Those of you who regularly read our reviews will know I’m a sucker for a good story in a game. There’s something about influencing the outcome of a beautifully written script, feeling the attachment to the characters and sitting open-mouthed as unpredictable events unfold in front of you. In that respect we’ve had some incredible games during this generation of consoles, with Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series being right up there with the best of them. But in their final title on the PS3, it’s entirely possible that we’ve got not only one of the most incredible stories found in a game, but also one of the finest all-round games you’ll ever play.
Set 20 years after a nasty virus brings America to its knees by turning most of its residents into screeching undead monsters, you take control of Joel as he and teenage girl Ellie attempt to make their way to safety and survive through the best part of a whole year. Writing it down in such a simplistic form makes it sound like any other cliche filled zombie game from the past few years, but The Last of Us does something that very few others manage. There’s something about the mix of personalities between the clued up and weapon-ready Joel and the innocent, adorably vulnerable Ellie that gives you an instant attachment to the pairing. Watching the relationship grow between the two is a fantastic experience in its own right, one that has only been closely matched by Telltale’s Walking Dead series, and combining that with a range of other characters that make intense contributions throughout gives you a feeling of such protection over the two of them that it’s easy to wonder if you’re getting a little too attached.
That word, “intense”… if someone asked me to sum up The Last of Us in a single word, there could be no finer choice. While I won’t ruin the story for you (and the review notes pointed out several thing I can’t discuss) it’s safe to say that there are a range of ways the game plays out. As you’d imagine there are times when you’ll be wrapped up in a bit of a gunfight, taking on mutants in near-total darkness with just a torch to light the place up or hoards of Hunters – a faction of violent humans out to scrounge whatever they can – in a ruined city street. But there are clever changes in pace too, moments when the two of you are strolling casually through a wood, alongside a river or through an abandoned checkpoint. These quieter moments give the relationship between Joel and Ellie time to breathe, and time to develop. It’s a very patient build up, and for the first few hours you’ll wonder if things will just stay as a stereotypical “badass helping a scared little kid” game, but through a series of eye-widening events and cutscenes things begin to change. These cutscenes aren’t the only way of driving the story onwards, there’s plenty of in-game dialogue to help out with that, but some are immensely powerful. Even before the opening credits appear you’ve already been clobbered by a twist that literally made me swear under my breath, and it won’t be the last.
It helps of course just how incredibly beautiful the game is. Again, we’ve seen some spectacular looking stuff on the PS3 but this is on another level. A game with visuals like this should, in theory, be riddled with texture popup, houses disappearing as you walk away from them and characters walking through themselves, but The Last of Us very rarely shows signs that it’s stretching the aging Playstation hardware. Animation is close to unbelievable too – we’re used to Naughty Dog giving nice extra touches, but the way Joel and Ellie move around each other is incredible. Take cover behind Ellie and you’ll protectively hold your arms either side while leaning against the same object – none of this simple “squatting behind another character” seen in every other game. The little touches like running his hand along a wall are in play too – we saw it in Uncharted 3, but there’s something far more convincing and real about it this time round. Ellie’s individual movements are hugely impressive too – she’ll kill time by looking around, sit on a bench to rest her legs or lean casually against a nearby wall. It’s tough to explain without it sounding obvious, but when you see it you’ll notice just how natural she appears.
The audio is something very special too – with a musical score that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Hollywood movie and some of the best voice acting I’ve ever seen in a game it’s just as much of a treat to your ears as it is to your eyes. And the sound effects? Wow. Hook up a surround sound system or a decent set of headphones and you’re in for a treat. Gunfire echoes around tight rooms or sewer pipes, the scratching and clicking of the zombies give you an early heads up of just where you’re about to get jumped from and the ever-satisfying squelch of an exploding head or tearing flesh only adds to the grim nature of the survival.
Make no mistake about it, you’re going to feel the desperation of the situation. The combat is gruesome at times – something that remains more shocking when you’re staving off humans than mutants – but it’s never over the top. Even when you’ve used the crafting system to strap some nails to a baseball bat and use it to tear chunks out of others it somehow manages to stay on the right line of what’s acceptable to stay alive. That crafting system makes hunting for resources all the more important, with all of your first aid kits, explosive weapons and other upgrades only being possible once you’ve tracked down enough stuff. You don’t need to search hard – many of it will be found as you make your way from A to B – but being that little bit more nosey will pay off more often than not.
So far this sounds like you walk around quietly then shoot some folk before doing it all again. But to believe things are so black and white would be giving The Last of Us a great disservice – Sony are very proud of the fact that each scenario you find yourself in needs its own considerations and its own approach. Indeed, most situations can be done in several ways – you can go for the all-guns blazing technique, but with ammo at a premium you might struggle to have more than a few bullets on you at any one time. Another option is to be clever about what you do, and take things slowly and quietly. The stealthy options work really well, letting you sneak round a group of enemies unseen or by taking them down one by one carefully. Bricks and glass bottles lie around in most areas, allowing you to distract bad guys by lobbing them in the opposite direction or letting you stun them a little by flinging it at them. If you can sneak up behind them (or daze them for a couple of seconds and get close enough) you can grab hold of them, giving you the chance to choke them, stab them or use them as a human shield until they struggle free. Having these options available lets you manage your resources in a way that you choose, and forces you to think carefully about what you’re about to do. It’s not a new concept, but one that definitely works.
Playing through once might not be enough for you either – with a New Game+ option you get to run through again with your added abilities and suchlike, and there’s also loads of collectible things to look for and find. Not only that, but beating the game on certain difficulties lets you unlock various clothing for Joel and Ellie, something that isn’t especially vital but it’s a nice reward for taking the time to try out the tougher settings.
This was a brave move for Naughty Dog. It would have been very easy to sit back on the Uncharted series and roll out a fourth game knowing full well it would sell by the bucket load, but by taking on a new idea they’ve delivered something which gamers will love and remember for a long time. The relationships formed – and shattered – throughout the adventure (which, I should add, took me a very healthy 12 hours) will linger in the memory, each thought leading to another that you couldn’t believe at the time, and still struggle to comprehend after the game has ended. There are moments when the pair stop and reflect together and stretch your emotions to breaking point, including an insanely beautiful moment as the story nears its conclusion and they take time to see nature showing that hope isn’t quite lost just yet. Even the very final moments take a risk, with the closing section being a far cry from what you’d have expected in the hours leading up to it, but it’s all the more memorable as a result. Even as I write this I’m thinking about the very final few seconds, what they mean and where the story would go next as a result.
But that will have to wait. For now though we can make do with knowing one thing, that The Last of Us is one of the greatest video games ever created. Between the storyline, atmosphere, emotion and tension it hits heights that other survival games never even got close to. It’s impossible for me to fully describe in words just how impressive it is – I can’t make you feel what you’ll feel by playing it, and I can’t tell you enough about the story to justify just how heart-breaking it is at times, you just have to experience it to know. And when you do, you’ll see exactly what the the fuss is about.
If this is the PS3’s main swan song, there could be no better way to lead into the next generation. A genuine masterpiece.
Reviewed on PS3
With the review being written before the game’s official release, we’ll post our thoughts on the
game’s multiplayer modes at a later date once we’ve had more chances to try it out.