UP

The Last of Us is set in a horrible, dreary post-apocalyptic world where one of nature’s creepiest real-life funguses, the cordyceps strain, has mutated enough to affect humans. It takes root in the brain of its host and turns him or her into a mindless monster hell-bent on infecting others with spores. Most of humanity has either died, been infected or both as a result, with only militarised quarantine zones, packs of rogue “hunters” and the enigmatic Fireflies organisation left to represent the people of the United States. The story follows Joel, a grizzled older man who has seen and done some awful things, in his mission to smuggle a young girl named Ellie across the ravaged country.

This is a clicker, moments before it killed me. Clickers are the worst.

This is a “clicker”, mere moments before it killed me. Clickers are the worst.

WHAT YOU DO

Perhaps the single greatest thing about The Last of Us, apart from anything else you will read on this page, is that it doesn’t forget that it is a game, and that games exist to be played no matter how good their stories might be. The gameplay of The Last of Us consists of combat and exploration, two elements that are perhaps more intimately reliant on one another than in most of the games around today. Supplies are, for the most part, quite hard to come by, and so stealth is usually the name of the game. The scarcity of bullets and the materials required to create health kits, shivs, molotov cocktails and the like mean that any successfully quiet melee takedown carries immense satisfaction. Sometimes your greatest ally can be a stray bottle or brick, for their distracting or stunning qualities, rather than a gun. Having said this, some overwhelming encounters will burn through your supplies and so failure to properly explore your surroundings for salvageable materials carries some heavy consequences.

Adjusting your approach to combat on the fly is a big part of the game.

Adjusting your approach to combat on the fly is a big part of the game.

Another benefit of exploration is the collection of vitamin supplements and weapon parts, which allow you to upgrade Joel’s abilities and equipment. The system is basic but you may find that the most necessary upgrades, the ones you most desperately need, are the ones you have to save for. I chose to bypass the convenience of more health and faster crafting speed for the expensive but crucial ability to defend myself at the last second from an otherwise fatal clicker embrace, so I didn’t upgrade Joel until a third of the way through the game. This only added to the atmosphere of the game in my experience.

Ellie looks on while Joel looks to improve himself with drugs.

Ellie looks on while Joel looks to improve himself with drugs.

Gameplay carries real weight to it in other ways as well, which ties in quite effectively to the point of the narrative. Kills are rarely one-strike affairs. Stealth kills are most cheaply achieved by strangulation and enemies struggle in Joel’s cold grasp, clawing at his arms in desperation. Melee kills will usually require several bludgeoning blows to effect. Dispatching infected will sometimes result in streams of blood where a head used to be. The Last of Us is horrible, gruesome and depressing, and it never stops engaging the player.

WHAT YOU SEE

The Playstation 3 has, in my humble opinion, delivered the single best looking videogame of this entire console generation with The Last of Us. Not only does each environment look stunning (particularly those featuring plenty of vegetation), the lighting effects are fantastic and the character animations, both inside and outside of cutscenes, move naturally except, of course, when the survival horror elements of the game require it. Very little of the things you see in the game are there just for decoration; it’s all in the service of telling a story. Everything from notes lying around to writing on the wall to the placement of hastily packed supplies is meant to paint a picture of someone’s post-apocalyptic story and it is here that some of the game’s most emotional content can be found by those willing to look.

Nature can be quite beautiful when it isn't trying to grow all over your brain.

Overgrowth can be quite beautiful when it isn’t happening inside your brain.

And when it comes to story, The Last of Us’ is a real doozy. Within this extensively fleshed out, crapsack world, the tale of Joel and Ellie’s extremely difficult cross-country journey is truly one to remember. Both characters have some seriously affecting experiences along the way and their determination is palpable, their reactions believable and their motivations decidedly human. The story takes place over four seasons, the first of which makes up more than half of the game and each of which ends in breathtaking fashion.

It is unfortunate that the game suffers from a general susceptibility to bugs. From talking to other people about the game I can gather that I have been particularly unlucky with them, but throughout my playthrough I encountered audio cuts, animation absences, failure of certain story events to actually happen, a glitched enemy that was unkillable but didn’t want to kill me and invisible enemies that definitely did. Thankfully these instances were spread out pretty thinly and didn’t affect the overall experience too much.

WHAT YOU HEAR

The voice acting and sound design of The Last of Us is of a typically high Naughty Dog standard. The hottest property in videogame voice acting at the moment, Troy Baker (you may remember him from such games as Final Fantasy XIII, Bioshock Infinite, Persona 4 Golden and the trailer for Infamous: Second Son) gives a show-stopping full motion capture performance as the Texas-bred protagonist, an unmistakably complicated character. He is ably supported by Ashley Johnson’s feisty Ellie, who runs just about the full gamut of emotions as the story heads towards its conclusion. The supporting characters lend powerful and pivotal support, but the most lingering audio experience from the game may just be the skin-crawling echolation calls of the infected clickers. It’ll be a while before I get that horribly well designed sound out of my head.

And you can see what Joel hears.

And you can see what Joel hears, which is cool and oh-so crucial.

The game’s score is understandably minimalistic, with several sections of gameplay missing any accompaniment whatsoever. Music is tactfully managed throughout, however, and when background sound is missing it is missing for a reason. For what it’s worth, the soundtrack’s most frequently recurring acoustic motif is a real melancholic highlight. Leave the title screen on for a while and you’ll hear it take a chillingly strained turn, which is perfectly evocative of the game’s broken world setting.

WILL YOU GO BACK?

The Last of Us is unquestionably a story-driven, impactful experience that works best when you don’t know what is coming around the corner. One playthrough was always going to be enough for some players and that is very understandable. Said playthrough will take most players between 10 to 15 hours, depending on how thoroughly they search the environment for collectibles and pieces of environmental storytelling (see above). It took me just short of 22, because I died A LOT and was perhaps overly cautious with my resources, but I’m certain that I am in the minority there.

There was a lot of this in that 22 hour stretch.

There was a lot of this in that 22 hour stretch.

Regardless, the game does offer more beyond that first playthrough. A New Game Plus feature is included, allowing completionists and trophy hunters to get a second, slightly more powered up attempt at full exploration of the game world. Though this may be seen to defeat the purpose of most story-focused games, The Last of Us has such tight and enjoyable gameplay mechanics that it becomes a tantalising option.

Speaking of which, the game features a multiplayer mode that succeeds beyond my, and indeed most peoples’, expectations, mostly due to being steeped in the very same gameplay mechanics. Crafting, stealth and character upgrades all take on another dimension of satisfaction when used in tandem with other players to smoke out an opposition camp and take their resources for your own. The fact that the matches never exceed eight players total means things never get needlessly chaotic and stay tactically focused, which is a nice change from most of the multiplayer shooters of today and only adds to the value of an already exemplary game.

Multiplayer is genuinely fun to experience.

Multiplayer is a genuinely worthwhile experience.

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THE VERDICT

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Good: Balanced and challenging gameplay, generation-defining visuals, great motion capture performances, immersive story, surprisingly good multiplayer
Bad:
Buggity bugs
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5 VsP H E N O M E N A L

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