Success is something of a double-edged sword and one would suspect that beneath all the marketing and PR exuberance that the staff at Naughty Dog have had this on their mind throughout development and more so with the release date approaching. With every success that the Uncharted series has brought to Naughty Dog’s door it also brings the classic question of whether the next release will be as good, better or worse than the already exceptional standards they have set for themselves and their peers. It’s a tough situation to be in but it is one that Naughty Dog have found themselves comfortable in and have proven themselves more than capable, but that has by and large been with the Uncharted series. With the release of The Last of Us we see Naughty Dog venturing out into waters that over the last few years have been somewhat foreign to them, an original IP that in tone is unlike anything they have produced before. To a degree a new IP is a risk, comparisons with established franchises will crop up and there is always the chance of ‘different’ being made analogous to ‘not as good’. However, this is not the case here, Naughty Dog have to all intents and purposes done it again and The Last of Us is in many ways is the best thing that the studio have ever created.
The Last of Us is set twenty years after America succumbs to a biological catastrophe that has seen fungal spores infecting humankind and turning those infected into aggressive and bloodthirsty shadows of their former selves. As a response to the outbreak martial law is imposed and the government dissolved, citizens exist in enclosed cities that are plagued with queues for rations and jobs. It’s all very unpleasant, with citizens summarily rounded up by the military to be tested for infection, and for those that test positive the future is bleak and brief. Immediately this feels like an evil twin of the ‘typical’ Naughty Dog game we have come to expect, we even have Joel sporting a full on beard almost in direct counterpoint to the fashionably stubbled Nathan Drake. The team have done an exceptional job in building this world with rot, ruin and desperation seeping out of the walls at every turn and a world away from the awe inspiring vistas of the Uncharted series. Within this crumbling world we find Joel and Ellie, an unlikely pairing that plays out like a mix of a buddy cop movie and a family drama but one filled with real heart and authenticity.
Joel is world weary, beaten down by the bleakness of the current world and its stark disconnect with the world he remembers and is brought to life wonderfully with some exceptionally understated voice acting. Ellie knows no other world than the one she is in yet still displays childlike wonderment at the world that surrounds her but is aware of the dangers that exist within it. This relationship is much of what makes The Last of Us so exceptional, it is rare to have two central characters in a videogame who have a relationship that feels so natural despite the extraordinary circumstances. Every beat in the relationship that plays out before you feels organic, dialogue littered throughout the game is far from throwaway dressing and you will feel the relationship between the two grow as they travel through this world together. It’s measured, never feels forced and at no point is there a hamfisted attempt to elicit emotion from the player but rather every emotional response to the story is honestly won.
One major departure from the norm for Naughty Dog with The Last of Us is the violence or perhaps more accurately it is the level of violence. Whereas Uncharted had matinee movie violence and gun-play that felt ‘cartoony’, the violence in The Last of Us feels gritty, desperate and feral. Violence always generates discussion when it comes to games and with the inclusion of a fourteen year old girl you would expect the same conversation to arise again. However, the violence here feels thematically correct because you feel that these two are in a genuine fight for their lives, every encounter they have with the infected or even opportunistic citizens is an utter scramble where being uncompromising is the key to survival. To build upon this feeling of survival you will have very limited ammunition for the majority of the game and firing your gun really becomes a last resort for the dual purpose of conserving ammo but also not alerting other enemies. There is also no health regeneration, which is a welcomed mechanic, if you want healing you have to find a safe corner and patch yourself up. This adds a wonderful sense of tension, and I mean that in the truest sense, as a misstep or a miscalculation of the number of enemies will see you fail with no remorse given. While you can traverse many situations in a stealthy manner there will be times that your back is against the wall and you have to be brutal to survive. In the course of your play-through you will wince more than once as you jam an assailant's face into the corner of a table, watch grey matter splatter as you swing with a steel pipe or even just watching the desperate scramble of the person you are choking the life out of. There is something very human about the violence in The Last of Us and perhaps that is what makes it all the more affecting.
