The Last Of Us packages a post-apocalyptic survival-horror game with a heart-rending yarn that packs a considerable emotional punch
The Last Of Us is a game developed by people who understand the perennial appeal of setting a story in a post-apocalyptic dystopia. Whether social order was wiped out by a series of earthquakes, a nuclear war or a zombie plague is immaterial.
The fact is, it's gone and the law of the jungle has returned; the focus here, then, should be not on the crumbling landscape or the monsters lurking out in the darkness. It should, instead, centre in on those having to survive in the rubble of civilisation.
The Last Of Us: Plot
Naughty Dog, the developer behind The Last Of Us, understands this so well, it's wisely constructed its game's plot as a character-driven piece.
Where the protagonists are bound, the mission they're tasked with accomplishing and how they go about it are catalysts to engage the audience's attention, but they become less important over time than who the characters are and the relationship that spawns between them.
A post-apocalyptic world, by its very nature, provides gamers with challenges to face and enemies to kill, but rarely does it lend their experience to the dramatic heft present in The Last of Us.
The game's story centres around Joel, a tired, grizzled survivor who has lost nearly everything after a plague that turns humans into feral, mindless beasts that destroyed civilisation as we know it.
The opening ten minutes of the game give us a glimpse into the misery spread into Joel's life in the early stages of the plague and then the action switches to 20 years later, where society exists in small, police-run pockets on a map where social order has largely broken down. It's here, Joel meets Ellie, a 14-year-old girl who may provide the key to restoring civilisation.
Naturally, the pair don't hit it off immediately. Joel is a haggard veteran who believes that allowing himself to care about anyone too much is too risky by half, given the world's current state.
Ellie, who is a lot older than her 14 years suggest is more complex; her natural curiosity and precociousness prompt her to peel away at the layers of Joel's stoicism, and she comes to see him as something of a surrogate father, with all the internal love, anger and rebellion, which comes with that.
As the pair trek across a ruined USA over the course of a year, the bond between them grows and becomes the lynchpin for the player's emotional investment.
The Last Of Us: Gameplay
Along the way, Ellie and Joel run into other survivors – some friendly, some hostile – and a large number of the mindless, feral 'Infected' and 'The Hunters', a faction of humans who prey on others for supplies and sport.
It's here that The Last Of Us throws Naughty Dog fans their first curveball. Like the developer's Uncharted series, this game places players in the shoes of a scrappy, likable character, but Joel, unlike Nathan Drake, is no action hero. His hand-to-hand combat skills are negligible, he aims with less-than-steady hands and he drops if a couple of bullets enter his body.
Most of the time, his best option is staying out of sight, striking from the shadows and pausing to listen out for where enemies are positioned.
If Joel can take down enemies quietly one at a time, he stands much more chance of surviving than if he opens fire with a gun – not only will the loud muzzle flash bring every enemy in earshot running in his direction, but bullets are in short supply in this world, and he needs to make every one of them count.
Joel is also able to craft items from various parts he scrounges from his environment. He can, for example, tape scissor blades onto the end of a baseball bat, turning it into an instant-kill weapon for one strike. He can craft smoke bombs, Molotov cocktails and nail-bombs.
He can fashion a shiv that works as a stabbing weapon and a lock-breaking device. He can even use parts and tool guides he's collected to improve the collection of firearms he picks up on his travels. None of these items ever turn Joel into a walking slaughterhouse, by the way, but they give him more options when violence is imminent.
So The Last Of Us, then, plays like a vintage survival-horror game, with some crafting and some third-person (albeit slightly ropy) cover-based mechanics thrown in. This may come as such a surprise to players, that many may be put off by the game's opening hour – as I was – where the temptation to juggle melee attacks with gunplay needs to be actively resisted.
Leap into a fray all guns blazing, and you're likely to get turned into paint in some of the most eye-poppingly gruesome death scenes we've seen since Tomb Raider and Dead Space. The Last Of Us isn't easy and sometimes it isn't fair, but hey, that's life when the zombies (or in this case, The infected) run rampant.
The Last Of Us: Multiplayer
This is also true of the game's competitive online mode – or Factions, as it's called. Rather than offering a straight run-and-gun affair, Factions, toss players some limited supplies and ammo and then let's them get on with the business of stealthily killing one another. They can also scrounge items in the map to craft items that give them the edge in combat.
Players can listen out for the movement of members on the opposing team – like Joel's 'listening' ability, doing this bleeds colour out of the screen and allows the player to like through walls, much in the same fashion as the Instinct mechanic from Hitman: Absolution. They can also 'tag' opponents, allowing their team members to see them.
The atmosphere in these matches exists on a knife-edge. Players are advised to constantly check their surroundings, heal and craft when they're as certain of a reprieve as they can be (which isn't often) and keep their guns loaded. Death can come from any corner at any time.
The Last Of Us: Visuals & Atmosphere
This atmosphere pervades throughout the campaign too; even when Joel and Ellie enter a building they later find is safe, the initial stages are choked with a sense of foreboding. In the world of The Last Of Us, players often die when they drop their guard, so it pays to check all corners as often as possible.
And the game gives players plenty of reasons to explore it. Not only are all the environments potentially filled with useful items worth scrounging for but, for a depressing vision of a shattered world, The Last Of Us looks absolutely gorgeous.
The game presents a vision of the USA where greenery wraps tendrils around skyscrapers, where freeways provide makeshift caverns filled with fungi and where every country landscape looks wild and untamed. While their track record for lush beauty is firmly established in the Uncharted series, Naughty Dog have outdone themselves here
Is The Last Of Us perfect? No, of course it isn't. Eventually players may wryly smile at the paucity of materials available and doors and drawers that can be opened in this world.
They also may note certain parts of the scenery seem more interactive than others and that the game starts telegraphing its set pieces well into the second act; pro-tip: if you enter an area filled with bottles and bricks, enemies will be appearing shortly.
The Last Of Us: Verdict
But The Last Of Us earns every ounce of its praise through its ability to emotionally engage the player, almost from the outset. It begins working its magic with a whiff of intrigue and before they know it, the player will find the game's hands tugging at their heartstrings.
The game's ending provides closure, but it doesn't offer up its melancholy delights neatly wrapped in a bow. This is one of the only games in recent memory that players will finish with a lump in their throat. That alone is enough to confer The Last Of Us with the status of greatness.
The Last Of Us release date: 14 June 2013
The Last of Us price: £39.99