If The Last of Us impresses, and horrifies, with its violence then it achieves exceptional things when you are actively trying to avoid confrontation. In various instances you will come across a version of the infected called Clickers, this is the second stage of infection in which the fungus has grown out of the victims eyes, blinding them. To hunt their prey the Clickers use echolocation, the sound they generate is a truly terrifying mix of screams, clicks and gasps. This is survival horror at its best and having to negotiate a room full of Clickers in the dark is one of the most tense and unsettling experiences you will have in gaming. Naughty Dog have woven an incredible tapestry with The Last of Us that is made up of story, relationships, violence and horrors with each as masterfully crafted as the other. There are moments here that show Naughty Dog as being an even better, and braver, developer than we knew they were as they flit between plot development, suspense, horror and excitement with never dropping a step. This is true mastery of a medium.
To assist Joel in this fight for his and Ellie’s survival you can upgrade his abilities and his weapons, the currency for purchasing these upgrades are materials littered throughout the world and you will spend a lot of playtime searching every drawer, cupboard and corner for these supplies. The crafting mechanics are well implemented with it being easy to see what components you have and what you can create at a glance whether it be a Molotov or a health pack. Similarly you can upgrade your melee weapons to make sure you drop your opponents in a faster and more brutal manner, however it must be said that it is not as creative as you will want it to be but it serves the purpose it is intended for. It is also possible to improve Joel’s physical abilities, from increasing his overall health gauge to improving his crafting speed. These are not RPG levels of character building but it is enough to keep the game interesting and your experience dynamic across the fifteen hours or so playtime.
The only real criticism that can be leveled at The Last of Us is that it is perhaps too much like a Naughty Dog game, which seems like a bizarre line of criticism, but any criticism here can be applied to any of the Uncharted games. There is the usual suspect AI at times with enemies not spotting Ellie even though she is standing beside them, enemies can also be bullet sponges at times and the gun handling feels very familiar. If you weren't told who made this game you would know by the actual feel of the game who it was. For instance when an area of interest arises there is a prompt to press L3 to focus on the event and if this sounds familiar it is because it is straight out of the Uncharted series. They have even left the jingle that plays when you press the L3 to focus in on the area, the exact same sound as is in Uncharted. With everything within the game setting itself so far apart from any of their previous content it is a minor disappointment that so much of the game feels like Uncharted whether in a conscious effort or not. These problems that appear are niggles that seem to be inherent in Naughty Dog games and while they distract at times they are never to the detriment of the overall experience.
Also similar to criticisms leveled at Uncharted is that of the linearity of the experience here, something that really hindered Uncharted 3 as deviating from the desired path of the developers led to nothing but an invisible wall. Here is it is still evident, only certain doors will be unlocked, the appearance of two separate paths in reality is just two ways to get to the same point and many of the views you will see are just unreachable. However the narrative framing actually lends to this linearity in a way that it didn’t for the Uncharted series, it is much more believable that certain areas would be blocked off to protect people from the infected hordes than when you couldn’t make a jump that you knew Nathan could make purely because the developer didn’t want you wandering from the beaten path. Again it is a minor gripe but The Last of Us survives because the world that is built is superbly realised and feels consistent with the narrative, for want of a better phrase it feels like a more believable linearity.
One major area of interest in the build up to the release of The Last of Us has been that of the role of Ellie and how she would interact with the player. There was a genuine concern after the preview build that Ellie could become something of a chore if the game became an extended escort mission. Thankfully this is not the case and, without giving anything away, she is a wonderfully realised character who grows believably across the span of the game. She operates as a vital part of how you solve various puzzles, using her to get into small areas but she can also assist in a fight as she launches whatever projectile she can get her hands on at the would be attackers. Her most important function is perhaps that she can hold a mirror up to the player, after a moment of extreme violence she might express her shock and this child’s shock at what you have done resonates very importantly with the player. It seems to be the season of empowered female characters in gaming, whether it be the new and improved Lara Croft or the sublime Elizabeth from Bioshock Infinite. Ellie not only fits in with this grouping but is perhaps the best and most authentic example of a real character.
It cannot be overstated that there is something exceptional at work here as masterful storytelling marries wonderfully with interactive experience, the high expectations that have built for this release are met and exceeded with consummate ease. As I finished The Last of Us I was reminded of something Philip Pullman said that captured both the situation of Joel and Ellie but also our love for games, he said, “After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” The Last of Us is the last outing for Naughty Dog on the PlayStation 3 and there is no finer way to exit the stage of this current generation than with the performance of your career. Bravo and encore.
At the time of the original play-through there was no access to the multiplayer element of The Last of Us so this review is based solely on the single-player experience.
Naughty Dog plunge into dark uncharted waters